“Learn from me, if not by my precepts, at least by my example, how dangerous is the acquirement of knowledge, and how much happier that man is who believes his native town to be his world, than he who aspires to become greater than his nature will allow.”
– Mary Shelley, Frankenstein
In my final year at university, I enrolled in a gothic literature subject that sounded a little mad. It was called ‘Gothic literature and its children’ and it looked at the classics such as The Italian by Ann Radcliffe, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson, Frankenstein by Mary Shelley and the modern day stories that they inspired. In the opening few minutes of the first class, the lecturer asked how many people thought that the monster himself was called Frankenstein… and almost 95% of the class raised their hands. Not our brightest moment! If you were honest – would you have raised your hand too?
It is hard to believe that Mary Shelley was only 19 years old when she wrote Frankenstein. Based on a dream she had, Shelly saw a ‘scientist who galvanised life from the bones he has collected in charnel houses’. Shelley tells the story of a young scientist who creates life with a collection of stolen body parts from the bodies of the dead. Victor Frankenstein is an arrogant young man whose ego drives him to do what others haven’t managed before – to bring life back to the dead. However when his creation finally comes to life, he is consumed by guilt, fear and loathing. The monster is a gruesome beast although he isn’t inherently evil. After watching his ‘adopted’ family for some time, he acquires some humane characteristics such as compassion and the ability to learn about himself. It isn’t until Frankenstein rejects the monster that it turns on the world to avenge the suffering he has endured and kills for revenge.
I was genuinely surprised at how much I loved this book. Classics can be so difficult to read but Shelly’s language is vivid and complex yet easy to read. Her exploration of what it means to be human is chilling and at times, quite sad. The best parts of the book are told from the monster’s perspective. Despite the horror he causes, the monster is curious about human behaviour; he watches people to try and understand them. He is a complex character whose loneliness will resonate with readers. The monster’s confusion and hurt from being spurned by his creator is a very human reaction.
Shelley proposes many questions to the reader but the biggest perhaps is what happens when your story becomes bigger than you can control? At what point does knowledge become a threat to human kind. The monster is a manifestation of Frankenstein’s ego and it becomes bigger than he can handle. It is a question that is as relevant now as it was in 1818 when this book was first written. Of all the classics I have read, this one will always be a favourite!