Frankenstein

Reading Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was a peculiar and unnerving experience. I’m not sure what I was expecting, but it wasn’t what I got. It’s a short book and a long, slow read, a horror tale that is not at all horrific but instead wallows in tragedy, on one level a novel of provocative ideas, but on another level an action story that seems turgid and dull. Despite its flaws, it has made such an impact on the cultural imagination because the idea of creating human life is a science fiction fantasy that we move closer towards day by day without having solved any of the moral problems that Mary Shelley’s novel highlights.

We begin with a framing device. Robert Walton is attempting to fulfil his dream of sailing to the Arctic when his ship becomes stuck in the ice. And thus he is witness to a strange chase; an unnaturally large man is headed into the wilderness on a sleigh pulled by huskies, and not far behind him, drifting on a broken fragment of ice with only one dog remaining, is another man, almost destroyed by the harsh, freezing conditions. The crew drag him on board and nurse him back to health at which point he recounts to Walton the tale that led him to this place and time, and our captain notes it all down.

The man is Victor Frankenstein, once an ambitious and brilliant young scientist who created a living human being in a fever of passion for new discoveries in chemistry and biology. But once he had brought the creature to life, he was horrified by what he had done. The thing was ugly and, through Frankenstein’s flawed causality, therefore wicked. He disowned the creature who ran away from the laboratory, leaving Frankenstein to the lengthy collapse of his health after his demanding but failed experiment. But this was only the start of the story. When Frankenstein hears that his much younger brother has been murdered, and their servant girl, Justine, framed for the crime, he knows that the monster has come to avenge himself. Whilst his family grieves, Frankenstein sets off in pursuit of his botched creation and tracks him down in the mountains. There the monster recounts his coming to consciousness, and his excruciating discovery of his outcast status. People run screaming from him, they faint at his feet or try to destroy him, and it is the extreme misery of abandonment that makes him angry and violent. Victor has been the cause of all his woes and he needs him to put things right by creating once again, this time a female monster who could be his companion and provide the benefits of being alive – love, companionship, sympathy. If Victor refuses to do this, the monster swears to make his life a living hell.

Various devices are employed to try to make Victor Frankenstein appealing. The captain of the ship, Robert Walton, is fascinated by him, to the point of almost falling in love with him. His family adore and revere him. And Frankenstein moans on and on about destiny, and how he could not have escaped his cruel fate. But it’s easy to see that the problem here is Frankenstein himself. He is a dreadful mother, one who has rejected and disowned his creation. The monster is truly a product of nurture and not nature in this narrative.

Mister Litlove suggested to me that this book is about the potentially disastrous consequences of men mothering – their competitive natures demand alpha male products, and anything else is rejected as unworthy, hateful, wrong. Frankenstein cannot come to terms with the failure of his experiment, and he cannot judge it as anything but ‘wicked’ despite the monster’s eloquent account of his troubles and his genuine desire to be happy and good. But we could also see the novel as what happens when a woman writes a monster story. Mary Shelley knew that the clash between man and monster would result in a battle to the death, whereas what the monster needed was the feminine qualities of understanding and acceptance, kindness compassion and love.

In a culture that remains obsessed by monsters in films and video games, and where the only method of dealing with them is apocalyptic destruction, we might usefully bear Mary Shelley’s perspective in mind. It is Frankenstein’s horror of himself that gets projected onto his creation, his distress and shame at what he has done. It is his insistence on the monster’s badness that ultimately turns him bad. The sumptuous and grandiose desire manifest in so many films to destroy, wipe out, nuke or explode anything that threatens could be read as a painfully ironic comment on the way we deal with our fears. Frankenstein reminds us that hostility is the veil through which monsters are perceived.

Talking of things going to the bad, I find I cannot comment on wordpress posts at the moment. I keep being told to log in but that doesn’t solve the problem. Immensely frustrating! Seeing as I cannot nuke wordpress, nor would I want to, I’ll have to hope to find an answer soon. In the meantime, I am reading you all, even if I can’t say so.

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31 thoughts on “Frankenstein

  1. Frankenstein is one of those classics I’ve always wanted to read but haven’t as I’ve either been too scared or too intimindated. I’ve recently been given a copy and so feel I should finally give it at try. Your review has made it appeal more, although I am still scared of the horror aspects – I don’t want nightmares :-(

    The wordpress commenting issue is very annoying. To get around the login problem use an email address that has never been associated with wordpress or gravatars. Good luck!

    • Jackie, the last thing you need worry about is nightmares. It’s really not scary in that way. I am the biggest wimp in the world when it comes to horror and refuse to read books or watch films in the genre, but this was easy to read. I fear you may find it slow and a bit dull, but do give it a go, because the ideas are extremely interesting.

    • Karen, what a fascinating review, thank you for the link. I hadn’t thought about Mary Shelley’s rage against social structures of the time, but now I can see how much it is there in the text. Hmm, very thought provoking.

  2. Litlove – this is a lovely review. I read Frankenstein for the first time last year, maybe the year before, and was suprised at how angry I got at Dr. Frankenstein. Did you read Ruth Franklin’s piece on Frankenstein in The New Republic? http://www.tnr.com/article/books-and-arts/101435/mary-shelley-frankenstein-godwin-bodleian-oxford
    She suggests that Frankenstein may be about childbirth… not sure I buy her argument entirely, but it was a very interesting way to look at this piece of fiction.

    • Michelle, that is also a very intriguing article. I agree with you: it’s a fascinating perspective that doesn’t account for all of Frankenstein, but again it’s something I hadn’t thought of and that poor woman’s trials with maternity may well account for the notion of hideous or painful progeny. I suppose books like Frankenstein last all these years precisely because the richness of ideas within them supports all kinds of interesting perspectives. I wouldn’t want to read it again, but I’m glad to have read it at all.

  3. I really enjoyed your men-as-mothers way of looking at this, when I read it I got entirely hung up on the Paradise Lost echoes and I’ve never revisited it. Like you I’d always thought of it as a horror story, but it isn’t. Where does its treatment as horror come from? Film?

    Dr Frankenstein is a prize git, no two ways about it – isn’t poor Justine executed for the murder she didn’t commit? But I found I did get sucked into his point of view, it complicated my response to him so that sometimes I was rooting for him.

    Frankenstein as being about childbirth? I’m off to read that now…

    • Helen – it was an intriguing article, wasn’t it? I confess I have never read Paradise Lost (I have a tendency to rear up at 1830 as a fence I can’t quite get past) but again, it’s another way of showing how rich and multi-faceted this little book is. And yes, Justine does get executed for a murder she didn’t commit. The review of the theatre production talks about social injustice, and I realise that was something I didn’t think about enough when I was reading. As for Frankenstein, oh yes a prize chump if ever there was one! I felt he was the Romantic spirit in its own distorted incarnation – far too much poor-me and yet magnificent in his idiocy.

  4. I read this a while ago, I thought the style was difficult and that some passages were sluggish.

    I like your perspective, Victor is irresponsible. It’s interesting that when he realizes his creature fled from his laboratory, he has a nervous breakdown and spends several months in bed. Usually, WOMEN are sick with their nerves in novels, but men, never. Perhaps Mary Shelley had her little revenge over her male contemporaries.

    I also thought it was ahead of its time for the questionning of science. It was really early in the 19thC and she raises questions about the responsability of scientists.

    • Emma, I completely agree: some parts were very sluggish! I rather like the Victorian age’s insight into neurasthenic illnesses. They were far more compassionate than we are about the way that life could be too much or too upsetting to people who fell ill in consequence. It takes courage to honour human limitations, I think. But then I also read that Mary Shelley had a bone or two to pick with her husband and father, and the men in this narrative don’t always come off so well!

      I do think, too, that it was very ahead of its time. We are no further on with knowing how we feel about genetic engineering, even though it develops apace.

  5. I do recall having been baffled at how such a short book could be so glacially paced — but then, I had the same feeling about “Billy Budd.” I’m also always intrigued by the curious device in the earlier days of the novel, wherein the story couldn’t simply be told, but it had to be framed by an observer, for some unknown reason … rather like “Wuthering Heights.” I suppose this is a hangover from the Greek Chorus, as if the reader/audience needs to be guided regarding how he should feel about the whole thing. My feeling about “Frankenstein” was “What a magnificent train wreck.” Such a great novel of ideas, and not such a great story.

    • David – oh I completely agree. I kept thinking, how can this book be so short and so full of incident, and yet I am always in a dull bit? The framing is very intriguing: I think it’s here to make Frankenstein look like a good chap, and of course to witness the end of the story, but I agree with you about the Greek Chorus thing. The more I talk about Frankenstein, the more interesting it becomes. So I’m conscious I want to hang onto the experience of reading, which I confess was something of a chore.

  6. Interesting to read your perspective, and to hear about Mr. Litlove’s take on the book. It sheds some light on the difference in reader’s response in terms of gender. I wonder, would you consider this a science fiction of an earlier period? On another note, we here in North America are intensely interested in the British miniseries Downton Abbey. Have you watched it? I’m just curious to know viewer reactions on the other side of the Atlantic. I know the series aired last Christmas in the UK, but we only get to see it early this year.

    • Arti, science fiction is not a genre I read much of, so it’s a bit hard for me to tell. But I would tend to say, yes, it is early science fiction (and maybe one of the other commenters has more to say to that point). As for Downton Abbey, my mother is a huge fan. I have the first series to watch on DVD, and didn’t want to start on the second until I’d seen it. I don’t get much time for watching TV though (or that is to say, I’m usually reading), and am on a Dynasty kick at present! But I’m really looking forward to it. It’s been enormous over here.

  7. A thought provoking review and one which recalled Wordsworth’s ‘The Tables Turned’:

    Sweet is the lore which Nature brings;
    Our meddling intellect
    Mis-shapes the beauteous forms of things:–
    We murder to dissect.

    Enough of Science and of Art;
    Close up those barren leaves;
    Come forth, and bring with you a heart
    That watches and receives.

    I think the novel has lasted so well because it touches on so many things and is constantly relevant to the eternal human core. I see it as a comment on otherness – the monster is a powerful variant on the human form. It is like the way any alien people or person is demonised to preserve our norms. It is both too close and too distant. It challenges us. Hope you solve the comment problem soon.

    • Oh Bookboxed, how nice to have a bit of Wordsworth, and very apt too. I think you are perfectly right to read it as about otherness. That’s a perspective that goes brilliantly across the novel – and includes the family in the hovel from whom Frankenstein learns how to speak and read, and whose loving relations he idealises. They have been demonised in their way for helping the middle Eastern woman who seeks shelter with them, haven’t they? (oh how quickly I forget – it’s shameful!) But too close and too distant says it all.

    • Miss Darcy, have you read Marina Warner’s book of Reith Lectures she gave on the topic of monsters? It’s entitled Managing Monsters and I found it a fascinating read – everything you might want to know about monsters encapsulated in six short chapters! Do hope your course and your lesson went splendidly well!

  8. I had to study this one and I think for me it’s a book better for exploring critically than it is for reading. I fell asleep on two train journeys as I tried to start it, but once I looked into the critical perspectives it became fascinating, especially when you think of its author. If I remember there was a lot of talk about what this book says about mothering,

  9. sigh, wordpress eats rest of comment, hurray. Any way there was a lot of talk about biology as a previously male dominated science, nature perverted and wonderings whether MS’s own parental relations affected how she wrote this text. And then there’s that interesting story, in a story, in a stroy structure. So, very intelligent, but perhaps not very entertaining.

    Love your ideas on monster btw. I’ve mentioned before that I took a classic monster lit course, but I’m love to see a course that combined classic and contemporary representations of monsters and looked at all the varying ways our portrayal and reaction to monsters says about changing values.

    • Jodie – I am sort of relieved to see that I am not the only one who struggles with wordpress comments from time to time!!

      This is so the kind of book one does in school – utter tedium to read, but if you can get beyond that and engage with the ideas then huge improvement. I have found myself really enjoying reading about it and discussing it, to the point where this afterlife of the novel might drown out the total chore it was to actually read it. The whole creation myth stuff is fascinating, as well as the screwy gender roles, too. I would love to see a course that combines the monsters of old with those we create obsessively nowadays. As I was saying to Miss Darcy, Marina Warner’s book of Reith Lectures, Managing Monsters, does draw the old and the contemporary together in some very interesting ways. I don’t always like her style (she can spend ages compiling information without actually saying much of insight about it), but those lectures I really loved.

  10. I very much enjoyed the novel when I read it a good many years ago. So happy when I found it nothing like the movies I grew up watching. I really felt sorry for the “monster” and thought Frankenstein abominable. There are many ways to look at the story. I tend to think of it as being about men trying to be gods as well as men trying to co-opt women’s generative power. Clearly both failed.

    • Stefanie – lol! clearly they did! I felt desperately sorry for the creature, too, in his wretched and abandoned state. It’s a powerful book in the way it refuses either compassion or retribution. It’s just a fight to the death between the alpha males (who are both somewhat beta in this version). It is funny how the book is so different to the movie versions. How putting the images to words makes the images dominate in a way that distorts the story.

  11. I hope you find the solution! I read Frankenstein so long ago, I don’t remember what I thought of the writing, but I was struck by the concept and like you had more sympathy for the creation than the terrible “mother.”

    • It’s easy to forget the reading experience, I’m finding and retain just the ideas. Not a surprise, given it was rather dull to read. But the act of abandonment and the creature’s subsequent rage are both very affecting.

  12. Pingback: My Frankenstein Diary 5 – a Creative Writing Journal. | loonyliterature

  13. “Frankenstein reminds us that hostility is the veil through which monsters are perceived.”

    Beautifully said (written) litlove.
    I just taught this novel a week or so ago, and was heartened that so many of the students immediately understood that this was one of its big themes. Mary S is one smart cookie, and this book is one of the best and most coherent critiques of Romanticism ever, despite (perhaps because of) its bizarre structure.

    • Oh I wish I could have attended your class! I would love to know more about how this fits in with Romanticism (about which I am somewhat shaky!). When we meet up, I must remember to ask you about this.

  14. I read this several years ago–and as with the way of so many other books–it has faded from memory. I can see it is one I should revisit. Sometimes the shortest books, which you think will be quick easy reads end up being the most thoughtful

  15. Pingback: 6 Great Reasons To Read To Teens. | loonyliterature

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