Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

A great idea inadequately executed
Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein was originally published in 1818. The author later revised the manuscript with the intention of making it more appealing to a broader audience. This revised edition, published in 1831, is the one that I’m reviewing. The novel tells the story of Victor Frankenstein, a gifted scientist who dares to play God when he discovers the secret of animating dead flesh. This primary narrative is bookended by the letters of Robert Walton, an Englishman who is leading an expedition to the North Pole. While his ship is trapped amid ice floes, Walton receives an unexpected visitor in the form of Dr. Frankenstein, who is trekking across the frozen Arctic Ocean in pursuit of his nemesis. Frankenstein comes aboard and tells his story to Walton, who in turn writes it down in epistles to his sister. The doctor delivers a full-blown autobiography, so it takes quite a while to get to the meat of the matter. When the monster is finally created, his birth is hardly the show-stopping scene one sees in the movies. Instead, it’s glossed over in rather perfunctory fashion. While I hardly expected lightning bolts or cries of “It’s alive!”, such a momentous event merits a more thorough and memorable telling. Even more unforgivable is the fact that once the monster is created Frankenstein just seems to forget that it even exists. The thing wanders off, and for a couple years it’s like nothing ever happened. How is that possible?

When the monster finally does return, he threatens to bore his creator to death with an interminably long back story. In Shelley’s novel the monster speaks, which is a good thing, but he’s prone to operatic soliloquies, which is not. Each level of narration becomes more boring than the one before. The reader’s patience is also tested by some courtroom proceedings founded on circumstantial evidence. Perhaps that’s an accurate portrayal of the justice system of the eighteenth century, but such scenes only inspire eye rolls in the reader of the twenty-first. The last few chapters of the book are more interesting as it finally gets to its point, but once again it’s more tediously verbose than it needs to be. I usually like Romantic literature, but the manner in which Frankenstein and his monster belabor their every anguished emotion is too histrionic for even my tolerant tastes.

Despite the faults of its plot and its prose, the novel does find some success in its philosophical themes. The story of Frankenstein calls into question what it means to be human, and chastises the arrogance of man for thinking he can tame the unknown. The monster scorns his creator for making him ugly and less than human, just as man has often scorned the gods for his own inferiorities. The monster rightfully hates his creator for abandoning him and depriving him of the love of a father towards his son. Unfortunately this isn’t explored enough, as their relationship soon develops into a dynamic similar to that of Ahab and his white whale. Ultimately the book has less to say about the creator and father issues than it does about ugliness and deformity. The reason the monster is so horrific and terrible is because he was made ugly. Because of his deformity he doesn’t belong, which makes him angry, which makes him dangerous. If he were made beautiful, would anyone, even the monster himself, have a problem with Frankenstein’s hubris? Would the doctor then be justified in playing God?

One can’t help but compare Shelley’s novel to the pop culture version of the Frankenstein story that was spawned by the 1931 Boris Karloff movie. I fully expected that the original literary text would put the horror film to shame, but after reading this book, honestly, I think I prefer the guy with the bolts in his neck.

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