Here we are on Hallows Eve, and I’m taking on a really classic classic in celebration. It is a story that we all know, or a story that we all think we know at the very least. In the afterglow of having actually read the book for myself, I can say most certainly that I did not know it.
Frankenstein by Mary Shelley is not a story about a grunting, bolt-necked beast.
No one screams ‘IT’S ALIVE, IT’S ALIVE.’
There is no hunchbacked assistant in a lightning battered castle.
There are similarities to it’s cinematic, televisual, and parodic counterparts as all of them tend to revolve around the threat of science gone awry, and all of them feature that warning best phrased in Jurassic Park:
‘…your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn’t stop to think if they should.’
The novel is nothing like I expected though. It is an epistolary tale, which begins with Captain Walton, a failed writer on an expedition, sending letters to his sister. Eventually the letters reveal that on his expedition, far in the icy waters towards the North Pole, his ship has made an unlikely encounter with a gigantic man on sledge led by dogs, and another, whose sledge has been destroyed and who is close to death. This second man is Victor Frankenstein. He is hauled on-board and once recovered enough he recounts his own tale to Walton, telling him of his youth, his academic ambition in the field of natural science, and his most unbelievable and disastrous of achievements…the un-natural creation of a living being from reanimated flesh.
This being, this wretch, is given no name. It is an eloquent, passionate creature that can move with supernatural speed and power. It is a being that, after failing to find its place in the world due to its disfigurements, turns on it’s creator with malice, and seeks to wreck a cruel vengeance upon him. Within Frankenstein’s tale, we hear the recounting of another tale, this time from the wretch’s perspective, communicated firstly to his creator, and then back to Walton, before we unfurl back outwards to Walton’s perspective as the story comes to an end.
It is a tragic tale. On initial publication it was done so anonymously, and later when the truth was known Shelley asserted that the concept of the book came to her wholesale in a dream and that the writing of the novel was more akin to writing a transcript than any act of artistic invention. With the bulk of history at our fingertips we can now see that Mary Shelley was pregnant almost constantly for an eight year period. She also suffered the death of her first born. In hindsight it is clear how those experiences must have influenced the writing of this novel, and that in attributing her own creation to that of a dream, sold herself appallingly short, probably to avoid questions as to how a girl of 18 (in the 19th century) would have the imagination to come up with such a morally troubling scenario.
The scientist gives birth to his creature, and spends the remainder of his life cursing it’s creation, sometimes running from it, other times pursuing it. It haunts him constantly, any and every moment of happiness he has beyond the moment the Wretch opens it’s damp eyes is tinged with the memory of what he has put out into the world. Frankenstein may have birthed a classic Hollywood monster, an unshakeable icon of cinema and of horror as a genre, but it doesn’t fit neatly with modern standards of horror. The horror of the story is internalised, the horror is the unbearably grim experiences of Frankenstein and his creation.
But, for all the grimness, for all the anguish and lament that likely came from her own sometimes wretched experiences, the writing is magical. Shelley has a wonderfully dramatic way of making her characters speak. Some less forgiving of classic literature may find it overblown and annoying, but to me passages like this (from the Wretch to Frankenstein) just beg to be read out loud:
‘“I expected this reception,’ said the demon. ‘All men hate the wretched; how then must I be hated, who am miserable beyond all living things! Yet you, my creator, detest and spurn me, thy creature, to who, thou art bound by ties only dissoluble by the annihilation of one of us. You purpose to kill me. How dare you sport with life? Do your duty towards me, and I will do mine towards you and the rest of mankind. If you comply with my conditions I will leave them and you at peace; but if you refuse, I will glut the maw of death, until it be satiated with the blood of your remaining friends.’”
Now the Wretch probably doesn’t seem the most sympathetic in that metal passage, what with all the threatening to glut the maw of death and all, but beyond some gloriously flowing prose, Shelley finds great success in the way in which she draws the sympathies of the reader backwards and forwards between Frankenstein, and his creation.
Who is the real monster? Is the obvious question, but it is not obviously answered. Frankenstein abandons his boy as soon as the creature opens his eyes on the operating slab, leaving him to wander blind out into the world, stumbling his way into all that is good and glorious, and all that is bad and violent. He see’s his own ugliness by way of seeing how beautiful humans can be, and he calmly observes a humble family and helps them silently and invisibly by night. He also, however, is cruelly vindictive. When the family rejects him, and flees, he burns their home to the ground and rages out into the world, seeking his master. He murders Frankenstein’s friends, his family, and frames an innocent woman of murder to further his creators own suffering.
They are, to my mind, both monsters. And, to my mind, the un-resolution of their ending confirms this. A mother should not necessarily pay for the sins of the daughter, or vice-versa, but both will bear the scars regardless.
It’s probably pretty clear that I enjoyed this, quite a lot. Anytime something that is classic manages to surprise me I’m thrilled. It’s great that something so integrated into the pop culture zeitgeist can still seem fresh at the source to someone coming at it for the first time. Still, it’s a piece of classic literature and with that comes a certain weightiness, a certain romanticism in the language which can lead to long winding passages which often amount to ‘woe-is-me.’
At one point Frankenstein literally laments:
‘Those were the last moments of my life during which I enjoyed the feeling of happiness.’
Exactly how much that grinds your gears will influence how much you enjoy this novel, but I can only highly recommend it as story which is as stark and startling now as it once was. It stirs the imagination, and has the potential to trouble the soul, and raise existential questions. If anything I would say it is more a progenitor of science-fiction than of horror, but the Wretch, the Creature, the Monster, is an icon, an image which will be replicated across thousands of Halloween masks tonight, and I am glad that my curiosity about it’s origins led me to a story which, over 200 hundred years after it was written, surprised and delighted me.