is iconic. You say the name and what everybody thinks of is James Whale’s movie
from 1931. The actual novel, I have now learned, is quite different from the
movie, as in a completely different story.
Shelley’s version is a bit of a babushka doll and starts somewhere rather
unexpected. It starts as a series of letters from a Robert Walton to his
sister. Walton is travelling to Northern Russia (Archangelsk) to embark on an
expedition to discover the north-east passage to the Pacific Ocean. Whalton is
starving for male friendship to the extent that he is likely gay and out there
on the ice, his wish appears to come true. They spot first a mysterious sledge
carrying a giant and then a second sledge with a frozen and starving man on it.
This fellow they bring aboard and as he recovers, he tells a strange tale.
stranger is Victor Frankenstein. As a young man he studied at the university of
Ingolstadt and there discovered the key to life itself. He explored this to
create a gigantic living being, the monster, but as it came alive Frankenstein
turned his back on it in disgust and wanted nothing to do with it. Sometime
later Frankenstein’s very young brother is killed and when Frankenstein on a mountain
climb encounters his creation, we get the third layer of the story, that of the
woke up knowing nothing at all. Everything it had to find out by himself. By
secretly moving into an outhouse of a family, he learned about virtue and all
the good things in life only to find out that from his shear appearance people
abhorred him and wanted to share nothing of the good stuff with him. He came to
despise his creator and wanted to find him to hold him accountable. In their
meeting in the mountains, Frankenstein is moved by the story and promises to
make a female companion for the monster, but again he turns away, this time
before the second creation is ready and now the monster is on the warpath. If
he cannot have his support, he must have revenge.
so many differences to the movie version that it does not even make sense to
compare the two. I do understand though why the story was changed so much. The
novel as it stands would have been impossible to make into a movie.
many interesting themes here. The immediate message seems to be that science is
dangerous and some knowledge should remain off-limits. As any scientist would
know, that is nonsense, and such a sentiment could only come from someone
outside science. Actually, it is the application of science that requires
responsibility and without responsible application, it becomes dangerous. Think
of nuclear bombs in the hands of madmen. I think that is also the actual
message here. Frankenstein refuses repeatedly to take responsibility for his
own creation and that makes it dangerous.
also the question of who is right and who is wrong. Depending on who Shelley
makes the narrator the right shifts to that person. Frankenstein sees himself
as a victim and his only responsibility is to kill the monster to save the
world from its monstrosity. He is on a divine mission to clean up after himself
when rescued on the ice. The monster on the other hand wants to be virtuous,
but is met with only hostility and hatred from humankind. Is it any wonder it
feels no gratitude towards people this prejudiced? And who is responsible for
this gross injustice but Victor Frankenstein, his creator? Hence his reaction
is natural and just and Frankenstein is the monster.
I have been
playing with two ideas of additional interpretation. One is that this may be a
story of man and God. Of the imperfect creation left alone to fend for itself
in a cruel world by an uncaring God. Whose fault is it when life turns bad? Another
idea is that the story of Frankenstein and his monster is actually a story schizophrenia,
a personality split. Sort of a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde story. That all this is
Frankenstein battling with a monster inside himself. Unfortunately, this theory
gets debunked when Walton sees the monster on the ship, but until then it would
work. Maybe a little advanced for 1818 though.
It is a
surprisingly hard book to read. After the excellent novelists I have recently
encountered this one I felt was written with less skill. It is easy to become
impatient with the narrative, it just does not flow that well. But that aside,
it is a book with a lot of interesting and novel ideas and in many ways feels very
modern. 130 years before “Rashomon” we have an early unreliable narrator novel.
And yes, it is science fiction even if the science is very toned down, but I
think most of all it is a moral story. As most good science fiction really is.