All my speculations and hopes are as nothing, and like the archangel who aspired to omnipotence, I am chained in an eternal hell.
By Mary Shelley
1818 (Original) 1831 (Revised)
At once a Gothic thriller, a passionate romance, and a cautionary tale about the dangers of science, Frankenstein tells the story of committed science student Victor Frankenstein. Obsessed with discovering the cause of generation and life and bestowing animation upon lifeless matter, Frankenstein assembles a human being from stolen body parts but; upon bringing it to life, he recoils in horror at the creature’s hideousness.
This is a February selection for the 2016 Classics Challenge.
We all know Frankenstein, obviously. A scary castle! A crazy old scientist! Igor! And of course, an inarticulate beast of a monster.
Only…. that’s the pop culture version, the very, very different pop culture version. In fact, none of those things actually appear in Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel, and one wonders how the original story went so completely astray in the 200 years since its publication.
Frankenstein, titled after young academic protagonist Victor Frankenstein, is considered one of the first works of science fiction. It is a story about a man who manipulates science to satisfy his own curiosity, a man who then casts off his creation and spends the rest of his life suffering the consequences of both his initial experiment and his averse reaction to it.
That probably sounds at least vaguely like the Frankenstein of Hollywood lore- man creates life, life goes on rampage. Yet the novel has more to say than that. Without spoiling it all for you, it is a sprawling tale in true 19th century fashion- a story, within a story, within another story. It encompasses romance, philosophy, and psychology while narrating the reader through a journey across Europe. The monster is not mindless, for one; he is educated, articulate, and deeply tragic as he struggles to connect with a world (and creator) that immediately rejects him. Victor Frankenstein, that very creator, is character fleshed far further than just mad scientist. He has a family, friends, a love interest, a conscience, and life-impacting decisions to make.
Frankenstein is an interesting read for the pop-culture comparisons alone, and is a classic based on its essential contributing role to the horror and science fiction genres. It is not a perfect work though- it suffers from an uneven pace and a large helping of melodrama. Shelley was still a teenager when she penned it, and though I am deeply impressed at her ability to create such an impactful publication at such a young age, you can tell that the author was herself young through many of the characterizations and narrative choices. The logic is inconsistent, the protagonist makes some amazingly questionable choices, and the coincidences are a little too numerous to be believed (which says a lot, since a large suspension of disbelief is required for reading most novels of this genre).
I did enjoy Frankenstein, though perhaps not as much as I had hoped. It reminded me of my recent experience with H.P. Lovecraft in a way- I liked it, and I appreciate its context and its contribution to literature and to pop-culture, but the novel itself will not be landing at the top of my favorites list any time soon.
If you are a horror or science fiction fan, and want to get a glimpse at the roots of the genre, and are accustomed to the pacing and prose of an early 19th century work- read Frankenstein. However, if you are looking for a fast paced, edge of your seat horror/thrill ride? You should probably pass. Then again, it is pretty short. Why not give it a try either way?
Summary from Goodreads