Book review: ‘Frankenstein’ by Mary Shelley

Mary Shelley’s original novel is a shock to anyone familiar with the pop culture version of the Frankenstein monster. In place of a gripping horror story circling a clumsy, groaning beast, the reader is given a deeply philosophical work that features a monster who’s read John Milton’s classic epic poem “Paradise Lost” and exhibits a profound intellect.

There’s still enough violence to go around, but it’s done deliberately by a perfectly aware monster who is getting revenge on a society that has hurt and shunned him and not by a terrified dullard who doesn’t know what else to do.

Readers used to the structure and depth of 20th and 21st century novels might be disappointed by the thinness of the narrative and the repetitious groanings of Victor Frankenstein, the mad science student. But fans of gothic romantic literature of the late 18th and early 19th century, will rejoice at a masterpiece of the genre. It features everything a fan of German “horror” stories could want – a genius that is probably mad, a manic energy that propels the narrative, a monster that serves as a double or doppelgaenger to the main character, a mistaken identity and odd deaths popping up all around.

According to Wikipedia (I know, a great source for literary information. My Shelley book is in the mail), the story of Frankenstein came to teenage (she was 19!) Mary Shelley in 1816 during a waking dream after her and her friends sat around reading German ghost stories. One of her friends was none other that British romantic poet Lord Byron, who challenged each member of the circle to write their own version of a horror story – “Frankenstein” being Shelley’s brilliant response.

The novel has two – and at one point, three – layers of narration. The primary narrator is Captain Robert Walton, who is writing letters to his sister Margaret Walton Saville about his exploratory adventures, including his latest one to the North Pole. At one point while exploring the arctic, Walton and his crew pass a large, odd-looking creature manning a dog sled, and then shortly afterwards, find a nearly dead man who turns out to be Victor Frankenstein. Much of the rest of the story consists of Frankenstein telling his gruesome tale to the captain in order to warn him about the dangers of unchecked ambition.

The main achievements of this story are the depth of the monster’s character and Shelley’s poetic language. Many of the best lines are reserved for the monster, who, ultimately, ends up identifying with Satan more than anyone. “I ought to be thy Adam…” the monster says to his creator, “…but I am rather the fallen angel.” But even that comparison has its limits. “Satan has his companions, fellow-devils, to admire and encourage him; but I am solitary and detested.” What the “fiend” wants more than anything is simply someone to listen to and care for him. “I do know that for the sympathy of one living being, I would make peace with all.” But if he cannot have that, he makes his intentions to do evil clear. “I have love in me the likes of which you can scarcely imagine and rage the likes of which you would not believe. If I cannot satisfy the one, I will indulge the other.”

The novel is certainly worthy of its “classic” status and, while I wouldn’t recommend it to just anyone looking for a nail-biter, I would recommend it to readers who are interested in the origins of the monster that has captivated the imagination of the culture for so long.