Review: Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus

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Review: Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus

Do you duty towards me, and I will do mine towards you and the rest of mankind. If you will comply with my conditions, I will leave them and you at peace: if you refuse, I will glut the maw of death, until it be satiated with the blood of your remaining friends.

I posted a review of a classic horror novel from the 1800’s last October, and I wanted to continue the theme this year. The next book was obvious; if you need something to follow up Bram Stoker’s Dracula, what else can you possibly choose except Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein?

Do yourself a favor and do a little research on Mary Shelley, or at least look up her Wikipedia page. Her life was like something out of a romantic tragedy: falls in love and runs away at age sixteen with her father’s married friend, lives with him in poverty for two years until his wife commits suicide, then gets to be married for a grand total of six years until her poet husband drowns when his boat – named for a Shakespearean character from The Tempest, if you can believe it – capsizes in a summer thunderstorm.

(And as a side note, I love how Shelley described the way she used to pass the time when she was a child: “the indulging in waking dreams.” I don’t know if daydreaming fantastical stories was unusual for people in the Georgian Era, but she talked about it as if it was something she invented. You can definitely see the effect it had on her imagination, since the idea for Frankenstein came out of what she described as a waking nightmare.)

The story is usually considered a Gothic horror novel, but to me it falls squarely in the category of science fiction, one that’s even more impressive when you consider the fact that it was written by an eighteen-year-old woman who was playing a game of “make up a ghost story” at the time.

For the two percent of the population who don’t already know the story: Victor Frankenstein was a happy, passionately intelligent young man who threw himself into the study of chemistry and the human body because he wanted to discover something new to “benefit mankind” (he doesn’t really get into specifics about how mankind would benefit; I suspect he mostly wanted to  discover something new for the sake of being known as the person who discovered something new.) When he found the never-to-be-shared secret of animating dead tissue, he didn’t think much about consequences – as in, at all – before starting an exhausting and gruesome two-year process to create the first artificial life form out of materials from “the dissecting room and the slaughter-house.”

And it goes wrong, because of course it does, and then Victor has on his hands an incredibly powerful, shockingly ugly and completely pissed-off monster who has nothing worth living for except the need to punish his creator for making him this way in the first place.

You do have to be prepared for the writing style on this one, because it’s filled with all of the flowery prose and soul-searching and emotions – excuse me, that should probably have been in all-caps, EMOTIONS – that you would expect from something written in the very early 19th century. Victor suffers from no less than three bouts of brain fever, and that doesn’t even include the months he spends almost catatonic with grief every time his creation murders another one of his close family members.

Frankenstein by Mary ShelleyIf you can just let yourself enjoy it, the prose is flowing, almost musical in places. Shelley sets up Victor’s downfall by giving him probably the most idyllic childhood ever created in the history of literature: a home in picturesque Geneva (the same breathtakingly lovely part of Switzerland where Shelley first came up with the idea for the novel), wealthy and loving parents who are almost too saintly to be believed, a best friend who’s cheerful and fun-loving to balance out the times when Victor gets a little too focused on Science, and of course a beautiful young fiancee who’s loved him since they were children.

Lyrical writing aside, the real draw for me is the sections with Frankenstein’s monster. The most fascinating part is when the creature tells his story, starting out with discovering the world on his own, learning in secret from another too-good-for-this-world family, and being driven away over and over for being too hideous for anyone to trust. This section is bookended by the chapters where he and Victor try to outdo each other with threats (like the quote at the top of this review). Shelley was able to pack a lot of fury into this novel, both Victor’s at the creature who’s killing his family and friends, and the monster himself at his creator for abandoning him and then refusing to make him a companion when Victor (finally) decides that making a powerful monster is a Bad Idea, especially one that’s so ugly it will have every reason to hate humanity for rejecting it.

And that right there is the one really annoying part of this book for me. Victor goes on, and on, about the price he’s paying for playing God, and for pushing science Too Far, and spends pages cursing the day he discovered the method to bring the creature to life…all of which kind of misses the point. Victor lets the secret of creating new life die with him to “save” the world from more monsters from being created, but his creature didn’t start out as a killer; the whole reason why the he went on a rampage and swore revenge on his creator was because Victor left him on his own. 

Think about that. This was an eight-foot-tall newborn who ended up teaching himself how to speak and to read classical literature, and who tried so desperately to find another human being who would accept him, and Victor’s first response when the creature came to life was to run away from something that was exactly as ugly as he’d designed it to be. Victor ends up spending the whole night pacing in a nearby courtyard terrified to go home, and he’s so relieved when he comes back to find out that the creature is gone he doesn’t bother to worry about where it’s gone to. I’ve had a similar reaction to a wasp getting inside the house, but at least I wasn’t the one who made the wasp in the first place.

When you get right down to it, for me this book isn’t so much a warning about science and technology as it is about being able to take responsibility for what you make with it instead of going “Oh woe, who would have thought it could all lead to this?” It’s too easy to put the blame on science; Frankenstein may have made the creature, but he didn’t make a monster until he threw it away.


Inside cover from the 1931 edition of Frankenstein, the first edition to be published under Mary Shelley’s name.

If you want a much more light-hearted look at Frankenstein and his monster, check out the latest Movie Issues episode, where Spooky and Leland watch the Gene Wilder classic Young Frankenstein .