Culling The Classics: Frankenstein

After a brief sabbatical, during which I may or may not have competed in a ghost story competition in a villa on the banks of a Swiss lake, I have returned to cull as many classics as sense and good fortune will allow. Many thanks to Cath Murphy, who very ably stepped in last month with her culling of Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar. I'm sure she would have gladly taken over the reins yet again so I could finish my possibly nonexistent ghost story and/or rest comfortably in that lovely villa, but I couldn't miss October—especially not after all the fun I had reading last year's Halloween selection, Dracula.*

*Sarcasm

This October's spooky classic is even older and more Gothic/Romantic than last year's, which I honestly did not think was possible.

The Book

Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus, by Mary Shelley (Lackington, Hughes, Harding, Mavor & Jones, 1818)

Knowledge is knowing that Frankenstein isn't the monster; wisdom is knowing that Frankenstein is the monster; pretension is reading this book just so you can make asshole statements like that.

The Numbers

The pinnacle of Gothic and Romantic literature, and arguably the world's first true science fiction novel; has inspired countless adaptive works, with film versions of the novel's characters appearing as early as 1910 and theater renditions of the story being staged as early as 1823; spawned one of the most popular characters in the history of horror, with songs, comic books, televisions shows, toys, and numberless Halloween decorations incorporating the novel's iconic monster (there's even a cereal); Goodreads rating of 3.70.

The Spoiler-Free Skinny

Some English dude named Walton decides to sail to the North Pole because #adventure, and along his journey he writes letters back to his sister. He tells about how, while his ship is trapped in ice, he and his crew spy a massive figure upon a dogsled traveling north, followed a few hours later by a gaunt and near-death man named Victor Frankenstein, whom the crew take aboard. Victor then tells Walton (who tells his sister), about his terrible life and all of the ridiculous mistakes that he's made in the name of science. Chief among these mistakes was the creation of an eight-foot tall monster fashioned out of reassembled body parts. Disgusted, Victor flees from the the creature, who gets all emo about the rejection and kills a bunch of people. Later, the creature learns how to talk and basically just wants to chill with Victor, who is basically his dad, but Victor is all GTFO, leading to more emo killings.

You'll Love It

Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein when she was only 18, which is incredible given the psychological, emotional, and social depth of the novel. There are layers upon layers of scathing criticisms on the state of European opinions in the early 19th century, insightful analyses of the notion that god has abandoned his children, intense looks at the responsibilities of man in a scientific age, harrowing indictments on the selfish nature of humanity, chilling commentaries on the universal fear of parenthood, and countless other Deep and Meaningful Symbols and Metaphors. It is truly the work of a genius, carved into a simple story that haunts the mind.

You'll Loathe It

Yeah, sure, that's great, but it's all hidden beneath stuff like this:

It is with considerable difficulty that I remember the original era of my being; all the events of that period appear confused and indistinct. A strange multiplicity of sensations seized me, and I saw, felt, heard, and smelt at the same time; and it was, indeed, a long time before I learned to distinguish between operations of my various senses. By degrees, I remember, a stronger light pressed upon my nerves, so that I was obliged to shut my eyes. Darkness then came over me and troubled me, but hardly had I felt this when, by opening my eyes, as I now suppose, the light poured in upon me again. I walked and, I believe, descended, but I presently found a great alteration in my sensations. Before, dark and opaque bodies had surrounded me, impervious to my touch or sight; but now I found that I could wander on at liberty, with no obstacles which I could not either surmount or avoid. The light became more and more oppressive to me, and the heat wearying me as I walked, I sought a place where I could receive shade. this was the forest near Ingolstadt; and here I lay by the side of a brook resting from my fatigue, until I felt tormented by hunger and thirst. This roused me from my nearly dormant state, and I ate some berries which I found hanging on the trees or lying on the ground. I slaked my thirst at the brook, and then lying down, was overcome by sleep.

Here the monster is describing his first moments of sentience (so at this point Walton is telling his sister about a story that Victor told him about a story that the monster told him, for those keeping track—it goes a few levels deeper at times). Think about that: this creature basically just learned how to think, and already he is rambling on and on and listing every possible sight, sound, and sensation he comes across. These characters are all so mindlessly self-aware at every possible moment.

Read It Or Leave It

More than any other book I think I've ever culled, this one comes down to taste and preference. There are plenty of readers who probably saw that passage above and thought, "Wait, what's wrong with that?" If you're a fan of flowery prose, extended exposition, and endless commas and semicolons, then you're going to really enjoy this book for all of its nuance and allegory.

However, if you can't stand books where characters are constantly spouting out every thought that comes into their heads, including each individual flower they pass, how they feel about that particular flower, their personal history with flowers, their parents' moral position on flowers, and the great transcendental beauty of flowers that eclipses all attempts by man to consider the flowers as they grow in great sweeping meadows among the valleys and mountaintops of the Swiss countryside, a land so long missed and so gratefully returned to, despite such horrific circumstances, made the more bittersweet by the thrill of happiness that accompanies a reunion with one's true beloved, so longed for since the earliest days of childhood, when games of fancy stood as premonition of the delights of love that would accompany the pair in later life, grown now in love and in the ways of the world, despite its black and industrial heart of late—wait, what was I saying? Oh right—then you are going to wish this monster just broke Victor's neck within the first five pages so you didn't have to suffer through his poetical musings.

The Final Verdict

Knowledge is knowing that Frankenstein isn't the monster; wisdom is knowing that Frankenstein is the monster; pretension is reading this book just so you can make asshole statements like that.

There's nothing here you couldn't get off the Wikipedia page, so don't bother unless you're already really into this kind of Gothic Romance stuff. If that's the case, you're gonna LOVE it.

Brian McGackin

Column by Brian McGackin

Brian McGackin is the author of BROETRY (Quirk Books, 2011). He has a BA from Emerson College in Something Completely Unrelated To His Life Right Now, and a Masters in Poetry from USC. He enjoys Guinness, comic books, and Bruce Willis movies.

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Comments

nathaniel parker's picture
nathaniel parker from Cincinnati is reading The Dark Tower ~ King October 31, 2014 - 8:59am

Is "he writers letters back to his sister." on purpose?

Brian McGackin's picture
Brian McGackin from NJ/LA is reading Between the World and Me October 31, 2014 - 1:32pm

Yes, it's slang. It's kinda like saying, "He firemen that inferno," or maybe like, "She police officers that hoodlum," or my favorite, "Let's chefs this lasagna!" All the kids are using nouns as verbs these days.