Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley, is my favorite novel of all time. In fact, in light of the terrible Februaries I’ve had the past three years, I think I’ll declare the second month of every year Frankenstein February and make sure to read it when enduring the horrors of February 2017, and every February after that. When I read this novel in my senior year of high school, I knew it was the best work of fiction I’ve ever read. Reading it again 5 years later for a third time, even as my classmates criticize the doctor’s actions and Shelley’s descriptions, it still holds the same place in my heart.
I’m not sure where to go from there. I could talk about “objective” reasons it’s a great novel, such as its place in history and the fact that it created my favorite genre of all time, science fiction. I could talk about personal reasons why I love it, such as how I connect to Frankenstein and the monster, and how this novel achieves something that I’m still searching for in fiction today, and how I find new meaning each time I read it. But to what end? To convince you to declare it your favorite novel too? What good does that do me? The fact that none of my classmate liked the novel like I did doesn’t change much. Frankenstein didn’t just stand the test of time, it redefined the time I live in. No one’s going to drop his or her drink when I say that the good novel is good. And if you don’t like it, it’s not like you’re “wrong” or “objectively incorrect.” When you tell me that Frankenstein sucks, I will likely pursue you to the North Pole, arguing without you all the way. But your feelings are your feelings, and you’re a thoughtful human being that doesn’t need someone else to tell you what to think. With that said, I’ll still argue with you, since there’s still a lot that people… misunderstand about the novel, least of all this:
Contrary to what you might think, I don’t get upset when people call the monster “Frankenstein.”
Ok, I don’t get as upset as you might think. Us English majors have written enough literary essays on the duality of Frankenstein and the monster that it’s our own fault when these oft-compared characters get confused. What bothers me the most is that people consider the message of this book to be “Don’t meddle in God’s domain, humans weren’t meant to go too far with science, I don’t understand GMOs therefore they’re scary,” etc. There is textual evidence for this, I admit. One of Frankenstein’s last messages to his friend Robert Walton is to not be ambitious. That’s a surface level reading, in my opinion, and “don’t be ambitious” is a message from Frankenstein’s opinion. There are many reasons, including the nature of his character, why we shouldn’t trust Dr. Frankenstein. One, we bring people back from the dead all the time. I don’t see any moral panics or torch-wielding mobs around when that happens. Most of us are ready for science to bring forth a better future. But not everyone might be. I can think of a few people: religious zealots, moral guardians, the superstitious… and Dr. Frankenstein himself.
Frankenstein’s childhood, for those of you only familiar with the pop culture version of him, is overall pretty happy. He’s got a loving father and mother, his family adopts a girl and “gives” her to him as a gift of sorts, and the young scientist owns plenty of science books to whet his passion with. The two notable bad moments in his life are 1) when his father tells him that the ancient books of his favorite alchemists are trash, and 2) when his mother dies of scarlet fever. Once Frankenstein goes to University, he becomes a star student. But he starts missing class at the end of his term so he can realize his ultimate pet project: raising people from the dead.
This upcoming scene is the turning point of the novel (also a spoiler for an almost 200 year old book), and the place where a lot of people start to hate Frankenstein. Not unjustly, mind you. The monster comes alive in the middle of Frankenstein’s long and otherwise normal night of work. There’s a lot of buildup in the novel to this moment, but it’s still a shock (pun intended, NO REGRETS BABY!) when this conclusion arrives. Frankenstein, to put it succinctly, freaks the fuck out. He runs away, leaving his creation to wander off until it learns of the miseries both humanity and nature can provide. If Victor Frankenstein hadn’t fled, if he had stayed behind to be the monster’s parent, then none of the novel’s tragedies would’ve occurred and the creator and created may have had a happy ending. So why did Frankenstein flee? Is it an Eagles to Mordor situation, where you can’t have a story without it? (And yes, I know why the Eagles can’t fly to Mordor. My question is why they can’t fly to Gondor.) Is Frankenstein acting in a symbolic way, representing the many people that the creature will terrify by his mere undead appearance? Or is there a deeper reason?
Frankenstein is basically the only scientific member of his family and social circle. Even his father, who knew enough to tell him that the alchemist Cornelius Agrippa was not worth reading, is “not scientific,” which leaves Frankenstein “left to struggle with a child’s blindness, added to a student’s thirst for knowledge.” We have a protagonist with the perspective of a child here. When his professors at University give him a proper scientific education, it doesn’t damper Frankenstein’s imagination, it only gives him the tools needed to enact his plans. Plans like grave robbing. Frankenstein is not superstitious: to him, “a churchyard was… merely the receptacle of bodies deprived of life.” Leaving his creation behind was not the first irresponsible thing Frankenstein did. He pursued his goal of life-creation with single-minded determination, abandoning nearly everything in his pursuit to bestow life on another. We’ve all seen kids get so wrapped up in something that they refuse to put down their new interest. Frankenstein’s wants appear to be taken care of in this part of the novel. He doesn’t need money to eat, or have to attend his classes to win the praise of his professors later in the novel. He’s able to lose himself entirely in his work because there are no consequences.
In fact, little in his early life had consequence. The only real tragedy pre-monster is the death of his mother, which he reacts to in the novel by saying, “it’s really sad, but hey, life goes on” (paraphrased, obviously). Let’s just say that he does not take a “I have to move on” attitude to anyone else’s death in the story. What changed? The creation of the monster is Frankenstein’s first encounter with consequences. But he’s such a self-centered person that he’s not ready to take on another life. His parents were indulgent, “the agents and creators of all the many delights which we enjoyed.” The only life that gets “given” to him is Elizabeth’s, his adopted cousin, also known as a woman he doesn’t need to work on raising or educating. Even when Victor says that as a child, “my temper was sometimes violent,” there’s no hint of his parents punishing him or making him be a better person as a result. He’s a spoiled rich kid who doesn’t think about what he’s doing because he never had a need to, until the creature is born. It’s not like the world is not ready for reanimation: it’s that Frankenstein is not emotionally equipped to take care of something other than himself. A child can dream, but it takes an adult to utilize. Frankenstein tried to solve the problem of his mother’s death without emotionally preparing to actually do so. His project, in his mind, was an extension of himself. The awakening of the creature put an end to that illusion.
Sounds like a fascinating main character, doesn’t it? Isn’t there something compelling in that miserable human being? That’s just one of the reasons I recommend Frankenstein, either as a read or a reread. Don’t mind its age: it reads incredibly smoothly, especially compared to other novels from that literary era. I always discover something new when I read this book. And I’ll tell you what that new thing is next February.