Frankenstein (1818) by Mary Shelley





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Here’s an embarrassing admission: Until this week, I had never read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818). The reason for this omission in my education is simple. Without having studied the novel, I already knew that it was an exploration of the existential questions raised by a hubristic and masculine science. Its plot and images are part of the Zeitgeist, and I had gleaned enough to get by in a conversation. With so many books to read and so little time, I decided, instead, to focus on lesser known works. It turns out that Frankenstein is a lesser known work in the sense that the text bears little resemblance to what I was imagining. 

There is nothing new that can be said about this literary classic and I am not trying to add an original take to the mountains of commentary that already exist. Rather, this review is a reminder: If you need a break from contemporary horror or maybe you want to shore up your genre bona fides, remember Frankenstein. It’s also a reflection on how pop culture representations of Frankenstein have made it a challenge for me to appreciate the book. I was disappointed and, if your expectations are similar to mine, then you may be, too. Let’s reframe this review in a more positive and exciting way. Imagine that you are Margaret Saville and I am Captain Robert Walton hastily penning a letter, depicting my adventures on a treacherous journey. Now that’s drama befitting a gothic novel! 

Frankenstein’s lack of body horror and gothic ambiance was a let down. I thought the story went like this: An egotistical mad scientist assumes the power of God/Nature to create life. In a grisly craft project, he sews body parts together to construct a monstrous form which he then animates by harnessing the power of lightning. All of this happens in a castle that sits precariously on the edge of a cliff. Wonderfully creepy little synopsis, but it’s not based on the text. By the time Victor offers an account of his life to Captain Walton, the monster is already several years old. This means that while unearthing corpses, dismembering them, and recombining their parts may have been a messy and exciting affair, the immediacy of these gruesome events is completely lost in the retelling, which is superficial at best. Indeed, most of these activities are not recounted at all. Victor says that he’s spent time in cemeteries watching the process of decay, and he admits that his monster is a compilation of the best pieces he could find. But the reader must infer everything else; without any details, we have to supply what would be some of the most fascinating parts of the novel. This strategy of “leaving it to the reader’s imagination” is often the smartest move that an author can make. In this case, however, it’s too much; I don’t want to write the book myself. As far as the vertiginous castle and bolts of electricity, all of this is from the movie. In the novel, the monster has a much more pedestrian beginning: He awakens on the floor of a student boarding house; and the question of how Victor reanimated dead flesh in his dorm room is never answered.

In pointing out these absences, I am not suggesting that Shelley was a failed horror writer–far from it. Rather, I’m thinking about how popular culture affects the reception of older works of art. All of my expectations for this text were produced by the hot cultural property that is Frankenstein, a constellation of non-literary forms–Movies, cereal (remember Franken Berry?), costumes, cartoons, etc.–that have very little to do with the book. This preconditioning has made it difficult for me to accept the novel on its own terms. Of course, the act of reading always occurs in a social context, and it’s impossible to approach a book objectively. In this case, however, the historical baggage felt heavier than usual. Though not intentionally, I was reading for cultural touchstones (like “It’s alive! It’s alive!) and felt disappointed when I didn’t find them. 

The most jarring collision between expectation and reality occurred in my reading of the monster. Influenced by Boris Karloff’s rendition of the character, I was inclined to see him as a sympathetic and gentle figure. In the book, however, the monster mouths the rhetoric of a modern-day incel. Sleeping in a barn, the young and attractive Justine Moritz has done nothing to harm him; she isn’t even conscious of his existence. Nonetheless, the monster frames her for the murder of a child, a move that ultimately leads to her execution: “[N]ot I,” he explains, “but she shall suffer; the murder I have committed because I am forever robbed of all that she could give me, she shall atone. The crime had its source in her: be hers the punishment.” According to the monster, Justine deserves to die because she would never consent to the emotional and physical intimacy that he desires. And he regards the satisfaction of such needs as the birthright of all men. If she had simply accepted him and offered up her body, then he wouldn’t have been forced to kill her. This is the chilling logic of an incel, and the scene in which he hovers over Justine is the most frightening in the book.

The monster feels entitled to a positive reception from everyone he meets, and when they don’t behave according to his script, he unleashes violence. While he frames human actions as unpredictable and cruel, I find that, for the most part, other characters’ responses to him are justified. How would you feel if you entered your home to find an inhuman creature crouched over your blind father? Probably not happiness at the sight of a new friend. Or if you spied such a figure standing over the body of your unconscious child? Probably not gratitude. The monster repeatedly inserts himself into situations where any reasonable person would regard him as the aggressor, and then he complains about being misunderstood. His insistence that strangers look kindly upon him–his argument that, by virtue of being alive, he has a claim to their love–all of these assertions do not sit well with me. While everyone should be free from violence, no one has “a right “ to your affections. 

When Captain Walton finally meets Frankenstein’s monster, he is startled by the gap between the tale Victor has told and the almost majestic creature before him. The comparison of the two compels Walton to reassess what he thought he knew, what he had been told by his friend. It’s an uncomfortable process, but, through it, he gains a deeper understanding. What the popular imagination has made of Frankenstein is, I think, better than the book itself. Nonetheless, like Walton, I’m glad to have met the original if only to put it behind me.

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