Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Review - Frankenstein (book - Mary Shelley)

I think I bought my copy of Frankenstein when I was a Sophomore in High School. Pretty sad that it took me until now to finally get around to reading it (I won't tell you how many years it's been *grin*).

Based on my experiences with the multiple Frankenstein movies as well as appearances in cartoons like Scooby Doo and parody's like Young Frankenstein, I thought I had a pretty good feel for exactly what I could expect from the novel. I was rather surprised with the widespread differences I encountered. Looking back on my experience with Victorian literature in general and the Gothic literature of the era in particular, I should have expected what I found, but I had let myself be tainted by the mass media translation of Frankenstein.

Now that I've sufficiently digressed, let me just say that even though the novel was different than I expected, I was far from disappointed by it. I expected a terrifying horror novel filled with invigorating suspense, perilous adventure and chaotic frenzy filled action. What I got was a slower paced exploration of the soul of man, the virtues and vices of science, passion, compassion and revenge.

Initially I was very confused as the first many letters (the book had a LOT of 'correspondence' sections) had nothing to do with Frankenstein, his family or his creation. Instead, I found myself growing attached to a lonely adventure seeker sailing to the far ends of the world in search of something to ignite and maintain his passion. When our good Dr. Frankenstein does enter the story, we then get his very detailed narration of his life from childhood to present.

The novel is laid out with a narrative structure intended to be highly conversational either through letters or through the orally delivered story of the narrator to the listener (who then transcribes it for us, the reader). However, the language used seemed overly detailed and pretentious for a simple conversation, even from a speaker as highly educated as Victor Frankenstein. It had all the flowery and ornate elements of Victorian prose, which feels natural as far as writing goes, but whenever I was reminded that nearly the entire narrative was to have been spoken, I was taken somewhat aback.

The book portrayed very well the details of the exultation and triumph felt by Victor throughout his studies and his discovery of a method to create life. His educational cycle was interesting in terms of his relation with his father and his professors. When the realization of his action finally came about, Victor's agony, fear and despair were equally well realized.

I kept waiting for the mob with torches and pitchforks to appear, led by Victor once he recovered from his initial shock. Instead, the arc of the story presented itself to me and I felt compassion for the poor hated creature even before the novel presented him again for our sympathies. I was certain that Frankenstein had falsely judged the fiend and that we would surely get a type of morality text casting a spotlight on society and our lack of compassion for those less fortunate for whatever reason.

My next surprise came when Frankenstein came face-to-face with his creation and had a lengthy conversation. I never expected an articulate monster, but what I had was a self-educated creature who had a huge wealth of knowledge at his disposal. At that point, it was very clear that his only disadvantage was his ghastly appearance and we were obviously supposed to feel sympathy towards him. Even when his crimes were laid bare, it was a struggle to completely condemn him.

In addition to the commentary on human compassion, I enjoyed the dynamic between creator and creation. Looking at Victor as a god-like person provided an intriguing perspective. As the creator, what should his responsibilities be to his creation? What should his involvement be? I didn't necessarily go down a religious path with my thoughts, but I was curious about the concept of the creator as a provider of compassion, mercy and forgiveness.

Instead, Victor looks "to the good of humanity" and rejects his own creation. The result of which spirals into disaster and makes for a fun-filled ride filled with some degree of the action and suspense that I was expecting from the book (still no villagers with pitchforks, sorry). When the novel finally drew near to its conclusion, I was a little confused as to how it was going to wrap itself up.

The ending was actually strangely satisfying. As it unfolded, we once again gain some compassion for the creature and in a sense look upon Victor as a type of monster. As with anything dealing with humanity, it's not that simple. For Victor was acting in the best interests of the greater good as he perceived them and his logic was sound. Thus, as the novel ends, we can't fully condemn either creator or creation. At the same time, we can't wholly condone the actions of either.

Which is why I was surprised that the ending satisfied me…because it left things unsettled and confused. But after all, that's the way humanity is…a teetering house of cards, balanced precariously on a precipice, just waiting for something to turn emotions and values to chaos.

Overall, I really enjoyed Frankenstein and my only regret is that it took me so long to finally get around to it.

4 stars

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