Monthly Archives: January 2021

Those darned scientists!

Frankenstein 1818 edition title page

Frankenstein by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In the summer of 1816, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley and Percy Bysshe Shelley visited Switzerland and became the neighbors of Lord Byron. As she tells it, after reading some German ghost stories, Byron suggested they write their own, but while the others quickly offered theirs, Shelley struggled to come up with anything. One night, Byron and Shelley were talking about the theories of Charles Darwin, speculating about the principle of life and whether it could be given. That night in bed, Shelley found herself terrified by the idea, and thus came up with her story idea.

I hadn’t ever read Frankenstein before, although I’ve loved the movie ever since childhood. My first surprise upon reading the novel was how little the movie actually took from it beyond the idea of creating a living monster from parts. The theme of scientific hubris in making something unnatural is here, and Shelley spends an awful lot of time describing scenery to emphasize the point that Nature is beautiful. But for me, the stronger theme is that of the inventor neglecting to think through the consequences of his invention and not taking responsibility for it. Victor Frankenstein doesn’t just create a living creature; he forces it, through his negligence and self-absorption, to become a monster.

As a reading experience, the book can be plodding. The structure, which at one time presents a story within a story within a story, gets clumsy. The part told from the monster’s point of view, while somewhat touching, is apt to make the modern reader laugh at points. Overall, though, the novel is very imaginative, reminding me of the work of the great German author E.T.A. Hoffmann, although Shelley is a more restrained and careful writer.

For perspective, this novel was written decades before Carmilla or Dracula. Although it’s Gothic horror in tone, it’s a purely original work and probably the first science fiction novel. Fun and very influential, Frankenstein is definitely worth a read.

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