The reason I read it last week was very shallow. Hollywood. (My life is filled with such ironies.) As y'all know, we're big fans of Once Upon a Time and the character of Doctor Frankenstein has been featured recently and I do not know his story. So I had to read it. And it was nothing like I thought it was going to be. Most importantly (perhaps) was that it was not in the least bit scary.
The storyline is as follows:
Victor Frankenstein comes from a happy home in Geneva. He plans to leave the family and study at the University of Ingolstadt in Germany. Before his departure, his mother passes away. This makes him sad, of course, but he does not seem to have coped with her death in any unnatural way. (I see this fact about his mother mentioned in every review and study note but I don't see how it correlates to his decisions regarding life and death in any of his actions.) He proceeds to study chemistry and discovers that he has a particular knack when it comes to understanding and applying what he has learned. He discovers the secret for how to impart life to an inanimate object and becomes obsessed with creating a human being. He works feverishly creating this being out of stolen body parts. (Although that sounds gruesome, it is not described in such a way as to leave the reader lingering over this concept for more than 2 seconds.) Once he injects the life giving serum to his creature and the creature makes sound, Frankenstein becomes terrified of it and runs away. He suffers a fever which causes him to fall into delirium for several months, during which time the creature departs from the laboratory and goes out into the world. Where the creature (who is never named) goes is a mystery. Frankenstein doesn't necessarily care where the creature is, as he is filed with self-loathing and regret over what he has done by creating this unnatural being.
When Frankenstein is well enough, he returns to his home and family to discover that his younger brother has been murdered and the wrong person framed for the act of violence. Frankenstein immediately suspects the creature's involvement. There is a bit of mystery interjected into the story regarding the creature's history, how he came to learn to talk and reason and how and why Frankenstein's brother was murdered. Although it is not a complex story, I'll refrain from giving those details. Suffice it to say, the history of the creature is related and he comes to Frankenstein to ask for a female companion to be made so that it can feel love and acceptance from something on this earth. Frankenstein agrees and sets out to make a female form but changes his mind mid-way and thus incurs the wrath of the creature who swears vengeance on his creator.
I can certainly see the many ways in which Hollywood could and would take that story and make it ugly and fiendish. Perhaps, in part, it should be. The creature is described as being hideously ugly, being above average in size, with super human strength and thin black lips. But if you are tempted to avoid this book in order to escape being grossed out or freaked out, you must remember that this story was first published in 1818 and Shelley didn't have a movie script in mind.
In fact, I don't know that Mary Shelley (nee Godwin) had anything great in mind for Frankenstein. At least, not at first. She wrote it when she and her then lover (later her husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley) and she were spending a summer in Geneva with Lord Byron. The three embarked on a friendly "ghost story competition." One night Mary had a dream which was the inspiration for the story and she wrote it out at the encouragement of Percy and Byron. She writes of her dream:
"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, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half vital motion. Frightful must it be; for supremely frightful would be the effect of any human endeavour to mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world."
It was published anonymously in three volumes in 1818 and met with instant success. Her name was attached to it when the second edition was published, in France, in 1823. Since that time, as we all know, the story has been told and retold in various forms and fashions. The first stage performance was written by Henry M. Milner and performed in London in 1826. The first film was made in 1910. Boris Karloff brought the monster to life in the iconic horror film produced in 1931 and I now want to watch it.
The book is fascinating to me for many reasons:
1. It wasn't as scary as I thought. There is a lot of food for thought tucked into the pages.
2. Mary Shelley's life was diametrically opposed to mine and I would say that we have completely different world views. Most assuredly.
3. The story behind the book is almost as fascinating as the book is itself.
I really couldn't put this down.
I think one of the more obvious points of discussion that this book can create is the subject of science, its role in society, and our responsibilities as we study and apply it. She writes this narrative from Frankenstein as he is in the midst of his coursework at the University. I think it describes quite well how and why scientists seem to want to keep pushing the envelop when it comes to ethics:
"None but those who have experienced them can conceive of the enticements of science. In other studies you go as far as others have gone before you, and there is nothing more to know; but in a scientific pursuit there is continual food for discovery and wonder." (Chapter IV)
Also, when writing from the monster's point of view, she has him arguing that Frankenstein ought to be like God the creator to him in providing a mate. He argues that the Creator of man did not leave man all alone and unloved but created a helpmate and so Frankenstein has a responsibility to love and care for his created monster in the same way and with the same compassion. There is definitely a question over whether or not we have the right as humans to play god.
I'm not going to get into the arguments mentioned in the prior few paragraphs here, but I did want to point out that she creates good subject for in-depth discussion in book clubs or regular society. This is definitely a book that is worth reading and thinking about. Shelley manages to present truths and errors - as relate to our constant pursuit and application of science - in a vivid and captivating way.
In short, I highly recommend this book to anybody. It's a great read and one that definitely should not be skipped over. And again, I repeat, it's not remotely scary!