Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

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“Learn from me, if not by my precepts, at least by my example, how dangerous is the acquirement of knowledge and how happier that man is who believes his native town to be the world, than he who aspires to become greater than his nature will allow.”

Frankenstein was originally published in 1818, making this year the 200th anniversary. A perfect time for me to reread it. Mary Shelley starting writing this when she was just 18 years old, making this an even more remarkable achievement. Both of her parents were writers, though, so it kind of makes sense she’d be a good writer from a young age. Her husband also encouraged her to write (they eloped when she was 16). Shelley’s mother died days after she was born, so she wasn’t a direct influence on Mary. However, Mary often poured over her mother’s writings, so her mother was still a great influence on her.

Frankenstein has a nesting Russian doll structure containing stories within stories within stories. It opens in the form of a letter an arctic explorer is writing back home. He encounters Victor Frankenstein who is chasing another figure across the arctic waste. Victor then tells his story about how he came to create a monstrous new life form. Within Victor’s story, we get the story of his monster (who I’ll call Adam since he compares himself to the biblical Adam a couple times). If that’s not enough, Adam then tells the story of the people living in the cottage near his hovel.

Upon rereading this, I was struck by how different Adam looks than how he’s usually depicted. He has yellow skin instead of green, with shriveled features, flowing hair, black lips, and eyes almost as white as his sockets. He’s also a towering eight feet tall.

Victor himself is but a college student when he creates his monster, not an old man as he’s classically depicted in movies. He never reveals how he created the monster, and he certainly doesn’t shout, “It’s alive!” since he thinks he didn’t succeed at first. When he realizes that he did create life, he’s horrified, not jubilant.

This book even contains a genuinely scary moment in which Victor has a dream of his beloved turning into his dead mother, complete with worms. I wasn’t expecting a 200-year-old book to be so gruesome. The story also involves the murder of a child, which I wasn’t expecting either since even a lot of modern horror won’t go there. There are also two separate instances in which an innocent is found guilty and sentenced to death, indicating that the story doesn’t take place in a just world.

Victor is engaged to his adopted sister, which is a bit weird by today’s standards, but from what I remember of the English classes I took, it was actually a common theme at the time to have a husband and wife raised as brother and sister so they’d be as equal as possible.

Frankenstein’s monster, Adam, is off screen until about the half way point, which builds tension, however once he finally is revealed, he’s more pitiable than frightening. He bemoans how unfair Victor has been to abandon him after creating him. Victor isn’t God, so he shouldn’t have played God. Victor also feels bad for his creation: “For the first time, also, I felt what the duties of a creator towards his creation were, and that I ought to render him happy before I complained of his wickedness.” His sympathy doesn’t last long, though.

I like that Adam couldn’t distinguish between his senses at first. You really feel sorry for the guy being attacked on sight by everyone who sees him. He is a murderer, but he feels bad about it. He’s driven by an impulse he can’t control. Almost like he was born that way.

The story within a story of the De Lacey family felt really unnecessary. Adam learns how to talk by secretly observing them (which takes way too long), but their story has nothing to do with the overall story as far as I could tell. The story of the arctic explorer at least parallels Victor’s in demonstrating the dangers of ambition and seeking forbidden knowledge. But as far as I could tell, the De Lacey subplot was just filler. We learn that Felix helped Safie’s father escape an unjust imprisonment. We at least get a positive portrayal of a Christian Arab in the form of Safie, although her Muslim father is a scoundrel. To further demonstrate that this is a product of its time, women are referred to as prizes to be won.

For some reason, Adam gives the letters Safie wrote to Felix to Victor in order to prove… something? Victor then gives the letters to the arctic explorer who takes them as proof of Victor’s tale, although why these letters prove anything Victor said about his creation is beyond me. The whole subplot is just unnecessary. Without it, though, Frankenstein would just be a short story.

We then get more filler when Victor and Adam argue back and forth about whether Victor should create a female companion for Adam, mostly just repeating the same arguments to each other. To make the story longer, Victor often goes on and on about his emotions. Instead of simply saying, “I was sad” he spends several pages telling us just how sad he was. There are also lengthy descriptions of nature. This was probably common for the time, but it’s difficult for modern readers to get through. Victor sure goes delirious a lot too. It’s a very repetitious book which would have made a much better short story. At the beginning, I appreciated the slow reveal and all the foreshadowing, but by the end, the slow pace became annoying.

I also don’t know why Victor went to England. The reason he gives is he needs to go there in order to build a female creature, but Victor already knew how to create life. Why would creating a female be harder than creating a male and why would the people of England have a better idea of how to do it?

Frankenstein is ultimately a message story, and the moral of the story, explicitly stated in the text, is to avoid ambition. Just be content with a simple life. Don’t try to make grand new scientific discoveries because they’ll lead to disaster. There are some things man was just not meant to know. (I personally disagree with this message by the way. All knowledge is worth having.) Victor and Adam both compare themselves to Satan, an angel who aspired too high and fell down to hell as a result. Another possible moral to the story is that the people who judge Adam based on his appearance and attack him on sight are the real monsters.

Many people consider Frankenstein to be the first science fiction story even though stories about interplanetary travel, extraterrestrial life, and artificial life go back to at least the second century writer Lucian. Two hundred years before Mary Shelley, writers such as Johannes Kepler, Francis Bacon, Cyrano de Bergerac, and Margaret Cavendish wrote about trips to the moon and other classic science fiction topics. So Frankenstein might not be the first science fiction work, but it’s still a major work of science fiction nonetheless.

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