Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

You know how sometimes you think you’ve read a literary classic but it’s only that (you think) you know the story from sheer media saturation? I thought I’d read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein decades ago, at the very least as an Illustrated Classic, but there were very many scenes completely unfamiliar to me, particularly where Adam went when Victor first cast him out, and how he thus suffered and learned. I was familiar with the Arctic ice floes, however, and found it strange that the framing narrative was essentially the only part of the book I could recall from my earlier “reading.”

Anyway! This self-involved young sociopath named Victor Frankenstein stitches together a bunch of dead people and animal parts and somehow imbues the entire framework with life (it’s never made clear how, though Ms Shelley did refer to galvanism when discussing the conception of the novel.) When the creature stirs, Victor, a shallow narcissist through and through, realizes that the thing is fugly, and in keeping with his habit of judging a book by its cover, declares the creature evil and an abomination and then, um, runs away. The creature, waking to such warm reception, himself flees but then undergoes all manner of deprivation and rejection as he learns that everyone hates him because he looks hideous. Calling himself Adam, the creature endeavors to learn language and other subjects, but mostly discovers that he is hella lonely. So he goes to find Victor and ask for a mate, promising that he and his intended will run off to darkest South America to bother humanity no more. Victor first says yes, then says nah, so Adam is once again driven to homicidal despair.

The story is told in letters from a reckless explorer, Captain Robert Walton, trying to discover a Northeast Passage, who comes across first Adam then Victor in the ice far north of Russia. He pulls Victor off an ice floe and swiftly falls in love with him, so readily accepts all the nonsense Victor spouts even tho anyone with a lick of sense would know that Victor is shady af. His narration tries to make Victor sound noble, even sympathetic, but fails utterly in the face of Victor’s sheer sociopathy. In just one example, when a childhood companion is set to hang for a murder Adam committed, Victor complains that he’s the one who’s suffering the most of them all because he is the most tormented by guilt. I had very many moments of “shut it, bitch” whenever Victor wallowed, which was often. I couldn’t quite figure out whether Ms Shelley was trying to show the reader that Victor sucked or whether she bought into his assertions of grandeur herself. I do believe that she meant for Victor to be an anti-hero, but to me, he’s just the villain of the piece. There’s a pretty terrific cautionary tale in here for learning to take responsibility for one’s actions, but it’s rather contradicted by the ending, plus the whole “well, it was ugly, so I was justified in being a shit” attitude is wildly underwhelming.

I’m minded now to see if I can find a taping, if any exists, of the relatively recent stage play starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller; I’d heard about it but actually reading the book makes the conceit that much more compelling, where on any given night, each actor will play either Victor or Adam, emphasizing again the interchangeable monstrosity of both.

Had I more brain power atm, I’d dive into my concept of the book as modern-day allegory for white supremacy only, in that case, with even less sympathy for creator and created, but it’s been a long day with very little coming up Milhouse, so I will leave you to your own conjectures on the topic, dear reader.

Kudos go out to Kiersten White’s The Dark Descent Of Elizabeth Frankenstein for looking at this novel and creating a terrific counterargument to all of it, and for forcing me to actually read the original.

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