Monday, May 12, 2014

Book Review: Frankenstein

Henry Fuseli's The Nightmare, the cover art on my copy of Frankenstein

Over the past couple of years, I've been trying to remedy a history of lazy reading by going through the classics. As a writer, it's important to have a constant diet of literature to serve as inspiration for one's own work, not to mention the knowledge and experiences gained through reading in general. Since I've been interested in both the horror and Gothic genres, I decided to tackle Frankenstein, and wow, I don't think I've disliked a book this much since my freshmen high school English teacher made us read Toni Morrison's Beloved.

The story of Frankenstein has been bastardized and rewritten almost beyond recognition ever since cinema started adapting the novel, therefore bringing it to the public consciousness. One of the most common errors made is referring to the monster as 'Frankenstein'; Victor Frankenstein is the creature's creator, and his creation is never given an actual name but instead referred to as the 'daemon' or 'fiend,' as well as countless other negative epithets. The monster has no bolts emerging from his neck, and the particularities of his creation are glossed over, so there's no throwing of the switch, no electrical life-giving, no shouting "it's alive, it's alive, it's alive!" The metaphor of man abusing science is preserved, however, and it's this theme that's probably Frankenstein's greatest legacy. The Island of Dr. Moreau, Jurassic Park, and countless others have played with the same basic story, and it's important to recognize this, despite the work's other failings.

So, during the epistolary introduction, we meet Victor Frankenstein, a haggard, beaten young man, who, after being found marooned on an iceberg, relates his life story to the naive leader of a failing Arctic expedition. Just a few years prior, Victor was a passionate college student, influenced by ancient apocryphal texts as well as new advances in the sciences. He learns chemistry and eventually discovers the secret of life, which is never revealed. Victor uses his knowledge to construct a new being, the creature, an eight-foot tall idealized man. When he brings his creature to life, however, he is immediately stricken by his ghoulish appearance (the creature is described as having taut, translucent skin that reveals all of his inner workings), and subsequently flees, abandoning his nascent creation. Victor, I think, is supposed to be a sympathetic character, but it is at this point in the novel that the reader first experiences disbelief. Victor has been working on this project for months; his health has suffered; he's neglected correspondence with his family, and we're to believe that he'd run away like a little ninny after achieving what would be heralded as the greatest scientific feat of all time? Victor retreats to his friend Henry's care, and is more or less bedridden for half of a year by what amounts to a panic attack. Our protagonist's delicate constitution shall reveal itself throughout the novel, to the point where the reader has grown quite tired of Victor's fragile health. I don't know, maybe it's a Victorian thing; pre-antibiotic times were tough, I'm sure, but I couldn't help coming away with the conclusion that Victor is a pussy, especially considering his later actions.

So after recovering from his women's ailment, Victor returns to his home country of Sweden, essentially forgetting about the eight-foot tall monster he's created. Cue suspension of disbelief. Victor doesn't even really try to look for his monster; he visits his lab, shrugs his shoulders, and off to Sweden he goes. Mary Shelly must have had it in for scientists, because Victor comes off looking like the the world's dumbest, most irresponsible human-being. When he gets home, Vic discovers that his brother has been murdered, with his family's harmless nurse Justine the chief suspect. Upon investigating the scene of the crime, Victor spots his monster, who flees. He puts two and two together and figures that the creature is to blame. YET HE DOES NOTHING when Justine is put to trial and convicted, on the basis that no one would believe him. She dies because of him, he knows she's innocent, and he chooses to remain silent. At this point all of the reader's sympathy for Victor has vanished, since he's revealed himself to be a selfish, self-pitying asshole. Oh God, the whining. Victor whines, complains, and cries woe is me constantly after this point in the novel. Our suspicions that he is a pussy are confirmed, and it is only the allure of the monster that keeps us reading.

After the trial, the creature confronts Victor, and reveals his past. Awakening dumb and innocent, he wanders into a village and is driven away because of his fearful appearance. He lives in the woods, eventually moving into a wood shed, where he can watch a rural family. From their interactions, he learns to speak, and he teaches himself to read after finding a copy of Paradise Lost. There are references to the aforementioned work throughout the novel; Victor is compared to Satan, the creature to Adam. When the creature works up the courage to introduce himself to this family, whom he's fallen in love with, they attack him and drive him away. He subsequently vows revenge on Frankenstein for bringing him into a life of loneliness and misery; hence his murder of Victor's brother and his framing of Justine. The creature tells Victor he'll stop killing his family members if Vic will make him a female counterpart, and Victor reluctantly agrees.

The creature is an interesting character; despite his brutal actions, the reader can't help but feel sorry for him, since he never experiences a positive interaction with humanity. I feel like the novel should've been told from the creature's perspective. Instead, we get asshole Victor.

Victor isolates himself on a remote island somewhere off the coast of England after journeying there with his buddy Henry. He builds a laboratory and commences work on a second creature, only to suddenly renege when he becomes conscientious and fearful of the consequences of his actions. He theorizes that the two creatures would breed and produce a malevolent race that would wipe out mankind. I don't really know what kind of scientist Victor is. A dumb one, I guess. How two creature could produce enough progeny to challenge the human race without inbreeding, I can't imagine. All the presupposed malevolency of his creature is an imagining of Victor's--his creature has known nothing but violence and hatred, so how else should he act? I think the creature's deal was very fair, yet when he shows up at Vic's lab, our wonderful humanitarian tells him the deal's off. The creature, predictably, is pissed, and tells him more or less that he's going to kill everyone Victor loves. Victor, somehow, misinterprets this, especially the line "I'll be with you on your wedding day." Vic takes this to mean the creature will kill him when he marries his sweetheart Elizabeth, despite the fact that the creature has done nothing but strike at Vic's friends and family, while leaving him to suffer. His friend Henry is soon murdered, and still he does not connect the dots. He proceeds with his wedding to Elizabeth, vowing to kill the creature, keeping a pistol on him; yet he allows her to retire by herself immediately after the wedding. The creature murders her. At this points the reader has had enough of our brilliant scientist, and we wonder how the hell Vic was smart enough to bring the creature to life in the first place.

The fact that Shelly glosses over the creature's creation raises many questions. For instance, did he simply reanimate dead tissue like in the movies? If so, why doesn't Victor ever consider using his knowledge to bring his murdered family members back to life? Probably because all Victor can do is think of himself.

So Victor vows to kill the monster (Christ, why'd you wait till he killed everybody?) and that's how he ends up in the Arctic. The conclusion is disappointing; Victor dies of pussiness (he really does; he dies in the ship's cabin from some unnamed ailment, unable to confront his monster) and the creature finally gets his revenge, though we're left uncertain to his fate.

This is the first book of Mary Shelly's I've ever read; she's known mainly for Frankenstein and nothing else. Did she mean to make Victor so unlikeable? Is his arrogant and selfish nature a commentary on scientists of her day? Her main theme, that science is a dangerous tool, is not quite conveyed to the reader, since Victor's problems could have easily been prevented had he but not abandoned his monster. I guess not every classic is truly a classic.
Final rating: Red Delicious. 

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