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Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley (pub. 1818 / 1831)
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Caution: Spoilers!

This was originally published in 1818 (157 years before I was born), when Mary Shelley (nee Godwin) was 20 years old. A revised version was published in 1831. The copy I'm reading (in October 2016) was published in 1968, and I assume it's the 1831 version. It has an introduction by Shelley, which was written that year. In it, she talks a bit about her childhood, before moving on to the summer of 1816 (when she was 17-18 years old), when she and her lover, Percy Bysshe Shelley, visited Lord Byron, in Switzerland. (In the introduction, Mary refers to Shelley- she calls him by his surname- as her husband, though they didn't actually marry until after they'd returned to England in December 1816, a few weeks after the suicide of Shelley's estranged wife, Harriet. None of that is mentioned in the book's intro, probably because part of the reason for the revision was to make the book more conservative. I imagine if mainstream society wasn't ready for some aspects of the fiction, they surely wouldn't have been ready for the reality of the author's relationship.) Anyway, the intro talks about Byron and his guests (as well as his physician, John Polidori) reading some German ghost stories, and Byron deciding that they should each write one of their own. It was that game that led Mary Godwin to begin writing what would become "Frankenstein." The intro also makes it sound as if the revisions she made in 1831 were very minor, but Wikipedia calls this version "heavily revised." I have no idea how extensive the revisions actually were, but someday I suppose I should read the original version, and see if I notice any important differences.

After Mary Shelley's 1831 introduction, there's a preface from 1817, which is signed "Marlow." There's no indication of who this Marlow might be, but it is commonly believed that the preface was actually written by Percy Shelley. And since the original 1818 publication of the book was anonymous, I suppose it would make sense that the preface also wouldn't provide any indication of the author's true identity. (It wasn't until the second edition, published in France in 1823, that Mary Shelley was credited as the book's author.) And in the 1831 intro, Mary says of the preface "As far as I can recollect, it was written entirely by him" (referring to her husband). Although I should also say the 1817 preface makes it sound as if this "Marlow" was also the writer of the book itself. Aside from that... the writing style makes it a bit difficult for me to always grasp exactly what the writer means, but I think the gist of it is to suggest that the story, while being entirely fictitious, is not necessarily impossible.

Anyway... there have been numerous film adaptations of the novel, over the years. Probably the most famous version is the 1931 film with Boris Karloff as the monster. I'm sure I saw that on TV at some point, probably in the late 80s or early 90s, but by the time I read the book, I didn't remember many details of the movie. But I can certainly say there are some significant differences between the book and the movie. In fact, most incarnations of the story you've likely ever seen are probably rather different from the book. It's set in an unspecified year of the 18th century. The story begins with an explorer named Captain Robert Walton, who is attempting to sail to the North Pole, sending letters about his journey to his sister, back home in England. In one of these letters, he tells her about his crew having rescued a man who was nearly dead, driving a dogsled across the ice. The majority of the book is a story that the rescued man tells Captain Walton.

The man they had rescued was named Victor Frankenstein, who was from Geneva, Switzerland. He begins his story by telling how his parents met and eventually married, before moving on to his own birth and childhood. And he talks about a a young girl named Elizabeth Lavenza, an orphan who had been raised by peasants before being taken in by Victor's wealthy parents. (Elizabeth's actual parents, or at least her father, had been a nobleman of Milan. And the way she's described as having been more attractive than the children of the peasants who were raising her kind of seemed to me like classism, possibly on the part of the author. I mean, I guess it's not an important detail, but I did get the sense that the lower classes were seen as inherently inferior.) Anyway, after being taken in by the Frankensteins, Elizabeth would be raised almost as Victor's sister, and they immediately became close friends. But actually they called each other "cousin" (and she called Victor's parents her aunt and uncle), and his parents always intended for them to hopefully marry, when they grew up. Aside from Elizabeth, it seems Victor's only real friend was a school mate named Henry Clerval.

When Victor was 17, his parents decided he should go to the University of Ingolstadt, in Germany. But his departure was deferred because his mother died of scarlet fever. When he finally did go away to school, he had some trouble with one of his teachers, M. Krempe, due to Victor's interest in certain ancient natural philosophers whose work had long ago been discredited. But one of his teachers, M. Waldman, became a friend to him. It was during Victor's time at Ingolstadt that he discovered the secret of animating lifeless matter. (The book doesn't say what that secret was; in fact, in telling his story to Captain Walton, Victor specifically declines to share the secret, because of the horror it had wrought. I suppose in most movies, the secret would be electricity, but here... it remains a secret, whatever it was.) Anyway, it took him nearly two years to assemble all the parts he needed to put together a human form, work he did entirely by himself, in secret. (There's no "Fritz" or "Igor" or any such assistant.) When he finally does bestow life upon his creation, he instantly regrets it, because he suddenly finds the creature hideous. (One might expect him to have seen it as such before he animated it, but until that moment he had been consumed by obsession.) He fled from his lab and went to bed, but later awoke to see the creature standing by his bedside, looking at him. (This, I think, was the scene that was Shelley's original concept for her "ghost story.") Victor then fled from the house entirely.

The next day, he encountered Henry Clerval, who was finally going to begin attending the university, himself. They went back to Victor's room, and the creature was gone. Of course Victor didn't tell Henry, or anyone, about what he had created. But soon thereafter, Victor became ill for several months. Finally he recovered, and received a letter from Elizabeth. She talked about Victor's younger brothers, Ernest and William, as well as a girl named Justine Moritz, who had been taken in by Victor's parents sometime prior to Victor's going to Ingolstadt. He wrote back to her, then spent some time bro'ing it up with Henry. (Or whatever college guys did in the 1700s.) But then he received a letter from his father, saying that William had been murdered, and Elizabeth was distraught. He begged Victor to come home and console her. On his way back to Geneva, one night during a storm, he thought he saw his creature, and immediately guessed that it was the murderer. However, when he eventually got home, he was told that Justine had been accused of the crime. Of course, Victor was convinced of her innocence, as was Elizabeth. But still he couldn't tell anyone about his creation.

I feel like I've been saying far too much, but I've actually been leaving out a lot more than I've revealed. But I do want to try to refrain from saying too much more. But anyway, Victor blames himself for both William's fate and Justine's, and at one point he goes on a solitary journey into the nearby mountains. It's there that his creature comes to talk with him. Victor wants to kill him, but he wouldn't be nearly a match for the creature in speed or strength. And the creature convinces him to listen to his story. For the next several chapters, the creature is the narrator, and unlike any movie version you've seen of Frankenstein's monster, in the novel he's actually remarkably eloquent. The early part of his story consists of his learning some very fundamental aspects of living, and it wasn't until much later that he learned any language. After awhile, he was seen by people, and attacked, because they feared him on sight. So he ran and hid in a shed attached to a remote cottage. It was there that he spied on the inhabitants, an old blind man and his children, a young man and woman named Felix and Agatha. It was by secretly watching and listening to them, and later a young woman named Safie, that the creature learned many things about the world, including how to speak and read French. And one of the things he would eventually read was Victor's own journal, which had been in the pocket of a coat he'd taken when he originally left the house where he'd been created. So, he learned about his own origins from that. ...I'm leaving out a ton of details about the creature's story, but one thing I wanted to mention was the line, "Accursed creator! Why did you form a monster so hideous that even you turned from me in disgust? God, in pity, made man beautiful and alluring, after his own image; but my form is a filthy type of yours, more horrid even from the very resemblance." Which I couldn't help but think is basically the definition of "uncanny valley."

Anyway, the creature loved the people he was living with, and wanted to meet them and be loved by them, but he knew they'd be horrified by the sight of him. So he planned to meet the old blind man when the others were out, and talk to him, in the hopes that the man could speak on his behalf to his children, before they saw the creature. Alas, they came home sooner than expected, and Felix immediately attacked him. So he ran away, and realized he truly was all alone in the world, that he could never have companionship of any kind. And for that, he hated his creator. And he went to Geneva to seek his revenge on Victor. That started with killing William. But now, he demanded that Victor create a female creature like himself, so that he wouldn't be alone. He promised that if Victor did this, he and the second creature would depart for areas uninhabited by humans forever. If Victor refused... well, there'd be a lot more suffering to come, not just for the Frankenstein family, but all of humankind.

At first Victor refused, but finally he agreed. But first he and Henry took a trip to England, so Victor could meet some philosophers who'd made discoveries he thought he should learn about, to help him in his own work. And he was finally engaged to Elizabeth, the marriage to take place upon his return. But while away, Victor again changes his mind about making another creature. And... well, a lot of things happen after that, but now I'm really about ready to stop spoiling things. But it all leads to Victor deciding he must chase his creature to the ends of the Earth, and the creature fleeing northward, toward a climate which he could easily endure, but which Victor could not. And that brings us full circle to his meeting Captain Walton and telling his story. Finally, Victor implores Walton to continue the chase for him, if he dies before he can destroy the creature himself. But... well, I'm not saying what Walton decides, or how it all ends.

Anyway, it's really good story, certainly better than any filmed version I've ever seen. And while I've always sympathized with the creature, I do so now more than ever. As for Victor himself... well, I suppose I understand him better now, and feel some sympathy that I might not have before. But on balance, I'd say the dinosaur meme makes more sense after reading the novel. (It always made sense, but... the extra sympathy I now feel for the creature definitely outweighs any new sympathy I have for Victor.)


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(Image is a scan of my own copy.)

Novel: Frankenstein
(The following is a list of things I've seen or want to see. There have been countless other things that have adapted or parodied the novel.)

Adaptations: Frankenstein (1931) * The Curse of Frankenstein * Mary Shelley's Frankenstein
Loose adaptations: Young Frankenstein * I, Frankenstein * Victor Frankenstein
Parodies: The Rocky Horror Picture Show * Frankenweenie (1984) * Transylvania 6-5000 * Mary Shelley's Frankenhole * Frankenweenie (2012)
Ensembles: The Munsters * Drak Pack * The Monster Squad * Van Helsing * Vampire Girl vs. Frankenstein Girl * Hotel Transylvania * Once Upon a Time * Penny Dreadful