After watching three early film versions of Frankenstein for Project: Monster, it was a distinct pleasure to go back and revisit the novel for the umpteenth time in my life.
To my mind, when it comes to gothic horror, this is one of the most perfect novels ever written. And yet, it predates the gothic-revival era by a few decades, and it’s technically the first science fiction novel ever written. It doesn’t change the fact that it’s still a masterpiece of literature by any standard you can name. Mary Shelley was 18 when she began work on this venture, and she published at 20. That she did so anonymously is depressing in and of itself, but the reissue of the work three years later made that right. When I think about what I was capable of doing at that age, I hang my head and acknowledge the master for who she is.
Obviously, Shelley was well-educated and well read. When you consider who her husband-to-be and her friends at the time were, it would have been impossible for her to keep up with that circle had it been otherwise. Hers was considered to be the Romantic Era, and by that, an age of heroes and heroism. That was the idea, at any rate. Liberty was a word being tossed around for people to die for. The fledgling American nation proved it could be done at the level of the ideal in government, and its citizens began pushing westward for a concept of “Manifest Destiny” while others could not yet be counted as citizens at all, and others still would lose their way of life. France made a go at it with their revolution, only to be caught in the vice of their would-be savior, Napoleon Bonaparte. Beethoven was deaf as a post but operating at the top of his game, and he forever changed the rules of music (as well as inadvertently causing improvements of a bigger and sturdier piano). As a result of his audacity, a new generation of composers were free to explore the new limits of creativity. The Age of Enlightenment had ushered in the idea that man was the center of his own world, that he could take steps to understand God by studying all that nature had to offer. In some cases, that meant throwing off the protection of God completely, though such ideas were still generally unpopular. That human-centric view of the world would in turn be used to power the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution that would grip the world before long. And this leads us to what would later be called science, known at the time as natural philosophy. This was the age when men who practiced surgery were barbers, and medicine had more in common with butchery than with healing. There was a growing movement to limit such practices to those with a medical degree. This movement lent to the idea that cadavers for study, harvested from condemned criminals only, were also limited, which led to an increase in grave robbing and body snatching. An experiment with electricity, a power man had only recently begun to harness with any real success, proved that electrical current is what powered the animal frame. A dead body could be made to move of its own accord through electricity. It’s said that Shelley witnessed one such demonstration, and the experience wrestled with her religious beliefs. The implications she saw in her mind’s eye led to this book.
The book is essentially told in three parts, and all of it in flashback as Dr. Frankenstein, alone and near death in the frozen wastes of the arctic, recounts his tale to a sailor after he’s rescued.
The first part deals with Frankenstein’s beginnings, of his studies in the natural philosophies, backed with an obsessive interest in the works of ancients such as Cornelius Agrippa. In other words, one part modern science, one part old world mysticism. Today we’d call that the Noetic Sciences. In the 50s it’d be known as Mad Science. In Shelley’s time they called it the devil’s work.
The second part deals with Frankenstein coming face to face with the creature he abandoned, and with the creature recounting his story. If you’ve never read the book, this is one of the most heart-rending tales ever told. The description of the creature is horrific enough, how it was constructed on an eight-foot frame for strength, which required all manner of cobbling to achieve. The sunken skin, the black lips… it’s not for the feint of heart. As iconic as Karloff would become over a century later, even his visual pales in comparison. Then you take into account the tale it has to tell, and the creature is quite eloquent. It taught itself French. It has read Milton’s Paradise Lost and Plutarch’s Lives and a stack of other great works. It has studied human nature from afar, and it has found itself wanting. I say “it,” but is it really an it? Being honest, the creature is far more human than its creator can claim to be, which is saying something as Frankenstein’s own grappling with the implications of this is quite human in its contradiction between obsession and despair. But just as a computer today is limited by what the program its given to run tells it to do, so too is the creature limited by his own perception of what he believes he doesn’t have and craves. This, too, is the ultimate in human drive, to want what we know we can’t or don’t have, and to seek companionship. It takes a truly shriveled heart to not be moved by the imagery of pity incarnate that Shelley has sculpted for us. The creature makes the case that were it not for society, he’d be the very model of peaceful coexistence. He persists on berries and acorns rather than killing for food. He steers clear of people, aware of his wretchedness in their eyes. But he is utterly alone, and this has made him bitter enough to kill for his right to the happiness thus denied him. When even his own creator spurns him, it leaves him to take extreme measures to secure his life and future.
This leads us to part three, wherein the creature hounds Frankenstein to create for him a bride in his image. Frankenstein is at first moved by the creature’s pleas, but the more he thinks about it, the more the implications convince him that this is wrong. What’s to stop this new woman from being even more capable of death and destruction than the first creature? What if she finds she likes that idea? Would she even accept her lot in life as the mate of the creature, living alone in the middle of nowhere under his mandates and restrictions? Or would she, like he, come to appreciate and to crave the beauty of man and his world beyond the bounds of being able to be controlled? Frankenstein will not do this thing, he decides. It’s cruel to the world, it’s cruel to the new woman, and it’s cruel to his own soul. He has come to better appreciate the idea of taking responsibility for his labors, and as he vows to destroy the creature, so too the creature vows to revisit him upon his wedding night. That promise is carried out, and with his new bride murdered by the creature, Frankenstein pursues the path of vengeance. The creature, knowing he was built for survival, understands that the longer the pursuit, the more physical and psychological suffering his creator will endure, and he extends the chase through all manner of wilderness and into the arctic, where we at last catch up with the opening narration.
When the ending comes, it’s creature vs. creator in prose that only Shelley could write. It hits me every time, and I always end this story with the feeling that I’ve fought a battle for my own soul. Ultimately, that’s really the point, I think. Great literature puts a spotlight on the big questions and makes us think. It has the bonus of being able to ask that question in our modern times and be just as relevant. Think about Jurassic Park, for example, and by extension the ethical questions concerning cloning that exist in our real world. Just because we can do a thing, does it mean we should? This is essentially the question Shelley is asking, and it’s been asked time and again. Should we study dead bodies to understand the workings of life? Should we harness the power of the atom? The old saying goes, you can’t put the genie back in the bottle, and the road to hell is paved with the very best of intentions. These ideas define for me the human experience in a nutshell, which is probably why this book resonates with me as it does. I enjoy books that challenge me, that grow as I do. Frankenstein fits that criteria.