Thursday, 6 November 2014

'Frankenstein' by Mary Shelley (1818)

Synopsis: On a freezing cold morning, a man called Victor Frankenstein is rescued by a ship on an Arctic expedition after being found wandering across the polar ice caps. Victor is starved and half-frozen. As Victor slowly recovers he begins to tell the ship's captain Robert Walton his life story. Walton then relates Victor's story in letters to his sister Margaret... Victor Frankenstein is born into a wealthy family from Geneva. Victor forms an intense passion for science from a very young age. Victor then leaves home to study at the University of Ingolstadt and soon excels. He throws himself into his research and within two years is able to construct a new creature out of the body parts of stolen corpses. He then brings it to life. However, the creature is hideously ugly and Victor is repulsed by it. He abandons the creature and has a nervous breakdown. Victor is then very ill for several months while his best friend Henry Clerval nurses him back to health. The murder of Victor's little brother William prompts him to come back home. To his horror, Victor discovers that the creature is the murderer and that the creature is now demanding a mate. Victor reluctantly agrees to grant the creature's request but the hatred between them - caused by Victor's abandonment and the creature's bitterness - leads to further tragedy.

This is going to be one of the hardest reviews that I've had to write. I read Frankenstein for the first time when I was 18 during my first semester at university. Despite the best efforts of my seminar tutor the book bored me to tears and I couldn't connect with it at all. I found Mary Shelley's writing dry and over-descriptive, I despised Victor, I didn't have very much sympathy for the Creature, and some of the plot-points in the novel seemed downright silly to me. But over the past year I've been wanting to re-read the book because of the 2011 National Theatre stage adaptation of the book. I managed to watch last year when one of its filmed performances was re-shown at my local cinema.

The National Theatre production was written by Nick Dear, directed by Danny Boyle, and it starred Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller. Cumberbatch and Miller alternated the roles of Victor Frankenstein and the Creature every other night and would both go on to win a joint Olivier Award. Even though I'd spent years disliking the book I'd heard such great things about the play. That and the fact that I'm a fan of both Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller - especially Benedict! :D - made me pretty curious to see it. The version I saw had Cumberbatch as the Creature and Miller as Victor Frankenstein. I thought I might enjoy the play but I wasn't expecting to love it as much as I did! I was mesmerised by it. I found it far more compelling, fascinating and suspenseful than the book. The plot-points that I had an issue with in Shelley's novel were removed or changed. And I was far more moved by the play. I had far more sympathy for the Creature this time around and I even sympathised with Victor a little bit more! I loved the National Theatre production so much that I went back and watched the version with Miller as the Creature and Cumberbatch as Victor a few weeks later. And this Halloween they showed the version with Cumberbatch as the Creature again so I went back and watched that again too. If they carry on showing the play every year then Frankenstein might become an annual Halloween tradition for me! :)

I love this gif!

I re-read Shelley's novel again a few days ago and I had a different reaction to it. I haven't fallen in love with the book by any means and I actually prefer the National Theatre production. I still think that the book is flawed and I still think that the 18 year old me's reaction to the book was valid. Those silly plot-points still bother me. I'm perfectly willing to accept the fantastical premise of the book - that a man can create another creature and bring it to life - but there are still certain things in it that really push my ability to suspend disbelief! I still think that the Creature learning perfect, fluent French by hiding in a shack owned by the De Lacey family and spying on them is ridiculous! There's also the fact that Victor accidentally ends up sailing from the Orkney Islands all the way over to Ireland and discovers that the Creature went to Perth, kidnapped Henry, took him over to Ireland and killed him! But how on earth did the Creature guess that Victor would end up in Ireland?! And how did he manage to do all of those things by the time Victor got there?! The Creature only left the night before Victor did! In the National Theatre production De Lacey discovers the Creature's existence very early on and explicitly teaches him how to speak and read, which is much more believable, and the Ireland section of the book is completely left out.

After some thought I've decided to give Frankenstein a 3.5/5 3/5 rating. Eight years ago I would have probably given the book a 1.5/5 or a 1/5 rating. The plot-points that I've mentioned still annoyed me but my experience with Frankenstein was a lot more positive this time around. It helped massively that I love the National Theatre adaptation and that I was reading the book out of choice. I definitely got more out of the book this time around. The premise of the book is fascinatingly dark and thought-provoking. This book isn't just a gothic-horror novel and a tragedy; it's widely considered to be the world's first ever sci-fi novel. I found Mary Shelley's writing far more engaging during this re-read. The book is a bit draggy at times and Shelley's writing lacks the polish of Jane Austen's, but nevertheless I loved her descriptions of the Swiss Alps and there are some truly beautiful and emotional pieces of writing in her book. I found the characters in Frankenstein more engaging and interesting too. Well, not Henry or Elizabeth since they're essentially plot devices but Victor and the Creature - yes. I don't think anyone could say that Victor Frankenstein isn't a pretty horrible person. He's egocentric, selfish, immoral, irresponsible, histrionic, whiny, cowardly and weak. He decides to create a life just to see if he can. He's then incredibly cruel and callous towards the Creature and just because he's ugly. Victor! You stitched him together from the body parts of stolen corpses! What did you expect?! And Victor's reaction to Justine's execution is just awful:

The poor victim, who on the morrow was to pass the awful boundary between life and death, felt not as I did, such deep and bitter agony.

Oh, yes! Justine, who is about to be executed for a crime she didn't commit, isn't suffering nearly as much as Victor is apparently! Victor doesn't really learn his lesson by the end either. Right up until the end it's very clear that he still sees himself as being the victim of the situation when really he's just as much to blame for everything that's happened in the book as the Creature is, if not more so. Victor acknowledges that he created the Creature but he completely fails to understand that it was due to his lack of compassion that the Creature turned out the way he did. But, in spite of my dislike of Victor, I couldn't help but pity him. It's truly tragic that he loses his brother, friend and wife. He also recognises that Robert is on a similar destructive path to himself and is able to help him. But it's the Creature who is by far the most sympathetic character in the book. Victor creates him essentially on a whim, is repulsed and disgusted by him, and then leaves him to die. The Creature is then forced to fend for himself and discovers that everyone fears and hates him because of his appearance. This then turns him bitter and murderous. It's so sad! As much as I was appalled by some of the Creature's actions it's not as if anyone taught him differently. His character is very similar to The Phantom of the Opera in this respect. I truly felt for the Creature and I wanted him to be redeemed and to find peace. Interestingly enough the Creature expresses true remorse for his actions at the end whereas Victor doesn't. This again reinforces my view that the Creature is by far the more sympathetic character of the two.

Many people have interpreted Frankenstein as being Mary Shelley's warning to scientists and the pioneers of the Industrial Revolution; a reminder that they're not God and that they shouldn't take on things that they can't handle. I wouldn't necessarily dispute this interpretation of the book but it seems to me that Victor is more to blame for his lack of Godly compassion and love for the Creature than in anything else. But that's just my interpretation of the book.

Rating: 3/5

P.S. It's interesting that there are so many upcoming Frankenstein adaptations in the works! There's the Big Finish audio drama with Arthur Darvill, Nicholas Briggs and Georgia Moffett that's just been released and there's an upcoming modern-day ITV series which will be starring Sean Bean. The adaptation that I'm most interested in is the upcoming 2015 film which is starring James McAvoy, Daniel Radcliffe and Jessica Brown-Findlay. Sherlock fans should be interested in this one because Mark Gatiss, Andrew Scott and Louise Brealey will all be making appearances in it :) There's also going to be a biopic about how Frankenstein came to be written with Sophie Turner and Jeremy Irvine playing Mary and P.B. Shelley. Why are all those adaptations coming around now I wonder?  


samara said...

Ah! Must be due to Halloween - but your my 2nd friend to have read/reviewed Frankenstein this week.

I had a very similar experience my first time reading Frankenstein. Honestly, most of the prose is atrocious. And I second the rest of your objections too. I also read it for class, and once we got into it, I learned to appreciate (though not enjoy) the book. I agree with the scientific reading your mention, but was also very impressed with readings based on race (Victor's rejection of the creature based solely on his physical appearance) and gender (the fact that every flipping female dies and that Victor could have "created" life normally, but he wanted to be able to sustain life without needing women - a sexist's utopia). Anyway, those made me tip my hat to Shelley... even if the prose of her 18-year-old self is so awful.

Now, have you been watching Frankenstein, MD? It's a very fascinating retelling and I'd love to hear your thoughts!!

Hannah said...

I watched the early episodes of Frankenstein MD and I found it quite painful. I felt like I was watching an unfunny, cheesy sitcom and there are few things that I find more excruciating than unfunny sitcoms. I can understand them wanting to inject some humour into the story but - the humour wasn't funny! And the acting seemed far weaker to me than the LBD and EA. I thought one or two of the actors were very wooden. I wasn't impressed. But I'm looking forward to the 2015 film and the Shelley biopic. I love Sophie Turner and Jeremy Irvine.

Back to your original point. I honestly don't think the writing in Frankenstein is atrocious. Oh I definitely think that Shelley's writing is rough and stilted in places and that there are times when you can see her age coming through in her writing. But there are some moments of genuine beauty and power in her prose. I don't *love* the writing in the book but I don't mind it.