Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein

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Another classic I had never read. Mary Shelley apparently started writing the story on a rainy vacation. Here is the basic plot: A ship captain looking for the North Pole encounters a frozen travel stranded on an ice floe and takes him on board the ship. The travel, one Victor Frankenstein, tells him about his life story and in particular the creation of a monstrous life form who ends up killing his little brother, his wife and his best friend. The monster later asks for a companion, which Victor attempts to provide but he later changes his mind and kills the second monster. He ends up in the Arctic in his pursuit of the monster and dies before finding him.

This is the short essay that I wrote for my MOOC (length has to be between 270 and 320 words only):

Mary Shelley’s work belongs to the Romantic era, which follows closely the Age of Enlightenment. Whereas the Enlightenment glorified the scientific approach, the Romantics have a negative opinion of it. I will show how Shelley’s characterization of Frankenstein’s studies and the questionable result of his experimentation put the value of science in question.

The terminology used by the author to describe science reveals an attempt to connect it to other intellectual pursuits. Shelley does use in some places the word “science” but also calls it “natural philosophy” or just “philosophy”. The use of the first term may emphasize the connection to nature, which is highly valued by the Romantics. The use of the word “philosophy” attempts to link scientific understanding to timeless questions examined by thinkers, even when the story explicitly refers to experiments carried out in a chemistry laboratory.

Shelley questions the credibility of science and the sources of knowledge used by her main character. Victor, before attending university, was reading certain authors that he is told, upon entering university, are not the right ones to read. We can infer from this incident that not all books that claim to contain scientific knowledge can be trusted.

Finally, Victor’s attempt at applying his scientific training to the creation of life results in undesirable outcomes. He creates a “monster”, a creature that has human characteristics but is not entirely human in appearance. Victor himself can be thought of as a “monster” for having developed an inflated sense of his own power to give and control life, through having mastered some scientific knowledge. Instead of having developed a sense of wonder at the beauty of nature through his studies, he uses knowledge to create a life which possesses no beauty. This is an affront to the Romantic conception of life.

This might look more like a ramble than an essay…

Similarly to my comments on Bram Stoker’s Dracula, I have quite enjoyed the reading of the original text, quite instructive. What I know of Frankenstein was whatever popular culture has made of the idea of the monster, such as its appearance in cartoons I have seen as a child. Like many people, I thought that Frankenstein was the monster and not the monster’s creator. The other key image in my head was an ad for Cadbury’s Crunchie candy bar that used to run on TV when I was a child. The monster tries to eat a Crunchie and just manages to ram it into his forehead. I looked for it on the Web but I just couldn’t find it.

The electronic version of the book that we were originally directed to through the MOOC webpage was on Google. The quality of the file was dreadful; just like an optical-recognition scan gone wrong… a lot of random or misread characters, enough to make some sentences impossible to read. The epub version on the Gutenberg Project is much better.

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3 responses »

  1. Pingback: What if there’s a monster?On (or close to) Schedule | On (or close to) Schedule

  2. I read Frankenstein during a sci-fi course from my undergrad years. Though I thought it was interesting and presented some tasty moral dilemmas, I wearied quickly of Frankenstein’s weakness. He’s forever having fits 😛 I know that’s a hallmark of the period, but it interfered with my enjoyment of the book. Also, he achieves his goal, takes a look at his creation, and runs away. I had to wonder who raised such a wuss. I found the monster infinitely more engaging.
    Gutenberg is a wonderful source for creative works in the public domain.

    • Yes, I agree with you on Victor, rather annoying… but typical behavior (and writing) of the Romantic period. What I did like about the monster is how he observed the family in the cottage and derived a lot of insights from that about social relationships. We do learn a lot by observation and inference, just like he did.
      On Gutenberg: yes, it is a priceless resource. I quite a few books on my Kobo that are downloaded from there.

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