Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus by Mary Shelley

“If I cannot inspire love, I will cause fear!”

🎃🎃🎃🎃🎃

In his youthful hubris, science student Victor Frankenstein decides to create a living being from stolen organic material, part human, part animal. When he succeeds, he is horrified at the hideousness of the creature he has brought into the world, and flees, leaving his monstrous creation to fend for himself. Hiding himself away, the monster learns by observation what it is to be human, to talk, to laugh, to love – and he wants these things for himself. But humans cannot accept someone so hideously different, so he is spurned and reviled everywhere he goes until eventually, in his bitterness and sorrow, his thoughts turn to revenge against the man who so cruelly created and then abandoned him…

Frankenstein’s monster has become such a standard part of our culture, both as a scary stalwart of the horror movie and as a warning reference against mad science, that it’s easy to forget just how powerful and moving the original is. Published when Shelley was only twenty, it’s remarkably mature in its themes, even if the writing occasionally shows her youthfulness in a kind of teenage hyperbole, especially when the subjects of romance or grief are approached.

It is, of course, the ultimate warning against science for science’s sake, untempered by ethical or safety considerations, and that theme seems to become ever more relevant with each passing year. In a world where designer babies are becoming the norm, with scientists gaily manipulating genes confident in their own power to control nature; where others talk blithely of geo-engineering as if they couldn’t accidentally destroy the world in their attempts to save it; where yet others are searching for new weapons, presumably on the grounds that nukes aren’t destructive enough, I’d like to make a law where every scientist should be locked in a room for one week every year and be forced to read and contemplate this book, and maybe write an essay on it for public consumption before being considered for funding.

Kenneth Branagh and Robert De Niro in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein 1994

But there’s also the human theme of perception and rejection of difference – the inability of man to look past the outer crust and recognise the similarities of the soul beneath. Shelley’s monster is ultimately the most human character in the book, and in the book we can recognise this in a way we can’t in the movies – because although we are told of the monster’s hideousness, we can’t see it with our eyes. So when he tells Frankenstein the story of how cruelly and vilely he has been treated by humanity, we feel utter sympathy for his plight, though surely we must wonder in our secret hearts if we would be able to listen so patiently and empathetically if face to face with this grotesque mockery of the human form. And Shelley tests us – this monster doesn’t remain good: the years of rejection and loneliness distort his soul until it is as deformed and hideous as his body. Can we still sympathise then?

Boris Karloff and Edward Van Sloan in Frankenstein 1931

Shelley doesn’t labour the theme of man usurping God’s role as creator, though it’s there. At the time of writing, when Christianity would have been universal amongst her readership, there would have been no need – the idea of man aspiring to these heights would have been recognised as blasphemous without it having to be spelled out. But Frankenstein’s punishment is harsh indeed – how different the book would have been had the monster decided to seek a direct revenge against his creator. Instead, Frankenstein is to be slowly tortured by seeing those he loves perish horribly, one by one. In the end, creator and creation are each responsible for the pain and suffering of the other, each knowing with a growing certainty that their fates are inextricably linked.

“Hateful day when I received life!” I exclaimed in agony. “Accursed creator! Why did you form a monster so hideous that even you turned from me in disgust? God, in pity, made man beautiful and alluring, after his own image; but my form is a filthy type of yours, more horrid even from the very resemblance. Satan had his companions, fellow-devils, to admire and encourage him; but I am solitary and abhorred.”

The story is told by three narrators – Robert Walton, who meets Frankenstein towards the end of his journey, in the form of letters to his sister; Frankenstein himself, as he relates his tale to Walton; and the monster’s own story, as told by him to Frankenstein. The three voices are very different, and for me the most powerful part of the book by miles is the monster’s story. Walton never comes to life for me, but it doesn’t matter since he’s little more than a story-telling device. Frankenstein’s portion can become repetitive, especially when he eternally laments his woes (however justified his lamentations may be), but it is filled also with some wonderful descriptions of the natural world as he travels far and wide across Europe and then into the Arctic in his attempts first to flee his creation and then later to track him down. It’s in Frankenstein’s story (and Walton’s, to some degree) that the “romantic” writing most comes through – the monster’s story and other parts of Frankenstein’s give the book its Gothic elements. There are weaknesses – an unevenness in the quality of the writing at points, a tendency towards repetition, a bit too much wailing and gnashing of teeth – but this is balanced by the power and emotion of other parts of the story. The monster’s ability to master language and writing so thoroughly defies strict credulity, but works within the context of the fable nature of the tale, and undoubtedly allows him to tell his experiences with moving eloquence and great insight.

Mary Shelley

This is another of those classics which I had forgotten just how good it is. The writing may be patchy in parts but overall it’s wonderful, and the themes are timeless and beautifully presented. I listened to it this time round, with Derek Jacobi narrating. His performance is fantastic – I’ve always loved his acting, but actually I think he narrates even better than he acts. The power of his delivery of the monster’s story in particular moved me to tears and anger, and even literally raised the hairs on the back of my neck at points. And he got me through Frankenstein’s sometimes overblown self-pity more easily than I think reading it would have done. A marvellous performance of one of the most influential books ever written – really, what could be better than that?

Book 15 of 90

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54 thoughts on “Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus by Mary Shelley

  1. Great review! I love this book, one of my all time favourites. There’s so much in it, the hubris of science without ethics, and the responsibility of the creator to his creature, or the father to his child. In the end, you ask yourself who was the monster? Great book, that is more relevant than ever today.

    • Thank you! 😀 It’s so long since I last read it that although I remembered the story I had forgotten how powerfully written it is. Yes, indeed, my sympathies were much more with the monster than with Frankenstein. I still can’t believe she was so young when she wrote it – amazing!

      • She was amazing, it’s a great pity she didn’t write much more. I’ve read a fair bit about her and her life. Her father was the philosopher William Godwin, and her mother was the writer and feminist Mary Woolstoncraft, who tragically died of childbirth complications. It’s interesting that there’s no mother figure in the book, and Frankenstein, I suspect is a little like Mary’s father, who was very much all intellect, and little empathy. When Mary wrote the book, she had already lost a child and had gone to Switzerland to recuperate. Her fathers advice, just forget about it and stop grieving. Thanks dad!

  2. This really is a powerful novel, FictionFan. I used to be one of a group of people who taught a preceptorial course for all incoming students to our uni. That course explored the nature of humanity from different perspectives, and this was one of the books that we used. It has some important things to say, as you point out, about how we see each other, the limits of our scientific intellect, and a lot more. Yes, it’s not perfect. But it’s still an important piece of writing.

    • Oh, that’s interesting, Margot – what a great choice for a discussion about humanity. That’s one of the things I like about science fiction, really – by removing it a step from being directly about people, it lets authors explore humanity very effectively. I’m just amazed that she wrote it when she was so young – what an achievement!

      • I think it was an amazing achievement, too, FictionFan. Certainly better than I could have written at twenty.

        Thanks for asking about that course. If I recall correctly, we also used Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart and Robert Wright’s The Moral Animal, and possibly one or two others that (sad to admit) escape me now. It was a while ago…

        • Hah! Coincidentally, I was just discussing Things Fall Apart with another blogger – it’s been languishing on my TBR for ages. Fate must be telling me something… I must shove it up to the top of the list! I haven’t heard of The Moral Animal… I shall investigate… thank you! 😀

  3. I read this for the first time a few years ago and was surprised by how much I enjoyed it but also how sad it made me feel. It was a book that played on my emotions so much more than I thought it would.

    • I think we’ve all kinda absorbed the story from the films, even if we haven’t seen them, and the films simplify it so much. I watched the Karloff version last night and it’s really an entirely different story. The book has so much more depth, and the monster stops being scary and becomes an object of pity – it really is a true classic!

    • Thank you! 😀 It was years since I’d read it too – it’s well worth revisiting and it’s not hugely long either so not too hard to fit in. I think Derek Jacobi is amazing – he brought that monster totally to life, more than any of the movies I’ve seen have ever done…

  4. Can you believe I have never read Frankenstein? After reading your review, I think it would be a good follow-up to The Island of Dr. Moreau for me. I don’t have access to the audio version you mention, but I have three other narrators to chose from, so I will seriously consider listening to this book before the year is over.

    • I think it goes with Dr Moreau very well – in fact, I found myself thinking of how Wells may well have been influenced by this one. It’s a pity you haven’t got access to the Jacobi recording – I think he’s the best narrator I’ve ever heard, no matter what I’ve heard him doing. But hopefully one of your three will be just as good – enjoy! 😀

  5. Great review. I read this again in college and really enjoyed it then. Like all great fiction, it is a timeless piece and it feels more relevant today than ever

    • Thank you! 😀 It really is a great book – amazing to think she wrote it when she was so young! And while I’m all for science, it does no harm for us to be reminded to keep a careful control over what they’re allowed to do…

  6. Fabulous review of an outstanding classic, FF! I imagine listening to it, rather than reading it, would present a whole different aspect — most haunting at this time of year!

  7. I haven’t read this since high school. When you reminded me that she was only 20 when she wrote it, I had to do a double take. Hard to imagine! I think an audio version of this would be just the thing if I were to reread it. Enjoyed your review!

    • Thank you – glad you enjoyed it! 😀 It’s been years since I last read it – decades, in fact! I did find Jacobi’s reading brought a whole new dimension to it – he brought that monster totally to life for me. I still find it hard to believe she could have written a book like this when she was so young – an amazing achievement. Her other stuff seems pretty much forgotten now, but I must make an effort to try one of her other novels…

  8. And perfect timing for Halloween! I had to write endless essays on this book when I was doing my english lit degree, but I always enjoyed reading it again and again. Some books just hold up through time, and this is definitely one of them! Now i have to watch the movie with Robert De Niro…

    • Ha – I was actually meaning to be listening to it over Hallowe’en, but I enjoyed it so much I ended up finishing it too quickly! I haven’t read it for decades so it was great to discover that I still loved it – maybe even more now. I’m proposing to watch the De Niro version this week – I watched the Karloff version last night, but from memory Branagh tried to stick to the original story… I think I enjoyed it back in the day. But then I was a little in love with Kenneth Branagh back then… *sighs*

  9. Unfortunately she didn’t write much more. She did write a novella called “Matilda” which her father prohibited from publication. Very Freudian stuff. It’s also fascinating, about a father and daughter’s unhealthy obsessive relationship, the word incest is not mentioned but implied. She was an amazing woman, so sad that she’s been overshadowed by her husband, but Frankenstein is a masterpiece. After her husband’s death, she concentrated on promoting his work.

    • Oh, I thought she had written more than that. I must read Matilda sometime then – sounds as if it might be quite disturbing actually. Her life sounds fascinating – my sister mentioned she’s just starting reading a biography of her – perhaps I should do the same. Thanks for piquing my interest! 😀

      • You can get Matilda as a little black classic in Penguin. She did write a few other things, some not discovered until the 1960s, but nothing else well known or easy to get. Amazing woman, she could have done so much more in another era.

        • I see Delphi have done one of their complete works versions, so I shall download it at some point and maybe sample some of the other stuff. Admittedly I have about a million of these Delphi collections – I doubt I could get through them all even if I was immortal! But I shall definitely read Matilda…

  10. What a brilliant and timely review of this wonderful classic. I haven’t read the whole book in a long while but I dipped in and out a few years ago when Owen was reading this for a piece of art when I was reminded me of those themes you pull out. I do like the idea of making those scientists read and write an essay on the book – FF for Prime Minister! 😉

    • Thanks Cleo! 😀 It had been many years since I last read it too and I really had fogotten what a powerful book it is. I can see how it would be very inspirational for artists. I still can’t get over the fact she was so young when she wrote it. Hahaha – couldn’t I be a Dictator instead? Bwahaha!! 🎃

    • Thank you! 😀 It was ages since I had read it too – it’s very much worth a re-read, I think. Actually I think I liked it even more than I did when I was young, Haha – I’m glad you spotted the pumpkins – they’re my favourite thing at the moment… 🎃🎃🎃

  11. There’s something about Frankenstein (and Dracula) that have never really appealed to me. I know I could be so wrong about myself, so I might read them someday and see. However, the influence they’ve had over the years is amazing!

    • It’s so long since I read them but from memory I didn’t enjoy Dracula as much as this one, or at least I didn’t think it had the same depth. This one gets a bad rap from being so associated with horror movies – it doesn’t really read like horror, I think. It’s too thoughtful, and though there are some horrific events, the reader isn’t forced to watch them – we learn about them at second or third hand. If you ever decide to read one of them this would be the one I’d recommend… 😀

  12. Well done. I have so many thoughts. Forgive the length (or delete if too long). On religion, note that Mary Shelley was surrounded by freethinking sorts, of which there were quite a few in those Enlightenment years – her husband, who scandalized Oxford by writing a pamphlet called “The Necessity of Atheism” and mailing it to every bishop in England, the wildly unconventional Byron, not to mention her parents, Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin, both of whom famously attacked the political and religious institutions of the day.

    Thematically, among the value systems of the day, Victor may represent both the Enlightenment faith in science and the Romantic passion to strive beyond all accepted limits. A third value system – let’s call it the Sentimental — was anchored in the kinder, simpler “tend-your-own garden” domestic bonding as the locus of value. Elizabeth might be the character who represents this option, and, from the way the novel turns out — despite the wild and stormy romanticism of the novel’s main elements, despite the fact that Shelley was at the time of writing traveling with two of the greatest Romantic poets of the day — it seems the novel’s moral implicitly favors the Sentimental.

    • Thank you! Oddly, despite the freethinking that surrounded her, I thought she took a fairly conventional view of religion in the book – Frankenstein seemed to be being punished as much for having dared to challenge God as creator as for anything else. It is strange that the monster had mastered such a deep understanding of scripture though… he must have sneaked in at the back of the church when no-one was looking… 😉 And yes, I see what you mean about the various value systems, and again she does seem to have opted for the most conventional as the best, in the end. Perhaps, young as she was, she wasn’t willing to adopt the views of those around her without question – or perhaps she had one eye on publication.

      • Excellent thoughts. Yes, despite the all the romantic “furniture” in the novel, I think you’re right that in her gut she was more reluctant to throw away conventional values than the more impetuous ones around her, and this reluctance shows in the novel’s ending/moral.

  13. FF, I suspect this may be the best review I’ve read – of anything not just of Frankenstein. This is a book I’ve successfully avoided and yet been frustrated in so doing: Mary Shelley and her mother are women I admire a great deal. I’ve always felt that I OUGHT to read it… blah blah…

    Anyway, your review has helped sweep aside some of my fears. It’s also made me wonder whether I would do better to come to it through audio. I shall ponder – and enjoy sampling the various readings: Dan Stevens, Kenneth Branagh… I’m going to have to restart my audible membership!

    I’m waffling. Really just want to say thanks – you have excelled your always excellent self with this one!

    🙂

    • Aw, thank you, Sandra – I’m blushing like a shy lobster! You’ve made my day! 😊 So glad you enjoyed it! And I do hope I’ve tempted you to read the book – or listen to it. I think Jacobi’s narration helped me tolerate Frankenstein’s self-pity more than I might have done if I’d been reading it. I haven’t heard the other narrators doing this, but I listened to Branagh doing Heart of Darkness some years ago and was impressed by him. Dan Stevens seems to be getting great reviews for various stuff he’s done – I must give him a try sometime. But I’m still directing you towards Jacobi – I thought this was an amazingly good performance… 😀

  14. Aside: The real hero of the classic 1931 film was Jack Pierce, the make-up artist, who, with almost nothing to go on in the novel, created the face that continues to tower over the popular imagination, even now, almost 100 years later (as Halloween is my witness 🙂 )

    • Agreed! I watched it the other night, and although it’s not a patch on the book, the monster make-up is fab and Karloff is great – it’s the film that really lives in the cutural memory rather than the book, I think. Now for a re-watch of the Branagh version…

      • My take on the Branagh version is much like my take on Coppola’s Dracula — both are weakest when they cling to the book and both excel when they break from the book and recognize that film and lit are different media with different virtues and limitations — a film can never beat a novel on the novel’s own terms … but it can do things cinematically that a novel can’t do.

        • I seem to remember enjoying the Branagh version when it came out but don’t really remember much about it. I’ll be intrigued to see how it compares – mush though I love De Niro, the images don’t make him look monsterish enough somehow… but hopefully I’m wrong!

  15. I agree the writing is patchy – she was young and learning her craft. I also agree its still a massively impressive achievement! I’m very excited that you think Derek Jacobi is even better at narrating than acting – high praise indeed! I’m definitely going to have to find an audiobook of his now 🙂

    • Indeed – and I wondered if she wrote it linearly – it seemed to me the early chapters were the weakest and she improved as the book went on. But the themes are incredibly mature and well thought through – for someone of any age! I’ve loved everything I’ve listened to of Derek Jacobi narrating – I wish he’d done more of it than he has. He gets such power into his voice at the big scenes and yet such emotion… 😀

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