Mary Shelley
Frankenstein Cover



Oxford University Press, 1969
Intended Audience: Adult
Sexual content: None
Ace/Genderqueer characters: none
Rating: PG-13 for violence and suicidal characters
Writing style: 3/5
Likable characters: 3/5
Plot/Concepts: 4/5

Victor Frankenstein was an ambitious student of natural science, who stumbled upon the recipe for bringing life to the inanimate. But when his man-like creature awakes for the first time, he is struck with horror at the creature's ugliness and rejects his creation, only to later discover that this rejection has turned the creature's spirit as ugly as its face.

I have heard many assert that Mary Shelley's Frankenstein was one of the first novels of science fiction as we know it today, and so of course I had to choose it for my new reading challenge this year! I wasn't exactly sure what to expect, apart from the eloquent and poetic writing style. Of course, I knew the basic gist of the story, although I'd never watched a film adaptation or read the book before. Therefore, the beginning was a bit disorienting.

The reader begins in the point of view of a traveler who is writing letters to his sister as he embarks on a perilous voyage in icy arctic waters. This traveler then meets a despondent but apparently very sensitive and honorable man who was stranded on a chunk of ice, and they become friends. Eventually the man they rescued is revealed to be Victor Frankenstein, and he tells his fellow traveler the terrible tale of how his existence became a living hell. At first I didn't like the way the story was structured at all, and I might have rolled my eyes a little bit when later we go a third level deeper, so that the traveler is telling us how Frankenstein is telling us a story that the monster told him. But eventually I came to appreciate the balance this represents between viewpoints. I'll get back to that in a minute.

This book was actually quite difficult to get through… not because it is wordy or old-fashioned in its writing style, but because it is so emotional. I was not expecting such dramatic extremes! Frankenstein starts out quite sheltered in some ways… his family is incredibly loving and affectionate, his home life is wonderful, and his scholarly career starts out promisingly. But then the obsession with creating a pseudo-human takes hold of him, and when he steps back to look at his suddenly-living creation, his bright future falls to pieces; for the rest of the book he is trapped in the belief that in making such a creature in the first place, he committed a terrible and ignorant sin which he can never escape from. His despair and fear is so deep as to be immobilizing at many points along the story's unfolding, and then we learn the monster's point of view and a whole new layer of tragedy is introduced.

At first, when the creature runs away, Frankenstein tries to ignore its existence, which I thought was an incredibly childish response. But the more I read, the more I realized that Victor Frankenstein is just incredibly immature and irresponsible, despite how much the reader's sympathy is pulled on by his very real suffering. He is scarcely any better at handling his emotions than his creation, which creates an ironic sort of parent-child parallel between them.

The monster is virtuous and gentle when he is allowed to absorb lessons of kindness from those around him, but the moment he is hurt, he becomes blindly ferocious and bent on revenge. Frankenstein, on the other hand, believes himself to be innocent of any sin against the creature—his rejection was justified in the face of such physical ugliness, and he believes that such a hideous creature must have been evil from the beginning. It is only when the monster kills a dear relative that Frankenstein feels true guilt, and yet he still chooses not to tell others what he has created, or to confront his creation and the responsibility of teaching it to be harmless. When he finally does speak to the monster, the monster explains how his loneliness has driven him to violence, and begs Frankenstein to make him a mate, promising that if he does, he and his mate will stay far away from human civilization and never harm anyone again. Frankenstein is moved to pity when he hears this story, but whenever he looks at the monster's face he is persuaded that the only remedy for the situation is to kill the monster.

For the last half of the book, Frankenstein and his monster are locked in a sort of countdown of revenge, both vowing to make the other suffer as much as they now suffer themselves. Both believe themselves to be the more wronged. The threefold narrative taking place allows Frankenstein to sit in the middle, between the traveler's easy acceptance of Frankenstein's innocence and the monster's pronouncement that its creator is vile and without compassion. Frankenstein himself fluctuates between feeling that he is a wronged innocent and feeling that he is the most wretched of all people who have ever lived. As Frankenstein is someone who puts so much stock into appearances, showing us the way both the monster and the traveler perceive him gives the reader a chance to take sides and realize that the main story here could be being told by someone who is thoroughly wrapped in self-deception.

So, I would say that the genius of this book lies in the fact that I am still trying to decide what I think of it. There is so much symbolism about human nature, about morality and our tendency to believe we are right when in fact we are blind to the true reasons we are wrong. At first I was put off by wondering if the author agreed with Frankenstein's assertion that his only true crime was in trying to explore a part of science that was better left alone. That kind of phobia of scientific progress is a much less satisfying moral than the one I came out with on my own, which is that if Frankenstein had chosen compassion and responsibility over fear and avoidance, perhaps his worst mistake would have become his greatest triumph. The escalating cycle of violence would never have begun.

Beyond Frankenstein and the monster, the other characters felt surprisingly real as well and overall much more likable than either of them. Perhaps part of that is due to the structure of the narrative. Really, the entire thing is letters within letters, and reading the letters Frankenstein's family send him while concerned about his health or sympathizing with his tragedies is almost heartbreaking; it reminds me of the letters I've sent my own family members and friends when I know they are struggling with depression or other emotional hardships. There was nothing terribly good or bad about the writing style, although some of the descriptions were very forceful in their beauty or horror.

Gender roles are predictably traditional in this story, but I felt there was a great deal of respect between the various members of Frankenstein's family, so it didn't bother me too much. There was virtually no sexuality to speak of—Frankenstein's fiancé is also his childhood friend and cousin, and so their affection for each other is primarily emotional in the actual text, although they are both eager to get married.

I was not prepared for how emotionally invested I became in this story, and I definitely can see why it is a classic even beyond the science fiction world. There is so much more here than the cheap thrill of a shambling zombie. This is a work of great depth and meaning, and best of all it allows room for multiple interpretations. If you haven't read it already, please do! Even if you don't like it, I guarantee it will make you think.