In honor of All Hallow’s Eve, I read a classic monster story. The fact that Frankenstein is a household name 200 years later is a testament to Shelley’s work–which she began writing at only 19 years old!
The story is told in a series of letters that Walton, a captain of a ship trying to find a Northeast passage, writes to his sister in England. He comes across a bedraggled man with a dogsled in the middle of the ice, takes him on the ship, and they become friends. This man is Victor Frankenstein, and he tells his life story, which Walton transcribes and sends to his sister. So there are lots of stories within stories, but it’s all clearly written.
You know the basic plot–scientist finds a way to create life, creates monster, monster goes on killing spree, scientist deeply regrets creating monster. On the one hand, I enjoyed it, and there were some truly creepy parts. I liked how Shelley invites the reader to sympathize with the monster, who has been abandoned by his creator and is unloved in the world. Poor guy! I liked some of the long-winded philosophical agony that Frankenstein suffers because of his choices, and some parts really rang true. It’s only a little over a hundred pages, and even though some of it feels long-winded (I definitely skimmed some of the descriptions of the beauty of the Alps or whatever), it’s a steady read.
On the other hand, Frankenstein himself got a lot of eyerolls from me. First, he spends years working on creating life, and then when it finally works, he freaks and flees the lab. When he returns, the monster is gone. What does Frankenstein do? Does he try to track down his hideous creation? Alert the authorities that a monster is on the loose? Destroy his lab so that no one can create another hideous lifeform? Answer: NONE OF THE ABOVE. He goes into a 6-month fugue and then starts learning Sanskrit or something. Come on, dude!
Then a few years later, the monster re-appears, after already killing/causing the death of three of Frankenstein’s family and friends. The monster has learned English and terrified a few villagers with his hideous face. He wants to be loved–he wants a girlfriend! Perfectly reasonable, I guess. He finds Frankenstein and says, if you don’t give me a girlfriend, you’ll definitely regret it. Frankenstein at first feels compelled to do this, but then changes his mind, fearing that a second monster would wreak even more havoc than the first. The monster, obviously, is not happy about this decision, and tells Frankenstein that he “will be with (him) on his wedding-night.”
Ok so: you’ve created a monster who has already killed 3 of your friends/family. He promises to exact revenge on your wedding night. What do you do? Postpone the wedding until you come up with a good monster eradication plan? Give your fiancee a heads up that a monster might be coming to kill you both on your honeymoon? Alert the authorities and give them a description of the monster and his MO? Answer: NONE OF THE ABOVE. Frankenstein continues with his wedding as planned, and sends his new bride to hang out by herself in the room while he patrols the environs with a rifle , convinced that the monster is coming for him, not her. Spoiler – this doesn’t work out well.
So reading about Frankenstein’s short-sighted decisions got a little old, and the florid descriptions of scenery got a little old, but the questions that Shelley raises (and the way she raises them), are interesting and relevant today. Some might be even more relevant today, given modern technology: what makes something human? Are people basically good? Who is the real monster, here? What makes something a monster, anyway? A lot of commentary on this story says that Shelley was writing a warning against Too Much Technology/Playing God, but I also read it as a warning against abandoning your creations and taking responsibility. Frankenstien’s fatal flaw wasn’t his interest in science, in my opinion, it was that he couldn’t handle the responsibilities of his work, and he couldn’t expand his empathy to his own creation.
Rating: 3.5/5. 5 stars for earning (and deserving) a place in the Classics, and for giving us a great monster story, but minus a few for Frankenstein’s irritatingly bad decision-making and for the fact that there were way too many words used to describe the landscape when they should have been used to describe something else, like the monster.