"I may not know how to fly but I know how to read and that's almost the same thing."-- Gregory Maguire, Out of Oz

"...while finding true love was one of the most splendid things that could happen to you in life, finding a friend was equally splendid." -- Felix J Palma, The Map of the Sky

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Friday, May 15, 2015

Frankenstein; or the Modern Prometheus by Mary Shelley

"Learn from me, if not by my precepts, at least by my example, how dangerous is the acquirement of knowledge, and how much happier that man is who believes his native town to be the world, than he who aspires to become greater than his nature will allow."
Robert Walton failed writer turned sailor, opens the story by writing to his sister Margaret. He is sailing far north, when the crew rescue Victor Frankenstein who is lost upon an ice flow. Victor is a broken man with a story to tell. Even if you haven't seen the movies, even if you haven't read the book, you're probably familiar with the concept of Frankenstein: a mad scientist sews a body together and restores life to dead limbs, creating a hideous monster.

This book wasn't at all what I was expecting. After Victor's mother dies he sent away to university where he studies science and discovers how to reanimate the dead. He becomes obsessed with his science experiment shunning all social contact and working tirelessly on proving his theory right. This story has been so puffed up that I expected more from the reanimation scene. But to my surprise there was little or no detail on how Victor figured out the key to life, to my greater surprise, Victor is instantly horrified by his creation and for much of the story they are separate. Victor falls ill and the creature runs away.

The monster winds up living in a pig sty attached to a cottage, where he watches, learns from, and grows to love the family that lives there. Meanwhile Victor is nursed back to health by a friend. By the time Victor is healthy, Frankenstein has been chased from his refuge. Victor is returning home to Geneva and the creature is hell bent on vengeance.

 This story was sadder than it was scary, and I admit I sympathized with the monster. The monster didn't have a choice, he was brought to life by an egomaniac who then rejected him. He struggled to survive, to find a family, but being hideous there was no one who could understand, no one who could love him. Everywhere he goes, he's met with hatred until he becomes the monster everyone thinks he is. A similar idea is displayed with Justine; accused of murder, she's eventually convinced to confess to a crime she didn't commit. It's an important concept: hate and ignorance breeds hate and violence. You have to wonder if Victor had tried to care for his creation, would his creation have turned out differently?

I also want to point to female characters versus male characters in the storyline. In classic lit, it's pretty much expected not to expect a whole lot from the ladies. And at first glance, this follows the usual generalization. Women as beautiful, compliant, care takers. But take a closer look at the men in this story. First Robert Walton, who writes his sister complaining that he has no friends on the ship; he requires a male companion who is an intellectual equal. He's failed at being a writer, and he's on the brink of being a failed explorer, but he can't recognize that someone else on the crew might add value to his own life. Victor Frankenstein spends most of his time talking about how brilliant he is, and how no one can ever compare... But he consistently fails. He created a monster but failed to control it. He watched as a maid is punished for crime she didn't commit, failed to tell the truth and free her, somehow managed to make her execution all about himself. Despite being intellectually superior he was incapable of understanding that his creature was planning to make Victor suffer and Victor failed to protect those closest to him even after he'd been warned...

Now take another look at the women. Elizabeth takes over the mother figure role when Frankenstein's mother dies. She's consistently willing to sacrifice her happiness for the good of her family. She doesn't try to be a good mother, she just is. Then there is Justine who fled from an abusive mother to help take care of the Frankenstein family in their time of need, and later returned to her mother, when her mother needs help. There is also Saffie the Arabian woman, born to a rich father, who refused to join a harem and bravely fled from a patriarchal society. She ran to a country whose language she couldn't speak, in hopes of marrying the man who maybe loved her, to help care for the family that promised her free will if they had nothing else to offer.

Although the male characters are centerstage, the female characters are doing brave things successfully, while the males flounder. What does it say that the failures of man are broadcast loudly while the successes of the women are merely glanced at? A study of snobbish male ego, maybe, or maybe it's a reminder that women are hardly inferior. I also thought it was interesting that the monster, was the only male character who considered a female to be a suitable companion equal to himself. That's right, The Monster, whose presence no one in their right minds could bare, and his only request was for a lady friend. Again I wonder: How would the monster think and act had Victor raised him? Victor, who even at Death's door, could not put away his sense of self importance and accept friendship...

 Overall I enjoyed this read, it was surprising and I'm glad I finally got around to this story. I suspect this is one of those stories where you see and understand more, the more times you read it.

Rating: 4/5


  1. This was a really awesome review, very in depth. I've never read it, but your post makes me want to pick it up this summer!

    1. Aw thank you! Sorry it took so long for me to respond,
      If you're in the mood for a classic give it a go!


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