2015 Reading Journey: Frankenstein

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Frankenstein_1818_edition_title_pageFrankenstein is a tale we’re all familiar with. We’ve seen all of the movies and laughed at all of the stereotypes and tropes. Mad scientist creates evil monster that accidentally gets loose and causes havoc until a mob armed with torches and pitchforks whips itself into a frenzy and takes care of them both. A sad, horrible tale.

Except that’s not at all how it goes, is it?

The story opens with four letters from a brother to his sister, dated for various months and days with the last two digits of the year left blank each time, so we only know it’s sometime in the 1700s. I assume in the late 1700s as the book was published in the early 1800s. These seem to serve only the introduction of Victor Frankenstein, with a brief sighting of the “monster” from a long distance off. Actually, the first three are to introduce us to the character who will introduce us to Frankenstein in the fourth (and longest) letter. From my perspective, these are pages that would never have made it into the final story. You can skip them with no impact to the story itself, but they serve as an introduction to Ms. Shelley’s style and her perception of the world she lived in. They’re interesting background, but no more than what is now an old trope, and may have been even then: the story within a story to introduce the reader to the world.

And then we have 3 chapters of childhood, background, and growing up before we begin to get to the actual story. By my count, the book is nearly a fifth complete, and it’s only at the very end of Chapter 3 that we even begin to get the idea that the man who will become Dr. Frankenstein has a love of science that outstrips everything else. The narrator foreshadows directly, but given what little has gone so far, he could easily be any first year student considering a dream of greatness in his chosen field.

If I sound a little harsh so far, that’s not my intent. It’s difficult to look at any book (or any other art form) through a lens other than the one you’re living in. I’m a fan of Kurt Vonnegut’s basic points of creative writing, particularly the fifth: Start as close to the end as possible. Still, he published these in 1999, so the expectation might have been a little different in the early 1800s.

But by this point in Frankenstein, I really want things to start happening. We’ve spent a lot of time on how normal, if somewhat privileged, Victor’s life was before he left for school, and even after he got to school. Where’s the descent into madness and the desire to reshape the rules of life into his own perceptions? Where’s the path that led him there?

Where’s the monster?

But then, practically out of the blue, as Frankenstein is such an incredible student, such an incredible scientist, studying the mechanisms of death and decomposition (not as big a leap from his chosen field of chemistry as you might think), he discovers the cause and generation of life so that he’s suddenly “capable of bestowing animation upon lifeless matter”.


No descent, no madness, no path of destruction. By painstaking and time consuming study of everything he can get his hands on, by reading and learning and experimenting, Frankenstein learns the secret of life. He’s not a mad scientist. He’s merely a scientist, though there really isn’t a “merely”. His methods might be a bit disturbing to human nature, but a noble goal can help you overlook that, can’t it? Well, it helped Frankenstein.

This is where I discovered that, contrary to every Frankenstein movie ever made, it’s not a horror story. It’s a science fiction story. Okay, so I more or less knew that already, even if I wasn’t really familiar with the story beyond cinematic renditions. If I didn’t know that, I wouldn’t be reading it. You don’t see Dracula on the list, do you?

But if Frankenstein isn’t a mad scientist, he’s certainly an arrogant one. It’s all about me. The glory I’ll receive, the awesome gratitude from the new species I create. The praise I’ll be due, unlocking the secrets of life and death. Me, me, me. If not madness, then obsession, and certainly stress. Maybe a wee bit of mental breakdown.

The creation of the monster is barely remarked on as Victor flees his apartments. Since it’s not there when he returns after meeting his friend, who subsequently nurses him through a long illness, we get to almost forget the creature for a while.

For a while.

Because it does come back and then we do get to see Frankenstein’s descent into madness, a slow, sure, slope.

And here is where things start to take a different shape for me. Victor didn’t create the monster because he was crazy. He went crazy, at least for a while, because of the actions of his creation. He wasn’t a mad scientist, but a driven one. He didn’t start crazy, but it was his own fault he got there.

I’m not going to go through a whole detailed plot synopsis here. There are plenty of those on the internet that I deliberately ignored before starting on this reading journey. I am going to say that, even though I knew this wasn’t a horror book going into it, the actual story completely defied my classic horror movie expectations, subconscious as they might have been.

And inside the story of Victor Frankenstein, introduced by the story of R. Walton Saville finding Victor Frankenstein, we receive the story of Victor’s creation, the nameless monster. We spend five chapters there, learning of its adventures and tribulations and miseries. The creature is articulate and well spoken, but bitter beyond reason, or so it seems. This part of the narrative is a voyage of discovery and brilliance and occasionally horror, and an ever-increasing anguish over how much it sucks to be forced to live on the fringes of society with no other options.

And that anguish comes back to Frankenstein, now agreeing to create a female companion for his monster, as much to assuage his own guilt as to spare his friends and family the same fate as his youngest brother, death at the hands of his creation.

Except he can’t for fear of putting the entire human race at risk, because what if the monsters can breed? That decision costs him his best friend, his new bride, his father, and ultimately his life, both figuratively and literally. While he blames himself for the monster’s creation and seems to hold himself responsible for its actions throughout the book, Victor does allow that his creation had freedom of thought and action. And that makes this a tale both of revenge and of cleaning up your own mess. Having given what he perceives to be the full story to the magistrate in charge of finding his beloved’s murderer, Frankenstein leaves to accomplish both tasks, chasing his creation into the frozen north.

Once Frankenstein finishes his tale, we return for a few pages to Saville for Victor to breathe his last, to meet the monster and finish his tale from an external point of view, and to close off the outermost of the stories with the beginning of his voyage home to England.

Frankenstein is definitely Science Fiction and not Horror, but it’s soft Science Fiction. This isn’t a bad thing, just a note of subgenre, a blurring of lines. The science is key to the story—without it, there is no story—but we get no real view of what the actual science involved is. It’s background, a device to move the story without actually interfering in it. There is science and process and a tremendous amount of research and labour involved, but it’s not important for us to know what any of it might be.

And there is some social commentary buried in the book, easy to miss while engrossed in three levels of story. In the aftermath of Justine’s trial, I get the impression that the author isn’t into capital punishment. At various points, Ms. Shelly seems to introduce to the ideas that poverty is a bad thing, and maybe shouldn’t be part of the human condition, that maybe Colonialism didn’t work out so well for the cultures it impacted, and that perhaps we shouldn’t discriminate against people for religious or cultural reasons, though certain religions and views tend to oppress those who don’t agree with them. I feel like these would all have been extremely progressive, and likely rare viewpoints at the time.

But the thing that jumped out most for me We also get the note that a “woman of Christian Arab birth”, practicing Christianity in secret while being raised in the household of a merchant in Constantinople, aspired “to higher powers of intellect and an independence of spirit forbidden to the female followers of Muhammad”. Very interesting, considering the relative lack of independence British women would have enjoyed when Frankenstein was written.

And the nameless monster. While we’re clearly supposed to sympathize with the monster, I don’t find him a very sympathetic character. He’s bright, strong, fast, and supposedly superior to the standard humanity in every way, except for being hideously ugly. Because of that, from a few bad reactions, he goes over the edge and kills, frames someone else for the murder, kills again, and stalks his creator across all of Europe to torment him. Does it matter that he recants and regrets at the end, and hates himself? Nope, sorry. Not getting any sympathy from me.

Note the subtitle: Or the Modern Prometheus. Prometheus stole fire back from the gods (after a petulant Zeus took it away from humanity) and in return was chained to a rock to have his (magically regenerating liver) eaten daily by an eagle. Has Frankenstein done something similar with the secret of life? I think we’re meant to have that impression. But this isn’t an anti-science story. It’s more an object lesson that applies across all of human experience. Just because you can do something doesn’t necessarily mean you should.

Overall rating: 3.5 Stars. There’s a lot to mentally chew on here, but the pace of the book is fairly slow most of the time and the nested stories structure doesn’t really work for me. Written almost two hundred years ago, it’s a great early stopping point for some historical perspective on the genre, and I can see how it inspired imitations, knock offs, adaptations, and re-imaginings. I’d really like to see a modern cinematic look at the original story as science fiction rather than a creature feature.

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