Give me books, fruit, french wine and fine weather and a little music out of doors. --John Keats

Sunday, September 27, 2009

"Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus" by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley

I tried to read this book when I was a little kid but it just didn't work out. I can't remember what the problem was--looking back, I thought I must have found it kind of boring--all I could remember was somebody stumbling over the snowy tundra towards a village, which now, having actually read it, I see was not quite right; and now I wonder if my problem wasn't the fact that this book contains a pretty advanced vocabulary which was probably difficult for me to contend with at that age. I mean, I even learned some new words from reading this book as an adult! The only example I can remember is "tyro" (which means novice) but I got the dictionary out several times while reading this book.

This book is nothing like the movie scenes everyone pictures. There is no hunchback, there is no lightning strike, there is no maniacal scream of "IT'S ALIVE!!!" In fact, the book dwells more on the formation of the monster's body than its coming alive (the length of perhaps a chapter as compared to one paragraph) but of course none of that is very cinematic in the book, so it's not surprising that the movie doesn't adhere very closely to the book in that respect. Another reason the lightning strike wouldn't have been mentioned in the book is because, as Victor Frankenstein explains, he doesn't want to give away the secret of reanimation and have someone else duplicate his horrible experiment. (Of course this is also a useful device to keep the author from having to think up a plausible method of reanimation). By the way, I think the only Frankenstein movie I've actually watched is Young Frankenstein (snort), but I have ordered the 1931 original (and the sequel!) on netflix.

Another big surprise to me was the fact that Frankenstein's monster turned out to be highly intelligent and quite eloquent! I always assumed that the monster couldn't do much more than lurch around with his arms out in front of him, moaning and groaning. I guess this is what he was like when he first came to life, but I never knew that Frankenstein bestowed intelligence and self-awareness on his monster as well as life. And speaking of when he first came to life, I found it interesting that the monster's description of being assailed by his senses sounds like what it must be like for a newborn baby--which is basically what he was, in all but form.

When Frankenstein's monster first opened his mouth to speak it required a huge shift in perspective for me in relation to my knowledge of this story. It was like the first time I got glasses, when I'd had no idea I needed them. Unfortunately at this point, when the monster tells his story, the momentum of the book slows quite a bit. I had been expecting more nail-biting, heart-pounding action throughout the book, especially based on the back cover which claimed the book "has never been equalled for its masterful manipulation of the elements of horror and suspense." (I must disagree and say that Edgar Allan Poe is far superior with both horror and suspense in multiple stories!) You get some tension in the first third and some in the last third but not so much in the middle. In fact, the monster's story almost reads more like a fairy tale, although in a sort of Through the Looking Glass way, like it's inside out or backwards. If you imagine the story from the point of view of the small family in the cottage (chores mysteriously completed for them à la "The Shoemaker and the Elves") you'll understand what I mean. Although it is rather creepy when you add the element that they are continually spied on without their knowledge.

I lost respect for Victor Frankenstein when he didn't come forward in defense of Justine and instead allowed the innocent girl to be executed for a crime he knew she didn't commit. Of course Frankenstein explained that this was because he was afraid his story would not be believed and he would be locked up in the looney bin, but I say an honorable man would have tried anyway. As it was, I really felt no pity for his despair and remorse.

About halfway through the book I started to think about how interesting it would be if the creator-monster relationship was revealed to be a Jekyll-Hyde thing and it was actually a split personality within Victor Frankenstein rather than two separate beings. I was pretty sure that wasn't the case (and it wasn't), but that would have made for a pretty good story. I like it when a book is a little less straightforward and has a few unforeseen twists and turns.

One more interesting thing I never knew: Victor Frankenstein created his monster in Ingolstadt, Germany. My sister used to live near there! I wonder why this never came up as one of Ingolstadt's claims to fame.


Aloha Rob said...

"Young Frankenstien" ruled.

Kathy said...

Haha! I watched that with Nancy. The only part I remember is, "What knockers!" "Oh, sank you, docta!"