Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus (1823) By: Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley
Victor Frankenstein is inspired by the alchemists of old and the power of lightning to try to create a man. He succeeds, but is so frightened by what he has created that he flees from it. He believes himself to be fine, until the murders start.
This novel is considered a classic of English Literature for many reasons. The Romantic respect for nature is very present. The horror comes from the unknown and unwillingness to trust as much as the heinous deeds that occur. The idea of appearance being paramount to trust is the most on the surface, but there is also the exploration into what makes a man. Beyond that we also see what makes on good and what makes one evil. There are some interesting homosexual undertones that can be read today, but I'm not sure were intended. Also, just to add to the weight of all that, there are some possible abortion/adoption issues beyond just the monster actually saying the word 'abortion.'
I haven't read Frankenstein for about five years. I first read it in a class on the Romantic period and found it interesting. However; at that time I was not the most mature and this re-read has shone a light on a lot of the text. This is the more commonly read 1823 revision. There is an earlier version with more malice put into the Monster and Elizabeth is Victor's first cousin (so incest).
Victor Frankenstein whines a bit, yes, but he does provide an interesting character to follow for most of the novel. He has grown up in a life of privilege and fancy. He has the big dreams of a young man and the means to accomplish them. We get to see his motivations and his passions and then watch as everything is stripped from him due to his own cowardice and untrusting nature. He's not very sympathetic, and as his world collapses around him, it is his own hand that wrought the destruction.
Robert Walton is our frame narrator and is a much happier parallel to Victor. He has set out to explore the Arctic and discover the North Pole. Journeys north were a big thing at the time and the feeling Mary's description really captures the surroundings. He also gets the final confrontation with the monster. Despite getting very little page time, he brings a sense of majesty to the opening. He gets a little fanciful when talking about Victor, perhaps due to the Florence Nightingale effect.
Henry Clerval is Victor's childhood friend. He is the image of a younger Victor who made different choices. Victor mentions several times that he made bad choices in his line of study. Henry, on the other hand, is forced into his father's profession despite the desire to become an artist or a poet. Henry's exuberance helps Victor through several tough times and I love the fullness of character Henry is given.
Elizabeth Lavenza is Victor's bride-to-be and cousin and adopted sister... Times were different then. In the original 1818 version she was Victor's first cousin, but Mary removed the incest from her second draft resulting in a bit of an awkward origin for Elizabeth. She is an okay character, but we don't get to see much of her.
Alphonse Frankenstein is Victor's younger
Justine Moritz gets accused of Alphonse's murder. This is another example of how brilliant the Monster is and also how vengeful he became. She is the only one killed as a result of his wrath that he didn't know was connected to Victor. Of course, he also didn't kill her or really know for sure she would be killed as a result.
The Peasants' story is an interesting mirror to the Monster's story. It is pivotal to his development, yet still excluded or abridged in the filmed version leading to a lesser monster. They are the Monster's whole world, yet his reactions to their responses can be surprising.
M. Waldman has a minor. yet important role as Victor's supportive teacher. It proves that a great teacher can drive their student to do great and terrible things.
The Monster is, of course, the best thing about the book. He described as having handsome features twisted so that they are ugly, detail is given to his muscles, white teeth and flowing hair, but he remains hideous. This is something that no visual version of Frankenstein has gotten quite right. Any time he is around everything becomes interesting. Even his simple back story with the peasants is made more interesting and dramatic by his presence. This book also leaves the Monster out of the spotlight until necessary to heighten suspense and make you see the world how Victor would have seen it. He has be come a classic and enduring example of the sympathetic villain.
Plus, the ultimatum he gives to Victor on the ice is the best part of the book, just read the excerpt:
"I expected this reception," said the daemon. "All men hate the wretched; how, then, must I be hated, who am miserable beyond all living things! Yet you, my creator, detest and spurn me, thy creature, to whom thou art bound by ties only dissoluble by the annihilation of one of us. You purpose to kill me. How dare you sport thus with life? Do your 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; but if you refuse, I will glut the maw of death, until it be satiated with the blood of your remaining friends."
The beauty of nature is nearly omnipresent in this tale and there is only one place near the end where an area is described as ugly.
In the End
More of Victor chasing the Monster from Geneva to the Arctic would have been nice. We are only given glimpses, but properly fleshed out it could have extended the book at least another 50 pages or even spawned its own book. Of course, wanting more is not necessarily a negative, but the chase isn't the most well written section on its own either. The tragic end of this tale is accompanied by an interesting speech by the monster. It is a bit anticlimactic, but it is certainly moving.
This is a book that you should read at least once in your life. It is a classic of literature and it holds up quite well today. There are a few instances of Victor being whiny and melodramatic, but let's be honest, you read it for the Monster.
You can get it for free on the Kindle or from Project Gutenberg in various formats!