This book surprised me. It was not at all what I thought it would be. We are confronted with Frankenstein everywhere in popular mythology; but it is a bastardized version of what Shelley tried to give us, bereft of meaning and morals and instead a character in our theater of the grotesque to satisfy our ever-deepening need for the morbid and the shocking.
There’s a duality to Shelley’s Frankenstein and his monster. It is in fact natural that we have lost the plot of the book, that we call the monster itself Frankenstein. For it was in fact the second part of Vincent Frankenstein, that final expression of his hubris and immorality which gave birth to a wicked abortion which in the end knew only evil and revenge. I think it is telling that the monster is more of a sympathetic character than the mad scientist. He is more eloquent, has a greater need for human connection, and has a greater sense of empathy than the man. The man was cold and ambitious, and gave his monster his human traits – all of them.
Shelley’s original title for this work was “Frankenstein or the Modern Prometheus”. That legendary figure which seeded life; but our modern Prometheus is vile and ugly and in the end deeply evil; an evil product of his rage and loneliness and emptiness.
And of course this book is a version of an ancient story with an ancient lesson (which we get from the Bible, from Noah to the tower of Babel): not all that can be done should. We are pretty proud of our limited technological achievements, we who still burn dead plants for our energy. We who cannot cure even the basic diseases which ravage us, such as cancer and the common cold love to shake our fists at God in defiance – “We no longer need Him,” we say, “nor His pesky morality. For we are the new Prometheus!” as we seed the world with our ghastly wickedness. This is the lesson that Shelley is trying to give us, and though written over 200 years ago it still rings true today. We are not as great as we think; our dabbling in affairs we do not understand can create great evils we cannot control, evils which will consume all of us before they go to their fiery pyres. That we should temper our experimentation with compassion and wisdom and a realization of whence comes our occasional and tiny creative sparks.
No, this book is not a Halloween thriller – though that is what pop culture has made it. It is a book about man’s limitations in the face of a fearsome God. No wonder its meaning has been twisted – who these days wants to read a book about that??