Frankenstein - Mary Shelley 3.5 stars

Ok, so it’s one of the big two of the great classic monster stories: Dracula and Frankenstein…sort of a literary Beatles and the Rolling Stones scenario. Which do you think is better? Your choice may say a lot about you. Considered a classic both in the realms of science fiction and horror and even granted the distinction to be part of the literary cannon, the pedigree of Mary Shelley’s _Frankenstein_ is pretty much impeccable. This was actually my second attempt at reading the book, however, the first being stymied some years ago by the morose, and seemingly endless, philosophizing of the monster. Somehow this didn’t bother me this time around, and I was able to enjoy Shelley’s nightmare tale and appreciate its classic status. To me the book reads almost like a primer in the Romantic ethos, not surprising considering its author who was a member of one of the greatest literary circles of the Romantic movement. From the emblematic poetry quoted throughout and the many, many (many) paens to the revelatory aspects of wild and majestic Nature to the existential philosophizing central to all of the characters and the combination of hopefulness with despair, this book has the Romantic movement tattooed on its soul.

Regardless of the fact that many see this as the birthing point of science fiction due to young Frankenstein’s pseudo-scientific attempts to create life, I think that these sfnal elements hold a distant second place to the more poetic and philosophical ones in the story. To me it isn’t the cautionary tale of the dangers of scientific progress that is paramount, but rather that of the family. I think _Frankenstein_ is ultimately more concerned with parenthood and its responsibilities, and an examination of what happens when love and its attendant obligations are absent, than it is with the dangers of the advancement of scientific knowledge. Victor is thus not so much at fault because he attempted to emulate God in the creation of life, but because he did not emulate Him in his care for his creation. (Though I think Shelley is herself ambiguous about whether God is any better…there seems to be an implicit judgement in some places that we in some sense share in the Creature’s abandonment.) Victor does not attempt to teach his creature or even do so much as stay in its vicinity after it has been awakened from death, instead abandoning it to the vicissitudes of the world merely because of its horrific appearance. Victor’s fault is compounded by the fact that his own family life was one of bliss with the full support and love of his parents, a fact that Shelley makes sure to underline as Victor tells the tale of his life. Even after his initial rejection by his creator and only link to humanity, the Creature attempts to live as best it can, looking for companionship and love until, driven by constant rejection due only to its frightful features, it chooses a path of vengeance and hate.

Which of the protagonists is the romantic hero of this tale? Is it Victor, who is certainly mad, bad and dangerous to know (though in a somewhat different vein from Byron)? Or is it the Creature who seems destined to most evoke the reader’s pity and displays all of the pathos of the unjustly suffering tragic figure, for all of Victor’s whining about his own predicament? Victor is indeed somewhat laughable in his sentiments (though I imagine this was not Shelley’s intent). There are only so many times that we can hear his inner monologues about how he is suffering more than any of those around him due to the inner torments of conscience, while at the same time he sits safely watching a figure like the poor servant girl Justine who stands alone in the dock awaiting death for a crime she did not commit, before we roll our eyes in frustration. Sure Victor, poor you. The torments of the soul are surely a fate worse than an ignominious death. Victor’s extreme passivity is also somewhat annoying. I’m still not sure why he prefers to sit and moan over the trials that assail him instead of taking matters into his own hands. If he truly believed the creature was such a blight on creation, and one whose soul was irredeemable, then why didn’t he just wait for one of the Creature’s inevitable visits with a gun instead of nothing more than impotent rage and mad ravings? The novel would have been over much sooner and in much less dramatic a fashion, but it strained my credulity a bit that such a ‘genius’ didn’t have this simple foresight. One other moment in the story that stetched my disbelief was the manner in which the Creature learned to read and speak. Let’s just say that it involved an incredibly convenient series of coincidence and leave it at that.

These issues aside, I did quite enjoy the novel. It was certainly chock full of ideas and had some luscious prose. Both were often in a somewhat overheated vein, but, given its place square in the midst of the Romantic genre I could expect no less of it. In addition to the critiques of parental abandonment Shelley also inserts several criticisms of the burden we carry as a result of our self-awareness. Tellingly, both Frankenstein and the Creature bemoan their sensibilities in an almost identical fashion and pine for the state of brute beasts, wishing that they had never “…known nor felt beyond the sensations of hunger, thirst and heat”. Intellect and feeling are an affliction that the happy beasts of the field need not suffer. Of course it is these very feelings that allow mankind to be both poet and scientist; to appreciate the beauty and wonder of Nature which the book so ardently admires; and to bring about the goodness of humanity as much as its evil, so these critiques are not, I think, without a rejoinder even in the novel itself.

All in all this was a great read; an exemplum of the horror genre still in its infancy…but I still like _Dracula_ better.