Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus (originally 1818, 1831)
Good news everyone! I got off my lazy butt and decided that I wanted to start a new feature on the site related to those papery things that are kind of like blogs, just with less electricity. That’s right, I’m introducing a feature where I plan to go through influential works of British science fiction literature, but do more than simply throw out a quick review here and there. I want to break down what makes these books an important part of British literature as a whole, and perhaps discuss why they are important, what is inspired by them, themes, social commentary etc. Due to this, I figured that I would break this down into segments – perhaps one chapter a week, maybe more. This way I can discuss things I want without worrying about writing a monstrous article nobody will read or glossing over everything that is important.
When I was in middle school, I recall having class that I believe had to be a reading class that involved us going over various novels throughout the year and doing assignments on them. Our teacher must have been pretty awesome because our curriculum that year involved almost entirely science fiction novels like Z for Zachariah, A Wrinkle in Time, War of the Worlds and finally Frankenstein. At the time, I was ignorant of basic plot of the original Mary Shelley novel and assumed I would not enjoy the book due to my ambivalence to the Universal Horror film of the same name. I know this is blasphemy to many a film buff or horror aficionado, but I didn’t really see why it was so popular. Sure, it was probably scary when it came out, the make-up techniques were amazing, and sets were great, but I found it ultimately boring. When I cracked open the book, I was amazed at the difference. No longer was Victor the hero of the story, no longer was The Monster seemingly incapable of complex thought, and most importantly – no longer was it merely a horror story, there was social commentary, politics, and actual science involved.
Needless to say, I loved reading Frankenstein at the time and have decided to go back after twenty years or so and read it again. I recently discovered a section of inexpensive hard-bound books at our local Barnes and Noble, and fell in love with them. They are all mostly things in the public domain, so costs aren’t too bad, and they have snazzy faux-leatherbound covers. I have some of these books as ratty paperbacks, and plan to collect more to eventually replace those. The version of Frankenstein that I ultimately picked up has a beautiful cover by Jessica Hische.
I now know that the version that I read in school must have been some sort of abridged or “young readers” edition of the story, because I do not remember the beginning of the novel whatsoever. Granted, that was two decades ago, but I’m pretty sure it jumped right into the story without the fifteen or so pages of introductory letters. Perhaps the entire framing concept was removed? I’m not sure, but I’m enjoying a book that is both somewhat familiar and yet brand new in many ways!
My first choice for the “book club” is perhaps mildly controversial seeing that Frankenstein is usually a horror franchise in many minds. This is perhaps true for the films based on this book, but the book itself is very much a different beast. I’ve always seen Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus somewhere in between a gothic romance novel, a psychological horror novel, and perhaps an early science fiction novel. This is the case for much of this early “genre” fiction, in that genres were far more fluid and less pigeon-holed with the tired tropes we see today. Using another contemporary example, none could argue that H.P. Lovecraft wasn’t a horror writer, I would make the case that he also discussed aliens and monsters from other dimensions blurring the horror and science fiction genres together. This is also the case for our very own Mary Shelly here, in that she wrote mostly about the dangers of science running amok.
Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus was published March 11, 1818. The book, by 21-year-old Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, is frequently called the first science fiction novel. In the story, the scientist Victor Frankenstein collects pieces of various corpses, and stitches them together into a grotesque patchwork monster. Using chemicals and the forces of nature, perhaps lightning, Frankenstein is able to animate his experiment, this much to his own horror. The gentle, intelligent creature is rejected by its creator, and wanders across the countryside, seeking companionship. It becomes increasingly brutal when it fails to find acceptance, and eventually succumbs to emotions of bitter angst towards his creator. We have all heard the tale of the origin of this book. Mary Shelley wrote a short version of what would become Frankenstein on a rainy afternoon in 1816 in Geneva, where she was staying with her husband, the poet Percy Shelley, and their friend Lord Byron. Byron had challenged each of them to write a scary ghost story, but only Mary Shelley finished hers.
At it’s very essence, Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus is a cautionary tale of what happens when scientists do not realize the consequences of their actions on a social and ethical scale. This is the all too common “men playing God” idea that seems to always pop up when any bit of scientific research hits the public. London was full of stories of “body-snatchers” or men that would desecrate the graves of the recently departed for medical research or other nefarious ploys. Many people must have thought about why this was happening, and Mary Shelly definitely provided an answer here.
I believe that the edition that I currently have in my hands is the 1831 edition of the book, so for the purposes of this series I will be discussing only that version as I do not plan two attempt to read two books concurrently. I barely have the time to read ONE book! I will say that the original version is somewhat different to the common “popular edition” as Shelly and her husband edited the book a few times during her life. Doing a bit of research shows that as far as I can tell, the major differences between the two versions are could be seen as important or not depending on how you look at it. On one hand, Shelley removed some text about new scientific theories and experiments going on at the time, mainly because many were thoroughly disproven at the time of the later edition. This does succeed in somewhat removing the novel from its original intellectual context, and obscures the issues that were being debated both publicly and in the Byron-Shelley circle. On the other hand, I have looked at side-by-side comparisons and most of the text is almost exactly the same. Perhaps, later editions tie the characters into the concept of “fate” a bit more than the original, but it’s basically the same.
I mentioned earlier that the version I read in school was most likely some sort of abridged version of this book, and that is truly a shame. If one were to remove the framing around the main story, I feel we are left with something half-finished. Unlike the “whale information” segments in another often chopped up book, Moby Dick, the framing in Frankenstein is very interesting. Frankenstein actually has multiple framed narratives that surround the life story of the man Victor Frankenstein. The first layer is from the point of view of a sea captain named Robert Walton who writes letters to his sister relating the story told to him by Victor Frankenstein. Walton discovers Frankenstein on the verge of death in the arctic and nurses him back to health in exchange for his story. Victor’s layer is somewhat of an autobiographical tale told to Walton of everything he did leading up to the creation of his monster and how it made him feel. Finally, we actually get the creature’s point of view as he copes with his loneliness and rage against his “father”.
I personally adore this sort of narrative structure, and a modern equivalent that many have probably read was Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter, as written by Seth Grahame-Smith. That book had a layer of a man writing a book and how he came across secret dairies of Abraham Lincoln, and the content of these diaries themselves.
This week, there wasn’t much story as of yet, but we do get to learn a bit about the aforementioned seafarer Robert Walton. It seems that Walton has sailed to the Arctic as an adventurer, this was the time of the adventurers after all! Walton seems like a kind man, but also seems somewhat arrogant, as we get a sense that he feels himself to be somewhat “above” the rest of the crew of his ship. Because of this, he has fallen into a “funk” and feels that he has no companionship other than his far-away sister that we never hear a reply from.
“I have no one near me, gentle yet courageous, possessed of a cultivated as well as of a capacious mind, whose tastes are like my own, to approve or amend my plans. How would such a friend repair the faults of your poor brother! I am too ardent in execution, and too impatient of difficulties.”
He is excited to finally meet Victor Frankenstein, a man that he sees as his intellectual equal, and seemingly gets some sort of a crush on him. Not romantically, but it definitely seems as if he is infatuated by the man. This creates somewhat of an instance of the “unreliable narrator” in which Victor is shown to be the hero of this tale, a fact that gets flipped on it’s head later on!
Chapter one (of Victor’s tale) mostly explores Victor’s relationship to Elizabeth, the woman that was his best friend growing up, his adopted sister, and love interest. She is an orphan child taken in by the Frankenstein family, who was lovingly raised with Victor after her nobleman father died. Elizabeth is completely idealized by Victor, in part because she is clever but more importantly because she is pretty. He says at the beginning of Chapter 1, “Her person was the image of her mind; her hazel eyes, although as lively as a bird’s, possessed an attractive softness.” It seems to be a theme throughout Victor’s narrative that he likes beauty above all else, perhaps foreshadowing to his reaction to his “son”? Elizabeth seems to also be Victor’s anchor to reality, and once she is out of the picture Victor completely loses himself.
That’s it for chapter one, and all my introductions! Check back next week where I’ll attempt to discuss relevant themes from chapter two.