(Since the beginning of 2008 I've been writing an ongoing series of essays here that I call the "CCLaP 100," whereby I read for the first time a hundred books considered by many to be classics, and then write reports here on whether or not I think they deserve this label. For the complete list of books, as well as an explanation behind how the list was compiled, you can click here.)
By Mary Shelley
Book #36 in this essay series
The story in a nutshell:
To truly understand why Mary Shelley's 1818 Frankenstein first had the impact that it did, it's of crucial importance to understand the times in which it was written -- namely, the transitional years between the end of the Enlightenment and the beginning of Romanticism (with Romanticism also known as the "Victorian Age," in that its span largely matches the long reign of England's Queen Victoria), a period in which for the first time, huge amounts of people were starting to question the validity of trying to live one's life through the long-held tenets of rationality, scientific distance and atheism, especially after the disaster known as the French Revolution that had just occurred two decades previous. Certainly this is the main idea driving Shelley's story, the tale of a young aspiring medical student in rural Switzerland, who for lack of knowing better grows up studying and believing in the ideas of the "natural philosophers" and "alchemists" of the 1600s, back when it was sincerely believed that man would eventually figure out a way to turn lead into gold and bring the dead back to life. Even after he gets into a decent university, then, young Victor Frankenstein still can't give up on his dreams of one day creating artificial life out of a collection of spare parts; and indeed, by his twenties he actually succeeds at such a thing, although having to build his particular human much larger than the norm so that he's able to grip all the tiny little pieces involved.
But watching his creature move and speak for the first time, Frankenstein becomes horrified by the monstrous abomination against God he's made; and so in typical undergraduate fashion, he simply runs away and tries to pretend that the whole thing never happened, leaving the creature in the woods to fend for itself and just assuming that it'll soon be dead. But surprisingly, the creature ends up thriving as a survivalist, first learning how to speak by loitering on the edges of a rural village, then eavesdropping on the villagers' conversations to realize just how different he is than them. Despondent, the creature eventually tracks Frankenstein down and demands that he build a similarly oversized companion for him, which at first Frankenstein agrees to but then destroys halfway through, queasy at the thought of what kind of damage two such creatures could wreak; and it's at this point that the creature declares a lifelong program of vengeance against Frankenstein for so coldly abandoning him, eventually not only killing half a dozen of the student's acquaintances (including his brother, his father and his wife), but even framing Frankenstein for one of the murders. Incensed, Frankenstein decides to hunt down the creature for his own revenge; this then leads them on a globetrotting chase culminating in a final showdown near the north pole, witnessed by a crew of exploratory sailors which is why it is that we supposedly know of the tale today.
The argument for it being a classic:
Well, to begin with, there's the simple argument of what a huge influence this has had on popular culture at large, with there now existing thousands of projects that in one way or another riff on either Frankenstein's monster itself or Shelley's general concept of the "mad scientist." (Of course, let's not forget that the vast majority of these are actually riffs on James Whale's infamous 1931 film adaptation, which in reality has very little to do with the book itself -- for example, just look at the differing ways the book and movie deal with one of the story's most famous scenes... BOOK: "One day, when I was oppressed by cold, I found a fire which had been left by some wandering beggars, and was overcome with delight at the warmth I experienced from it. In my joy I thrust my hand into the live embers, but quickly drew it out again with a cry of pain. How strange, I thought, that the same cause should produce such opposite effects." MOVIE: "Fire bad! FIRE BAD!!!") Perhaps the more compelling argument, then, is that it's a perfect record of a very important time in history, a story that very cleverly references not only the events that led to the era before it but also the reasons why that era was eventually rejected; because for those who don't know, the Great Age of Reason initially started with these so-called natural philosophers of the 1600s, who did nothing but observe and replicate the way God worked out in nature, but by the 1800s had evolved into "scientists" who were actively attempting to manipulate and change this natural environment, which more and more people began to see as a mockery of God instead of an exaltation of Him. Although trashed by Enlightenment-trained critics when first coming out, Frankenstein was eagerly eaten up by the gothic-obsessed public at large, making it as powerful a reflection of its time as The DaVinci Code is of ours.
The argument against:
Not much these days, although for a long time it was argued that Frankenstein is nothing more than a simple piece of lurid entertainment designed for overly dramatic housewives, and not fit for being debated as a piece of literature to begin with. (In fact, I think it telling that when the book was first published anonymously, criticism tended to focus on its actual quality, while after the author's identity became known it was roundly dismissed altogether as "the work of a girl.") But of course, as with all literature, time has a way of profoundly changing our opinion of what constitutes artistic "worth," making this not much of a valid argument anymore.
As you can imagine, today I quite solidly fall on the side of Frankenstein's fans, although I should give fair warning that this book is very much a product of its early-1800s times, and has a tendency during huge sections to ramble on and on in a kind of flowery prose style that modern ears are not used to. In fact, for those trying to learn more these days about artistic history, I think it's no coincidence that this book was published just a year after the death of Jane Austen, who many consider the last great Enlightenment author; in this respect, then, you can see Shelley as the first of the great Romantic authors, and the 1810s and '20s as the grand changing of the guard among mainstream society between the former age and the latter. The fact is that Romanticism was always as much about one's attitude and lifestyle as it was about the finished works themselves, the age that first posited the idea of the artist as a passionate, tortured soul, traits which Shelley possessed in spades; because for those who don't know, she was not only married to scandalous poet Percy Shelley and kept company with such infamous libertines as Lord Byron (inspiration for the Victorian Age's "Byronic hero"), but even the story itself was apparently inspired by a nightmare after a raucous evening of drugs and medieval German fairytales*, about as Romantic as Romanticism gets. (And let's not even get started on the the autobiographical elements this book supposedly contains, including the argument that the whole thing is a scathing criticism of the way Percy dealt with the miscarriage of their first child.) Creepy, supernatural, concerned mostly with the pouty emotions of moody geniuses, Frankenstein is literally a textbook example of the finest early Romanticism has to offer, and its passionate embrace by the general public was a sign of the sea-change society was to start experiencing just twenty years later.
Is it a classic? Yes
The next four books scheduled to be read:
To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee
The Three Musketeers, by Alexandre Dumas
The Thin Man, by Dashiell Hammett
The Canterbury Tales, by Geoffrey Chaucer
*And by the way, for a creepily fantastic look at what that night of drugs and fairytales might've looked like, do make sure to check out Ken Russell's 1986 Gothic, one of my absolutely favorite movies when I was a teen.
(And don't forget that the first 33 essays in this series are now available in book form!)