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.
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.