My favourite part of my copy of Frankenstein, a Wordsworth Classics edition, is the Introduction. Written by Doctor Siv Jansson, it succinctly explains some of the key themes of the novel and how they explore the social anxieties of early 19th Century Europe. According to Jansson, Frankenstein’s monster (who is never named in the novel, but who I’ll just refer to by his most common pop culture name for ease) represents: the fear of science perverting the natural order; the terrible consequences of defying the Christian God by creating life; and paranoia about a British revolution (this last one was a bit of a reach). Jansson also explains how Shelley was concerned with “the essential ‘masculinity’ of scientific thought, and the responsibility of the scientist in the aftermath of his experiments”, and how the Monster becomes brutalised because Frankenstein fails to nurture him.
All of which sounds really interesting. But it’s not. In fact, just like her protagonist, Shelley has unleashed upon the world a hideous, shambling creation that causes only pain, although in the novel’s case it is the pain of boredom, and overwrought writing.
Let me illustrate with a patronising and sarcastic plot summary. For once, I’ll include plot spoilers, but that’s okay because it’s all very predictable anyway.
Frankenstein (which is the name of the mad scientist, not the monster, if you didn’t know) is born in Geneva to a privileged family, and is adored by all that surround him, especially his adopted sister, Elizabeth, who is the kind of rosy cheeked, golden haired two-dimensional love interest that abound in 19th Century novels. She is essentially interchangeable with every other “good” female character in the novel, except some of them have different coloured hair.
Young Frankenstein develops an interest in radical science, goes away to college, excels in his studies, and then suddenly builds a monster from stolen body parts, making him much more productive than your typical uni student. Instead of building a manageable, regular sized monster, Frankenstein builds a giant that he has no hope of controlling. He’s very excited about it, until he sees how stupendously ugly his monster is, so he runs away and mopes about for a bit, two activities which he is very good at.
Then he learns that one of his rosy cheeked, golden haired little brothers has been murdered, so he returns to Geneva, runs into his monster and concludes that his creation is the murderer. Upon arriving home, he learns that one of the family’s maids, Justine (another two dimensional female character), has been accused of the crime.
Instead of telling anyone the truth, Frankenstein confirms what the reader probably already suspects by this stage: that he is the most self-involved arsehole on the planet. Standing outside the prison cell of a woman wrongly convicted of the murder of a child and condemned to death, he states:
“Despair! Who dared talk of that? The poor victim, who on the morrow was to pass the awful boundary between life and death, felt not as I did, such deep and bitter agony. I gnashed my teeth, and ground them together, uttering a groan that came from my innermost soul.”
The whole novel is written in this bombastic style. It is also full of emotions too terrible to describe, although I always thought it was a novelist’s job to describe things.
Eventually, Frankenstein runs into his monster again, who has become very eloquent so Shelley doesn’t have to stop showing off her education. The monster tells his life story in which everyone has been mean to him for being an ugo, and his only reasonable response is to want to kill them all. He definitely takes after his dad in his capacity for moping and egotism. The monster also relates how, in the most fantastic of the novel’s many fantastic plot contrivances, while wandering around Europe, which I always thought was kind of a big place, he just happened to run into Frankenstein’s little brother and snapped his neck.
The monster’s tale raises all sorts of philosophical questions which must have seemed very profound to the nineteen year old author of this novel: Was the monster a product of his environment? Or did he, as Frankenstein believes, become a fiend because of his unnatural creation? Are the monster’s crimes Frankenstein’s responsibility for abandoning him? And what about all the people who were too shallow to open their hearts to an eight-foot shambling corpse jigsaw? The real question is: can anyone over the age of twenty care when Shelley is trying so hard to be deep?
Anyway, the monster tells Frankenstein that, unless he makes him a female companion, he’ll kill his whole family. Naturally, Frankenstein responds by moping about for a while, and mucking about in his boat staring at clouds, and then going on a holiday to Scotland with his mate. Eventually, he gets around to fulfilling the request of the supernaturally strong homicidal maniac, then immediately changes his mind and destroys the she-monster.
The monster is none too happy about this, and tells Frankenstein that he will “see him on his wedding night”. Of course, instead of arming himself and rushing home to protect his family, Frankenstein, surprisingly, mopes about for a bit with one of his little nervous fevers.
When he does get around to returning home, he signs two-dimensional love interest’s death certificate and marries her. Then, in the most head slapping part of the novel, despite the fact that the monster has threatened his family and said that he will “see him on his wedding night”, Frankenstein, unable to conceive that the threat is against anyone but himself, leaves his new bride alone and patrols the house with the only gun. And he still manages to be shocked when the monster kills her.
And yes, Shelley fans, I understand that he’s supposed to be self-involved. Shelley even acknowledges this gaping plot hole when Frankenstein tries to explain away his staggering stupidity as some kind of sorcery. But there’s such a thing as stretching credulity.
Then Frankenstein and the monster have a dog sled chase to the top of the world. The whole time I was reading this section I was thinking: maybe the monster could keep one of those husky pups, and become friend to all the creatures in the woods, and not be lonely anymore. Instead, everyone dies, and no-one cares. The end.
There. Now you don’t have to bother reading it. In summary, we have: unlikable or two dimensional characters; ridiculous plot contrivances; overwrought writing; and uneven pacing.
This plot summary even makes the book sound action packed, but it’s not. We have bursts of action, followed by long periods of whining and pretentious philosophising.
But here’s the surprise: it’s worth reading. Why, you might ask? Two reasons. One: it’s short. Painful, but short, like amputation. Two: it’s a classic. And while I won’t persist with long painful classics, short painful classics are worth reading because they allow you to understand literary references and influences.
Frankenstein has a great central premise that has captured people’s imagination for generations, evidenced in the monster’s proliferation in popular culture. It’s just a shame it’s let down in the execution.