Traveling the Classics | Frankenstein
I was impressed to learn that Mary Shelley published Frankenstein anonymously as a young twentysomething nearly 200 years ago. In reading, I learned that this young woman was way ahead of her time in terms of sociology and understanding human nature. She arrived at conclusions that science is just now “proving” with more measurable data.
In regards to the story, I was struck by how different it is from any other cultural adaptation I’ve seen of it. The green monster with the flattop and bolt through his neck doesn’t do a justice to the hideous creature that Dr. Victor Frankenstein created. The stiff-walking, barely-talking enigma from the movies is nothing like the intellectual, physically robust, and philosophical…thing…we find in the book. It’s also quite meta in nature. It’s a story within a story, with a few other stories thrown in the middle. It’s really quite complex, and not something I was expecting in the least bit.
We start out with a young traveler, Walton, writing letters to his sister from the sea. He makes comments about wanting to advance in the sciences, and also about how lonely he is; he badly desires a companion, a friend. This is a foreshadowing to what I see as the main theme in the book. The traveler then runs into another traveler, one Dr. Victor Frankenstein. Walton, in his letters, tells the story of Dr. Frankenstein, which is the story of the monster he created.
Another surprise was that this monster was in fact, by nature, quite kind. All it desired was love from its creator. It was immediately scorned by Frankenstein, however, and set about making a life for him(it)self. He spied upon a family and learned language, history, etc. When he tried to introduce himself, he was beaten and thrown out, mostly on terms of his ghoulish appearance. It is misery, rejection, and loneliness that drives the monster to be…well, a monster.
In this story we question the true definition of humanness. The ghoul waxes philosophical: “But where were my friends and relations? No father had watched my infant days, no mother had blessed me with smiles or caresses…from my earliest remembrance I had been as I then was in height and proportion. I had never yet seen a being resembling me, or who claimed any intercourse with me. What was I? The question again recurred, to be answered only with groans.”
Reading this only caused me to ask those same questions. What does it mean to be truly human? What is central to the human experience? What truly sets us apart from animals? Would I welcome this type of creature into my home, or would I scorn him on the basis of appearance? These questions confront our own morality and neighborliness.
It must also be said that at times, the book is truly terrifying. I was reading one particularly tense scene which reached its climax just as the mailman dropped the mail through the slot in our door, and I confess that I jumped and made an audible noise. What I love about it, however, is that the horror comes from tension and anticipation versus blood and guts. The masters of horror, Stephen King being one, often attribute their beginnings and foundations to Mary Shelley’s masterpiece.
In 1818, a young, gifted woman wrote to the world in the form of a novel that being lonely is the greatest horror there is. And the scientists of today are coming to agree with her through empirical data. Fascinating.
The book itself is short, only 160 pages or so, and at times, tough to get through. If you’re like me, however, you’ll fly through the second half and learn as much about the human spirit as you will from any modern psychology book. Well maybe not as much, but you’ll get pretty darn close.