Classic book review: Frankenstein by Mary Shelley #Halloween2018

(cover image courtesy Penguin)

 

It is an oddly pleasing thing to finally read a classic book, particularly one with the pop culture reach of Mary Shelley’s 200-year-old horror classic Frankenstein.

Written, so goes the anecdote, as the result of a between Shelley, her lover and husband Percy and Lord Byron (that was not the only inspiration for the novel), Frankenstein is one of those stories, by dint of sheer exposure down through the years in everything from movies to books and even Scooby Doo (bet Shelley didn’t see that one coming), that we all assume we known intimately.

But the truth of the matter is that as you dive into Shelley’s exquisitely poetic prose, and her ability to cut right to the very heart of the human condition (pun intended), you quickly come to realise that all the cheesy Frankenstein depictions down through the years have done a disservice to remarkably prescient novel.

What has usually found its way into popular culture are context-less elements such as the monster himself, villagers chasing him off and even the bride of Frankenstein, all of which occur in the book but which are shorn of any and all meaning when they emerge into an expectant world removed from Shelley’s devastatingly-thoughtful storytelling.

What soon becomes apparent is that what Shelley has really written is a biting critique of the ambitious excesses of the human condition, particularly one that has been cossetted and encouraged to do what it wants with little restraint and scant regard for the moralities of various pursuits.

“Oh! no mortal could support the horror of that countenance. A mummy again endued with animation could not be so hideous as that wretch. I had gazed on him while unfinished; he was ugly then; but when those muscles and joints were rendered capable of motion, it became a thing such as even Dante could not have conceived.” (P. 61)

Born into a well-off Swiss family, Victor Frankenstein – here’s a common error; it is the man, not the monster, that is called Frankenstein – is a man seemingly with the world at his feet.

His parents dote on him, he has two brothers, Ernest and William with whom he is close, a “cousin” Elizabeth who is adopted in all but name into the Frankenstein family and a close friend Henry Clerval who remains at his side through thick and thin.

Beyond that he is fiercely intelligent, a boundlessly-optimistic man who has been encouraged to read, learn and think all this life and who has, as a result, become so bound up in the pursuit of knowledge and understanding that he rarely stops to think about the why of something, preferring to focus on the simple fact that it can be done.

Those people, such as one of his professors who tried to dissuade him from some of his academic foci, are scornfully appraised while those who affirm his singular pursuit of knowledge for knowledge’s sake, are embraced without question.

Victor Frankenstein is initially not all that unlikeable – he is, after all, full of enthusiasm for life and learning and ardently in love with his family to whom he is devoted – but as Frankenstein unspools its darkly-cautionary tale, it becomes clear that he is far more of a monster than his creation.

 

Mary Shelley (image courtesy is.wikipedia.org)

 

This might seem to be a reasonably cliched observation – that the person is more of a monster than the so-called monstrosity he creates – but in this case it rings true again and again with Frankenstein possessed of a ceaseless ability to seek his own interests above all others, a fatally narcissistic bent that ends playing out in destructively-unexpected ways.

Spurning his creation from the moment it wakes up, and fleeing his apartment in the hope his “monster” will depart and never be seen again, Frankenstein is far more selfish, villainous and coldly-cruel in unspeakable ways than the creature he constantly decries as an abomination straight from hell.

Even when in a series of achingly-poignant chapters at the heart of the novel the monster displays more humanity, earnestness and desire for love than many of the people who run from its horrific countenance in unthinking fear, Frankenstein rejects it still, blind to the fact that much of the terror and death that follows is the result if his own actions and not an innate evil in the monster who only seeks companionship and love in common with the people he watches with hopeful longing.

So intense is his need for family and belonging that he spends an entire year watching a family through a hole in the wall of the hovel that adjoins their modest house, learning how to think and speak, and growing to love the people he fervently believe will love him dearly back if only they can see past his visage and get to know as he truly is deep within.

“From my infancy I was imbued with high hopes and a lofty ambition; but how am I sunk! Oh! my friend, if you had known me as I once was, you would not recognise me in this state of degradation. Despondency rarely visited my heart; a high destiny seemed to bear me on, until I fell, never, never again to rise.” (P. 264)

Whereas Frankenstein is bound up in vanity, a crippling lack of self-awareness and self-pity and a consuming arrogance which gives way to a cloying, useless pessimism and despair, his monster, who is nothing but save for an ugly countenance, is a sweet and earnest creature, eager to be as human, if not more so than the people around him, only resorting to the murderous horror that marks the second half of the book when all his entreaties to Frankenstein mainly, but others like his adopted family, go sadly, and nightmarishly, unanswered.

The real monster in Frankenstein, as in so much of human history, is not the creation but the creator, who in this instance, is unable to see beyond his suffocatingly self-interested view of the world, one riven by class bigotry, an inability to see beyond the obvious and the superficial and an unwillingness to entertain the idea that he might be at fault or perceiving something erroneously.

What transpires in the second half of the book is entirely on Frankenstein’s head, the product of prejudice and unbridled bigotry, and while you could argue the monster has a choice not to act on his hateful impulses (ones given life, sadly, by his rejection of the society of which he so desperately longs to be a part) he is driven to his actions by the blinkered evil of his creator.

A sobering indictment on humanity’s all-too-common tendency to give into fear over reasoning, hateful exclusion over compassion, self-involvement over empathy, Frankenstein is a horror masterpiece that justly deserves its rich reputation, a novel, written with luminously-lovely, insightful prose that exposes the ugly underbelly of humanity even as it highlights how great and good we can be if only we’ll try.

 

Frankenstein has made it way through almost every area of popular culture, and while iterations like the one in Scooby Doo are fun and interesting, they’d lack the richness and morality of the toweringly-powerful original story (image via Scooby wikia (cO Warners Bros.)

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