Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
“I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, & then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life & stir with an uneasy, half-vital motion.” A summer evening’s ghost stories, lonely insomnia in a moonlit Alpine’s room & a runaway imagination–fired by philosophical discussions with Lord Byron & Percy Bysshe Shelley about science, galvanism & the origins of life–conspired to produce for Mary Shelley this haunting night specter. By morning, it had become the germ of her Romantic masterpiece, Frankenstein. (via Goodreads)
I first read Frankenstein in 1995. I was 20 years old and had just changed my college major from Biology to English. I read it in my first literature class and wrote my first paper about it.
At the time, I was very taken by the themes of responsibility. The creature’s big beef with his creator is that Frankenstein didn’t take responsibility for his creation. Basically, the creature is a disadvantaged son confronting his absent father. And I think that is the important “science” lesson that can be taken away from the novel: not that we shouldn’t be ambitious in our reachings, but that we need to be prepared to take responsibility for what we’ve done.
Twenty years later, it’s more evident to me that this novel was written by a young person. Shelley was 19 when Frankenstein was published. Her characters feel everything incredibly deeply. There is no joy or anxiety in half measure. And to me, now, it’s a little tiring. All Victor Frankenstein does for 90% of the book is run away. The creature takes a handful of interactions with people as reason to hate the world. The story seems to find fault in the Romantic connection of beauty and goodness, but also completely buys into it.
I read Frankenstein this time as part of a online class with some guided discussions. What interested me more this time around is why Frankenstein has remained in the public eye, more so than perhaps any other work of the period. (What other work from the early 1800s is averaging a movie adaptation a year in the past decade?) I think it goes back to something Michael Chabon mentions in Maps and Legends. When a story has gaps, we want to fill them. The biggest gap in Frankenstein concerns the creation of the monster.
It was on a dreary night of November, that I beheld the accomplishment of my toils. With an anxiety that almost amounted to agony, I collected the instruments of life around me, that I might infuse a spark of being into the lifeless thing that lay at my feet. It was already one in the morning; the rain pattered dismally against the panes, and my candle was nearly burnt out, when, by the glimmer of the half-extinguished light, I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open; it breathed hard, and a convulsive motion agitated its limb.
That’s it. Everything we think of when we think of the creation of Frankenstein’s monster is what’s been put there by other people. In the 1910 movie, it’s a sort of primordial soup and an incubator. In the 1920s, H.P. Lovecraft riffs on the story with Herbert West and his assistant grave-robbing and pumping bodies with chemicals. In the 1930s, it’s lightning and Tesla coils. In 2016, it could be a genetic engineering in a cloning vat.
The text also give the reader three separate stories: Walton’s (the first level of the frame story, a sailor seeking a northern route), Victor’s, and the creature’s. These narratives can be read in many different ways. Is Frankenstein a simple story about ambition? Or is it a moral tale about parental responsibility? Is it a critique of Romanticism? Or is it about the dangers of unrestrained scientific research? Is it a seminal Gothic novel or one of the first science fiction stories? It can be all of these things. That gives readers (and screenwriters, filmmakers, and viewers) the opportunity to play with basic aspect of the story in many different ways.
Publishing info, my copy: PDF, Lackington, Hughes, etc., 1818
Acquired: class download
Genre: literary, horror