55 Classics Review #5 – Frankenstein by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley


As I was finishing Frankenstein I happened upon the cover of a children’s science magazine that said, “Should we bring extinct species back to life?” It is troubling to me that the imaginary science of Frankenstein is so dangerously close to what we find modern science capable of today and the moral obligations are still as foreign to those who practice now as they were to Frankenstein himself.

There was so much I loved and some I hated in these pages, but before I get into what I have to say I must state that there is probably no work of fiction more greatly abused by film adaptations than Frankenstein.

There is no groaning ghoul, there are no pitchfork-welding villagers, there is no accidental murder, and no animalistic fear of fire. The film adaptations of this story are literally their own works of fiction entirely. Mel Brooks’ film Young Frankenstein is about as close to the text as any other film I’ve yet happened upon.

This actually made Frankenstein a delightful read. The sheer foreignness of the story kept me on the edge of my seat. The original text is surprisingly readable even though it was published in 1818 and it reminded me a lot of the writing style Bram Stoker put into Dracula nearly a century later. Shelley employs a series of letters and story-within-story retelling to add depth and believability to her tale. While the characters can become a little wordy in their impassioned monologues, I was ultimately very pleased with the writing style.

The great thing that I never knew about Frankenstein is the complexity of implied and directly addressed questions of the brokenness and disconnections of humanity. Both Frankenstein and his creation are constantly reflecting on their own powers for good, enjoyment of natural beauty, and horrifying capabilities toward evils.

The story is told through the interactions of a fearless young explorer who encounters Frankenstein, and it would be easy to take the story as a treatise against morally questionable science practices if the main characters weren’t constantly oscillating between cursing Frankenstein’s blind science power trip and priding themselves in their own capabilities as fearless leaders. Frankenstein, his monster, and the narrator quickly fall back and forth between horror at the careless evil he committed and confidence in the powers of men to overcome the world.

Here we come to the part I didn’t like about the story. From a purely narrative perspective, I have always been easily annoyed by characters who see miscommunication happening and do nothing to rectify it. Perhaps I’m a bit of an over communicator, but I hate stories where nothing is done to clear up simple and tragic misunderstands. Frankenstein himself spends the majority of his life after the creation of the monster watching in silent horror as the repercussions of his creation play out, doing nothing or far too little too late. He refuses to confess his action to all those closest to him, despite the increasing toll it takes. The only time he decides to take any really decisive action is when he desires to kill the monster. The monster is similar, originally eager to see beauty, family, and community. When he can’t get these, he rages and eagerly pursues the greatest opposing horrors.

This aspect of the story does not ruin the story by any means, but it does provide a defeatist tone. It is full of terror, but maybe the greatest tragedy is how little any character is actually willing to pursue the good, beauty, and truth which they so eagerly live for, but each is more than happy to act on every violent impulse which provokes them.

As I read the story I began to feel strongly that Frankenstein is a grandfather text to both surrealist and science fiction genres. The story is classic science fiction and the character’s monologues feel like a precursory stepping stone to what Kafka would write a century later.

The book does a wonderful job of exploring the philosophical questions surrounding moral obligations in science, what it is to be human, the beauty and evils of mankind, and the terror of total ostracism from relationship. The violent and self-destructive tone does not destroy the power of the story, but it does leave us without a real protagonist, with ultimately confused and powerfully nihilistic characters.

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9 comments

      1. ha…well, it’s been a few years since I read it and the biggest thing I remember is how dark and depressing it was. But I was struck with the idea of making a terribly bad decision and living with the bitter consequences for the rest of your life. Granted, the miscommunication issue that annoyed you bugged me as well. But overall I enjoyed the discussion between science and morality and how the two relate. Just because we have the power to play with nature, should we? Does science stand alone without any moral obligations? Lots of interesting questions come up and a few good lines from the thoughts of Frankenstein. Probably doesn’t add anything to what you said, but those are some impressions off the top of my head.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I actually found the monster’s postive sentiments from before he went crazy to be by far the most provocative thoughts in the book. All of the negative emotions in the story were a lot more melodramatic than the positive ones.

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