In recognition of good blogging practice, allow me to start by giving you a SPOILER ALERT. Though frankly (that’s almost a pun) I’m about to tell you all you really need to know about this book and thus few, if any of you, will actually read it. Besides, I’m confident it likely wasn’t on anyone’s “must read” lists. Frankenstein isn’t exactly the toast of literary gossip circles these days.
Oh. Yes, Frankenstein really is a book.
Yes, really. And a rather famous book in fact what with it creating the myth of, uh, Frankenstein and all.
I am serious.
No worries. I wouldn’t recommend you read it either.
Hopefully that wasn’t too facetious. It’s quite possible a great many more people than I recognize know Frankenstein was originally a book. But even if that is the case, I’m quite confident they haven’t a clue as to what Frankenstein, the book, is actually like or about. I’m still stunned by the reality myself. So allow me now, under the assumption you’ll never read the book yourself, to stun you with information that very well could ruin Halloween. Worry not, for in return I will save you hours of boredom.
Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus (that’s the original title created, I suspect, before publishers had marketing departments) by Mary Shelley is an old book; much older than I would have guessed. It’s a 200 year old book in fact, which makes it perfect fodder for two of my passions.
First, being 200 years old puts this book squarely into the public domain which means it is free in e-book format and readily available thanks to Project Gutenberg. This made it ideal test subject for our new e-reader we recently purchased with some gift money.
Second, it’s a classic and classics (books or film) are things I’m a bit curious about these days, especially famous or infamous classics which I know little or nothing about. I like to watch or read these works of art to discover what all the fuss and fame is about. ‘Deliverance’ is an excellent example. I never had the foggiest clue why everyone would laugh (nervously) when somebody would say “come here boy” or something similar and then start squealing like a pig. An awkward pop culture reference not to understand but now having seen this classic movie I’m comfortable laughing like the rest of you while simultaneously clenching my ass cheeks for dear life. Frankenstein held potential for a similar reckoning.
Now before I get into the juicy bits, let me just say unequivocally that Frankenstein is a boring book. Church sermon boring. Hung-over and watching congressional hearings boring. Waiting for the cable repairman to show up three hours late boring. If I hadn’t been so intent on learning the fate of the monster out of shear morbid curiosity I would have deleted the book from my e-reader with a 10lb sledgehammer after about 100 pages. I realize that it’s an old book from a time period very different from my own. Literature was different then. Writing styles were different then. The audience was different then. Science was different then. The world, frankly, was very different then. All that is true and as fascinating as that may be for oh, about twenty-two pages, it’s still a boring book.
The book is written in epistolary form (yes, a fancy new word I learned that online, thank you Wikipedia). This means the book is written as a series of documents, in this case (and most commonly) letters from an explorer to his sister. This explorer, Cpt. Walton, discovers Dr. Frankenstein nearly dead in the arctic. The novel then reverts to Dr. Frankenstein’s long narrative of his life story, basically. Next the monster takes a turn telling his life story before the book concludes with a final narrative from Cpt. Walton. The book is almost entirely narrative with barely any dialogue or whatever the stuff that usually makes a book more than just a character droning on for pages about their life (I don’t know what word is for that yet so hopefully my inadequate description will get the point across albeit meagrely).
I’ve read a few books from the 19th century and this seems to be a common failing of literature during this time period. So perhaps I’m being unfair to Frankenstein by declaring it boring in the context of my modern expectations. I suppose in a time with no television or even radio, let alone the miniscule attention span modern technologies induce, this type of endless descriptive narrative was exciting. Today, though, it’s just boring. I can only imagine the sadism relished by any teacher choosing this for high school English class studies. Having said that, I’m actually surprised some of my old English teachers didn’t do just that!
My point is I just didn’t find Frankenstein to be a very enjoyable read which explains it taking me many weeks to actually finish reading, something that rarely happens with an entertaining piece of literature, regardless the length.
There was one aspect of this book, however, that engulfed my fascination. I am amazed how our modern, pop culture depiction of Frankenstein is so utterly off the mark from what is portrayed in the original book; the book that actually invented Frankenstein. Admittedly, aside from Halloween, my only familiarity with Frankenstein comes via the brilliant comedy Young Frankenstein. So though my sample size is woefully limited, I think it’s safe to say that the universal modern depiction of Frankenstein (particularly the monster) has very little to do with Mary Shelley’s book. What we think of as Frankenstein is almost exclusively derived from the 1931 film starring Boris Karloff as the monster.
I’m sure by now most people know that Frankenstein is actually the name of the creator of the monster, not the monster itself. The monster has no name in the book. This is fairly common knowledge I think. The book also has no Igor character nor does Dr. Frankenstein have any assistance whatsoever. One of the plot devices in the book is the monster demanding Frankenstein create him a wife since he’s the only one of his kind. This is mildly interesting in that the idea of a ‘bride of Frankenstein’ which I assumed was entirely a creation of Hollywood sequel gurus, ironically, has provenance in the book though she is never actually created.
Far more fascinating to me is the actual creation of the monster by Dr. Frankenstein. We’re all familiar with this visually dramatic scene with the mad Dr. Frankenstein animating the lifeless amalgamation of dead humanity with a lightning bolt hitting some massive creation atop a castle funnelling down oversized electrical equipment into a dungeon laboratory. This never occurs in the book or anything remotely like it. There is a brief nod to the power of electrical storms that insinuates an inspiration for the vague science behind the creation scene but we never really find out how life is bestowed upon the monster.
Furthermore, and this really blew my mind, the entire life-giving moment occurs in a sterile, short paragraph a quarter of the way through the book. It’s almost an afterthought. Then, somewhat shockingly, the good Doctor is immediately disgusted with what he has done and proceeds to banish the monster from his presence. The monster, being a good listener I suppose, does just as he’s told and disappears completely from the story for the next hundred and some odd pages. The entirety of our modern Frankenstein legend occurs in the span of a few paragraphs of little consequence in the first third of the book.
I realize Hollywood has a knack for bastardizing books and no doubt this habit has a long, festering history in cinema but I never imagined it would be taken to such extremes as it was with Frankenstein. But then to have this preposterous extrapolation of a monster translate into one of the most visually recognizable and beloved horror icons of Halloween fascinates me to no end.
Speaking of visual recognition, this is another aspect of Frankenstein that pop culture has significantly altered from the original. Admittedly, there was lots of room for creative licence since the description of the monster in the book is quite limited. The monster is described many times as simply a very large and extremely ugly man who is much stronger and more nimble than a regular man. That’s about it, though. The green skin and bolts in the neck and flat top head and lumbering gate is all fabrication. In fact, as the book nears a climax, we get one speck of detailed description of the monster as Cpt. Walton, upon finally meeting the monster, exclaims that the monster’s “face was concealed by long locks of ragged hair”.
But perhaps the most shocking discovery from the book is the knowledge that the monster is actually literate; impressively so. Yes, the monster was unable to communicate or understand much immediately after his creation much as we’ve long believed. However, this illiterate and dumb state was brief and is only mentioned by the monster himself as a brief period of frustration in his past. In fact, he suggests that he was entirely intelligent during this time just unable to articulate what he saw and heard much due to a lack of language and previous experience. A super baby, I guess.
The monster overcomes his illiteracy and ignorance becoming quite articulate and educated. This is the monster portrayed throughout the book, an intelligent, feeling, expressive creature surely destined to captain the Oxford Union debate team had the good doctor not been so quick to reject his creation. Hardly the grunting giant we’ve seen portrayed over and over. And this is where the book gets rather comical in my opinion; he did this all by himself by watching a family who was teaching a French girl how to speak German. He watched them from a room attached to their small dwelling which these people apparently never entered and never heard any noise emanating from despite the presence of a giant, ugly man-beast living in it for almost a year. Suspension of belief is ever so vital to horror stories but that requires full psychic levitation.
Between those bits of intrigue there is lots of lament and despair for the Doctor and sadness and death and kind of a love story and when you’re all done none of it seemed very exciting at all. Now that I’ve shared it with you, you’ll have no need to read the book yourself since, as I mentioned, it’s boring. Mind you, insomnia might find it an insurmountable opponent in which case you might wish to have a copy of Frankenstein by Mary Shelley handy. Good thing it’s free. But if you take nothing else from this bloated review, just remember the next time you see a “Frankenstein” costume or decoration or a Munsters rerun or an old Karloff movie that what you’re seeing is not the real Frankenstein monster. Not even close. That and watch Young Frankenstein; great movie.