Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus was the product of a competition between Mary Shelley, Percy Shelley, Lord Byron and John Polidori as to who could write the best horror story. (I think it’s safe to say that Mary won). It’s an extremely famous and grisly tale, which has featured in countless film and stage adaptations (as well as inspiring a number of other stories), and it’s likely that you already know the basic gist of the plot even if you’ve never read it – Victor Frankenstein creates a ‘monster’ which sets about terrorising his nearest and dearest. The story’s actually told through a series of letters, and creates a narrative within a narrative within a narrative structure – the ‘monster’ tells his story to Victor Frankenstein, who tells it as part of the narrative of his own story to Captain Walton, who lays out the entire novel as a letter to his sister.
It’s a very dark novel, filled with murder and plenty of gothic despair, and at times it really can be quite creepy and sinister. Surprisingly though, it’s also quite a sad novel. Frankenstein’s creation is lonely. All he really wants is a friend or some company, but he is abandoned by his creator as soon as he gains life. He murders Frankenstein’s friends and family due to his anger and frustration at the way he is treated by humanity, and as a punishment for Victor for refusing to make a monster companion. I actually couldn’t help but feel sorry for the monster (even though he strangles a child and lets an innocent maid hang for it in his place). He didn’t ask to be ‘born’, but he is abandoned by his creator and loathed by him and any others he meets due to the way he looks and the unnatural way in which he came into being. Despite trying to civilise himself by teaching himself to read and studying human interactions, the monster is still shunned for looking like a monster, and it is this which causes him to behave like a monster. His relationship with Victor is almost touching in a way. Even though he wants to make Victor suffer by killing his loved ones, he also must have yearned for Victor’s companionship otherwise he wouldn’t have deliberately left him a trail with food along the way. Clearly he wanted to be pursued, and he was genuinely remorseful and mourned when Victor died. In a way, it’s almost sweet (if you overlook the horror and murders). I don’t think the monster ever wanted Victor to die, he just wanted him to suffer so he could understand the suffering he had inflicted on his creation by leaving him without a mate.
Of course, there’s a real moral dilemma for Victor when considering whether to make the monster a companion or not, and it’s a dilemma that also faces the reader because I for one couldn’t decide on which would be the right course for Victor to take. His objections were clearly justified, but I felt so sympathetic to the monster, and it seemed so sad to leave him to a life of loneliness. In a way though, the fact that the monster seemed so human in his emotions detracted from the sense of horror which was probably intended. I did find Frankenstein creepy and chilling in places, but because I felt the monster’s actions were understandable (though obviously not justifiable), I perhaps didn’t find it as horror-filled as I might have done if he was violent purely for the sake of violence, without any logic or reason. Instead the sense of anguish and desperation lessened the horror vibe for me.
There were a couple of things which bothered me about Frankenstein, but only very slightly because I actually really enjoyed reading it. I found it very easy to read with good pacing, and I didn’t want to put it down. I was surprised by how little time was spent telling of the actual creation of the monster though. It all happened very quickly, pretty much within the space of a paragraph, which seemed a little strange to me as it’s clearly a crucial moment in the story and is often milked for all it’s worth in various adaptations. I think I’d have liked to have spent more time reading about the actual making of the monster, and how exactly Frankenstein went about it, because it’s not so clear in the book whether he harnessed lightning to animate the monster, or how exactly he went about physically building him (apparently not necessarily by taking body parts from various corpses, as is the common method in the adaptations). I’d have liked to have seen this fleshed out a little (pardon the pun), but that’s just my own personal preference. I don’t think the story suffered at all by glossing over the creation somewhat, I was just surprised that it received so little attention.
The other aspect that bothered me was the business of Victor Frankenstein’s wedding night. The monster had threatened Frankenstein that he would visit him on his wedding night, so Frankenstein assumes that he will be killed that night and basically resigns himself to death. But it was SO OBVIOUS to me that the monster meant to kill Elizabeth instead of Frankenstein, so I found it a bit frustrating that Victor goes off to find the monster on his wedding night, leaving his new bride ‘safely’ in the bedroom, and then, lo and behold! He returns to find Elizabeth murdered, and he’s surprised! “What an idiot I am,” he must think, “I thought the monster meant to kill me!” But it was so clear throughout the build up to the wedding that this is what was going to happen, so I did end up feeling a bit strung along at this point. It irked me because I felt it was a bit clumsy, and I think Shelley could have let Victor be fooled as she planned and achieve exactly the same results as she did, but by going about it in a subtler and cleverer way. I don’t know what that way would be or how it would work, but I felt that part of the story could have had a better impact on the reader if it had been written slightly differently. Although perhaps my reaction was exactly what Shelley had envisaged; maybe she wanted us to know exactly what was going to happen and to be screaming at Victor in our heads (which I was). That’s fine, but I just felt like the trap was too obvious, and I’d have liked it to be a bit more unexpected so it could shock me and make me gasp. Instead, I just shouted a big, fat “I told you so!”
Like I said though, these are minor niggles because I found Frankenstein to be a really enjoyable read on the whole. As it was written around the birth of horror as a genre, it’s perhaps not reflective of horror as we would expect to see it now. I certainly didn’t find it scary, although it was a bit creepy at times. It’s filled with suspense though, and would perhaps now be classed more as a thriller. I’d definitely recommend giving it a go, and I’d say it’s even more impressive as a novel when you consider that Mary Shelley was only eighteen when she wrote it. (Be warned though, if you’re over eighteen and yet to publish a novel it may well make you feel like an under-achiever).