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‘Frankenstein’: A monster mash of ideas

A quick word: there will be a mention of violence and suicide. This is also a general spoiler warning. 

In honor of Halloween, which at the time of publishing will have passed, let’s talk about “Frankenstein” by Mary Shelley.

“Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus” is a classic of science and Gothic fiction, most notable for its often-misidentified monster of a human being, as well as the mad titular scientist. Ignoring the lame trivia that Frankenstein is the scientist, not the monster, Frankenstein is a novel that can be approached from various angles, largely thanks to Mary Shelley’s rather intriguing life story.

Mary Shelley was the daughter of feminist and philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft, best known for “A Vindication of the Rights of Women.”. Wollstonecraft, unfortunately, died soon after giving birth to Mary Shelley, leaving Shelley in the care of her father. Mary eventually met the poet and writer Percy Bysshe Shelley, whom she would later marry. She faced the loss of three of her children, with only one surviving past infancy. In 1816, as a part of a little competition to pass the time while staying with Lord Byron in Geneva, Mary wrote “Frankenstein.”

“Frankenstein” is ultimately a work warning against having kids.

Just kidding. 

OK, I’m partially kidding.

For a brief summary of “Frankenstein,” the novel begins with Victor Frankenstein being picked up by a ship sailing in the Arctic as he chases his monster. Frankenstein recounts his life, starting with how he had a perfect life, with a marriage set up for him, a loving family and a passion for science. Right before he leaves for college, his mother dies; in grief, Victor throws himself into his work, and figures out how to breathe life into inanimate objects. Thus, he creates his monster, which he, unfortunately, is forced to make large, because working with anything smaller would be too hard for him. Victor breathes life into his work, but is repulsed by him and flees, running into his friend Clerval. Upon returning to his lab, the monster is gone.

The monster learns what life is, discovering fire and food, learning language, reading Plutarch and Milton, until he is ultimately attacked and scorned by a family he wished to befriend. Heartbroken over this rejection, the monster swears revenge against humanity, out of loneliness. Arguing that he deserves happiness as a living thing, the monster attempts to force Victor to create him a bride, with Victor initially agreeing but eventually refusing to deliver. 

So the monster kills his entire family, and Victor swears to kill the monster; he begins to hunt him across Europe, always barely out of reach.

 

Now, back on the ship, Victor dies, and the monster boards the ship to lament Victor’s death, as well as vent his repentance and guilt. Resolving to kill himself and disappear from all memory, the monster jumps overboard and floats away.

Phew.

Quite the story, isn’t it?

I think the beauty of “Frankenstein” comes from being able to really view it from different angles at the same time. For example, it’s easy to read “Frankenstein” as a “nature versus nurture” story just as easily as viewing it as a typical Gothic story that seeks to focus more on the beauty of nature and the naturally unpredictable order of life. “Frankenstein” is a science fiction work that ultimately seems to warn against playing God with nature, since that is more or less what causes all of Victor’s problems. Shelley writes various sections praising nature or simply describing it beautifully, especially with a silly romantic scene running through the grass. “Frankenstein” seems to debate whether scientific progression is worth it if we are perverting nature and ruining ourselves, like how Victor gets (dramatically) sick and bedridden so often it’s more or less every other chapter. 

One important thing to consider when reading “Frankenstein” is who is more at fault for the monster being the way he is—Victor or the monster? It’s important to note that the monster never has a real name, only pejoratives and straight-up mean names, often “monster” or “devil” or something similar. Victor never names his creation, and immediately rejects him when he lays eyes upon his work. However, the monster clearly displays the intelligence to understand morality and justice. At the same time, the monster is still very young and innocent, so is it too late to correct him? Is the monster justified in retaliating against Victor? Does Victor have a responsibility to his monster? This in itself brings up the question of inherent good in people and especially in children, but I don’t have enough room for that.

What I do have room for is mentioning just one more topic that I believe to be absolutely worth mentioning: women. In “Frankenstein,” Shelley’s female characters are largely passive, trapped by the actions of Frankenstein and his monster. Elizabeth, Frankenstein’s fiancee and wife, is killed by Frankenstein, while Justine, a family friend, dies because of Victor’s creation. Even the monster’s bride, with whom the monster is not guaranteed happiness, is destroyed before she can come to life. Here, Shelley seems to be demanding the attention of the reader to consider the position of women at the time, and even in the present. Perhaps by giving her female characters poor treatment, or at least passive treatment, Shelley is calling attention to how many women are forced into passive roles in the lives of men, dragged along for the ride. Meanwhile, Shelley may also be questioning the value of marriage, and whether that guarantees happiness even if two people are nominally less lonely as a result. In this way, Shelley draws strongly from her mother, drawing readers to questions of how women are treated versus how they should be treated.

“Frankenstein” is a layered novel that I believe is worth one’s time. I think there’s this general notion that classics or old novels are hard to read, but that is absolutely not the case here. Shelley’s writing is sometimes a little archaic, but I found it highly readable. I highly recommend this novel for its complex main characters and the depth with which its story can be read. It’s truly worth the read, and who doesn’t like a bit of murder and violence and drama in their book?

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