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Liz Rhodebeck



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Frankenstein or, The Modern Prometheus, by Mary W. Shelley

Reviewed by Liz Rhodebeck

             Occasionally it is enlightening to re-read a classic (or even read it for the first time), especially in light of movies or plays that are done as an interpretation of a story.  I hesitate to call current movies “dramatizations” because so often they are not true to the author’s story.  (And, being a writer, I prefer to home the author’s intent and true story.)

            My curiosity was piqued one evening to see a modern adaptation of Frankenstein. I suppose the image of Frankenstein that has endured in modern culture is the 1930s movie with Boris Karloff.  This modern version I watched bore only sketchy resemblance to Karloff’s classic.  So, seeking the truth, I checked the book out at the library.  I think all of the filmmakers, even Karloff, have missed the point of the story.  The only similarity between the novel and the films is a man named Frankenstein who created life from an inanimate form.  The original story is actually told from the point of view of a ship’s captain who encounters Victor Frankenstein chasing his creature (the “demon”) across the northern ice plains near the Arctic.  The story is more about a young student and the excruciating moral dilemma he faces in having “created” life.  The creature is intelligent and sensitive, and the reader must feel pity for both of these characters, perhaps even more for the creature.  At its simplest level, it is a story of a man/creature seeking love – that’s all.  It is a morality story as to the consequences of our actions and our responsibility for those consequences.

            Frankenstein bears little resemblance to the pop-horror of Stephen King and the like.  King’s stories seem almost flat and predictable by comparison.  To be sure, there are murders in the Frankenstein story; but they are not wanton killings as the creature struggles with the morality of his own actions but rather are deliberate killings of Victor’s family in order to gain his attention and sympathy.

            The creature’s one purpose is to gain human affection, to be part of the family of man – not a brutal blood-lust as is often portrayed.  Nor is he simpleminded.  He is keen and cunning in his thinking and a fast learner.  His one request of Victor Frankenstein is for a mate, someone “like him” to be his companion.  His loneliness and dejection are what drives the creature to murder.  He seeks justice and denied that, seeks revenge.  A most tender scene is at the end of the story when Victor has died and the creature wails in mourning over him.  The creature has always loved his creator, and both beings are lost in remorse for what has happened.  Though the creature has tormented Victor because of his own pain, he cannot kill Victor; even at the end he seeks his forgiveness, a final word of approval.

            Victor, on the other hand, elicits a kind of pity that borders on contempt.  Driven by the lust of science and knowledge (an interesting commentary Darwin’s ideas in 1818), he does the unthinkable and plays God by creating life in an inanimate form.  The twist of the story that is often absent from films is his immediate horror at what he has created.  Much of the prose in the book consists of Victor’s brooding discourses.  He attempts to flee his creation, the thrill of the lust dissipating at his completion of the creature.  (An interesting fact is that the narrative avoids a very detailed account of exactly how the creature is put together or what he looks like except to state he is very tall and strong.)  In one film version, the creature is a duplicate of Victor Frankenstein, an interesting interpretation of guilt.  In any case, Victor loathes his own creation, much as man loathes the sin he has committed, and he tries to forget and avoid what he has done.  However, the consequences are not easily dismissed as the creature, one-by-one, kills the persons Victor loves as a kind of justice for being denied love himself.  For Victor’s part of the story, he is a man full of regret and remorse, but also a man unwilling to embrace his own “sinfulness” as it were, to truly lay claim to the consequences of his actions.  He cannot seem to feel true compassion and pit for the creature, and regards him as outside the realm of true humanity.  This may be a subtle commentary on the ethics of science and where experimentation might lead man in defining life.

            From the beginning the creature is attracted to noble virtues; it is only when he is spurned by even a child that he despairs of ever finding acceptance.  Victor is forced into yet another moral dilemma when the creature asks for a mate:  would he be committing yet another crime to create a semihuman being and let it loose among humanity for the sake of “justice” to the creature?  While Frankenstein is initially moved by the creature’s plea for justice, he cannot complete the new creation as he finds it morally abhorrent.  As a result, the tragedies in his life increase.

            Victor finally takes responsibility for his creation and vows to spend the rest of his life trying to kill “the demon” as his atonement.  While he fails to kill the creature, he is faithful in his mission to seek it.  It is interesting that the creature allows the chase to continue – he even provides a trail to follow and often leaves food and provisions for Victor, but always manages to stay ahead of him.  It’s as if it is the only way he can keep Victor near him so he keeps the chase going.

            I must speculate – could this ending have been different?  The conclusion is that if Victor had “loved” his creature from the beginning, if he had claimed active responsibility, trained him, shown him some kind of acceptance, the violent nature of the creature could have been avoided.  If some benevolence could have been shown him, the creature would have been grateful.  However, it seems that the overriding attitude is that man has no place in creating such life in the first place – it is playing God.  It is interesting that the creature did have moral beliefs and some integrity; whether he had a soul or not is not presumed, and this may also account for people’s objection to him.  Victor is a man who faces his sin too late – a psychological metaphor for all generations in which the consequences of abuse can have lifelong and often irredeemable effects.  The parallels of the consequences Frankenstein’s wrongs are numerous.  Perhaps Shelley was trying to show in Frankenstein’s tragic tale that we can never neutralize our sin until we are willing to face it, to own it.  Otherwise, it becomes the master of our fate.

Previously published in Inklings, Winter, 1998.

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Copyright 2010 Liz Rhodebeck
Lasted Updated: 01/09/2011