By Nicholas Barham
Hi, Nick here. Today is Halloween, the time of ghouls, ghosts, vampires, and other nightmarish creatures. The perfect time to revive a classic of gothic horror, and so I will be reviewing Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, written by Mary Shelley and published in 1818; and a slightly updated version in 1831, which is the version I will be reviewing today. Frankenstein is a story about the limits of science and the danger of playing God. A story of a monster, who feels rejected by his creator and mankind at large and seeks vengeance upon them both. In other words, it is a story fitting for Halloween.
The beginning and the “frame”
The novel has a unique format, being presented as a kind of story within a story — what is known as a “frame story”. The narrative is written in what is known as epistolary form, as a series of diary entries and letters. The book begins with the “frame” in the form of a series of letters between Captain Robert Walton and his sister Margaret, dated sometime in the 1700s. Robert is an explorer, out to discover the secrets of the North Pole. It is in this glacial climate that he stumbles on a stranger, Victor Frankenstein, who is sitting in a sled atop a floating chunk of ice. Such a scenario presents to us a strange mystery: How did Victor manage to find his way to the North Pole, and what is he doing there?
Victor Frankenstein climbs aboard and later tells his story to Walton which is then relayed to us in the form of a first-person flashback narrative.
I really like the format of the story, it felt like the characters within the story were talking to me directly as if imparting a spooky tale around a campfire. It is a uniquely personable way of telling a story within the confines of a book. If I had to find a way to describe how it feels to read such a book, I would say that it is somewhat like the novel equivalent of a found-footage film.
The tragedy of Victor Frankenstein: A scientist obsessed with the mystery of life
Victor Frankenstein is brought to life through his own telling of his origins and motivations. The backstory may seem long-winded to some, but in my opinion, Victor’s long monologue on his origins gives us ample opportunity to empathise with his character, which makes his downfall all the more tragic and heart-wrenching.
Victor comes from an illustrious family, and from a young age he showed a keen interest in the sciences which would later develop into a life-long pursuit. In particular, he becomes fixated on the principle of life, and on the ability to create life itself within lifeless matter.
Modern cinema sometimes simplifies his character, portraying him as a mad scientist intoxicated with the power to create life (which to a certain extent he is). For example in the 1931 classic Frankenstein, upon giving life to the monster he says “It’s alive! In the name of God, now I know what it feels like to be God.” In an almost cartoonish portrayal of the mad scientist motif.
But the man in the original novel is more complex and multi-faceted. Yes he is obsessed with the prospect of creating life, but upon doing so he is instantly horrified and turns away from the monster. He does not show the same unrelenting zeal for the diabolical work of creating life as his character does in some of the film adaptations. Furthermore, Victor in the book is given a long involved backstory that is skipped over in most film adaptions; with various other characters connected to him and populating the world around him. The result of this more complex portrayal, and more involved backstory, is a more realistic character; one that feels less like a mad scientist caricature and more like a complicated man who is caught up in a terrifying situation.
One important aspect of Victor’s character is his romantic interest, Elizabeth. Victor’s mother one day happened upon an orphan, Elizabeth, in the care of a peasant woman. The peasant woman, being unable to care for the child, gives her up to Victor’s mother. Victor takes an instant liking to Elizabeth and grows to love her, wishing for her to be his wife one day, which in the end she would be.
This love interest adds a spark of humanity to Victor, even if it is a somewhat taboo coupling by modern standards, as the pair were adoptive siblings (and in the 1818 version they were first cousins). This spark of humanity helps us empathise and connect with Victor, even when we see him plunging into the depths of mad obsession.
The people in Victor’s life will ultimately become targets of the monster. Gothic horror is characterised as a genre that deals with themes of death, evil forces; and most of all, they are usually stories that culminate in tragic endings. I will not spoil anything for you but suffice to say Frankenstein ticks all these boxes, particularly the tragic ending.
One thing I should point out before going into detail on the monster: There is an idea that permeates the popular consciousness that Frankenstein’s monster is created by the merging of the parts of corpses, which are then electrified thereby bringing to life the monster. This has almost nothing to do with the original source material! That image of the monster is more of a product of later film adaptions, most notably the already mentioned classic Frankenstein (1931). The origins and nature of the monster in the actual book are far more ambiguous and lacking in detail. In fact, we do not get much information at all regarding the creature’s creation; all we are told is that Victor has found some scientific principle that allows him to “[bestow] animation upon lifeless matter.” Victor does say, “I might infuse a spark of being into the lifeless thing that lay at my feet.” But I would argue that this is more of a metaphorical “spark” than the literal electrocution of the lifeless matter.
One interesting aspect of the book is that we actually get to see the monster’s side of the story. While the world of film is filled with iconic portrayals of Frankenstein’s monster — my favourite remains the classic 1931 Boris Karloff portrayal — these portrayals are usually that of a shambling zombie-like creature. A creature that is highly aggressive, always on the tipping point of rage. This again is another creation of the film industry and has little to do with the book, the monster in the book is far more interesting than that.
At the very start of his creation he is child-like, having no ability to speak and no knowledge of the world or its people, but this changes with time. From the monster’s story, we learn that he wanders into a town and is immediately chased away by the occupants who are frightened of his appearance. He does not harm the townsfolk or retaliate in any way, and was yet to show a propensity for violence.
He hides away in a hovel and observes a family of peasants, and through this observation, he acquires the ability to speak! You read that right, the monster in the book speaks, and quite eloquently too! (note: The monster’s development of speech is explored somewhat in the film The Bride of Frankenstein).
Through the monster’s story, we learn of his descent into evil. Unlike the films, he was not born evil but made that way through his interactions with humanity. He is shunned from mankind, chased away, even has rocks thrown at him. He learns to hate mankind, wishing to harm those who shun him, those that wish him destroyed. Humanity despises the monster, and he in turn despises them back. When he attempts to help the peasants he is observing, his help is eventually thrown back in his face upon his revelation to them.
To summarise my point, the monster portrayed in the films is shown as innately evil. For example, in the 1931 classic the monster is created using an “abnormal” brain stolen from a laboratory, the brain of a criminal. This cements the idea that the monster in the film is evil by nature. The monster in the book, however, is far more complex. He becomes evil through a process of nurture rather than nature, being pushed to hatred through his effective exile from society.
The book makes us sympathise with the monster, as we understand that the monster is not innately evil. We feel pity for the way that he is shunned. It is his exile from humanity that leads him back to his creator, where he begs him to create a female of his species, much like what was shown in the 1935 classic The Bride of Frankenstein.
The monster is cunning, offering Victor an ultimatum: that Victor can either create for him a bride, someone that the monster can live with and love; or, he will go to war against humanity at large. We can sympathise with the monster’s wish, as he feels hated by humanity and is all alone, a new species set apart from the world of man. He simply wishes for another of his own kind, promising that he will thereby find some isolated part away from humanity and live out his life in peace with his new bride. But Victor refuses. The monster having killed once already, Victor fears that the creation of another will lead to more violence and death. Upon Victor’s refusal the monster sets about destroying Victor’s life, by attacking those closest to him. The story then culminates in Victor chasing the monster all the way to the North Pole, where the story began.
Overall I found the monster an extremely interesting character. Like all the best villains in literary and film history, he is complex and multi-faceted. His origins make us sympathise with his plight, yet at the same time, we feel disgusted by his later actions. Mary Shelley has created an amazing villain, one that stands the test of time as one of the greatest villains in literary history.
Frankenstein stands the test of time as a classic of the horror genre, and particularly as an installment of gothic literature. Victor Frankenstein is a well-written character, being pulled into an obsession that takes him over and leads to drastic consequences. The characters connected to Victor are equally well-written, making us care for them which makes their ghastly ends all the more tragic.
The monster is a complex villain. being shunned from mankind we grow to pity him, and his downfall into evil malevolence is just as tragic as the fate that befalls Victor.
While the story can drag at times, the slow pacing being somewhat normal for the time it was written in, if you stick with it then you will be treated to a true classic of gothic literature.