tirsdag den 11. juli 2023

Frankenstein - Mary Shelley (1818)



Frankenstein 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.

Mary 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.

The 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 monster.

The monster 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.

There are 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.

There are 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.

There is 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.

2 kommentarer:

  1. I listened to this years ago and liked it. It is all very …. strange. Is the Shelley character more or less sympathetic than the Karloff was? If I remember the Shelley character he was certainly more intelligent and even refined.

    1. Oh, Indeed he is. He is nothing like the mute brute of Whale's monster. I think the point is that we have to consider who is actually the monster. The book is very far from the movie. Any of the movies, really.