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Novel Ideas: Frankenstein
Frankenstein, one of the key texts in modern literature, was written by Mary Shelley in 1818 when she was only 21. She had already experienced quite an amazing range of events in her life, and she survived quite a few more after Frankenstein. Shelley was born in 1797 to two radical writers, Mary Wollstonecraft, who died within a few days of childbirth, and William Godwin, who raised her. Shelley received a much more extensive education than other young girls in that time period. She chose to elope with Percy Bysshe Shelley at the age of 17 -- two years later, Percy's first wife committed suicide, and the elopers were married. Only one of her four children survived, and Percy himself drowned in 1822. The next thirty years of her life were comparatively uneventful, and they were productive ones for her, although her later writings never achieved the same fame as Frankenstein which was composed in that most turbulent time of her life. She died in 1851.
Frankenstein was published anonymously, and the author was only later revealed to be Shelley. She wrote a new introduction (included in this Penguin Classics edition) for the 1831 edition, at which point she incorporated a number of changes. She also took the chance to answer a question she had apparently received quite often: how such a young girl could write about such horrible things. Her answer describes her literary sources, as well as a disturbing dream that was the kernel of inspiration for the story. Shelley borrowed quite freely from the sources she was familiar with -- there are large echoes of Paradise Lost (one of the three books the Monster reads in the course of the story) and Shakespeare, and the sequence of the Monster's "adopted" family and the Arabian lover in middle of the book seems lifted straight from one of the side stories in Don Quixote. Shelley brilliantly synthesized ideas of the time, and brought the sting of satire to bear on the modern idea of the scientist.
Frankenstein begins with a framing story. An explorer named Robert Walton has left the north coast of Russia and is on his way into the Arctic Ocean; Walton is writing letters to his sister in London and tells her how one day he saw a monstrous figure fleeing across the ice. A few days later, Walton rescues Victor Frankenstein from hypothermia and starvation. Frankenstein tells Walton the events that form the core of the novel, his creation of the Monster, and Walton relates them to his sister in epistolary form.
Victor Frankenstein's story is divided into three volumes. Volume 1 is the story of Frankenstein's childhood in Geneva, and his studies at a university in Germany that led to the creation of the monster. He thinks he can create wonderful new life, but at his first glance at his creation, Frankenstein turns away in horror. He subsequently becomes quite ill. He is called back to Geneva two years later by a letter from his father that has tragic news: his younger brother William has been murdered. Frankenstein is convinced that his monster committed the crime, but a piece of evidence has been planted with Justine, the family maid. When Justine is executed, Frankenstein feels like he has two deaths on his head.
Volume 2 is mainly the monster's story; Frankenstein meets him on a glacier near Geneva, and the monster tells his creator about his brief life. Everywhere he turned, he was met with disgust or open enmity. He was hiding out in the woods when he found a family he could safely observe, help secretly, and learn language and culture from while eavesdropping. In a heartrending scene, the monster reveals himself to the blind father of the family, only to be violently spurned when the rest of the family returns. Frankenstein finds out that his suspicions about William's fate were correct, and the monster threatens further violence on Frankenstein's family if a certain request of his is not fulfilled. He wants a bride, similar in nature to himself, simply because every normal human has rejected him.
Volume 3 is about the consequences of Frankenstein's refusal of this request. Frankenstein attempts to make the bride once, but destroys the result. He flees across northern Scotland and Ireland, only to face more death, and back in Geneva, a final round of murder and death. Every professional and filial attachment is either denied him or destroyed, and he blames it all on his creation. The monster tauntingly leads him on a long chase that ends up in the Arctic Ocean. Once Frankenstein is done his story, the book has a brief coda narrated by Walton.
Why has this book's fame persisted so long in our culture? Shelley's Frankenstein is a strong psychological drama, the pitiless tale of the destruction of one man. The book has longer passages of philosophy and reflection than modern horror readers are accustomed to, but the body count is certainly still quite high. The book has a major disappointment to audiences conditioned by all the movie versions to expect a hugely spectacular creation-of-the-monster scene: Frankenstein doesn't describe it to Walton for fear that Walton will write it down and let other people figure out the process. A copout, but a reasonable one by the book's internal logic. Interestingly, Shelley's story has been played as horror in most adaptations - but it's also a sound argument to call it science fiction. What should we do with our expanding scientific powers? How do we make decisions on life or death matters once that is within our hands? As much as Frankenstein is a cliché when it's applied to new scientific advances, the kneejerk warning of doom, it's also as if Shelley's book has never been applied at all. Cautionary tales by their nature can hardly ever be intense or sweeping enough. Does Frankenstein deserve his cruel fate? Shelley seems to punish the man for two sins, hubris and lack of pity. Frankenstein creates life and then turns away from it. Perhaps it's as simple as the fact that he doesn't learn from his mistakes despite his brilliance.
This leads me directly to my next point. Another reason for the book's enduring fame is the strength of the characters. Frankenstein is a complex and fascinating man, a scholarly prodigy, and noteworthy to his biology professors even though he has grown up reading alchemy textbooks. He ruins his life with overwork in the two years it takes to create the monster, then runs from the consequences, all the while living with crushing despair. He's hardly the mad scientist of the movie adaptations; his fit of mad science is followed mostly by remorse and the accumulation of fatal consequences. Frankenstein is quite glib, and doesn't learn from his own philosophizing, another of the book's ironies; at one point, he says: "A human being in perfection ought always to preserve a calm and peaceful mind, and never to allow passion or a transitory desire to disturb his tranquillity. I do not think that the pursuit of knowledge is an exception to this rule" (54). Even more interesting than Frankenstein himself is the character of the monster. We encounter his horrible deeds before he gets a chance to tell his own story, but when he does, the book subtly changes, tearing our sympathies between the two main characters. The monster becomes aware of the world, learns to read, and acts out of crippling loneliness -- all this is related in stunning details. Shelley has a knack for demonstrating complex states of mind through a character's actions, even though the prose may be a bit thick for the modern reader. Shelley skimps on the other characters in the book, such as Walton or the one female character, Elizabeth.
Frankenstein is well worth reading, and it's much different than the popular conception of the story. This is not surprising, considering the way it has wended its way through popular culture for almost two centuries. The story has been picked over by horror and science fiction writers and scriptwriters ever since (for example, the last speech of the monster -- "'But soon,' he cried, with sad and solemn enthusiasm, 'I shall die, and what I now feel be no longer felt'" (215) -- is quite similar to the famous "Tears in Rain" speech in Blade Runner, another lament by a created being), and there have been a multitude of movie adaptations and sequels, even computer games. The majority of them are simply awful, but one or two points of interest crop up.