Tuesday, September 09, 2008

RIP III Review: Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

I've been thinking about how to review this and have decided I'm going to just jump right in. Who has time to try to be clever and original about a classic when there's a nasty gastrointestinal virus lurking about your household? So here goes...

Main reaction to the book:

Frankenstein is truly a weird little book. This was the first time I'd read it, and I found it complex, complicated and unexpectedly short. But I liked it, and it's going to be something I'll read several times because there were too many themes for me to be able to absorb in one go 'round. The conflict between science and nature, the influence of nature versus nurture, the impact of loneliness and the need for socialization...these are only some of the main themes in the book. And all of the themes I managed to pick out are equally important today as they were when this book was written. I've written about the tragedy at Virginia Tech in previous posts and as I read the novel it kept coming back to mind, so for this reading I suppose the focus was on loneliness, isolation, and failed attempts at communication. Later on my focus could easily change to the prospect of cloned animals already being in our food supply. And later on, something completely different. The possibility is there.

Basic outline (spoiler-free):
It really isn't about the monster at all (who goes unnamed in the story -- apparently we the readers are the ones who have taken the step to give him a name). The plot centers around the creator, Frankenstein, an ambitious, intelligent young man who has devoted himself to the study of natural sciences. He proves himself to be a worthy scholar and throws himself headlong into the discovery of the origins of life, where he finds success. His compulsions and rationalizations in his scientific work are explained to us and then we are drawn into the resulting nightmare along with him. He's not a wholly sympathetic character, though, and so I was unsettled throughout the book, not knowing who really deserved my pity.

An unexpected detail:

The descriptions of natural setting were awesome and added a lot to the unsettling atmosphere of the book. Some of them I've visited fairly recently and some of them are familiar to me through blogging friends, so I felt a deep connection with certain landscapes. Others were completely alien and exotic and thus appropriate for a good RIP read. Throughout the book there were vast changes in setting that I wasn't really prepared for, but felt that they really added to the emotional experience of reading. Sometimes I get annoyed with long, drawn-out descriptions of bushes and shrubs and so forth, but everything worked for me in this case.

Shelley trivia:
  • She was in her late teens when she wrote Frankenstein.
  • The novel developed out of a "friendly ghost story competition" that was suggested by Lord Byron.
  • The inspiration for the novel came from a dream.
Words of advice:
  • Shelley's life is at least as interesting as her most known work, and it is definitely worth the time and perhaps expense to seek out a copy that includes at least a short biographical essay. Last year I checked out some random, scruffy, dog-eared, teeny-print copy from the library that was so minimal and ugly that I opened the book once, said, "Ugh" and put it away. I found a sale copy of Frankenstein that included an introduction, footnotes and the like, and that was a good decision on my part.

  • It's not particulary scary or gory, just really unsettling and thought-provoking. I think it's a book that needs to be read towards the end of summer/beginning of autumn; the mood fits this time period rather than closer to Halloween, when I'm ready to get my freak on with scary books. If it's in your pool, read it towards the beginning of the RIP challenge, I think.

  • Be forewarned that it took me a few minutes to figure out when the book actually started. There's a layered narrative thing going on, which to be honest I found confusing and disliked. I'm willing to overlook that in light of the overall benefit of the novel, but just wanted to encourage people to roll with the beginning because it does get better. I remember hitting Chapter 5 and feeling that this was actually the beginning of the book and the previous pages were a little bit of tedious but necessary scene setting. I guess if you really get frustrated you can go ahead to Chapter 5 and then go back to catch up as needed.

  • If you do buy a book with an introduction, read it last. My copy had a great introduction that had huge plot spoilers in the first paragraph, unfortunately. Really, they should put these kinds of things at the end where people can appreciate them better. Harumph.


Nymeth said...

It is a very complex little book, isn't it? And definitely one you get more and more out of with which re-read.

And I agree with you that Shelley's life was just as interesting. I'm someone who never reads biographies, and yet this year I read two of hers.

Chris said...

I have to reread this one soon. I just loved it in college. Mary Shelley is such an interesting figure.

Anonymous said...

I read Frankenstein in my first year of university, and really appreciated the chance to discuss it in some depth. Your review has got me wanting to reread it!

Framed said...

Thanks for the warning about the introduction. I've become very disgruntled with spoilters in introductions. Hopefully, I can get this book read during next year's RIP challenge.

Pardon My French said...

I already can't wait to re-read this one. It's definitely a keeper! I'll have to check out some biographies as well because I'm sorely lacking in those. I think I've only read Carson McCullers' bio so I think I'll seek out one on Shelley and Flannery.

Anonymous said...