Frankenstein is what I consider a shared cultural icon. If we saw a squared head with bolts on the side, many of us, around the world, would think of Frankenstein. And many of us might even know pertinent details, having seen only snippets of the story in print, film, or costume. But would we know Frankenstein? And does it even matter?
Frankenstein by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley was written and published nearly 200 years ago. Considered by many to be the first science fiction novel, the book is short, readable, often requested by students for reading assignments – and yet only five people out of the 20 at our discussion had read the story before it was selected for our book club. And were we surprised! Most of us agreed that the story was not at all what we had expected. Sad–yes–but so much more than horror, murder, and mayhem!
One member had read the annotated version, which included pictures of some of the handwritten pages and detailed information about the historical setting, style, and more. Since the original story was published anonymously with an introduction by Shelley’s husband, many people had assumed the poet was the author – and he did contribute to the prose. Handwriting differences indicate his poetic influence on word choices and meanings. This member highly recommended the annotated version and was able to give us authoritative information to some of our questions.
We all agreed that Frankenstein is philosophical, filled with literary references, science, politics and religion. I had been particularly captivated by Shelley’s references to the discovery of the Americas and by such beautiful language as “inspirited by the wind of promise.” Another member wondered about Shelley’s knowledge of Judaism. Discussions of God figure prominently in the work. We wondered about the ornate language and the use of the epistolary form. Was Mary Shelley writing about her own search for parental validation through Frankenstein’s monster? Who has time or energy to philosophize like this any more? She was only 18 when she wrote the story, but for that time she was nearly middle-aged and had already lost a parent and one child. In addition, what was the moral, if Robert Walton only turned back because his crew insisted? Perhaps it has something to do with knowing when to cut your losses.
One of us even wondered whether Victor Frankenstein couldn’t have also been the monster – an intriguing suggestion that might solve some of the problems with the story. Victor Frankenstein wasn’t likable. He abandoned his family, not writing for months during his obsession. He made a big and dangerous monster. He fell into fits for months. He didn’t share his knowledge of the monster to help others. And he abandoned his orphaned brother. We all laughed when one member mentioned how Victor Frankenstein’s ramblings and musings (sigh!) seemed just to go on and on.
And of course, we discussed science. Several times we came back to the question of how Frankenstein could find so ugly something he created. Yet aren’t we still so blinded by possibilities that we don’t recognize the dangers until too late? Mary Shelley was kept indoors during the cold summer of 1816. No television. No video games. No internet. What a different world it might be . . .
Fortunately we do still get together and discuss philosophy and literature and life. Our discussion was full and self-sustaining. As always, not to be missed.
- Other works discussed:
- Dracula (1897) by Bram Stoker
- On the Origin of Species (1859) Charles Darwin
- “Yes, Frankenstein really was written by Mary Shelley. It’s obvious – because the book is so bad.” article by Germaine Greer (The Guardian. April 12, 2007)