Another Mini-Review: Frankenstein

Have now read 42 out of 116 of the works in the Essential Sci Fi Library as suggested by John C. Wright. Latest conquest: Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein.

frankenstein
Sometimes, things don’t go as planned. But it would be nice to at least have a plan…

Oddly, this seminal classic is way more chick book than sci fi – it must be 75% descriptions of landscapes and how people feel about things, 24% journeys and adventures, and maybe 1% science. The entire description, such as it is, of the making of the monster is about 2 pages long, with maybe another 5 devoted to the protagonist learning some science – and that’s it. Science doesn’t really figure into it otherwise. Like Star Trek’s Heisenberg Compensater, it Just Works.

There’s nothing wrong about that – Ray Bradbury wrote some classic stories similarly lean on science. And it is an amazing outpouring of creative genius for anyone, let alone someone 18 years old, to come up with the idea of a non-magical man-made monster and make a compelling story about it. So it is in many ways a commendable story, and I’m sure it was mind-blowing back in the early 1800s, when nothing like it had ever been seen before outside myth and fairy-tale. As true Sci Fi, It differs from fantasy in that, other than a world altered by science, the setting is true to life within the normal rules.

I complained earlier about the failure of Shelly to provide sufficient handwavium to account for the monster being a genius and an athletic superman, and for coming off the reanimation table totally healed so that he didn’t pop a bunch of sutures the moment he stood up, scream in agony and collapse into a pile of component parts. But these are minor complaints. Mrs Darwin points out a much more disturbing feature of the story: Frankenstein’s  near total amorality. Throughout the story, between scenes where he’s expressing florid love of his family and friends, he pretty much treats them like dirt unless he needs something from them. He’s a self-absorbed jerk, who goes away to college and can’t be bothered to write his family a letter to let them know he’s alive despite their pleading letters to him. He creates a monster, then promptly abandons it when it proves too ugly (?!). He never seems to realize he’s responsible for it and what it does – until it starts killing people. Or rather – worse – he sort of recognizes his duty, but it’s just so ugly! boo hoo hoo!

Spoilers: 

When he does run into the monster, after he has come to strongly suspect that it is responsible for at least 2 deaths, he is not prepared to either take control or kill it. Nope: long weepy discussion, and an agreement to build it the Wife of Frankenstein. Now, at least, after the monster has confessed to murder, Frankenstein must recognize his duty to subdue it or kill it – right? But no – after he agrees to create Mrs. Monster in order to spare the world the rage of Mr. Monster, he takes a scenic tour of England and Scotland via Germany, dilly-dallies for months on end, sets up a lab in Scotland and finally chickens out: what if the missus is as bad or worse than hubby? What if they decide to go on a monstrous killing spree? What it they make babies, and create a race of violent monsters? (Shelly is a proto-Lamarckian, evidently)

Why did none of these considerations occur to him during the last year or so?

Having partially assembled the next monster on a almost deserted Scottish island, Frankenstein gets cold feet. He can’t go through with it. So he lays a careful trap, and enlists the aide of 3 hunters and the police and… Nah, just kidding – in a fit of passion, he hacks up the body as the monster watches from the window.

Now the monster shifts to Plan B (the monster makes and executes solid plans; the protagonist is spun like a top by every whiff of passion, helpless against his feelings, unable to think 5 minutes ahead. Hmmm.) He will torture Frankenstein for the rest of his life, starting by slowly killing off everyone he loves.

Who could have foreseen that? Actually, anyone who read the middle chapters of the book, wherein the monster spells out his plans in great detail to Frankenstein. So, NOW, FINALLY, does Frankenstein decide to avoid all his friends and family in order to spare them while he comes up with a plan to kill the monster? Certainly, he would not just pretend nothing happened and go about his life in exquisite Romantic limp-wristed torment and just sort of hope the monster doesn’t, you know, start killing people. OK, sure, he kills his best friend next, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t go home to marry his fiance and just hope the monster doesn’t carry out his threat WHICH HE MAKES IN BOLD FACED ALL CAPS to kill her on their wedding night.

Which is exactly what he does.

The monster kills his bride on his wedding night. Frankenstein’s aged father dies of grief as a result. NOW Frankenstein decides he must kill it. NOW? Now that everyone he love is dead, murdered by the monster he made? Now? He of course fails, in a truly epic limp-wristed Romantic fashion that I’m sure is deeply meaningful.

The scary part is that all this makes perfect sense if you read about Shelly’s personal life, which I did. Infidelities leading to suicides, pregnancies resulting from affairs, families destroyed left and right, open-ish marriages, molested domestic help, fleeing to other countries to get away from creditors who seem less than completely sympathetic to the results of unbridled passions when they take the form of being a deadbeat. All the while believing that she and her crowd were somehow blazing a trail to the Future, wherein non-violent vegetarians make love, not war – over the dead bodies and ruined lives of their victims. The Shellys and their crowd did in fact creates monsters and turn them loose, and refuse to take responsibility for the results.

Sheesh.

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Author: Joseph Moore

Enough with the smarty-pants Dante quote. Just some opinionated blogger dude.

9 thoughts on “Another Mini-Review: Frankenstein”

  1. Victor Frankenstein makes drama queens seem sedate. He just feels and feels and feels until you want to shake him. I remember at one point he swears vengeance on his own feeling of grief; leave it to Frankenstein to treat his own feelings as the most sacred things he knows.

      1. That was a response to something I wrote. A more substantial answer:

        It seems to be a fairly common trend, in that I’ve seen it multiple times, including in the work of Shelley and J.J. Abrams, to create a “hero” who’s wishy-washy and indecisive but who tends to fall on the correct side of things morally and a villain with an iron-clad sense of right and wrong and clear goals and motivations.

        Even “Serenity” did this; the difference is that Joss Whedon is a good enough writer that he knew exactly what he was doing and knew that for Mal to be a hero he needed to have a clear motivation by the end of the movie – in fact, that was a major theme of the film.

        Shelley and Abrams never figured this out. They both figured that it was enough to have a bad guy do things we considered bad, and a good guy want to stop the bad guy. They never took the extra step of giving the good guy motivations that extend beyond the bad guy.

        Shelley, to her credit, gets further than Abrams does, but ultimately Frankenstein’s lack of motivation loses the book quite a bit of steam in the middle sections.

      2. It was also expanded on by cranky TRex in his analysis of the two Kirks.
        http://crankytrex.blogspot.com/2015/02/a-tale-of-two-kirks_17.html

        Speaking of lamentations, America of today is headed nowhere fast, just like New Kirk is when we meet him as an adult. He’s a lecherous loser wasting the potential others see in him chasing tail and getting drunk. While his counterpart had a strong sense of duty and a thirst for adventure, New Kirk’s so jaded he has to be taunted into joining Starfleet at all.

      3. OK, now I get it – I followed the link, but didn’t read the comments. Maybe we should ask: what would the hero be doing if he weren’t being the hero? Sometimes, the very act of heroism is what it takes to give his life meaning, which is interesting enough. But that requires his character actually grow, somehow, into being a hero. Other times the hero is really giving up something to do the right thing, and that is admirable in itself.

        In a sense, Frankenstein dies in the nick of time. What, if anything, could have happened next? If his goal, like Frodo’s, was to live a quiet life of simple pleasures, it might mean something that he undertook all these hardships to pursue the monster. But since he was never content with the fairy-tale perfect life he’d gotten through no merit of his own, AND his troubles were all self-inflicted by his maniacal self-absorbtions, why would anyone ever admire or even sympathise beyond feeling sorry for him being such a schmuck?

    1. How about a rewrite of Frankenstein from Elizabeth’s point of view, wherein his awesome sparkly manliness is described every other page? She could gush about him all the while he is ignoring her while at university. This has the advantage of having the story end once she’s strangled on her wedding night…

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