All you need to know about the books you meant to read

FRANKENSTEIN by Mary Shelley (1818)

Plot: Walton, an Arctic explorer, picks up Victor Frankenstein who is marooned on a floe. Frankenstein was a student of natural science: he stumbled on a means of sparking life into inanimate matter. His experiments grew wild; he spent leisure hours combing abattoirs, charnel houses and graveyards. From odds and ends he constructed an eight foot Creature who lacked sex appeal.

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.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: Gas Installation Engineer

    £29000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Gas Installation Engineer is required ...

    Recruitment Genius: Sales Advisor - Opportunities Available Nationwide

    £15000 - £70000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a great opportunity to ...

    Recruitment Genius: Experienced Special Needs Support Worker

    £12 - £14 per hour: Recruitment Genius: We are looking for someone to join a s...

    Recruitment Genius: Content Assistant / Copywriter

    £15310 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An exciting opportunity has arisen for a...

    Day In a Page

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

    Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
    Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

    Aviation history is littered with grand failures

    But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

    Fortress Europe?

    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
    Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

    Never mind what you're wearing

    It's what you're reclining on that matters
    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence