Book Review: Frankenstein – Mary Shelley

Forget the Hollywood image of the monster with bolts in his neck, Frankenstein, written by the then 18 year old Mary Shelley, is an intriguing read as well as a morality tale, still as relevant for today, if not more so.

Within Shelley’s tale of Victor Frankenstein who creates a being that turns into a monster who eventually sets out to destroy him, Mary Shelley depicts the dangers that are inherent when man tries to play god in his single-minded pursuit of science and knowledge merely for its own sake, and with scant regard for any of the possible moral consequences that might arise from his actions. The tale also illustrates the dangers of judging people – to paraphrase Martin Luther King – by how they look and not by the content of their character; and that if you shun people simply because they look differently from you, the anger and resentment you sow will inevitably come back to haunt you.

Frankenstein was written while Mary Shelley was in Switzerland with her husband Percy Bysshe Shelley and Lord Byron, and was first published anonymously in 1818. Presumably as a woman, and a teenager at that, Mary Shelley assumed – as numerous other female authors have done before and since – that the book had more chance of selling if people didn’t realise it had been written by a woman. Finally when her name did appear in the second edition, many people couldn’t believe that a woman could have invented such a story.

And it’s quite some story. In fact it’s a story within a story. We hear of Frankenstein via letters by a Captain Walton – who meets Victor Frankenstein while on his own journey for glory in the freezing north seas. Like Frankenstein, he too is exploring unchartered territory and in so doing is likewise leading himself and his crew into possible death.

In Frankenstein’s case, his unexplored territory is pushing the boundaries of science. Frankenstein is clearly a highly intelligent and capable young man. Even towards the end of the novel when he is an emotional and physical wreck and on the point of death, Captain Walton concludes: “What a glorious creature must he have been in the days of his prosperity, when he is thus noble and godlike in ruin! He seems to feel his own worth and the greatness of his fall.”

Frankenstein’s troubles begin while a student at Ingolstadt. Having recently lost his beloved mother, Frankenstein decides “what glory would attend the discovery, if I could banish disease from the human frame and render man invulnerable to any but a violent death!” But he clearly hasn’t thought through the moral implications should man indeed become invulnerable to death; and it is also clear that he is partly induced by the glory that would attend such a discovery. And in the pursuit of this knowledge, he commits the fatal sin of desiring to learn the “hidden laws of nature” and “the secrets of heaven and earth”. In other words, he decides to play god. “A new species would bless me as its creator and source; many happy and excellent natures would owe their being to me. No father could claim the gratitude of his child so completely as I should deserve theirs“.

Totally consumed by this desire to “unfold to the world the deepest mysteries of creation”, he doesn’t go home to visit his family for several years but instead devotes himself tirelessly to his studies. It is this monomania which Shelley warns us against. “If the study to which you apply yourself has a tendency to weaken your affections, and to destroy your taste for those simple pleasures in which no alloy can possibly mix, then that study is certainly unlawful, that is to say, not befitting the human mind. If this rule were always observed; if no man allowed any pursuit whatsoever to interfere with the tranquillity of his domestic affections, Greece had not been enslaved, Caesar would have spared his country; America would have been discovered more gradually; and the empires of Mexico and Peru had not been destroyed.”

Frankenstein informs Walton that in the course of his studies: “I became myself capable of bestowing animation upon lifeless matter” and creates life in the form of the nameless creature. That this creature is hideous is without doubt: “its unearthly ugliness rendered it almost too horrible for human eyes”. However, we never get a detailed description of him. His image is left mainly to our own imagination. All we really know about him is his yellow, watery eyes and the fact that he is unusually tall and superhumanly agile and strong, able to live in the most inhospitable places on earth and climb an almost perpendicular mountain: and that at the very sight of him, children and women run away screaming or faint on the spot, and men immediately assume the worst and want to attack him.

Throughout the novel the monster is shunned, first by his creator Frankenstein and then by society. That at first he has noble qualities is without doubt. He is intelligent, eloquent, persuasive and sensitive. He is initially empathetic to the needs of others around him. While hiding in a hovel, he watches the De Lacey family in their daily struggles to survive and goes out of his way – anonymously – to be of assistance to them as he “wants to restore happiness to these deserving people”. He refuses to steal their food when he realises how little the cottagers have; instead he goes out and collects wood for them and clears their footpath of snow. His empathy is such that he is sad when they are sad, happy when they are happy. He imagines winning them over, gaining their love and finally no longer being alone. However, the De Laceys are so horrified by his appearance in the cottage that they refuse to live there anymore. With his hopes so cruelly dashed, the creature experiences feelings of revenge and hatred which in turn “bent my mind towards injury and death” and in his impotent rage he destroys their garden and cottage. It is then he decides to seek out his creator and sets off on his path of murderous revenge.

However the novel makes clear that the creature wasn’t evil by nature but it is what happens to him that changes him “events, that impressed me with feelings which, from what I had been, made me what I am”. It is this constant rejection by society, the assumption that simply because of the way he looks that he must be evil that eventually “I declared everlasting war against the species, and more than all, against him who had formed me and sent me forth to this insupportable misery.”

After all, he helps the De Laceys and saves a young girl from drowning but in both cases he is met with hatred and his life is threatened simply because of his appearance. Worst of all, the man who created him, has shunned him and left him to a fate – loneliness – which fills him with hatred and resentment. Ironically, this creature who is to kill innocents for the sake of revenge, at first can’t understand how man can be both virtuous and evil. However once having felt not only abandoned by his creator but thanks to “the subsequent blight of all kindly feeling by the loathing and scorn which his protectors had manifested towards him” he is led into such a rage that he admits “I vowed eternal hatred and vengeance to all mankind.”

In Frankenstein, Mary Shelley illustrates how knowledge can be a two-edged sword. Just as when the creature puts his hand in the fire and realises that something, that provides warmth, can also cause pain, so knowledge can both help and be an affliction for mankind. Firstly, the more knowledgeable he becomes, the more the creature’s sorrow increases as he comprehends how singular his fate is. Secondly, there is the danger inherent in pursuing knowledge in a moral vacuum as it ‘may be a serpent to sting you.” Given the times she was living in, it would seem Mary Shelley was warning of making science into the new god and of the dangers of idealism in the abstract.

We also see the proof of the adage that the path to hell is paved with good intentions. There is no doubt that Frankenstein wanted to help his fellow man. “I had begun life with benevolent intentions, and thirsted for the moment when I should put them in practice, and make myself useful to my fellow-beings.” In the end, however, despite this “Now all was blasted: instead of that serenity of conscience, which allowed me to look back upon the past with self-satisfaction, and from thence to gather promise of new hopes, I was seized by remorse and the sense of guilt, which hurried me away to a hell of intense tortures, such as no language can describe.”

Another adage which Frankenstein proves to be true is: be careful what you wish for. Frankenstein notes: “I had desired it with an ardour that far exceeded moderation; but now that I had finished, the beauty of the dream vanished, and breathless horror and disgust filled my heart. Unable to endure the aspect of the being I had created”.

Frankenstein pays a heavy price both in the loss of loved ones and in his descent into “a miserable spectacle of wrecked humanity, pitiable to others and intolerable to myself”. He is continuously “torn by remorse, horror, and despair”. He is wracked by guilt, feeling that he is the true murderer of William and Justine. “Remorse extinguished every hope. I had been the author of unalterable evils; and I lived in daily fear, lest the monster whom I had created should perpetrate some new wickedness.” As a result, Frankenstein is enslaved by a creation of his own making which even the creature acknowledges, saying at one point “Slave” …. “You are my creator, but I am your master; obey!”

When the creature and Frankenstein finally meet, the creature asks his creator for just one thing – a partner to share his life with. He promises Frankenstein that he will cease hostilities and go into exile in South America, far away from any place inhabited by man. Frankenstein at first agrees. “His tale and the feelings he now expressed proved him to be a creature of fine sensations, and did I not as his maker owe him all the portion of happiness that it was in my power to bestow?” In the end, however, Frankenstein takes the more selfless option, aware that by doing so he may bring death and destruction to his own loved ones; he refuses to make a partner for the monster, finally realising the possible consequence of such an action for the rest of mankind.

Ironically in a novel that deals with someone trying to create life, the prevailing theme, however, is death and grief. As Frankenstein says at the beginning of the novel, unaware of how true a statement it will prove to be. “To examine the causes of life, we must first have recourse to death.” Little does Frankenstein suspect how death will haunt him. Mary Shelley depicts the grief over losing a loved one with great feeling and sensitivity. It was something she must have felt only too keenly. Her mother, the famous radical thinker Mary Wollstonecraft had died soon after her birth, and by the time of writing Frankenstein Shelley had already lost a child. When Frankenstein mourns the death of his best friend, Henry Clerval, the sentiments are movingly depicted. “And where does he now exist? Is this gentle and lovely being lost forever? Has this mind, so replete with ideas, imaginations fanciful and magnificent, which formed a world, whose existence depended on the life of its creator;—has this mind perished? Does it now only exist in my memory? No, it is not thus; your form so divinely wrought, and beaming with beauty, has decayed, but your spirit still visits and consoles your unhappy friend.”

As the daughter of two radical thinkers (Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin) it is not surprising that the novel also includes some apt criticism on the iniquities of human society, using the monster as a prism to reflect its absurdities. “I learned that the possessions most esteemed by your fellow creatures were high and unsullied descent united with riches. A man might be respected with only one of these advantages, but without either he was considered, except in very rare instances, as a vagabond and a slave, doomed to waste his powers for the profits of the chosen few!” There is also a sideswipe at the way the lower orders are treated compared to the more enlightened mores of the Swiss Republic. “there is less distinction between the several classes of its inhabitants; and the lower orders, being neither so poor nor so despised, their manners are more refined and moral…… (and) does not include the idea of ignorance, and a sacrifice of the dignity of a human being.”

And as the novel makes clear, if society ignores the wants and needs of others, it will end up paying a heavy and bloody price. “Everywhere I see bliss, from which I alone am irrevocably excluded. I was benevolent and good — misery made me a fiend.” After all, at the time of Shelley writing the novel, the French Revolution was not a too distant memory and many of the friends of Mary’s parents had taken a keen interest in the ideas of the revolution.

As for the creature he asks his creator Frankenstein many a question that us humans ask of god: “What did this mean? Who was I? What was I? Whence did I come? What was my destination? These questions continually recurred, but I was unable to solve them.” Although at times in his self-pity, the creature does verge on sounding like a teenager castigating his parents by pointing out he didn’t ask to be born. He is also selfish in his loneliness, deciding at first to kidnap the boy William without giving any thought to the effect such a kidnap would have on its victim. Even at Frankenstein’s death bed he bemoans his own fate with the line “my agony was still superior to thine”. And referring to the murders he has committed to wreck vengeance on Frankenstein he claims: “he suffered not in the consummation of the deed. Oh! Not the ten-thousandth portion of the anguish that was mine during the lingering detail of its execution.”

The climax of the novel sees Frankenstein and his creature determined to destroy each other. Thus Frankenstein is also a morality tale on the viciousness of revenge. As the monster notes towards the end of the novel, “For while I destroyed his hopes, I did not satisfy my own desires.”   Filled with “impotent envy and bitter indignation” the monster has “an insatiable thirst for vengeance” and carries on wrecking vengeance on Frankenstein only too aware that “I knew that I was preparing for myself a deadly torture, but I was the slave, not the master, of an impulse which I detested yet could not disobey.” In a way the creature has created his own “creature” that will ultimately destroy him too. Revenge is therefore evidently not the answer. Both Frankenstein and the creature end up in hell of their own making that can only end in death.

And ultimately it is death that they both desire. Frankenstein is physically shattered and psychologically weakened by guilt and remorse. The monster likewise is bowed down with remorse and hatred of himself for his actions, determined to kill himself and leave not one iota of his existence. In a moment of redemption the creature does feel grief and horror at Frankenstein’s death and calls him a “Generous and self-devoted being” and asks for his pardon.

Frankenstein is a fascinating read. Shelley has a great eye for detail and her depiction of the Swiss countryside is highly evocative. The novel deals with various intriguing themes without getting in the way of a great story, well told. The story is also at heart very human. None of us may be able to create a living creature but most of us are capable of creating our own bugbears which end up taking a life of their own and controlling us – whether it be a career, a hobby, a relationship or an addiction. And with the strides made in science today, Frankenstein is also a warning that just because we can do something from a scientific point of view doesn’t necessarily mean we should. There are always consequences to our actions and we ignore them at our peril.

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