I won’t lie: I was ignorant of the original story of Frankenstein prior to reading it. My conception of it was filled with Hollywood’s bastardizations of Frankenstein – angry mob with torches and pitchforks; docile, misunderstood, physically deformed lab’ assistant at the mercy of his abusive or neglectful creator; or angry, unintelligible green monster. Upon finishing Frankenstein, it occurred to me that I think very few, other than those who have read the novel, know the original story, which is a shame because Frankenstein is an elegant novel.
Written in epistolary form, Frankenstein by Mary Shelley tells the story of Captain Walton who writes to his sister about his encounter with a distraught man named Victor Frankenstein, a man tormented by a successful experiment to reanimate dead tissue, giving rise to his nameless creation, or else known as Frankenstein’s Monster, his daemon, Monster or Creature.
Where do I begin to describe Frankenstein? For one, although the writing style is difficult to get into at first – especially since I have been habituated to reading contemporary novels as of late – but once you become accustomed to the language and narrative, there is much to be appreciated about Shelley’s writing. Shelley began writing Frankenstein when she was 18 years old, and completed it two years later, which I regard to be an impressive and admirable feat. Her writing is incredibly romantic and expressive; there’s something so powerful and profound in the ways she writes, and there were parts of the book that just made me put the book (or more accurately, my phone) down and breathe deeply and think. Examples of such passages are:
The different accidents of life are not so changeable as the feelings of human nature.
I read and reread her letter, and some softened feelings stole into my heart and dared to whisper paradisaical dreams of love and joy; but the apple was already eaten, and the angel’s arm bared to drive me from all hope.
So, so beautiful, and so fitting for a story such as Frankenstein. Contrary to the popular image of Frankenstein’s monster, in the book he is eloquent, emotional and persuasive. Shelley writes voices with such allure that the characters feel tangible, authentic and honest. Despite the fact that the narrators are unreliable (more on that later), both narratives of Frankenstein and his monster are thus harder to question and scrutinize, which makes the novel infinitely more interesting when you start to think about how ideas of good/right and evil/wrong are defined and ascertained in this book.
-Spoilers to follow –
Whilst on the topic of good/evil and right/wrong, let’s begin with that. I tend to be very cynical and distrusting of media that presents moral dichotomies (high fantasy is an exception, of course). Moral dichotomies not only bore me because they fail to stimulate me intellectually and morally, but stories that utilize moral dichotomies will, more often that not, lack sophistication (e.g. The Giver). However, the notions of good/evil, and right/wrong are integral in the Frankenstein but are complex, and explored with sensitivity and awareness. Both Frankenstein and his monster are tormented; the former by the disillusionment of his creation and the latter with being created, his nature and the struggles of his existence. Within their narratives, both try to justify their actions, their thoughts, their inclinations and their pain through appeals of their inherently good nature.
Particularly in the Monster’s account of the first few months of his life, we learn that he is marveled by nature, especially the small things we take for granted.
“Soon a gentle light stole over the heavens and gave me a sensation of pleasure. I started up and beheld a radiant form rise from among the trees. [The moon] I gazed with a kind of wonder.
Not only are Shelley’s description of the mundane truly captivating, but it gives insight to the nature of the Monster, and perhaps also an inkling of Shelley’s idea of human nature. Whilst the Monster inhabits within the shed of an exiled family, he tells us of his love and yearning for aforementioned family, and how his loneliness and friendlessness drives him to find a way to connect with them and to be part of their circle of care and affection. Thus the Monster applies himself to learn human behaviour and human tendencies. He soon deduces that language is the only means to traverse between the space that separates him from human beings. In fact, the very idea that language is the medium that allows us to connect with one another and reconcile differences that way is almost utopian and Bakhtinian.
Initially, the Monster’s perception of human nature is optimistic and he himself is benevolent in nature.
To be friendless is indeed to be unfortunate, but the hearts of men, when unprejudiced by any obvious self-interest, are full of brotherly love and charity.
The Monster perceives humans as inclined towards good and benevolence. More interestingly, the Monster’s innate tendencies, prior to human contact, seem to incline him to be how he perceives other people – he is empathetic, particularly to the family he observes, and has good intent, such as when he secretly aids the family with their labour. But when the Monster learns that humans do not love him and that he will always be a subject of prejudice because of his physical appearance, this compels him to embrace the monster they perceive him to be. (I also feel like there is something Lacanian going on when the Monster sees his reflection for the first time, but until I am fluent in Lacan’s writing, I’ll say no more of this.)
Building from this exploration of human nature comes an investigation of a dialectical relationship that exists between these two individuals. Frankenstein’s passionate ambition to gain mastery over nature, life and death – and to thus create something that defied nature – leads him to create his Monster. Frankenstein is horrified by his creation, and from then on, he tries to escape his responsibility as the Monster’s creator (despite the fact that Frankenstein feels immense guilt for what his Monster has done) which, as the story unfolds and shows, only exacerbates his problem and the ‘mistake’ that he has made. Despite this, Frankenstein laments his mistake and is tormented by the idea of his Monster, but also at the same time curses the Monster for all his grief and finds reason upon reason to hold him accountable for all the pain that he feels.
Conversely, Frankenstein’s Monster too feels pain and grief. After his creator flees, the Monster is hurt by his creator’s rejection and tries to seek refuge in the woods. When his attempts to connect with other fails and backfires on him severely, Frankenstein’s Monster wrecks havoc and seeks to take revenge on his creator for the grief that his seemingly meaningless existence has given him. To me, I see that Frankenstein and his Monster’s grievances run parallel — to the extent that Frankenstein completes his Monster and his Monster completes Frankenstein (and this relationship is unbreakable); their lives are irrevocably intertwined as they try and seek power over each other.
Frankenstein and his Monster’s relationship essentially challenge dichotomous relationships of Master/Servant and Creator/Creation, and the power dynamics that exist between the two. Frankenstein is the Creator/Master, and thus should, by role, have authority over or govern his Servant/Creation. However, when Frankenstein creates his Monster, he is immediately horrified by it, fears it, and wishes to kill it. Not only does that seem to explore the question of why we create things (is it to only have power over our creations?), but Frankenstein’s fear of creating something stronger than he is, and is beyond his control and power underpins the disturbance in the Master/Servant and Creator/Creation power dynamic.
Incidentally, the power dynamics have been turned upside down, and his Monster possesses power over Frankenstein and it is the Monster that becomes the force that controls him, even if the Monster does not know it. Following the conception of Frankenstein’s creation, the Monster becomes the force that shapes Frankenstein to be the changed, paranoid, agitated person that he is; his Monster is Frankenstein’s creator. In fact, to take this another step further, this relationship of Creator/Creation between Frankenstein and his Monster is fluid in nature, where both assume either role as their actions continuously influence and impact each other.
Lastly, in one particular chapter the Monster poses Frankenstein a question that I myself cannot answer, and I think it is something worth thinking about.
If the multitude of mankind knew of my existence, they would do as you do, and arm themselves for my destruction. Shall I not then hate them who abhor me?
Is Frankenstein’s Monster justified in thinking this? (To me, yes.) Is Frankenstein’s Monster obliged to love those who hate him? (To me, no.) And it is because of the wickedness of his treatment by those who have seen the Monster, he claims, “I am malicious because I am miserable.” Is this justified? Ultimately, who is responsible?
As you can tell from my long review, Frankenstein is an elegant piece of literature that poses many, many questions without being pretentious or overly ambitious. It is thoughtful, inquisitive and compelling. There is much to be explored in Frankenstein and also much to think about (two days later, I am still thinking about it). I thoroughly enjoyed Frankenstein, for its themes, its writing, its characters and its questions, and I have a feeling I will read this again one day.
Book Name: Frankenstein
Author: Mary Shelley
Publisher: Penguin Classics