It’s been about fifteen years since I first read this. It was required for a first-year English course at university, and I rushed through it rather quickly, as one sometimes does for assigned reading. During my final exam for that course, which involved an impromptu essay on the book, I managed to include an event from Kenneth Branagh’s 1994 adaptation that did not occur in the novel itself, despite having finished the book, having discussed the event at length in class, and having not seen the movie for half a decade.
I remember burning with shame at the thought of my instructor reading that essay. It wasn’t until later in my university career that I started taking pride in my grades, so I was more embarrassed as a reader than I was as a student. Over the years I even began to doubt whether or not I had finished the entire novel. Having read it again now, I’m fairly sure I did and just had a minor breakdown in that exam.
A sea captain comes across Victor Frankenstein freezing to death while travelling in the arctic. Once recovered, Victor tells the man his entire story, and this novel is in the form of letters from the sea captain to his sister back home, recounting that tale. It’s an epistolary novel only in the sense that the story is framed by the idea of writing these letters, but once the true plot begins it’s as if you’re just listening to Victor speak. I feel sorry for the poor traveler who agreed to deliver the captain’s letter to his sister, not knowing at the time that it was hundreds upon hundreds of handwritten pages.
I forgot how quickly the creation of the monster takes place. Every film adaptation has such a build up, with lightning rods and cackling into the darkness and ‘It’s alive!’, but it happens so quickly in the novel. It’s quite a slow-paced read, in a way that I enjoy, but this scene is really only a few paragraphs. He toils for 2 years at the university, focusing all of his energy on this one event, and as soon as the monster twitches with life, Victor’s suddenly overcome with what he’s done. Blinded with his ambition and thirst for knowledge, he didn’t stop to consider the horror of an animated corpse. He ran out the door before he could see how extraordinary the creature really was.
“Life, although it may only be an accumulation of anguish, is dear to me, and I will defend it.”
This leaves the monster bewildered, obviously, and he escapes into the wild. When Victor next encounters him, he’s learned to speak and has become angry with his abandonment. He offers Victor an ultimatum – create another monster, a female with whom he can find the companionship he so desperately seeks, or have his life ruined.
I mentioned above that this is a slowly paced novel, but I don’t personally find that to be a negative. I love the time we spend in these character’s heads. The monster proves himself to have humanity while still living up to his title, and Victor proves himself to be every bit the monster as the one he created. It’s easier to have compassion for the monster, considering what he’d been through, and also because Victor Frankenstein is just the worst, but they’re both incredibly flawed and interesting characters to follow.
Victor gives an inspirational speech to a ship crew near the end of the novel, a crew that is ready to turn back and give up on their expedition, and it’s the first time in quite a while he isn’t crumbling with self hate and pity. He can be so determined, as we see here and at the beginning of the novel, and it’s such a stark contrast to the sniveling pity party he turns into at the flick of a switch. He’s a self-destructive but gifted man.
“Did you not call this a glorious expedition? And wherefore was it glorious? Not because the way was smooth and placid as a southern sea, but because it was full of dangers and terror, because at every new incident your fortitude was to be called forth and your courage exhibited, because danger and death surrounded it, and these you were to brave and overcome. For this was it a glorious, for this was it an honourable undertaking. You were hereafter to be hailed as the benefactors of your species, your names adored as belonging to brave men who encountered death for honour and the benefit of mankind. And now, behold, with the first imagination of danger, or, if you will, the first mighty and terrific trial of your courage, you shrink away and are content to be handed down as men who had not strength enough to endure cold and peril; and so, poor souls, they were chilly and returned to their warm firesides. Why, that requires not this preparation; ye need not have come thus far and dragged your captain to the shame of a defeat merely to prove yourselves cowards. Oh! Be men, or be more than men. Be steady to your purposes and firm as a rock. This ice is not made of such stuff as your hearts may be; it is mutable and cannot withstand you if you say that it shall not. Do not return to your families with the stigma of disgrace marked on your brows. Return as heroes who have fought and conquered and who know not what it is to turn their backs on the foe.”
I thought for my re-read this time I’d listen to it in audiobook format. Dan Stevens, from Downton Abbey, is the narrator of the latest Audible version, and while I didn’t mind him on that show, I wasn’t really excited to listen to him. I put trust in the reviews, however, and I’m so glad I picked this version. It was a fantastic reading of a thought-provoking and eerie novel.