Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel was chosen by one of my book groups for our March ‘banned books’ theme (it was banned for a time by the Apartheid government in South Africa). I’m not actually certain how many times I have read Frankenstein – in a sense it doesn’t matter – probably four, possibly five. I still love it; after almost two hundred years, the novel still remains very readable.
“You are my creator, but I am your master; Obey!”
Of course now the story of Frankenstein has become almost myth like, people refer laughingly of having created a monster, and like any myth the story can’t really be believed, I don’t think that matters. Frankenstein is about our deepest fears, written at a time when religion and science were often at odds, and the possibilities that science held was no doubt treated with a degree of suspicion.
Mary Shelley conceived the idea of Frankenstein while travelling in Geneva with her future husband Percy Bysshe Shelley, Lord Byron and others in 1814, she was just eighteen. There is a famous story behind the story which I talked about in a previous post. The novel appeared anonymously at first in 1818, only appearing under Mary Shelley’s own name for the first time in France in 1823. It is possible I think to hear the voice of that young girl of 1814 in many of the ravings and pleadings of both Victor Frankenstein and his creation, that boiling sense of injustice we so often feel at that age is ever present.
“Learn from me, if not by my precepts, at least by my example, how dangerous is the acquirement of knowledge, and how much happier that man is who believes his native town to be his world, than he who aspires to become greater than his nature will allow.”
Like many novels of about this period – Frankenstein has an epistolary form, although the majority of the novel is one long narrative – which Robert Walton – whose letters open the novel – sends on to his sister for her entertainment. Walton is the Captain of a ship on an expedition to the North Pole, one day he spots a gigantic figure, hurtling across the ice on a sled. Later he and his men rescue an exhausted, emaciated Victor Frankenstein from the frozen waters, around their ship, whose pursuit of the figure Walton spotted, has led him to this isolated landscape. Walton becomes great friends with Victor, who is a dreadfully haunted man, his life destroyed – he tells Robert his story.
Victor Frankenstein was born into a wealthy Geneva family, he is encouraged to study science and explore the natural wonders of the world. When Victor is a young boy, his family adopt the daughter of his father’s greatest friend, Elizabeth who grows up with Victor and with whom he later falls in love. Having spent much time studying ancient scientific texts – that other scientists have long since abandoned, Victor pursues the creation of life itself – breathing life into non-living matter. He uses body parts – to create a being of absolute perfection as he conceives it. What he eventually creates is quite simply a monster- the being he creates; a living, breathing sentient creature is miles away from the dream he had, a hideous, gigantic monster, mute, and terrifying, and from which Victor himself soon flees.
The creature pursues Victor across Europe, in revenge for this abandonment by his own creator. In case there is anyone who hasn’t read this before – I don’t want to reveal too much about havoc brought to Victor’s life by the thing he created, but he wreaks a terrible revenge. However, when Victor and the creature come together again on a mountain top (as you do) the creature – who can now speak, urges Victor to listen to his own story – the story of how he came to know language, how he learned to empathise, and feel affection for people.
‘Accursed creator! Why did you form a monster so hideous that even you turned from me in disgust? 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 solitary and abhorred.’
The creature’s story – allows the reader to see the other side of the experiment – the creature becomes more human, though in his grief and horror at what he is, hasn’t finished with Victor yet. Having found himself ostracised by society for his physical hideousness, the creature urges Victor to make for him a mate – with whom he can disappear to an isolated place and live happily and companionably. Feeling he has no option, Victor agrees initially, though he is horrified at the very thought, so when he changes his mind and destroys the beginnings of his new creation, the creature’s fury is terrifying, his final revenge destroying any hope Victor had in the future.
Frankenstein, is an improbably, fantastic gothic fantasy, the reader needs to suspend belief – for what some have called an early science fiction novel which is full of slightly wonky science. These days Frankenstein can also be seen as an early horror story – having inspired so many creepy adaptations, but it is a novel of the romantic period, which is infused with the gothic elements I love so much.