Friday, February 22, 2013

Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley

I didn't read Frankenstein in high school (or at any time previously) because of Hollywood. That's the reason, pure and simple. I thought it was a gory, scary novel that would freak me out and pollute my mind.

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!


Mark Baker said...

I've always heard that about the book, but I've never gotten around to reading it.

In high school, I read Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Again, not horror at all. And no movie has done it justice. You must read it. I think you'll really enjoy it and be floored by the alagory it really is.

Carrie said...

I DID read Jekyll and Hyde a few years back. Loved it. (Was surprised by how short it was.)

bekahcubed said...

Hmm... I've avoided Frankenstein for many of the same reasons (Er...for the same reason.) But, after reading your review, I might just have to actually get to it.

Maybe after I've settled in to married life. For now, I'm still arranging my stuff into Daniel's house and using whatever spare moments I have to read for premarital counseling.

Bluerose said...

Although I typically don't read scary books(and I WAS afraid this one was scary), I've really been wanting to read it. I'm glad to know it's not. I actually picked it up a few days ago, and told myself to hurry up with it. I think I've especially been drawn to it because of the fact that it was a result of a friendly competition. :)

Diary of an Autodidact said...

I enjoyed Frankenstein greatly as well. I need to re-post my review on my blog, and will link to it when I have done so. (Maybe over lunch today? I can dream...)

It really was the fault of some shallow theater directors who played up the horror of a green monster that the book gained a false reputation. Of course, nobody ruins books that way any more, right? [sarcasm font]

Diary of an Autodidact said...

Carrie, I also would be curious to know your thoughts on the responsibility of the "creator" to the "creature." In a way, the creature is like a child conceived by rape. It did not choose to be "born," and is the product of a bad act.

I wonder if this was in the back of Mary Shelley's mind. She was, after all, conceived out of wedlock, her mother died in childbirth, and her stepmother (and sisters) clearly resented her.

Carrie said...

@Tim - These are definitely interesting and thought-provoking issues which the book definitely raises.

I didn't want to delve into that in this post because a.) the post was getting long as it was and b.) I don't feel like I can articulate well-enough what my thoughts on those subjects are. (If I'm being brutally honest with myself, maybe I haven't thought them through well enough yet.) At any rate, I will keep thinking on it and will probably write up my thoughts in a separate post so that I can be as clear as possible.

Shonya said...

Ooooh, hooo, hoooo! LOVE IT! Your post brings back the fun discussions my teens and I had this time last year as we read this book, Jekyll and Hyde, and Baldwin's "The Deadliest Monster". (Are you going to read Baldwin next??? tee, hee)

Diary of an Autodidact said...

Success! My thoughts from two years ago when I read this are now up on my blog:

Jennifer said...

I've read this one twice and enjoyed it both times. I've heard Dracula is the same way, as in, not scary or gory, but I haven't gotten to it yet. Glad you enjoyed Frankenstein. Definitely a lot to think about!

Amy @ Hope Is the Word said...

I tried to leave a long comment this morning and my iPod ate it. :(

Here goes again: some friends and I tackled the Romantic Period in literature and Frankenstein for a final senior project in AP English back in high school. I have fond memories of gathering with three of my closest school friends to work on our own Frankenstein "movie"--much closer to the original, I assure you! ;)

My eldest went through a brief phase of wanting to read Dr. Jekyll after it was excerpted from in her writing curriculum. I've never read it, so I wasn't sure of the appropriateness of it for her, if she did indeed stick through the dense language. Thoughts?

Sky said...

It always bothers me that the "creature" is so often referred to as "Frankenstein" ALWAYS! I'm constantly muttering; "DR Frankenstein! The creature had no name."
I first read Frankenstein when I was 10 or 11. (I was on a Robert Louis Stevenson kick and went from "Kidnapped" to "Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde" to "Frankenstein".)
I felt for the creature, I longed to comfort him, to name him, to show him that true love cared not for the outward appearance. (Yes, I loved monsters before they were "cool".)
It breaks my heart that he was nameless, for I feel that to be nameless is to live in a half life to have an incomplete existence.
Looking back, I see this book compounded my desire to name EVERYTHING, as well as my reading of Anne of Green Gables, which I read when I was 8.
Because of my grandfather's involvement in Hollywood starting in the 50's I was greatly influenced by the earlier Hollywood shows; "The Munsters" was one of my favorites because in it, the creature has a name, Herman, a wife, Lily, and a son.
I recently tried to share my love with my kids but they weren't appreciative of the black and white show! (We're working on their film classics...)
And yes, I love "Hotel Transylvania" But I don't recommend it, unless, like me, you have a twisted, tinged slightly black sense of humor...

Sky said...

(Oh, look! I'm the 13th comment!)
I was prompted by this post to search for an older copy of the book, I had to share this one I found;

Barbara H. said...

I'd heard some of these things -- that it's not scary, that it was originally written during a friendly competition, and the basic plot. It still doesn't sound like anything I'd really be interested in reading, but who knows, maybe some day. :-) I did find it a bit odd that OUAT included it, as I don't really think of it as a fairy tale, but then have to remind myself that something doesn't have to come from Grimm's or Anderson's to be a fairy tale.

Mikaila said...

I have avoided this book for the exact same reason! I do not like ANYTHING scary and I was sure this would be. Great review!

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