October is the perfect time for spooky reads, so I wisely saved Frankenstein for this month. It's one of my favorite classics and I've read it a handful of times over the years. I've never blogged about it here though, so I decided to include it in my Then Versus Now Challenge. I'll be comparing it with another Mary Shelley novel (The Last Man) later on in the month. Now, I know what you're thinking - Mary Shelley wrote another novel? She did, in fact. She published somewhere in the neighborhood of seven fiction novels and did some travel writing and poetry editing as well. Frankenstein is by far her most famous and well-known work though, and the impact it's had on the world of horror and science fiction is incredible. Everyone, even people who have never read the novel, have a basic idea of what it's about, and new adaptations of the story continue to come out year after year. It's one of those larger than life novels that has grown to be more than just its 200 pages.
The plot of the novel concerns Victor Frankenstein, a brilliant young scientist who manages to discover the secret of how to create a living being while attending university. He becomes obsessed with the idea of actually creating life and works feverishly on constructing a man. He succeeds in doing this, but once his creature takes its first breath, he is immediately horrified by what he has done. The creature repulses him, with its large proportions and garish facial features and he immediately abandons it.
The creature, who remains unnamed, goes out into the world alone and manages to educate himself. His unnatural appearance causes everyone to shun him, so he has to live in isolation, learning skills like reading and speaking by spying on others. Once he has learned enough about society to understand that he can never really participate in it, he becomes enraged at his abandonment. Eventually, he tracks his creator down and asks him to build a mate for him. Victor at first agrees to his request, but later finds that he can't in good conscience release another monster into the world. His change of heart enrages the creature, who embarks on a quest of revenge that threatens everyone Frankenstein holds dear. Realizing his creation must be stopped, Victor embarks on a quest to destroy his monster at all costs.
One of the best things about Frankenstein is how deep it is. This isn't just a scary story about a monster; in fact, its exploration of morals and ethics is a more prominent feature of the text than its horror elements. The book raises a lot of complex questions. For example, Is it possible to take scientific discovery too far? Should some theories be left untested? Is Victor solely responsible for the actions of his creation, or is the monster, once educated, responsible for himself? Did Victor have a duty to create a mate for the creature to save his family, or was he right to abandon that plan? If he killed his creation, would it be murder? This is a fun book to discuss with other readers, because different opinions will inevitably prevail. Myself, I can't help but side with the monster most of the time. I don't condone his violence, but I understand his anguish. Shelley did an excellent job creating a sympathetic antagonist in him. He is an interesting character, with layers of feelings and motivations.
Another strength of this novel is its atmosphere. From the picturesque mountains of Geneva to the desolate Arctic glaciers, Mary Shelley presents a rich world that perfectly suits her dark story. Her description of the monster is very creepy as well. Frankenstein tried to create him to be beautiful, but he soon discovers the the large, long proportions he chose, flowing black hair, and stretched skin are monstrous when brought to life. He has the shape of a human, but there is enough that is off about him to make everyone that sees him recoil in horror. Imagining what this would look like is great fun and gives the story a truly dark mood. While there aren't a lot of flashy action sequences here, Shelley is very effective at building a quieter kind of horror that grows and grows throughout the novel. The suspense is terrific and I was totally engaged in the story, even though I have read it several times before.
There is one element of the story that does bother me, however - Victor's near-constant fits of nerves and fainting spells. There are several sections of the story in which his guilty conscience and grief leave him in a coma-like state. He is laid up in bed for weeks at a time, with friends, family members, and even strangers dropping everything to sit at his bedside. I assume that Shelley was trying to get across the extreme horror and guilt he felt, and nervous illnesses are a common element in novels from this time period, but the repetition grew boring and broke the flow of the story. Ultimately though, this is a small issue and doesn't detract too much from the overall quality of the novel.
So, I really ended up enjoying my reread of Frankenstein. It remains one of my favorite creepy classics. Its subtle horror and dark plot make it the perfect October read, and its intellectual elements make it a thought-provoking one as well. I'm really interested to try another Mary Shelley novel next and see if I will discover another favorite.