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Entries in Frankenstein (1)

Monday
Oct112010

On Reading Frankenstein

So I finally got round to reading Frankenstein for the first time. It's often called the first real Science Fiction book, and I thought for that reason alone it ought to be on my reading list. Then passing a good hardcover edition at a book sale for two dollars sealed the deal.

First, a point I have to assume everyone makes about this book, is that the plot has virtually nothing to do with the movie editions that I can recall from my childhood. So let's get that out of the way. No furious hordes with pitchforks. It's a very internal book, going on mostly in the heads of the (two) protagonists.

The best part of the book, arguably one reason for its success, is that it's short and the plot is linear and has some impetus. (Though it's pretty obvious). And the romantic trope of the Faustian bargain for knowledge is a classic.

But there are so many holes in the plot that I find it difficult to get deeply into it. Why should Victor Frankenstein create a being that he finds so horrible? If you look at the critical passage, he first finds the monster beautiful, and then a paragraph later finds it ugly, with no explanation for the change. I suppose we are to assume that the monster became ugly in being brought to life, but this is a supposition I find incredible.

The second issue, more extensive and so more annoying, is that the monster goes from being a real, flesh and blood thing to an unreal, supernatural thing. Without alerting anyone to its presence, it's able to track the protagonist through thousands of miles of inhabited Europe, jumping into frame at just the right time. What, is it also capable of invisibility? Again, this is incredible and so weakens the story.

(I leave aside the premise of the plot: that a nineteenth century chemistry amateur could create or revive -- it's never fully described -- a human being from a mass of something. I'm willing to suspend disbelief that far for the purposes of the book. But not much farther).

The third issue is the whole -- tediously long -- passage outlining how the monster supposedly went from being a dumb beast with a blank slate of a mind to an eloquently thinking, speaking, reading person. It all comes out of a simplistic empiricist view of mind, where a creature can stand by and watch a family for months and months and by so doing learn everything it needs to carry on complex, literary conversations. It's wildly implausible, dated and tendentious.

The monster would also have to have been invisible and inaudible to have done this, but that gets us back to the former problem.

Further, I didn't find any of the main characters (except perhaps Walton at the very beginning and end, who is more or less a nonentity) to be really sympathetic. I'm sure I've heard people claim that the monster was sympathetic, but he's not. He makes his points: he's ugly, he's been maltreated and shunned, but he's also a vicious murderer. And Victor Frankenstein comes across hardly any better: by turns moody, inept and self loathing.

Perhaps the worst issue for me though was the style: nineteenth century romantic melodrama, with a lot of tears, gasps and fainting.

And it doesn't help that while I find the Faustian bargain a fruitful trope, I also rankle with the purer versions of it, of which Frankenstein is one. While there are dangers to power, and science gives power, to imply that knowledge is wholly evil is both factually wrong and also morally deeply questionable.

I'm sure others had a better view of it than I. I'd be interested to hear why.