- Elisha Gray
Book Review: Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus is the haunting tale of a scientist who attempts to create a man but instead creates a creature who he spurns, thus setting the creature upon his loved ones in a monstrous revenge story.
In 1816, ‘the year without summer’, Shelley, her future husband Percy Shelley and Lord Byron set out to see who could write the best horror story. Shelley was stuck until she had a dream of a man animating a corpse. She described the dream in her 1831 edition of the novel:
I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half vital motion. Frightful must it be; for supremely frightful would be the effect of any human endeavour to mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world.
Frankenstein is more than a story of a monster seeking revenge. Shelley delves into questions of life and death, crimes against nature, as well as themes of loss, guilt and loneliness. Shelley arguably wrote the first science fiction novel, as she presents a man using scientific means to achieve his goal, along with themes of humanity, consciousness and playing god. Creating life has been a popular trope in the sci-fi genre since then and has even moved from fiction to reality with the breakthrough of robots and artificial intelligence. Shelley portrays the fears and anxieties surrounding life and the great power we wield through science and curiosity.
As soon as the protagonist, Victor Frankenstein, brings life to his creation, he is mortified. ‘How can I describe my emotions at this catastrophe, or how delineate the wretch whom with such infinite pains and care I had endeavoured to form?’ (58). Frankenstein quickly realises that his painstaking attempt at creating a human was a mistake. He created a monster.
However, Frankenstein’s rejection causes the creature to turn against his creator. The creature goes on his murderous rampage not because he was born evil, but because Frankenstein’s utter disgust drove him to a vendetta against his creator. ‘I will revenge my injuries; if I cannot inspire love, I will cause fear, and chiefly towards you my archenemy, because my creator, do I swear inextinguishable hatred’ (175). The people he interacts with are terrified, of course. And though he wasn’t a hulking monster in the original novel, he was very clearly dead, with yellow eyes and black lips. Frankenstein’s intentions were to make a handsome and likable man but he was unable to mask the unnatural nature of the creature. This hyperawareness of something almost right but unnatural leans into the ‘uncanny valley’ trope seen with AIs in popular culture.
Mentions of God and religion come forth in the comparison of Frankenstein to God and the creature to Adam. The creature even says this directly to his creator ‘Remember that I am thy creature; I ought to be thy Adam, but I am rather the fallen angel, whom thou drivest from joy for no misdeed’ (114). ‘The Modern Prometheus’ is also a reference to the Greek Titan Prometheus who created humans and then gave them fire to further their advancement, but is eternally punished for granting them this. Frankenstein’s arc is similar in that he creates life and turns against his creation, thus creating a powerful enemy. He spent the rest of his days in his own eternal hell as his monstrous creation closed in on him.
However, this story is not about whether the creature is a monster or how the characters view him, but the reject the creature experiences when Frankenstein regrets his decisions. There’s a revenge plot woven into the plot, playing into fears of the Other and the ungodly. Frankenstein cannot trust this strange creature he has created and lives in fear of it.
The creature is a lonely thing and merely longs for the acceptance of his creator. ‘I was benevolent and good; misery made me a fiend. Make me happy, and I shall again be virtuous’ (114). When he realises he will never be accepted by Frankenstein, he turns against him and swears vengeance. In the real world, anxieties surround scientific developments such as artificial intelligence and self-aware robots. The creature also points out Frankenstein’s hypocrisies more than once and lords over Frankenstein that all of this is his fault because he created and rejected the monster he brought into the world. ‘You accuse me of murder, and yet you would, with a satisfied conscience, destroy your own creature’ (115). The creature longed for happiness, and acceptance as a good citizen and a good human. Since he couldn’t have that, neither could Frankenstein.
What did you like/dislike about this book?
Shelley wrote the novel intending to scare people and this is still true today. There’s no gore, little violence and no graphic descriptions; just a man who played God and created an ‘abomination’. I was reluctant to read this book, as I knew it was dense, but I’m glad I finally did as it is one of my favourites old sci-fi books. The descriptions still stick with me and Shelley’s themes of defying nature and pondering consciousness have influenced my own writing.
Did this live up to your expectations?
I saw the movie first and therefore expected the book to be more of a gothic horror novel. To be fair, it does include those gothic elements. However, the tropes of mad scientists, creating life and questioning humanity lean towards science fiction.
Before reading, I always assumed the creature died at the end of the book. It is implied that he plans to take his life, through the fire he once found fascinating. However, the book ends with the creature bidding farewell to the Captain who nursed Frankenstein and then vanishing into the dark ocean waves. The creature’s departure from the story solidifies the truly unhappy and ominous ending of the book.
How does it compare to the movie?
In comparison to James Whale’s classic 1931 movie Frankenstein, there is a genre divide. The 1931 film and most works of fiction that followed relied on the horror tropes of the story, rather than the science fiction elements. While I adore Boris Karloff as the monster depicted in the original horror film, like many classic horror films (Dracula, The Mummy, King Kong), it was a monster film above anything else. It’s fantastic and fun but it doesn’t have the profound fears that Shelley instilled in her original novel.
I’m always upset when the creature is portrayed as a hulking, lurking green monster. In the novel he was intended to be handsome and well-proportioned, with the irony being that it’s his lifeless yellow eyes that strike fear into Frankenstein:
His limbs were in proportion, and I had selected his features as beautiful. Beautiful! Great God! His yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath; his hair was of a lustrous black, and flowing; his teeth of a pearly whiteness; but these luxuriances only formed a more horrid contrast with his watery eyes, that seemed almost of the same colour as the dun-white sockets in which they were set, his shrivelled complexion and straight black lips. (58)
If anything, the monster should look like Edward Cullen, but instead of sparkly skin, he should be translucent with visible organs.