Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Frankenstein by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley

So, Frankenstein.  We finished it. 

Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein in 1816 as part of a ghost story contest between herself, her step-sister Claire, her hubs Percy Shelley, Byron (as in Lord Byron), and Byron’s doctor.  Don’t know how Claire and the doctor managed to weasel their way into that group.  In introducing the book to my kids, I played up these facts:  A) The book was written by a woman, and B) the story is essentially a ghoulish campfire tale.  The Rigdons were jazzed from go—clearly energized by the thought that I must be getting soft in my old age since I was allowing them to slum with subject matter a la R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps.

Frankenstein is subtitled “The Modern Prometheus.”  I started to explain about the myth of Prometheus, but my daughter, Madeline, interrupted and claimed to know.  She cleared her throat and said, “Prometheus was a magicky guy who created people out of clay, and he gave them the gift of fire, and this bugged Zeus—Mom, Zeus is a god—so Zeus sent an eagle to eat his liver, only his liver grew back every day. So, you know.  He never got done with the pain. That’s basically the whole problem.”  (I don’t know how she knows about this particular myth.  She said she “read about it at Barnes and Noble.”  Honey, thank you for homeschooling yourself so Mommy can rest.  Keep up the good work.  PS:  I know about Zeus).

The book opens with a quote from Milton’s Paradise Lost.  In it, Adam asks God the following:

“Did I request thee, Maker, from my Clay
To mould me Man, did I solicit thee
From darkness to promote me, or here place
In this delicious Garden?...”

 I read the quote three times, offering no explanation.  I wanted to see if my non-native language-of-literature speakers would be able to decode it.  My eight year old son, Jack, summed it up:  “It’s a person saying to God ‘did I ask you to make me and put me in this garden?’” 

How ‘bout them apples?!  Hee--eey!  Hoo--ooh!

But then I was like Who do you think is saying it—what person did God place in a garden? You know...he was married to ‘Eve’?  And Jack pinched the top of his nose and was like Aw man, what was that guy’s name again....?  And then I felt subdued.  Note to self:  Read Genesis to the kiddies again.

Frankenstein is an epistolary novel, and it opens with a letter from Robert Walton to his sister, Margaret Saville.  Walton is a young man looking for adventure, and while on an Arctic seafaring exploration, he rescues a seriously bedraggled Victor Frankenstein from a piece of floating ice. Walton and his crew nurse Frankenstein back to quasi-health, and in the course of time, Walton hears Frankenstein’s strange, sad tale—the details of which Walton recounts to his sister in a series of letters. 

Turns out, Victor Frankenstein is a scientist whose love of “natural philosophy” and desire for personal glory have fueled him to pursue the creation of a “rational creature” akin to man and to imbue him with “animation,” or the spark of life.  Walton learns that Frankenstein has assembled a big, old, ugly humanish body from pieces of corpses he got from raiding graves.  Frankenstein admits that he grossed himself out doing this, but he was driven by a fevered passion that he couldn’t control.  Exactly how he brought the patchwork body to life, he won’t say, lest anyone copy his method and bring upon themselves the misery he has endured as a result of his creation. 

When my nine year old daughter, Clara, heard this, she muttered, “Well, that’s cheap.”

Yes, yes it is cheap.  Cheap storytelling.  Not that I’ll hear a word against the book from you, young lady.

Somehow, Frankenstein is unprepared for the horror that he feels upon seeing his “monster” awaken.  The Rigdons’ disdain for Frankenstein on this point was palpable. They really let the epithets fly. Moron!  Jerk!  Weakling!  Butt-Butt-Face!  One of the fun parts about character analysis for my children is that I allow them to say every mean thing about a disappointing character that they want to say to real people but can’t.  It’s cathartic.  Anyway, Frankenstein wigs out and leaves his infant-minded creature alone in the city.

Later in the book, Frankenstein describes an encounter he has with the monster when they meet up in an icy mountain cave.  The monster explains his feelings of abandonment and confusion at being so categorically rejected by his creator.  The description of his inner transformation from a lover of virtue to a vehicle of viciousness is haunting and, I thought, a contemporary picture of what happens when children are unloved.

“...[I] bore a hell within me; and, finding myself unsympathized with, wished to tear up the trees, spread havoc and destruction around me, and then to have sat down and enjoyed the ruin."

At this, Jack hung his head with the campy dejection of a sad mime on a New York street corner and said, “I am feeling very angry.  To the monster, Frankenstein was like a mother and God. And what if your mother and God did not love you because you were ugly? That would be the terriblest thing.”

Madeline was also moved:  “Ugliness is alarming, and that is the truth.  But you should never, ever make something you aren’t willing to love.”  My heart was too big for my chest.  Oh, the sweet profundity.

Clara added softly:  “...I hate the Monster’s skinny black lips.  I just don’t know why he has to have those lips...”

Madeline gave Clara a stern look:  “Well, Frankenstein should make himself stare at the Monster’s lips until they no longer have any effect on him.  That’s what I’d do, and that’s what you’d do.”

Twisted and bruised by repeated rejection, the monster becomes a “monster on the inside”—giving himself over to murderous behavior that is as ugly as his face.  He dedicates his life to subjecting his maker to the same despair and loss that he has experienced. 

I have to stop, because this is already too long for a blog post, and you and I both know you started skimming a long time ago.  If I had more time, I’d regale you with our discussions about 19th century Romanticism, and existential despair, and all the many allusions to Paradise Lost.  I’d tell you about how we constantly tallied up how many “layers deep in story” we were (the monster is telling a story to Frankenstein who is telling a story to Walton who is telling a story to Margaret, and Mary Shelley is telling *that whole story* to us and right now, we are in God’s mind, characters in *His* story...).   It was wonderful.  I love this book, and I will never forget the sweet hours I spent soaking in it with my babies.  I give it five thousand stars.


  1. I loved this review. The truth is, I've never actually tackled this book because, like Maddy, I experience true revulsion at ugly things. I just do. I hated Gregor so much, with that awful piece of fruit stuck in his back, that I felt an adrenaline-like tingle in my belly that made me want to kill something ugly. But after reading this review, perhaps I'll gird my loins and try it after all.

  2. I will gird as well. A review like that could make me read anything.

  3. I am inspired to get back to outloud reading of hard books with our girls. Thanks! Always fun to read what you write, Rachel!

  4. We studied this book in my AP course this year and we spent a great deal of time discussing Shelley's own description of the book as "the modern Prometheus." I thoroughly enjoyed this review of Frankenstein, particularly for the inclusion of the myth parallel and discussion of Romanticism.

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