My one book group regularly picks a book from the “Should Have Read, But Haven’t” list. Last month we decided to read Mary Shelley’s FRANKENSTEIN. And, no, I had never actually read it because after all of the movies, comic books, and Broadway musicals. I felt that I knew what it was all about.
We do know the basic story: Doctor Victor Frankenstein becomes obsessed with creating life. His creation becomes a revenge seeking monster. It seems like a very simple plot to have captured the public since it was written in 1797.
I have always been fascinated in how it was written. Mary Shelley was raised in a freethinking household. With little formal education - remember this was London in the seventeen hundreds when girls were not considered to be “educatable”- Mary was influenced by her parents, Mary Wollestoneraft and William Godwin and developed a love of reading. She eloped at age sixteen with the poet Percy Shelley.
One night at a house party that included Lord Byron, the men challenged each other to a contest of who could write the best horror story. Mary won the bet for her short tale. She later expanded it to a full length novel and in spite of trouble finding a publisher and poor reviews, her story of Doctor Frankenstein and his monster became very popular and has remained so today.
The book FRANKENSTEIN is written in a frame device style. We first meet Robert Walton on a ship in the far North through letters that he is writing to his sister back in England. His ship rescues a man, Doctor Frankenstein, from a large piece of ice and Frankenstein, like the Ancient Mariner, has a story that he has to tell. Within his tale we hear the Monster tell of his lonely life. It was a convenient tool for the author to use for the jump from character to character.
Most of the movies that I have seen of Frankenstein’s story start with the creation of the creature. The book takes us into the earlier mind of Victor and how he became so obsessed with the ability to create life. I wish somebody would do a movie or play that ends with the creation. The emphasis of the book is more on the obsessions of the characters: Walton’s to explore where no man had gone, Victor’s to create life and the Monster’s to be accepted.
Mary Shelley’s style of writing may be a little dated for young, modern readers, but her characters, her physical descriptions, and her insights into the human condition were remarkable for such a young person. There were passages that I felt went too deeply into the background story of secondary characters and were an additional, not needed narrative.
FRANKENSTEIN is a true “classic” novel. It has stood all of these years as the example of what a horror novel should be. And, of course, if imitation is the ultimate form of flattery, I can not think of too many stories that have had as many take-offs, from Boris Karloff, to Abbott and Costello, to Mel Brooks.
I am glad that I read the novel that started the monster craze, but will pass on any of Mary Shelley’s other books. I needed a dictionary to help with the loquacious wordage and my taste runs to a more succinct style.