Happy October! Halloween is my favorite holiday (hands down), and in my house, the entire month of October is dedicated to the big day. So it goes without saying that my book choice would reflect my love for Halloween! This week’s book was a classic horror novel that has inspired multiple movies and thousands of nightmares – Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.
I’ll be honest, I was not expecting the story I read!! I’ve only ever seen the movie (the 1931 classic) and let me tell you – Shelley’s story is completely different. Shelley’s novel is told through the point of view of three men – a sea captain, Victor Frankenstein, and the creature. The sea captain, traveling through the arctic, stumbles upon a freezing and starving Frankenstein, and listens to the terrific story Frankenstein tells him – one of creation, destruction, love and horror. Frankenstein tells of his upbringing – the eldest son in a happy household, Frankenstein is deeply struck by the death of his mother. His passion for science becomes more and more inspired as he grows older, and Frankenstein eventually moves away from home to pursue his studies. Frankenstein goes on the mad mission of creating life – something he succeeds at. His success, however, is muddled by the horrors the creature causes in his life, and Frankenstein’s greatest achievement becomes his downfall.
The most shocking part of the story is the creature – Frankenstein’s monster. Shelley’s character is like a baby born into a grown body, and develops through his “infancy” and “adolescence” without the guidance of a parent. This, coupled with his frightening appearance, causes the creature to receive the worst of human traits, and contributes to him being angry at the world – especially his creator. The creature looks to Frankenstein to help him in his solitude, but Frankenstein sees only a monster needing destruction. The creature, embittered by his mistreatment by the one person who should love him, returns the favor and destroys Frankenstein’s life from the inside out.
Shelley’s story is filled with classic Romantic Era themes – the importance of childhood (both Frankenstein’s and his creature’s), man’s struggle with God (seen in Frankenstein seeking to become “Creator”), man’s constant struggle with self (seen in both characters’ desires to change themselves), and the everlasting debate between science and nature. Frankenstein shows the innate struggle between man trying to overcome Nature, while at the same time relying on Nature for solace. Frankenstein seeks to overcome Nature and God by creating life, and creates something completely unnatural. Yet, whenever Frankenstein needs to seek some kind of happiness, he looks to Nature as a way of healing his broken soul. One of my favorite passages in the novel was when Frankenstein is recovering after being rescued by the sea captain, and the captain observes
Even broken in spirit as he is, no one can feel more deeply than he does the beauties of nature. The starry sky, the sea, and every sight afforded by these wonderful regions, seems still to have the power of elevating his soul from earth. Such a man has a double existence: he may suffer misery, and be overwhelmed by disappointments; yet when he has retired into himself, he will be like a celestial spirit, that has a halo around him, within whose circle no grief or folly ventures” (Mary Shelley, Frankenstein)
The real theme in the story, however, is the true nature of man – every man can be a monster. While learning the history of Europe, the creature learns of the crimes of humanity. Having struggled with his identity and definition, the creature realizes that all men are monsters, and so aptly sums it up, saying
Was man, indeed, at once so powerful, so virtuous, and magnificent, yet so vicious and base? (Mary Shelley, Frankenstein)
This felt to me a true turning point. Shelley recognizes the duality of man, and comments on how all men have the capacity to be a monster. The monster was defined as such because of the way he looked, when in reality he was innocent of any crimes. By identifying himself as other men would identify him – as a monster – his belief becomes a self fulfilling prophesy, and the creature fills his role as a monster.
I found Shelley’s story insightful and terrifying – but not because of the creature. Shelley’s commentary on the true nature of mankind was very realistic and very disheartening. We define ourselves and others based of their appearance – fat, thin, beautiful, ugly, black, white, or “monster” – but do not look truthfully at ourselves. The truth of the story, of course, is that Frankenstein was the monster, while his creature was simply the unfortunate byproduct of Frankenstein’s hubris (overwhelming pride). Frankenstein is the classic “tragic hero” – exalted by his abilities, and destructed by his pride.
I greatly enjoyed Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and I think it was an excellent choice to kick off our Halloween Theme for October reading! I hope you’ll consider picking it up during the month to get into the Halloween theme. Now it’s time to find what movie adaptation that Shelley would recognize!