Tuesday, May 22, 2007

'Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus' by Mary Shelley

22 May 2007

'Frankenstein' seems such a familiar story but it's been fascinating to read Mary Shelley's original 1818 novel for the first time. I knew that most of the film versions took great liberties with the plot but it was interesting to discover how, in doing so, they really lost the point of the story. Mary Shelley wrote 'Frankenstein' (famously inspired by a 'waking dream' while staying with her husband and Byron at Lake Geneva) while pregnant and its main themes are to do with birth, creation and death. It is heavily influenced by Milton's 'Paradise Lost' (quoted on the title page) - the source of inspiration, more recently, for Philip Pulman's 'His Dark Materials' trilogy. The science of 'Frankenstein' is pretty shaky and largely glossed over. Mary Shelley is much more interested in the social interactions between the monster, his creator and other people. Much of the plot is, even within the fantastical world of the novel, remarkably implausible - teaching himself to talk, the monster becomes unbelievably articulate in a very short space of time - and Victor Frankenstein seems to come very much from the naive "hiding under the duvet should protect me from anything nasty" school of thought! Nevertheless the story's premise is powerful enough to allow you to overlook some of these imperfections. The narrative structure is quite complex, consisting of several 'nested narratives' - at one point we are reading the monster's story as told by the monster to Victor Frankenstein as told by Victor to Captain Walton as told by the Captain to his sister! But even this is symbolic - Captain Walton's sister is Margaret Walton Saville and it is no coincidence that she shares her initials with Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, suggesting that the whole story is a found narrative discovered by Mary Shelley rather than her own creation. The edition of the novel I read included as an appendix an 1823 dramatisation called 'Presumption or The Fate of Frankenstein' by Richard Brinsley Peake which radically simplified the story, making the monster mute and removing all the complexities of his arguments with his creator. This play seems to have been the source for many of the later treatments including the Universal films that now form our main reference for the 'Frankenstein' story. The original novel, while not a great work, is much more thoughtful and thought-provoking than much that it inspired - and truly scary!



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