Book Review: Frankenstein By Mary Shelley
The Ultimate Tale of Cause and Effect
“People are rendered ferocious by misery; and misanthropy is ever the offspring of discontent.” — Mary Shelley
I struggled to formulate this review. There’s so many gems worth noting I simply didn’t know where to begin. To me, the myth of Frankenstein in pop culture has completely disfigured this deeply human story told by Mary Shelley.
For the longest time, I thought the name, “Frankenstein,” referred to the mute creature at the center of the story. I was wrong. For the longest time, I thought the creature was a primitive abomination deserving of its perilous fate. I was wrong. For the longest time, I thought the mad scientist was a victim of his own success. I was wrong.
Well, I have Hollywood to thank for that.
If your knowledge of this story comes from its many Hollywood depictions, then you don’t really know the story at all. At the core of this tale is the inescapable and universal dynamic between the creator and the creation, the master and the slave, the jailor and the prisoner, the cause and the effect. The story––a fable, a cautionary tale, an allegory––is rife with layers upon layers of humanity it has to be read to be truly understood. No wonder no Hollywood or stage depictions could ever do it justice.
The Modern Prometheus
In 1818, Mary Shelley published this novel with the subtitle, “The Modern Prometheus.” The conjuring of the Titan God foretells a story of defiance ensued by perpetual agony.
For context, it’s apropos to quickly review Prometheus’s story. Prometheus, a Titan God with a name meaning “forethought,” was known for his foresight as well as intellectual and technological prowess. Those very qualities that made him a legend were the cause of his eternal damnation. By stealing sacred fire, which was only meant for the Gods, and gifting it to humanity, Prometheus committed the ultimate sin of defying the Gods, and in turn, unleashing their wrath upon him.
Zeus — the king of the Gods — sentenced Prometheus to an eternity of agony. Prometheus would be chained to a rock, and an eagle (symbol of Zeus) would come to tear at and feed on his liver daily. The liver would grow whole overnight only to be torn apart all over again the next day.
Why the liver? Because it was believed to be the source of all emotions. Zeus wanted Prometheus to writhe both physically and emotionally for all of eternity.
Calling Frankenstein a “modern Prometheus” immediately stirs disquiet in the learned reader, readying her for the ominous fate awaiting our protagonist, whom we get to know as Victor Frankenstein, an ambitious university student who was able to, “infuse a spark of being into the lifeless thing that lay at my feet.”
Victor and His Creation
“It was on a dreary night of November, that I beheld the accomplishment of my toils,” Victor recalls that fateful night, when he was able to create life — a sacred act only nature can perform. The moment the creature drew its first breath, the exaltation Victor was experiencing quickly turned into dread and utter repulsion.
Unlike Prometheus, who never regretted his actions, Victor was quickly consumed with regret and terror as he fled the scene, “unable to endure the aspect of the being I had created.” With Victor gone, the creature is left for dead, nameless and alone.
While apart from his fledgling creation, Victor suffers greatly at its hands. Everyone he’s ever loved was getting plucked out of his life, not dissimilar to the way Prometheus’s liver was plucked at by vultures. He was squirming from the pain of knowing that his loved ones are slaughtered by his very own creation, and that he was too craven to do anything about it.
When Victor finally comes face-to-face with his creation, the exchange between them is amongst the finest writing in English literature (P.S. There’s a reason this book is a classic.) Mary Shelley manages to render the creature so devastatingly human, with towering eloquence, self-awareness, self-pity, reasoned intellect, and the most human trait of all, a desperate yearning for belonging.
While Victor was wild-eyed and deranged with hate and disgust, the creature was composed and persuasive. He pleaded with Victor to listen to his “wretched tale” and for wanting to know happiness: “I was benevolent and good; misery made me a fiend. Make me happy, and I shall again be virtuous.”
Eventually, Victor acquiesces to the creature’s incessant pleas to tell his tale. He had to, for the creature had a dire warning for Victor: “On you it rests, whether I quit for ever the neighborhood of man, and lead a harmless life, or become the scourge of your fellow-creatures, and the author of your own speedy ruin.”
As the creature recounted his heartbreaking tale, we learned very quickly that he was physically different from Victor and his kin. “I was more agile than they, and could subsist upon coarser diet. I bore the extremes of heat and cold with less injury to my frame; my stature far exceeded theirs.” His physical characteristics sealed his fate the moment anyone laid eyes on him. He was different, alien, other, and that was cause for caution, even dread.
He was also not asking for much––to belong, to be loved, to be treated with kindness and respect. “I do know that for the sympathy of one living being, I would make peace with all. I have love in me the likes of which you can scarcely imagine and rage the likes of which you would not believe. If I cannot satisfy the one, I will indulge the other.” We learned that his misanthropy was conditional and that he wanted to be good.
But Victor couldn’t get past his repulsion and disgust. His vanity was irreconcilable. He wouldn’t entertain the possibility of helping his own creation find equanimity in a world in which he so recklessly brought it.
With his goodwill unrequited, the creature becomes the “author of ruin” of which he forewarned Victor. He was to Victor what the eagle was to Prometheus: an inescapable death sentence.
In case you’re wondering, the story does not have a happy ending. After many harrowing events unfold, and told in the most beautiful prose, the creature declares at the end: “I desired love and fellowship, and I was spurned. I, the miserable and the abandoned, am an abortion, to be spurned at, and kicked, and trampled on,” as he drifts away into the horizon.
Cause and Effect
Many see Frankenstein as a cautionary tale of the deleterious effects of technological innovations when they contravene the moral, ethical, and legal norms of the times, consequently unleashing uncontrollable terror on everyone. The “Frankenstein Effect” has been used to forewarn against or explain the effects of innovations like the atomic bomb, the Internet, stem cells, The Patriot Act, globalization, and AI (Artificial Intelligence.)
The way I see it is that it’s a cautionary tale of the unintended consequences of our reactions. Victor’s biggest sin wasn’t that he defied nature and gave life to a creature (i.e. action), it was the way he responded to his creation when he pleaded with him for love, kindness, and belonging (i.e. reaction.) The complete lack of empathy and kindness that Victor exhibited toward the creature was what unleashed the creature’s wrath, and not the very act of its creation.
In 1831, Mary Shelley called Frankenstein her “hideous progeny,” a reaction to the vicious line of questioning to which she was subjected, inquiring into how a young girl of her age (she was 18 when she wrote the book) could possibly conjure up something so hideous. Mary Shelley’s reaction set in motion decades of distorted perceptions of this far-from-hideous human story.
Centuries after his exile, Prometheus was freed by Heracles (Hercules in Roman) with Zeus’s consent. You see, redemption is always tenable, even for Greek Gods. We’re always a (re)action away from righting the ship. Unfortunately, it’s too late for Victor and the creature, but their story serves as a reminder that it’s never too late to do good, to be kind, and to treat people, tech, animals, nature, our planet, our universe with respect and humility.