Mary Shelley's Frankenstein

Penguin Edition

I have just finished re-reading Mary Shelley’s masterpiece.It’s always a daunting experience to reread one of the ‘greats’ of English literature. You tend to worry that it won’t live up to your high expectations or that you are too concerned about making ‘readings’ of it that you forget to enjoy it. When reading it in the 21st century you tend to come to it with a lot of cultural baggage and at first I wondered whether or not it would distract me from the experience. It didn’t, although in retrospect you do end up pondering the effects of science on modern society. Sometimesthey’re amazingly beneficient, sometimes (Frankensfoods etc.) less so.

The story is carefullyand neatly structured with a chinese box type of narrative where we first listen to the story through Robert Walton,erstwhile polar explorer, thenVictor Frankenstein and then the monster and then back again through the layers. This has the effect of containing the monster’s story within the two ‘men of science’. The men of this novel (excluding the monster) have remarkable similarities, however Walton is more sympathetic due to the influence of his ‘sister’ who we never meet, we just read his letters to her and she acts as a brake on his more reckless impulses. The similarities between characters do not end there either. Victor shares a lot in common with his ‘hideous progeny’. Their reactions to the sublime in nature, their debilitating fear of solitude and their need to be loved and admired.

When Walton first meets Frankenstein sledding past his icebound ship and in very poor physical shape he is instantly sympathetic and identifies with him strongly. They are of the same social class and share the same homosocial values. Luckily for Walton, this relationship is brief as Frankenstein has rather a bad influence on the impressionable would be hero. When Walton’s crew want to return to civilisation as soon as their ice-locked ship is freed, Frankenstein berates them and tells them that they are cowardly if they do this. He also asks Walton to pursue and kill the monster for him which of course, is foolhardy given that it is eight feet tall and of superhuman strength!

Frankenstein tellsWalton  the story of the birth and subsequent abandonment of his creature outlining the horror he felt when he realised what his hubris had led him to. He does not, however, feel that he is to blame, he merely followed the logical consequences of modern science and after reading the early alchemists and thenthe  modern physical scientists, he sees this as a progression.He then worries that someone else will followin his footsteps. In fact he will not tell Walton exactly how and what he has done in case he repeats it. Victor’s tale follows his journey back home after fleeing from the monster and then the horror he feels when he realises that the monster has not only pursued him, but has actively worked towards vengeance on his creator by killing his family members. (Or so he believes at the time – we later find out that the creature did not at first know that William was related to Frankenstein, however, he was so brutalised by human society by this time, that when he did find out, he killed him). Frankenstein’s story is then interrupted by the creature’s own story.

We learn of his shock upon discovering that he was alive and we follow his journey through experience and knowledge from his ‘tabula rasa’ state. Locke and Rousseau’s ideas about knowledge overlap in the monster. He is born a blank slate and gradually, through sensation, learns about the world. The theory being that if the monster had had positive experiences of life he would have learnt good things, but unfortunately, the opposite can, and does occur. The abused child, becomes an abuser. He hides himself in a shack off a house of the DeLacey family, exiled French natives, who teach him inadvertently about the modern world. Through them he learns to read ( the plot device here is a Turkish woman, Safie, who the family are teaching French) he has access to the modern Romantic library in ‘The Sorrows of Werther‘, Paradise Lost, and history of the Roman leaders. There has been some criticism of the likelihood of the creature finding this family and learning from these books, but if that is a problem for the reader so is the actual creation of the monster.

The creature tells his story to Frankenstein in order that he will understand what he has created and in order to plead for a mate.He tells his ‘father’ of his plans to meet and converse with the DeLacey’s and of his overpowering need for human contact. He relates their horror at his appearance and the abject loneliness and then rage that he subsequently felt. Frankenstein agrees to create a mate for him eventually as he understands that he has an obligation to the creature.The monster’s argument is that if he is loved, even by such a creature as himself, he can only do good in the world. This again, highlights the central philosophy of the novel that humans need human compassion.

The narrative then returns to Victor’s story and here he tells of his betrayal of the creature as he justifies his destruction of the female monster that he began to create. He reasoned that they could breed a ‘race of monsters’ ( a la Caliban)  and the monster then vows to destroy him utterly for giving him such a miserable lifeand his gross betrayal. Henry Clerval, Victor’s best friend and the man he ‘loved above all others’ as they were childhood friends, is murdered and for a time Victor is imprisoned. When he is eventually freed and returns to wed Elizabeth, his ‘cousin’ (yes, the novel is rather incestuous) he remembers that the creature has vowed to see him ‘on his wedding night’. Victor assumes that this means they will fight to the death. Of course the dramatic irony here is very strong.

Eventually the narrative returns full circle to the beginning and we view the demise of Frankenstein and the last visit of the creature to his creator. Victor Frankenstein leaves Walton with the horrible lesson of man’s excessive pride and the dangers of science dabbling in the creation of human life. The monster comes to see him at the end and then swears to commit suicide, thus ending his miserable existence.

The novel deals with the ideas of beauty and the sublime, ideas of science and creation, ideas of masculinity and femininity and ideas of parenthood. It is a powerful piece of fiction that crosses many genres and is difficult to pigeonhole in just one. Shelley’s genius was even more amazing considering she was 17 when she wrote it and some critics have read into the story her own struggles with motherhood and her criticism of her husband Percy Bysshe Shelley and his friend Byron. Read Anne K Mellor‘s Mary Shelly: Her LIfe, Her Fiction, Her Monsters or Esther Shor’s wonderful Cambridge Companion to Mary Shelley for more.