Review: Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein’

As the back of my copy said, many people know the story of ‘Frankenstein’ second-hand, whilst the real story is more psychological than pure horror. In this respect, I think it loses some of the thrill that the legend and the various movies have created, but not necessarily in a negative way. Shelley’s focus on the philosophical background to the monster’s creation allows us to witness the downfall of man when he pretends to be God, and the explicit links with ‘Paradise Lost’ emphasise the fallen angel aspect of the novel.

After doing my research project preparation on the effect of ‘Paradise Lost’ on the Romantics, my critical reading led me to see ‘Frankenstein’ as key within this subject, so this was primarily why I chose to read ‘Frankenstein’. The ‘Paradise Lost’ comparisons were both implicit and explicit throughout the novel, and I felt that this softened the impact of the monster by linking him with Satan as the fallen angel, aligning him with the notion of the tragic hero in a way. Like Satan, Frankenstein’s monster did not ask to be created, and his attempts to gain the respect of his creator lead to his over-ambitious acts of terror which cause him to fall from grace. I think the monster’s final speech to Walton shows how he was once so virtuous but felt pushed to his fall. His intention to commit suicide afterward in a funeral pyre completes the Satanic link, throwing him into the realms of fiery hell.

With regards to Frankenstein himself, I feel his link with God was not as explicit as his monster’s with Satan, which definitely benefited the novel, as while we saw one man become a creator, we saw him fail in his plan, showing the fallibility of man instead of his superiority to nature. I do think the portrayal of Frankenstein’s own emotional state fluctuated frequently, but then this links with the quick time leaps within the book: the tale spans over almost a decade, which helps to elongate the events instead of being too cramped together. However, because Frankenstein is narrating rather quickly to Walton, we don’t get a realistic sense of this passage of time, which causes these emotional variations to be seen as rather rapid and inconsistent with the events, instead of being graduated over a long period. This is tempered with Frankenstein’s emotional reflectivity, which aids this lengthening process, although it doesn’t quite help it entirely.

The use of the other characters are purely as a framing device: we have no real bond with Clerval or Elizabeth apart from through Frankenstein’s own emotions, thus we don’t really feel the impact of their deaths through our own connections with them, but only through Frankenstein’s reactions to the monster’s brutality. These characters are more like stepping stones to enable us to reach Frankenstein, rather than empathise with them individually.

Mary Shelley writes beautifully, but when it comes to fulfilling her aim of composing a ghost story worthy of competing with Lord Byron and Percy Shelley, she outdoes them by surpassing the designated genre: Shelley is able to entwine the mythical world of monsters with human virtue and vice in order to create a world where man’s attempt to be on par with God is entirely disastrous.

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