Review: Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley

FrankensteinI think I might be a rarity when it comes to Frankenstein readers. I do not, ultimately, feel very much sympathy for Frankenstein’s monster. That’s right, folks, I have a cold, dead heart. And here’s why.

Our world, right now, contains a not-insignificant amount of people who have never known love. They’ve been abandoned, rejected, abused by their families. They’ve never had the love of a parent, a creator, and some of them have been rejected over and over throughout their lives because of the difficulties that painful start has left them with, like the children bouncing from foster home to foster home because they’re troubled, as if a child who has never had stability, safety, or affection should be anything but. And many of these people go on to be good. They go on to give love, even if they never received it. And if one doesn’t, if one commits the kind of murders that Frankenstein’s monster commits, if one becomes as ugly inside as Frankenstein’s monster became, we put them behind bars. No matter how sad their start, we still hold them responsible for their choice of who to be, because the fact that that choice is harder for some doesn’t really absolve anyone of the responsibility to make the right one.

The story of Frankenstein’s monster is tragic. If his creator had not been a coward, he could have been a good person. If humans were less inclined to believe that that which is frightening in appearance is evil in nature, and those to whom he reached for solace didn’t drive him away, he could have been a good person. But in spite of both of those things, he also could have been a good person. He just chose not to be. And that is why, although he is a monster with a heartbreaking origin story, he is a monster.

While I also certainly don’t like Victor Frankenstein as a person, and consider him a coward, cowardice being pretty high on the list of intolerable traits for me these days, I also don’t condemn some of the choices he made after bringing the monster to life. Most particularly, I think it would have been compounding his sins to provide the monster a companion. He would have been bringing another life into being to exist in slavery. A life without companionship, which might not have been the monster’s lot forever had he not chosen to turn to darkness when he did, is surely preferable to a life created to be lived as the sole companion to someone you did not choose and cannot escape. Two wrongs do not make a right, and I think at that point the only right available to Frankenstein was to choose never to use the knowledge of reawakening life again, and to die without sharing or recording it. Of course, being Frankenstein, he chose the least courageous way in which to go about that.

So it’s kind of remarkable that I enjoyed so much a highly character-driven piece in which I do not like any of the characters, but I did. I think even in my distaste for who they are, or who they became, I enjoyed how they were painted. Victor is a weak man, but as someone with an insatiable thirst for knowledge I can certainly sympathise with and relate to his infernal curiosity. And living in an era in which we all live our lives very publically, in which our constant use of social media can foster a sense of intimacy not only with distant friends and family but with people we barely know, I could appreciate even more the poignance of the monster’s connection with the French family he observed for so long. It made me think of the Five of Pentacles from the Tarot deck, of the figures bereft and miserable in the snow while just beyond them lies the church, its window radiating a warm glow, the spiritual solace and earthly community they are so close to and yet are denied, or deny themselves.

In some adaptations of Frankenstein there’s an anti-scientific bent which I dislike, and expected to encounter here, but was pleased to find that it’s not really there. The message seems less about slapping down the pursuit of knowledge for knowledge’s sake than about condemning experimentation conducted without regard to morality, which I can get on board with.

It’s surprising to learn that Mary Shelley was only 19 when she wrote this, as her prose has a lovely flowing quality that I think some modern writers could serve to emulate, although it does perhaps account for issues with pacing and contrivance. I didn’t really need to spend a chapter learning half of a family’s life story just so I knew why they were being visited by an Arabian plot device, and could’ve appreciated some of that page count being spent on more authentic emotional reactions and fallout from one of the major deaths in the story, to name a couple of the more significant dissonant notes. Still, it is a far more thought-provoking work than most of its adaptations would lead me to believe, and enjoyable on many levels regardless of where you fall on the monster sympathy spectrum. I’ll go put my heart in the microwave now.

4 stars

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