Book Review: “Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus” by Mary Shelley (1818)

There are times when, as a reviewer, I feel unequal to the task. Actually, most times really. Basically, my critical style is just my flimsy pastiche of more talented critics whose work I enjoy.

But then there are times when I simply can’t even attempt to write what I imagine they would write. And with this book, I find myself imagining what Richard Armour could make out of it. He of The Classics Reclassified fame would be just the one to take this on.

If you have not read Classics Reclassified and can’t easily get your hands on a copy, you can at least read Armour’s quotes on Goodreads, which includes some of the gems.

Anyway, on to Frankenstein. You all know the story: mad scientist creates monster in laboratory. It turns out to have been a bad idea. Missing from the story are many of the tropes later created by Hollywood. There is no hunchbacked assistant to the scientist, there is no mix-up with the subject’s brains, and the monster is not destroyed by a mob with pitchforks and torches.

Basically, the executive summary is that, having created the monster, Victor Frankenstein feels really, really bad about it. The monster wanders off on his own and gradually teaches himself spoken and written language, and begins to resent his creator for bringing an abomination such as himself into the world. He then begins a quest of murderous revenge against Frankenstein, attacking those dearest to him in order to make the scientist feel as miserable as his creation.

In broad outlines, this is a decent enough plot, I suppose. But as you may have guessed by now, I did not really like it.

The first reason is that the writing is just too florid. I mean, look at this:

“The hour of my weakness is past, and the period of your power is arrived. Your threats cannot move me to do an act of wickedness; but they confirm me in a resolution of not creating you a companion in vice. Shall I, in cool blood, set loose upon the earth a dæmon, whose delight is in death and wretchedness. Begone! I am firm, and your words will only exasperate my rage.”

That’s dialogue. Frankenstein says it to the monster during one of their many futile interviews.

The whole book is like that. And look, I’ve long been a defender of the slower, more leisurely pace of older books. I don’t mind an author taking their time. What I mind is repetitiveness.

Like, Frankenstein tells us at the beginning of Volume II:

The blood flowed freely in my veins, but a weight of despair and remorse pressed on my heart, which nothing could remove. Sleep fled from my eyes; I wandered like an evil spirit, for I had committed deeds of mischief beyond description horrible, and more, much more, (I persuaded myself) was yet behind. Yet my heart overflowed with kindness, and the love of virtue. I had begun life with benevolent intentions, and thirsted for the moment when I should put them in practice, and make myself useful to my fellow-beings. Now all was blasted: instead of that serenity of conscience, which allowed me to look back upon the past with self-satisfaction, and from thence to gather promise of new hopes, I was seized by remorse and the sense of guilt, which hurried me away to a hell of intense tortures, such as no language can describe.

We got it, you’re sad. So is there any need to remind us in Volume III?

My father was enraptured on finding me freed from the vexations of a criminal charge, that I was again allowed to breathe the fresh atmosphere, and allowed to return to my native country. I did not participate in these feelings; for to me the walls of a dungeon or a palace were alike hateful. The cup of life was poisoned for ever; and although the sun shone upon me, as upon the happy and gay of heart, I saw around me nothing but a dense and frightful darkness, penetrated by no light but the glimmer of two eyes that glared upon me.

I am once again asking you: was Amanda McKittrick Ros really that bad? Or at least, was she so much worse than this? This prose is purple, melodramatic, overwrought, and any other pejorative term for ornate writing you care to employ.

But that’s not a fatal flaw. Writing styles change, and I try to be forgiving and understanding. While we might view these 19th century paragraphs as overly verbose, the writers of the 19th century would probably see us as childishly simplistic and crude in our language. Who is right? Who can say?

No, my problem with this book boils down to something much more serious: Victor Frankenstein is a moron.

I’m going to spoil a pretty major element of the third and final volume, so if you want to be surprised by the book, quit reading now.

The monster demands that Frankenstein make him a mate, and says he will visit the doctor again on the day of his wedding. (The monster, by the way, seemingly has the power to appear and vanish at will, possessing superhuman strength and speed. He is, as we gamers would say, OP as hell.)

Frankenstein nonetheless goes ahead with his marriage, figuring that, if worst comes to worst, the monster will kill him on the day of his wedding. Remember that to date, the monster has already killed Frankenstein’s younger brother and his best friend, as well as framing a friend for the former crime. And yet no other possibility occurs to Frankenstein. He does not provide in his calculations for any other contingency than that the monster will kill him on his wedding day, despite the monster not explicitly saying that.

Can you guess what happens? Well, I’ll leave it to you to put two and two together. Here’s where I’m most reminded of an Armour quote, which I have adapted slightly: “He doesn’t stop to think. He doesn’t even start to think.”

Besides this, Frankenstein is useless, whiny, self-pitying, and melodramatic. He makes Bella Swan look like a Heinlein hero by comparison. He refuses to take responsibility for problems caused by his own arrogance, and then moans and cries about how miserable he is all the time. We’re told repeatedly how awesome he supposedly is, but the way I see it, the dude is a train wreck.

And perhaps the most irritating thing of all is that the book does explore some interesting themes, but it does so in such a ham-fisted way that I couldn’t help but shake my head at the execution, rather than pondering the ideas. Stealing again from Armour describing symbolism: “The monster stands for something. Frankenstein stands for something. The reader has to stand for quite a bit, too.”

Yet, the book is influential. And despite all my criticisms, I can understand why it is influential. In fact, it is a critic’s dream, because it contains all sorts of motifs, philosophies, and references to other texts. It is as though it had been written so that students can produce essays about it.

It deals with timeless and, dare I say it, deathless themes. So it’s no wonder it captured the imaginations of generations despite being, by most technical measures, pretty bad. And in her defense, Shelley was only 19 when she wrote it. When I think about what I wrote when I was 19, it was pretty bad, too. And I can’t say that any of mine inspired countless derivative works. At least, I hope not.

Frankenstein did, though, and it is to these that we will be turning our attention this month. Mary Shelley’s creation, like Frankenstein’s, has taken on a life of its own, for good or for ill.


  1. I remember reading the Classics Illustrated of F, I was around 10. Remember those? I remember it being a real bummer and never had the desire to read the book.

    1. Yeah, I loved Classics Illustrated. I never read the one for Frankenstein, though, but it sounds like it gave an accurate impression.

  2. I read Frankenstein at some point when I was much younger, maybe even as a teenager. I know I read Dracula when I was 16. It made a lot more sense to me than Frankenstein. I read both of these books before I had ever read a single page of either fantasy or science fiction, or had even been introduced to much 19th century British fiction. (I was in love with Dumas books – Three Musketeers, Monte Cristo – all that.) I can’t say I really understood Frankenstein when I read it, but I never had an urge to read it again.

      1. The Count of Monte Cristo has quite a few deep ramifications, mostly regarding the concept of revenge. I read every single one of the 6 or so musketeer books when I was 12, and they are just a rolicking good time – except the beheading of Lady de Winter, which kind of got to me at the age of 12. I developed quite an interest in French history at the time. Dumas also wrote a novel called The Black Tulip (about the 17th c. tulipmania), which I read at the age of 14 and found unusually charming.

  3. I read Frankenstein only after I wrote The Friendship of Mortals, only because it was one of the earliest novels about reanimating the dead. I have to admit the details have faded from my memory, which suggests I wasn’t all that impressed. I have not been tempted to read it again, but I just read the two blog posts I wrote about it. In one of them I declare that I did not think Frankenstein was in any sense a horror tale. To be fair to Shelley, she may not have intended it to be such a story. The later accretions you mention in your review have created the present-day impression that Frankenstein=horror.
    Great review as always!

    1. I agree with you; it’s not a horror novel in the way we think of them. I think there are certain things, like Frankenstein gathering “parts” for his creation, that are meant to evoke a response of fear and disgust like a horror story would, (because Gothic fiction was all about evoking strong feelings of all sorts) but that’s not the main point of the story.

      Unfortunately, whatever the main point of the story was, I just couldn’t take it seriously because Frankenstein was such a terrible character, in my opinion. I won’t say too much here because I might be addressing this in another post, but he’s practically the antithesis of Herbert West. Frankenstein is wildly passionate and emotional. His personality is much closer to what I would expect of a poet or artist than a scientist, and that just kind of wrecked it for me.

      And thank you. Glad you liked the review. 🙂

  4. Issaac Asimov invented the catch phrase of “Frankenstein phobia,” It’s what happens whenever a new technology is produced the reaction of writers and the public is panic. Jurassic Park is a prime example of Frankenstein phobia.

    1. Glad you told me this! I’m going to reference “Frankenstein phobia” in a post later this month. And yes, Jurassic Park is a good example. (I love that movie, but still…)

  5. It’s been absolute yonks since I read ‘Frankenstein’ and honestly can’t remember what I thought of it. The fact that I haven’t re-read it since but have re-read others of that time speaks volumes I guess.

    That the passages you’ve quoted was accepted as dialogue is very much of its time, isn’t it? That, and wordy descriptions. I sometimes have to remind myself not many people back then travelled or had much chance, if any, to see art to know what things looked like, things we take for granted, like whales. So different now, and with the average reader having the attention span of a gnat means we, as writers, have had to become more succint. Just as well, I suppose, if I had to describe things to the extent they did back in the day, I’d fail miserably 😂

    Good review, I enjoyed it, thanks 😊

  6. Gawd! I’d hate to see what you think of Shakespeare or Dickens or any of the other great writers of those eras!!!!!
    I have read Shelley’s Frankenstein and it did move me, precisely because so many of the themes are universal. As for Frankenstein himself, he is a fool, which allows his monster to become a kind of anti-hero.
    Would I recommend the story to modern readers? Probably not, but I’d rather read old fashioned purple prose than fifty shades of grey. 😉

    1. I agree with you about the themes. For example (as Pat Prescott pointed out earlier today) Jurassic Park has basically the same theme as Frankenstein, and that’s one of my favorite movies ever.

      It was really the writing and the melodrama that ruined Frankenstein for me.

      And since you ask… to be honest, I’m not a big fan of Dickens either. Shakespeare is hit and miss for me. I like Macbeth, Julius Caesar, and especially Coriolanus. Others, like Hamlet and Romeo & Juliet I can do without.

      Almost anything is better than 50 Shades of Grey!!!! 😀

      On another topic, did you happen to see the review I posted today, of the book “Crew of Exiles”? I think you might like that one. It reminded me a bit of your books, both Innerscape and Vokhtah. 🙂

  7. I was watching Moid’s review of this book today (on the Media Death Cult YouTube channel) and he couldn’t praise it enough – put it in his pantheon of more than 10/10 books . While I was watching it I was thinking, who was I reading who really didn’t like it? I guess it was you. I’m going with you on this one.

    1. Yes, I’m in the extremely small group that doesn’t like it. Certainly can’t deny that it was influential, though.

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