Thursday, 13 June 2013

Summer Reading Challenge: Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

I've been slightly late getting this review up, so sorry about that! But finally it is here, even though I am over halfway through the next book already. What can I say, I have a busy, fun-filled life! Spoilers follow, but then it is 200 years old so you can't really complain! Right, Frankenstein...what can I say? This confounded my expectations. I won't lie, I had a very basic knowledge of the concept of Frankenstein going into this. All my experience comes from that one episode of Once Upon A Time and the general horror film version of the monster. You know the deal: crazy scientist is cackling madly in his lab, a shock of lightening hits some fancy equipment, cue "IT'S ALIVE!", throw in an angry mob with some pitchforks and fire chasing creator and monster, et voila you have my preconceived notions. 

Good old iconic image

Obviously, this is very far from the actual novel. To give me some credit, I was aware that it would be different which is precisely why I wanted to read this. However, I was slightly worried that it wouldn't be my cup of tea and I might have to wade through heavy Victorian prose. I was happily proved very wrong!

Firstly, I loved Shelley's writing style. I only recently learnt that she was the daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft which I found interesting as I have only just read Vindication on the Rights of Woman. I took a Women's Writing and Feminist Theory module this year so obviously we did Wollstonecraft, and it was really noticeable how she wrote in such an articulate and reasonable manner. I can't say I loved reading the entire thing as it does get slightly repetitive, but when you study extracts you can really appreciate the thought that has gone into it. (Side note- I am holding back from discussing this text as I could ramble on for ages, but a key aspect is the fact that Wollstonecraft demonstrates how women are capable of reason by presenting her argument in a calm and rational manner. I tend to fan-girl a little bit over this text so I will rein myself in now!) Wollstonecraft died very shortly after Shelley was born, so obviously she wasn't an active figure in her life, but I was still interested to see how Shelley's writing style would be. I found it very readable, but also so expressive. Moments that stick in my mind are where the monster is admonishing Frankenstein, the way his rage and loneliness is articulated is just beautiful.

I must admit I don't particularly like Victor Frankenstein or Robert Walton as people. They both seem that sort of wet, flowery kind of gentleman figure that feature in novels. That's not to say I don't appreciate them as characters and I do still feel empathy for Victor throughout the text. I will admit to finding the creation of Frankenstein a slightly funny scene though. This is probably just my modern perspective but you've got to ask Frankenstein, what were you expecting to happen in this moment? To simplify the situation, you've spent months preparing to bring a creature to life (presumably from dead bodies?), then as soon as you are successful, you freak out because the creature doesn't look as pretty as you hoped? I mean, you've made him out of dead people, he's not exactly going to be rosy cheeked. Maybe I'm being too harsh! After all, I am yet to be confronted by an 8ft tall guy with yellowed skin and black lips. When I am I shall update you on my reaction.

On the subject of the monster, I did find myself sympathising with him throughout the novel. (I know this is kind of the point though!) I just found it so sad when he was describing how he kept wondering where he came from and why he was alone. It's such an inherently human tragedy; all he wants is to find some form of caring contact and all he experiences is constant rejection. I think it's partly the fact that he is so human that makes it so sad. Human society constantly rejects him because he is grotesque and repulsive, and yet he keeps trying to search for some kind of human connection. I liked how eloquent the monster is. Due to the horror films there is this image of the inarticulate, groaning monster, yet he is actually so well spoken. The ability to pick up speech and writing just by overhearing demonstrates great intelligence, as does the way he questions the world around him. He constantly echoes the way Frankenstein was ravenous for knowledge earlier in the text. It does make you question what would have happened if Victor hadn't completely abandoned him, if he had learnt to get past the appearance and if they could have made further scientific discoveries together. Maybe that's just wishful thinking on my behalf! At one point, Frankenstein warns Walton about not letting the monster's eloquent speech blind him and cause him to sympathise with him. Maybe I have just been tricked by his speech and that is why I sympathise with him! Who knows! Now the above makes the monster out to be some kind of forlorn victim in the novel, and obviously this isn't the case. He commits multiple accounts of murder, and whilst the first could be accidental, the rest certainly are not. He tries to experience love and joy but when he is denied that he decides instead to completely embrace the negative. 

Additionally, I can understand why Frankenstein decides not to fulfil the monster's request to create him a companion. It is completely true that if he creates another being, they could very well just go on a murderous rampage, or refuse to hide away from society. Do I think he could have gone about refusing in a slightly less dramatic and provoking way? Yes! Let's be honest, how hard is it to rationally explain your concerns to your monster rather than just dramatically ripping your work to shreds in front of his eyes. So many of Frankenstein's problems would be solved if he just slowed down and explained his thoughts to the monster! He's always so busy going "foul fiend of hell, damned is the day of your creation, blah blah" and then after he's provoked anger he actually explains himself. Moral of this little divergence, if I was in this book things would have ended a lot happier! 

I genuinely didn't know how this would end. I found myself wondering how it could end? The 'modern' image ends with the death of the monster by the hands of his creator, but that cannot happen. After all, Frankenstein is seriously ill even when relaying his tale, how will he even have the strength to do that? Obviously, he does not. When I told my friend about how it ended, he asked if it felt a bit anti-climactic, but I don't think it did. It seems like the only way it could end. Frankenstein is in too deep to just be able to destroy his creation then go back to normal life. Add to that the fact that he really has no life to go back to, everyone he loves (bar one very rarely mentioned brother) has died and he is just the shell of a man now. The only ending that really works for him is his death. I also think it's very fitting that he does not kill his creation. I find it hard to really specify why though. Maybe because it feels like he has been so lacking from the monster's life that he doesn't have the right to get that satisfaction. Or maybe he has to atone for what his actions have led to, or rather his lack of actions. Or maybe I'm being too harsh on a man who has had all his loved ones murdered!

The death, or rather promise of the death, of the monster is just a continuation of the bleak circumstances that have always followed him. Whilst Frankenstein has been chasing him, he's had some form of contact with humanity. It isn't the love and care that he initially desired, but it is nonetheless attention and emotion directed toward him. For once, he is enough to fill the whole focus of a person. He is no longer stood on the outside looking in at scenes of humanity. He evokes enough of a response in someone that they will follow him into the harshest of conditions and never give up. For as long as is this happening, he is acknowledged as worthy of attention. Even if the intent is murderous, he is still evoking strong emotion in another. To have it all end signals the return to that life of emptiness and non-existence. The monster's decision to end his life seems his only option. What else does he have to exist for? At the start of his life, even when foraging in forests he was still driven by the urge to know. Know who created him, why he was here, why he was alone. Now those questions are answered and his last link with humanity is severed, what is there to live for?

I feel like I might have gone off on a bit of a moment there! But that's what I enjoy about this book. It causes you to question and these questions lead to journeys of thoughts and more questions. You find yourself asking which is the true monster, Frankenstein or his creation? What constitutes being 'human'? And when does knowledge become dangerous and unhealthy?

Suffice to say that I really enjoyed this book! I've been meaning to read it for around two years now and am really glad that I finally did. Definitely would recommend you give it a go if you haven't already! If you have, do you have any thoughts on what I've written? Any disagreements? Let me know in the comments below! 

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