Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
Do you have those books which make you think ‘why have I not read this before’? Sometimes I can’t quite believe that it has taken me until now to get round to reading Frankenstein: it is such a cultural phenomenon, written by an incredibly influential female writer, that I surely should have picked it up years ago. However, it was only a few weeks ago that I found myself sitting down to read this important and radical novel. Unsurprisingly, I found it an engaging, narratively fascinating novel which asked big questions about what it means to be human, and which I very much enjoyed getting to grips with.
Above everything, Frankenstein is a well-written novel which builds tension well and creates inherently engaging characters. I was impressed with the way in which Shelley is able to create flawed characters which, despite the brief time spent with each, the reader truly cares about and is moved by their fates. The deaths throughout the novel serve to explain Victor’s guilt over what he has created, but they also maintain the emotional engagement of the reader, ensuring an atmosphere in which no character is truly safe. From Victor, to the monster, to Henry Clerval, to Elizabeth, each of the characters within the primary narrative brings something unique to the story, providing Shelley with a broad range of worldviews from within one small community.
This diversity of characters is seen on a wider narrative scale through the many different ‘I’s Shelley explores in the novel. Perhaps the most intriguing part of Frankenstein, for me, was the narrative structuring which essentially presents a story-within-a-story-within-a-story. Victor Frankenstein is the eponymous character, and he is undeniably the protagonist of the novel. Yet the novel does not start or end with his tale, with Shelley instead using the framing narrative of Walton’s letter to introduce the broken Victor as he chases down his monster. Not only does this allow the reader to see the resolution of the Victor’s story (although, interestingly, not Walton’s himself), but it gives an alternate, outside perspective on the story from a character who is in a similar position of knowledge to the reader.
The monster’s narrative is similarly important, although for more thematic reasons. Throughout Frankenstein, there is an interesting ongoing discussion about what it truly means to be human. What, exactly, makes Frankenstein himself more human than the monster he created? It is in the monster’s tale that this discussion takes centre stage, as the monster spies on a human family and tries to understand how he would fit into this world he now inhabits. Through this narrative, Shelley particularly identifies one aspect she implies is key to understanding humanity: companionship. The monster’s big desire is to have someone who is like him, a companion who doesn’t fear him the way that humans do; this desire is developed through the family he watches as he seems them interact with each other and longs for the same in his own life. When Frankenstein refuses to make a companion, the monster responds by taking this aspect of humanity away from him, one ‘companion’ at a time until Frankenstein becomes the lone figure the reader encounters at the start of the novel.
This was definitely a novel which was worth reading: I still can’t quite believe it took me so long to get round to doing so. There may not be many people reading this who haven’t at least had to study Frankenstein during their school career, but, on the off chance that there is anyone reading who hasn’t read this yet, I would definitely recommend it. This is an engaging novel which asks big questions about the very nature of humanity, and I can definitely see why it has had such a large cultural impact. I also can’t believe that Shelley was only 20 when it was published, but that’s another point entirely.