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.

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