Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
read by Cori Samuel
Recently, the leadership in my ladies only sf book club opened up. Naturally, because attempting to navigate adult life, working two gigs, and garner funding for Operation New York isn’t enough of a challenge, I decided to take on the responsibility. To be fair, it’s a lovely gig—running discussion, organizing our monthly meetings, and thinking about fun field trips for a pack of literary-minded lady nerds. (Oh my goodness, we should totally all go see Her before it leaves theaters! Good idea, me!) To mark a new era of our book club, I decided that we needed to start at the beginning, when the eighteen-year-old Mary Shelley created science fiction, to significantly better results than her protagonist.
Frankenstein is one of those ubiquitous texts in Western culture. Being raised in a pop culture proof bubble by French wolves has made me fascinated with the texts that saturate our culture to the point that you don’t actually have to experience them. (Although I did read Frankenstein in high school, giving me quite the taste for this painting.) To this day, I have never read The Wizard of Oz, but I’m very familiar with the story because it’s practically in the water. Well, to be more specific, the film adaptation is in the water, putting it in a similar situation to Frankenstein. The sheer volume of film as a medium has made the iconic film adaptations of both novels, well, iconic. Dorothy’s red shoes and the bolts in Frankenstein’s monster’s neck are both cinematic inventions, but they capture the imagination in such a way as to obscure the original text.
Which, no disrespect to Whale’s vision of Frankenstein and its influence on horror in film, is a bit of a shame. Frankenstein is a moody, Gothic, and often melodramatic piece, largely concerned about how to nurture morality in a human being. And that makes it speculative fiction in its purest form—using the fantastic to explore the human condition.
Victor Frankenstein’s blissful upbringing put me a bit in mind of Rousseau’s Emile. He has a loving family, a designated helpmeet in his cousin Elizabeth, and all the care and education he could wish for. There’s something almost charming about how perfect it is, especially Elizabeth and Victor experimenting at home, because we know it won’t last. Everything for Victor is perfect until one snake comes into his Edenic childhood—outdated scientific texts that he begins to study with a passion bordering on obsession.
Nature and nurture is an obvious debate to have when it comes to Frankenstein, and it starts with that incident. Victor’s family is depicted in the most glowing and rapturous of terms, to make their deaths all the more cruel and sensational, but this is the only time we see his father err in his parenting. Instead of calmly explaining that the text he has begun to read with such passion is outdated, he simply tells Victor that it’s trash (in much nicer, kinder language). Without a reason, Victor continues with his errant studies, until he finds himself standing over a reanimated corpse in horror. And then the same narrative is played out in full with the monster, who suffers so much under the hand of everyone he turns to that he becomes willfully immoral.
That’s the most chilling thing about the monster, really; that he does become a moral, rational creature, with absolutely no help from Frankenstein, and then, disgusted by humanity’s cruelty to him, turns away from it. Morality is a fraught value throughout the novel. Frankenstein suffers great mental anguish as he tries to balance what he truly owes to the monster with his own sufferings under his hand. But the most telling moment comes when Elizabeth’s beloved friend Justine is framed and then executed for a murder the monster has committed. Frankenstein’s rationalizing cowardice prevents him from saving her long before she confesses her guilt. Elizabeth’s worldview is based on the morality of those she loves. Justine’s confession troubles her worldview so much that she almost snaps—to what end, I’ve no idea, but it sends her a few interesting steps down the monster’s path.
My second encounter with LibriVox was more enjoyable than my first. To hear a female reader give a female writer’s novel life is an experience that’s unfortunately rare for me. (I will, of course, take recommendations for any others.) Cori Samuel’s thin, clear English voice fits the material perfectly, making it just the right thing to listen to in the dead of winter. She’s more often a collaborator than a solo reader on the website, but I heartily recommend her as a narrator.
Bottom line: Frankenstein’s legacy precedes it, but the moody, Gothic origins of science fiction remain a fascinating read about morality and nature versus nurture. Well worth a read (or a listen!).