Frankenstein is a book about an idiot. I did a lot of eye-rolling in this book. There were a great many exasperated sighs. I started haranguing people in the break room about it during lunch. I argued with the book while reading it. When I read Thoreau in college, I argued with him. Of course it’s easy to spend your life admiring nature when you’re camping on your friend’s land and your sister brings you lunch. I felt similarly annoyed with Victor Frankenstein. Which, though it’s not my favorite way to read, is a sign of an engaging text. It’s not like the writing was bad. A poorly written character wouldn’t have gotten such a reaction out of me. The plot was good enough to keep me going, even if I did want to bang the book on the table in the hopes that it knocked some sense into Frankenstein. But I don’t think it would have worked, just given dear Victor one more thing to whine about.
Frankenstein is smack dab in the Romanticism canon and boy does it show. Not a single person thinks a rational thought in its pages. The novel starter with Victor Frankenstein going away to school to study natural philosophy. During his studies, he spends time in charnel-houses observing natural decay. All the time spent around bones and bodies leads Victor to discover how to give life to an inanimate body. Once he learns this, he decides, with absolutely no forethought whatsoever, to animate a giant eight foot tall creature. As soon as the creature opens his eyes, Victor realizes his mistake and spends the rest of the novel moaning about it. The book isn’t about making the monster, it’s about the consequences of such an act. Consequences Victor both runs from and complains about depending on the section of the book. Victor is full of bitter weeping, tortured trembles, and fainting fits.
The monster runs out on Victor, to his relief. This I found baffling. If I made a monster and it was loose in the world, I would feel quite anxious. Victor comes down with an illness (one of many). By the time he’s well and ready to go back home, he receives news from his father that his little brother was murdered. The family maid, Justine, is convicted of the crime though Victor knows his creature murdered the boy. Justine hangs for her innocence. After the execution, Victor feels sorry for himself (though he’s still very much alive and not being munched on by worms after being executed for a crime he didn’t commit) and decides to go hiking on a glacier. While there, he meets the creature who forces Victor to listen to his story.
This part of the book is my favorite. It’s so imaginative. The creature explains what’s it’s like to have full consciousness and memories of experiencing the world for the first time. He talks of learning about light, discovering bird song, his first encounter with fire. He ends up in a hovel behind a small cottage and learns to speak by watching this family. He grows to love the family, and helps them with chores. One day, he musters up the courage to approach them. They scream, faint, run out, and beat him (depending on the family member). As all mankind will spurn him, the monster then asks Frankenstein to make him a spouse so he isn’t lonely. The monster threatens that if he doesn’t have a spouse, he will make Frankenstein’s life as miserable as possible. Frankenstein agrees to the plan, then goes on holiday to England for a few months and tours around the countryside. Not kidding. Doom hangs over his head and he and a buddy tour Oxford. When Victor finally gets around to making the creature and wife, he decides he will not be the cause of the destruction of the human race, destroys the progress he made, and sinks the remains in the ocean. The monster delivers on his promise of misery and, in one way or another, kills off everyone Victor knows.
In the novel, the monster doesn’t have a name. Now, we call tall, stitched-together, green, flat-headed monsters Frankenstein and this is a fitting fate for Victor. He is the real monster in the book. He discovers how to bring things to life and sets about doing so just because he can. The eruption of hubris, the all consuming selfish desire that leads Frankenstein to create his monster is more frightening than the monster himself. The monster is very empathetic. He wants to belong. He desires love. Victor should be the obvious bestower of that love, but Victor shuns his creation leaving the monster to fend for himself. If Victor had taken responsibility for his creation, the rest of the book wouldn’t have happened. Victor bemoans his fate, but look at the fate of the creature. Imagine life as a conscious being, who wants love and belonging, connection and exchange, but is denied these basic desires. Imagine watching life from the outside, facing violence and disgust any time you try to participate. Imagine not having anyone to talk to for your entire existence. Victor Frankenstein may be the one telling his story, but the creature gives the tale heart.
I read Frankenstein for the first time in high school. I remember that I enjoyed the section where the monster tells his story. On re-reading it, I mostly felt angry. Mary Shelley wrote a good book, but the writing itself didn’t stand out to me. What will stay with me after this reading are the questions the novel asks. Shelley wrote her famous book all the way back in 1818, but the questions it raises are still very much relevant. Should we pursue all knowledge? What are the potential consequences of that? What is it like to be forced outside of society? What happens to a being who is denied love and belonging? The consequences of that cannot solely be blamed on that being, as Frankenstein would have us believe, the blame should mostly lie on those who did the denying.