Saturday, February 7, 2015

Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus by Mary Shelley (41 down 59 to go)

Frightful must it be; for supremely frightful would be the effect of any human endeavor to mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world. ~ Mary Shelley on Frankenstein

This is the second time I’ve read Frankenstein, the first being some years ago. I think it is most commonly considered a Horror Story, but it also has elements of Sci-Fi and Fantasy, written and published in the Romantic period of literature. It is the first-person narrative of Victor Frankenstein a young scientist (not mad), his obsession with creating life, his horror at his creation, and the great calamity that befalls him for playing God.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This novel satisfies square I1 of 2015 Classics Bingo: Published before 1850.

Frankenstein is the most disappointing novel I have read thus far, not because it fell short of my expectations, but because I think it is a magnificent story, badly told.

I think the great conflict in Frankenstein is one of the most compelling in literature. For that, I give Shelley high marks. The story of how she came up with the plot is almost too good to be true…while staying at a Swiss chalet with poet and future husband Percy Shelley, the renowned English poet Lord Byron, and English author John Polidori, incessant rains kept them indoors and boredom drove them to share ghost stories. Someone issued a challenge for each member of the party to invent a new story. It would have been fun to eavesdrop on that party.

You are probably familiar with the premise of Frankenstein, though the novel is quite different from most movie versions. The creature does not immediately traumatize the village, in fact he never really does. Victor Frankenstein loathes his creation almost the very moment he brings it to life. Shortly thereafter the Creature flees to locations unknown, and Victor returns to family and friends almost forgetting what he has done. The Creature is highly intelligent and through some extraordinary circumstances teaches himself to speak, read and write, and something about the nature of man. He is gentle and good, but so hideous he evokes fear and hatred from any human he encounters. He accidentally kills a child, who happens to be Victor’s brother. The Creature seeks Victor out and demands a female companion, or he vows everlasting rage and terror. Victor agrees hoping it will free him from malignity of the Creature, but later repents, and breaks his vow. The rest of the story is the Creature exacting revenge against his creator.

My problem is the many shortcuts Shelley takes in telling the tale. The first is Victor’s discovery of the secret to creating life. It isn’t explained and barely takes a paragraph to proclaim that he has discovered it…from reading books. He doesn’t test it on simpler creations, and he proceeds as if there is absolutely no doubt of success. He assembles a body and brings it to life. No fantastic storm, no lightning bolt, he simply brings it to life. Now I realize she couldn’t truly explain how he did it, because it cannot be done, but even in fantasy there is generally some explanation. If this were the only “shortcut” I might forgive it. But there are MANY more.

Twice the creature just finds things lying out in the woods that are critical to his survival and development. One is a satchel of books, that teach him the nature and history of humanity…just found them…out in the woods.

Really? Couldn’t come up with something a bit more creative? 

But the most regrettable “shortcut” to me was the transformation of Victor. Before animating the Creature, Victor is obsessed. Once he brings it to life he immediately loathes it. I think this change was a brilliant development…but I dearly would have liked to have it develop. The mortal man, a creation himself, exultant over the immensity of his discovery, who then slowly realizes what an aberration and blasphemy he has created.

But no! One minute drunk with anticipation, the next minute, I hate that thing.

I still liked Frankenstein because the plot is so compelling, but I believe the brilliant story could have been told so much better. If Mary Shelley had only taken a page from Herman Melville’s book, pardon the pun, and added more detail, and Melville had in turn learned from Shelley and not included so much detail, I think Frankenstein and Moby Dick would have been two of my favorites. Or maybe I’d detest my hybrid creation.

Still, Frankenstein reminds me of Moby Dick: the mad obsessions of Dr. Frankenstein and Ahab have distinct similarities and are the ruin of both. 


…how much happier that man is who believes his native town to be the world, than he who aspires to become greater than his nature will allow. ~ Victor Frankenstein

My person was hideous, and my stature gigantic: what did this mean? Who was I? What was I? Whence did I come? What was my destination? These questions continually recurred, but I was unable to solve them. ~ The Creature

I remembered Adam’s supplication to his Creator; but where was mine? He had abandoned me, and, in the bitterness of my heart, I cursed him. ~ The Creature

Three books the Creature finds that educate him to the nature of man:
Paradise Lost by John Milton
Plutarch’s Lives by Plutarch
Sorrows of the Werter by Von Goethe

Film Renditions:  Prior to reading the novel, I was only familiar with the 1931 film with Boris Karloff as the creature; it’s a classic, and must see for all horror movie fans, but NOTHING like the book. There are numerous other versions to choose from, but most seem to be more influenced by the 1931 film than the book, and are therefore the worst of both worlds. However, the 1994 version, appropriately titled Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (implying other film versions are not Mary Shelley’s conception), is true to the book….for about 75% of the movie. For the first 90 minutes I was loving it, believing it to be one of those rare films that actually improved on the book. Without contradicting Shelley’s story, the film filled in some of the “shortcuts” that I complained of. But then, for the final few scenes, the director and/or screenwriter decided they had a better vision than Shelley. So, I can’t give it quite the praise I was prepared to, but it is the most faithful adaptation that I am aware of. Kenneth Branagh as Frankenstein, Helena Bonham Carter as Elizabeth, and Robert De Niro as the creature were all marvelous. There is another version I can recommend…just for fun. The 1974, Mel Brook’s film, Young Frankenstein is a ridiculous spoof and good for a laugh.



  1. Wonderful review--thanks so much for visiting my posting about Frankenstein and leaving the link to yours. I agree with you entirely, and find your idea that Shelley's shortcuts shortchange the novel to be spot on.

    Like you say, the idea of Frankenstein is better than the execution, but it is a brilliant idea and one that resonates now more than ever.

    I'll have to browse your blog--I imagine you have all sorts of posts I'll enjoy reading.

  2. That was great synopsis and observation. I think I was so excited to finally be reading Frankenstein that I swept past the possible questions that were present, but not burdensome. I bet a second read for me would produce the same ideas you had because since you bring them to light, I know they are there.

    So you answered my question that I had for you in my response to your comment at my blog.

    And yes, a good film version - that would fill in those gaps, too - is in order.

  3. Great review! I enjoyed Frankenstein, but I agree that the 'shortcuts' Shelley took were disappointing - I particularly wanted to know more about Victor's methods of creating life.

  4. I, too, found Victor's behaviour inconsistent, but for different reasons. I think he was hyperbolized by Shelley to show how completely "mad" scientists can get when they are blinded by their creations. A sort of over-emphasis for effect. I also try to remind myself that Shelley was 19 when she wrote the book. When I take that into account, it's pretty good, and I can overlook some of the flaws. Some, I say, because some actions of the characters were downright implausible.

  5. I read this over a decade ago and plan to read it again soon. I do remember really enjoying it, but finding the books and learning to read felt too convenient to me as well.

    I don't know if I agree entirely that it would have been better if Shelley had allowed Victor's feelings to develop slowly. If he not been so initially repulsed by what he had done, he may have seen beyond the gruesome image and started to see that the monster did have humanity, which would have led to a completely different story potentially. I may be way off base, though, since it's been a while. I'll have to keep that in mind on my re-read.

    1. Good point, and I'm sure you are right. I didn't necessarily mean a looong developing change. It was just too instantaneous and without explanation. I should have liked to read how VF realized his feelings weren't what he expected...and then some of his thoughts and conclusions...could have even been an hour or less...but some description of how he got from point A: obsessed to point B: loathing.

  6. Great review. I'd overlooked those shorts cuts, but I'll forgive Shelley. I love this book.

    As for films. The best is Mary Shelley's Frankenstein with Kenneth Branagh and Robert De Niro, (1994). Brilliant! They are remaking it this year with Daniel Radcliffe and James McAvoy. It's called Victor Frankenstein and told from Igor's POV.

    1. I usually try to watch a film version after finishing the novel, and actually...I almost asked for a recommendation in this post, so you read my mind. The original 1939 version is sort of fun, and classic, but not at all true to the novel. So thank you very much for the recommendation.

  7. I read this in high school and thought it was boring, then read it again in college and still didn't like it. I do remember having some interesting discussions about Mary Wollstoncraft Shelley, though, particularly about how this book related to the idea of failed motherhood. Her first child died as an infant, and MWS was prone to depression, so we discussed whether this might not be kind of an exploration of post-partum depression -- not loving your baby as much as you expected to, the baby causing so much work, the baby changing your relationship with your husband, etc. That did make it more interesting to me, but still... not a fan.

  8. 'If Mary Shelley had only taken a page from Herman Melville’s book, pardon the pun, and added more detail, and Melville had in turn learned from Shelley and not included so much detail' - would be an interesting exercise...I'm just thankful I read Melville before I had children or I'd never have gotten through it.

  9. A very compelling review. As I read your thoughts, I found myself agreeing with your issues with the shortcuts used. Perhaps I outweighed the positives in the themes and character complexities and overlooked those shortcuts. I think she did have space to explain some of those in more detail. The book isn't terribly long, after all. Thanks for reading my review as well! :)

  10. It's still a marvelous story though. Thanks for the feedback.

  11. Your comment about Melville and Shelley...that made me laugh.🤣 Common problem-too much or too little in the detail department.