Frankenstein – the 200-year-old Prometheus

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(c) Barnes & Noble

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One thing I intended to do this year was read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein – to give it its full title, Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus.  This was because 2018 marked the 200th anniversary of the novel’s first publication in 1818.  But I almost forgot.  It was only a week ago that I remembered my pledge, hurried out and bought a copy of the book in the ‘classics’ section of a local bookstore and read it in three days.

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Actually, I’ve read Frankenstein before.  During a feverish period when I was 10 or 11 years old and was totally horror-daft and monster-daft, I read Frankenstein, and Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897) and Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886).  I have to confess that Dracula was the only one I enjoyed.  The other two works went over my head.  With Frankenstein, most of Shelley’s prose was like a fog to my 10 or 11-year-old thought processes and I only remembered a few key incidents from the plot.  So when I tackled Frankenstein again last week, reading the book was like a first-time experience.

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Here, then, are my 2018 impressions of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

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It really isn’t like the films.  Well, everyone knew that already.  But the literary version of the monster Victor Frankenstein creates in his laboratory is a million miles removed from most of the versions portrayed on the screen – most famously, Boris Karloff’s lumbering, grunting, inarticulate creature in the first three Frankenstein pictures made by Universal Studios in 1931, 1936 and 1939.  For one thing, Shelley’s creature is relentlessly verbose.  He hardly shuts up when he’s centre-stage.  He rattles on for 50-odd pages at one point. 

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(c) Universal Studios

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He’s also not the hapless, easily-manipulated innocent that Karloff’s monster was.  Whereas the Karloffian creature only killed people in self-defence, or through manipulation by unscrupulous humans (like Bela Lugosi’s Igor in 1939’s Son of Frankenstein), or through tragic misunderstandings (like in the 1931 Frankenstein, when he throws a little girl into a river believing she’ll like float like a flower), Shelley’s creature is focused and calculating.  He’s a bastard, frankly.  He murders Frankenstein’s family and friends one by one, even though they aren’t responsible for his suffering.  His victims include a child – Frankenstein’s six-year-old brother.

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(c) Hammer Films

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Also, it’s interesting how emotional, at times histrionic, Frankenstein is in the book.  Given to alternating fits of passion and despair, feverish action and morose lethargy, he almost resembles the popular images of Lord Byron and Percy Bysshe Shelley, the two romantic poets with whom Mary Shelley was famously shacked up on the shores of Lake Geneva when she wrote the novel.  Again, the literary character is at odds with the best-known portrayal of him in the cinema, i.e. Peter Cushing in the Frankenstein movies made by Hammer Films in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s.  Cushing’s Frankenstein is a driven man of science, fixated on his goal and prepared to be ruthless and callous in order to achieve it – occasionally tipping over into villainy in the process.  It has to be said that if someone was going to rewrite the laws of science by bringing dead matter back to life, it’d more likely be a Frankenstein in the unflinching Cushing mould than the volatile and tormented Frankenstein described by Shelley. Talking of which…

*Talking of which…

We never find out how Frankenstein manages to bring dead matter back to life.  Frankenstein movies have used many techniques for reanimating the collection of stitched-together corpse-parts that becomes the creature – a bolt of lightning in the 1931 Universal one, solar power in the Jack Smight-directed, Christopher Isherwood-scripted Frankenstein: The True Story (1973) and, hilariously, a shoal of electric eels in Kenneth Branagh’s operatic (i.e. madly over-the-top) Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1994).  But in the book, Frankenstein simply declares: “I see by your eagerness and the wonder and hope which your eyes express, my friend, that you expect to be informed of the secret with which I am acquainted; that cannot be; listen patiently until the end of my story, and you will easily perceive why I am reserved upon that subject.”  And that’s it.

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It’s quite a travelogue.  Events take place in Geneva in Switzerland, Ingolstadt in Bavaria and Chamonix near Mount Blanc in the French Alps.  There’s a lengthy digression involving skulduggery in Paris and a flight across France to Leghorn (Livorno) in Italy, and a boat-trip from Strasbourg to Rotterdam.  Frankenstein goes to England and visits London, Windsor, Oxford, Matlock and the Lake District.  He traverses Scotland, from Edinburgh through Perth to the Orkney Islands and makes an unplanned boat trip to Ireland.  And acting as book-ends to all this are a beginning and ending in the polar wastes north of Archangelsk in Russia, where the story is told in flashback.  So basically, Frankenstein has more locations than four or five James Bond novels put together. 

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Some of it is absurd.  It’s customary to marvel at the fact that Mary Shelley was only 18 when she wrote Frankenstein.  That’s all very well and good, but there are moments where you get the impression that, full of teenaged impulsiveness and impatience, she wants to get from one plot development to the next and isn’t worried about the means of doing so.  This results in some mad lapses in logic and believability.  She wants the creature to become expressive and articulate as soon as possible after being brought to life, so she has him spy on a room where, every day, a foreign woman is receiving rudimentary language lessons; so gradually, the creature becomes literate like the woman does.  But it’s pushing credibility, to say the least, that straight after this the creature finds, reads and understands a copy of John Milton’s Paradise Lost

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Credibility takes a pummelling too when Frankenstein agrees to the creature’s demand that he make him a female companion.  He retreats to a distant, tiny Orcadian island to assemble and bring to life a new body, presumably built out of scavenged body-parts like its predecessor.  How Frankenstein gathers these body-parts without being noticed on an island with just five inhabitants is anyone’s guess.  Later, after reneging on his promise and destroying the female body, Frankenstein ends up adrift on a boat that somehow takes him from the Orkneys to the Irish coast in the space of one night.  He arrives in time to be framed for the murder of his friend Henry Clerval, whose body the creature has dumped on the shore nearby.  Since Clerval had been last heard of in Perth, it’s a mystery how the creature found out about Frankenstein’s betrayal in the Orkneys, assassinated Clerval in Perth and then followed Frankenstein from the Orkneys to Ireland with the corpse. 

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Frankenstein is finally cleared and released from incarceration in Ireland when his father, Baron Frankenstein, shows up to collect him.  Previously, it was stated that the old Baron was too infirm to be able to travel from Geneva to Ingolstadt, so how does he withstand the land and sea journey all the way from Geneva to Ireland and back?    

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(c) Oxford World Classics

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But some of it is brilliant too.  The long-awaited scene where, up on the icy, rocky wastes near the summit of Mount Blanc, Frankenstein comes face-to-face with his now articulate and vengeful creation – “’Begone, vile insect!  Or rather, stay, that I may trample you to dust!  And, oh!  That I could, with the extinction of your miserable existence, restore those victims whom you have so diabolically murdered!’  ‘I expected this reception,” said the daemon.  “All men hate the wretched…’” – is wonderfully atmospheric.  So too is the appropriately Godforsaken Arctic setting where the book begins and ends. 

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And you can’t better Chapter 5 when Frankenstein applies the vital spark to his creation and the story really gets going: “It was on a dreary night of November that I beheld the accomplishment of my toils…  It was already one in the morning; the rain pattered dismally against the panes, and my candle was nearly burnt out, when, by the glimmer of the half-extinguished light, I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open; it breathed hard, and a convulsive motion agitated its limbs.”  And of course, it gets worse: “Good God!  His yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries underneath; his hair was of a lustrous black, and flowing; his teeth of a pearly whiteness; but these luxuriances only formed a more horrid contrast with his watery eyes, that seemed almost of the same colour as the dun-white sockets in which they were set, his shrivelled complexion and straight black lips.”

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Finally, it’s unfair to compare it with Dracula.  It’s fashionable these days to hold up Frankenstein as a literary milestone – it certainly wasn’t the world’s first horror story, but there’s a good case to be made that it was the first work of science fiction – whilst dismissing Dracula as an unambitious potboiler.  However, the books are like chalk and cheese, even if their title characters are inseparably linked in popular culture now. Designed to entertain, Dracula is a classic thriller as memorable as Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles (1902) or H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds (1887).  Frankenstein is less about thrills and more about man’s relation to the universe and, as such, belongs in a higher-brow bracket of literature. I feel, though, that because it rollercoasters between the sublime and the ridiculous, it’s less successful than Dracula in what it sets out to do. 

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But… when Frankenstein hits the peaks, it’s a work of art.

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From Fine Art Images / Heritage Images / Getty Images

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