If you’d like to read this book, it is available under public domain through Project Gutenberg. As I live on disability and can’t afford to prioritize book buying at present, legal sources of free books are important to me. With modern books, my reviews are a way of “paying” the author and the system that provides me with words to devour. Mary Shelley won’t have any appreciation herself of this review, but perhaps it can help you find a forgotten pearl to enjoy and cherish.
Frankenstein; Or, A Modern Prometheus by Mary Wallenstonecraft Shelley
Some of you may find it odd that I hadn’t read this before, especially as someone with a BA in literature, but I’ve made a concerted effort in the past to avoid books likely to be scary. Personally I do not enjoy fear and do not find it thrilling to be terrified or to be made to suspect something is lurking under the bed, in the corner, or right outside my window.
But I recently finished a story some consider horror. At a minimum, it is psychological suspense or something like that, but we only figured that part out right before I finished the last little bit of the book. Believing it was horror had made me feel hypocritical–to write and hope to sell a story in a genre I refused to read.
So when Anike Kirsten suggested I consider reading this book for the Forgotten Pearls series, I downloaded it immediately to assuage my guilt. I had had the opportunity to take a class in college about Gothics and horror, which would, if I remember correctly, have included this, but I avoided the genre even then.
What struck me most on completion of the book was how unscary the entire experience had been. I think some of that can be attributed to changes in writing theory from the time of Shelley to our own. Additionally the distraction of my brain’s constant contemplation of these differences probably added to my distance from the story.
The biggest difference is the telling of a story and far less use of show, a topic I hope to come back to later with a longer article. Then we have many pages spent justifying the source of the story. Assuming I remember all the discussions of my lit classes correctly, the culture of the time this was written–and a comparatively long period of time compared to how quickly fashion and culture changes in today’s world–wanted to be made to believe stories were true.
Fiction was couched in carefully constructed source explanations. In effect she is saying, “This story was told to me by my brother. He got it from this other man. I’ve relayed it as faithfully as possible. Any potential untruths in the story are theirs, not mine.” The book was originally published anonymously, so no question could be made of whether the author had this brother that journeyed to sea.
For a modern reader, these postulations are completely unnecessary, boring, and increase the distance from the story. Getting to the point where the brother shuts up and starts relaying Frankenstein’s story in first person is a relief. It feels to us as if the story first begins there and we start getting the experience we crave, or at least something a bit closer to what we expect of literature.
Does this mean the modern reader shouldn’t bother with the book? Definitely not. But they should approach it with expectations of a written version of a scary story told by a fire at camp. First the storyteller tells you where they heard the tale so you know how true it is. Then they dive in to the actual story.
Personally I think it is important for modern readers to read it if for no other reason than the lesson of how far popular culture can twist stories and legends from their origins. I recommend writing down everything you think you know about Frankenstein before reading the book then compare what you thought you knew to what the book really says.
Now, the hard part. What did I actually think of the book? I found Frankenstein himself a compelling character. He made a mistake in his younger days–the biggest one probably being how he treated his creation as opposed to having created it. I’d have liked to have gotten to know his creation better as well.
The following is actually a topic I expected fellow Forgotten Pearls reviewer Anike Kirsten to contemplate in her review, but it seems her thoughts were elsewhere. We live in a time where science is creating and manipulating life. What responsibility does or should the scientist have for the well-being, education, and integration in society for the life he may create? Is created life automatically monstrous or is the responsibility on the creator to nurture and educate it? Are scientists today and in the future going to act as haphazardly as Frankenstein? And how did Shelley predict the scientific advancement we’re actually facing?
This novel opens and deals with so many questions that can still be applicable to modern life. The language may be outdated, but it is still eloquent. I strongly recommend reading it.
Forgotten Pearls is a review series I share with Jasmine Arch and Anike Kirsten. The goal of the series is to rediscover older works and highlight them for today’s readers. As we’re all authors, we also see what tidbits we might learn from the works of the past. Read more about the review series in this introduction from Jasmine.
One Reply to “Forgotten Pearls: Frankenstein by Mary Wollenstonecraft Shelley”
You make some great points and observations. Not just on the implications and warning of current scientific pursuit, but also on the nature of storytelling. That intrigues me, the attempt to convince the reader of the truth of the narrative. With how fiction literature has evolved to be more about immersion than conviction, books from around Shelley’s time seem to keep us at arm’s length. Though it does add to a “what if” thinking which can be horrifying given enough thought on it. We still see much of this conviction in contemporary science fiction, specifically in social sci-fi and hard sci-fi, often in narratives dealing with climate issues or politics.