Sunday, November 20, 2005

A Book Review Frankenstein by Mary Shelly

I've read Frankenstein recently. I'm studying it with a first year literature class. So here is my review.

A novel in three volumes in which we read the journal of an arctic explorer whose ship is trapped by sea ice. He encounters Victor Frankenstein on a sleigh, close to death, chasing another sleigh navigated by an unknown but huge man.

When he has recovered a little Frankenstein tells his tale to the explorer. It is a moral tale warning against obsessive ambition and international fame.

Doctor Victor Frankenstein first fascinated by the work of alchemists and natural philosophers undertakes a degree at Ingolstadt during which he decides to create a living creature out of the dead limbs and organs of a dead person.

Eventually the creature is brought to life.

Immediately Frankenstein is revolted and disgusted by what he has created and falls ill under the strain of what he has done. A friend and fellow student called Henry Cherval looks after Victor.

Frankenstein recovers and continues to study at the university but under Henry’s example studies other languages.

Before returning home to his father, his bride to be and his two brothers he receives news that his younger brother has been murdered and an adopted sister has been blamed for the crime.

He returns home certain that the murderer is the creature - after cqatching sight of him in the mountains. The adopted sister who Victor had never met is found guilty and is executed. Two deaths.

Victor is filled with guilt, anger, revenge and disgust. He retreats to the mountains to escape his feelings and meets the creature. This meeting is explosive and Frankenstein wants to kill it. The creature persuades him to listen to his tale and journey, his struggle and defeat at being accepted by society.

Rejected by people it tells of a family who he watches secretly from a hovel he has made and develops loving and affectionate feelings towards him. He eventually makes himself known to them and they are totally repulsed by him. This final rejection is to much. He vows to be an enemy of humankind and to destroy his creator.

Searching for him he kills William – Victor’s brother and frames the adopted sister.

It demands Victor creates a female companion for it. And vows to kill Victor if he does not. Eventually Victor agrees and travels to a secluded area on Orkney, Scotland, accompanied by Henry Cherval. However Victor refuses to continue his work. He is sickened by it and fears what a male and female creature could achieve together as enemies to humanity.

On destroying his work he sails out to sea and lands in Ireland where he is arrested for the murder of – he later discovers – his friend Henry Cherval. He knows the creature killed him. He is freed, returns home and marries Elizabeth his long waiting bride to be. She is murdered on there wedding night and Victor devotes the rest of his life to hunting and destroying the creature. His father too dies broken hearted and weakened by the tragic events that have surrounded his life since the death of his wife of Scarlet Fever when Victor was still at home.

His chase leads him to the barren white wastes of the arctic ocean where he dies in the arms of his friend Robert Walton the polar explorer.

Walton witnesses the creature in Frankenstein’s cabin. It tells Walton he will travel to the Pole and there make a fire and destroy himself.

Walton returns south on a melting ocean with his crew and no longer seeks to discover the north pole. Here the tale of Frankenstein come to an end.

This is generally a badly written book. But is rescued by some engaging features.

Something different happens on every page. It is a page-turner and I genuinely wanted to know what happened and how it was achieved.

The creature’s character is interesting. A beautiful mind and sensibilities corrupted by Victor’s disgust and humanities prejudices against the unknown, the alien.

Some of the descriptions are beautifully realized for example, the setting of the novel, the Alps, Scotland are stunning.

However the book is over written. It could have been a third less in length at least.

Characters are not well drawn. They are superficial and uninteresting. Relationships are stereotyped, sentimental and gushing.

Much of the story is unrealistic and impractical and there are so many questions that the narrative just does not answer or address in any satisfactory way. For example how does the creature travel from Geneva to Scotland? How does it learn to speak, read or write so eloquently? There are many questions.

And yet what perhaps is the most successful feature of the novel are the moral and philosophical themes and issues it raises. For example, the novel asks, what is it to be human? It also discusses our responsibilities in science. And Frankenstein raises lots of issues around, parenting, paternity, individual identity, developments in artificial intelligence and genetic technologies.

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