Megan Larson's Reviews > Frankenstein

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
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Jul 23, 12

bookshelves: late-renaissance-to-early-modern
Read in July, 2012

** spoiler alert ** Books like this remind me how personal reading is. Frankenstein has been hailed as a 19th century classic, a tome on natural philosophy, a really great "horror story," and the precursor to all modern science fiction. I just thought it was okay. And before I get myself into too much trouble with the literary powers that be, I want to think through why.
First, I don't like horror stories. I had to put The Historian down midway because it was just too creepy for me, and I am afraid to read Dracula. So all of those who love this book for those dimly-lit murderous grimaces are one-up on me (or one-down, as you like). But this book is much more than a horror story, and it isn't as creepy as I thought it would be, so I have to reason on.
The meat of this book is the treatment of man's search for glory through science and the responsibility of a creator to his creature (with a healthy dose of the dual natures of man). The first narrator of the story is Captain Walton, a scientist studying magnetism and searching for a safe passage through the arctic. In his pursuit of greatness, he feels the lack of a formal education and a friend and companion. When he bumps into Dr. Frankenstein sledging across the ice, he feels as if he has met a god. This man has been refined by formal study, has achieved something great in science, has seemingly noble sensibilities, and, most of all, might become his friend.
Frankenstein tells Walton his story from beginning to end, and the two men seem to have much in common. They are both devoted to their families, lovers of science, pursuers of greatness for the cause of mankind. Frankenstein's secondary motivation in his particular pursuit (to animate lifeless matter) seems to stem from the death of his mother, although he blames his first reading choices, his college professor, and Destiny for convincing him to strive for so godlike a goal.
So, in what he later describes as "a fit of enthusiastic madness," Frankenstein pieces together a creature in his own image and then animates it. After this point, any question the reader may have had about Frankenstein's character is put to rest. The man is self-obsessed, self-pitying, self-deluded, and also a jerk. [Imagine whiny prima donna voice] "The creature is ugly!!--Poor me :( :( :(--Get me out of heeeeeere!--(Close my eyes and maybe he will disappear...)--I HATE you, Creature!!!--I am WAY too good for this!--"[faints]. Etcetera, until the book is over. And I get that probably we are supposed to hate this guy.
After all, Frankenstein is, for a highly-educated, brilliant man, so very stupid. The Creature has murdered his little brother and his best friend, has sworn to be his enemy forever, and has promised to be with him on his wedding night (as Frankenstein has destroyed the Creature's hopes for a mate). So what does Frankenstein think is going to happen on his wedding night? He thinks the monster will try to kill him. He doesn't think for a second that the monster might want him to lose his wife. So he goes ahead and gets married, and plans to have this all-out battle in the hotel room. He realizes five minutes before they go up that this battle might be scary for his new bride (and this is extraordinary thoughtfulness, given his history). Unfortunately, it is way too little, way too late.
So, Captain Walton hears all of this and simply strokes Frankenstein's fevered head and says, "poor you, you're right, you are too good for this. These tragedies are so random and in no way your fault." Talk about codependent. So this, the lack of an even mildly-objective narrator, is one element that left me cold at the end of the book.
The Creature tells us his story, too, and he is, by far, the most complex and thought-provoking character we meet. Like his Creator, he finds himself drawn to beauty. He watches a family and desires to emulate their care for one another. He reads books about great things and aspires to understand them and mourns inwardly that he cannot see his place within their context. He is yet hopeful that, if he could find an advocate among the human race, he might eventually be accepted at large. When these hopes burn out, his crimes begin. He describes them as a compulsion that brings him no joy. He commands our compassion, although we know that he must be destroyed.
The questions raised by this story are deep and worthy: What is the proper limit of scientific pursuits? What, if any, are the responsibilities of a creator to his creature? How is it that man at once desires what is beautiful and does what is horrifying? Is one responsible for his actions when he feels compelled by outward circumstances? To varying degrees, this book leaves these questions hanging there, unsettled. The reader has the impression that Frankenstein reached too far and took too little responsibility, but has no good compass for determining the proper boundaries and motivations for inquisitive minds. We hear Frankenstein's and the Creature's protestations that they loved what was good, and see that their deeds were evil, much like mankind throughout history, and we are left with no hope of escaping that cycle, or really any interest in doing so either.
This book was the product of a contest--three writers holed up on a stormy night in a creepy castle, trying to write the best ghost story. Mary Shelley, then eighteen, began and later completed this novel. And the thought I can't shake, as I contemplate those deep and profound issues posed, is that this young girl imposed gravity on themes that didn't matter to her all that much. She found relevant issues to the time (to our time, too), she gathered from other excellent literary sources, but, ultimately, I think she performed a writing exercise. That is the best way I can think of to explain my ambivalence toward Mary Shelley and her work--it should have been provocative, but I found it lackluster.


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