Sunday, March 6, 2022

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

I decided to go with Frankenstein by Mary Shelley published 1816 for the 2022 Back to the Classics category - choose a 19th century classic and one suprise I had while reading the novel is how different it is from the 1931 film version.  

Now, I haven't seen the 1931 film starring Boris Karloff in its entirety but from the clips I have seen I get the sense that the monster is a character you feel empathy for and that in comparison his creator, Victor Frankenstein, is an arrogant mad scientist who abandons the monster right after creating him.  The poor monster has no one to guide him.  He's barely literate but he wants to be friends with people.  He's really a gentle giant at first  but because of his frightening appearance everyone runs from him screaming in horror or hurls rocks and stones at him until he flees.  Eventually it is too much for the monster and he starts killing his tormentors.

In Frankenstein the novel we get a very different picture.  For one thing the monster in the book is brilliant.  He speaks several languages.  He knows history, philosophy, literature and he is completely self-taught since, as in the film, Dr. Frankenstein abandons him at birth. Dr. Frankenstein in the novel is different as well.  He is arrogant thinking he could create a new life in his lab and not have it backfire.  But he's not mad and his intentions started out well:

"No one can conceive the variety of feelings which bore me onwards, like a hurricane, in the first enthusiasm of success.  Life and death appeared to me ideal bounds , which I should first break through, and pore a torrent of light into our dark world.  A new species would bless me as it's creator and source; many happy and excellent natures would owe their being to me.  No father could claim the gratitude of his child  so completely as I should deserve theirs.  Pursuing these reflections, I thought, that if I could bestow animation upon lifeless matter, I might in process of time renew life where death had apparently devoted the body to corruption"

But Dr Frankenstein's experiment goes very wrong.  He creates a being with super-human strength who is so physically deformed in appearance that he can't live among humans.  But the monster in the novel is smart and after reading Paradise Lost he is profoundly affected by the story of Adam and the Garden of Eden and how God after creating Adam didn't abandon him but loved him and provided a partner in Eve so rhat Adam would not be alone.  The monster after tracking down Frankenstein demands the same, that Dr. Frankenstein create a mate for him: 

"as hideous as myself; the gratification is small, but it is all I can receive, and it will content me.  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 ... Oh! my creator, make me happy; let me feel gratitude towards you for one benefit.  Let me see that I excite the sympathy of some existing thing".  

Dr Frankenstein is moved by the monster's request feeling that he does have obligations to his creation but the monster is also making a threat.  He has already  killed Dr. Frankenstein's young brother and planted the evidence on Justine, the Frankenstein family's innocent young housekeeper, who is hanged for the crime.  And if the monster doesn't get his mate he is vowing to destroy everyone Dr. Frankenstein loves.  And so unike in the movie I could not feel sorry for the monster in the novel who is not illiterate by any means and his bottomless rage and thirst for revenge if he doesn't get his way are monstrous qualities in their own right.

But I recommend Frankenstein.  It's marvelously written and it's also a book of ideas.  According to literary scholars, Mary Shelley in writing Frankenstein was to some extent criticizing the age of enlightenment where in the 1700's science, rationality, the end of monarchies began to overshadow the Middle Ages where religion and obedience to one's king ruled everything.  Mary Shelley along with her husband Percy Shelley, Lord Byron, John Keats were part of the movement known as romanticism which looked suspiciously at the age of enlightenment.  Frankenstein is seen therefore as a gothic masterpiece but also a cautionary tale about what can happen when science and rationality go too far.  It's a classic horror novel well worth your time.