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Mary Shelley: Frankenstein (1818)


Frankenstein is one of those novels that had always intrigued me, but I’d never gotten around to reading it. Now that I finally did, I’m glad I’ve read it, but not in an “Oh my God this was so amazing” kind of way – more in an “Ok been there, done that, let’s check it off the to do list” kind of way. In other words, I enjoyed it and it got me thinking, but it didn’t blow me away either.

So – is it even worth summarising a plot that is so well known? I’ll just do a really quick summary. Guy grows up in happy family, goes to University where he becomes obsessed with studying natural sciences, guy discovers secret of life and in his obsession builds an imitation of a human, gets scared and runs away, letting his creation run free. Creation potters around the place looking for love, finds only rejection, becomes angry, kills guy’s little brother, guy finds out, is devastated, is confronted by his monster, who tells him his heartbreaking story. Guy promises to create a monster-wife to keep his he-monster company, but then decides otherwise because wouldn’t it be horrible if they had offspring (mini monsters!)? Monster becomes really angry, kills everyone guy loves, guy persecutes monster, dies in the process, but not before having told his story to a ship captain on a voyage to the North Pole, who is actually the one writing down the entire tale.

As I said, the story is extremely well known, and I think this actually the reason I wasn’t blown away. The idea of a crazy scientist playing God and his creations wreaking havoc has become so iconic, has been copied (badly) so many times (Jurassic Park, anyone?), and has seen so many cliché comparisons to today’s scientists “playing Frankenstein” when they clone things and “temper with nature”, that the theme has had all its life sucked out of it. If you give it some perspective though and think about how inventive it had been when Shelley wrote it, you get more of an aha effect. Still, my 21st Century Frankenstein-copy overloaded brain just went “ok, what’s next?”.

Even so, there were a number of details that surprised me and got me thinking. Firstly, there are some interesting considerations regarding the philosophy of science that go beyond the mad, God-playing scientist. The doubts and questions Victor Frankenstein comes across during his formative years are, I think, familiar to anyone who has ever undertaken a scientific endeavour (and perhaps appealed particularly to that part of my brain that is just coming to terms with almost reaching the finishing line of a massive scientific project). For example,

“It seemed to me as if nothing would or could ever be known. All that had so long engaged my attention suddenly grew despicable. By one of those caprices of the mid which we are perhaps most subject to in early youth, I […] entertained the greatest disdain for a would-be science which could never even step within the threshold of real knowledge.”

Another one was the way Shelley saw religion. There are several references that make her seem much more liberal than I would’ve thought possible in an early 19th-Century author. When an innocent girl is convicted for murdering Victor Frankenstein’s brother, for instance, Shelley has the girl state that

“Ever since I was condemned, my confessor has besieged me; he threatened and menaced, until I almost began to think that I was the monster that he said I was. He threatened excommunication and hell fire”.

– I’m surely missing a bit of context regarding the times Shelley wrote this, but it seems to me that she was getting at a fundamental problem with the Catholic interpretation of faith that still exists today – achieving obedience by instilling fear. These dynamics unfortunately still are at work in parts of Catholicism today and are part of the reason why, and excuse me for being a little drastic here, the Aids epidemic is spreading like fire in Africa: because people believe they will go to hell if they use a condom. Obedience through fear. In the case of Frankenstein, evidently the issue is a bit different in that a girl is being forced to confess to a crime she hasn’t committed and will subsequently be executed for, but you get my drift. Fear of excommunication and hell fire can lead to very sinister consequences for the believer.

A second of those instances was her brief comment on the execution of a wealthy Muslim, of which Shelley writes,

“The injustice of his sentence was very flagrant […]; and it was judged that his religion and wealth rather than the crime alleged against him had been the cause of his condemnation.”

Read in conjunction with the former statement, it seems that Shelley had a serious problem, and for good reason, with mixing religion and religious prejudice with the justice system. As I said, I may be missing some context here, but to me this made her seem quite far ahead of her time. Especially with the second convict being a Muslim, her assessment seemed so timely that it sent a brief shiver down my spine.

And thirdly, she also seems to have harboured some rather republican ideas. As she writes about Switzerland,

“The republican institutions of our country have produced simpler and happier manners than those which prevail in the great monarchies that surround it. Hence there is less distinction between the several classes of its inhabitants […] A servant in Geneva does not mean the same thing as a servant in France and England.”

Again, Shelley seems to be anticipating quite a bit of what became the discussion on social inequality that still dominates part of today’s political discourse.

If anything, despite its main theme being somewhat worn out, Frankenstein made me realise on account of these side remarks and minor themes, that we as Western society haven’t advanced as much as we like to think since the early 19th Century. And it has also thrown a more favourable light on the people of that period, in that at least some of them were quite conscious of these issues and advanced in their thinking on them. And, let’s face it, in March as Women’s Month, I was especially pleased to read all this coming from a woman. Granted, she was the daughter of a political philosopher and a feminist (a bit of Wikipedia research tells me), so you could expect it from her education. But still, I think it’s very impressive. These are the parts of the novel that I really loved.

Evaluation: 7/10

P.S. Frankenstein was the first book I read on my new Kindle. I downloaded it for free from Project Gutenberg, which, in case you don’t know it yet, is a repository of classics that have no copyright any more and can therefore be downloaded for free. It’s amazing and I’ve a hunch you’ll find more reviews of classics here now that I own an e-reader. Also, in this context, I want to quickly point you to the Project Gutenberg Project, which is an attempt at classifying and reviewing the vast amount of books available on the project’s website. The wonderful people running it have only just started, but I’m excited to see the project grow. Because while Project Gutenberg is great, what it does lack is a bit of information about the books on offer.


Author: bettinathenomad

Nomad. International Relations geek. Reader. Feminist. Swimmer. Boulderer. Runner. Hiker. Not necessarily in that order.

6 thoughts on “Mary Shelley: Frankenstein (1818)

  1. A couple notes on why I love this book. First, it was written when M. Shelley was nineteen or twenty. When I think of the drool I was trying to compose at that age…well my stuff doesn’t come close to what she accomplished. Second, it’s an interesting take on the Romantics notion of supernatural. As a literary movement the Rom. were in the shadow of Milton’s Paradise Lost and I think that there is a unique blend of hubris mixed with alchemy and a healthy dash of Gothic story telling techniques.

    The background of the creation of the story is interesting too. Basically Mary was writing ghost stories with her husband Percy and their friend Claire Clairmont while they were in Switzerland. I love the idea of them spending nights trying to tell ghost stories, and Mary beating he poet husband. It’s been a while but at some point I remember looking at some of the edits made by Percy to the manuscript that would become the novel; his changes were for the better. I think I’ve read the book about three or four times now and it grows on you. I’m glad you read it and hope you re-read it down the line, but there is something wonderful about that short novel.

    (The other Liburuak website)

    p.s. Big fan of your site.

    • Kaixo Jacob! Yes, the fact that she was so young when she wrote it makes it all the more impressive!
      As for the novel’s situation within the Romantic movement, as I said in my post I’m missing a lot of the context here (I have to admit I was too lazy to do a lot of outside research, something that obviously compromises my reading of it), so I’m really happy you pointed this out to me. I’m not big on the Romantics, so this is something that I would never have thought of on my own.
      And finally, as for re-reading it – you never know, it might happen!

      Thanks for pointing out your own Liburuak site and welcome to the Liburuak club 😉 – I’m really looking forward to seeing it grow. Eskerrik asko eta agur!

  2. I felt underwhelmed when I read this book a few years ago as well. I don’t think it was so much the familiarity as my annoyance with Victor. Could he never think anything through, really? And so I couldn’t appreciate the rest of the book as well as others have. I’m not sure I’m really all that big of a fan of the Romantic novels, either, although I can’t say how many I’ve read.

    • Amanda, I see what you mean. I’ve had this a few times with 19th-century characters. A lot of the time I don’t find their behaviour very credible. They just don’t seem to think, which makes me incredibly impatient with them. Not sure whether that’s just me… maybe I’m missing a piece of the puzzle.

  3. I think it has to do with the Dr.’s partial education. He reads alchemy texts and does pseudo-science. One of the centers to alchemy is the notion of immortality and making/discovering a “fountain of youth”…you know magical elixirs. I agree that he doesn’t think the way we would think, which can make it a tricky reading experience. How are we to read and understand myopic and delusional characters? He goes into one of those mad-scientist phases where he works really hard and becomes ill because he doesn’t get enough fresh air and rest…like grad school. He’s insane. But I the monster is sane, lonely, and ugly. He will never be accepted by society and is forced to retreat to the ice abyss. For me the monster is the star. He never asked to be created or to be conscious. He is science’s plaything. Another book that I want to read that addresses this topic is Richard Powers’ “Galatea 2.2.” He does a lot of smart non-genre science fiction.

    • Hm… I have to say I’m not so sure here. Because after he goes to Ingolstadt, he does study like nobody’s business, and he studies “proper” science rather than alchemy, which he abandons after having been disappointed by it. But you’re right in that it does seem like alchemy’s concerns about magical elixirs etc. have wiggled their way into V.F.’s brain and are refusing to leave.
      I also loved your comparison to grad school 😉

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