Literary classics earn their designation by presenting themes that resonate throughout the ages. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is just such a literary classic. She wrote this short but brilliant tale when she was about 20, while she, her husband Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Lord Byron were on holiday in Switzerland. As the poor weather prevented their outdoor adventures, the three entertained themselves with stories of the “supernatural.” Shelley’s Frankenstein has become a world renowned classic and a staple of Halloween partiers everywhere. And yet, Shelley’s scary monster is not what most, unfamiliar with the novel, might imagine.
The story is divided into three parts. In part one the theme is the lonely pursuit of glory and the dangers inherent therein, including mental illness. Our first narrator is sea captain, a young man from a wealthy family, self-educated and seeking glory. He and his crew are sailing the icy seas north of Russia in search of a passage to the Pacific. The captain’s letters to his sister reveal to us his ambition and his loneliness, his desire for a friend. Strangely, he finds this friend among the desolate ice floes. Viktor Frankenstein, near death, is pulled on board, and as the two men talk, they form a friendship and Viktor entrusts his sorrowful tale to the captain. Like the captain, Viktor is self-taught. His interests focused on natural philosophy, anatomy and physiology, and he, too, desired glory, hoping to find an “elixir of life,” to “render man invulnerable to any but a violent death.” Viktor refuses to divulge the details but he tells the captain that:
After days and nights of incredible labour and fatigue, I succeeded in discovering the cause of generation and life; nay, more, I became myself capable of bestowing animation upon lifeless matter.
But Viktor also reveals his deepening, unhealthy obsessiveness with his studies:
… a restless, and almost frantic impulse, urged me forward; I seemed to have lost all soul or sensation but for this one pursuit.
Viktor’s secret work has cut him off from family, friends and colleagues, and the result — his creation, unnamed by referred to as a fiend and a demon — is frightful looking and possesses inhuman size, strength, speed and agility. Instead of reveling in glory, Viktor hides his “work” and suffers grievous loss, self-loathing and depression.
I shunned the face of man; all sound of joy or complacency was torture to me; solitude was my only consolation — deep, dark, deathlike solitude.
In telling the captain this story, he hopes to impress upon the young man that working on anything to the point of obsession and isolation is unhealthy, “not befitting the human mind.”
The second part of the story is from the “monster’s” point of view, and themes deal with inclusion/exclusion of outsiders as well as taking responsibility for one’s actions (“good parenting” might be one way to look at it). After being rejected by Viktor, his creator, the creature spends two years on the run and hiding from humans, who, upon seeing him, are as repulsed and horrified as Viktor was. The creature, like Viktor and the captain, is self-taught. He finds an abandoned shed attached to the home of a poverty-stricken family. The father is blind, his son and daughter struggling to keep the family alive. The creature performs small secret acts of kindness for them and observes them through a crack in the wall. They unknowingly teach him language, literacy, history, and show him what loving, mutual relationships look like. He longs to be included and accepted by this family but fears that, should he reveal himself, they, too, will be horrified. As you might guess, this is indeed what happens, and this rejection is the final straw for the creature.
For the first time the feelings of revenge and hatred filled my bosom, and I did not strive to control them; but, allowing myself to be borne away by the stream, I bent my mind towards injury and death.
His particular hatred is directed against Viktor, whose journals he possesses and has read. He knows his creator loathes him, and after observing men, the creature concludes that it is his destiny to be outcast no matter what he does. The creature has read Milton’s Paradise Lost and envies Adam whose Creator/God has a relationship with him; he also envies Satan because
Satan had his companions, fellow-devils, to admire and encourage him; but I am solitary and detested.
At the end of part 2, the creature, who has confronted Viktor with his story and who has committed a horrible act of violence, now has the upper hand. He demands that Viktor, who has created and abandoned him, now create a partner for him so that he does not have to go through life alone. If Viktor refuses, the creature promises to go after those whom Viktor loves. The creature has become the master and the creator is enslaved.
In part three, the sad and tragic end to the tale unfolds. Viktor, his physical and mental health deteriorating, attempts to fight back against his creation, chasing him to the ends of the earth. The final word comes from our sea captain, who has the opportunity to speak with the “monster” and make some determinations regarding his own life and ambitions.
While Hollywood has turned Frankenstein into a scary monster movie, in Shelley’s novel, mankind is every bit as frightening and destructive as the ghoulish creature of our imaginations. The creature even elicits some pity from the reader when we see that he might have been different, had anyone shown interest in him. Frankenstein remains keenly insightful and on target about human nature and could be an excellent source for discussion about exclusion, bullying and violence.