I am a great believer that, as writing changes throughout history, so do the reader’s expectations of what makes a good book. Recently I finished the classic Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley. I went into it with expectations I garnered from movies and plays I’ve seen it adapted into. Thus, I knew the plot, but it was the writing itself that threw me off.
I am a modern reader and it has been a couple months before I even read a classic. Saying that, I think I (and most modern readers) have general expectations of what makes a good book. However, that does not always align with how people wrote a century ago, but much less two centuries ago when this was written.
Frankenstein was published in 1818 by the then twenty-one-year-old Mary Shelley. For reference, she started this book when she was eighteen. And, if you’ve read it, you know that that is pretty incredible. I cannot imagine any modern eighteen-year-old teen having the capability, understanding, or vocabulary for such an undertaking.
For those who are unaware (or spent their life living under a rock with no knowledge of this book whatsoever), Frankenstein tells the story of Dr. Victor Frankenstein, who becomes obsessed with creating life and does indeed create a monster, only to shun it when it comes to life. The creature, who at first is good, becomes twisted due to humanity’s hatred of his exterior, and ends up destroying Frankenstein’s life and the lives of those innocents around him.
To be honest, it feels more like a cautionary tale then it feels like a true horror. I was going to do a thorough review of it, but then I realized that my perspective in trying to judge it is vastly effected by my modern perspective. Thus, I’m instead going to examine the issues with reading this book as a modern reader.
This book is extremely slow-paced. I listened to it on audiobook, as opposed to in book form, so admittedly I would have skimmed a lot if I had read it. There were so many times when the author went into details of Victor’s day-to-day life and his constantly adapting knowledge. To the modern reader, this book might be boring because we expect quick thrills (in the age of the internet), and yet a reader during the eighteen hundreds was used to a more relaxed, methodical approach to books.
The story is told completely by people telling stories. First is Captain Walton’s letters to his sister, telling her about picking up Victor Frankenstein out of the ocean. Next is Victor’s story to Walton about his creating the monster. And inside that is the tale of the creature after he leaves Victor’s scientific factory. So there are a total of three stories inside each other.
If this was a modern book, the story would not be told in past action, but in the present. A lot of the part in the beginning would be cut out, of Victor’s five chapters as a child and attending university. How much, I wonder, would that change the story?
After all, in the book itself we never meet the creature. We only know him through Victor’s tale.
If this book was made in the modern day, the biggest change would be the female characters. While I liked all the female characters—Elizabeth, Agatha, Safie, Justine—they were all pretty much the same character. Demure, sweet, subservient, etc. If a book with all these female characters came out in the modern age, you can be certain feminists would go on a rampage.
However, if you read a lot of books during that time, you will see that women were often portrayed as sweet and sensitive. While there is nothing wrong with a sweet and sensitive woman, to portray all of them like that is living in denial. That is probably why characters like Elizabeth Bennet from Pride and Prejudice and Beatrice from Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing have endured into the modern day: because they are strong, intelligent women (sometimes to a fault, as we see with Elizabeth’s prejudice and Beatrice’s unkindness).
But is that wrong, I wonder? In the current age, we have this obsession with portraying female characters merely as strong, sassy, snarky, and sexy (to get that alliteration going). Is that not just as stereotyped as these demure, sweet women we see in books like Frankenstein? Just a thought.
Horror vs. Philosophy
This book is considered one of the first true horror stories as well as debatably the first science fiction. However, the biggest difference I see with classic horror books like these verses modern horror is the emphasis.
In modern horror, everything is about the fear. The adrenaline of seeing a character in danger and not knowing what might happen. In classic horror, we do not see these intense danger scenes, and instead examine the philosophy behind humanity.
For example, this book has powerful themes of ostracizing, prejudice, cruelty, misunderstandings, and caution against trying to control nature. If one aspect of the story was changed, its tragic ending would not be brought about. If Victor had not created the creature…if he had properly cared for it instead of running away…if humanity had not ostracized it…if the monster had not let his anger consume him…if Victor had tried to help the creature later…all these things could have dramatically changed the ending.
This book does not come across as horror, though there are horrific aspects that, if it had been written by a modern author, would have guaranteed its horror genre. As it is, this book feels more like an examination of philosophy surrounding the themes I mentioned above, told through an analogy.
Who Was Prometheus?
This book is known as The Modern Prometheus, and while many more people in 1818 studied ancient Greek stories, we in the modern age do not. So I decided to look it up to understand the context of this story.
Promethus was a trickster Titan in ancient Greek mythology who supposedly created a man out of clay. He is attributed, in fact, to creating mankind. He then educated the man and taught him to hunt, read, heal, etc.
You can already see the biggest difference. Promethus took care of his human, whereas Victor abandoned his. This is the aspect that sets this story apart.
Is it Worth Reading?
I am a great advocate of reading classic novels, so my stance is always to say yes. Saying that, I don’t think this book should be read in the mindset that it will be a scary horror. Instead, read it in a mindset of understanding the world and our own failings. There is nothing more humbling than realizing that we ourselves, no matter how brilliant we are, have weaknesses. Most of us would probably run when seeing such a creature, just as Victor does.
It is a common phrase now-a-days that you should not be judged by your looks, and yet we still do. Of course our exterior shows a hint of what’s inside, but it should not be our only judgement. Some of us are born unappealing to modern beauty standards; some of us are twisted by people’s cruelty, and become cruel ourselves. This is reality.
But there is also much good in people; good that is often ignored. In the modern day, we are becoming obsessed with what makes us different. What we think…how we look…our different cultures. Though, when it comes down to it, we are still human. We fear, love, hate, and feel sadness. We have more in common than we are different.
That is why I think this book is still relevant, even if it is written in such a different style than we modern readers expect.
Have you read Frankenstein? If so, what are your thoughts about it? If not, why (if you’re too busy, I completely understand)? Let me know down in the comments, follow my blog for more madness, and, as always,
Best wishes in your life full of adventures,