Sep 9, 2007

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

Like Dracula and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Frankenstein is one of those works of fiction that have become a part of what can perhaps be called a modern western mythology. It would be hard to find someone who is not familiar with the name Frankenstein, and who does not have some idea of what this story is about. It’s interesting to note how much of what we think we know about this story is wrong.

For example, a lot of people think (and I did myself, before I read the book for the first time some years ago) that the name Frankenstein refers to the creature, when in fact it is the surname of its creator. There is some irony to the fact that the word has almost become a synonym of monster in our culture.

I read this book for the first time when I was in highschool. I wanted to revisit it now because I was certain that I’d enjoy it much more this time around. There was also the fact that I read it in translation back then, so I didn’t get to experience Mary Shelley’s use of language firsthand. While revisiting it, I realized that in the years since I first read it I had forgotten a lot about the story, and, curiously enough, what I did remember was distorted, and once again influenced by the many movie adaptations and cultural references to this book. The story is mostly Victor Frankenstein’s, not the creature’s, and this was something that surprised me the first time I read the book. Well, it almost surprised me again the second time around, because the chapters I recalled most clearly were the ones in which the creature tells his story.

Frankenstein’s nameless creation commits horrible actions, and yet, in the chapters where he tells his story, and also when the book reaches its conclusion, I could not help but feel compassion for him. That is, for me, one of the most remarkable things about this book. In the introduction to the 1831 edition, Mary Shelley said: I busied myself to think of a story – a story to rival those which had excited us to do this task. One which would speak to the mysterious fears of our nature, and awaken thrilling terror – one to make the reader dread to look around, to curdle the blood and quicken the beatings of the heart. When she created this story, she went beyond horror: she explored the reasons why a monster can become a monster.

Frankenstein is a horror story, but it’s also a story about loneliness, disappointment, rejection, and about the possible consequences of one’s actions. The fact that the creature is never named is significant – Victor Frankenstein refers to him as “fiend”, “daemon” or “beast”, and yet, after the central chapters, the readers knows that this is not exactly some nameless evil we are dealing with. While Frankenstein’s rejection of the creature is understandable, one also wonders what would have happened if he hadn’t walked away from what he created.

Something I found very interesting was the chapters describing the creature’s development – how he learned language, for example, and how he learned about human nature through books. Even though nowadays we know that language acquisition wouldn’t be possible under those circumstances, it was very interesting to see how Mary Shelley addressed the issue.

And of course, the nineteenth-century conception of science is at the heart of this story. At some point, one of Victor’s professors tells him the following:
‘The ancient teachers of science’, said he, ‘promised impossibilities and performed nothing. The modern masters promise very little; they know that metals cannot be transmuted, and that the elixir of life is a chimera. But these philosophers, whose hands seem only made to dabble in dirt, and their eyes to pore over the microscope or crucible, have indeed performed miracles. They penetrate in the recesses of nature, and show how she works in her hiding places.’
And yet, as in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, we have science performing the impossible, and a scientist doing what one would expect of a wizard.

Finally, although most people are familiar with it, I cannot resist retelling the myth surrounding the creation of this story, because I find it almost as interesting as the story itself. The story’s origins go back to one stormy summer night in 1816, the “year without summer”, when an eruption kept the world in a volcanic winter. Poet Lord Byron challenged each of his guests at his Swiss villa – Mary Shelley, Percy Bysshe Shelley and John Polidori – to write a frightening tale to match the German ghost stories they had been reading. As a result, Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein, and John Polidori wrote “The Vampyre”, a precursor in the genre of vampire fiction, and a story that influenced Bram Stoker’s Dracula. There are those who say that the fact that almost all of those involved in the challenge were dead within a few years – Percy Shelley drowned in 1822, Polidori died in 1821, Byron succumbed to a fever in 1824, and Mary Shelley, the sole survivor, almost died of a miscarriage in 1822 – is the result of some curse surrounding that night. While I can’t say I believe it, it certainly makes an interesting legend.

Reviewed at:
Becky's Book Reviews
Trish's Reading Nook
Nothing of Importance
Dolce Bellezza
Tripping Towards Lucity
My Own Little Reading Room
Pardon my French
Just What You Want


  1. I enjoyed your review. This one is one of my favorites. It is just so beautiful, so haunting. And the chapters narrated by the monster/creature are my favorite. The thing that strikes me every time I read it is that he was not "born" a monster. This is a slow transformation. And in many ways I think it addresses the whole nurture vs. nature argument.

    I really think this book is a book about what it means to be human. In many ways this "creature" is more human, more sympathetic, than Victor Frankenstein is. I have a harder time understanding Victor than I do understanding the monster. I think it is a good lesson on how monsters are monstrous on the inside...and that external appearances have nothing to do with it.

  2. Wow...another wonderful, thoughtful review. I'm more anxious than ever to get started now.

  3. I hate to repeat myself after every review you write, but...great review, Nymeth ;) I really do enjoy reading your reviews so much!

    I've always enjoyed the legend of the creation of these stories as well.

    This is one of my favorite books and I've read it many times. It's certainly a horrific tale, but what I love about it so much is that I sympathize with the monster which is something that doesn't happen often. It's such a beautiful and tragic tale...a tale that I love. Thanks for your review!

  4. I hadn't realized there were chapter from the monster's prespective. This sounds like another must read.

  5. I wasn't too smitten with Frankenstein and I'm not sure why, though I did enjoy the parts from the monster's perspective. Time for a reread perhaps to see if I missed something.

  6. Nymeth - thanks for the review. I'll be reading this one either this month or next month for the Classics Challenge (I think maybe next month for Halloween). I haven't read it before, but I do know the tale you suggest many people do. I think the first time I realized Frankenstein wasn't the monster was when I watched the movie with Robert DeNiro a few years back. I wonder what the background is behind most people beleiving F is the monster (even at Halloween when someone is wearing a F costume it is readily recognizable).

    Anyway, also thanks for including the background. I wasn't familiar with that particular legend!

  7. all i can say is that i simply have to read this one too... id nothing else to clear the cobwebs from all the film adaptions that i've seen...

  8. Becky: I think I understood the creature better than Frankenstein too. Sure, he did terrible things, but at least I knew what the reasoning behind his actions was. Frankenstein's actions, on the other hand, were just puzzling sometimes. And at other times he was a little too cold for my liking.

    Debi: I can't want to see what you think of it!

    Chris: You are much too kind :) Isn't it a great legend? I mean, of course it's terrible that those people all died young, but it does add to the aura of the story. And yeah, the fact that the monster can evoke such sympathy really is a remarkable thing. I can see how this book influenced many other stories I love, from "Edward Scissorhands" to The Vampire Chronicles.

    Petunia: I really think it is a must read! Those chapters are the best.

    Cath: Those were my favourite as well. I do think this is a book that could grow on people after a second read.

    Trish: It's a perfect book for Halloween, that's for sure. I'm not sure how come people came to associate the word Frankenstein with the monster. Maybe he was called that in some of the movies? And you're right, whenever we see someone with one of those costumes we immediately think "Frankenstein", not "Frankenstein's creature."

    Jean Pierre: You really have to! I think you would enjoy it.

  9. This is a great review, Nymeth. I have never read Frankenstein and so my knowledge of the story is limited to the media and what I've heard by word of mouth through the years. I do have a copy of the books sitting on my shelf to read one day and I'm very much looking forward to it, especially after reading your thoughtful review.

  10. For example, a lot of people think (and I did myself, before I read the book for the first time some years ago) that the name Frankenstein refers to the creature, when in fact it is the surname of its creator. There is some irony to the fact that the word has almost become a synonym of monster in our culture.

    I am one of those who thought Frankenstein was the name of the monster!!! Obviously I need to read the book!

    Nymeth, you write some beautiful reviews...I really need to spend more time at your blog taking them all in.

  11. Literary Feline: I'd love to read your thoughts of this one. The word of mouth versions of the story can be very different from what actually is in the book. It's interesting how that happens.

    Lotus: It's a very common misconception. But you do need to read the book, it really is a great one. Thank you for your kind words :) I can say the same about your reviews.

  12. It always seemed such a sad book to me and I really felt sorry for the creature. You can definately see where Edward Scissorhands was taken from which again shows the loneliness and need for acceptance. I defiantely want to re-read this.


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