Frankenstein… a certain green-ish looking monster with a screw sticking out of its neck immediately comes to mind at this word. It is lesser known that the name actually belongs to its scientist-turned-creator, or that its original story is a novel by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley. As a gothic ‘horror’ novel, or the ‘Modern Prometheus’, it certainly made its mark on literary history – and yet, I’ve never come across it during my studies of British literature. As I had no concrete idea what to expect, this book was full of surprises to me.
To be honest, I would classify it as Gothic literature, but not horror. Maybe I missed something, but collections of Victorian ghost stories are scarier than Frankenstein. Something about the writing style made me feel too distant from the events, especially because Victor Frankenstein (the scientist) mostly narrates them in retrospect, which prevents the reader from getting really immersed into the story.
Starting the book with letters of want-to-be discoverer Robert Walton to his sister was a smart move, as he begins only talking about his own adventure and narrates basically step by step how he encounters Frankenstein and his monster and learns their story. It’s a good technique to take him out of the equation and make it seem like this is something that happened to him, rather than some story a stranger made up. Still, it creates a barrier and I’m afraid that just didn’t cut it for me. The first death in the book might have been the only one which got a response that was more than simply a shrug from me. The following events were just not very shocking.
However, I was surprised at how beautiful the writing was, and how much emotions and critical thinking are actually part of this story. It might not be a scary novel to me, but it is certainly full of intriguing thoughts, important questions and stunning scenery.
… the solemn silence of this glorious presence-chamber of imperial Nature was broken only by the brawling waves or the fall of some vast fragment, the thunder sound of the avalanche or the cracking, reverberated along the mountains, of the accumulated ice… These sublime and magnificent scenes afforded me the greatest consolation that I was capable of receiving. They elevated me from all littleness of feeling; and although they did not remove my grief, they subdued and tranquillized it.”
I marked lots of passages, simply because they are so beautifully written. Another fascinating aspect was the reflection on appearances, justice and prejudice. I think I still need some time to realise how skilfully the thoughts of the monster are portrayed. It commits murder of innocent people, which is not to be excused, as the monster says so itself. But through it, the hypocrisy of society is accurately uncovered and challenged.
“[My own desires] were forever ardent and craving; still I desired love and fellowship, and I was still spurned. Was there no injustice in this? Am I to be thought the only criminal, when all human kind sinned against me? … Nay, these are virtuous and immaculate beings! I, the miserable and the abandoned, am an abortion, to be spurned at, and kicked, and trampled on. Even now my blood boils at the recollection of this injustice.”
An outsider who only wishes to belong and feel kindness is treated not as they treat others, but as others view them and expect them to act. What they actually do seems to be of little importance That the monster saves lives and secretly helps others is completely irrelevant to the humans, who only see a huge hideous creature and shun it into loneliness and desperation. It was heartbreaking and brilliantly constructed.
Unfortunately, the characters were lacking this brilliance. Up close, we only get to know Frankenstein, his monster and Walton, two of which lost all my initial respect toward the end of the novel.
“A fiend had snatched from me every hope of future happiness; no creature had ever been so miserable as I was; so frightful an event is single in the history of man.”
Yes, major eye-roll alert. This is Victor Frankenstein complaining that his creation, which he abandoned without giving him any guidance on how to navigate the world, turns against him after being declined cooperation and, in its desperation, sets out to ruin his life. I can’t say that I have much pity for Frankenstein, or that his surprise is justified – the monster explained, reasoned and laid all his plans open to him. It was more rational and true to its words than the promising scientist. In fact, the monster was probably the best developed and most relatable character of them all.
“What can stop the determined heart and resolved will of man?”
Turns out, a lot of things. Frankenstein is one of those entitled men who was given every opportunity in the world, messes up and cries like a baby that suddenly things don’t go his way anymore. Similarly, Walton sets out to discover the Arctic with a hired crew, all of which get cold feet (no pun intended) once they’re enclosed by the ice for a while. Surprise, surprise. What did they think they would find up there? Even the Victorians knew what was waiting in the cold north, and it’s just such a prominent theme in the book to find men who think they are powerful enough to do anything fall on their noses – despite all warnings – and run away from the messes they make. Well, too bad if you give your mess legs so it can follow you and hunt you down.
I’d really like to hear Mary Shelleys thoughts on writing these characters. Was it intentional? Why set them up for the ultimate failure by rendering them unable to deal with any bumps in the road? Was it her husband’s influence? Why was no woman given any role except as an object of desire? If anyone has any thoughts, answers or further readings, please tell me about them. Sadly we can’t hear Mary Shelley’s thoughts about it, but something I really appreciated was her introduction on creating the book and writing in general.
I felt that blank incapability of invention which is the greatest misery of authorship, when dull Nothing replies to our anxious invocations.
The entire section on her creative process was so intriguing that it made me want to learn more about her life. Also, as an aspiring writer it felt amazing and soothing to hear that she faced the same problems, doubts and struggles as those intending to create stories hundreds of years later.
So, even though I’m not being its biggest fan, there was much I could take from Frankenstein and I’m very glad the Obscurus Book Club could finally give me enough motivation to read it. If you enjoy Gothic literature, Victorian novels or (early) science fiction, don’t hesitate to give this book a try.
What are your thoughts on Frankenstein and/or pathetic male characters?