Review: Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley

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Since I am a science fiction author now and I’ve started doing reviews, I figured, why not read and talk about some of the classics?  And where better to start than with what is widely considered the first true science fiction novel, Frankenstein by Mary Shelley.

‘Well JC,’ I can hear you all wag, ‘I hope you’re not going to make the mistake of referring to Frankenstein’s monster as ‘Frankenstein’.  Frankenstein is the name of the inventor, not the invention.’  Yeah, okay, but isn’t quite common to refer to an invention by the name of the person who created it?  Like Hoover or Sandwich?  ‘No JC… you are referring to the electric vacuum cleaner and the stuff between two slices of bread snack.  That is what everyone else in the world calls them’.

Um… okay, well, as it happens the monster is never given a name by its creator in the story, although Shelley herself referred to it as Adam when she gave readings.  There are a couple of times when it’s speaking to Victor that it refers to itself as ‘your Adam’, but yes, it’s never given an official name and is mostly just referred to as ‘wretch’.  That aside, let’s get stuck into it.

While Jules Verne and H.G Wells can be said to have really established science fiction as a genre, it’s generally thought nowadays that the first true science fiction novel was Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein – The Modern Prometheus’, first published in 1818.

The story goes that she and Percy Bysshe Shelley were visited Lord Byron at a villa in Switzerland, with some other prominent writers of the time, when Lord Byron suggested each of them should write a ghost story.  One of the resulting novels to come out of this was John Polidori’s ‘The Vampyre’, which would start the trend of romantic vampire novels that would eventually result in Twilight.  So, on the one hand, f**k you Byron and your ideas.  On the other, that night in the villa did also give us one of the most memorable monsters of the modern age.

Mary Shelley said the idea came to her in a dream, almost certainly inspired by the groups discussion of galvanism which was popular at the time.  People were learning to harness the power of electricity, and there were public demonstrations across Europe of muscles on corpses being stimulated by electric shocks.  There were many who believed that it was a type of electricity that was the force that gave life to things.  And into this world, Victor Frankenstein was born.

The book itself is told as a series of letters by Captain Robert Walton to his sister Margaret.  Walton hopes to achieve fame and success by travelling to the North Pole, when the crew spot a gigantic creature driving through the snow.  Shortly after, they come across a man near to death – none other than Victor Frankenstein, who begins to recount his life story.

Most of the story we all surely know by now.  Born in Naples with two brothers, and later an adopted sister, Elizabeth, who Victor eventually falls in love with.  His fascination with theories to do with ‘simulating natural wonders’ begins at an early, but it’s after his mother’s death that he starts studying them in earnest.  This is what leads to his creating the creature from mismatched body parts and giving life to it.  But he’s then repulsed by the creature’s ugliness and flees… big mistake, as the monster would go on to haunt him and his family and loved for the remainder of Victor’s life, eventually resulting in the death of all of them.

The main difference between the monster in the book and most popular film adaptations, is that the creature is actually very intelligent.  He learnt to speak very articulately and well simply by listening to a family.  He found a satchel of books and taught himself to read.  At first, he lives in the wilderness by himself, learning early on that his appearance frightens people.  But it seems that without anyone to guide him, the creature never learns to properly control his emotions, as when he does attempt to befriend a family, and they reject him, he gets mad and burns their home down.  He still longs for a companion however, which is why he seeks out Victor, who agrees to help at first, out of fear.  But then a greater fear grips him… if he creates a mate for this monster it could lead to creation of a race that would threaten the whole of mankind.  So he destroys his work, and consequently the creature continues to stalk him and murder everyone he loves.

This all of course leads to Victor chasing the creature to the North Pole, where he was found at the beginning of the story.  Victor dies, and later Robert discovers the creature mourning over his body.  Revenge hadn’t bought him any peace, only alienated him more, and so the creature sets off on an ice raft vowing to burn himself on his own funeral pyre.

Frankenstein was not a critical success when it was first published.  Most people didn’t know who the author was, as it was published anonymously.  One reviewer when he did find out that it was written by the daughter of William Godwin, wrote this scathing article about it:

“The writer of it is, we understand, a female; this is an aggravation of that which is the prevailing fault of the novel; but if our authoress can forget the gentleness of her sex, it is no reason why we should; and we shall therefore dismiss the novel without further comment”

But despite a woman daring to have an interest and write about things other than just finding the perfect man to marry and stay at home for, Frankenstein was popular enough to be adapted into a play which also proved very popular.  Then there were later releases and revisions of the novel itself, which goes on heavily influencing both the horror and science fiction genres to this day (not to mention being the inspiration behind one of the most iconic Hollywood monsters).

Science and technology have, on the whole, had a positive effect on the lives of most people, allowing greater communication, better health care, and if theories like evolution and the knowledge that species can go extinct there probably wouldn’t be the movement for us to take greater responsibility for our world.  Negative consequences of expanding our knowledge, like atom bombs and other weapons of mass destruction, are thankfully few. But they do have the potential to wreak so much havoc if placed in the wrong hands.  So perhaps that’s why the story of the ‘mad’ scientist and creation that turns on him and ultimately destroys his entire life continues to resonate to this day.

I should probably mention that Shelley herself wrote two versions of the book; The original 1818 ‘uncensored’ version, and the 1831 ‘popular’ edition which was heavily revised to be more ‘conservative’.  The later is the one most people will have read.

As for criticism, really I can only think of one – I just don’t like Victor.  I’ve seen referred to as Mary Sue, but that’s an overused term and he isn’t that at all.  He’s obviously supposed to be very smart and gifted, but he’s also just pathetic really.  I mean he makes this creature, then is surprised that it isn’t beautiful, even though he stitched together so what did he think it would like when he brought the thing to life?  And then he just runs off and abandons it.  Then he lets a woman be executed, even though he knows it was his creature that’s going around murdering folks but doesn’t want to admit it.  Basically he just keeps ignoring the problem hoping it will go away, but it doesn’t, and it’s only after pretty much everyone is dead that he thinks maybe he ought to do something about it.

But then, I suppose we’re not supposed to like him.  Maybe it’s a warning about hubris and pride and procrastinating too much.

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