The origins of and  themes in Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

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                                                (Picture: Villa Diodati, Geneva)

“No more let life divide what death can join together.”
― Percy Bysshe Shelley, Adonais      

The origins

1816, Summer: It was a dark and stormy night. Rain cascaded down the roof of the Villa Diodati by the grand Lake Geneva. The weather was not very genial to say the least. The chilliness outside made one shiver. Gathered within the Villa Diodati were 19th Century England’s brightest and also the some of the most scandalous personalities. There were the 2 celebrities of the English Romantic movement, the ‘mad, bad and dangerous’ Lord Byron, who had escaped the scandal of his  affair with his half-sister; and then there was Percy Shelley, though not as notorious, still someone who defied many social norms. (He was still married to Harriet Westbrook, who was to meet her tragic end by downing herself in the subsequent months.)  Along with them was the teenage daughter of the first feminist writer, Mary Wollstonecraft, and also the lover of Percy Shelley – Mary Godwin; there was her stepsister and the teenage lover of Lord Byron, Claire Clairmont; and Byron’s physician. All in all a gathering of eccentric & freewheeling geniuses, none of whom seemed to fit with the Victorian ideals.

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(Picture: Percy Shelley, Mary Godwin Shelley, Lord Byron)

That particular wet summer, they were bored to death. Confined to the Villa, all they could to entertain themselves was read German ghost stories and one night (or day?), Lord Byron suggested that each of them should come up with a ghost story. More used to expressing their thoughts in poetry rather than prose, Shelley and Byron didn’t achieve much success. Yet, the 18 year old Mary Godwin was to find inspiration in a dream, where she saw the first images of the ambitious Doctor & the terrifying monster. The rest as they say is history. With the early death of Percy Shelley, Mary’s life was to be an unfulfilled one, but the book was the making of her. Frankenstein by Mary Shelley was to change the course of sci-fi and the horror genre, and has influenced pop culture for 200 years.

In a nutshell:

Here’s the truth. I didn’t personally connect to Frankenstein by Mary Shelley and no, it didn’t ‘curdle my blood’ as Shelley had intended it to, perhaps due to the overexposure to the Frankenstein trope. However, I admire it and understand the significance of it in literary canon as well as its immense contribution to culture.

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(Picture: Victor Frankenstein, Penny Dreadful)

What is it about?

This is the story of the ambitious Swiss student, Dr. Victor Frankenstein, who becomes obsessed with the idea of creating life.  He confines himself to his laboratory for two years, denying himself sleep or rest. His obsession becomes his only drive. The night he completes his work, he gazes upon his creation and recoils back in disgust and horror. Deprived of compassion from his ‘father-creator’ and constantly scorned by other humans, the monster wreaks revenge upon Victor’s loved ones.

What did I like about it?

“I had feelings of affection, and they were requited by detestation and scorn. Man! You may hate, but beware! Your hours will pass in dread and misery, and soon the bolt will fall which must ravish from you your happiness forever. Beware, for I am fearless and therefore powerful.”

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(Picture: Peter Paul Rubens and Frans Snyders, Prometheus Bound, c. 1611-1618, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Pennsylvania. Prometheus, as per Greek Mythology was the original Frankenstein, the creator of man, who was punished by Zeus)

Frankenstein, I think, is essential reading because there are several important themes that still reverberate and in many ways, have gained in their significance, given current realities.

Man’s hubris is the overarching theme. His thirst for pushing the boundaries of human limitations can do wonders, maybe save lives, at the same time destroy, when the full extent of the consequences are not realized. Victor’s pursuit of glory consumes him to such an extent that he doesn’t stop to think of the simple fact – what he is creating is another human, after all, not a machine. That human is likely to have all the desires and passions (positive and negative) that make a human. His first reaction on beholding the visage of his creation is to seek escape and oblivion in the form of sleep. All sense of responsibility is gone once he has managed to execute his ambition. So like man, huh?

Nature vs. nurture has long been a debate of psychologists. The creature, after its ‘birth’, is essentially an infant, albeit in a giant’s body. Having been left behind by his creator whose responsibility it was to see him through the chaos of his initial steps into the world, he struggles to decipher and differentiate all his sensations, to survive on his own, to learn language and also understand what it means to be human. When his first attempt at making contact with a family goes awry as they recoil from him just like Victor,  his need for love gives away to fury & violence. So it speaks about how society as a whole can reject differences. The author suggests that it’s the lack of compassion that makes a monster, yet man is not inherently evil.

Yet, the term ‘monster’ is not always tangible. One of the questions that this books asks by showing us the perspective of the creature and letting us sympathize with him is this: who is more monstrous in the true sense? The arrogant, irresponsible Doctor suffering from a constant victim complex or the creature whose fault, after all, it was not to begin with? The following quote from  the very underrated Penny Dreadful said by the Doctor (who, in the show, to some extent admits his faults, unlike the book version) illustrates this point:

“I have conquered death and created monsters, none more so than the man who sits before you.”

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(Picture: The Creature, Penny Dreadful; Source: Penny Dreadful Quotes)

Finally, there is the question of identity. We know who we are mostly because of our relationships with loved ones. Our memories are essential to our identity and in making us human. The creature realizes that without memories and without the support of a family, he is essentially a no-one, and he has no past or future.

 What I didn’t like about it

The melodrama was too much to take at times, while I understand that such immense expressiveness is also an essential part of the English Romantic movement. Over the years, I have learned to appreciate subtlety in writing – while reading this, sometimes it honestly felt like I was constantly being beaten on the head with a barrage of emotions.

While I concede there was also much beauty to the prose, I felt that emotional resonance was missing. It felt hard to connect to the very selfish Doctor or the creature, who initially has our sympathies, which doesn’t last very long due to his destructive nature. However, I have loved books with unlikable characters who are fleshed out and three dimensional, but the range of feelings/emotions that our two main characters seemed to evoke was too limited.

But, I remember this was, after all, written by an 18 year old, talented beyond her years and who pioneered a genre. This is the reason why I would recommend everyone to read this at least once.

Rating: 3/5

(By Misha)

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