I just finished “Frankenstein” by Mary Shelley. This is the Gothic novel dreamed up by the 18-year-old Shelley after a rigorous debate about moldy cheese between her husband and his colleague Lord Byron. She needed to write a story to show those two up, so the idea of moving cheese impregnated her thoughts and the incubation festered and gnawed at her until she attacked paper with pen in a successful bout of writing mania.
Brief synopsis (spoilers for the book)
Frankenstein is about the hubris of creation and about ignoring responsibility as a creator and the ramifications of those actions. The novel follows Dr. Frankenstein tells his story of obsession to a ship captain, which details the doctor’s search for the secret of life. This he indeed achieves by bringing back to life to an abomination that terrifies him enough to drive him from his home. After the monster becomes learned away from Dr. Frankenstein, he returns to the doctors’s life to ask for the creation of a mate. Dr. Frankenstein agrees only to destroy the second monster, which enrages his first creation. The monster then sets itself about destroying all of Dr. Frankenstein’s loved ones in retribution. After a long chase through the ice northlands, Dr. Frankenstein succumbs to sickness and dies aboard the ship of Captain Robert Walton, who was bound for the North Pole. The monster, having returned to find Dr. Frankenstein dead, decides to end his own life by traveling as far north as possible and into the freezing ice.
The book is good but long-winded in some areas and the first half is marred by slow moving characters and the passing of epistles, which I understand is done in Gothic tradition, but I thoroughly enjoyed Dracula much better for its quicker pace—and that was done in the same spirit as Shelley’s book. Additionally, I enjoy Gothic horror (it got me into reading and writing), and I expect a slow build to supreme horror, but my modern desensitized brain was not surprised at the turns in Frankenstein, which is not the fault of the author, by my own fault, and I think that’s okay, because I don’t have to like it just because it was written.
Nevertheless, it can be gruesome in its depiction of the creature’s deformed body, and in humanity’s betrayal of its own creation (it is definitely a prescient look at “accountability”); and, yet, it rarely thrilled me with as other Gothic novels have done.
Still, the second half of the book is an extraordinary read (after it has picked up pace), with the creature telling Dr. Frankenstein of his whereabouts, travels, and education after he disappeared from the slab on which Frankenstein borne him. His exploits are thoroughly entertaining and act as a high point to the novel. It is here, too, we get a few glimpses into the monster’s view of humanity. We see him perform feats of miraculous banality, such as collecting wood, bearing witness to complaints, listening to guitar, learning to talk, and feeling sad. It drifts from a Gothic horror novel into the territories of a homesteader, which is welcomed at that point in the novel, because Frankenstein has done a lot of grousing at that point.
Unfortunately, there are a few parts where the monster exclaims, “Let me tell you more about this one thing that I found super interesting about humans…” and, you can hear Victor Frankenstein yawn as he realizes his creation is kind of boring.
Shelley is obsessed with the word countenance. At first I thought it was a Gothic thing because it makes multiple appearances in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and has made an appearance or two in the works of H. P. Lovecraft, but as you dig into the book, you kind of realize that she was obsessed with faces. In fact, there is a point where even the word physiognomy pops up, and physiognomy is the study of faces. Mind you, I have an edited edition that has the author’s revisions inside, so I know she took care to make the book reflect a better writer, but countenance is the most referenced thing in the book…maybe even more than the monster.
Keen insights and recommendation
Regardless, there is insight into civilization and fears in the 1800s such as groupthink featured in the town mob, and norms and mores as it relates to marriage in and outside of cultures. In addition, you get an idea the kind of people inside of Mary Shelley’s world, as there are doubters and there are believers. These two characters are everywhere, from the shrewd professor M. Krempe who doesn’t believe in the archaic works of Dr. Frankenstein’s scientific mentor Albertus Magnus, to the monster himself who believes in the mad scientist’s ability to create, to Dr. Frankenstein who knows the creature has become a terror and must be put asunder.
Frankenstein is worth a read mostly because it has great atmosphere and some strong emotional moments. You just have to cut through a few layers of bore.