Book Review : Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein”


The cover I have for my copy of Frankenstein bears almost no resemblance to the contents. There is a movie style “Frankenstein”, posing on a motorcycle in the style of Marlon Brando (The Wild One). The original book was set in the late eighteenth century, a century before the invention of the motorbike. Frankenstein in the popular imagination is largely based on the portrayal of the monster by Boris Karloff in the 1931 film. There have been over 100 movies based loosely on Frankenstein.

Boris Karloff
Boris Karloff playing Frankenstein in the 1931 movie

Frankenstein in the book is the name of the doctor who creates a monster, the monster is given no name, a fact which gives it an identity complex, it is identified by words such as “creature”, “monster”, “demon”, “wretch”, “abortion”, “fiend” and “it”.  The 1994 film Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein starring Robert de Niro, Kenneth Brannagh and Helena Bonham-Carter is closer to the book but there are still many differences (nothing of Dr Frankenstein setting up a lab on the Orkneys, for example).

Robert de Niro and Helena Bonham Carter
A reanimated Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter) and the mosnter (Robert de Niro) in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1994)

Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein in 1816 when she was in her teens, at the time she was staying in Geneva with Percy Shelley, her future husband, Lord Byron, Claire Clairmont and John William Polidori.  The weather was  too cold and dreary that summer (on account of the volcanic eruption of Mount Tambora, the previous year) to enjoy the outdoor holiday activities they had planned, so Byron suggested they each write a ghost story. It was too prove a fruitful enterprise Polidori wrote “The Vampyre“, which would be a big influence on Bram Stoker’s Dracula, published much later that century. Mary Shelley came up with Frankenstein, a story imagining a corpse that might be reanimated using electricity.

Mary Shelley wrote in the introduction:

“I busied myself to think of a story, – a story to rival those (German ghost stories) which had excited us to this task. One which would speak to the mysterious fears of our nature, and awaken thrilling horror — one to make the reader dread to look round, to curdle the blood, and quicken the beatings of the heart,”

The novel like One Thousand and One Nights is a frame story, we begin with a letter from Robert Walton, an Arctic explorer, to his sister within which he describes the story told to him by Victor Frankenstein, who he encounters in the arctic wastes. Within Frankenstein’s tale is the story told by his implausibly erudite monster. The three narrators disappointingly speak in the same way.

“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 monster)

The story takes a while to get started, it is not until the fifth letter of the sea captain that we start to get to the story proper. It is then not until the beginning of chapter 5 (page 66 in the edition I read) , that we get to the actual monster. The monster is created from dead flesh re-animated by electricity. Having thus created the monster, Victor runs off, leaving the monster to develop independently without a mentor. The monster learns language through observing a poor rural family. This part of the tale is rather implausible, how can an eight-foot-tall monstrosity can live in a woodshed for a year without being noticed, particularly when he discreetly provides firewood for the family? That same monstrosity learns to be fluent and even eloquent in both speaking and reading an unknown language merely by watching its use. He is even able to read Milton’s Paradise Lost and Plutarch’s letters.

After the murder of Victor’s younger brother, Victor meets up with his creature in the mountains,  they make a deal that if Victor will create a mate for his monster the hideous couple will leave humanity alone.

Much of the biblical creation story is referenced by the monster: “Remember, that I am thy creature; I ought to be thy Adam, but I am rather the fallen angel…”

Frankenstein is a remarkable story, over two centuries old. The book was a pioneering work of horror and science fiction and a landmark work of Romantic (with a capital R) literature.

My rating : 4 out of 5 (this was my second reading of the novel)

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