All you need to know about the books you meant to read
FRANKENSTEIN by Mary Shelley (1818)
Saturday 25 May 1996
The Creature learnt about humanity from three books: Goethe's The Sorrows of Werther (passion), Plutarch's Lives (morality) and Milton's Paradise Lost (religion). Unfortunately, despite this injection of culture, people still tended to run away: an Adam without an Eve, the Creature asked Frankenstein for a mate.
Frankenstein gets cracking but, in a fit of conscience, aborted the experiment. The Creature went mad and murdered most of Frankenstein's family and friends. Frankenstein is in pursuit of the Creature when Walton discovers him.
Frankenstein dies in a final struggle with the creature across the frozen waters. The Creature, who only wanted "happiness and affection'', wanders off hoping to perish of misery and cold. Walton is left to make sense of a story that lies outside the boundaries of interpretation.
Theme: In the early version, Shelley is conducting a dialectical debate between strict materialists and their religious opponents. The 1831 revision seems a conservative reappraisal: the book is now a dire warning of the consequences that fall on Frankenstein for meddling in God's Business.
Essentially, Shelley is outlining the irresponsibility of the creative act, as spelt out in her epigraph from Paradise Lost: "Did I request thee Maker, from my clay/ To mould me a Man?'' Frankenstein is Prometheus/Satan enduring punishment from a creator he loves/reviles.
Style: Shelley's protean prose captures Walton's prissy incompetence, Frankenstein's evasive rhetoric and the plangency of the Creature's limitless despair. The book's casualness intensifies the breathless immediacy.
Chief strengths: From potentially silly material, Shelley mines a work which is intelligently sui generis. Usually classed as "gothic'', Frankenstein lacks most of the usual gothic appurtenances: castles, bats and sado-masochistic sex. The book is closer to science fiction than anything else.
The Creature's plight is touching: the extent of his loneliness is conveyed with devastating poetry.
Chief weakness: There are too many ideas jostling for attention and too little space to develop them: one of the reasons why Shelley bowdlerised the story into a Christian allegory for the 1831 revision.
What They Thought Of It Then: Politely received, although Walter Scott's nerves were severely shaken. By 1823 there was a theatrical adaptation which sentimentalised Shelley's conception by silencing the Monster. The book remained unread while becoming part of the common intellectual currency.
What We Think Of It Now: Interpretations abound. Structuralists view the story itself as a "Monster'' devouring Mary Shelley; Marxists propose that the Creature is a model for the alienated proletariat; and feminists believe it demonstrates "what happens when a man tries to have a baby without a woman.''
Responsible for: Making Boris Karloff's career - but almost wrecking that of Ken Russell (Gothic) and Kenneth Branagh (Frankenstein). Directors should attend to the allegory of the creation that destroys its creator.
Life & Style blogs
Video shows how to turn your phone into a 3D hologram
Gill Pharaoh: Healthy former nurse, 75, passes away at assisted dying clinic after deciding old age is 'awful'
NHS hospitals told not to fill vacancies as cash crisis bites
Porn block in India: hundreds of sexual websites banned, internet outraged
What do the emojis on Snapchat mean?
Is Britain really full up? Are migrants taking our jobs? Leading academic answers the most common anti-immigration claims
Calais Migrant Crisis: Deputy Mayor of Calais labels Cameron's use of 'swarm' as 'racist' and 'ignorant'
Chris Leslie: Jeremy Corbyn's anti-austerity agenda will harm the poor, says Labour shadow Chancellor
Landlords renting properties to illegal immigrants to face up to five years in prison
While we fixate on Calais, the Home Office is quietly deporting dozens of migrants on 'ghost flights'
Calais crisis: The seven claims made about the migrants - and the reality
- 2 Edward Heath 'child sex abuse' allegation: Investigation to be held into Wiltshire police handling of alleged claim in the 1990s
- 3 Dutch King Willem-Alexander declares the end of the welfare state
- 4 A-level results 2015: UK exam board OCR admits it 'estimates' hundreds of pupils' grades after papers 'go missing'
- 5 Giant Minion terrorises drivers in Ireland as 40ft inflatable blocks busy Dublin road
£22000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This Garden Centre complex base...
£36000 - £38000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Buyer is required to join thi...
£20000 - £25000 per annum + OTE £45K: SThree: SThree Group have been well esta...
£20000 - £25000 per annum + OTE £45000: SThree: SThree Group have been well es...