Author: Mary ShelleyFrankenstein by Mary Shelley
Publisher: Wordsworth Classics (1993 edition)
Number of Pages: 215
How long it took me to read: 2 weeks
Where I bought this book: It was on a pile of books no longer wanted by the University at which I work
ISBN: 1 85326 023 1

Like a Moth to a Flame

I’d love to say that I was being ultra-studious when I read this book because it features on the reading list of the writing course I’ve applied to, but that was just a fortunate coincidence.  In fact, there was no real drive or compulsion that led me to read it other than a feeling that, by this age, I really should have done so already.  I’m not a huge fan of horror (despite having been pulled through the worlds of Stephen King, Clive Barker and James Herbert by a typically morbid teenage curiosity) but I was interested to find out how much the legacy of Frankenstein that now pervades our culture, through so many films, cartoons and even comedy sketches, actually borrows from the original work.

Favorite Five

I propose that the top 5 quotes from this book are:

5. “If the study to which you apply yourself has a tendency to weaken your affections, and to destroy your taste of 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.” (p.45)

4. “His yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath; his hair was of a lustrous black, and flowing; his teeth of a pearly whiteness; but these luxuriances only formed a more horrid contrast with his watery eyes, that seemed only almost of the same colour as the dun white sockets in which they were set, his shrivelled complexion and straight black lips.” (p.47)

3. “I was often tempted, when all was at peace around me, and I the only unquiet thing that wandered restless in a scene so beautiful and heavenly—if I except some bat, or the frogs, whose harsh and interrupted croaking was heard only when I approached the shore—often, I say, I was tempted to plunge into the silent lake, that the waters might close over me and my calamities for ever.” (p.82)

2. “Satan had his companions, fellow-devils, to admire and encourage him; but I am solitary and abhorred.” (p.123)

…and my pick for the No.1 quote is…

1. “Learn from me, if not by my precepts, at least by my example, how dangerous is the acquirement of knowledge, and how much happier that man is who believes his native town to be the world, than he who aspires to become greater than his nature will allow.” (p.43)

New Words

Words are wondrous creatures. Put them together and they paint a picture. Rearrange them and the scene changes. But to be able to see what they are saying, we must first know what they mean.

New Word: encomium (noun)

Definition (Source: a formal expression of high praise
Synonyms: (Source: accolade, citation, commendation, dithyramb, eulogium, eulogy, homage, hymn, paean, panegyric, salutation, tribute
Origins1580–90;  < Latin  < Greek ‘enkṓmion’ a revel
As in: “…his harsh, blunt encomiums gave me even more pain than the benevolent approbations of M. Waldman.” (p.58)

Conversation with the Reader

While I read, I write, and as I write, I read. Here’s some of what I wrote while I read this book:

Note to reader: A warning for anyone who has not yet read this book—this review contains major spoilers, which I’m afraid are impossible to avoid when exploring my response to it.

“The beginning of Frankenstein is more suggestive of a tragedy than a horror as we might nowadays expect it, with more effort spent on setting up themes of isolation and the need for companionship than on an atmosphere of suspense or dread.  The arctic landscape is white, open and, though undoubtedly dangerous, far from the stereotypical Bavarian castle shrouded in a brooding sky punctuated by frequent lightning strikes.  Our first glimpse of the monster is from a distance, as it rides past on a dog-drawn sled, appearing to be nothing more extraordinary than an abnormally tall, hooded human figure.  This unexpected introduction boosts my expectations that the original story will offer something vastly different from the usual tired portrayal of a lumbering, neck-bolted, flat-headed zombie.”

“I’m surprised that our more familiar idea of Frankenstein’s monster ever came to exist, given Shelly’s own depiction of it.  The original bears little resemblance to old flat-top at all, apart from sharing its inhuman height (see quote no.4 above). The creature described here far better conveys the notion of disparate human parts sewn together into a living ragdoll, creating a more nightmarish apparition than the budget-limited design of Universal. Yet it is the latter that has persisted through so many incarnations.  The question of why this should be is not something I intend to consider in a review of the book (although I might archly suggest that this iconic simplicity proved easier for mass consumption) but it is something of an irony that, in the legacy of Frankenstein, the monster has usurped its own creator.”

“After the creature’s disappearance, Victor is very quick to convince himself, without evidence, that the tragic occurrences around him are the result of his experiment. It is as if, within the insular walls his lone work has erected around him, paranoia has taken hold, and the monster is no more than a symbol of his self-disgust.  He feels guilt where there is no proof of his guilt, furthering the theme of isolation’s effects.  How disappointing, then, that, when the creature reappears to petition its creator, in a gentle, cultivated tongue, with the story of a year spent building up courage to befriend the family that unwittingly shelters and educates it, it actually admits to committing all these cruel murders.  The entire psychology of Victor is magically validated, while that of the monster, which has shown such conscience and consideration in its wait, is instantly vilified.  The story’s carefully set up themes crumble, and it begins to take on the appearance of Hollywood’s most skimpy, formulaic horror films (such as the Friday the 13th, Halloween and Nightmare on Elm Street series) where the ‘other’ kills everyone in sight simply because it is no more than a device to inspire fear.  The effect is worse, in this book, because Shelley has hinted at a much more considered approach to ‘otherness’ than she eventually delivers.  How much more powerful might the message have been if the monster had really turned out to be in Frankenstein’s own mind, the cause of his self-enforced solitude, rather than in his physical creation?”

“This gratuitous descent into slasher fiction does not end with the creature’s violent retributions.  Like the teenager that wanders away from a busy, well-lit campsite to explore an unusual sound in the heart of the midnight woods, Victor makes some curiously unwise decisions to keep the story on its unavoidably grisly course.  Leaving the creature alone in his house, then failing to pursue and destroy it, deliberately tearing up the second creation while the monster watches him and failing to realise (despite the creature having already revealed its machiavellian modus operandi to him) how this will likely affect his wedding day, all come across as questionably foolhardy acts for a man endowed with enough genius to create his own life-form.”

“It’s disappointing that a book which starts by supplanting the expectations imposed by not just a genre but by the entire legacy of the myth it has begun, finally sinks back beneath the mire of them.  But I cannot be completely negative about Shelley’s work. Given the time when it was written, it is not difficult to imagine how it became a seminal work of horror.  There is an uncomplicated rhythm to the language that engages the reader and pulls them through the entirety of the tale, despite lacking the crescendos and diminuendos required to inspire tension or terror (the reveal of the final murder is so drably paced that, even if it wasn’t so brightly signposted, it would still struggle to evoke a chill).  The image of the creature is, as already mentioned, far more dark and deadly than its modern counterpart, yet its intelligence and its power to communicate also make it easier to relate and sympathise with.  We never find out whether it truly feels the regret, the empathy, or the loneliness that it claims to.  We are forced, as with any ‘other,’ to judge it by its actions alone.  This is possibly the most disturbing aspect of the story as, when applied to one’s own life, it nullifies the greater part of our self-perception.  But, despite these attempts to wring some drops of positivity from my reading experience, I can’t help but imagine how much better the themes of isolation and regret would have been served had the creature not transformed so easily into a maliciously vengeful murderer, and the horror remained bound to the realm of psychology throughout.”

Gareth Long

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  3. Samuel Gaston says:

    How do you think the inset narrative and framing narrative are important/ significant to the story as a whole?

    • Gareth Long says:

      Hi Samuel

      That’s a very interesting and pertinent question. Let me turn it around – how do you think readers would have reacted to the main story (particularly the characters of Frankenstein and his monster) had Shelley not included Walton’s letters? If all we had was Frankestein’s account, how would our sympathies and comprehension have been altered?

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