Sunday, November 1, 2015

Frankenstein or the Modern Prometheus

Title:  Frankenstein
Author:  Mary Shelley
Publication Information:  Lackington, Huges, Harding, Mavor & Jones (original). 1818 (original). 280 pages (original).
ISBN:  1904633420 / 978-1904633426 (for the Collector's Library edition)

Book Source:  I read this book as this month's selection from my local book club.

Opening Sentence:  "You will rejoice to hear that no disaster has accompanied the commencement of an enterprise which you have regarded with such evil forebodings"

Favorite Quote:  "I cannot believe that I am he whose thoughts were once filled with sublime and transcendent visions of the beauty and the majesty of goodness. But it is even so; the fallen angel becomes a malignant devil. Yet even that enemy of God and man had friends and associates in his desolation; I am alone."

My biggest reaction to this book is not horror. It is not fear. It is not disgust. My biggest reaction is surprise. This book, its characters, and its history are completely not what I expected. The short version I always knew of this book was that the story was about a monstrous creation who wreaked havoc on his creator and everyone and everything around him.

I remember being surprised as a child when I learned that Frankenstein is not the name of the monster but its creator. The Monster has no name. Having read the book, I now question who is the monster - the Monster or its creator? Both? Neither?

The biggest surprise in the book is the Monster itself and its "human" nature. The epigraph of the book is the Monster's question:
"Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay
To mould me man? Did I solicit thee
From darkness to promote me?"

The original line comes from John Milton's Paradise Lost and is spoken by Adam lamenting his fall from paradise. Despite the Monster's heinous acts, I feel sorry for him. Here is a creature, who came into being through no decision of his own, who is the only one of his kind, and who therefore is all alone. He spends his "life" looking for a place to belong and for someone to love. When that cannot be found, he turns to anger and revenge. Yet, that too brings him no peace. The book is the tale of a monster but a surprisingly human story.

For most of the story, I prefer the Monster to his creator Victor Frankenstein. Victor Frankenstein is human and is surrounded by love and friendship but he takes it for granted. He reaches his goal of creating this "alive" Monster but immediately turns his back on his own creation. He spends the rest of his life regretting his creation and the consequences his choices bring. His creation and his guilt erode his life, but he keeps that knowledge from his family, only telling his tale to a complete stranger. For being a creator, he seems considerably more passive than his own creation.

The structure of book is a story within a story within a story. A captain of a vessel is on his own adventure. He writes to his sister of his journey. Upon meeting Frankenstein, he writes his sister of Frankenstein's story. Frankenstein tells his sad tale on board this vessel, and within his tale, the reader hears the story of the Monster. Somehow, all the layers remain distinct and unique but all meld together into one cohesive whole.

Another surprise about this book is how it came to be written. Mary Shelley was only eighteen when she wrote the story. It was published when she was twenty, but without her name as the author. Her name appeared as the author with a later edition. The book was also significantly rewritten in 1831; thus, your experience with the story may be considerably different based on if you read the 1818 original or the 1831 revision.

This story first came to be in The Year Without a Summer. In 1815, a volcanic eruption occurred at Mount Tambora in what is now Indonesia. It was one of the most powerful eruptions ever recorded, and its effects were felt globally, leading to climate change and major agricultural shortages. Mary Shelley, her husband poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, and their friends spent the cold summer of 1816 in Switzerland. The story goes that the weather kept them all indoors. As a way to pass the time, their friend Lord Byron suggested creating ghost stories to go with the dismal conditions and to pass the time. Mary Shelley's story over the next two years developed into this book.

The book is not easy to read; it is dark and dense and takes time to get through. Yet, for all its surprises, for its very human story, and for its intriguing history, it is an incredibly memorable read.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

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