Book Review – Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley

Somewhere along the line you’ve probably created a monster. But it’s unlikely yours was anywhere near as monstrous as the one created by Victor Frankenstein. The demon, as author Mary Shelley calls her protagonist’s creation, is a bad apple,  but all things considered, not as rotten as his creator.

(Warning: spoilers follow.)

Before delving into the rich thematic issues raised in Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus, let’s discuss two gaping plot holes in the story that cannot be overlooked.

First, there’s the matter of Victor’s rejection of his creation immediately upon giving it life. He is repulsed by the physical ugliness of what he has created, although he had been staring at it for months in the lab (see photo above). If the demon was so grotesque, why did he endow it with life in the first place?  Shelley finally addresses it about two-thirds of the way through when she has Victor say in passing that he was too caught up in his frenzy of scientific discovery to notice. Possible? I imagine the physicists who created the atomic bomb experienced similar revulsion after Alamogordo, but still … Shelley undersells it.

Second, there’s the matter of Victor being caught completely off guard when the demon comes to kill his bride. Victor is filled with dread after the demon ominously tells him, “I will be with you on your wedding night.” Victor takes this as a threat that the demon will kill him — but it never occurs to him that the demon is threatening to kill Elizabeth. Yet, earlier in the story, Victor instantly deduces that the demon is the murderer of his younger brother, and then a bit later,  is told by the demon in so many words that he intends to isolate his creator so that he will suffer an equally devastating and profound isolation. And here Shelley makes the opposite error of overselling Victor’s tunnel vision. Always prone to over analysis, Victor ponders the demon’s threat for what seems like an eternity, but with his beloved Elizabeth’s life on the line never puts two and two together. It just doesn’t wash.

These issues are more than made up for by a tight plot with chills, action, tragedy, brutality, and of course, a couple of the most intriguing characters in all of modern fiction.

Now on to thematic issues. Frankenstein is a veritable theme park:  My friend Bill Welter recently wrote that Frankenstein is open to many interpretations. This is quite true; it could be the case because Shelley is a very deep thinker, or perhaps because she was simply trying to spin a good yarn and leave it to the reader to weave his own thematic fabric.

Let’s keep in mind also that Shelley was only 19 when she wrote Frankenstein, so her own philosophical and moral values were surely in the process of development. This could explain why her book leaves hanging so many issues.

God and Anti-god

Neither Shelley nor Victor are religious, but the story is full of Biblical references, which for the most part turn Biblical stories on their head. For example:

  • God loves Adam. Victor hates his Adam.
  • God creates man, an inferior being in every aspect. Victor creates being superior to him in all aspects except physical appearance.
  • God continually forgives man, generation after generation. Victor immediately spurns his creation.
  • God’s Hell is blazing fire and He stays the hell out. Victor’s Hell is freezing cold, and he and his creation are the only inhabitants.
  • The Jews wander through the desert and reach the Promised Land. The demon wanders through the desert and reaches a frozen hell.

Victor is clearly an exceedingly poor substitute for God.  God creates man as part of a grand and intricate design incomprehensible to the mortal mind. Victor creates the demon “[i]n a fitness of enthusiastic madness,” as he himself puts it. Far from being an intelligent designer, Victor [who believes in no god] has neither rudder no compass, and perpetually swings between overthinking and impulsive action. He meticulously creates the monster. He impulsively spurns the monster. He is rationally persuaded to help the demon. He then reneges on his agreement at the 11th hour in near panic. All of these actions Victor justifies. He is never to blame. God’s infallibility is seen in all of his works; Victor’s is seen only in his words.

The demon believes he was created for goodness, but became bad as a result of being abandoned by his creator. Handicapped by his superhuman ugliness, he nevertheless tries to make human contact and forge fruitful human relationships. When he realizes the impossibility of this after a heart rending confrontation with the De Lacey family, whom he had observed in secrecy long enough to be schooled in language and other vital subjects, he fully turns himself over to hatred and revenge. But at least the demon knows what he does and what he is: he recognizes his virtue as virtue and his sin as sin.

The Real Frankenstein Monster

Despite the book’s religious overtones, God is absent as a guiding light. All is measured in human terms. Happiness is measured in the quantity and quality of human relationships — when they are pleasant and undisturbed, all is well; when they are difficult or impossible, despair follows. But for all Victor’s brilliance and professed devotion to his family and steadfast friend, Clerval, he cannot avoid spiraling further and further away from where he started, in a state of contented  tranquility. He casts himself out of his Eden, where he succeeds in creating life only to to see lives destroyed as a result. As he spins toward his frozen hell, Victor is plagued by ever increasing grief, anxiety and fear. His quest for intellectual fulfillment and fame result in his spiritual, and then physical, death.

The demon also finds nothing but anguish and emptiness on the path of discovery. A most impressive autodidact, he can put his knowledge and insight to no better use than committing murder and inflicting torment. And while it is easy to see that Victor helps to bring about this condition by abandoning him, the demon had a choice, too. Like Job, he could have accepted his suffering and held steadfast to his creator.

We can only conclude that the intellect and ambition are very shaky foundations on which to build one’s life. The intellect takes us in one direction after another — Victor and the demon can make a case for anything. An arrogant quest for rational certainty leads to profound uncertainty, and the more arrogant and intelligent we are, the more uncertain we may wind up. Note Victor’s last words:

“Farewell, Walton! Seek happiness in tranquility and avoid ambition, even if it be only the apparently innocent one of distinguishing yourself in science and discoveries. Yet why do I say this? I myself been blasted in these hopes, yet another may succeed.”

Ambivalent to the end.

The real monster in Frankenstein is a bad anchor.  Whether it is a principle, an ideology, a fad diet, a friend, a spouse, a faith or a fortune — we all look for an anchor to keep us from drifting into chaos and ruin. Victor ‘s anchor is discovery. It proves false. The demon’s anchor is Victor, and Victor proves false.

All anchors are not equal. By chance or contrary to her intentions, Shelley makes the case for God more convincingly than the homilies of many a priest.

(Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

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