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Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

December 14, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments

Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley

Frankenstein starts as an epistolary novel. Robert Walton is writing letters to his sister Margaret from Russia. He wants to explore the North Pole, eager to leave a mark in history. During his journey, he rescues Victor Frankenstein, who relates his story. He tells about his childhood, his adolescence in Geneva. We get acquainted with his family, especially with Elizabeth and friends, particularly Henry Clerval. He was already interested in science and chemistry.

He then leaves Geneva to study in Ingolstadt, Germany, and resumes the study of galvanism. He launches himself in deep study and feverishly and enthusiastically fabricates a creature. When it wakes up to life, Victor is frightened and gets nervously sick. The creature escapes but Victor does not care to find him. Victor’s friend Henry then comes to Ingolstadt and nurses him back to health.

Victor’s health recovered, he and Henry go back to Geneva, just in time to hear that Victor’s younger brother William has been murdered. Victor connects this murder to the wretch he has created and feels miserable. His misery will increase as the family acquaintance Justine is accused of the murder, tried and condemned to death. Victor, having the death of two innocent people on his conscience, tries to find solace in hiking in the Alps.

There starts an interesting section of the novel as he meets his creature. He tells him what his life has been since he was born. He asks Victor to create a female for him, because he frightens humans and thus cannot share their life. He advocates that he and his fellow creature would leave the country to live in a barren country, away from men. The monster threatens Victor to hurt his family if he does not agree to the bargain.

Victor consents, willing to protect his family. He starts a journey to Great Britain, to meet the scientists who can give him the remaining knowledge he needs to create a female. Henry Clerval accompanies him. Victor settles in a remote village on the Scottish shore and starts his work.

After a while, he realises that if he creates this female, she and his first creation may breed and start a new kind. He figures out that he has no way to ensure that the creature will keep his promise and leave Europe to live in inhabited areas. He cannot know whether this female will love her mate and will graciously follow him in an isolated zone. Victor decides he cannot take that chance and destroys the female he had started to create. Giving life to another creature to protect his family seems the utmost selfishness. When the monster understands that he has definitely abandoned his work, he threatens him “I WILL BE WITH YOU ON YOUR WEDDING NIGHT” Victor does not change his mind. To prove his determination, the creature murders Henry.

Victor is accused of the murder but after a while cleaned of any accusation. He is sick again, another nervous fever. His father has come to Scotland to nurse him and brings him back to Geneva, where he is to marry Elizabeth as soon as possible. The wedding takes place and the creature strangles Elizabeth early in their wedding night. Victor decides to pursue his creature where ever he goes, to kill him or be killed.

This chase leads him in Siberia, where he meets Walton and it is the end of Victor’s flash back. Upon Victor’s death, the creature commits suicide.

I’m not going to analyse such a famous book, I don’t have the skills for this. I just want to share some thoughts about this. I can only guess that Frankenstein inspired SF writers and film makers, I’m not familiar with that genre. I admire Mary Shelley’s intelligence in this work. This tale was published in 1818 and she was only 19. Victor’s creation is not named in the book, a way to show he never recognized himself as his father. We see the events through Victor’s eyes and he calls his creation “daemon”, “wretch”, “monster”, “fiend”, all negative words.

I was a bit lost in the Russian dolls construction of this book. There are stories in stories. Walton on his boat telling Victor’s story who is telling the creature’s story who is telling the cottagers’ story. Not all these stories were necessary. I think the introduction to how Walton met Victor and the beginning of his tale is too long and that the cottagers’ story was useless. (Or I haven’t understood what Mary Shelley wanted to show through this)

Victor Frankenstein really got on my nerves. He is thoughtless. It takes him almost three years after he has created his monster to question what he has done on a larger perspective that the misery it brought on his family. He has no insight whatsoever and from the description of his enemy he should have guessed Elizabeth was in danger. He creates a being and then, horrified by its look, escapes and never cares about it in two years. He is irresponsible. He is the image of the crazy scientist caught up by his passion and who never thinks of the consequences of his research. This topic is premonitory and really contemporary.

The section where the creature explains to Victor how he has lived during the two years between his first day in Ingolstadt and their meeting in the Alps is interesting. He spent a long time hidden in a hovel adjoining to a cottage, from where he could observe the inhabitants. Mary Shelley describes how he met civilisation, learnt how to speak and witnessed affection. Strangely, the creature raises more philosophical issues than Victor. Mary Shelley is very insightful on how self-consciousness relies on other people’s look and regard. Interaction with other beings is needed to develop one’s personality. Culture is above nature: she explains we need to grow up among other humans to discover love and companionship. Seen in another way, it also reminded me of the myth of the noble savage. The creature was good in itself before humans turned away from him with disgust and taught him hatred. Very Rousseau.

The style was a bit complicated for me. The sudden switch to antique forms always took me by surprise and slowed my reading.

“Yet you, my creator, detest and spurn me, thy creature, to whom thou art bound by ties only dissoluble by the annihilation of one of us”

or

 “Still thou canst listen to me and grant me thy compassion. By the virtue that I once possessed, I demand this from you.”

Moreover, some sentences sound so French they seem to have been translated from French rather than written in English, like this one:

“Learn from me, if not by my precepts, at least by my example, how dangerous the acquirement of knowledge and how much happier that man is who believes his native town to be the world, than he who aspires to become greater than his nature will allow.”

I don’t know if it is because Victor is Francophone or because Mary Shelley just wrote that way. Of course romanticism is in the background. When Victor is hiking in the Alps, trying to find some peace of mind in admiring the grandeur of nature:

“Dear mountains! My own beautiful lake! How do you welcome your wanderer?”

The description of the valley of Chamonix is beautiful and sad when you know how it looks like now. The glacier is melting due to the global warming. A motorway arrives in Chamonix and the Tunnel du Mont Blanc, allowing trucks to join Italy from France is nearby. Within two centuries, the destruction of the natural setting shouts at the modern reader.

Something else. Stephenie Meyer sure knows her classics. In addition to the two ones openly referred to in the Twilight Saga (Romeo and Juliet and Wuthering Heights), I had already noticed how the scene of Jane Eyre meeting with the now half-blind Mr Rochester had inspired a scene between Edward and Bella in New Moon. Now I found common points between Frankenstein’s creature and her vampires, especially when the monster describes his first sensations after he was born. Then of course, there are the creature’s characteristics: strong, fast, enduring and his method for suicide – fire. But I’m such a weak reader of SF that I can’t really tell if Stephenie Meyer conscientiously used Mary Shelley’s work or if Mary Shelley’s invention is now a vampire cannon.

If I turn back on this book, I’m glad I’ve read it but I didn’t enjoy it. Mary Shelley’s style is too romantic. As usual, it doesn’t speak to me. This story is powerful but too long. Victor’s mulling over, weeping, moping, complaining bored me. Two nervous fevers in a book for one character is too much for me. He never really copes with the consequences of his acts and I didn’t like him for that.

  1. December 14, 2010 at 1:29 am

    Do you find it ahead of its time for the moral questions it raises? Like you, I’m not big into the Romantics, but I can enjoy an episolary.

    You may not have seen it but I am crazy about the film Young Frankenstein by Mel Brooks.

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    • December 14, 2010 at 1:38 am

      Yes I found it really ahead of its time. It is for questionning science and scientists.
      For its vision of parenthood: you can’t escape your responsability as a parent.
      For its ideas on education: a child is a white page and you are responsible for raising him/her according to moral rules. And affection is essential to a child if you want him/her to be a good person. She has a sensible intuition of modern theories on child development. (I thought of Françoise Dolto when I was reading the section where the creature relates his first years)

      I haven’t seen that movie but I was thinking of watching a film version of Frankenstein. So thanks for the idea.

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  2. December 14, 2010 at 9:26 am

    This is a great post for various reasons. I like that you don’t shy away from criticizing a classic. We tend to applaud them to easily. I haven’t read it so I have to rely on your perceptions but I have a feeling although I do enjoy some romantics this wouldn’t be my cup of tea. I like Kenneth Branagh’s movie a lot. The cinematohraphy is spectacular and he makes the mountains look still intact. I found the input on Stephenie Meyer interesting as well. I hardly read any SF but I like Fantasy and am somewhat fascinated by the vampire frenzy (most books are unfortunately quite bad). I didn’t see any parallels between Frankenstein’s moster and the vampires so far… Food for thought. Didn’t many romantics have such an idealized view of children? Or was there a dichotomy? Some believed every child is good at the start others thought is was in a state of nature and as such not good. Not quite sure now.

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    • December 14, 2010 at 9:40 am

      This book is really rich and I’m amazed that she could write something so deep and so new at only 19. It’s worth reading. I hope Max from Pechorin’s Journal will read this post because I’d be glad to have his input on the SF aspects.

      I usually don’t read Fantasy but I’ve read Stephenie Meyer, I wanted to know why there was such a fuss around these books. I was surprised to like them more than I imagined I would. I think they will survive their current success and be a part of teenage literature. She managed to avoid to be too rooted in our time (no music, TV shows, clothes, electronic device… references) to create something rather universal around intimate topics of adolescence.

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  3. December 14, 2010 at 2:13 pm

    It’s a seminal SF novel in many senses, addressing issues of the responsibility scientists have for their creations which remain very current.

    I recall it as heavily philosophical. In fact, I was surprised reading the review how many people get killed, because I’d forgotten that. My main recollection is of wintry discussions surrounded by ice.

    The monster is of course a monster because we deem him so. His fate is not predetermined save that our reaction to his appearance is inevitable. That’s partly what makes it tragic. He has a fine and noble mind, and it’s absolutely right that by comparison Victor is weak and hard to admire. He creates something greater than himself, fails to understand it and so leads everything to ruin.

    I do wonder if it owes anything to the old myth of the Golem. It would seem it must but the monster has intellect which of course the golem does not. Otherwise, our modern myths of robots and computers that rise up against their masters owe a lot to this novel. Hal from 2001 is perhaps one of the monster’s children.

    Young Frankenstein is excellent, as in a very different vein is the early black and white film version of this book which is more effective than many later versions even though it’s a silent movie.

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    • December 14, 2010 at 9:23 pm

      I had to google “Golem” and “Hal”, I’m afraid. Yes, I’m that bad on SF references.

      The idea that other people’s look and behaviour transform the creature in a monster is really modern and reversed to fairy tales like The Beauty and the Beast where a monster turns into a human, thanks to a pure person (a woman) who is good enough to look beyond the appearance. Mary Shelley is more pessimistic on human capacities for sympathy and courage.

      The murders — as awful as they are — are only the way to force Victor to pay attention. On a smaller scale, children play the fool to catch their parents’ attention too. That’s why I think this book is also about education and what it is to be a human.
      While reading it I also thought of Victor of Aveyron. I wonder if Mary Shelley had heard of him.
      I’ve also read on Wikipedia that when she was 16, Mary Shelley gave birth to a premature baby who died two weeks later. The father was Percy Shelley and he ran away with a mistress instead of staying with her. He would have inspired Victor Frankenstein. I feel really sorry for her, it must have been awful.

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  4. December 14, 2010 at 2:16 pm

    I had the very same experience. I read the first one because I watned to know why I had such an impact and found it better than expected and I definitely understand the appaeal it must have for a young girl. I would have loved it in my teens. It’s a nice twist on the theme of “le beau ténébreux”.

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    • December 14, 2010 at 9:50 pm

      “Beau ténébreux” ? I don’t have this vision of Edward. He looks more like an overprotecting slave.

      PS : I can’t help it. It’s strange to speak English when I know you’re Francophone too.

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  5. December 15, 2010 at 6:12 am

    I know what you mean, I try not to think about it, speaking would be more difficult…
    I do see Edward like this, he dangerous despite everything… It’s the chste version of the “bad boy” attraction many women feel.

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  6. leroyhunter
    December 15, 2010 at 11:05 am

    Hi bookaround, thought I’d drop by and have stumbled into a couple of interesting conversations.

    As a book Frankenstein was one of the few that was ruined for me by study in college. We spent so much time talking about the influence of the book that I pined for the things it had inspired, rather then slog through the sections you’ve described.

    Another movie I’d recommend is Spirit of the Beehive by Victor Erice. In it a young girl sees the classic black & white version of Frankenstein (as mentioned by Max) and it invades & takes over her imagination. It’s a beautiful, unsettling flim set in Spain at the end of the Civil War. It was made under Franco so has to be so subtle and clever in the way it comments on the past & present.

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    • December 15, 2010 at 3:05 pm

      Hi, thanks for visiting.
      We all have our pantheon of books / authors ruined by boring teachers. One of the unexpected advantages of my blogging outside the French blogosphere is that you (I mean you in plural) don’t have the same pantheon as me. So, you have a fresh look at French literature and make me reconsider reading some authors. Like Simenon, Saint Exupéry or Maupassant.

      I’ve never heard of this film. Thanks for the hint.

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  7. December 15, 2010 at 8:06 pm

    I have to throw in the name of another film: Gods and Monsters. It’s based on the book Father of Frankenstein by Christopher Bram. The film & the book explore the final months in the life of James Whale seen through the eyes of a fictional gardener. Whale directed Frankenstein, so that thread runs throughout the film.

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    • December 16, 2010 at 9:02 am

      Thanks Guy.
      It’s official, after the TBR list, I’m starting a TBW spreadsheet!!

      Like

  8. December 22, 2010 at 9:56 am

    I always wanted to read this, but never had time to do it. but your sentence:

    If I turn back on this book, I’m glad I’ve read it but I didn’t enjoy it. Mary Shelley’s style is too romantic

    gives me doubt.I never finished a romantic book in my life.

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    • December 22, 2010 at 10:16 am

      It’s worth the effort as she’s a mile stone in literature. She invented something new and influenced other writers. That’s why I wanted to read it.
      I like to read what Max calls “seminal books”, it helps to understand what has been written later.

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      • December 22, 2010 at 10:25 am

        will think about it later 🙂
        So far, Classic books I managed to read is only The Lord of The Rings

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      • December 22, 2010 at 11:37 am

        I can’t 🙂 I don’t read a lot of Indonesian books because most of them are romance.

        But I can easily recommend you the newest and my favorite author, Andrea Hirata. his book Rainbow Troops has been translated to English. I’m going to give it away on my 1000th post (my current post is my 802nd post)

        here is my review of his latest book (love inside glass) – hasn’t been translated to English yet, but it can give you an idea of his work. http://bokunosekai.wordpress.com/2010/11/28/love-inside-glass/
        And this one is soon to be translated http://bokunosekai.wordpress.com/2009/01/10/edensor/

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