Wednesday, 7 June 2000

Mary Shelley: Frankenstein (Or: The Modern Prometheus) (1818)

Edition: Penguin, 1985
Review number: 522

The chilling story of Victor Frankenstein and the being he created from dead bodies has been popular ever since it first appeared, and is often cited as being the first modern science fiction novel. The book has greater psychological depth than the various film versions, and the relationship between Frankenstein and the monster can be (and has been) interpreted in different ways.

The plot is probably familiar to most people. An explorer in the Arctic sees two sleds, one chasing the other across the ice. He rescues a man from the rear one when there is an accident, and hears his remarkable story. Victor Frankenstein is a distinguished scientist, but was always fascinated by the speculations of outdated medieval thinkers ike Albertus Magnus. He collected together parts of dead bodies, seeking to make the man he created from them live by the power of electricity. Yet, when he is successful, he is suddenly repelled by the hideous parody of a human being that he has created and rejects him.

The monster's appearance also leads to his instant rejection by all he meets, whatever his intentions, until he starts to take revenge on his maker by murdering Frankenstein's family, one by one.

As claims to be the origination of the science fiction genre go, it is easy to see why they arise. If the difference between SF and fantasy lies in a basis in extrapolation from known science rather than in what is known to be impossible - a defensible definition - then most fantastic works before Frankenstein fall into the second category (travelling to the moon in a ship, for example). Experiments in which electrical currents caused spasms in dead frogs' legs made the production of life by electricity feasible (and this is made clear by the sections in which Frankenstein's scientific knowledge is described).

Written in a century in which belief in a creator God began to wither in Western Europe, some of the resonances of the novel were perhaps more obvious at the time when it was published than today. The relationship between marred creation and creator, creature and seemingly rejecting creator, is clearly meant to be seen as commentary on the advanced thought about Christianity at the time. Frankenstein, as creator, is depicted as having failed to fulfil his responsibilities, and his actions are seen as some justification for the crimes committed by the monster (who would have been better off if he had never been created). Frankenstein has put himself in the position of God, and cannot live up to it.

Today, there are obvious resonances between the rejection of the monster because of his appearance and the actions of racists. These were probably not intended to be as strong as they appear now. The major resonance is the separation of different parts of the personality; it would not require many changes to make the story one of a deluded man blaming an imaginary monster for his own crimes. The two main characters (Frankenstein and the monster) are ambiguous, neither fully evil nor fully pure. This is the major strength of the novel, which (in true Romantic, Gothic fashion) has the innter torture of Frankenstein at its centre.

No comments: