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Review: Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

Cover image courtesy http://www.cargocollective.com.

I’d like to begin this post by pointing out an important distinction. Frankenstein is the last name of the person who created the monster of the novel. For some reason, popular culture often refers to the re-animated being as Frankenstein.

My first thought upon reading this work was that the story of Frankenstein and his monster has been changed a ton for the Hollywood and pop culture versions. As with anything that is widely available through media we hear and see all our lives, it can sometimes be hard to separate the original work (a problem I discussed in my Jurassic Park review).

The novel follows an explorer who is writing letters to his sister. One day he sees a large figure driving a sledge and then not long later he finds a man named Frankenstein near death on the ice. They rescue this man and he begins to tell his story, which details the creation of the monster and the events thereafter.

Frankenstein is pretty full of himself. He is dramatic and likes to picture himself as some grand gentleman and scholar. When grief knocks on his door, he keens and flails. Quite frankly, he is in dire need of a fainting couch. I was fairly put off by this aspect of his character. Perhaps the oddest part of his behavior involved the creation of the monster. After two years of ignoring everything but his feverish work on the monster, he gives it the spark of life and is immediately freaked out. He then runs to his bedroom, spurns the monster when it shows up in his bedroom after being alive for about five minutes, and then ignores that it ever happened for the next two years.

The monster himself is largely ignored and ends up watching a family for some time. In this way, he learns to speak and read. It seems that he looks so gruesome that everyone that sees him is incapable of seeing past it, which I had a somewhat hard time understanding. I might say that the time period contributed to that, though. Over time as the monster learns that he is feared for his looks and that Frankenstein, his creator, wants nothing to do with him, he turns to vengeance and starts murdering the people Frankenstein holds dear.

The question often discussed in regards to Shelley’s work is this: who is the real monster? Frankenstein is a study in humanity and what makes us good or bad. Frankenstein pursues knowledge without real ethical thought, then spurns his creation. He later becomes obsessed with protecting his family from that creation and never truly faces up to what he is done. He then spends his life blaming the monster for his troubles and whining. Not the greatest person.

The monster begins life as a blank slate and lives in the woods. He develops a moral and ethical code based on the family he observes, who is Christian. As such, when he feels the world has turned its back on him, he knowingly violates those Christian morals. He is obsessed with approval from his creator, but attempts coercion and murder to sway him.  I’d say this defines the monster as not a good person, either.

I think the main point for me was that any person may become a monster. Sentience defines ethics. The question should truly be: are we born with an intrinsic sense of right and wrong, or is that merely a social construction? Are we brought into the world with basic moral laws intact, such as not killing fellow humans, or are these merely developments of where we live? Is the monster outside the realm of humanity?

The book had an odd style and was a little difficult to read in some aspects, as is common with older works. It was interesting in the sense of the questions is asks about humanity, as well as giving me the chance to read the real story of what happened, unobscured by Hollywood. Overall, I would say READ WITH CAUTION. Frankenstein is pretty annoying to read about, especially since the adventurer he tells his story to fawns over him. The writing might be tough for some readers.
What do you think defines a monster? Neither monster nor Frankenstein are really good examples of people, from my perspective.

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