Classic Review: Frankenstein

As we are now in October, it seemed a good time to revisit a classic of the horror genre, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s Frankenstein.

Those of you into whose minds flash Boris Karloff as the monster, in James Whale’s Frankenstein and The Bride of Frankenstein, are in for a shock. In the first movie, the monster speaks not a single word, but simply growls and howls; in the second film, the monster learns a few words, which he grunts out. Who can forget the memorable “Friend … Goood!”?

Well, if that’s the monster you’re expecting, you won’t find him here.

Karloff and Whale both felt that the monster was to be played like an innocent, a child who doesn’t understand the world into which he has come. In other words, the monster is something like a baby – a big, scary, grunting baby, but a baby nonetheless – and so, it does not have language, but must learn it, a word or two at a time.

Shelley’s monster, though, has language – boy, does he have language – and knows something of philosophy. In fact, he debates Frankenstein on matters of moral philosophy for a few chapters in the middle of the book. Where we anxiously await Karloff’s monster to utter a few words (my recollection that Bride might have been marketed to the public with the tagline, “The Monster Speaks”), here we’re eagerly hoping that he’ll just shut up. He does go on so.

Shelley’s monster is also an innocent, but an innocent who speaks like a college graduate. He’s got the vocabulary and has read a lot, which is surprising, since he teaches himself language and reading through books he finds in some farmer’s cottage – that’s one smart farmer.

And as he acquires education, he becomes aware that: (1) he yearns to be part of the human community, and (2) the manner of his creation (and his strange appearance – he’s not monstrous looking as in the film, but has a strange look about the eyes) will always keep him an outcast. And so, like a kid when things get tough – he begins to curse the one who made him, and is determined to make Frankenstein as miserable as he is.

He does that by killing or threatening people near and dear to Frankenstein, and then, when he has the young nobleman’s attention, he engages him in a discussion one might imagine overhearing in a university seminar room, or in the Shelleys’ drawing room – Mary Shelley was the daughter of an early feminist, and the wife of one of the leading English Romantic poets, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and part of his circle.

The questions they consider include:

  1. What is the creator’s obligation to his [it is the 19th c.] creation? The 18th and 19th c. were full of philosophers and other thinkers considering this question. The idea of God as the divine watchmaker who created the universe and then let it tick away on its own was very popular. In his play Prometheus Unbound, Mary Shelley’s husband considered the situation of Prometheus, the Titan from Greek myth who creates humankind, where papa Zeus, who didn’t create them, cares little for them. And it is worth noting that the full title and subtitle of Mary Shelley’s work is Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus.
  2. What are the risks of going beyond the norms and expectations of society? Are they worth it? This question is not only on the mind of Frankenstein, who loses everyone near and dear to him in the course of the story, but also on the mind of Captain Robert Walton, who listens to Frankenstein’s narrative, and who himself risks all to find a way to the North Pole.
  3. What are one’s responsibilities towards one’s friends and family, and what happens when these responsibilities come into conflict with one’s drive to excel? Both Walton and Frankenstein seem willing to risk all for their dreams, and realize late in the game that such risk endangers others.

For a book that is considered the first science-fiction novel, the science in this novel is remarkably vague. There are no details given in the creation of the monster. If you were hoping for all those gadgets in Frankenstein’s mountain lab from the film – forget it. The creation is quickly dispensed with in about a paragraph – no graphic details, and the monster is gone before Frankenstein knows it. If you are not paying close attention, you may realize that the monster is already gone before you knew he has come alive.

Still, if you want to consider these deep questions, and imagine you’re part of the intellectual salon of the Shelleys, the book has a lot to recommend it. If, on the other hand, you want grunts, pitchfork people and Igor – check out the Whale films, or to put it another way: “Movie ... gooood!”

E-book: Download a free public domain e-book version of Frankenstein now. (Not Kindle compatible. Click for a list of devices.)

About the Author

Bernard Norcott-Mahany, a library technical assistant at the Lucile H. Bluford Branch, is our resident connoisseur of classic literature. He is also the leader of the Black Classics and In the Heat of the Night book groups.