04 February 2011

Frankenstein by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley

I am on a quest to read classic literature. Frankenstein wasn't at the top of my list, or even near the top probably, but my best friend continued to encourage me to read it as it is one of her very favorite books.

Frankenstein: Or, The Modern Prometheus (Penguin Classics)

This classic book has inspired no fewer than fifty films. It definitely has a firm place in classic literature and in culture. I had no idea that Mary Shelley was the wife of Percy Bysshe Shelley. They married when she was age 18/19 years old, in 1816. It was upon a dare, by Lord Byron, to write a ghost story, that Mary Shelley wrote the novel. I like that she didnt just write a "ghost story" and developed a plot-line like no other before.

The review I am in the midst of writing, here, is going to be a mixed bag. I must say that I was quite surprised that the story was written in such a way that it was not difficult for me to finish; not a drudgery as I read it. I somehow felt compelled to read it. I suppose I would say that her writing style is very agreeable. The story is written in the form of a person retelling the story he has been told, in letter form, to a far-off loved one. Writing a story in this manner required an additional back-story. Shelley gave this story the same attention to depth as she gave the main one. I like that; so many of today's authors just do not write in this manner.

Overall, however, I do have issues with the story. The premise of the story is that Dr. Victor Frankenstein is on a quest to create life. I think that in order to indulge the story one must suspend reality and choose to believe that man can create life, even in the late 1700s. Done. I do, however take great issue with the fact that in the story Dr. Frankenstein has finally succeeded in creating life when, all of a sudden, he looks at the creature he has created and, aghast, decides he has created something too hideous to allow it to be. Does he destroy it though? Nope; that would end the story. He allows it to remain "alive" and falls asleep. This of course, comes back to haunt him. The monster leaves, unhindered.

Frankenstein learns language and the ability to read through watching a small family without their knowledge. I enjoyed this part of the story. He views them with great longing. His only wish is for communion. Human communtion? Why, he isn't human. But at the very least, human communion would provide him with some form of relationship, his deepest desire. Even his own creator chose not to commune with him. One of the characters from this portion of the book is blind and that gives the "monster" an opprotunity to speak with him, hoping that he can gain favor with him and then with the rest of his family. This character quickly recognizes the "monster's" true circumstances and it is summed up well in his words here:

"Heaven forbid! Even if you were really criminal, for that can only drive you to desperation, and not instigate you to virtue."  Pg 91

The next part of the story with which I take issue is that Frankenstein sets off on a long trek and somehow ends up in Geneva and on the property of the Frankensteins without any stated assistance in finding it. That's a bit neat, isn't it? Pretty unbelieavable; there again, it allows for the progression of the story.

When the "monster" finally has an opportunity to speak with Frankenstein he says this:

"God, in pity, made man beautiful and alluring, after his own image' but my form is a filthy type of yours, more horrid even from the very resemblance. Satan had his companions, fellow devils, to admire and encourage him, but I am slitary and abhorred."   Pg 88

He pleads with Frankenstein to create a female for him, one as equally hideous as he, as a mate with whom he can share love and life. He wants only to be accepted and have a person whom he can accept. Love...isn't that the desire of all people? And wasn't he created in the image of humanity? He offers that they will go live in the farthest reaches of the north where they will bother and be bothered by no one.

"It is true, we shall be monsters, cut off from all the world; but on that account we shall be more attached to one another." Ppg 98

"Let me see that I excite the of some existing thing; do not deny me my request!"  Pg 99

Frankenstein's monster is so adamant of his need for a mate that he threatens to take vengeance upon Frankenstein if he does not concede to his request/demand. At once Frankenstein agrees that he will create a mate for him; the story progresses a bit, and, voila, Frankenstein rethinks his impulsive decision and determines he will not create another being. Queue the scary music. The monster vowed vengeance if a mate is not created for him; he followed him from Ingolstadt to Geneva; can engeance not be imagined by Frankenstein at this point?

Vengeance...it arrives. There is death, and more death. Eventually, Frankenstein ends up chasing the monster to far reaches of the north. Did I say "vengeance". It doesn't take a lot to figure out what happens next does it?

It's easy for me to pick away at the threads of a story. I am not a writer, am I? And so, I feel it would be unfair for me to do so without also finding praise where it is worthy. As I said, the story was compellingly written. I did not avoid or put off reading it once I began. I am glad I read it.
And the premise...the creation of life by man. What a premise! It is one that only has greater implications today; perhaps moreso than Shelley could have ever even imagined. She wrote this stunningly well for it to have been written in the early 1800s. 

What if man could create life? Just because one can do something it does not mean it is something that should be done. Truly, I only believe that God can create life, eternal life, life with a soul. Science has been used by man, to do many things that have direct connections to life. Transplants are just one of those things; there is also research in the lab, on the cellular level. Scary stuff. Yes, the result of some of these things can be great good; it can also be great devastation, as this novel, in great foresight, warns.

My husband and I had an interesting conversation with regard to all of this. Frankenstein initially was only sorry he created the "monster" because of its hideousness. Really? Isn't that fantastic?! He was sorry he created something so ugly! That begs the question that my husband raised: "If you could create aesthetically pleasing, beautiful life, would it then be okay to do so?" I hardly think so. And that is wherein lies much of the inherent beauty of this novel; it causes great thought.

Some of my favorite lines from the book are:

"A human being in perfection ought always to preserve a calm and peaceful mind and never to allow passion or a tranistory desire to disturb his tranquillity. I do not think that the pursuit of knowledge is an exception to this rule. If the study to which you apply yourself has a tendency to weaken your affections and to destroy your taste for those simple pleasures in which no alloy can possibly mix, then that study is certainly unlawful, that is to say, not befitting the human mind. If this rule were always observed; if no man allowed any pursuit whatsoever to interfere with the tranquillity of his domestic affections, Greece had not be enslaed, Caesar would have spared his country, America would have been discovered more gradually, and the empires of Mexico and Peru had not been destroyed."  Pg 32

"Heavy misfortunes have befallen us, but let us only cling closer to what remains and transfer our love for those whom we have lost to those who yet live."  Pg 133

It's only been days since I finished reading the novel. While it was still very fresh in my mind I wished to watch a well acclaimed movie version of it. I watched 1994's release "Mary Shelley's Frankenstein" starring: Robert DeNiro, Kenneth Branagh, Tom Hulce, Helena Bonham Carter. A bit of artistic license was taken with the story but not so much that the essence of the story was changed. In fact, I feel that it played out quite well. I was afriad it would be way too gory for me. It had its moments but I think it was handled well given the subject and necessity of including a certain amount of gore. The cultural significance of Frankenstein does not end with the questions it brings up. Immediately after watching the film our children and I were turned on an episode of The Dick Van Dyke Show and who was mentioned? Frankenstein.
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