“Whence, I often asked myself, did the principle of life proceed?”
These are the words of Victor Frankenstein — and among the first words that I read at college. Much to my surprise, I fell in love with Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein; Or, The Modern Prometheus” in my very first English class. I typically like Melville, Yeats, Morrison — a random assortment to demonstrate my non-science-fiction-y taste. Ignorantly, I thought that fantasy and monsters lurked outside my sphere of interest — unless, of course, I was in the mood for a Harry Potter marathon. I just couldn’t imagine taking a course on science fiction.
But from page one, “Frankenstein” is uncannily, wonderfully realistic, insidious, spooky, and beautiful. Mary Shelley begins with a frame narrative: a series of letters between the arctic researcher Robert Walton and his sister, Mrs. Saville of England. Only after the reader has been eased into the story through genteel correspondence may Victor Frankenstein begin his tale, wrought with guilt and caution. He opens Volume I with an account of his childhood and the great ambition brewing inside him:
“No one can conceive the variety of feelings which bore me onwards, like a hurricane, in the first enthusiasm of success. Life and death appeared to me ideal bounds, which I should first break through, and pour a torrent of light into our dark world.”
Doesn’t this sound admirable? And, if it’s not embarrassing to admit, mildly relatable? We’ve all felt elated by purpose and praise. Students are told, over and over, that we are young and soon we’ll go off to do big things. Well, this is the very scene where Victor creates his Creature and wreaks havoc. He is soon punished for his ambition.
My professor discouraged us from using the word “monster.” Victor creates “the Creature,” who soon tells his own story in Volume II. “Listen to my tale,” the Creature says, and describes his memory of abandonment, his hopeless wandering, and, finally, his acquisition of language and knowledge of human cruelty. We empathize deeply with the Creature as he grows into the world that surrounds him.
Shelley thus presents two immersive stories that seemingly clash but are, in fact, disquietingly similar. Often, Victor and the Creature speak using the same key words, like “wretch.” I won’t say how the book ends; if you haven’t read it, go do so. Let’s just say that creator and creature meet a similar fate.
Read “Frankenstein” because, quite literally, it contains a bit of everything. There are sublime scenes of nature, scenes in courtrooms, scenes in filthy laboratories and the barren Arctic; there are references to the French Revolution, the creation of man, Promethean mythology, Benjamin Franklin, Coleridge, Milton, and more. Pulsing with guilt and anxiety, the pages turn over and over in your hands. Though I recommend a slow reading, poring over descriptions, you could quite easily read this in one sitting.
In a word, it’s arresting: It feels as though you’re in contact with everything, filled with that same (dangerous) sense of bigness and possibility as Frankenstein. Pretty remarkable that one little book can be a portal to all that.
Naturally, I decided to concentrate in English. It’s been two years since I’ve read “Frankenstein” cover to cover, but it lives on my bookshelf where I frequently pull it out and flip to a relevant passage. It’s as natural to think about Frankensteinian creationism in my American Politics lecture on the railroad as in my poetry unit on Romanticism. And if I’m having trouble with an essay for my creative writing class, I remind myself that Mary Shelley wrote “Frankenstein” when she was just 19.
So happy 200th birthday, “Frankenstein,” and thank you for endless scares and endless inspiration. I know that I’ll keep turning to you for a long time to come.