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.
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 😉