Bookish Discussions · Reviews

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein


Rating: 4 out of 5 stars | Read: backend of 2014.

For the past week I’ve been celebrating the bicentenary of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. On Monday, I uploaded a review on her mother’s novel, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman; and on Wednesday, I uploaded a review on Shelley’s novella, Matilda. Definitely check those out if you’re interested in a run-down of their work and my thoughts on them. In today’s post, I’ll be discussing the start of the week: Frankenstein.

Mary Shelley was eighteen years old when she basically created science-fiction. If that’s not enough to make you want to read this book, then you’re hopeless. It’s so weird to think that over two hundred years ago, Lord Byron, John Polidori, Mary and Percy Shelley were all sat together in the Villa Diodati. The stormy weather beat against the villa, sparking a competition to compose the best horror story. We fast forward two hundred years and not only is Frankenstein an honoured piece of English Literature, but it is the only story out of the bunch to become canonised (but two of them were esteemed poets and the other a failed writer turned doctor, so it’s unsurprising their prose flopped – I’ve read Polidori’s ‘Vampyre’ and I wouldn’t recommend).

Shelley’s Frankenstein was one of the very first pieces of nineteenth century literature I ever read. It was back in 2014; I was assigned a piece of coursework on the portrayals of women in the text. I remember hating every second of it. I didn’t understand the language, the plot dragged, and the characters were detestable. However, my feelings on the novel have transformed into the complete opposite over the past three years. If you ask me now, I’d tell you that it’s a remarkable piece of English literature, interweaved with a range of themes and anxieties of the early nineteenth century. As it’s been so long since I last read the book, I find reviewing it an impossible task. Therefore, this post will be more of a discussion. I want to address some of the things that continue to fascinate me about Frankenstein today.

Firstly, the parallels with Christianity. In sixth form, I was really interested in religion (I mean, I put myself through hell studying it at A-level, and even contemplated taking it at university), so I enjoyed highlighting the parallels between Frankenstein and Paradise Lost. Frankenstein is very much the creator in the story; not only did he birth the story (he tells it to Captain Walton who, in turn, tells it to his sister and therefore us), but he creates life through the Monster. Shelley even refers to the Monster as Adam at one point, thus furthering this notion that Frankenstein is a God-like character. Moreover, we see the creator cast off his creation when they are no longer perfect; God discards Adam when he falls from grace, and Frankenstein’s repulsion of the Monster subsequently leads to his abandonment. Honestly, you could do an entire thesis dedicated to a religious reading of this text, and you’d still have a tone of things to say. The novel is so rich with this kind of discourse, and it still utterly fascinates me.

Unsurprisingly, another aspect I love about Frankenstein is the Romantic elements. As someone married to an esteemed Romantic poet, and who often references Coleridge’s ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’, Mary Shelley is very much immersed in this culture. If you’re unfamiliar with Romanticism, it’s a movement spanning from 1789 (the beginning of the French Revolution) to 1832 (the year of the Reformation). It emphasised the emotion, subjectivity and individualism of the person. There was a need to return to Nature, which is prevalent in the novel. The most obvious example of this is Victor’s retreat to the Alps just after William and Justine’s death. The mountains replenish and refine Victor; Nature consoles him through the worse of times. In this sense, Frankenstein relies on Nature to guide the plot along. As someone who loves Nature, I really enjoyed this exploration. Also, Shelley writes so beautifully about it, so how can you not love it?

Another thing I wanted to touch on was the passivity or lack of women. It is true that every woman is either brutually murdered or just absent from the narration. A lot of critics have an issue with this, and I have no doubt it’ll be something you pick up on whilst reading. After all, Shelley was the daughter of an vocal feminist. However, I think this is fundamental to the story; Shelley purposely orchestrated it this way. The lack of mothers, for example, could reflect her own life; Mary Wollstonecraft died shortly after giving birth to Shelley, meaning she grew up motherless. Additionally, there are a number of explanations for the passivity of women: A) to mirror early nineteenth century gender dynamics, B) by dimming down all other characters Shelley can hone in on Victor and the Monster, or C) to teach all male characters a lesson. I do not excuse this, but Shelley purposely did this, and how you read it is entirely your own decision.

So, these were just some brief points I wanted to discuss in relation to the novel. These are the sections of the novel that stood out to me, and continue to do so today. Frankenstein is a remarkable novel; one worthy of its canonisation. Once you get past the framed narration, the detestable characters and the injustice against women, you have yourself a brilliant book (easier said than done?).

Have you read it? What do you think of it?

Thanks for reading, Lauren


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