In this year of centennials (Steinbeck, Spark), there are also the bi-centennials of note: the birth of Emily Brontë and …..that of Frankenstein’s monster. So it is, together with eager anticipation for the Man Booker International Prize shortlisted Frankenstein in Baghdad, that I, finally, turn to Mary Shelley’s classic horror story, in which man plays God to tragic effect.
Over the past few years I’ve taken to reading classics I should have read years ago. I review very few of them, because seriously, what can I add that hasn’t already been said before? I feel the same about Frankenstein, but there were some aspects of the story which took me completely by surprise, and so I shall mention them. Just remember, not only was this my first read, I have never even watched a Frankenstein movie, so if I mention something basic here, smile knowingly. Don’t mock. I think the absolute cultural void I have managed to maintain for nearly six decades is quite an achievement of sorts!
1) Let’s get the most obvious out of the way. Frankenstein isn’t the monster (creature is the word Shelley uses) but the creator, and Dr Viktor Frankenstein is even more horrifying than his creation. Oh my goodness! I didn’t like him at all! I could understand the arrogance of his youth and his obsessive quest for achievement. BUT his absolute denial of responsibility towards his creation, and his consignment of the monster to an existence devoid of any joy, because it was ugly, no, no,no! I was always hopeful of some kind of redemption for the doctor, but his decision to tell Elizabeth his secrets the day AFTER their wedding told me that there was no end to his self-serving outlook.
2) When did the creature turn monstrous? It seems to me that Shelley’s story is an extended essay about nature vs. nurture. How would things have turned out if Dr Frankenstein hadn’t rejected his creation? It hard not to sympathise with the creature, despite his murderous rampage. But, in mitigation. he contained it, seeking only to strike at the man who had caused him so much misery. (I know, I’m on dodgy moral ground here, but Shelley makes it nye on impossible to condemn him.)
3) Then again, did Dr Frankenstein reach a point of no return as soon as his creation came to life? How would he have integrated him into human society, given him a life worth living? Only two times is the creature not rejected out of hand. The first time by a blind man, the second by someone who is fully acquainted with the whole story, and knows what to expect. Shelley also addresses the create-a-mate dilemma. Rightly or wrongly Dr Frankenstein decides against it. Where will it all lead to? A question he should have asked before he casually brought his creature to life. This aspect of the story is the standout for me, and ensures the novel’s continuing relevance. Particularly for the scientific community, which never seems to ask itself the question: just because we can, should we? What are the unintended consequences likely to be, and will we be able to live with them?
That said, I’m not going to pretend that I was entirely enthralled. The story is 200 years old, and the prose too formal and wordy for my modern palate. Despite being a short novel, it does plod in places. As for the saintly Elizabeth. (Cue eye roll.) Did such paragons of virtue really exist? On the plus side: I am a sucker for C19th frameworking and I thought the genesitic role reversal, in which the creature transforms Dr Frankenstein’s experience into a likeness of his own, masterly.
The edition I used is annotated by Susan J Wolfson and Ronald Levao, respectively Professor of English at Princeton University and Associate Professor at Rutgers University. It is packed with notes and commentary, the page layout ensuring these do not overwhelm. Read them or read on undisturbed – it is the reader’s choice. I read (most of) them and found an erudite response to the controversy surrounding Frankenstein’s true authorship. In addition, a general overview of the Romantic context and a particular understanding of the influence of Füseli’s painting, The Nightmare. (Not a painting I love, but a once seen, never forgotten image, if ever there was one.) So too the influence of Milton’s Paradise Lost is also extensively documented. The substantial introduction, together with multiple appendices, including Mary Shelley’s own introduction from 1831, likely contain answers to every question I am likely to think of about Frankenstein through the ages. It is also lavishly illustrated with portraits, paintings, woodcuts, movie posters, first editions, and I am particularly grateful for the introduction to Lynd Ward’s expressive woodcuts. The Annotated Frankenstein (ISBN 9780674055520) is a veritable jewel of a book. I shall look out for more in the series.