“Prepare to hear of occurrences which are usually deemed marvellous.”
Frankenstein is not a monster! To clarify: “Frankenstein” is the name of the creator of the “monster”, not the name of the monster he created, which commonly goes by the epithet “creature” (appropriately, derived from the Latin for ‘create’). It’s a common misconception which needs to be cleared up early on.
Which is not to say that Doctor Frankenstein is not, in some ways, a monster himself, and the ‘creature’ is, in many ways, more human. This is the moral ambiguity at the heart of Frankenstein which makes it so enduring. Note also that it wasn’t titled ‘Frankenstein’s Monster’; the full title is actually ‘Frankenstein; or; The Modern Prometheus’.
That the second part of the title has been largely forgotten perhaps speaks to a modern proclivity for sensationalism over substance, or to an ignorance of Greek mythology; the Titan Prometheus created humans from clay and then stole fire from the gods and gave it to humanity, thus literally sparking human civilization. Clearly then, the intent of the novel was focused on the creator, not the creature.
And yet it is the (often inaccurate or oversimplified) image of the creature which continues to lurk in the shadows of the communal nightmare.
Regardless of the horror tropes Frankenstein has engendered, it deserves its status as a classic for several reasons
Frankenstein begins with a series of letters from the Arctic explorer Robert Walton to his sister in London. Robert begins his exploration with enthusiasm, until the ship becomes trapped in the deep Arctic by pack ice. It is then that he spots across the distant plains of ice a sled, containing ‘a being which had the shape of a man, but apparently of gigantic stature’, before the sled continued out of sight.
The ice soon breaks up, but before they continue on their journey, they spot on an ice floe another sled, containing a different man, half-dead. He is brought aboard and explains why he is so far from civilization: “To seek the one who fled from me.” And so, this stranger begins his tale.
Victor Frankenstein of Geneva, Switzerland, was a curious and intelligent youth. Initially intrigued by the study of biology, he soon became fascinated with discovering the secrets of alchemy, but he eventually desists and instead focuses on mathematics. After the death of his mother, Victor goes off to university, where he buries himself in the study of every branch of science, especially chemistry and anatomy. Then one night, after much experimentation, ‘I became myself capable of bestowing animation on lifeless matter.’
For two years he continues his experiments with reanimation, working feverishly through the nights. He collects materials from morgues and abattoirs. The work is intricate, which necessitates he increase the scale of his creation:
‘As the minuteness of the parts formed a great hindrance to my speed, I resolved contrary to my first intention to make the being of a gigantic stature, that is to say about eight feet in height and proportionally large.’
He is at times appalled by his pursuit, neglecting his family, friends and his health, and yet he cannot stop. In this, Shelley invents the trope of the mad scientist. And then, one night:
‘I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open, it breathed hard, and a convulsive motion agitated its limbs.’
Unlike the movies, the creature is not sparked into life by a bolt of lightning. Nor is there the hunchbacked assistant Igor.
‘His yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries underneath; his hair was of a lustrous black, and flowing; his teeth of pearly whiteness; but these luxuriances only formed a more horrid contrast with his watery eyes…his shrivelled complexion, and his straight black lips.’
Frankenstein is horrified by his own creation, the creature flees, and Frankenstein has a nervous breakdown.
‘Alas I had turned loose into the world a depraved wretch, whose delight was in carnage and misery.’
After several months Frankenstein is called home after a truly shocking crime takes place. Wandering grief-stricken through the mountains he
‘…perceived in the gloom a figure, which stole from behind a clump of tress near me…A flash of lightning illuminated the object, and discovered its shape plainly to me; its gigantic stature, and deformity of its aspect, more hideous than belongs to humanity, instantly informed me that it was the wretch, the filthy daemon to whom I had given life.’
So begins his pursuit of the creature. Frankenstein eventually catches up with the creature, who, aware of his hideousness, is forced by the revulsion of society to live in the remote mountains. The creature has a favour to ask of Frankenstein, ‘…but if you refuse, I will glut the maw of death, until it be satiated with the blood of your remaining friends.’ This is the terror of the creature: a seemingly invincible, unstoppable killing machine, more Terminator and less Hermann Munster.
‘Hear my tale, it is long and strange.’
In an extraordinary section, the creature tells his side of the story: what it is like to be expelled into a world of which he has no knowledge and, more painfully, come to the self-realization that he is considered a monster by a world he asked not to be part of.
‘Was I, then, a monster, a blot upon the earth from whom all men fled and all men disowned?’
Journeying through the mountains the creature comes across the hut of a shepherd and his children and hides himself in an adjacent room where he is able to spy on them, and in turn learn from them. There is in this section a nod to the philosophy of the 17th century English empiricist John Locke, whose notion of tabula rasa (‘blank slate’) proposed that we are born with no innate ‘knowledge’ (data, and how to processes it), and therefore all knowledge – and consequent knowledge of the self – must be derived through direct experience. There’s a bit more to it than that, and anyway, this is not intended as lesson on the philosophy of Locke (though I would encourage you to familiarise yourself with one of the greats of Western philosophy).
‘Of what a strange nature is knowledge! It clings to the mind, when it has once seized on it, like a lichen on the rock.’
The creature finds in the hut three books, by the Greek historian Plutarch, the English poet Milton, and the German writer Goethe, each a giant of the Enlightenment (and a clever way for the writer to include her personal philosophy), and takes from them knowledge particular to his circumstances. Yet the more he learns of the highest nature of man, the more he resents his treatment. His loneliness only increases.
‘Unfeeling, heartless creator! You had endowed me with perceptions and passions and then cast me abroad an object for the scorn and horror of mankind.’
This is the true source of the creature’s frustration and anger. And think about it: it is human nature to want to express our thoughts. Even our cave-living ancestors expressed themselves through cave paintings and carvings. And how many of us have worked in lowly jobs, knowing that we were smarter and better than the social perception of that job, but nevertheless looked down upon or ignored?
Knowing that the old shepherd is blind, the creature decides to engage him in conversation. Unable to judge him by his appearance, the shepherd accepts him through his conversation and character (and how many moral lessons are in that right there?). But upon the return to the hut of the shepherd’s children the creature is apprehended by them with horror, and flees. His disappointment in mankind is complete.
‘From that moment I declared ever-lasting war against the species, and, more than all, against him who had formed me, and sent me forth into this unsupportable misery…I bent my mind towards injury and death.’
Such is the creature’s tale to Frankenstein. However, in return for quitting his murderous revenge upon society, the creature asks Frankenstein to create for him a female companion in his likeness.
‘If any creature felt emotions of benevolence towards me, I should return them an hundred and an hundredfold; for that one creature’s sake, I would make peace with the whole kind,’
Frankenstein has no choice but to comply, and in a neat reversal he laments ‘I was the slave of my creature.’
In the final third of the book, Frankenstein and his creature journey to the remote Orkney islands off Scotland to complete the gruesome task.
Each thinks they have a strategy to overcome the other. There are some surprises left yet. But finally, we are reminded, as in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, that this is a tale being retold (technically re-retold), and we are snatched back into the present and reminded that this battle of wills continues, indeed has been ongoing the whole time. And there is one final act to play out, which I won’t spoil.
I’ve read Frankenstein three times now, and each time I was captivated by it, firstly by the multiple-narrator structure, secondly by the deeper themes, and most recently by the language (which admittedly is antiquated, but, if you enjoy that type of thing…).
Frankenstein has one of the most famous origin stories of any novel. Mary Shelley, her husband and famous poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, and the equally famous poet Lord Byron, were holidaying in Geneva when, during a storm, they challenged each other to devise a ghost story. Eighteen-year old (really!) Mary was declared the winner with her story, which she subsequently fleshed-out (see what I did there?) as Frankenstein
It’s perhaps extraordinary that so young a writer would insert such deep philosophical ideas into her first novel, but both her parents were well-known philosophers in their day, and though her mother died when Mary was young, her father’s anarchist philosophy remained influential. And speaking of fatherhood, and as a father myself, this for me was the resonating theme: the notion that with the creation of life comes responsibility.
Finally, there is the nagging sense you have during the whole book: why are the movie versions so bad? Why do they not follow the structure of the book, which is inherently cinematic in structure and visuals? But if direct movie adaptations fail to live up to the originality of the source material, we can take comfort from those movies focused on the ethics of technology, from the Alien and Terminator franchises, to Blade Runner, to the critically acclaimed Ex Machina. Mary Shelley taught us to be careful of what we wish for, and we must heed it today more than ever.
FRANKENSTEIN 1931 - FULL MOVIE