Frankenstein: The Modern Prometheus
© 1818 Mary Shelley
“Shall I respect man when he contemns me? Let him live with me in the interchange of kindness; and, instead of injury, I would bestow every benefit upon him with tears of gratitude at his acceptance. But that cannot be; the human senses are insurmountable barriers to our union. Yet mine shall not be the submission of abject slavery. I will revenge my injuries: if I cannot inspire love, I will cause fear; and chiefly towards you my arch-enemy, because my creator, do I swear inextinguishable hatred. Have a care: I will work at your destruction, nor finish until I desolate your heart, so that you shall curse the hour of your birth.”
An attempt to reach the North Pole is interrupted by the sight of eerie figures chasing one another upon the ice, and they have a tale of misery to recount. The man rescued by the ship, Victor Frankenstein, was an enthusiast of natural philosophy, and specifically the the power to create life. Captain Walton of the polar exploration vessel had been yearning for the friendship of someone who wanted to probe nature’s darkest mysteries, but Frankenstein’s story proved to be one of warning rather than encouragement. After relating his early fascination with occult figures and scientists alike, Frankenstein describes the horror he experienced when he succeeded in actually bringing a cobbled-together man to life, and how it pursued him across Europe, driven by despair and wrath at having been created. The monster himself also appears in the story, both through Frankenstein’s recollection — the two have a confrontation in which the monster recounts his pitiful life thus far and charges Frankenstein with giving him a companion that he can flee into exile with — and aboard the ship as the last, before he disappears in a wintry haze.
I read Frankenstein in one sitting, which I hadn’t expected to do. The monsters of Halloween have never had a great appeal for me, so most of this — besides the scientist making a man — was completely new. This Norton critical edition proved highly readable, supported with annotations to explain period-specific references or vocabulary which now borders on archaic. There’s no getting around this book being a warning about the reckless pursuit of knowledge at any cost; beyond Frankenstein’s attempt at creating life, which only resulted in a string of bloody murders and the destruction of both creature and creation, there’s also the frequently-mentioned destruction of native American societies, specifically Mexico and Peru, as a result of enthusiastic exploration. Captain Walton himself proves to be someone who can learn from other’s mistakes, as — faced with hostile polar conditions that threaten his ship and crew — he retreats to England. There were certainly surprises here, like the description of the creature as “beautiful” — save for his eyes. (I wonder if, given that eyes were regarded as windows to the soul, if repulsive eyes hinted at the beast’s depravity or brutishness.)
This Norton critical edition is particularly helpful in understanding the book. While I only read the story proper, it also contains a short essay on different versions of the story — one edit implies the monster dies, another leaves his future shrouded in a storm — as well as period responses and related poetry.