I’ve read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein at least twice – once for 11th grade British Literature and once since then, possibly twice. It’s been a while, though, so I was quite excited when I looked up the book list for my first class and saw it there. (Gothic Novels was the class…intriguing, no? Actually, it was the only one I could take that met my requirements and was at a time available to me. But I was intrigued, nonetheless.) What surprised me is that I remembered none of it. Nothing! How do you read a book twice and not remember a thing? All I knew going in this time around was that I had liked it before and there was one part where the monster goes off and spies on some villagers. Aside from that it was like coming upon the novel with completely new eyes.
If you’ve never read the story, there are a few things you first need to know. One: Frankenstein is the scientist, not the monster. Two: The story is not scary, as the horror movie re-imaginings would lead us to believe; it’s social commentary, not guts and gore. Three: It’s really quite good and accessible. A self-taught scientist, Victor Frankenstein doggedly pursues the one thing he believes will lead him to fame – the ability to reanimate the dead. In his quest to do so he skulks around cemeteries, stealing limbs and flesh which he sews together to fashion a creature of gigantic stature. After he gives it the spark of life, Victor is so appalled by his creation that he runs away from it, hoping to never see it again. Meanwhile, the creature must fend for himself, running into the forest and feeding on berries. He comes into contact with some villagers who shriek at him and throw stones, causing him to retreat back into hiding. Upon finding a cottage housing a man and a woman and their blind father, the creature is so touched by their willingness to take equal part in the upkeep of their home that he quietly aides them by chopping firewood and clearing snow. He remains in hiding, but increases his knowledge by reading Paradise Lost and listening to the son read history aloud. He works up the courage to reveal himself to the blind father, but when the children return to the house he is, again, violently cast out from the company of humans. The creature’s ensuing resentment leads him to seek out Victor, killing a few of his loved ones in the process.
Did you know that Frankenstein could be read as a feminist work? Neither did I (I don’t believe I’d even heard the word in my high school), but I found that interesting when my professor noted that it had been given extensive study as such, so much so that I wrote my final paper on the topic. Well, the topic was “allegory” to be exact, but in the sense that the monster represents the repressed female who is judged solely on her physicality instead of her potential mental faculties or ability to contribute to society. Okay, that may sound like a stretch, but if you go back and read the story, it’s really all laid out for you. In fact, I was pretty shocked I had never read it that way on my own. I guess that’s what this whole “school” thing is for, huh? But the beauty of this novel is that you don’t need a class to get much of the story out of it. Whether you read it as a commentary on social stratification or a warning of the dangers of self-taught education or the duality of man (there’s apparently much discussion on this topic as well) or just a story about a man and the hideous monster he creates, it’s entirely enjoyable and worth the read.
(By the way, I did do quite decently in the class, my paper having gone over well, and my teacher had not at all suspected that I was neither an English major nor that I hadn’t taken an English class in nearly ten years. How’s that for the worth of reading literature on one’s own?)