While working on a new story a couple of weeks ago, I decided to go back and reread Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein. I was particularly interested in revisiting Victor Frankenstein’s motivations in the novel and descriptions of his laboratory and working conditions. It’s been nearly 20 years since I last read Frankenstein and it was fascinating to take a fresh look at this novel that has had such a strong influence on both science fiction and horror.
The photo shows my cherished copy of Frankenstein illustrated by Berni Wrightson, introduced by Stephen King, and published by Marvel Comics. It’s a beautiful edition and reprints are widely available. For my reread, I downloaded a copy from Project Gutenberg, so I could more easily carry it around on my Kindle. Here is their page for Frankenstein: http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/84
The plot of the novel has often been obscured by the famous Hollywood adaptations, so a brief, hopefully spoiler-free synopsis is worthwhile. The novel opens as Captain Robert Walton is leading an expedition to the North Pole. They see a mysterious figure traverse the ice on a dog sled. Some time later, the ice breaks up and they find another man on a dog sled barely alive, floating on the ice. They pull the man aboard and discover he’s Victor Frankenstein, a scientist from Geneva, Switzerland. Frankenstein proceeds to tell Walton how he came to be at the North Pole.
Frankenstein was a happy youth, surrounded by friends, including his adopted cousin Elizabeth Lavenza and their friend Henry Clerval. He reads extensively and discovers books about alchemy in his father’s library. Once he reaches his teens, Frankenstein goes to university at Ingolstadt where he learns about then-modern science. He gets the idea to combine his knowledge of alchemy with modern natural philosophy concerning chemistry and electricity to create life. He creates a body from cadavers and soon succeeds with his plans. However, he is so horrified by his creation that he turns from it and it runs off into the night.
Frankenstein goes on about his life for about two years, then is called home when his little brother is found murdered and the prime suspect is the family’s beloved housekeeper Justine. There is a trial and Justine is condemned to death. Soon after the trial, Frankenstein is hiking among the glaciers and is reunited with the monster, who tells him what he’s been doing for the past two years.
The monster went to a village and quickly found himself shunned. He hides near a small cottage and observes the DeLacy family. Observing them over the course of a year, he learns to speak, read and write. However, when he finally decides to make himself known to them, he is chased away. Some time later, he rescues a little girl from a stream, only be shunned and chased away by her father. All of this causes the creature to seek revenge on the man who created him.
The novel had much more impact on me now than it did twenty years ago. Some of that is simply that I’ve read more widely and understood more of the references. Some of it has to do with the fact that I’m now a parent. In many ways, the novel stands as a critique of people who create a child, then abandon it to their own self-interest. The creature is intelligent, but he doesn’t know love and he doesn’t learn to govern his violent emotions.
Frankenstein’s motivations were fascinating. His childhood interest in alchemy is scorned by one professor, while somewhat indulged by another. Together, this leads to Victor finding a way to merge the ancient arts with modern science. After he creates life, and the creature has gone out into the world, it’s interesting to see the way that the society of Frankenstein’s day allowed him to avoid responsibility for his creation until it was too late. There may have been no TV, computers, or video games, but Frankenstein found plenty to occupy himself with for large periods of time between encounters with the creature.
The creature himself appears doomed to his fate by his horrific appearance, but I find myself wondering if he would have turned into the “vile daemon” of the novel if he had been nurtured by a loving father rather than scorned as an unwanted child.
The experiments themselves were also interesting. Shelley avoids detailed description of the apparatus. It’s clear chemistry and cadavers are involved. Likewise, it’s implied that electricity is used, but she doesn’t explain in detail. What I found particularly interesting is that Frankenstein creates life not in a remote castle as depicted in the movies, but first in his apartment in Ingolstadt, then later attempts to recreate his experiment in a two-room thatch hovel in the Orkneys.
Perhaps more interesting than the experiments from a writer’s perspective were the descriptions of travel and how long it took to get from one place to another and how readily this time was accepted by people. There are some good tidbits here for writers who want to explore historical fiction.
Although the novel is often cited as discussing the problems of science gone wrong, the line that sticks with me most from was spoken by the creature to Victor: “You are my creator, but I am your master; obey!” To my mind, that’s the line that brings the novel home to everyone. How many of us have, at one time or another turned away from our parents or even God—no matter our specific religious beliefs—and made just that demand?
If you only know Frankenstein from the movies, you should definitely go check out the novel. If it has been some time since you’ve read the novel, I think it’s one worthy of a second look. I definitely enjoyed rediscovering this classic novel.