Friday, April 06, 2007

Why I Didn't Like "Frankenstein"

Deciding to read Frankenstein was a bit of a whim. I wanted to see how different it was from the twentieth-century film versions, and since I love to be grossed out and I get thrilled by Arctic adventures...well, Frankenstein seemed a worthy book to read.

I can't blame Mary Shelley for some of the things I disliked. I find early 19th century fiction to be strangely paced -- paragraphs and chapters are generally of identical length and tone -- and I simply cannot stand these sensitive, high-born protagonists who suffer nervous fits. I can understand the women fainting -- their lungs were corseted into their necks and they wore sixty pounds of heavy clothing -- and I suppose even the hardiest miner could be excused a consumptive faint. But these delicate lords who require six months of recuperation after every surprise try my patience. And Victor Frankenstein has so many nervous fits -- and spends so long in recuperative spells of madness -- that it's a wonder he ever gets a chance to build a monster in the first place.

So I can excuse these novel-elements as par for the course -- particularly since Shelley's own husband was known to flop into narcoleptic slumbers on occasion -- but I can't excuse Victor Frankenstein's justifications for his actions. I could see it if Shelley were ultimately condemning Frankenstein for being such a lazy, selfish, inneffectual, cold-hearted bastard...but she isn't. The only thing Frankenstein did wrong was to play God by delving into the secrets of nature.

The fact that he totally abandoned his "monster" (so he could flit around Europe studying Eastern languages) is not seen as irresponsible. And when that monster found itself alone and terrified, spurned by all humans, unable to find companionship even from the man who created him...well, Frankenstein doesn't think this is particularly sad. When the monster decides to get revenge of those who rejected him -- ESPECIALLY the man who created him and then abandoned him -- Frankenstein (and Shelley) both label the monster as "cruel" and "bloodthirsty."

Almost half of the book is about the monster's good deeds and his heart-wrenching attempts to join a society that will never accept him. The other half is about Victor Frankenstein running away from every responsibility he has (to his creation and to the protection of his friends and relatives), occasionally taking time out to explain to us (again and again) how he is the most miserable person on the planet...not because he screwed everything up through his own impotence, but because he created the monster in the first place.

I couldn't help feeling that Victor Frankenstein was like a deadbeat dad. Rather than support his child and take responsibility for what he's done, he runs and regrets, runs and regrets. Hey Vic, just give the monster a MATE already!

So I got very little out of the book. When describing geography -- lush and majestic Switzerland, the malevolent Arctic ocean, and the flat, barren Orkney islands -- Shelley entranced me. When it came to characterization, however, I could only care about the monster...and I don't think she intended it that way.


Eric Little said...

Just a minor cavil--the novel is published in 1818; Victoria ascends to the throne in 1837: so the novel belongs more to the Romantic era than the Victorian.

The horror novels that are somewhat more emblematic of the Victorian era are Stevenson's "The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde" (1886) (which Nabokov taught at Cornell as part of the lit class Pynchon took) and Stoker's "Dracula" (1897).

Sorry to be picky--I share your opinion of Mrs. Shelley's work.

Anonymous said...

Hmm, talk about synchronicity!
There is a 3-in-1 combo book lying around in my house which combined Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein, "The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Stoker's "Dracula" all in one book. With an introduction from Stephen King to boot. I never started Shelley's work, got stuck quarter or midway through Stoker but really breezed through the Stevenson. That was really classy writing.

Adam Thornton said...

I had a feeling that I'd gotten my eras wrong! I've always been more interested in post-war fiction so I've never gotten my terms straight.

But now I have a shiny new blog tag!

Sadly, my Penguin edition of "Frankenstein" is SUPPOSED to include Polidori's "The Vampyre"...but doesn't.

Adam Thornton said...

I've never read Stevenson -- I'll have to give it a try sometime soon -- or Stoker...but for trivia's sake, "Dracula" owes a great debt to "The Vampyre." Both "Frankenstein" and "The Vampyre" were conceived during a vacation spent with Lord Byron in 1816.

To see a characteristically crazy representation of that vacation, check out Ken Russell's movie "Gothic" (soundtrack by Thomas Dolby!)

Eric Little said...

Even crazier--the beginning of James Whales's "Bride of Frankenstein" (which also has a great score by Franz Waxman), in which Elsa Lanchester plays Mary Shelley and tells Percy and Lord Byron what happened to the monster after the first movie. The actor who plays Byron shamelessly hams it up as he rolls his r's to let us know how haughty and supercilious old George was.

And supposedly when Elsa played the Bride later in the movie, she went commando.

I've taught "Dracula"--I've always loved it. Stevenson too.