Leonard Gaya's Reviews > Frankenstein

Frankenstein by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley
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The anecdote is legendary: Mary Shelley, a teenager at the time, was spending a vacation in Switzerland with her fiancé, Percy Shelley, their mutual friend, Lord Byron, and a few other people. Was the weather gloomy that summer of 1816? Were the companions bored to death? For amusement, one evening, they challenged each other into writing the scariest ghost story they could come up with. No one remembers what the fellows wrote on that occasion. Everyone has, at least, heard of the creation of the young woman and the misfortunes of Victor Frankenstein.

Since then, and mainly since the invention of cinema a few decades later, what was only meant to be a chilling yet entertaining story, rose to the dimensions of a myth. So much so that the original novel itself has been covered up by layer upon layer of external imagery which has very little to do with it — in particular, the heavily made-up face of Boris Karloff in the 1931 unfaithful film adaptation of this book. Nowadays there are all sorts of adaptations (e.g. Kenneth Branagh’s movie, with De Niro), parodies (Mel Brook’s Young Frankenstein being a famous one), and probably even porn versions.

However, Mary Shelley’s novel is not so much about ghosts or monsters, as it is a meditation on the Biblical theme of Creation and Fall. Naturally, the idea of creating a living being — using some human technique instead of natural reproduction —, comes from the 16th-century Jewish narrative of the Golem of Prague. Just as noticeable is the sheer amount of subtle hints and overt references to Milton’s Paradise Lost. The “daemon”, rejected from the start like an ugly duckling, learns to read with a copy of this book (seriously?). Take it as you will, Frankenstein is a brilliant and existential reverie on the theme of God and Satan (Frankenstein and the “daemon”), Adam and Eve (Frankenstein and Elizabeth / the monster and the potential lady-monster).

Another striking aspect of Frankenstein’s narrative is the Russian dolls, nested structure of the tales: first Captain Walton’s letters, which frame the whole novel, then Victor Frankenstein’s account and, finally, a tale within the tale, the “daemon”’s story. This echoes back to the One Thousand and One Nights, to which Mary Shelley might have had access, through Antoine Galland’s translation into French — perhaps she had a copy of the Grub Street edition or the Jonathan Scott translation of Galland into English… I do not know. Also, Safie’s story, around the middle of the novel (another embedded tale within a tale) has clear oriental undertones.

It has been said over and over that Mary Shelley’s book might have been the first Science Fiction novel. This is a bit of a stretch since there is not much science or technology to speak of in Frankenstein, apart from a few mentions of Paracelsus and a couple of other alchemists and astrologers. The minor references to electricity, magnetism and galvanism were in the spirit of the times, but Michael Faraday, who would soon bring significant breakthroughs in these fields, was about the same age as the precocious author of Frankenstein.

The way I see it, the presence of electromagnetism is not only a reference to the myth of Prometheus and the stolen fire but is also linked to a pervasive and typically Romantic fascination with landscapes: now sunny, beautiful and pleasant, now stormy, sublime and menacing, ghastly thunderbolts ripping the clouds apart. Mary Shelley had a few predecessors in this field — Coleridge is quoted more than a few times in her novel —, but that sort of imagery was, by and large, a novelty at the time. It might be interesting to note that while Mary Shelley was writing Frankenstein, Caspar David Friedrich was painting his famous Wanderer above the Sea of Fog (see below). This obsession with ominous landscapes would soon become a trope within the Gothic literary tradition.

It has also been alleged that Frankenstein was at the inception of the modern Horror genre, years before Bram Stoker's Dracula. However, the general impression, when reading Mary Shelley's book, is not so much a feeling of terror conveyed to the reader, as a Romantic, and quite often bombastic expression of strong emotions on the part of the narrators: despair, anguish, despondency, melancholy, misery, wretchedness, affliction… are words that come back again and again under Mary Shelley’s pen. All this might have been sincerely felt by Mary herself, who had gone through a few hardships in her life. Moreover, both Frankenstein and the monster go from bad to worse throughout this tragic novel. However, to a modern reader, this accumulation of epithets probably feels quaint, affected and difficult to relate to. I, for my part, found this unrestrained schmaltzy and emphatic tone rather tedious.

To conclude, while I found Mary Shelley to be more of a typical Romantic figure than a prophet of Horror or Science Fiction, I will gladly concede that she has probably been a significant inspiration to crime mystery novels, such as Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and later avatars of serial killers on a murderous rampage. It has probably also exerted a strong influence on scary adventure stories, such as Poe’s Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, Wells’ Island of Doctor Moreau, or Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness. It might, in the present day, become once more a significant source of inspiration, as humanity is possibly on the verge of creating new forms of sentient and intelligent beings (AI, cyborgs, etc.), out of GMO, silicon or some weird combination of the two.

Caspar David Friedrich - Wanderer above the sea of fog

Edit: The recent Mary Shelley biopic (2017) by Aifaa al-Mansour, with the excellent Elle Fanning, is primarily a romance, recounting the complicated situation in which the young woman met her husband and how she got to write her masterpiece. The portrayals of Percy Shelley and Lord Byron are rather unflattering, to say the least.

Second edit: Recent rewatch: after releasing his box-office hit Bram Stocker’s Dracula (1992), Francis Ford Coppola, riding the wave of success, embarked on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1994), directed by Kenneth Branagh (at the time a young and acclaimed director of Shakespeare adaptations). The cast of this movie is imposing: De Niro, Branagh, Hulce, Bonham Carter, Holm, Cleese… all at the top of their game. The screenplay (written by Frank Darabont, who would later develop The Walking Dead TV show) is, for the most part, faithful to Mary Shelley’s novel. However, while Coppola’s Dracula was darkly luxurious and decadent, the style of Branagh’s Frankenstein is loud and vehement, at times stomach-churning or downright laughable. Well worth a shot anyway.
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Reading Progress

February 25, 2014 – Shelved
February 25, 2014 – Shelved as: to-read
December 13, 2018 – Started Reading
December 18, 2018 – Finished Reading

Comments Showing 1-42 of 42 (42 new)

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message 1: by David (last edited Dec 18, 2018 05:18PM) (new)

David Gustafson Thanks for the background story and incisive review. I don't think I have ever read this!


ἀρχαῖος (arkhaîos) A good discussion Leonard. You have given me a great deal of information as well providing a clear analysis. Thanks.


Leonard Gaya Thanks! Indeed, this is the sort of canonical book (like, say, The Divine Comedy or Don Quixote) that, apart from school assignments, everyone vaguely knows about but no one ever really reads in full. When you (that is I) get a first hand knowledge of it, you realise it’s not exactly what you expected.


message 4: by P.E. (new)

P.E. 'To conclude, while I found Mary Shelley to be more of a typical Romantic figure than a prophet of Horror or Science Fiction, I will gladly concede that she has probably been a significant inspiration to crime mystery novels, [...] scary adventure stories [...]. It might, in the present day, become once more a significant source of inspiration, as humanity is possibly on the verge of creating new forms of sentient and intelligent beings (AI, cyborgs, etc.), out of GMO, silicon or some weird combination of these two things.'

Couldn't agree more. Thanks for your personal rendition of the book.


Leonard Gaya Thanks, P.E., as always!


Gary Inbinder A very insightful review, and the Caspar David Friedrich painting added a nice Byronic touch.


Leonard Gaya Thanks so much, Gary!


message 8: by Stephen (new)

Stephen Excellent review!


Leonard Gaya Thanks, Stephen!


Roman Clodia Spot on review getting to the heart of Mary Shelley's book. It might also be significant that she was pregnant while writing the book...


Leonard Gaya You are right, thank you for mentioning it. One psychological/biographical interpretation of this novel is that it expresses a fear of abandonment (Frankenstein rejects the monster / Mary's mother died in childbirth), and consequently a fear of giving birth.


Carmen Great review!


message 13: by Lars (new) - rated it 5 stars

Lars Jerlach Fabulous review Leonard.


Leonard Gaya Thanks, guys!


Leah Rachel von Essen A couple of things worth noting—it's less likely that Mary Shelley's story-within-story was a reference to 1001 Nights and more likely that it was pulling from the classic form of the gothic novel. Many, many novels of the time were stories-within-stories, and particularly within letters.

The idea that Shelley was the precursor to science fiction is not the focus on science itself. It's the use of a speculative 'scientific' discovery that ultimately focuses more on the nature of humanity, something that much early, classic science fiction focused on with the quest to space.

There's more I could write, but that's one or two notes.


Leonard Gaya Thanks for pointing this out.


message 17: by Calzean (new)

Calzean Thanks for the very informative review.


Leonard Gaya My pleasure. Thanks, Calzean.


message 19: by Manybooks (new) - added it

Manybooks I like the Caspar David Friedrich picture :-)


Leonard Gaya This picture is indeed beautiful and evocative. I like the fact that it captures, in a single image, the spirit and the feelings of Romanticism: awe, sublimity, loneliness, apprehension, and so on.


message 21: by Manybooks (last edited Jan 09, 2019 03:16PM) (new) - added it

Manybooks Leonard wrote: "This picture is indeed beautiful and evocative. I like the fact that it captures, in a single image, the spirit and the feelings of Romanticism: awe, sublimity, loneliness, apprehension, and so on."

Yes, and for me that picture (and most of Friedrich's artwork) is a bit like seeing Josef von Eichendorff's poetry in illustrated form.


Leonard Gaya Thanks for reminding me to put him in my TBR! ;)


message 23: by Manybooks (last edited Jan 09, 2019 03:38PM) (new) - added it

Manybooks Leonard wrote: "Thanks for reminding me to put him in my TBR! ;)"

Definitely worth reading, but for Eichendorff's poetry, if you can manage reading it in German, you should, as poetry always does feel more authentic in the original and I have not yet read an English translation of Eichendorff's poetry that really manages to capture the spirit and cadence of the original.


Leonard Gaya I'm afraid my German is a bit too rusty to cut through Eichendorff’s poetry... Maybe I’ll find some acceptable French translation, we’ll see.


message 25: by Manybooks (new) - added it

Manybooks Leonard wrote: "I'm afraid my German is a bit too rusty to cut through Eichendorff’s poetry... Maybe I’ll find some acceptable French translation, we’ll see."

The French translations will hopefully not be as plodding as the English translations I have read (which were alright thematically but not lyrically).


Markus Well done, Leonard. I like your review. As I can see from other comments there is much more literature orbiting around it as the eye can see. Interesting. What did Lord Byron write that evening I wonder?


Leonard Gaya Thanks Markus! Allegedly, Lord Byron claimed to have written a vampire story, “The Vampyre”, which had in fact been written by John Polidori... A major inspiration for Bram Stoker’s Dracula, allegedly...


Inkspill Interesting what you say. You mention:

"This is a bit of a stretch since there is not much science or technology to speak of in Frankenstein, apart from a few mentions of Paracelsus and a couple of other alchemists and astrologers."

When I came across how Shakespeare's Tempest & Moore's Utopia are considered to be early sci-fi it got me wondering.

Further down the line, as I discovered science comes from natural philosophy, where I think natural science falls inbetween the two, so for centuries I think the 'science' we know today was finding it's feet.

So, I think (guessing here) what's confusing is that now when we look back with a very specific idea what 'science' means we do look at these works and think how is that possible?

I'm undecided if this book is sci-fi, but like your review it poses many interesting questions.


message 29: by Leonard (last edited Feb 01, 2019 12:25PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Leonard Gaya Thanks for your comment, Inkspill. You are making a very relevant point indeed. Science as in our knowledge of Nature based on controlled experimentation and mathematical modelling is a very recent notion — roughly, it dates back to the Enlightenment. Before that, “science” was an open field where observations, rational thinking, beliefs and myths were blended. Aristotle was the prince in that department.

So I guess, in light of your comment, I would somewhat qualify my remark about Frankenstein. It’s not always easy — and most of the time it is indeed quite debatable — to include a work of literature in a given genre. In this case, it all depends on what you mean by “science-fiction”. On second thought, I guess science fiction encompasses a certain type of narrative, where reflexions about our knowledge of the universe (cosmology, biology, etc.) and technology come into play. But obviously this is too narrow a definition, and we would also have to include philosophy, sociology, ethics, politics and all the “soft” sciences as a foundation for a large part of what is also considered as science-fiction or, if you will, “speculative fiction”.

In that case, The Tempest and Utopia would fall under that umbrella. Frankenstein would be somewhere in between hard-science-fiction and soft-speculative-fiction. Something like that… But then again, if a narrative loaded with ethical consideration is considered speculative fiction, then Crime and Punishment would also fall into that category, right? Or is “science fiction” really about picturing an imaginary world, a sort of future or parallel dimension that invites the reader to reflect on our own world? And in this case, how do you distinguish between “science fiction” and “fantasy”? Is the former about science and philosophy and the latter about magic and dwarves? I don't know, frankly: this genre labelling business is a bit tangled up. I guess, ask a librarian: it’s their job to shelve books somewhere in the library!


Leonard Gaya Absolutely: this is one of the autobiographical dimensions of Mary Shelley’s novel (as mentioned earlier as well on this thread). Thanks!


Inkspill My oh my, so much to chew on.

"But then again, if a narrative loaded with ethical consideration is considered speculative fiction, then Crime and Punishment would also fall into that category, right? Or is “science fiction” really about picturing an imaginary world, a sort of future or parallel dimension that invites the reader to reflect on our own world? And in this case, how do you distinguish between “science fiction” and “fantasy”?"
Yep, crossed my mind many times.

"I don't know, frankly: this genre labelling business is a bit tangled up."
Absolutely! I couldn’t agree with you more, here we are using these labels as being clear-cut, as you’ve said, you start thinking it through, yep, tangled up is a good description.

"I guess, ask a librarian: it’s their job to shelve books somewhere in the library!"
And a good job they do, always helping me to find the book I want.

And as I chew on this, I can’t help thinking that genres are an extension of publisher's marketing tools; how best they think will help them sell it. I cannot say if Shelley considered her book as sci-fi. Next year I will concentrate more on her and maybe, just maybe, I will discover the answer to this.


message 32: by Leonard (last edited Feb 06, 2019 11:47AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Leonard Gaya Thanks so much for your comment! Add to this entanglement the fact that, in this instance, we are pretending to apply a label ex post to a work that was written long before the term science-fiction existed. Even H. G. Wells or Jules Verne, who are considered the fathers of the genre, didn't use the term (Wells talked about "scientific romance", for instance). I guess this genre is an invention that only dates back to the mid-20th century and W. Campbell’s Astounding Science Fiction Magazine. Therefore, construing The Tempest, Utopia, Gulliver's Travels or Frankenstein as science-fiction novels is falling prey to some retrospective illusion. So yes, it’s all about placing books on a library or bookshop’s shelf.

But if I try to define what “science-fiction” is for me, as a reader, I’d probably say this. Historically, it’s a category of storytelling that started to take shape after the Industrial Revolution (i.e. the first half of the 19th century), when scientific, technological and societal progress started to pick up some pace and took a whole new turn for better or for worse. A couple of examples: new means of transportation and communication, new drugs, better standards of living, population increase, social revolutions, emancipation of minorities, Enlightenment and decline of religious belief, new ideologies and political models, massive urbanisation, massive consumerism, large-scale warfare, climate change, etc. — all these things were unheard of, even unimaginable, only a couple of centuries ago. And all this is food for thought for writers and intellectuals and, more broadly, for anyone who stops and takes a good look around. In the case of “science-fiction”, devising future or parallel worlds is just another way of using metaphors. But the fundamental question these works of literature try to examine is the potentialities of our present time. And they ask: where do we go from here? “Fantasy” and “horror” are concerned with other sorts of questions: I guess a nostalgia for a world that is no more in the case of the former; a deep dread for a world we perceive as hostile in the case of the latter.

Where do we go from here? or Where might we go from here? Some authors provide thoughtful and fascinating answers to this question — namely, to my mind, Aldous Huxley, George Orwell, Margaret Atwood… Others express a sense of awe — e.g. Arthur C. Clarke, Carl Sagan... Others still display an understandable (and post-modern) confusion or even a form of despair — say, Kurt Vonnegut, Philip K. Dick, J.G. Ballard, William Gibson, Cormac McCarthy… And others would rather be a bit silly and playful about it — Douglas Adams or, more recently, Ernest Cline. And all this while, I’m pontificating interminably! Your move now.


Erin O'Connor {If The Review Fits} I am currently reading this book and I just say it is well written, but also very creepy and depressing


Leonard Gaya Yes, I agree with your perception of the book.


Erin O'Connor {If The Review Fits} I almost dread picking it up for fear of what might happen next .


Leonard Gaya Haha! They’re up to no good, I can tell ya!


Erin O'Connor {If The Review Fits} Well, I have three chapter left and plan to finish it today. I already know the ending, someone spoiled that for me, haha.


Leonard Gaya 😵


Erin O'Connor {If The Review Fits} I finished it. What an awful last few chapters


Leonard Gaya Told you! ;)


Inkspill Leonard wrote: "Thanks so much for your comment! Add to this entanglement the fact that, in this instance, we are pretending to apply a label ex post to a work that was written long before the term science-fiction..."

So, in other words, sci-fi covers everything :) and you capture it well, esp in para 2 though I’m tempted to say some of these themes could fit other genres … you saw that coming, right? :D

I tell you, labels are a tricky thing, with them the lines are blurred and without we’d be completely lost. Now that’s ironic – or maybe it’s just sci-fi? Whatever it is your article and posts have certainly got me thinking about it - thanks


– side note – you’ve listed neat authors there, I’m hoping to read works by at least a couple of them this year


Leonard Gaya Thanks again for your comment, Inkspill. Definitely looking forward to your reviews on these authors. Meanwhile, take care and happy reading!


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