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Frankenstein or the Modern Prometheus

Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus - Mary Shelley, Simon Vance
Some books are classics because they were the first of their type, not because their literary value is really that great. Frankenstein is an entertaining enough book with a kernel of a story — Doctor Victor Frankenstein, overcome with hubris, figures out how to animate life from dead body parts — and creates a wrathful creature. There are also a number of interesting philosophical questions which Mary Shelley partially addresses through the medium of her characters' long, long soliloquies.

"You, who call Frankenstein your friend, seem to have a knowledge of my crimes and his misfortunes. But in the detail which he gave you of them he could not sum up the hours and months of misery which I endured wasting in impotent passions. For while I destroyed his hopes, I did not satisfy my own desires. They were forever ardent and craving; still I desired love and fellowship, and I was still spurned. Was there no injustice in this? Am I to be thought the only criminal, when all humankind sinned against me? Why do you not hate Felix, who drove his friend from his door with contumely? Why do you not execrate the rustic who sought to destroy the saviour of his child? Nay, these are virtuous and immaculate beings! I, the miserable and the abandoned, am an abortion, to be spurned at, and kicked, and trampled on. Even now my blood boils at the recollection of this injustice."

Frankenstein's nameless monster is much more interesting than in the movies - he's more of reanimated superman than a shambling zombie, possessed of extraordinary eloquence. Every time he meets someone, he gives a long discursive speech, usually a self-justifying one. The monster is unfairly persecuted, denied the friendship it genuinely desires, and then betrayed by its creator. However, it also commits murders whenever it's aggrieved, then swears that it would never have done so if only people weren't so mean to it. So, you feel sorry for the creature, but it's hardly an innocent. Ultimately it's left to the reader to decide who is more responsible and who is the greater villain: Frankenstein or his monster?

That said, Frankenstein is really not a very well-developed novel; the characters all act in foolish, contrived manners, and none of them have any depth (the monster probably has the most complicated personality). The plot kind of plows along with foreshadowing a ten-year-old could see, and the prose is very, very purple even by 19th century standards. It's very much the sort of story you'd expect a clever, talented teenager with a vivid imagination to write, which is what Shelley was. Because she didn't have a lot of competition in 1818, especially in this genre, she got published.

Do I think this was a bad book? Well, I was never bored, and it is a classic. And it does make you think about how much the monster is to blame for its behavior. (I think Shelley's intended message, that Doctor Frankenstein's hubris brought about all the destruction, is a bit washed out by the more compelling question of free will.) I would recommend anyone to read the original story, but rather like Dracula, it can be a bit of a slog at times. I would recommend trying the audio version, as I did: a good narrator (like Simon Vance) can pull off the long, wordy monologues without sounding as stiff and absurd as they seem in print.