Thursday, September 26, 2013

WOGF: Frankenstein, or, The modern Prometheus

Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley
Completed 9/25/2013, Reviewed 9/26/2013
5 stars

Shortly after beginning my personal challenge to read all the Best Novel Hugo winners, I read a collection of essays by Isaac Asimov on SF.  In many of the essays, he referred to “Frankenstein” as the first SF novel.  So when I began the Women of Genre Fiction 2013 Challenge, I saw it as a wonderful excuse to read “Frankenstein.”  Initially, I was nervous.  In my youth, I never enjoyed reading classic literature.  I usually found I couldn't stay focused on lengthy, rambling, descriptive prose.  And besides, who talks like that?  So I avoided classic lit for many, many years.  To my surprise, “Frankenstein” completely changed my mind.

The joy of “Frankenstein” is the prose.  It is a delight to read.  Rather than fighting the prose, I found myself wrapped in it like a warm blanket.  Modern posers like Michael Chabon should take a lesson from “Frankenstein” in how to use description in a more organic, less pompous way. 

The copy I borrowed from the library contained essays and critical analysis of the book.  The analyses regularly reference an original manuscript of the story that still exists, though not complete.  It shows that Mary Shelley’s husband, Percy, edited the original text for her, making hundreds of changes to her word choices.  Apparently, her text is rawer, more Anglo-Saxon.  His changes Latinized her language.  I was horrified.  It was afraid that what I loved was Percy’s editing rather than the Mary original work. 

To ease this cognitive dissonance, I had to step back, and realize that it shouldn't matter.  I’m not  on a scholarly quest.  I had to take the book on face value and allow myself to enjoy the pleasure I had in reading it.  Percy-fied or not, Mary Shelley wrote an amazing story and I can revel in it.

Another technical note about the book is that I read the 1818 version.  In 1931, a second edition was printed, with Mary making drastic changes to the text.  Based on the analyses, I’m glad I chose the 1818 edition.  (You’ll have to read some of these understand all the differences).  However, someday, I’d like to read both the 1831 edition, and what remains of the original manuscript and then re-read some of the analyses comparing the texts. 

As you will always hear, the book is nothing like any of the movie versions ever made.  The book is about fear, guilt, and wretchedness.  It is not hard SF; there is no laboratory, no electricity, no hunchbacks.  The creature is borne of un-described chemistry.  There is obsession and remorse.  There is innocence and anathema.  This is my type of SF.  It’s about the relationships and fortunes of the people as a result of the science.    

One of the most interesting essays in this edition noted how easy it is to overlay any theme on the book:  feminism, homophobia, etc.  I found myself reflecting on the bullying and hatred I endured in middle and junior high school, and the outright maliciousness of high school classmates.  Like the monster, I perpetuated the bullying by abusing others, rather than breaking the cycle of abuse.  Unlike the monster, I did not consciously choose to be abusive.  But maybe that’s part of the moral of this theme.  Hate begets hate; abuse begets abuse; something must die for transformation to occur.

I also found the theme of the nature of god rummaging around in my mind.  Certainly, there are the comparisons to Prometheus and Adam.  But I considered the nature of humanity, the fact that evil exists and we are condemned to live with it.  What did humans do to deserve such evil?  Catechism teaches us that it is the Original Sin of Adam and Eve, that God really does love but we brought this upon ourselves.  So if God is omniscient, why would it have created us if in its omniscience, it already knew we would sin and have to suffer through life.  Is this love, or is it abuse?  The monster’s despair is the existential crisis resulting from this conflict.  God is flawed, God has abandoned us, God hates us, and ultimately, God is dead.  The monster receives no salvation, no relief from his wretched state, and is condemned to die in despair.  That is the horror of this story.

Okay, enough heaviness.  “Frankenstein” is a great read whether you see deeper meanings in it or not.  The characters are amazing, the plot is tight, and the twists, exciting.  And despite the wretchedness of the main characters and the horror it induces, I was moved by its beauty whenever I sat down and opened the book.  This is a 5 star book.

If you are interested in reading this edition with the essays and analyses, here’s the info: “Frankenstein: the 1818 text, contexts, nineteenth-century responses, modern criticism;” edited by J. Paul Hunter, New York: WW Norton, c.1996, a Norton critical edition.

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