The story of Frankenstein is familiar to us all. A mad scientist works in the secret lab of a dark, foreboding castle, builds frightening and powerful electrical machines, and with the help of his eerie companion Igor, imparts life into formerly dead tissue. It’s got suspense. It’s got human drama. It’s got nothing to do with the 1818 book by Mary Shelley.
Much of what you know about Frankenstein is not found in the book, but instead comes from a 1927 play by Peggy Webling. The play, and the spin-off Boris Karloff movie, are action-packed, but the book is much more heady. The main characters wax rhapsodic on their own thoughts, or talk endlessly about their trials and emotions. There are several chapters in the middle of the book where the monster tells its own story with calm eloquence and a flowing, Romantic-era flair. Yes, the creature speaks.
In the book, young Victor Frankenstein supplements his scientific genius with a pursuit for the elixir of life, a fountain of youth borne of his efforts. The culmination is the monster, a resuscitation of dead tissue into a living, breathing, and eventually murdering being. While in the popular image of the story, the monster’s failures stem from its mediocre second-hand brain, in Shelley’s original book, the creature’s angst and anger are reflections of its own experiences of rejection by its creator and the world.
Frankenstein is filled with a pathos that was typical in novels of the day. As Victor Frankenstein’s life unravels, it’s easy to feel for him as each wretched event occurs. But the book, written by someone in her late teens, is surprisingly complex, multi-layered, and deep, and reading it through with the emotions turned off still stirs up lots of thoughts and eternal questions. Can a man play God (or play Prometheus, from the book’s subtitle)? What are the limits of science? Is beauty really only skin deep? What is the soul? Can murder be justified? What is the meaning of life?
I need to give you one bit of warning when you first read Shelley’s book. The opening chapters are a series of letters from the captain of a ship, written to his sister in England. When I started reading these early pages, I was sure that I had purchased the wrong book. The letters have almost nothing to do with the core story other then to introduce Victor Frankenstein, although Captain Walton’s scientific pursuits may foreshadow those of the book’s protagonist. But whether these epistles are a reflection of the deeper story, or simply good storytelling, Frankenstein is a true classic of gothic literature. As stated in the popular 1931 movie version, “It’s alive!”
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