Sunday, November 8, 2015

Miss Eliza's Book Review - Mary Shelley's Frankenstein

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
Published by: Penguin Classics
Publication Date: 1818
Format: Hardcover, 384 Pages
Rating: ★★★★★
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Victor Frankenstein has had a perfect life surrounded by love and plenty. His curious mind was supplied with everything he could desire focusing his studies on outdated theories of the natural world. When he ventures to university in Ingolstadt he realizes that his opinions are outmoded and he devotes himself to the study of the modern theories and practices of natural philosophy and chemistry. Victor's studies lead him to a discovery that he could create life from death. He succeeds at playing God but instantly regrets his experiments and falls gravely ill while his creation sets out into the world, alone. The consequences of his actions take Victor's life of love and joy and transforms it into a nightmare of his own making. His inability to take responsibility for what he has done and atone with the smallest sliver of empathy will destroy his world. Yet Victor sees the destruction of his world as a sacrifice that must be made to save the rest of the world.

Everyone knows some version of Frankenstein. That's the thing though, it's a "version" of Frankenstein. I'm not naive in that I knew I wasn't going to be reading a book about a green monster with bolts in his neck. Yet there was a part of me that worried that I would be bored and disinterested to the point that I wouldn't want to finish the book because I had heard the story so many times before. I truly hadn't heard the story though. Frankenstein is this amazingly written story that no adaptation has ever gotten right (putting Mary Shelley before the title didn't help you Kenneth Branagh). There is such depth and nuance that I highly doubt that any adaptation would be able to capture the spirit of the book and do it justice.

While I love so many different kinds and genres of books there are some books that just blow you away and your mind slowly melts out your ear. There's the bestsellers with little depth that you devour like popcorn and then there are the books that are a twelve course meal plus dessert. There is so much meaning and thought put into every word and phrase that you finish the book and want to start over again right away because you know you've missed so much. The interweaving of philosophy and science, arts and literature, the book's subtitle, even the origins of the story easily make this book's categorization as a classic almost a forgone conclusion. The sheer richness of the text though is never bogged down though in being indecipherable or overly written (yes, I'm looking at you Henry "Turn of the Screw" James). I think it would surprise the average reader that despite being written almost two hundred years ago this is an easy read, even if some of the concepts delve into the greatest questions that have plagued mankind.

One of the interesting things to come of Frankenstein is the odd quirk that the majority of the people think Frankenstein is the monster, not the creator. Personally I think this is a Freudian Slip that acknowledges the truth, the real monster. Because while the creature eventually does become a monster because of Victor's actions, in truth Victor is the monster. Just look at the evidence? He creates life and abandons it. When the life reaches out to him he "helps" only to give his creation false hope. Also, a thing that niggled at me, if Victor's real horror at creating a mate for his creation was that they would populate the earth with their abominations, well, he was "making" her so he could have just removed the baby making parts. Getting back on track, Victor, knowing of the danger the creature brings to his family he just goes home and waits while carnage rains down on him. The creature is lashing out at the world because all he wants is love. Is that a monster? No a monster is someone who is amoral, lacks empathy, doesn't care about the consequences of their actions, and has an ego that easily has delusions of being a god. IE, Victor.

"Last time I saw you
We had just split in two.
You were looking at me.
I was looking at you.
You had a way so familiar,
But I could not recognize,
Cause you had blood on your face;
I had blood in my eyes.
But I could swear by your expression
That the pain down in your soul
Was the same as the one down in mine.
That's the pain,
Cuts a straight line
Down through the heart;
We called it love." 

In his lyrics for "The Origins of Love" from Hedwig and the Angry Inch, which incidentally is heavily influenced by Frankenstein, Stephen Task retells Aristophanes' myth of primal man from the Symposium which Shelley's husband translated as "The Banquet of Plato" and which Shelley incorporated into her novel. The lyrics are able to poetically express all the concepts that Shelley took from Aristophanes' story and incorporated into Frankenstein. The duality of Victor and the creature being halves of the same whole is again and again brought to the reader's consciousness. They are one whole person that has been separated quite literally by a bolt of lighting into a being of love (the creature) and a being of rationality and science (Victor). They need each other, which the creature sees but Victor is unable to accept. This doppelganger aspect was taken even further in The National Theatre's production of Frankenstein back in 2011 when Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller would alternate nights as to who was Victor and who was the creature, further highlighting this aspect of the work.

These opposing natures, which in one person would form a whole, sets up all the struggling forces in the book. Conflict abounds with man versus monster, god versus science, man versus nature. The last thing I want to touch on is this last aspect of nature, as in the material world, not as in humankind. Up until Shelley Gothic had a very specific look, ie moldy old castles in remote areas; which is probably why so many adaptations of her books has reverted to this trope. But Shelley is able to do what you might think impossible, she is able to create the small and cloistered environment that is shut off from society while still in the glory of nature. The lightning stuck peaks of the alps, the glory of God's creation of ice and snow. These scenes of bleak beauty that bring home all that Victor was flying in the face of when he decided to make a man. Every aspect of this book brings home to me how groundbreaking it was and still is, I could continue to delve deeper and deeper, but I think the time has come for you to pick the book up for yourself.

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