May 28, 2013


I love classic literature. It's my favorite thing to read and usually the most fulfilling type of reading that I do. I always have a list of "need to reads" to draw from.

My latest read was Frankenstein by Mary Shelley.

We've had it on our bookshelf for a few years now, but I just got around to reading it. The decision was spurred by a classic literary criticism book (from the 70's) called The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination by Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar that I recently read. As an English major, I also love literary criticism. My brain actually naturally critiques the things I read and makes connections. English teachers and classes just helped me do it better. This book was a fascinating read and made we want to read or re-read all the books they wrote about and referenced.

I started re-reading Paradise Lost by John Milton, since it is one of the main reference materials that the criticism uses, but that's pretty dense reading so it's slow going. Then I picked up Frankenstein.

And, as usually happens when I read literature, I was surprised by the reality of a story I've "heard" and seen depicted before. Movies and retellings can never capture all the minutia and layers in the original. And sometimes they completely change the whole point of the plot!

Frankenstein begins with a series of letters written by a young adventurer named Robert Walton on his way to the Arctic to explore and hopefully discover things no other man has ever found. He writes to his sister about his plans and thoughts. A few letters in, he relates a fantastic tale of seeing a giant man on a dog sled in the middle of no where, and shortly after that, picking up a man named Victor Frankenstein who was pursuing the giant man and is near death. Frankenstein tells his tale to Walton and Walton relates it to his sister.

The basic plot, if you don't know, is that a young science student figures out the secret to creating human life and makes a man from elements of corpses. He brings the "man" to life, then immediately realizes that everything he has done is a bad idea and he never thought about any consequences, so he leaves. The "monster" then is left to fend for himself, having no knowledge of the world or himself. He struggles with what it means to be moral when he is met with violence from every person who has ever seen him, then struggles with hatred for the man who created him. The "monster" decides to get revenge on Frankenstein and most of the book is a sort of cat and mouse game between the two.

I'm always intrigued by the layers of separation that 19th century writers (particularly female writers) employ to tell their stories. There was a desire to give credibility to their work so they used male narrators, letter writing or third parties to tell tales that wouldn't be considered appropriate for a "proper" woman to write. The desperate acts of Frankenstein and his monster were quite shocking to readers at the time. Even now, without the explicit "horror" descriptions that a modern book might have, the tale is hideous to contemplate.

That fact that it was written by a young woman who had recently gotten married (without parental approval) and had a young child is even more interesting. I think the movies usually give off a very male vibe. They showcase man's hubris and god complex, make you think about the nature of morality and what it means to be a monster, or a monster's creator. But to think of it in terms of women, of mothers, can make it pretty mind blowing.

There are questions of hubris and god complexes in the text, but those subjects take on a different feel when you think about it from a woman's point of view. We do create human beings. We are responsible for life and (in a way) for how our "creations" turn out. Mothers are often blamed for the deeds of their children, or for not being a good mother and therefore ruining a child's life and/or future. And at the same time, a woman who becomes pregnant goes through her own metamorphosis. Bodies change shape, act differently, are beyond our control, scare us because we don't know what to expect from ourselves, or the little being inside of us.

At the same time, women have historically been seen AS monsters. Men consider them temptresses, devils, immoral, an "other" who is unpredictable and foreign. So you can see a lot in the characters of the "monster" and Frankenstein.

Frankenstein is not a difficult read, nor is it very long. But the text gives a lot for the reader to think about. I highly recommend it and thoroughly enjoyed it myself!

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