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Frankenstein by Mary Shelley - Sci-Fi Classic Review

I think this is the first edition cover

When the eighteen-year-old Mary Shelley penned a gothic horror novel in response to a bet with Lord Byron, she had no way of knowing that she would not only be inventing a whole new genre of fiction, but that she would also be creating a monster who would live in our collective consciousness for at least two centuries. One can debate whether Frankenstein is truly the first example of science-fiction, but one can't deny the thematic power and resonance of her story, or how it has informed literature and culture in general in profound ways rarely matched by a single work. It is, without question, one of the most important novels ever written.

That said, I'm not a fan. I love the story just fine and can wax poetic about its thematic interpretations until the end of time, but the book itself is definitely not my cup of tea. Early-to-mid Nineteenth Century English literature is maybe my least favorite style of writing, unnecessarily ornate and florid as though every author was in a perpetual pissing contest to see who could be the most needlessly poetic and clever with their dour recitations of rambling material so melodramatic that even depressed high school kids look chipper in comparison. (And I say that as a fan of Shakespeare, for goodness' sake.) I don't have much love to give to the likes of Benjamin Disraeli, the Brontës, Jane Austen, or even Charles Dickens, and I completely own the fact that this is down to personal preference, not the objective merit of the writers themselves.

Probably because of this bias and the bitterness I still feel at having been forced to read so much of the aforementioned novelists in my academic career--I'm still kicking myself for taking an entire undergraduate course in Nineteenth Century English literature--I must confess I hadn't actually read Frankenstein until doing so for the purposes of this review. I was surprised, therefore, to discover how much the story has evolved over the years and how much of the modern mythos surrounding it is missing from Shelley's novel. There are no gothic castles, no reanimated cadavers, no hunchbacked servants, no harnessed lightning, no pitchforked mobs baying for blood, and no exclaimations of "It's alive!"

I still dig this hardback, even though it has the lighting and castle that aren't in the novel

It also doesn't live up to its reputation as an anti-science parable, even though it can still be read that way if you squint hard enough. Sure, Victor Frankenstein is driven by scientific curiosity to create his monster, but in the end, he realizes that the fault wasn't in his ambitions but in his irresponsibility. Indeed, he gives a rousing speech about progress and courage shortly before his death that drives this point. He knows he is ultimately at fault for the devastation wrought by his monster, not because of the science he follows but because of the recklessness with which he does so.

The monster is quite different from his modern reputation, too, as he is neither lumbering nor unintelligent, and the conflict can't be explained through simple pathos. Sure, he is bewildered, melancholy, and ultimately enraged by his treatment at the hands of men unable to see anything but terror in his visage, but Shelley makes it clear that it is his choice to let his rage control his actions, that he chooses to be the monster everyone sees in him. It's therefore much harder in this original version of the story to take sides between Frankenstein and his monster, as there is a logical series of character choices that pit them against each one another, with neither character acting in a wholly rational or moral way.

In that sense, Frankenstein is a deeply complicated tale that has been mistreated by its oversimplification in the years since its publication. To be fair to the simplistic interpretation, Shelley's secondary title, The Modern Prometheus, combined with her belief that the mythical Prometheus was wrong to bring fire to mankind, does hint at her intention to make Frankenstein the real villain of the tale. However, given how unrelentingly depressing everything in the novel is (because Nineteenth Century English literature), there's hardly a hero to juxtapose him with.

If you're going to get a copy, make sure it's complete and unabridged

Instead, she seems to make all of humanity the villain, by simple virtue of our inability to look beyond surface impressions to show compassion to those who need it most. Frankenstein's monster doesn't escape blame for his actions as a thinking and reasoning being (he is shockingly intelligent for a three-year-old), but there are several critical moments in his narrative where he might have been turned to the light had men treated him better. In every case, he is attacked and feared, and he blames his incessant longing for friendship for his ultimate decision to become a murderer and tormentor. Frankenstein, though, ponders this point and sees no reason to believe the monster would act any differently given different circumstances, which is why he ultimately chooses to defy his promise to make a female to be the monster's companion.

This is where the story gets into those old philosophical debates about nature versus nurture, Hobbes versus Rousseau, and free will versus predestination. Shelley doesn't provide any easy answers, though the dynamics of the story certainly hint at an almost nihilistic conclusion that we are all driven inexorably by our own desires to create the means of our own destruction. This, I think, is the true horror of Frankenstein, and why it still haunts us today.

We're going to be spending this entire October with Victor and his creation, so be sure to check back as we look at a few select film adaptations, starting of course with James Whale's undeniable classic.

-e. magill 10/1/2020

  • Frankenstein (novel)
  • Frankenstein (1931)
  • Bride of Frankenstein (1935)
  • Frankenstein: The True Story (1973)
  • Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1994)

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