To be honest, I was not expecting to read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein anytime soon. I studied the Gothic genre during my A Levels, and this was on my “Read Me Soon Please” list throughout, but I never got around to reading it at the time. Unexpectedly, however, recent circumstances led me to put down the book I’ve been reading for almost two months (which I have now resumed, and a review of which shall appear as soon as I can muster enough brain power to wrap my head around it) in order to read “Frankenstein” quickly and messily. This I did, and despite the less-than-ideal time constraints when I read the book, I’m here to report that Frankenstein might just be one of the best books I’ve ever read, and certainly the best one I’ve read recently.
The rudiments of the story are well-known in popular culture, and fairly straightforward when all is said and done. I shan’t worry about revealing potential plot details in this review (and if you want to read it spoiler-free, I’d urge you to pick up a copy of the book now, read it, and then come back to this review…) as I plough ahead and talk about it (seriously, go read it, it’s great). Invoking such disparate genres as science-fiction, the Gothic, Romanticism, ghost stories and adventure yarns, a more convoluted plot would threaten to derail the story and lose the reader’s interest. Shelley instead chooses to devote her attention to some pretty weighty themes and a small number of wonderfully drawn central characters. The plotting is incredibly tight, with every gorgeous image, interesting metaphor or curious plot device servicing a character or theme.
The structure of the narration is worth touching on before we embark on the rest of this commentary. It forms a Russian-Doll-like structure, with the narration becoming three layers deep towards the middle. The effects of this on the novel are profound: the potential unreliability of the narration adds a great sense of unease to the story – how much can we trust? How much is real? – as well as enshrouding many plot details in clouds of mystery. This is heightened by the first-person narration which is sustained even through Frankensteins bouts of madness and flirtations with insanity. The narrator occasionally directly addresses Walton (or the reader), which sustains the effect well. Our introduction to Frankenstein is at his lowest point in the narrative, which lends a sense of inevitability to the proceedings. As Frankenstein begins his story at the start of the novel, the enormous contrast between the Frankenstein we’ve just met and the innocence and good nature of Frankenstein as a young man shocks the reader, and further heightens the horror of his degradation and downfall.
Victor Frankenstein is a fascinating anti-hero, as he begins the novel (chronologically within the plot, at least) steeped in virtue and a thirst for knowledge before descending into madness and a lust for revenge. To me, this sounds a heck of a lot like Doctor Faustus from the famous Christopher Marlowe play of the same name, and I actually think that this is a rather apt parallel. Both are about men who consider worldly pursuits to be unequalled in virtue and merit, and sacrifice all that is dear to them in the pursuit of worldly greatness, which proves to be the catalyst for a spiral into ruin and damnation. Both stories are, in their own way, cautionary tales that intend to provoke a reaction from their audience – though Faustus is a more didactic piece, whereas Shelley is simply aiming to shock and provoke emotional response and thoughtful reflection from her readers. The way Frankenstein is repulsed by the creature’s actions and temperaments, and yet becomes more like him as the novel progresses, is a wonderful use of dramatic irony. The clear mirroring between them as they each inspire lust for vengeance in the other makes the narrative hugely compelling, especially given how the tragedies that the monster inflicts on Frankenstein make him much more sympathetic to the reader, and that makes his downfall all the more gripping.
The way many characters mirror each other adds a great deal of emotional intensity and narrative intrigue in various sections. Captain Walton, our first and final narrator, has quite a satisfying emotional arc as he sees himself in Frankenstein and, while often enamoured by his exploits and abilities, aims to learn from his mistakes. But the real MVP is Henry Clerval, a living embodiment that the arts are a lot less harmful than the sciences, and proof that enthusiasm for learning and love of the world aren’t always misguided and doomed! He proves to be a great foil for Frankenstein, and his fate is enormously impactful as a result. Other more subtle uses of contrast pervade the novel, such as the wide vistas Frankenstein is moving through on his travels contrasting with his feelings of entrapment inside his own head, heightening his emotional turmoil.
The power of literature is a theme that is persuasively and engagingly presented as the creature learns to read in his infancy. Given the way Shelley presents this to the reader, I think this may be the one thing that holds the novel back from greatness. Simply put, the narrative arc of the monster and the themes of the book as a whole are heavily reliant on works of classic literature, most notably Milton’s “Paradise Lost” and Coleridge’s “The Rime Of The Ancient Mariner” – the former being one of three books that the young creature learns with which to read, to communicate, and to form an understanding of humanity. The violence of all three of the books he reads (Milton retells the story of Creation with the Devil at its centre, the novel ends in the protagonist’s suicide and the other work documents the violence of historical monarchies) goes a long way towards making the creature sympathetic to the reader – even in spite of the horrors he will later commit. His nature is hopeful and optimistic, and it is only after he is spurned by other humans that he becomes bitter and cruel.
It is his treatment at the hands of the people he encounters which leads me to believe this work is actually profoundly Christian, despite (or maybe even because of) the science-fiction elements and horrific acts of violence it details. The novel functions fantastically well as a dark parallel to the Christian story of creation (tying in, again, with “Paradise Lost”) and also to the Greek myth of Prometheus (which explicitly comprises the novel’s subtitle). The tragic nature of the creature’s early life and the horrible consequences of his upbringing lead me to ask some pretty interesting “what if” questions: What if the creature had other books with which to grow up? What if he had been shown love and care from at least one other human? What if, at the moment of his creation, Frankenstein himself had at least attempted to show some compassion towards the creature, instead immediately shunning him? Through the terrible and haunting consequences of these events, and of Frankenstein’s continual rejection and scorn towards his creation, Shelley condemns the lack of kindness shown towards the creature. If everyone in the novel had heeded 1 Samuel 16:7, the story would have turned out very differently indeed. The science-fiction elements also tie in well with this idea – it is Frankenstein’s attempts to play God which set these horrible events into motion, and this is roundly condemned by the author.
The book is not without a couple of issues regarding its plot, however. The creature seems peculiarly eloquent to me, and although that could be partially explained by the high literature on which he was raised, or even on the style of narration employed by Shelley, he still seems to be able to communicate complex ideas with a fair amount of stylistic verve and confidence. I also found a small plot hole in the book. Towards the end, the creature asks Frankenstein to create a female like himself, which Frankenstein begins to do. He then casts his work aside by convincing himself with some very interesting arguments that it would be akin to pronouncing doom upon humanity to fulfil this task. However, one of the arguments he uses is that he doesn’t want them to reproduce, to which I would counter: as her creator, why not deny her that ability? Especially because his other arguments were so compelling in their own right, this stuck out as a little odd to me. Then again, simply the consideration of so many mini-monsters striking terror across the globe for generations to come was sufficiently creepy, so perhaps it was justified. (From a Christian point of view, this story arc was fascinating anyway – comparing the God of the Bible willingly creating a female because man ought not to be alone with Frankenstein as an unwilling creator who thought it best his monster should be alone was incredibly compelling, and a really interesting development of the creator/created relationship that Shelley presents in the novel).
As we played around with “what if” questions within the context of the narrative earlier, I found myself as a reader start to ask similar questions about the story’s ideas and themes – which is perhaps the mark of a great book. What if God had initially treated us with scorn and rejection in The Garden of Eden, as Frankenstein does to his creation? What if our seminal influences and experiences of the world around us were so violent as the creatures are? What if we experienced continual rejection and hardship at every turn, even and especially from that which made us? Would we, under these circumstances, have been any more virtuous than the creature is throughout the novel? And if not, can the creature truly be blamed for his actions?
I know I will read “Frankenstein” again once I’ve read the works by which it was influenced, so that I can gain a greater appreciation of its literary contexts and allusions and, therefore, of the work as a whole. But for now, suffice it to say that this book is brilliant (as I’m sure you can tell from the length of this review!), and that I’d love to see a film adaptation that does it justice. To end this review, I shall use one of my favourite quotes from the ever-wonderful Friedrich Nietzsche which I think is rather apt:
Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you.