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While most readers think of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein as the quintessential Gothic Horror story, many literature scholars have pointed out that it’s also one of the first examples of Science Fiction in modern literature. And while it might not deal with far away galaxies or future civilizations, the pseudo-scientific experiments and techniques that Dr. Frankenstein uses to bring the monster to life make it one of the earliest novels to deal with mankind’s manipulation of science to produce fantastical results. For those who are only familiar with the numerous film and television adaptations of the Frankenstein story and haven’t read the book, Shelley’s groundbreaking novel is as much about one man’s obsession with creating an artificial life and his shame and regret at the monstrous nature of his creation as it is about the Monster’s sadness and eventual vengeance against his creator for having made and then abandoned him. With thematic references to everything from Greek mythology to Milton’s Paradise Lost, Frankenstein is a potent evocation of how mankind’s attempts at playing god can have disastrous consequences.
Frankenstein Summary: The tale of Frankenstein’s monster is framed by the story of Robert Walton, a failed writer on an expedition to the North Pole in search of fame and glory. After getting his ship trapped in ice, Walton and his crew observe a large man making his way across the frozen tundra in the distance. A short time later they also discover a starving, near-dead man in pursuit of the creature – one Victor Frankenstein. As Walton and the crew try to help him recover from exhaustion, the man begins to recount the story of how he came to be in this situation. Thus begins Frankenstein’s narrative.
Victor starts by recounting parts of his privileged childhood in Geneva, including his infatuation with an orphan named Elizabeth that his family adopts. Along the way we learn of his interest in science, as well as the death of his mother to scarlet fever only days before he is to leave for the University. This unfortunate event helps fuel his passion for exploring unorthodox scientific theories in the realm of Chemistry, including the study of galvanism, which involves using an electrical current to help stimulate the contraction of a muscle. This leads to a breakthrough in which he supposedly develops a way to bring inanimate objects to life. While we don’t get a lot of detail into how Frankenstein actually goes about creating the monster, we do get some hints as to the gruesome nature of how he went about collecting the necessary parts to bring his creation to life. Unfortunately for him, instead of the beautiful specimen he was hoping for, the finished creature is actually hideous and nearly eight feet tall. Horrified at what he has created, Frankenstein flees, leaving the creature alone and afraid.
After months of recuperating from the experience, Dr. Frankenstein returns home to Geneva after hearing about the murder of his brother William. After returning home, he notices his monster in the woods near his house and becomes convinced that he is the one who murdered his brother. Victor’s eventual confrontation with the monster reveals the sad and lonely life that the monster has been living since being abandoned. By viewing humanity from afar and learning to read through finding a lost satchel of books, the beast is acutely aware of his freakish nature, even comparing himself at one point to Lucifer. He is furious at Frankenstein for creating him this way and demands that he create a companion for him so that he can finally be happy. Although Victor initially begins work on a mate for the companion, he gets spooked at the possibility of creating a race of monsters and so decides to end his work. Furious, the monster kills most of the rest of his family, including Elizabeth. Overcome with grief and anger, Victor vows to chase the monster and vanquish it or die trying – which brings us back to framing story in which he has chased the monster all the way to the North Pole.
Frankenstein Review: While many people mistakenly refer to the monster as “Frankenstein,” Shelley only actually uses that name in reference to Victor. In reality, the monster is a nameless, lonely creature – given life but denied a name or a place in this world. While we may sympathize with Victor’s quest to create life where before there was none, the isolation, loneliness and emotional anguish that his creation has to live with turns our sympathies away from him and to the monster. In fact, the way Shelley presents it, his creation is only a monster in appearance at first. His clumsy attempts at connecting with other humans shows that he is actually a caring and feeling being who just wants to connect with others. It isn’t until he is rejected repeatedly by humans and denied any chance of happiness by his creator that he truly turns into the monster that his appearance suggests. As a study of both mankind’s tragic attempts at controlling the forces of life and creation and the need that every creature has for connection and meaning, Shelley’s Gothic masterpiece is a universal tale that still packs and emotional punch almost 200 years after it’s initial publication.