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I discovered ‘Frankenstein’ by Mary Shelley when I was in school and got an omnibus of horror novels. The first novel in the omnibus was ‘Frankenstein’. The other two were ‘Dracula’ and ‘Dr.Jekyll and Mr.Hyde’. The book had a cover  with a scary picture of three fearful faces representing each of these creatures. The book also had a foreword by Stephen King. I first read ‘Dracula’, from the omnibus, because it was a story I was intrigued with and then I read ‘Dr.Jekyll and Mr.Hyde’ because it was short. Somehow, I missed reading ‘Frankenstein’, though I remember reading Mary Shelley’s introduction to it, on how she came to write the book, and I found it fascinating. Later, one of my cousins borrowed the book, and as things happen in such cases, she never returned it. A few days back, I thought that in the week leading up to Halloween, I will read some novels which are scary and which have ghosts and supernatural creatures. The first title which leapt up at me was Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein’. So, after so many years of procrastination, I thought I will give Mary Shelley a chance. I finished reading ‘Frankenstein’ yesterday, and I have to say that the wait was worth it. Here is the review.

Summary of the story

I am giving below a summary of the story as given in the back cover of the book.

“I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life and stir with an uneasy, half-vital motion.” A summer evening’s ghost stories, lonely insomnia in a moonlit Alpine room, and a runaway imagination – fired by philosophical discussions with Lord Byron and Percy Bysshe Shelley about science, galvanism, and the origins of life – conspired to produce for Mary Shelley this haunting night specter. By morning it had become the germ of her Romantic masterpiece, Frankenstein.

Written in 1816, when she was only nineteen, Mary Shelley’s novel of “The Modern Prometheus” chillingly dramatized the dangerous potential of life begotten upon a laboratory table. A frightening creation myth for our own time, Frankenstein remains one of the greatest horror stories ever written and is an undisputed classic of its kind.

What I think

This review is going to be filled with spoilers and so if you are planning to read this book, please consider yourself forewarned.

I found ‘Frankenstein’ quite interesting. For 20th and 21st century readers, who have been brought up on a diet of horror novels and movies, it wasn’t as scary as expected. But if we bear in mind that it was written nearly two hundred years back, when there were no movies, we can imagine how scary it must have been to readers of that era. I had a few misconceptions about the story and the author. For example, I thought that Mary Wollestonecraft, the famous feminist, was the same as Mary Wollestonecraft Shelley, the author of this book. But while reading the potted biography of the author in the book, I discovered that Mary Shelley is actually the daughter of Mary Wollestonecraft. With respect to the book, I had imagined, from the Frankenstein-inspired movies I have seen, that the story would go like this –  a middle-aged doctor would be working on a dead patient’s body and trying to revive him or would be trying to do some research on a body when he discovers how to bring the person back to life. The dead person who comes back to life, would go on a rampage and kill people and would become a terror in the city. The law enforcement authorities would then try to hunt down this monster. This is what I thought the story would be. Mary Shelley’s story is told quite differently.  The start of the story itself is very different. A young man hires a ship, leads a crew and travels to the North Pole on a scientific adventure. During the course of this journey, the ship’s crew finds a haggard man who is fighting for life on an ice floe. The crew rescues him and after many weeks of fever and delirium he recovers. This rescued man tells the story of his life and that is the story of the monster he created. His story goes like this : this young man was once a student of chemistry and natural philosophy. His thoughts are noble and he wants to leave his footprints in the sands of science. So he works from scratch and creates a human-like creature and brings it to life. When it comes to life and he discovers that it is ugly and looks like a monster, he abandons it and runs away. The creature brought into life is confused because it doesn’t know how it came into being and it doesn’t understand the world around. Its attempt to understand the world and discover its maker / parent and the good and not-so-good things it learns, the havoc this wreaks on its psyche and how the creature acts on it forms the rest of the story. The overall story is told through three nested stories – the one narrated by the ship’s captain and explorer Robert Walton, the story told by the scientist Frankenstein and the story told by the Being, Frankenstein created.

When we look at it this way, ‘Frankenstein’ is not just a horror story, but is a  complex fable touching on many issues – on loneliness and being an outsider, on the dangers of fiddling with science, on the responsibilities of parenting, on the ability of individuals and social institutions to nurture people who are different (and use their unique talents to make the a world a richer place rather than pushing them away). From this perspective, many of the themes which the story touches upon are very relevant today. In one way, I am glad that I read ‘Frankenstein’ now rather than when I was younger, because I wouldn’t have been able to appreciate its rich themes then as I am able to, now.

After reading the book, I also read Percy Shelley’s review of it. This is what Shelley said :

Treat a person ill, and he will become wicked. Requite affection with scorn; – let one being be selected, for whatever cause, as the refuse of his kind – divide him, a social being, from society, and you impose upon him the irresistible obligations – malevolence and selfishness. It is thus that, too often in society those who are best qualified to be its benefactors and its ornaments are branded by some accident with scorn, and changed, by neglect and solitude of heart, into a scourge and a curse.

He also says this about the story :

The interest gradually accumulates, and advances towards the conclusion with the accelerated rapidity of a rock rolled down a mountain.

And this :

…the story, like a stream which grows at once more rapid and profound as it proceeds, assumes an irresistible solemnity, and the magnificent energy and swiftness as of a tempest.

I liked the character of the Being created by Frankenstein. One of my favourite scenes in the story is when the Being hides near a house and watches the human inhabitants living their lives and learns and discovers the beautiful facets of the human way of life. Here are a few excerpts from this part of the book.

“The young girl was occupied in arranging the cottage; but presently she took something out of a drawer, which employed her hands, and she sat down beside the old man, who, taking up an instrument, began to play and to produce sounds sweeter than the voice of the thrush or the nightingale. It was a lovely sight, even to me, poor wretch who had never beheld aught beautiful before. The silver hair and benevolent countenance of the aged cottager won my reverence, while the gentle manners of the girl enticed my love. He played a sweet mournful air which I perceived drew tears from the eyes of his amiable companion, of which the old man took no notice, until she sobbed audibly; he then pronounced a few sounds, and the fair creature, leaving her work, knelt at his feet. He raised her and smiled with such kindness and affection that I felt sensations of a peculiar and overpowering nature; they were a mixture of pain and pleasure, such as I had never before experienced, either from hunger or cold, warmth or food; and I withdrew from the window, unable to bear these emotions.”

“They were not entirely happy. The young man and his companion often went apart and appeared to weep. I saw no cause for their unhappiness, but I was deeply affected by it. If such lovely creatures were miserable, it was less strange that I, an imperfect and solitary being, should be wretched. Yet why were these gentle beings unhappy? They possessed a delightful house (for such it was in my eyes) and every luxury; they had a fire to warm them when chill and delicious viands when hungry; they were dressed in excellent clothes; and still more, they enjoyed one another’s company and speech, interchanging each day looks of affection and kindness. What did their tears imply? Did they really express pain?”

“I learned that the possessions most esteemed by your fellow creatures were high and unsullied descend united with riches. A man might be respected with only one of these advantages, but without either he was considered, except in very rare circumstances, as a vagabond and a slave, doomed to waste his powers for the profits of the chosen few! And what was I? Of my creation and creator I was absolutely ignorant, but I knew that I possessed no money, no friends, no kind of property. I was, besides, endued with a figure hideously deformed and loathsome; I was not even of the same nature as man. I was more agile than they and could subsist upon courser diet; I bore the extremes of heat and cold with less injury to my frame; my stature far exceeded theirs. When I looked around I saw and heard of none like me. Was I, then, a monster, a blot upon the earth, from which all men fled and whom all men disowned?”

I also liked the loving character and beautiful nature of Elizabeth Lavenza who is the fiancée and later, wife of Frankenstein.

Mary Shelley’s introduction to the book describes how she came to write the story. That is an interesting story in itself. She describes how she, her husband the poet Percy Shelley, Lord Byron and his doctor John Polidori were sitting one rainy summer evening inside their home in Switzerland, talking about ghosts and the origin of life, when Lord Byron proposed that each of them write  a ghost story and read it out to the group. (Sitting in front of the fire on rainy summer evenings, discussing the mysteries of life with two of the greatest poets – what a life!). Byron wrote a short ghost story, Polidori wrote one which didn’t look so good (it was called ‘The Vampyre’ and is regarded as the first ever vampire story), Percy Shelley gave up while Mary Shelley continued to think about it. Mary Shelley then goes on to describe how one day when she was in bed in a state between wakefulness and sleep, the conversations they have been having on life and death and ghosts melded together and came out as a vision to her and how she discovered that she had her ghost story then. Mary Shelley was not yet nineteen years when she wrote this book. It is an amazing feat of imagination for a nineteen year old girl.

I liked Mary Shelley’s prose. It had the style of nineteenth century English, which was so different from today’s plain English, with sentences which were a pleasure to read, But interestingly, Mary Shelley didn’t ramble along with long sentences – she typically used short or medium-length sentences. This made it easier for the reader to read those sentences and also enjoy the pleasure of the language. To me, it looked like Mary Shelley had beautifully blended the old and the new styles quite fascinatingly in her story.

I remember in the omnibus edition I had, the book started with this quote from ‘Paradise Lost’ :

Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay

To mould me Man, did I solicit thee

From darkness to promote me?

I remember those lines moving me powerfully when I read them at that time. They moved me so deeply that I memorized them and remember them even now after so many years. I was disappointed that these lines were not there in the edition that I read now.

Excerpts

I am giving below some of my favourite passages from the book.

He is so gentle, yet so wise; his mind is so cultivated, and when he speaks, although his words are culled with the choicest art, yet they flow with rapidity and unparalleled eloquence.

…I had contempt for the uses of modern natural philosophy. It was very different when the masters of the science sought immortality and power; such views, although futile, were grand; but now the scene was changed. The ambition of the inquirer seemed to limit itself to the annihilation of those visions on which my interest in science was chiefly founded. I was required to exchange chimeras of boundless grandeur for realities of little worth.

A human being in perfection ought always to preserve a calm and peaceful mind and never to allow passion or a transitory desire to disturb his tranquillity. I do not think that the pursuit of knowledge is an exception to the rule. If the study to which you apply yourself has a tendency to weaken your affections and to destroy your taste for those simple pleasures in which no alloy can possibly mix, then that study is certainly unlawful, that is to say, not befitting the human mind. If this rule were always observed; if no man allowed any pursuit whatsoever to interfere with the tranquillity of his domestic affections, Greece had not been enslaved, Caesar would have spared his country, America would have been discovered more gradually, and the empires of Mexico and Peru had not been destroyed.

“He can no longer be a subject for pity; we must reserve that for his miserable survivors.”

Nothing is more painful to the human mind than, after the feelings have been worked up by a quick succession of events, the dead calmness of inaction and certainty which follows and deprives the soul both of hope and fear.

…yet a man is blind to a thousand minute circumstances which call forth a woman’s sedulous attention.

“Surely it not the custom of Englishmen to receive strangers so inhospitably.”

      “I do not know,” said the man, “what the custom of the English may be, but it is the custom of the Irish to hate villains.”

It is well for the unfortunate to be resigned, but for the guilty there is no peace.

Years will pass, and you will have visitings of despair and yet be tortured by hope.

Final Thoughts

I enjoyed reading ‘Frankenstein’ not because it was a horror story – though it was interesting from that perspective – but for its portrayal of what it is to be an outsider who yearns for love and acceptance, and how the psyche of such an outsider evolves when he is despised by the majority. It is a sad tale which is frightening in some aspects and carries valuable lessons for our 21st century world. I am hoping to read soon, ‘The Last Man’, which is another fascinating work by Mary Shelley.

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