Shannon (Giraffe Days)'s Reviews > Frankenstein or, The Modern Prometheus

Frankenstein or, The Modern Prometheus by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley
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Nov 18, 2007

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bookshelves: classics, book-club, 2007, gothic-horror
Read in November, 2007

Spoilers!
Frankenstein is the first book written by Mary Shelley (daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin, wife of Percy Bysshe Shelley, friend of Lord Byron), and her most famous. First published in 1818, she later revised it for its second printing in 1823, adding a preface that cleared up conjecture as to what she was writing about, changing the relationship of Elizabeth to the family (in the original, she is Victor Frankenstein's cousin, in the second she has no blood relation but was adopted by the family) to remove any suggestion of incest, and she also removed any hint that Frankenstein created the creature out of vice.

If you're not familiar with the story as Shelley wrote it, Frankenstein is about a young Swiss man, Dr Victor Frankenstein, who is a student of the natural sciences. He becomes absorbed by the idea of creating a living being and spends two years collecting body parts from the deceased and feverishly working in his laboratory. But when he instils it with life and it wakes and looks upon its creator, Victor is horrified and flees from his creation.

He spends months in illness, nursed by his best friend Henry Clavel, before returning to his father's home in Geneva, Switzerland, where his two brothers, Earnest and William, and his adopted sister Elizabeth live (his mother has already passed away). Before leaving Ingolstadt in Germany, where he was living and studying at the university, he receives a letter from his father telling him that his little brother William has been murdered.

On his arrival to his home town, he sees his creature in the dark wilderness, and becomes convinced it murdered William. A servant girl, Justine, is accused and hanged for the crime, and Victor goes traipsing off into the wilderness with his depression. He encounters the creature, who begs him to listen to his story, and we learn what has passed with the monster since Victor created and abandoned it. It is a heart-breaking story, and goes some way to explaining the monster's mind.

The monster's main purpose in telling Victor his story is to beg him to create a companion for him, a woman of his own species. Victor at first agrees, going to Britain with Henry and collecting new body parts. But he destroys the being before bringing it to life, and in retribution the monster kills Henry. Victor is accused, and spends some months in an Irish gaol before being released. Upon returning home to Geneva with his father, he marries Elizabeth, who the creature strangles to death on their wedding night.

His father dies from the shock of all these tragedies, and Victor chases after the monster, determined to end it once and for all. The chase takes them to the northern Alps, and continues across the ice in sleds, before Victor is rescued from an accident and taken on board a ship that has been trapped in the ice. He tells the Captain his story, who writes it all down to send to his sister back home, before he weakens and dies. The monster returns and pledges his own suicide by fire, since there is no more reason for him to live.

I did enjoy this, though it's not an easy read in the sense that the writing style is, for want of a better word, awkward, often clumsy. When I think about it, it's accurate enough for a story retold by one man (Captain Waldon), as told from memory by another (Victor), who in turn retells other people's stories (namely, the monster's). In such a case, details are bound to get lost in the retelling, though of course the dialogue is accurately remembered. But it does make it hard going at times: I kept getting pulled up short by glaring omissions, or confusing jumps. As someone in my bookclub put it, the story is good, the book not so great.

Frankenstein could easily be described as timeless, since there's little that anchors it firmly in the period in which it is set (1700s), and you can read all sorts of relevant themes into it. Shelley apparently wrote it as a warning to scientists and against the Industrial Revolution in general, reminding them that they are not God and of the dangers of over-reaching themselves. I would take it a step further, and say it is a warning against not taking responsibility for your actions, especially those of science in delving into new and strange areas (like nuclear weapons, cloning etc.). Right up to the end, Victor thinks he is blameless:

During these last days, I have been occupied in examining my past conduct; nor do I find it blamable. In a fit of enthusiastic madness I created a rational creature, and was bound towards him, to assure, as far as was in my power, his happiness and well-being. This was my duty, but there was another paramount to that. My duties towards the beings of my own species had greater claims to my attention, because they included a greater proportion of happiness and misery. (p.235)

So although he can acknowledge that he was responsible for the creature, he does not see any connection between his neglect of the monster and the way the monster turned out. In other words, if he had stayed by the creature's side, taught him ethics, morals etc., he would have preserved the lives of his own loved ones and the greater populace in general.

The nameless creature was abandoned by Victor because it was ugly. That's it: he was f'ugly:

I had desired it with an ardour that far exceeded moderation; but now that I had finished, the beauty of the dream vanished, and breathless horror and disgust filled my heart. Unable to endure the aspect of the being I had created, I rushed out of the room. (p.51-2)

Talk about shallow. The creature, left to his own devices, with no language and no knowledge but that Victor is his creator, yearns to be loved and wanted. Stumbling through the countryside, he discovers fire, discovers berries and things to eat, but is persecuted and beaten by any humans he comes across. He tries so hard, and while he does not make the best decisions, he has the mind of a child in a giant's body, and with his unusual circumstances should hardly be judged along the same lines as anyone else. Victor creates a monster by seeing only a monster, without taking the time to learn its true nature, as does everyone else. They could not look beyond appearances.

Even today, we would probably react in the same way: that doesn't make it any less our fault for creating a being with so many faults. In this case, it is the lack of nurture - i.e. it's environment - that created the ture monster, not nature. It's not that I seek to justify the murders the creature committed. But the creature wasn't born evil, he was turned evil by humans. Grrr. I just didn't like Victor and wish he had been more accountable for being so irresponsible. Yes, he was young, enthusiastic, and thought he could take God's place:

A new species would bless me as its creator and source; many happy and excellent natures would owe their being to me. No father could claim the gratitude of his child so completely as I should deserve theirs. (p.47)

This is the meaning behind the subtitle: the Modern Prometheus. Prometheus was a Titan whom Zeus punished eternally for creating men out of clay, and bringing fire from the heavens and gifting it to humans. Zeus chained him to a rock and every day a bird would peck out his liver, only to have it grow back so the next day a bird could do it again. Nice. So is the loss of Victor's family, his best friend, and his bright future his punishment?

Another reason why I don't like Victor Frankenstein is that he is so selfish, arrogant, self-centred, self-indulgent, melodramatic and egotistical. Aside from wanting to bring dead body parts to life so that he could be worshipped like a God, the fate of Justine, for example, brings out his true character:

Despair! Who dared talk of that? The poor victim [Justine:], who on the morrow was to pass the awful boundary between life and death, felt not as I did, such deep and bitter agony. (p.87)

Yes, not even poor innocent Justine, sent to the gallows for a crime wholly Victor's fault, suffered as much as he. He could have stepped in and confessed, but did not want people to think him mad. Add "proud" to the list of his sins if you please. Later, he marries Elizabeth, despite the monster's threat that he will come to him on his marriage-day. It's always about him, he doesn't notice the pattern of the monster murdering his family and friends in order to make him feel this misery, and so realise it's his bride the monster will target: no, it's all about him, Victor.

He marries Elizabeth, making her just as miserable as he is, and took her to a secluded place where he intended to go head-to-head with the monster, only to find Elizabeth strangled to death in the bedroom. He puts people in danger, then whines about how miserable and wretched he feels when they die, yet doesn't seem to regret anything.

This is just my take on the book, and like true art, it can be read in a number of ways. It's definitely a good idea to read the book to know the story, though, because the movies that have been made about Frankenstein since the 1920s are way off the mark. Though I would imagine studying the popular culture side of the story would be just as fascinating as studying the book itself.

A note about this edition: This is a handsome book, with nice thickish yellowish old-style paper and print, it looks exactly like how it was originally published. But there are no notes or appendices or introduction, so if you're studying this book you might want to get a different edition. It's also the revised edition, not the original 1818 one, though the revised one is more common now.
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Comments (showing 1-9 of 9) (9 new)

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message 1: by Terence (new) - added it

Terence Shannon,

Marvelous review. I didn't read Frankenstein until quite late in life but my reactions were similar to yours: The book is full of important ideas executed poorly, and, with the exception of the Monster, none of the characters are particularly admirable.


Sandi Terrific review, Shannon. I think "Frankenstein" is a must-read for everyone. It has had so much influence on modern literature, especially science fiction.


Shannon (Giraffe Days) Thanks :)

It's definitely a must-read, and an oddly enjoyable story for all it's flaws. I love the debates you can get into with people too, because of all the different perspectives!


message 4: by Nan (new) - rated it 5 stars

Nan I love this book. Even though it's very difficult to read when compared to modern novels, I don't hold that against the book. I've read a number of novels from that time, and the novel as a form (and by this I mean our expectations of internal coherence & structure) hadn't quite gelled as yet. Compared to other novels from this time, Frankenstein is above average. For modern readers, Austen's books are much more approachable, but she was even more experimental than Shelley, and they were roughly contemporaries.

I also have to admit that I like the 1818 version.


Shannon (Giraffe Days) It's a great book Nan, and I definitely can't be emotionally detached! The atmosphere is great. It's interesting, to think of novels around this time and earlier as being on the "frontier" so to speak of a now familiar structure and style. I hadn't thought of it that way but you're right.


Melissa I felt exactly the same about Victor. Although the "wretch" chose to kill, Victor's sin of omission, sin of pride, and lack of a repentant heart was worse in my mind.


Sath Great review! I'm not writing my own just yet, as I need to calm down a bit after just finishing the book. At the moment my review would only be a complete slam of victor's character, I grew to detest him so much for his apathy, denial and many fainting spells! But you summed up the book so well I guess I don't need to write a detailed review myself ;)


Fred Fenimore Great review...I would only add that I thought the creature was just as unintospective as the doctor. I loved the story but thought both of creator and creation were pretty dumb...


Mike thanks for all the helpful info. kiff :)


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