It’s hard to review a book like Frankenstein – what do you say that hasn’t been said before? Here’s a book that revolutionized two separate genres – horror and science-fiction – while telling a great story, a book whose origins are almost as intriguing as the book itself, a book whose cultural impact is immeasurable. And more than anything, it remains a fascinating, gripping read, whether you’re re-reading it or coming into it for the first time.
It’s also a book that’s easy to misremember, thanks to a series of (generally fun) films that bore little resemblance to Shelley’s original text. No hunchbacked assistants; no bolts protruding from the neck; no dumb, half-verbal creatures; no angry mobs. And while there is a mad scientist, it’s far from the lab coat-clad madman of James Whale’s films; instead, it’s a young, arrogant man, whose desire for knowledge and science blinds him to his own ambition, hubris, and responsibilities.
Indeed, one of the most fascinating things about re-discovering Frankenstein is remembering that the book doesn’t easily divide its sympathies between Victor and the nameless creation. In a simpler world, it’s the story of a young man whose hubris unleashes a monster that threatens his life, but Shelley doesn’t let us off that easily. Victor is arrogant, obnoxious, self-centered, and cruelly dismissive of his creation – there’s little way to not think of him as an absentee father, abandoning his child at a moment’s notice. Meanwhile, the monster is intensely sympathetic, yes, but also vicious and murderous, and capable of every bit of destruction that Victor worries about. The book doesn’t give you a traditional hero to root for; yes, Victor’s narration undeniably casts himself as the hero, but Shelley crafts her tale in such a way that it’s impossible to read the book and not hear the creature’s pleas clearly.
That all of this came from a 16-year-old girl is remarkable; that it became the best work from a competition between great writers even more so. But as you read the novel, it’s clear that Shelley’s age and her company played no small part in the creation of this fascinating book; there’s little denying, in my opinion, that Victor bears more than a passing resemblance to the arrogant, self-satisfied, preening Percy Shelley, nor that her concerns were shaped by the Romantic world around her and the lives of her parents.
The simple fact is, Frankenstein is, and remains, a staple of literature for all kinds of reasons: its rich themes, its window into a moment of time, its marriage of the Romantic and Gothic movements, its allegorical implications, its literary impact. But more than any of that, it remains a staple because it really is that good. Nearly 200 years after it was first written, it still retains its power to unsettle, to inspire, and to provoke discussions. The questions it asks – about life, about science, about knowledge, about responsibility – are no less important or relevant now than they were when the book was written. (Indeed, as we move closer to artificial intelligences and science continues to progress into gene therapies and cloning, you could easily argue that they’re even more so today.) And if that’s not enough, there’s the rich, amazing story of a “modern Prometheus” who steals knowledge from the gods and creates a new life, only to suffer for it – but, perhaps, not as much as the life he created. And even after 200 years, that story has lost none of its impact.