Frankenstein – Mary Shelley

frankenstein

Mary Shelley – Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus
Published in 1818
Read from February 5th to 13th

I received this beautiful edition of Frankenstein (same one as pictured) from my boyfriend this Christmas, and finally started reading it at the start of February. I had never read Frankenstein before, but as most people I felt I was quite familiar with the story, having been exposed to its numerous adaptations through the years. Therefore I started reading with quite a lot of prejudice: I was looking forward to it because it’s such a classic, but at the same time my expectations weren’t that of a superb literary work. For some reason I didn’t want to get my hopes up about it being more than a “mediocre horror novel created to shock people in its time”. I’m so glad to say that I was completely wrong.

First of all, Frankenstein is beautifully written, and though it has inspired many mediocre adaptations and other works (but also good ones of course) it is itself anything but mediocre. Mary Shelley really knew how to write, and she was only between the age of 18-20 when she wrote what would be her most famous work. The language is truly beautiful, with a lot of emphasis of describing the natural beauties in the world and humans, which contrasts much of the ugliness that later takes place in the story. With a mix of chapters in letter-form (framing the story at start and end) and characters telling each other what they know in retrospective, it might not be truly realistic (who remembers and speaks about all these details when telling someone else a story?), but in the context of the time one has to accept that this was a normal method of story-telling, and it didn’t bother me one bit.

frankenstein2

An original manuscript page of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein

I’ve read quite a few reviews that had issues with Shelley’s writing, particularly with how she described character’s thoughts of each other, with the critique being that “it’s clear a man wouldn’t think about, or describe another man in such loving affections and tenderness”. Well, this novel is from 1818, and having read many other works created in the 18th and 19th century, I’ve found this to be the norm among most writers of the time, and not something that was considered a feminine perspective. The affectionate descriptions are also keeping in touch with the elements of romanticism that can be found in Frankenstein; celebrating nature and beauty, also within man.

There’s a great contrast in how the novel clearly celebrates the wonder of man and the humanly virtues, yet also reveals the potential horror in what we create and our evils within. There has always been a debate on whether Frankenstein is mainly a horror story or science fiction, but I don’t see any reason why the two genres can’t be combined equally. The horror elements are certainly very present, and if Wikipedia is to believed, Mary Shelley originally wrote the story as a result of a bet about who could write the scariest horror story. Some people have complained about it not being scary enough to classify as a true horror story, where I would respectfully disagree. It may not be the type of story that leaves you afraid of the dark and afraid to look around the corner, but it has a creepiness present throughout its whole course, and it’s an original take on “what is the true horror”. That’s at least my interpretation, by reading Shelley’s work we are made to reflect who are the true monsters of the story and what creates hate? The truly scary part is that most people would agree that it is us, ordinary and well-meaning human beings that are responsible, and that we can see ourselves acting exactly the way the people in Frankenstein do, leading to the same horrible consequences.

That is not to say that the monster itself is not scary, or perhaps more correctly: it’s understandable how it was perceived as such as the time. Imagine Europe in the early 19th century and the changes it was going through, the natural sciences was rapidly making progress, the world was evolving insanely fast compared to previous years and it would have seemed like mankind would be able to do just about everything we could desire. It’s no wonder a horror story about a scientist using the natural sciences to create life and then facing horrendous consequences was considered absolutely nerve-wrecking! But anyhow, though the monster might make people afraid of him, there’s no question about how the true horror originates from Victor Frankenstein and people like ourselves. The monster is in fact a child, super strong, quick and abnormally big, but still fundamentally a child. He wakes up with no knowledge about the world, the people in it or himself, and is shunned from his creator (or parent one might say) from his very first living seconds. He starts as a completely blank page and soaks up everything around him, being influenced and learning everything by observing and eventually interacting, exactly the same as everyone else who are new to the world.

Mary Shelley manages to make Frankenstein a philosophic work as well as a horror story, making it a well layered work. It is a story about morals, yet it doesn’t deal in absolutes or present any of its topics in a straight forward manner. This, combined with a beautiful writing style and a clear originality makes Frankenstein one of my favourite classical reads, and I will certainly revisit it from time to time. And the magnificent edition that I’m lucky to own really looks good in my bookshelf 😉

The Grapes of Wrath – John Steinbeck

grapes of wrathJohn Steinbeck
The Grapes of Wrath
Published in 1939
Read from December 18th 2015 to January 21st 2016

My love for Steinbeck continues to grow, and now that I’ve at last read Grapes of Wrath I can finally call myself a true fan of his. Often considered his greatest work, and which he won the Pulitzer Prize for, it truly is one of the great American novels, and after reading it I understand and approve of all the recognition and praise it has gotten over the years, but also the controversy it has stirred. And it sure has stirred up quite a lot.

Steinbeck does not go easy on those he hold responsible for the migrant worker’s hardships during the Great Depression, he is angry and Grapes of Wrath is thus an angry novel. It points fingers, it lays blame, and it is never doubted whose side we should be on in this conflict. In someways it is therefore understandable how certain people were put off, Steinbeck’s presentation of the time is not neutral, but it sure is passionate. Reactions to to his work varied greatly, it received praise from the critics, won prizes and spent ages on top of the best-seller lists, but it was also banned by school boards and libraries, condemned by right-wing ministers, corporate farmers and politicians, who claimed the work and the author to be communist, immoral and untruthful (DeMott, 2000, p. xxxviii). Exactly the same people who Steinbeck can be said to attack in Grapes of Wrath. Nonetheless, people kept buying the book, and are still doing so to this day.

When looking at the book purely as a work of literature and not as a political instrument, it has been greeted warmly, and received mostly great reviews upon publication, although some critics have criticized Steinbeck for being too sentimental in his writing, and questioning his writing style. I personally find the book extremely well written, and the style suited for the people he represent. Steinbeck very much writes in the “voice” of his characters, which are the migrant workers: not necessarily the most educated, but hard working and resourceful people. It is only natural that should be reflected in the language used. I have to admit though, as a Norwegian reader it’s hard at times to understand some of the most local and old fashioned phrases and word choices, which is one of the reasons The Grapes of Wrath took me a while to finish, but I would never even consider reading this in a translated version. The style of the language is such a crucial element to the work, and makes you connect even more the characters and setting.

An example of "The Grapes of Wrath's" success: The book was quickly made into a film, already in 1940 John Ford's directed motion picture was released, starring Henry Fonda.

An example of “The Grapes of Wrath’s” success: The book was quickly made into a film, already in 1940 John Ford’s directed motion picture was released, starring Henry Fonda. It was instantly a hit.

Another interesting aspect of The Grapes of Wrath’s style is how the chapters are composed. The book presents the family Joad’s story, but in (almost) every other chapter the perspective changes and presents us with a more general view; here we read about the state of the country, the migrant farmers as a whole, see symbolic happenings taking place and similar. DeMott describes the technique as “one which combined a suitably elastic form and elevated style to express the far-reaching tragedy of the migrant drama” and “a contrapuntal structure, which alternates short lyrical chapters of exposition and background pertinent to the migrants as a group with the long narrative chapters of the Joad family’s dramatic exodus to California” (2000, p. xii).

I found this technique to have a brilliant effect, by including the general chapters we truly understand the magnitude of what was going on, it has a greater impact than just one family in a book, and then we are guided back to the Joads which we emotionally connect to and give those we learn about a human voice. The use of this technique also shows that in addition to writing a book about something he was deeply passionate about and that he felt needed to be said, Steinbeck was also experimenting as an author, which is always the sign of a great writer.

Reading The Grapes of Wrath took me all of five weeks, but I’m so glad I took the time. In my opinion it is one of those books everyone should read at some point, and it has made me an ever greater Steinbeck fan than I already was. It quickly made it’s way in to my “favourites”-list on Goodreads, among with East of Eden and Of Mice and Men. As a finish, I’d also like to recommend the John Ford film from 1940, made only a year after the book was published. It’s an excellent adaptation, and mostly true to it’s source material, with some great acting by Henry Fonda.

Sources:

DeMott, Robert (2000). “Introduction” in John Steinbeck, Grapes of Wrath (p. ix-xl): Penguin Classics.