Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Reviewing Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein"

Perhaps people would be able to tell the scientist from his creation if we were more diligent in using Mary Shelley’s entire title: Frankenstein, or, The Modern Prometheus. Prometheus is a character from Greek mythology, a Titan who dared to steal fire from the Olympian gods to give to humanity, and endured a very painful (and highly imaginative) punishment. 

Dr. Victor Frankenstein seeks to obtain “the principle of life” (much like Prometheus’ fire), flouting the laws of life and death for the benefit of all humanity. And, just as Prometheus suffers the consequences, Frankenstein is dogged by the results of his experiment. Literally.

The monster he creates through his nebulously described science follows Frankenstein to the ends of the earth. Or is it Frankenstein who’s chasing the Creature? Ugh, this whole “I’m chasing you so you’ll make me a girlfriend!” “No, I’m chasing you, so I can kill you!” is so confusing. They really just needed to have a long meaningful talk over a bowl of hot soup and fresh-baked bread. 

As soon as Frankenstein successfully brings his subject to life, he immediately moves on to other interests..and by that I mean he screams and abandons the Creature in weak-kneed terror. (Shoulda thought that through a little more, huh, Vic?) Nevertheless the Creature is able to obtain some level of learning and intelligence: wandering the earth for his creator, he stumbles into a deserted cottage, teaches himself to talk from eavesdropping on passersby, teaches himself to read, and through his readings teaches himself to think. 

(It’s totally unfair, in my mind, that Shelley makes us think of this being as an animalistic “thing” when he so obviously has thoughts and emotions. So I named him Clarence, because the way I picture him, he looks like a Clarence.)

With the ability to think comes the ability to understand his emotions: his confusion, loneliness, and his anger towards his creator. Thinking that Frankenstein can help alleviate all these things, Clarence seeks him out. But Frankenstein is repulsed by his creation, and refuses to help by creating a Clarencita to be a companion for him. To Clarence, Frankenstein as his creator is like his personal god. Yet unlike God in Genesis—who created a companion for Adam when He saw he was lonely, because “it is not good for man to be alone”—Frankenstein refuses Clarence any companionship.

And so the murder and mayhem begin!…or at least, amp up quite a bit. Clarence has killed Victor’s brother, leading to the false accusation and execution of an innocent woman.  Now to bring Frankenstein the same feeling of solitude, Clarence murders his wife, Elizabeth.   

Frankenstein takes it on himself to stop the rampage of his own creation. Considering that it’s all his responsibility to begin with, the doctor is pretty whiny about his quest to hunt down and destroy Clarence. And in the end, it turns out he was better giving life than taking it away: he dies of Victorian Convenience Fever on his way to Antarctica.  Clarence for his part weeps over the body of his creator, and, his revenge complete, he walks off over the ice to die.

Although…will he die? Does he require shelter from the elements? Does he eat food? What exactly is he, anyway? A robot? A zombie? Shelley is never clear about the makeup of her iconic “monster.” It might be that, being in close proximity to a body that was killed by Victorian Convenience Fever, Clarence too succumbed and died as the plot demanded.

And so the book ends on a hugely depressing note. To cheer us up, let me point you to a link to SparkNotes’ “Chat Between Dracula and Frankenstein” skit, which is quite humorous.

Recommended Reading Age: High School

Parental Notes: Crimes against nature, murder, overly complicated narrative structure and annoying female characters (except Justine, but Shelley executes her as soon as she starts showing signs of being remarkable).

Availability: A reproduction of the original 1818 text is available for about ten dollars in softcover  and for 99 cents via Kindle...unless you'd like a shiny hardcover
Adaptations: Oh, so many. And oh, so not by the book. Every time someone paints their skin green and stomps around calling themselves “Frankenstein” Mary Shelley rolls over in her grave. Plug her into a flywheel and she’d power the whole of Bournemouth with her constant spinning. Although I’d love the irony if she came back to life to take vengeance—and renew her copyrights—on those who had turned her psychological thriller into a campy Halloween cliché. Maybe she has neck bolts.

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