Review: Frankenstein (1818) by Mary Shelley

Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, is the full title. 

So much has been written about this novel over the years; so much has been analysed about Mary Shelley’s personal life and social circle she moved in and the psychological undercurrents of the novel, and its place in literary history and how it might be the first real science fiction novel and its engagement with both the romantic, gothic style and with ideas of the Enlightenment and scientific progress… that it is all a bit overwhelming. I will not try to be a perfect spokesperson for this novel and not present some academic synthesis of all this information. I have a life! I’ll just note some things that stood out to me.

The story of Frankenstein is all about knowledge and wisdom. What are these things, and are they safe pursuits? The story of the “monster” is set within the framework of another story, that of a young, ambitious adventurer named Walton. Walton is sailing to the North Pole in a voyage of exploration, in search for knowledge. He has that twinkly light in his eyes of academic ambition and glory, but he is desperately lonely for a friend. He suddenly finds that friend amongst the ice shelves in the shape of an emaciated traveller, who happens to be Dr. Frankenstein. Frankenstein tells him: “I too once searched for knowledge like you, and see what became of me.” Frankenstein is the Gollum to Walton’s Frodo, a vision of what he could become. Exhausted and possibly dying, Frankenstein tells him the story of the monster he created, and is chasing on the ice right there.  

Yea you be careful now, you young scientists! Don’t create no monsters now, y’hear?!

This is the first appearance of the trope of the “mad scientist” in literature (unless you count Daedalus, who also breached the laws of nature with the wings he gave Icarus), and Frankenstein is still the archetypal character. He gets a classic scene of being gripped by a feverish zeal in his work, full of the mental torment that H.P. Lovecraft later on loved to put in his work.

Interesting point: in the beginning of Frankenstein’s story, he relates that he lived with a cousin and a friend, and the three of them were like a supportive team. His cousin was soft, beautiful, and in love with the arts and poetry. His friend was obsessed with chivalry and moral codes, and Frankenstein was rough and intrigued with the physical secrets of the universe. The three of them are representations, certainly, of love, morality and science, and Frankenstein’s companions tempered him. It is a message from Shelley hiding in plain sight. This reaching for allegory and themes is typical for the rest of the text. The fact that Frankenstein narrates his entire life history to us – something a modern, character-focused novel would not do in this way – is because the text is performing as a metaphor for the development of human knowledge through history.  

The beating heart of the story is Frankenstein’s fascinating relationship to the monster. It actually completely undermines the idea that it is a monster that science has created. Frankenstein abhors his creation, feels terrible guilt and shame, while the creature desires him to be a father. The monster even explains the idea of how the doctor’s rejection of him leads him to be evil against the rest of humanity. How can he believe in the love of any human if his own creator rejects him? Shelley, I suspect, poured a lot of herself into the character of the Creature; especially its loneliness and the anger at being given only judgement instead of love. Their conversations have the cast of an epic poem in the way of other Romantic figures, like John Keats and Lord Byron. For Frankenstein, the creature is like his shade, his inner demon following him, like Ged’s in Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea. Once you start seeing Frankenstein and his monster as being the same creature with similar impulses, then the story becomes not one of mutual destruction, but one of self-destruction. That’s what it feels like, too.

The novel feels very digressive because it is full of descriptions of landscapes and weather and seasons, and how the characters are moved emotionally by all of that. But beauty itself, and beauty as virtue, is a constant theme in the book. Frankenstein judges everything and everyone by beauty. Beautiful people are always pure and innocent and virtuous, and beautiful landscapes lift his spirits up while bad weather depresses him. But early in the tale, we already see that his judgement of an ugly professor is unfair, and his Creature of course, sensitive and eloquent, is a complete contradiction to him. Does it matter so much, that it is misshapen? Does it matter so much, I can hear Shelley ask, that I am a young woman, to receive some recognition?

Frankenstein is a slow and ponderous work, full of anguish and depression (my goodness, is it depressing!), and I wasn’t always thrilled reading it, but it stimulates the reader to engage with all its ideas. Very impressive too that this was written by an 18-year-old. In the end it is not knowledge itself that is the danger. The question is if you have the moral courage and love to receive what you create.

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20 Responses to Review: Frankenstein (1818) by Mary Shelley

  1. Andreas says:

    Title cover is a masterpiece of Romanticism, Wanderer above the Sea of Fog, from the same year the book was published. You can visit it in Hamburg!

    Liked by 2 people

  2. savageddt says:

    What a great write up for a post that started with “i wont talk too much on it”🙂. Enjoyed reading your thoughts on this, you clearly took away a whole lot more than I did on my first read. I hated Frankenstein and I was rooting for the monster the whole way. Glad to finally have read a book you also did.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Bookstooge says:

    I’ve read it and won’t be ever reading it again (unlike say, Dracula).

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Wakizashi33 says:

    I enjoyed reading your thoughts on this horror “classic.” I say that, but I still haven’t made it all the way through either Frankenstein or Dracula. And Frankenstein isn’t even a long book. I’m a little embarrassed to admit that I lost interest in both stories after their intriguing beginnings. One day…

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Very intriguing and thought-provoking review of this classic! I was particularly impressed by your comparison between Walton/Frodo and Frankenstein/Gollum…

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Sumita Tah says:

    Loved reading the review. Reblogged this on Englishtutorialedu.com.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Anna says:

    I need to get around to re-reading Frankenstein. It been a few years since I first read it.

    Liked by 1 person

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