Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein might be one of the most misunderstood books of all time. When you hear the name Frankenstein, instead of thinking about a complex masterpiece that explores the dark consequences of man’s overreaching ambition, you’ll probably think of a green, flat-headed, lumbering giant with bolts sticking out of his neck with as much depth as a zombie. This, frankly, is a travesty, and whether you know what the real Frankenstein is about or not, I urge you to read on, and join me in making people around the world understand what the hell this story is actually about
(Or at the very least, get people to understand Frankenstein is the name of the monster’s creator, not the monster itself – surely we can accomplish that…right?)
The story begins with a man exploring the Arctic. His team stumbles on Victor Frankenstein, who is desperately pursuing the Creature. Victor is brought inside and, in a kind of deathbed confession, he explains what led him to this point. He starts with his family and childhood, and this period hints at a fundamental split at the heart of his character – the split between the scientific approach and romantic impulses, which both lead Victor to eventually discover how to create life. He succeeds and…immediately freaks out. He abandons his Creature and seems to imagine he can just forget it’s out there. But it is out there, and about half-way through the story we meet the unnamed Creature, who is more intelligent and eloquent that most characters you’ll ever encounter. It’s read poetry, history, and more, yet is despised by the world because of its grotesque appearance. Now that it’s found its creator, it demands Victor create something else, specifically…
I won’t spoil the rest of what is a great book except to say that while, yes, it is a horror story, the horror often arises from unexpected places, like when we see how viciously the Creature is treated, even by a small child. Of course, there are more traditionally horrible elements as well, which get increasingly, well, insane, as the fight between the two grows more intense. There’s mayhem, madness, and death all around, but what will keep you awake more than the terrible events are the equally terrible questions Shelley raises. Like all true masterpieces, Frankenstein defies easy categorization or simple answers. For instance, is Victor a hero or a villain? What about the Creature? Personally, I’m more Team Creature, but it’s not a position I’m entirely comfortable with, and the next time I read the book, I may very well change my mind.
I could go on about the dynamic relationships between the characters or how the book is arguably a warning about the Romantic Movement in literature, which was at its height at this time (there’s a reason the novel is given the subtitle “The Modern Prometheus”). But what’s most important is that you understand there is infinitely more to this story than the hokey version pop culture has been lazily force-feeding us for decades.
So the next time a friend talks about Frankenstein and it’s obvious he or she doesn’t know anything about the real story, force them to buy the novel by any means necessary and then get a new friend.
Also go read it. Now.
Fun Fact #1: Shelley wrote many other great novels besides this one, including The Last Man, which I’ll have to get to writing a post about sometime in the future.
Fun Fact #2: Shelley wrote Frankenstein as part of a writing contest with her husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Lord Byron (both great Romantic poets). I don’t know if she won, but I think it says something that no one knows what either of the other two wrote. Oh, and she was 17 when she wrote this, which I’d find impressive if I didn’t find it so infuriating.