Few names in fiction are more iconic than Frankenstein. Story, character, and premise borrowed, bent, and twisted in the near 200 years that have passed since the idea’s conception, what is perhaps the seminal work of science fiction has become an image of Halloween, the original story by and large lost to time. In fact the tragedy of an ordinary doctor with extra-ordinary skills, Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel Frankenstein: The Modern Prometheus is a powerful examination of the meaning of being human as told through the eyes of a man who created one, and if Brian Aldiss is to be believed, it is the first work of science fiction.
A frame story, Frankenstein is bookended by the notes of an Arctic sailor who has the experience of talking with a dying man found wandering the frozen north. The dying man named Dr. Victor Frankenstein, the story of his youth up until his delirious expedition in the north forms the main narrative. Born into a rich Swiss family, from an early age Frankenstein showed interest in not only biology and chemistry, but “old science”—the study of supernatural wonders. After finishing a medical degree at university, he secretly puts his skills as a doctor and arcane knowledge of the unknown into action, creating the now famous monster on a stormy night. Hideous beyond hope, the monster’s ugliness scares Frankenstein, and he flees the room, allowing his creation to escape. Twisted together in desire and loathing, the creator and the created’s lives are never the same thereafter, their tragedies unfolding in the telling.
Contrary to most modern perception of the name Frankenstein, the monster’s conception and fabrication is only the first part of the story. The majority of the novel is in fact the guilt, the fear, the shame, the desire for retribution, and the torrent of struggles the Doctor has trying to come to terms with his creation. The hideous being prey to the most base of emotions, the monster is also an integral part of the story, his growth and maturation not something the Doctor was prepared to take responsibility for when initially plotting his scientific endeavors. The interaction of the two and the development of their relationship, for better and worse, is the affective side of the story and what makes it such a powerful narrative.
The thematic side is one open to a variety of analyses. From the novel’s subtitle (A Modern Prometheus) to pontification upon its possible symbolism, numerous interpretations are available. Beginning with humanity’s short-sightedness, i.e. its general tendency to ignore costs in the future in favor of hopes for the present, Frankenstein’s reaction to the monster indicates little forethought was given to its potential. This kind of “ignorant creation”, or “created with unintended purpose” presents the novel possibly as a cautionary. The irreversible yet permanent changes brought about by the doctor’s tinkering with powers beyond his comprehension run strong parallels to many negative technological changes man has brought upon himself—the gun, nuclear weaponry, and cable television shows (ha!) among them. Another (and for this review, last) potential take on the novel is a simultaneous distance and imminence in which mankind experiences life. Throughout the evolution of their minds and hearts, the doctor and the monster never seem to come to peace. One waltzing while the other rumbas, the difference is sometimes intentional, and at others a consequence only of circumstances. In short, Shelley seems to say man has the power to create; but understanding what has been created is perhaps beyond its capabilities.
In the end, Frankenstein has stood the test of time for reasons far beyond Hollywood horror. Socially, scientifically, and personally relevant beyond the novel’s age, a number of challenging inferences can be drawn from its pages. Anything from classicism to cautionary, commentary to exposition, it’s an intelligent story with multiple layers of meaning. An engaging, touching story binding these ideas into a cohesive whole, the tragedy of the good doctor is as affective as it is thought-provoking. A classic still on the shelves to this day, it’s best to have a read and see its value for yourself.