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.