Greetings, and welcome to another installment of Caroline’s Book Crypt! This time I have taken on another gothic classic: Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus by Mary Shelley. It was published in 1818, almost 80 years before Dracula - and even more remarkable, by a 20 year old woman! So first I want to briefly talk about Mary Shelley’s life.
“Beware; for I am fearless, and therefore powerful.”
Mary was born on August 30th, 1797 to William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft, who died soon after giving birth. You may know her as a feminist, writer, and philosopher. In 1812, Mary met Percy Bysshe Shelley, and two years later she ran off with him, even though he was already married. It is said she lost her virginity to him in a cemetery, and in 1815 she aveg birth to a daughter who sadly died less than two weeks later - but she gave birth to their son William the next year. That same year they traveled to Geneva where she started writing Frankenstein, and they were married after Percy’s wife commited suicide. Mary gave birth to their daughter Clara in 1817, who died after Frankenstein was published. In 1819 William died, and their only surviving child, Percy Florence, was born. In 1822 Mary suffered a miscarriage, and Percy drowned. Mary kept Percy’s calcified heart close to her until her death. I can’t believe how much suffering this girl had to take, and at such a young age! She died relatively young too, at only 53.
How Frankenstein came about is a pretty cool and famous story. Mary, Percy, baby William, and Mary’s step-sister Claire traveled to Switzerland. Claire had become pregnant after an affair with Lord Byron, so they wanted to persuade him to support the child. During the stormy and overcast summer of 1816 they (joined by Byron’s doctor John Polidori) spent many nights discussing science and the supernatural. They challenged each other to write a ghost story, and a few days later Mary had the dream that sparked life into her now famous novel.
Boris Karloff as the creature in Universal’s Frankenstein (1931)
Frankenstein is mainly known through the countless screen adaptions and characters inspired by the novel. So much so that people think that Frankenstein is the name of the creature!
The very first movie was already released in 1910, a 16-minute silent movie. Then in 1931 we got the famous Universal movie starring Boris Karloff - along with Bride of Frankenstein and other movies. Hammer Horror also jumped on the trend in 1957 by releasing The Curse Of Frankenstein and six(!) other movies. I’m not gonna list every movie the creature has appeared in, but some notable works that took inspiration are The Munsters (1964) - Herman Munster is obviously modeled after the Universal monster. The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1973) uses the name Dr. Frank-N-Furter for Tim Curry’s character who in a similar way creates a man. Frankenweenie (1984, remade in 2012), a short film by Tim Burton is heavily inspired by the classic story, except it’s about a boy’s dog. Then we have the TV show Penny Dreadful (2014), which is my favorite adaption of the creature. He is shown as a sympathetic and romantic creature, and not just a violent murderer, so it stays more true to the novel.
What people might not know is that Frankenstein actually consists of letters, from polar explorer Robert Walton to his sister Margaret Walton Saville - notice her initials match the author's. When you get into the book, you completely forget this is a letter Margaret received from her brother, who heard the story from Victor Frankenstein - plus what the creature told him, and even more letters. Another thing that people who haven’t read it don’t know is that there is no big creation scene like in the movies. Mary rather describes Frankenstein’s feelings rather than the storm, all the equipment and ‘‘IT’S ALIVE, IT’S ALIVE!’’ - And the creature isn’t this moaning, grumbling creature like he is depicted in movies. He is incredibly intelligent and learns very fast by experimenting, observing, and reading books. He hates that he is so ugly, and he just wants to be loved. This is why I love the book so much, because we people who feel different can relate to him. Also, while I have not read the original 1818 version, in the revised 1831 edition she added a lot more about Frankenstein’s childhood, and focuses on bad parenting - not just Victor’s own parents, but also his ‘‘parenting’’ of his creation. There are many other things you could take from this novel; it’s arguably the first science fiction novel, you can look at it from a feminist point of view, and even find links to homosexuality.
Ok, so let’s get into the story! As I said, it starts off with some letters from Robert to his sister, with some backstory about him going to the North Pole. One day his ship gets stuck in the ice, and that’s when they actually see the creature far away on a dog sled. The ship breaks free from the ice, but they stay put until the next morning, when they meet Victor Frankenstein, who is in terrible condition. Robert nurses him back to health, and they become friends - Victor then tells him his story. About his parents, his childhood, and his mother’s death before he moves from Geneva to Ingolstadt to study.
It’s there Victor creates his creature. He collects beautiful body parts, but is repulsed when he sees the 8 feet tall creature with yellow skin barely covering the muscles and arteries come to life - and runs away. By chance he meets his childhood friend Henry on the street, and takes him back to his apartment - luckily the creature has escaped, but he still falls into a nervous fever. After he recovers, he receives a letter from his father telling him that his brother William has been murdered. Victor immediately travels back to Geneva, and on the way he sees the creature, and as you might have guessed, he’s the one responsible. But when Victor arrives home, he hears that their servant Justine is accused of the murder. As the truth is so horrible and unbelievable, he can’t rescue her from being hanged.
Victor goes up in the mountains, and there he meets the creature, and he tells Victor his story. How afraid and hateful people were because of how he looked, how he learned the basics of life, and learning to speak and read french by observing a family. Since the patriarch of the family was blind, he was able to talk to him for a little while without being judged, but when the others came home, they saw him and freaked out. He commands Victor to make him a mate, which Victor definitely doesn’t want to do, but the creature says he will kill all of Victor’s loved ones if he doesn’t, so Victor agrees.
Illustration from the 1831 edition by Theodor von Holst
Victor is to be married to Elizabeth, his ‘‘cousin’’ (his adopted sister), but first he wants to travel to England, and takes his friend Henry with him. They end up traveling to Scotland, and separate there, and Victor starts working on the female creature. He thinks about all the horrible things that could happen, and when he sees the creature watching through a window (as usual, he has followed him), he destroys her. The creature is enraged and says ‘‘I will be with you on your wedding night’’. Victor plans to meet up with Henry again, but when he lands in Ireland, he is believed to be a murderer - he gets to see the body, and it turns out to be Henry, obviously killed by the creature. Victor has a mental breakdown, and later his father shows up, and eventually takes him home so he can marry Elizabeth.
On their wedding night, the creature keeps his promise and kills Elizabeth (though Victor thought HE was the one to be killed) and escapes. Victor’s father dies a few days later, I guess by heartbreak and age. Victor then sets off to follow the creature, ending up at the North Pole.
At the end of the book we’re back to Captain Robert Walton’s letters to his sister (yeah, remember that?). Victor dies, and Walton discovers the creature on the ship, standing over Victor’s body. They talk a little, and the creature says he is going to kill himself. He jumps out of the window and lands on an ice-raft, and is soon carried away into the distance.
This book is beautifully written, and Mary Shelley put it together really well. I find it a pretty easy read, at least compared to other literature from that century. I don’t know if everyone will agree with that, cause I’m very used to reading books from that time. There is a lot of drama and despair, but that’s just how gothic literature is. This might have a little more, cause it was written by a woman who had experienced so much death in her life, just like Victor. I actually love it even more than Dracula, even though I’ve read that more times than this! It’s even more impressive that this came out SO long before, and by a young woman! So if you still haven’t read this, I definitely think you should. None of the screen adaptions come close to it, maybe except for Penny Dreadful - So if you liked that, you’ll love this! Definitely 5 coffins from me.
The next book I will take on is The Picture Of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde. We just read that in the book club in Gothy Discord, as well as saw the 1973 movie, so that’s pretty fitting! I won’t be reading that again this month, but feel free to do it before next time!
You can pick up a copy here.
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