Musings on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein
I have just finished reading Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. At first, I was transfixed by an impossible level of utter boredom. I must say that Mary did not reach any point hastily. Then I reminded myself that I am also a product of my Western pop culture. Often, if it is not condensed into the 120 minutes of film, then it is simply too much effort. Who has the time to spend lazing upon an extensive and complicated text? Well, the folks of Georgian era England certainly did. Novels were their movies, television, internet, radio, CD player, you name it. Novels were, well, novel. They were purely superfluous, indulgent entertainment in a time when everyone who could read did read. When it is considered that, before electricity, and by oil lamp or candlelight, people read for maybe an hour or two each evening at the end of their day, then a long detailed novel was welcome. The more detailed, the better. People got lost in their novels—swept away—and Frankenstein is most definitely sweeping. And tragic. And of a brand new up and coming genre invented by its author and her companions during a stormy weekend on the shores of Lake Geneva. The Gothic Horror novel is born with Shelley’s Frankenstein and Polidori’s grim tale The Vampyre. I don’t know what the Georgians thought of Mary’s nightmarish invention yet, but I’ll wager a guess that they were horrified, terrified, thrilled, offended, unnerved, and thoroughly entertained.
As for me…I think the book is absolutely extraordinary in that Mary was only 21 when she wrote it. The first edition was published 1818, but with the help of her husband, poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, she made changes to the novel, and even accredited him at one point with the writing of it. What is also extraordinary about the book is that it is original and bears a multi-layered complexity that is shocking because it is produced by a 21 year old girl. I don’t know if Mary was a genius. Her husband probably was, as was his buddy Byron. Mary was a political radical though. A feminist like her mother Mary Wollstonecraft. A believer in free love—kind of a Georgian era hippie. She also saw three of her four babies die, and survived the accidental death of her beloved Percy. I knew that Mary was an essayist and worked with her hubby on his poetry, but I wasn’t aware of her list of novels—other novels. In fact, Mary Shelley was quite a prolific writer: 6 novels, 1 novella, 2 travel books, 3 children’s books, a good number of biographies, and numerous short stories, poems, and other articles. Until I looked more closely, whenever I heard Mary’s name, I thought Frankenstein. Clearly, my bad.
As for Frankenstein itself….
Here, there are two: there is the brilliant young Victor Frankenstein and his re-animated, equally brilliant creature who was and was not Adam.
There are many themes happening at once. There is the broken father/son relationship. The reader sees the very best of this relationship in Victor and his father, and the very worst in Victor and his creature.
The story raises a question about what good and evil “look like.” The old notion that “what is beautiful must also be good” is challenged by the wickedness and despicable cowardice of beautiful Victor Frankenstein, and his persistent refusal to take responsibility, his initial cruelty toward his creation, his foolish presumptuousness, and his abandonment of his obligations. He is a very unlikeable, spoiled whiner who makes feeble attempts after great torrents of self-pitying diatribes, but really accomplishes nothing. He wants only to escape what he has done, no matter what, without looking like the scaredy-cat he is. In many ways, Frankenstein got what was coming to him. Unfortunately, everyone else died too.
There is the political story. The creature represents the poor, destitute, and diseased in an era that supposed that poverty was the fault of the poor. This was the age of Debtor’s prisons, Workhouses, Bedlam, and child labor. It was a bad time for poverty in England, where the poor were often criminalized just for being poor. Just as orphans were blamed for being orphans. Thus, the creature, no matter his kind intentions, good deeds, or words of reason, is driven out by Felix based solely on his appearance. The creature rescues a young girl from drowning only to be shot by her young man who is terrified by the creature’s face. The message is that poverty and deformity are inescapable bottomless pits in Georgian society.
Of course, Frankenstein is the definitive “Zombie” story. The creature is a reanimated corpse—or patchwork of corpses. While zombies have evolved from Mary’s erudite, sensitive, and vengeful monster, he is still the first and best of them all. This is because the creature offers the reader a glimpse at one who thinks from a clean slate and can articulate his innocence. Who am I? What am I? Why am I cursed this way? Who is responsible for me and to whom am I responsible? If my Creator is imperfect and aloof toward me, what is my recourse? The more the creature seeks answers, the more he realizes that the only one who can give him answers will not answer him, and he falls into despair, rage, and violence.
I am still sorting my thoughts on Frankenstein. Feedback is welcome. Is the creature evil? To what extent is he responsible? I have a lot of side-reading to do on this novel that will hopefully lead me to answers for my questions.