Most of us are familiar with the monster we’ve labelled as Frankenstein, a green, grotesque creature of Hollywood films. Before reading Mary Shelley’s acclaimed novel for a high school English class, I had similar mental perceptions of the monster (I’d been envisioning the essential, go-to costume for elementary school Monster Mashes for years). After finishing the book, however, I was moved by the complexities of Shelley’s characters, their philosophy, as well as her examination of prominent social and political issues throughout the carefully woven narrative, which are still relevant today.
I’d read Gris Grimley’s Frankenstein before in middle school. Pages of colored artwork and masterful graphic design rendered an excellent adaptation of Shelley’s novel. It provided me the foundations to easily understand the basic plot of Frankenstein, yet I was still skeptic about reading the novel itself. I don’t particularly love Shakespeare or Dickens, with their fanciful ways of speech that can get tiring after a long period of reading, and I feared the same for Shelley’s work. But she was different somehow, her writing distinctively unique; perhaps this was because she was a female amidst a world of male writers, someone who had created such a haunting and gripping story so uncharacteristic of a woman of her time.
The novel centers around a gifted scientist, Victor Frankenstein, who manages to breathe life into his creation, a monstrous being. Instead of a being presented as a gift to humanity, the glorious product of defying even Nature itself, the specimen is a hideous creature that is shunned by society and his creator alike. The narrative is told from various perspectives–explorer Robert Walton’s letters, Frankenstein’s first person narration, the monster’s collection of stories–which I appreciated greatly, because it gave the storyline a certain vivacity, turning it away from the tiresome monotony of the same narrator. As the novel progresses, the monster and his creator enter into a growing spiral of violence and tragedy, and I will say (spoiler alert!) the novel is not exactly a Hallmark movie with a happy ending.
By the time I had finished the book, the ending surprisingly emotional (I had been nonchalant all throughout Romeo and Juliet’s deaths, but this ending really ran me over for good measure…go figure), I continued to mull the story’s events over in my mind. Frankenstein is a philosophical breeding ground–are monsters created or made, a victim of the cruelties of society? What are the ethical implications of science and technology (this one I consider a lot, since we are at a teetering frontier of modern scientific discovery)? Who is the real monster, the creation or its creator?
Even if you aren’t called by philosophy, read Frankenstein for it’s ingenious storyline. I didn’t think I would ever call a book published in 1818 “thrilling,” but I was pleasantly surprised at the wide range of emotions Shelley, and most good writers, can evoke through their stories, her ability to make the reader view society through a new lens. Read it for Shelley’s diction, the way she stirs to life a melancholy madness, the vividness in which she allows us to experience it, as if the character’s lives were our own, and which left me awed. It was a book that stuck with me long after I finished it, a book that I regretted misjudging before I picked it up and read it grudgingly for school, but which took me into the depths of humanity and morality.
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is available for checkout from the Mission Viejo Library. It can also be downloaded for free from Overdrive.