An assiduous literature major, I’ve read my share of books.
One book I’d never read that consistently appears in those “Greatest English Novels”lists is Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley. Perhaps I gave myself credit for all the times I watched the 1931 movie with Boris Karloff as The Monster. We’re approaching the bicentennial of the book’s 1818 publication, representing a reason to read it. I decided to find out what I might be missing.
First things first: That 1931 “monster movie” is derived from the book, but only in a general way.
Young Ms. Shelley (she was 20 when it was published) wrote an elaborately plotted and compelling story with several levels of narrative schema. There’s a framing story in epistolary mode, consisting of letters from an ambitious would-be arctic explorer, Walton. Sailing north from Archangel in Russia, bent on scientific discovery, he encounters a travel-worn, exhausted man, hovering near death from exposure and exertion: Victor Frankenstein.
The balance of the book is Frankenstein’s account of his remarkable story as told to Walton. Frankenstein is from Geneva, son of a well-to-do family. He went to university in Germany, there to be drawn to the study of “natural philosophy” — a discipline on the borderline of modern science, but also including more far-fetched (by current-day standards) explanations of the natural universe, including alchemy.
Frankenstein tells Walton his story, posing it as a cautionary tale against overweening ambition for scientific accomplishment. His message to Walton is that there are boundaries one must not cross in the endeavor. Frankenstein crossed them and has paid a terrible price.
The story he tells is rich with background, introducing a secondary set of characters — Frankenstein’s family and a close friend — who figure largely in the story.
The book is an interlocking series of first-person narratives: Walton’s letters, Frankenstein’s account and one other I’ll come to in a moment.
200 years is a long time in the life of a language and the culture. Shelley wrote in a world — to use William Manchester’s phrase* — lit only by fire. The earliest steam locomotives were mere trials; travel was by horse-drawn vehicles or sails. Electricity was only an experimental technology (including experiments on applying electricity to animal tissue and muscles, which Shelley knew of). The telegraph was first tested in 1816, probably as Shelley was writing. It was the dawn of the industrial world.
That nascent industrial, scientific world was precisely the background against which Shelley’s circle, the Romantics, were writing, often in fierce opposition.
Ms. Shelley was extremely well-read and inquisitive. She studied various contemporary strains of “science,” many of which — including the age-old belief in spontaneous generation — had yet to be disproved. Her impressive accomplishment was to frame the collision of the preindustrial world with the new one in a story that was, for all intents and purposes, sui generis. It’s generally agreed that her combination of science, pseudo-science, gothic horror and romance stands as the first work of science fiction.
It’s worth noting that Frankenstein is almost exactly contemporary with Jane Austen’s novels.
I expect that you’ve read at least one Jane Austen novel. Although the customs and social structure were significantly different from our world, we still recognize (and respond to) the human beings she portrayed. Her language is different in style and mode, but it’s not especially difficult for us. We still read Austen with relative ease, and the same is true of Frankenstein. The language is more formal, people speak (and there’s a lot of dialogue as well as internal monologue) in longer, more elaborately expressed phrases. There are some interesting differences in language conventions, but it’s our language. In the 200 years before Shelley wrote — since about the time of Shakespeare’s death — the language had changed considerably. We’re linguistically closer to Shelley than she was to the Bard.
You know the core of Frankenstein’s story, although not in the detail the book provides. Driven by ambition, he becomes obsessed with the notion of creating life. He steals corpses from morgues and graveyards and through long, intense work, obsessively laboring night and day, he assembles an enormous (8 feet tall) creature and brings it to life (by means Frankenstein intentionally conceals). Immediately horrified, overcome with revulsion by the reality (it’s an extremely grotesque being), he abandons the creature, which disappears into the night.
A long time passes during which Frankenstein returns to Geneva, shaken to the core by what he’s done.
Then, though, is something this first-time reader didn’t expect. Although it is an immense, powerful and terrifying monster, the creature (which remains nameless), is extremely intelligent. Provided with a fortuitous (somewhat far-fetched) opportunity, he learns to speak by observing a family of people (who speak French) and then teaches himself to read from some books he finds (Milton, Goethe and Plutarch in French translations!).
Possessed with the means to communicate, the creature seeks out Frankenstein in Switzerland, relating his travails since he came to life. The creature speaks just as articulately as the college-educated Frankenstein.
That confrontation establishes the narrative arc of a sequence of tragic events that fill the second half of the novel. I leave that part for you to discover, as I encourage you to do.
Throughout, Shelley balances genuinely “romantic” descriptions of landscape, mountains, glaciers against the agony of the creature blessed with intelligence but doomed to inhabit a world in which he’s an outcast. Arching over all is Frankenstein’s remorse over having created life that is a horror to him (the subtitle of the book is The Modern Prometheus, and Frankenstein is, by the end, as tortured as was the Titan who created mankind).
Ultimately, the book is a warning from a committed Romantic about the danger of a soulless pursuit that fails to honor nature and the natural order. It’s a theme that resonates throughout all of science fiction and much of the literature of the industrial era.
I learned something I didn’t know. Frankenstein isn’t simply a “gothic horror story” or a novelty. It’s a finely crafted novel (with a few bumps) written by an erudite author who created something truly new. As a lifelong fan of both English literature and science fiction, I was happy to meet Ms. Shelley’s creation, 200 years along.
© Brad Nixon 2017
I understand that Kenneth Branagh’s film, “Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein” may hew more closely to the book. I’ve not seen it. Have you? Leave a comment.
*The reference is to A World Lit Only by Fire: The Medieval Mind and the Renaissance, William Manchester, HarperCollins, 1993. Extremely worthwhile reading.