Friday, August 28, 2009

Frankenstein (Mary Shelley)

Last week we talked about the future, so this week we're gonna reverse and go almost 200 years into the past. Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Mary Shelley. Three authors telling ghost stories by the fire, shut up in their European manor during a dreary summer evening. A classic is born. Blah blah blah, over it. The story behind the story is almost as famous as the story itself at this point (wow, that was a lot of "story"). Mary Shelley had a terribly unfortunate life—her mother died shortly after childbirth; her half-sister committed suicide; her husband Percy's previous wife drowned herself when Mary and Percy ran away together; Mary's father disowned her; several of her children died at a very young age—so it's not difficult to see why such a young girl would write such a frightening horror novel. The idea behind Frankenstein has evolved much over the last two hundred years, though. With so many movie adaptations, tv shows, and Halloween costumes, I wanted to see how true these current iterations were to the original story. And also, ya know, see if the story was really even that good.


Although I'm sure you all know the basic plot of the novel, for the moment let's pretend that's not the case. Victor Frankenstein, the young, enthusiastic son of a rich Swiss merchant family, goes off to university in the Bavarian town of Ingolstadt to study chemistry and all that scientific stuff. His love of alchemy and other arcane pursuits, however, leads him to begin conducting experiments on the nature of life itself. After many months of near-constant experimentation, Victor successfully creates artificial life in the form of a hulking monster. However, in the moment when his creation finally comes alive, Victor, afraid of what he has done, renounces the monster and basically runs away. When he returns, the beast is gone and is not seen again for years. Victor becomes despondent and aloof, eventually leaving the university to return back home to Geneva, where his father, two brothers, and life-time love interest Elizabeth all reside. Just before he reaches his family, however, Victor's youngest brother is killed, and a young family friend named Justine is convicted of the murder. Only Victor knows the truth: his monster has returned, determined to revenge his creator's rejection by killing all those whom Victor loves.

This book was nothing like what I expected. I pictured a Victor Frankenstein with no family or friends, locked away in a gloomy castle in the Swiss mountains. I pictured an unintelligent monster, one who couldn't talk and was afraid of fire, misunderstood for his accidental murders of some local villagers. I pictured an angry mob with pitchforks and torches storming a castle, demanding that the monster answer for his crimes. Yeah, that's not even close. Victor often slips into periods of guilt-induced delirium, but he's hardly the mad scientist I always assumed he would be. He's actually a really outgoing and enthusiastic socialite at the beginning of the book. He loves nature, exercise, and spending time with his family. The monster is even further from what I expected. The first time Victor and his creation meet after the death of Victor's brother, the monster speaks fluent French and makes references to Paradise Lost. He is cold, manipulative, and powerful. He kills knowing full well what he does, and, when it helps to destroy his creator, often enjoys it. The monster blames Victor for all of the cruelness that he has experienced in his short life, and decides that man is not worth pitying if man is not willing to pity him. It's all very psychological, and deeply entrenched in religious and moral philosophy.

Oh, and there are no angry villagers. Bummer.

This book is actually really bizarre. Shelley tells the story entirely through first person narration, initially through a sea captain writing letters to his sister, then through Victor relating his tale to the sea captain, then through the monster relating the story of his early months to Victor. It makes the whole thing heavy with exposition and flourishing emotion, but surprisingly light on descriptive detail for some reason. Pages and pages are written about how Victor feels during the months of his initial experiments and attempts to create artificial life, but then in half a page it's just happened and the monster exists. It's pretty much, "finally the hour arrived, but when the thing awoke, I became afraid and ran in a fever to my bedchamber." There's zero tension or suspense regarding the moment before the monster comes to life. Shelley tends to drone on and on about how Victor feels without showing much conflict within the scenes themselves. It gets a little annoying, considering how vehement Victor is regarding his stance on the monster and complete lack of compassion or sense of obligation towards him. Victor is a very difficult character to relate to, and that's mostly the point, since Shelley often goes to great lengths to make the reader's sympathies lean towards the monster, but that doesn't necessarily make Victor's ramblings fun to read. The book is fairly short—only two hundred pages—and definitely unlike anything I've ever read in terms of it's utilization of horror to chart the changing social atmosphere of Shelley's time, but in the end I think the idea of the story and the events of the story are much better than how the story is actually told. I couldn't relate to Victor enough to feel his tragedies, but the monster wasn't around enough to really latch on to, so I ultimately found myself in this weird morally ambiguous gray area. Maybe that's the point, but if so, that's not really doing it for me.


Frankenstein, or, The Modern Prometheus
by Mary Shelley

There's something really powerful about man's creation coming back to doom its creator. Almost two hundred years later the idea is still going strong with movies like The Matrix and Terminator. Oh, and Tron. Love Tron.

I want to say that the idea was very original at the time, but Shelley writes her influences right into the novel, quoting The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and Tintern Abbey, directly referencing Paradise Lost and other literary works, and setting much of the story around the very lake where she was staying at the time it was written.

There's a very good chance that the evolution of the characters to what they are in modern culture has tampered with my objectivity on this one, but anyone who reads this book today is going to have many of the same ideas as I had, so I don't think it matters. In its day, this was a masterpiece. At this point, I think the novel has been outlived by its own ideas.


Keep reading, Genoshans!

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