Review: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is definitely and interesting read, especially considering that it was dreamt up by an eighteen-year-old Shelley after listening to a rigorous debate about moldy cheese between her husband and colleague Lord Byron. Hitherto, the three of them, plus a fourth member, were engaged in a ghost story competition and Shelley had been battling for an original idea. So, moldy cheese, no matter how commonplace, impregnated her thoughts, incubated in her brain, and she birthed it onto paper.

Frankenstein, as a novel, is good but verbose. The first half is marred by slow moving characters and the passing of epistles as if it is a less-exciting Remains of the Day. I enjoy Gothic novels and expect slow builds to supreme horror, but outside of a few gruesome depictions of the creature’s disgustingly deformed body, it rarely thrilled me.

Nevertheless, the second half of the book is an extraordinary read wherein the creature tells Victor of his travels, his whereabouts for the years after he disappeared from the laboratory, and his education while living like a squatter. His exploits are thoroughly entertaining, though his entrance into a more permanent hovel makes for a cumbersome piece of reading three-fourths of the way through the novel.

Here we listen to beatific tales of banality, such as collecting wood, bearing witness to complaints, listening to guitar, learning to talk, and feeling sad. It’s as though Frankenstein drifted from a Gothic horror novel into an episode of Little House on the Prairie. There are even a few parts where it seems the creature is saying, “Let me tell you more about this one thing I’m sure you don’t care about …” The reader hears Victor yawn as he realizes his creation is kind of boring.

Likewise, Shelley is obsessed with the word countenance. At first I thought it was a Gothic theme as it makes multiple appearances in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and has made an appearance or two in the works of H. P. Lovecraft, but as I read I realized she was obsessed with faces. In fact, there is a point where the word physiognomy is brought up—physiognomy is the study of faces. Mind you, I have an edition that has the author’s revisions, but countenance is the most referenced thing … even more than the creature.

 "Physiognomy" by Tom Ordelman (User:Thor_NL) - Own reproduction. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons -

“Physiognomy” by Tom Ordelman. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Regardless, there is insight into civilization and fears in the 1800s, like the ignorance the creature faces at the hands of a town mob, to the fears outsiders had of marrying people from other cultures. Too, you get an idea of the kind of people inside of Mary Shelley’s world. There are doubters and there are believers. These two archetypes range from the shrewd professor M. Krempe who doesn’t believe a word of the archaic works of Victor’s scientific mentor Albertus Magnus, to Victor himself who knows the creature he has created has become a menace.

Frankenstein is worth the effort but don’t be afraid to speed read. You’ll get all the information and only half the countenance.