Frankenstein by Mary Wollstencroft Shelley – a review

** spoiler alert **
The stimulus to read this book came from watching the film Mary Shelley starring Elle Fanning. I was intrigued by the connections between her and the poets Percy Shelley and Byron. I read the Penguin Classics version of this book which includes introductory notes by Maurice Hindle. The book also includes the other tales conceived by Byron and Shelley during the writers’ stay on the shores of Geneva. All fascinating stuff, along with all the tragedy that encompassed their lives.

So, how does the book, alternatively titled ‘A modern Prometheus’ measure up to the hype; and how does one review a classic that’s about 200 years old yet interpret it through modern sensibilities? I’ll try.

As mentioned in numerous reviews before, one should forget about the images propagated by 20th century film culture of a monster with bolts through its neck, lumbering about a castle while lightning strikes overhead. The story, told from the viewpoints of Frankenstein himself and his last known human contact – the captain of an arctic-bound trip, one Robert Walton – is more of a suspenseful science fiction story written in complex old English prose with long sentences.

Credit has to go to Shelley for the originality of her idea. Prometheus made the first man from clay according to Greek mythology – hence modern Prometheus; and to re-invent this story with horror overtones is quite remarkable, and represents a leap forward in terms of story structure and genre. As such, I found myself thinking of the tale in terms of appreciating its place in time and trying to overlook my sense of feeling that I was getting bogged down. That said, this was a difficult read.

As usual, I’ll not recount the plot structure. That’s been covered ad infinitum. What I’ll concentrate on is how the story impacted me.

It’s easy to be churlish about the Old English style and vernacular. There’s a ton of run-on sentences, complex grammar and even a semi-colon followed by an em-dash. But I found I could make sense of it, even if it did put a lot of speed bumps into the path of my reading. The story starts slow with an extended recounting of Robert Walton, the sea Captain, of his encounter with Frankenstein. I found myself wishing things would get into the story proper.

This brings me to my next point. There’s very little dialogue between characters. Much of the narrative occurs in the head of Frankenstein or his monster. This is a problem I also have with writers such as Lovecraft (although I still read his stories with great admiration;) we’re constantly being told how and why we should be afraid rather than letting it be seen in the interactions between the characters.

When Frankenstein eventually chooses to reveal his story, a sense of moroseness pervades. In fact, I’d say there was an over-indulgence of the ‘woe is me’ nature of Victor Frankenstein. Shelley seems to labour the point over much until it becomes melodramatic. I know it’s supposed to be a tragedy of the ‘look what evil I and science have created’ kind, but please, don’t overdo it.

Speaking of science. There’s a general lack of detail regarding how the monster was put together, although references to Paracelcus, Agrippa and Magnus were intriguing. I didn’t expect in-depth science , but the narrative glosses over the practicalities so much that the story loses a fair bit of authenticity to my mind. Also, how did Frankenstein attempt to create a companion for his monster in a remote Scottish hovel of a house with no laboratory?

My suspension of disbelief was stretched to breaking point towards the end of the story when Frankenstein didn’t foresee that his monster was going to kill Elizabeth. He’d already done away with his brother and best friend, yet for one as intelligent as Frankenstein you would think he’d give some thought beyond how to protect himself on his wedding night (the occasion when the monster threatened he would act. He’s supposed to be a genius after all.

There are no twists in the climax of the story. It’s all quite predictable really. Not that there has to be a rollercoaster ride of plot turns in a novel of this nature, but I must admit I was glad when I read the last page. I also read through Shelley’s notes and Hindle’s comments but didn’t have the energy to read Polidori’s vampire story too.

So, as I said, a hard read. But at least I now have one of the foundational works of horror and science fiction under my belt, and can understand something of where these genres sprung from.

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