October Reading: Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

“It was on a dreary night of November that I beheld the accomplishment of my toils. With an anxiety that almost amounted to agony, I collected the instruments of life around me, that I might infuse a spark of being into the lifeless thing that lay at my feet. It was already one in the morning; the rain pattered dismally against the panes, and my candle was nearly burnt out, when by the glimmer of the half-extinguished light, I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open; it breathed hard, and a convulsive motion agitated its limbs.”

This is one of my favorite books ever.

I tried to read it once when I was about 12 or 13, mainly on the strength of an amazingly lurid cover that had a gigantic creature with bared teeth scrambling down a cliff to a deranged-seeming, very small-looking human being. I was intrigued by this, but upon not immediately finding monsters and mayhem, put the book down and forgot about it. Then I picked it up in high school as being among the best options for the misery of assigned reading, and emerged from between its pages slightly stunned. It’s only held up on rereads. The writing is clunky, the pace halting, but this story positively blazes, almost bursting the seams of the rickety vehicle of its words.

The first parts of the book are difficult to get through, in large part because the word “Frankenstein” has vivid images that spring to mind, most of which are inspired by Boris Karloff. The preconception of a lumbering, barely articulate monster that meanders into places accompanied by a flash of lightning is failed spectacularly by the letters of a young explorer on his way to the North Pole. He’s full of himself (not surprising given his youth and relatively wealthy upbringing), naïve, and burning with a desire for glory. Ambition drips off every word he writes to his sister, and even though the letters primarily serve as a framework for Frankenstein’s larger narrative, they also serve to show the themes that are going to haunt this book. “And now, dear Margaret, do I not deserve to accomplish some great purpose?” Walton writes, completely in earnest. He can only see the glory of what he’ll do, never the shadows of the possible ramifications of his deeds.

In this, he has more than a passing similarity to the man he and his crew will pick up off an ice floe as they make their way north. The man’s rescue comes shortly after the ship, temporarily brought to a standstill by ice, came within sight of a man of gigantic stature guiding a sledge of dogs over the ice fields. The narrative of the castaway is the main tale of Frankenstein.

It’s one most are at least a bit familiar with: the scientist, mad for the pursuit of knowledge and the secrets of the universe, brings to life a body stitched together from corpses, which then turns on him in murderous manner.

What I didn’t expect at all was for the scientist to be driven, ambitious, brilliant, and evil. I’d imagined the creature as monstrous and inarticulate, a consequence instead of a character, and instead he had reasoning, rationality, understanding, and a wrenching potential for good gone horribly wrong.

Victor Frankenstein’s narration, told to the unquestioning explorer, is halting in some places, dwelling greatly on the places and things that he has seen and finds dear. In other cases, it is almost contemplative, in others mournful and lamenting to the point of being infuriating. For Frankenstein continually chooses to do what I can only describe as evil and then proceeds to cast the fallout of those decisions as the universe being set against him. The ornate language (that can likely be blamed on Mary Shelley’s poet husband) describing scenery, travels, and the joy of intellectual pursuit almost disguises how horrible the things he does are. But not quite.

He begins with a desire for learning and knowledge, but when he discovers how to give life, this is where he begins his slide into evil, at least to my mind. It’s not ever explicitly pointed as such in the narrative, but I can’t take any other reading from a story where a character comes across knowledge like this and does the things he does for the reasons he gives. Driven by his secret, he begins his work to create his first being. His vision?

A new species would bless me as its creator and source; many happy and excellent natures would owe their being to me. No father could claim the gratitude of his child so completely as I should deserve theirs.

If that declaration of what Frankenstein sees as consequence of his work isn’t horrifying enough, he then becomes utterly abhorrent when he makes the creature. It indeed owes its being to him, and, unable to speak and unable to know what it is perceiving, it comes to life. And he runs.

This is where my dislike of Frankenstein always kindles to outright hatred, even while being wholly compelled by his story. He flees the creature and eventually the country, leaving it utterly alone while he stumbles around in a daze that he’s only shaken from when he receives a letter that his much younger brother has been murdered. Hurrying down to his homeland, he spends a night out in a storm near his home and catches a glimpse of – what else – the creature he made racing up a cliff face and out of sight.

Frankenstein immediately leaps to the conclusion that the creature is the one who murdered his brother, and though he turns out not to be wrong about this, his reasoning for it is so spurious that it makes me want to smack him. Namely: “Nothing in human shape could have destroyed that fair child.” So much for your created beings’ “happy and excellent nature” imaginings then, hm?

Not to mention that this is such an incredibly naïve way of thinking that it could only come from someone thoroughly dedicated to ivory tower living, which is pretty much exactly how Frankenstein has always lived. Humanity always has it in it to destroy what is fair and innocent. It does it several times over, and in the novel, it does so to the creature that Frankenstein made.

The creature’s story, which he eventually tells to Frankenstein after the latter allows an innocent servant girl to hang because he’s too damn cowardly to speak up about seeing the creature in the vicinity, is infinitely more compelling. Not least because while he has his maker’s habit of blaming the world for his misfortune, he actually has the world set considerably against him, starting with his abandonment at the hands of his maker. And unlike Frankenstein, the creature actually ends up taking some responsibility for his actions at the end of the story.

His tale features a string of misfortunes, starting with his wandering through the woods alone, with no name for the sensations of hot, cold, hunger, or the things in the forest that he sees. The creature is particularly fascinated by humanity and is repulsed every time he draws near to them, more than once encountering injury in the process. Despite an intellect that could probably surpass Frankenstein’s (the creature learns a language through books and osmosis in a roughly a year or so), and a genuine desire to be on good terms with people, his attempts to build goodwill are all for nothing because of the monstrous shape given to him by Frankenstein.

Embittered and infuriated, he resolves to take revenge on the world, after one final attempt to convince Frankenstein to see him as a creature worthy of care because of the nature of his being. In that attempt, he convinces Frankenstein to promise to make a female creature to be a mate and companion for him. Frankenstein reneges on this promise in brutal fashion, and the creature responds by pursuing the destruction of all that Frankenstein holds dear with a skill and purpose that would make Edmond Dantes proud.

The story ends shortly after Walton, to whom Frankenstein has been telling all of this, has reluctantly agreed to cut his Northern expedition short due to the fears of his men. Frankenstein dies soon after trying to help by telling the crew they shouldn’t be spineless cowards shying away from glory (I can’t imagine why his message wasn’t better received), and he has the gall to say before giving up the ghost that “I have been occupied in examining my past conduct; nor do I find it blamable.”

This man’s pursuit of glory leads to the destruction of so many, both in and out of his life, and yet he only sees thwarted brilliance crushed by an unsparing universe. It would never occur to this man to think that he may bear responsibility for the things he’s uprooted- he keeps seeking and searching and has the gall to blame what he finds for not bending to his desires. Frankenstein is, to my mind, one of the most horrible characters imaginable because he is so brilliant and compelling and in the blaze of his brightness, we get blinded to the havoc he leaves behind. And the mentality that drives this character is alive and well today in our constant glorification of achievement for its own sake, to put our names to something and say “This is mine and I have done it” without thought for the worth of the thing that’s being done and the things that might get trampled or left behind in our race to pin our names to eternity.

The creature may fall into evil, but if he wanted to argue that the universe was against him from the get-go, he’d have a much better case than Frankenstein ever would. His story is regarded by Frankenstein as deceitful and untrustworthy, and yet throughout, he comes across as more sincere and more willing to seek out what is good than Frankenstein ever does. The creature at least is willing to consider what might be good and evil in his actions, and while Frankenstein continually reminds us of his wretchedness and practically wallows in his guilt and remorse, the creature is at least fighting against a genuine wrong, albeit in a misguided and horrible way. What makes the creature so sorrowful a figure is that he could have been good and might have been good, and even at the end seems aware that he’s lost something great in choosing the evil things that he did. Even with the obstacles faced, the creature at least acknowledges that he committed murder, that he went hell-bent after Frankenstein to ruin him. He admits his free will and in doing so, acknowledges that even with the universe so set against him, that he had agency in it. There’s something dreadful and compelling in the creature’s ruin because he at least will look to see that there was something destroyed both in himself and in the world around him, and that he had a hand in it. And though that looking isn’t a redemption, it can be a start- and it’s a much greater step in that direction than Frankenstein ever made.

(If you read this far without falling asleep, I seriously salute you. Have a string version of “This Is Halloween” as a treat.)

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2 thoughts on “October Reading: Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

  1. Brilliant thoughts/discussion on this book! And I love that quote you put at the top, I’m a sucker for dark imagery.

    This is one of those classics I haven’t got around to reading yet but hope I will one day. Like Dracula, I imagine it’s quite different to the movies!

    • There are so many good quotes from it that was hard to know which one to pull, but if you like dark imagery, this one would be right up your alley.
      It’s really, really good. And I can’t stress enough that it’s nothing like the movies. I’d love to see a good adaption of it, but I’m not going to hold my breath on that.

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