Book review: Frankenstein

FrankensteinFrankenstein by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It’s almost a fool’s errand to review Frankenstein. The book’s been so firmly ensconced in the literary canon for so long that it can’t be dislodged, and the story of its inception – spooky story competition with Byron, Percy Shelley, Polidori – is almost so doused in writerly name-dropping as to be something you couldn’t make up.

But hey, I’ve never shied away from a fool’s errand so away we go.

This is the third time I’ve read the novel. I first read it around the time I discovered Poe – around the age of 12 – and I think a lot of it went over my head. Second time? University, and with as much attention as one gives university texts when working three days a week in a shitty job in a bakery. So I like to think this time, my third, is really my first proper time of reading it, particularly given that this edition is deftly edited, making slight amendments to Shelley’s text based on a meticulous examination of all possible sources. This isn’t the truncated, anonymous version of first publication: it’s the whole box and dice, with Percy Shelley’s 1818 introduction, Mary Shelley’s 1831 introduction, and the contemporaneous spooky stories of Byron and Polidori making appearances as appendices. There’s also a well-referenced essay beginning the work which contains lots of leads for further reading.

The short review: great, and probably underestimated by people who’ve only seen monster flicks.

A major problem with the work is that people will – unless they’ve got the horn for Gothic literature – tend to associate the book with the Boris Karloff portrayal of the monster: a blunt instrument, a sort of golem-with-neck-bolts, brought into life by a mad scientist, who proceeds to Fuck Shit Up because, well, he’s a monster. But that’s not the point of Shelley’s tale, I feel.

In Frankenstein, there’s a fear of science, of technology, that fits in with the age of discoveries, of Galvanism and vacuums. It’s an era where death in childbirth looms large, where medical science still has an element of mystery, partially because of the church, but also because so much was in the process of being brought to light. The author is no Luddite, but Victor Frankenstein’s unhallowed arts are viewed with caution. This is less for the sake of the scientific enquiry itself but from what results. And of the results? The horror is less about the resultant reanimated patchwork bloke, and more about the fact that his creator neither thought about the ramifications of his explorations, nor took responsibility for his creation.

This is the horror that most adaptations miss. They cling to the horror of the creator towards his creation, and neglect the greater woe: the horror of the created, discovering his nature. Yes, yes, we all know that Frankenstein is the real monster (and not the name of the monster) but it’s confronting to think of the monster as a victim: as an artificially constructed innocent who’s met only with horror, who comes to know himself through the lens of how people react to him. It doesn’t excuse the violence in the book, but it does explain it. Every horrible act Frankenstein’s creation creates, Frankenstein’s creation takes responsibility for – but the reason it’s happening is all laid upon Victor. The monster shoulders responsibility, but his creator never does.

The epistolary form of the book works well enough, though I suspect Stoker’s Dracula was a better (if slightly more tiresome, over length) version of the project. Shelley manages to keep things moving. The creature’s education is a little improbable – today writers might suggest some vestigal memory of language, rather than having him just learn it from a series of convenient books – but it serves its purpose. I was surprised, in this reading, to note how much sympathy and affection Shelley gives the unwanted creation. It’s a story of parental rejection – a trope that’s been adopted by some adaptations – and that’s something that transcends narrative flaws, at least in this case.

I was surprised at how the novel zipped past. I could have been more in the Gothic reading mode, I guess – similar to how one needs to boot the brain into Chaucerian format to get a grip on The Canterbury Tales – but the actual reading flew past. I suppose I’d always imagined the work to be denser, longer, but there’s a real economy at work, and though the language sometimes feels a bit overly structured (compared to modern literature, what work of the 1800s isn’t?) it never loses a sense of direction, a sense of forward momentum.

This is Gothic popcorn, and if you don’t know the literary version of the work, you really should read it. It’s great fun, and much more thought-provoking than you would imagine.
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