“It was already one in the morning; the rain pattered dismally against the panes, and my candle was nearly burnt out, when, by the glimmer of the half-extinguished light, I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open…”
Author: Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley
Publisher: Lackington, Hughes, Harding, Mavor & Jones
Ah Mary Shelley, expertly putting into two sentences what I would try to stretch into a paragraph, all the while struggling. The above quote is my absolute favourite from Frankenstein. I was lying in bed at night when I read that part, and was utterly awed and scared. Awed because of the expert sentence craftsmanship, and scared because the subject matter is actually scary when you really think about it!
The First Best Sci-Fi Ever
So I’ve read book number one on my 100 Sci-Fi Stories list, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Frankenstein (or The Modern Prometheus), written by Mary Wollstonecraft (later Shelley), and published in 1818, is widely considered to be the first science fiction tale because Shelley drew inspiration for it from the science of her day. Apparently, the early nineteenth century was heavy on trying to infuse inanimate objects with life. In crafting her story, Shelley famously thought about what would scare her, and so decided to write about that. In fact, Frankenstein is also considered a horror story.
Plot & Narration
There are so many reasons to love this novel, the first of which being the narrative style. Frankenstein is a story within a story. It’s told through a series of letters written by Robert Walton to his sister Margaret Saville. Walton is on an expedition to the Arctic, and writes to his sister to keep her informed. One day, all the way up north in the frigid and desolate space, his ship surrounded by ice, the crew picks up a weary traveler floating on a piece of ice next to them. This weary traveler turns out to be Viktor Frankenstein. And so the story begins. Frankenstein relates to Walton the circumstances that brought him to the Arctic (read: tells Walton his whole entire life story), and Walton writes it all down in letters he sends to his sister.
I like this particular narrative style for Frankenstein because it adds that element of awe and disbelief to the story. We readers have only Walton’s words to go by, but it’s obvious that he believes every word of Frankenstein’s story, and even admires the mad scientist. Frankenstein tells Walton all about how he came to create the creature (who has yellow skin, so I’d be interested to know why modern incarnations depict him with green skin, and while we’re at it, let’s call him Jack, since he never has a name in the story), and how he came to be on the brink of death in the Arctic. You can image that Walton thinks the story is too crazy and amazing to be made up. His faith is rewarded in the end, when he himself meets Jack for a few brief moments. So now, we the readers must also be absolutely convinced of this fantastical story.
Theme: Nature vs. Nurture
I also enjoyed the parallels between Walton and Frankenstein. Walton put his heart and soul into his expedition to the Arctic, to go where no man has gone before. It is the same passion Frankenstein exhibited when he spent years on his creation, fuelled by the goal of bringing an inanimate body to life. The terrible consequences of Frankenstein’s mad passion serves as a lesson for Walton, not to get so carried away with his dreams lest he forget himself.
Another obvious theme is nature vs. nurture. Frankenstein is so horrified by what he’s done that he abandons Jack immediately, leaving him to fend for himself. Jack “grows up” in a beautiful world that is made insufferable to him. He starts out as an innocent being, but because he is so monster-like, every human he comes into contact with runs away from him or wants to kill him. Jack’s innocence quickly erodes into hatred for all humanity, a hatred he takes out on Frankenstein, his creator, by destroying Frankenstein’s life.
I like Shelley’s affirmation that Jack started out innocent. I just personally like the idea that human nature is inherently good (and Jack is made up of human body parts, so let’s say he counts as human). Obviously, I felt very sad for Jack as he tried to navigate the human world without a guide; he wanted so badly to fit in and share in the joys he saw people experience, but his physical form made it impossible.
The only thing I didn’t like about the story, though, is exactly why the story is so good! What I mean to say is, I thoroughly enjoyed the story, but it frustrates me that Frankenstein abandoned Jack! By abandoning his creation, he destined Jack to a miserable life, the misery of which Jack would end up taking out on Frankenstein. So by abandoning Jack in the first place, Frankenstein, without knowing it, doomed himself, his whole life, and the lives of those he loved. But I guess you can also argue that Frankenstein doomed himself by creating Jack in the first place, which brings us back to the idea of not getting carried away with your passions, lest you forget who you are.
Theme: Who’s the Real Monster?
I guess the real question is, was it right for Frankenstein to create Jack? I don’t know. But obviously, he should have taken responsibility for his creation, rather than abandoning him. He was terrified of the “monster” he created, but can we say that Frankenstein was the monster for toying with nature?
There are so many great questions and themes present in Frankenstein that I could discuss it forever. But for now, let’s just say it was a great way to begin my journey into written science fiction.
A Note on the Science
A note on the actual science behind Frankenstein, or rather, how it was depicted. Shelley never goes into any great detail about how exactly Frankenstein achieved his feat of animating an inanimate body. But I like to think that that is part of the beauty of this particular piece of writing: she never has to. We take it for granted that Frankenstein did it and then are lead to think about the consequences of such a feat, which is what the story is really about.
I’m not going to lie, I’m really comforted by this as it relates to my own sci-fi writing. Feeling like my own scientific knowledge is wildly inadequate to write a sci-fi has been a psychological struggle. I keep having to remind myself that it’s okay!! And my husband keeps reminding me as well, constantly pointing out in other stories or movies places where the science is not really explained but the audience just goes with it anyway (and I’m so grateful for those reminders).
Up next: Journey to the Center of the Earth (1864).