Saturday 2 October 2010

REVIEW: Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley (4*)

(Wordsworth Classics, 1999)

"It was already one in the morning; the rain pattered dismally against the panes, and my candle was nearly burnt out, when, by the glimmer of the half-extinguished light, I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open; it breathed hard, and a convulsive motion agitated its limbs."

I've had this book sitting on my shelf for years, meaning to start it every October as a Halloween read and somehow never quite getting round to it. As it happens, I'm glad I didn't, because I don't think I'd have appreciated it nearly as much a few years back.

Let me start by saying that it was nothing like I expected. Having never seen a movie version of Frankenstein, my only exposure to the story has been through the general references that have been adopted into our culture. The crazed scientist, the twisted assistant, the sweet little girl, the lightning bolts and electricity. None of which actually appear in the book! Not that it really matters, because this is a beautiful story.

Victor Frankenstein is an ambitious young man obsessed with 'natural philosophy' - the natural sciences. When his interest turns to theories on reanimation and 'the spark of life', his devotion pays off and he builds a being, a giant of sorts, and succeeds in giving him life. But as this huge creature stirs for the first time, Victor awakens from his single-minded working frenzy, and flees in horror from this primitive monster he's created. What follows is a battle for freedom, happiness - and vengeance. The Creature, left to develop alone, outcast despite his capacity for love, becomes bitter in the face of his loneliness and the hostility of society. He blames Victor for his woes, for deserting him so cruelly - but Victor, in turn, is terrified of the 'demon' he fears he has unleashed. It becomes an all-out war which can only lead to tragedy...

For the reader, there can be no winner in this battle for dominance. Frankenstein, chasing his monster through the bleak landscape of the North, tells his story to the captain of a ship that has rescued him from the ice. The Creature, in turn, tells his own sorry tale to Victor within this narrative. Frankenstein is self-obsessed and blind to his responsibilities, yet perhaps he is right to condemn a being who has caused so much destruction. At the same time, the 'monster' has acted in vengeance against what he perceives to be great injustice, but underneath he is just a man, albeit an outwardly frightening one, looking for companionship and happiness.

The themes are deeply complex and very much of their time. There is the question of scientific ethics, of balancing progress against negative consequences, of setting morality against ambition. This is, of course, still relevant today in the ongoing debates on topics like cloning, GM foods and artificial intelligence. The book also explores the futility of revenge, as each man's growing obsession with destroying the other ultimately becomes their undoing. It discusses what it means to be human, and the effects of rejection on a fragile mind. It combines ideas on the responsibility of parenting and the development and wellbeing of an infant - essentially, Victor is the Creature's father - bringing together the theories of popular thinkers such as Locke (a personality is born of experience, not innate qualities) and Rousseau (a child is innocent until corrupted by society).

The Romantic origin of Shelley's novel is apparent in the beautifully descriptive prose, particularly regarding the natural world. The mountains of Geneva come alive under Shelley's pen, the glaciers and pools and rock faces taking on a life of their own. There are numerous references to the work of other Romantic poets - the reader can almost feel the influence of Mary's husband and friends shining through - and the whole novel is filled with life-threatening fevers, dramatic encounters and passionate madness. Sometimes there was a little too much melodrama for my taste - hence the dropping of one star - but all in all I found this to be a moving and thoughtful story that will definitely be a keeper for me. Highly recommended!

  • "I feel my heart glow with an enthusiasm which elevates me to heaven; for nothing contributes so much to tranquillise the mind as a steady purpose - a point on which the soul may fix its intellectual eye." - Walton
  • "Of my creation and creator I was absolutely ignorant; but I knew that I possessed no money, no friends, no kind of property.  I was, besides, endued with a figure hideously deformed and loathsome...  When I looked around, I saw and heard of none like me.  Was I then a monster, a blot upon the earth, from which all man fled, and whom all men disowned?" - The Creature
  • "The agonies of remorse poison the luxury there is otherwise sometimes found in indulging the excess of grief." - Frankenstein
  • "Once my fancy was soothed with dreams of virtue, of fame, and of enjoyment.  Once I falsely hoped to meet with beings who, pardoning my outward form, would love me for the excellent qualities which I was capable of unfolding.  I was nourished with high thoughts of honour and devotion.  But now crime has degraded me beneath the meanest animal.  No guilt, no mischief, no malignity, no misery, can be found comparable to mine. When I run over the frightful catalogue of my sins, I cannot believe that I am the same creature whose thoughts were once filled with sublime and transcendent visions of the beauty and the majesty of goodness.  But it is even so; the fallen angel becomes a malignant devil.  Yet even that enemy of God and man had friends and associates in his desolation; I am alone." - The Creature

Source: I bought this book from... somewhere.  I don't even remember, I've had it so long!