Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
Hold onto your disbelief folks, we're not even going to attempt plausibility here!
Published in 1818, this book is the original science fiction novel. The young Victor Frankenstein is obsessed with uncovering the mysteries of nature (natural philosophy). This book resoundingly precedes Jules Verne (1828- 1905) who is generally considered to be the father of science fiction.
I think that this was a good book club choice because it has a lot of material for discussion, but it is not a very enjoyable read. The language is flowery and outdated; the leaps of logic are implausible to the point of being insulting. Even in Shelley's day people must have questioned the plausibility of putting together a living being composed of discarded body parts. I am sure that the people of the time were familiar with the smell of rotting meat. How could Victor Frankenstein have put the monster together in his school dorm room without everyone being aware of what he was doing? The larger than life monster then escapes into the university town of Ingolstadt (Germany) and nobody notices him! Puhleeease! I had to keep repeating to myself, suspend your disbelief, plausibility is not the point of this story. The scene where the monster catches up with Victor on a mountaintop in Chamonix, and recounts how he has become educated is even more tenuous. That monster is quite the little autodidact.
Nonetheless the book serves as an excellent vehicle for discussing its major themes: 1. The creator's responsibility to his creation; 2. The effects of rejection by human society; 3. How evil is the monster? Mary Shelley also uses the device of parallel stories to good effect.
The same story would work better in a futuristic context, as an AI story about a robot whose consciousness awakens, and who becomes resentful of the fact that he is not accepted as an equal in human society. Wait a minute, I think that's been done….
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Book Club Discussion Notes
p. 31 capable of bestowing animation upon lifeless matter.
p. 31 "You expect to be informed of the secret with which I am acquainted; that cannot be…"
p. 31 "he who aspires to become greater than his nature will allow.
p. 35 He animates the monster
p. 6, 36, 110 Ancient Mariner references
p. 50 Two years have gone by since the monster was created. Monster escapes from Frankenstein's room at the university. Nobody sees it in Ingolstadt. Goes to Geneva
The creator's responsibility to his creation.
The uncannily articulate autodidact monster confronts Victor on a glacier and rebukes his creator for not having made him in a way that would allow him to live in human society.
The debate is still relevant in modern society: Are parents responsible for their children? Are scientists responsible for the way that their discoveries are used? Are artists responsible for the impact of their creations?
p. 161 "I created a rational creature, and was bound towards him, to assure, as far as was in my power, his happiness and well-being. This was my duty; but there was another still paramount to that. My duties towards the beings of my own species had greater claims to my attention."
The effects of rejection by human society.
Frankenstein's monster argues that he has become violent and wants revenge because human society will not accept him. This echoes current studies that examine young social outcasts who become violent. Shades of Columbine?
How evil is the monster?
Kills out of anger and for revenge. Orders F to make him a companion. F agrees at first then repents. p. 121 (Two wrongs don't make a right). The female monster has made no bargain with him. What is she is even worse. She in no guarantee that the monster will be happy. And what if they procreate.
The three pillars of the human condition in Frankenstein
The Sensible Monster
Two years later, the monster confronts Frankenstein on a mountaintop in Chamonix, and recounts his story. The way the monster has learned about the world and language.
Lived in the forest near Ingolstadt. Ate nuts, berries, p. 72. Some offal more tasty. Learns about fire. Scares a peasant, eats his food. Approaches cottages; scares children, attacked by peasants. Creates a dwelling in a shed attached to a cottage and observes the peasants (French living in exile in Germany). Old man De Lacey, Felix, Agatha. Learns language by listening as Safie is taught to speak French, basic geography, and history from book Ruins of Empires (p.84).
Find a trunk in the forest containing three books:
Paradise Lost - creation story
Plutarch's Lives - history and government
Sorrows of Werter - p. 91 "lofty sentiments and feelings" Sturm und Drang
Finds Frankstein's papers in pocket of coat that he took from laboratory, so he knows where to find him.
By the Chamonix meeting the monster has become extremely proficient at language and social mores and conventions.
Stories told through letters: Sorrows of Young Werther.
The need for friendship/companionship
Robert Walton writes to sister about wanting a friend.
Frankenstein has Clerval
Frankenstein to marry Elizabeth
Contrast between the friends
Victor Frankenstein is driven, intense, and miserable (even before he created his monster). He wants to undo and understand the workings of the world, rather than appreciate its beauty.
Henry Clerval sees beauty and delight in the world around him.
Family attitudes toward study:
The Frankenstein family puts premium on Education; Henry Clerval father cannot see the point of having a son who knows Latin, and the works of the Middle Eastern poets.
Riches to Rags
Frankenstein's father's friend Beaumont lost his fortune, then died leaving daughter Caroline penniless. F family takes her in. She becomes Victor's mother.
Milan peasants raising beautiful girl Elizabeth whose Austrian parents have died. F family adopts her.
De Lacey family loses fortune for defending the Turk, Safie's father. Safie forsakes her father out of love for Felix De Lacey.
Mighty landscapes, magnificence of natural beauty contrasts the travesty of nature that he has created.
Travel on water
Frankenstein goes out in the boat on Lake Geneva when he need to calm himself. Voyage down the Rhine with Clerval. Boat to the Orkney Island cottage. Crossing to Ireland.
Victor Frankenstein presumes to play God and create a living being. His being turns out to be a monster. Frankenstein is then consumed by over his creation.
Self-indulgent guilt. Frankenstein believes himself to be the center of the universe, and all good or evil hinges on what he does or has done.
The point of whether the experiment was actually successful or not is irrelevant: a person can become so completely obsessed with the idea of his creation that it drives him insane, whether or not the creation is successful. His feeling of guilt for even attempting the act could make him feel as through he were responsible for what could have been the random deaths of his brother William, the servant girl Justine (maybe Justine was not the innocent he painted her to be), his friend Clerval.