Friday, October 31, 2014

Fiction review: Frankenstein

I read the classic novel Frankenstein by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley for the first time this month, to celebrate Halloween. The novel is quite different from the many movies that have been adapted from it – far more thoughtful, for one thing – and I enjoyed it very much. I’m sure you know the basic story – mad scientist creates monster that then wreaks havoc on the world – but in fact, there is a lot more to it than that, and the story is more about human nature than about monsters.

Victor Frankenstein is a young student at the University of Ingolstadt when he becomes obsessed with discovering the nature of life itself, as he describes here:
“It was the secrets of heaven and earth that I desired to learn; and whether it was the outward substance of things or the inner spirit of nature and the mysterious soul of man that occupied me, still my inquiries were directed to the metaphysical, or in its highest sense, the physical secrets of the world.”
So, he was not exactly the mad scientist depicted in the movies but a young student of science who got carried away trying to uncover the secrets of life. You already know the result of his obsession – he succeeds in creating life, building a super-human creature from spare parts (and by the way, the scientist is named Frankenstein, not the creature!). When the creature comes to life, Victor snaps out of his obsessive haze and realizes he’s done something terrible, so he hides and the creature runs away.

His creative process encompasses just a small portion of the book – the rest deals with his background, and the experiences of both himself and his creation afterward. He had an idyllic childhood, growing up with loving parents and an adopted and much-loved sister, Elizabeth. Much of his childhood was spent in beautiful Switzerland with his best friend, Henry Clerval. His happy life falls apart after his obsessive creation, though. Even before he encounters it again, he is torn apart emotionally by thoughts of what he has unleashed upon the world and worried about what his creation might be doing.

The creature’s experiences are even more interesting, as he later recounts to Frankenstein all that has happened to him since he escaped the laboratory. I won’t ruin the story by going into detail here, but the basic premise is that when he encounters kind, loving people, he learns to be kind and gentle. And when he (more frequently) encounters fear and loathing, due to his gruesome appearance, he becomes angry and vengeful.

And that is really the heart of this novel – that the creature begins as a blank slate and learns his behaviors from the other people he encounters and how they treat him. It is both fascinating and heart breaking to see his goodness ruined by mistreatment.  The author makes a clear argument for the power of nurture and experience to mold the soul, as Frankenstein explains here:
“We rest; a dream has power to poison sleep. We rise; One wand’ring thought pollutes the day. We feel, conceive, or reason; laugh or weep, Embrace fond woe, or cast our cares away; It is the same: for, be it joy or sorrow, The path of its departure still is free. Man’s yesterday may ne’er be like his morrow; Nought may endure but mutability!”

Comparing the movie adaptations to the original novel, I found that the book is far less action-oriented (though there is some action) and far more thoughtful and thought provoking. Although the subject is Frankenstein’s creation (never referred to as a monster in the book), clearly, it is a story about human nature: both the creation’s evolution from kind and gentle to violent and destructive due to its being mistreated and also the way that Frankenstein’s own guilt eats away at him and prevents his own happiness. Oh, and the creation is never described as green.

It is a fascinating story that stirs plenty of thought about the nature of humanity and how our experiences shape us and affect how we treat others. There is also plenty of action and adventure as Frankenstein and his creation follow each other across Germany, Switzerland, Ireland, and even up to the frozen Arctic. It’s a sad story, a tragedy really, that will make you think. And no, the creation doesn’t wear a tux, dance on stage, and sing, “Putting on the Ritz”(one of my favorite movie scenes ever!).

166 pages, Dover Publications (though I read it in my Kindle)


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