The History of Science Fiction Literature Challenge: Frankenstein, or the Modern Promethius in three volumes by Mary Shelley

In a smidgen of an experiment, I read the 1992 Penguin ‘Classic’ version of Shelley’s text, with an introduction and notes by Maurice Hindle as well as a free eBook edition on ipad, when appropriate. As usual I didn’t read the academic preamble, intending to read the story as originally intended by the author. However, I also ignored author’s introduction and preface and went straight in to Letter 1. I have read, and loved, Frankenstein many times before, but this was the first time I have read it critically. The ipad version helped with note-making, up to a point.

The novel, the first edition of which was published anonymously in 1818 before Shelley’s name appeared on the second edition in 1823, starts like akin to another fantastic voyage, meeting the reader’s expectations, told as a series of letters. Obviously, the traveller’s tale was a trope common of the time, and of this genre. In this case, however, there is a story within a story, and later another story within that story. Walton’s voyage is only the framing device, which is refreshing. The true story is of characters and of discovery. The era was one of discovery and it made sense to frame a tale concerning the boundaries of science with the boundaries of discovery at the edge of the world. As an interesting aside, Walton’s ship is called the archangel. I suspect there was something in that name. An archangel is an angel of high rank, perhaps placing Walton morally superior to his charges (although his original motivations are the same as Gulliver’s and others’).

The opening letters from Walton and again the opening chapters of Frankenstein’s recounting are full of love, intimacy and tenderness. Close and affectionate friendships or like-minded people and family are shown to be important. This sets up a lovely contrast with the horror and despair which follows. It is also a traditional mood and setting for novels of this era which again played upon the readers expectations.

So far, so 1818. But this is a story of science and of pushing human knowledge and emotion. It is a story of how a man, Victor Frankenstein, creates a creature whom he perceives as a monster, and the terrible consequences that befall him. It is a story of how humanity and society fail the disadvantaged and how the unfortunate can be driven to desperation and eventually, evil. It is also the story of the true birth of the science fiction novel. There is a passage in Chapter 2 in which Victor talks about natural philosophy and science, a term in its infancy, which for me is the beginning of true science fiction, when science is explained to the reader and is as an important a plot device as the characters and their actions. Of course, the science is not possible at the time, or now even. Victor has proper scientific education. His musings and research are not just speculation or philosophy, but actual trained opinion. He had two years of learning before his experimentation. Where did Shelly get this from? She was famously 18 when she wrote Frankenstein. And of course, it stems from a fireside horror story she made up in the company of Shelley and Byron. She was a devotee of Enlightenment but had little formal education. She was brought up by her feminist mother and tutored by her father within his large library. It is here she must have discovered science. However, she, like many of her time, was probably wary of it. ‘Whence, I often asked myself, did the principle of life proceed’.  Victor, despite being its proponent, is often found asking questions of science. There is clear evidence of rational thinking and reasoning about science from the author. The passage in chapter four highlights Victor’s successes which ‘bore [him] like a hurricane’. This mirrors the whirlwind of discovery during that period, but also the thoughts on Victor’s death of his mother.

Which is the other great theme throughout the novel is death. Of course, Shelley’s premature baby had died a few years previous to its writing. Victor partakes in various musings on death during his education and the theme is revisited several times later when tragedy strikes.

To the uninitiated, or the horror movie fan, it may be a surprise to find there is no Igor or equivalent during Victor’s experiments, and no detailed description of the collection of the body parts he used. And with only a small amount of ceremony, the creature is alive. Again, conversely to the movies, the creature’s skin is yellow, and despite Victor describing his choices to make its features beautiful, he creates something so hideous he is disgusted by it, and turns away in horror. He never names the creature. Is this the author’s attempt to dehumanise it? Or engender sympathy from the reader?

Victor then tries to return to his family and normality. Six years he’s away yet his family and friends remain loyal and loving, which again, reinforces the main contrast in the novel. Which is of course where things really start going wrong.

Victor is a child, and then an adult, of privilege. He is afforded every luxury and opportunity within his close circle of family and friends. Yet he is not a nice man. He has deep flaws. He is a bigot and a coward. He is selfish and stubborn. As the creature begins to exact revenge, he shows his true colours. Why didn’t he intervene in saving Justine? Cowardice? Fear of personal recriminations. He has no real heart for unconditional justice. He calls himself a madman, but is this nothing but an excuse. Justine’s cameo also further examines Victor’s fear of death.

And then Victor encounter’s the creature, which shows superhuman speed (again, not the movie cliché). I wonder if this is also the birth of the superhero? The description of a character with powers beyond normal man. Chapter II in Volume 2 has a passage which again shows Victor being unreasonable (compare with his earlier reasoned application of science) and his lack of compassion for any other than his own loves (remember, a small and tight circle), as the creature eloquently reasons with him concerning its plight. Thus begins the real heart of the story as we learn the history of the creature and how he came to be standing on the mountain before Victor. You can’t blame the creature, who suffered extreme prejudice from the outset and was even shot after saving a life, due to narrow mindedness and ignorance. The story of Alex and Safie (the story within the story within the story within the story) is a tad out of place in a tale of horror and science fiction – Shelly was encouraged to pad out the short story into a novel, and I suspect this was one of the additional sections. It brief comment on international politics and is, away from science and characters, a tad satirical.  It’s no Gulliver’s Travels or Utopia in that respect.

Chapter 7 examines the creature’s education reading Plutarch and others. He asks the classic questions: Who was I? What was I? Whence did I come? These are questions revisited time and again in science fiction ever since. [Is then Plutarch the seed of science fiction?] The creature becomes very self aware and believes itself to be wretched. He displays the reason that Victor lacks? Can the creator’s actions be caused by overriding grief or are his flaws deeper and more reflective of the society he comes from? Once Elizabeth has met her fate, Victor is full of nothing but vengeance. He loses all the sense of reason he has left. He is the monster. The warnings of science fiction and the questions it asks are complete. Meddle with science and science bites. What is humanity? What does it mean to be human? Humans are bigots and frightened and unreasonable. Humans are monsters.

Throughout the book, the language is utterly beautiful, and no more so than in the climax once Victor is aboard the Archangel and gives his speech to the embittered crew about making a name for themselves and becoming heroes. Has he learned his lesson? Has he come to the point when he can rest in piece? Shelley’s prose is as perfect as you could expect. It has heart and soul. You can feel the impassioned reason of the creature and the bitter grief of Frankenstein. You can image how beautiful Elizabeth is and how loyal Henry Clerval is. You are crushed like his throat when you realise his is the corpse in Ireland.

Which leads me to expectations. The novel should be read by everyone who hasn’t already done so. This is no Hollywood horror film, set in the eastern European mountains with a mad scientist hidden away in an eerie castle. Did you know that Victor and Henry travel through England? Victor attempts to create the mate on a Scottish Island. He languishes in jail in Ireland. This is not the story you think it is. The sympathetic character is the creature. It is the subject of abuse and bigotry. It is charged before any crime is committed, because of nothing more than its appearance. This is a story of the closed circles of privilege in high society. As mentioned, there is no in-depth description of grave robbing and body stealing; nothing much is made of Frankenstein’s laboratory. This is also, therefore, a story of characters and of consequences. It examines the scientific progress of the early 1800s and makes comment and casts warnings. Of course, much has been written about the subtitle: Modern Prometheus. Stealing fire from the gods in Greek mythology and making a man from clay in Latin mythology. It simply emphasises the point Shelley was making. Science bites back. Frankenstein asks questions of the reader and the protagonists within the text. It is a true novel with a beginning, middle (and a couple of interludes) and a fitting conclusion. It is the first science fiction novel.

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4 thoughts on “The History of Science Fiction Literature Challenge: Frankenstein, or the Modern Promethius in three volumes by Mary Shelley

  1. Good job, I was wondering if all Frankenstein’s reviews were about the dangers of science cliche. Nice summary

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