Frankenstein: or The Modern Prometheus
by Mary Shelley
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Posted November 19, 2022
Frankenstein, first published in 1818, is obviously in the Public Domain. E-books in various formats are available from Project Gutenberg, or you can find it at almost any library or used bookstore. If you want a new paperback check Bookshop or Amazon. Those links will take you to the least expensive copy available. A purchase through our links may earn us a commission.
Even before reading this book for the first time nearly 50 years ago I was aware of the story from various film and television productions, although I have to say that if you only know it from filmed media you do not know the book. The image to the right is from a book club edition I bought in the early '70s, which also included Bram Stoker's Dracula. I no longer have that copy; I think I gave it to my son. What I read this time was a free e-book I got from Amazon, among the first titles downloaded to my Kindle in 2010, unread until now. It may be the same version that you can get from Project Gutenberg, but I'm not sure which edition it is. It has been printed hundreds of times, I'm sure many more times than the number of years that have passed since it first appeared. In case you are not aware, the first edition was published anonymously in 1818, although a preface by Percy Bysshe Shelley led a lot of people to assume he was the author. The second edition of 1821 was credited to Mary, then another edition came out in 1831. There were edits made by Percy, or maybe edits agreed upon by him and Mary. I know wikipedia is not a completely reliable source, but it says Percy removed some of the scientific ideas for the 1831 edition, which leads me to believe that is the version I just read. The 1818 edition is still available in print and e-book, so perhaps I should check that out to be sure.
Two things prompted this re-read. The last four out of five reviews were for new books, so I felt it was a good time to go back to the beginnings of the genre. Quite a few scholars consider it the first true SF novel, although I'm hesitant to concur at this time, but that may have to do with most of the scientific ideas having been excised from the text. It is as much a philosophical story as it is one of science, which makes sense based on Mary's parents' influence, and the general nature of the types of books she had probably read herself. I also recently watched the 2017 biographical film Mary Shelley which starred Elle Fanning. I gather it was not a success, either critically or financially, but I liked it for both the acting and the writing. A preposterous statement at the end of the credits was the common disclaimer that the story and characters were fictional. I'm sure it wasn't totally accurate as to the sequence of events, for instance when Mary and Percy were married, but almost everything depicted was correct in essence. Most know that Mary got the idea for the book from a challenge from Lord Byron as to who in their group could write the best horror story. While she did not complete it until after her return to England, the inspiration came from many discussions during that summer in 1816 at the Villa Diodati. Anyway, all that aside, how good is the book? Does it live up to its reputation?
It is a seminal work to be sure, most particularly for having been written by a woman. I've read little else from that period. Jane Austen had already published her first three novels by that time, none of which I've read, but I have to assume her audience was different than the one Shelley was addressing. It would be hard for me to recommend this to the average reader today. The prose is very formal and stiff, with ideas and emotion overruling depictions of action. It is a form of epistolary fiction, recounted in letters from R. Walton, a captain of a ship hoping to explore the North Pole, written to his sister. Then it shifts to Walton's recreation of Victor Frankenstein's story told over a five or six day period. We are asked to believe Walton was able to remember everything Frankenstein had said in order to write it down each evening. That's a tall order, considering the details Frankenstein gives, conversations he had with many people, including with his creation, as well as letters he wrote to his family and others, and letters written to him from the same. It may have been a common style at the time, but it would have worked better to have been in third-person narrative form. The ideas expressed are certainly interesting, even entertaining in a certain way, but as mentioned above, in a philosophical way, more in the vein of a Socratic Dialogue. The subtitle is "The Modern Prometheus," which of course refers to Victor and not his creation. The mythical Prometheus appropriated the powers of the gods to present them to man so that humanity could lift themselves up to the level of the gods. Frankenstein's creation was more like the typical person, never having consented to be born, but after he did exist he needed acceptance. Frankenstein's rejection led to the chaos that came after.
Almost everything is from Victor's perspective; his thoughts, hopes, fears, his internal torment. Anything else might be an interpretation by Walton. The creature's thoughts are presented third-hand, told to Victor, who tells Walton, who writes it down later. Many errors of intent might have been made along the way. Other information was probably withheld by Victor, especially his methods and techniques used to bring his creation to life. Unlike in the films, he worked alone in his rooms at university, not in an abandoned watchtower, windmill, or castle on a craggy hill. No hunchback dwarf for an assistant either, in fact he had no help, and told no one about his intentions, mainly because his expressed interest in ancient alchemy had been vigorously criticized. As many people have to be reminded, Frankenstein was the doctor, not his creation, but Frankenstein was the real monster. His arrogant hubris led him to believe whatever man could conceive he should create, but the true monstrousness was in his inability to admit he was wrong in the first place. Maybe wrong to abandon his creation, but not wrong in creating it. To summarize: it is an important book which should be remembered and studied, and I hope to compare the various editions one of these days. It's just not one many modern readers would enjoy. In spite of how that might sound, that is not necessarily a bad thing.
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