The only important prose fiction of the English Romantic movement, Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein at the instigation of the great Lord Byron. On holiday in Switzerland, Byron, John Polidori, Percy Shelley and Mary Godwin were kept indoors on a cold rainy night and Byron challenged them to see who could write the best ghost story. Only Polidori and Godwin finished their stories—Polidori in the proto-Dracula thriller The Vampyre, and Godwin (who later married Shelley) in the stunning and philosophical Frankenstein.
Horror fiction existed long before Frankenstein. But Gothic novels were filled with maudlin sentimentality, sugar-sweet heroines and bizarre monsters with often more than a hint of the laughable about them. Shelley borrowed Gothic conventions—uncertain parentage, supernatural elements, dark secrets—and turned them upside down. The most obvious of these inverted themes is her replacement of supernaturalism with extreme naturalism—science replaces spirituality but fulfills the same role.
We're never quite sure who the monster is. Victor Frankenstein refers to his creation as a monster, but in many ways he is the real monster. This uncertainty of identity is demonstrated not only in the monster's search for personhood, but in the narrative structure itself. Masterfully utilizing a notoriously difficult device, Shelley tells the story of the monster's creation, existence and fate through a number of narrators whose stories become more and more intricately involved—at one point, the monster is telling his story to Frankenstein, who is telling his story to a ship's captain, who is telling his story to his sister through a series of letters.
Despite this complexity the reader is never lost. Which is itself an important element in the story, since Frankenstein's attempts to create life are really thinly-veiled attempts to replace God. Not to become God—but to prove His obsoletion in the Age of Reason. Shelley plays God for us, carefully guiding us so we see the whole picture. This isn't just a horror story, it's a Romantic manifesto celebrating pure reason as the only path to the sublime, man's unshackling of himself from the vicissitudes of Nature, the triumph of science over religion.
It's no accident that Frankenstein's monster is superhuman, armed with impossible strength and impossible intelligence. Though hideously ugly, he has all the attributes most admirable in man. Man, however, does not create God in his own image; he creates man in man's image, and the result is both better and worse than the original. Some have referred to Frankenstein as an atheist tract, a humanist treatise, a distillation of Romantic philosophy—while it may be all those, it's ultimate force is observational and speculative rather than prescriptive, a strangely non-judgmental presentation of the implications of society's embrace of evolving Modern ideals.
Frankenstein is also a plain good adventure story, at times even truly scary. Widely regarded as the first modern horror novel, it inspired everything from Lovecraft to the zombie phenomenon. The truly horrifying aspects are those that reveal the darker nature of man, the possibility that the monster is not simply a construction of Frankenstein but is actually his primal self set free. More terrifying still is the idea that it is the more human, more civilized Frankenstein, and not his monster, that is the more demonic, the more threatening to the society of which he is a part.
<span class="body_italic" lic;="" line-height:="" 20px;"="">Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he is a husband and father, teaches adult Sunday school in his Presbyterian congregation, and likes weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here.
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