Also known as The Modern Prometheus, Frankenstein was first published anonymously in 1818, then was republished in 1923, crediting Mary Shelley as its author for the first time.
Frankenstein opens with a series of letters written by Captain Robert Walton telling of his North Pole expedition (the first two letters are totally irrelevant to the story) and the discovery of a man named Victor Frankenstein, who was searching for a gigantic man.
The story continues with narration by Frankenstein, and in fact might very well have begun here after a short prologue. But ... Frankenstein is a classic, so who am I to complain over writing published nearly 200 years ago?
Victor's family moves from Switzerland to Italy, and soon adopts Elizabeth as his sister. They return to Switzerland when a brother is born. In ensuing years, Henry Clerval, a merchant's son, becomes a good friend. Natural philosophy become Victor's passion, cast aside when he becomes obsessed with the elixir of life and electricity, only to be reaccepted under the guidance of a respected professor.
One day he has an epiphany, the secret of restoring life to an inanimate human being. So he begins a two-year drive with but a single purpose: to construct a man – an eight-foot-tall, living, breathing human being. He succeeds, only to regret and to face humility at his audacity to such creation, falling into a funk that defies healing.
Victor's worries are thankfully cleared and his relief heightened when his creation flees and his dear friend Clerval arrives to take up study of Oriental languages at Ingolstadt.
The murder of his little brother draws Victor back home to Geneva, fraught with despair and sure that the villain is none other than his horrid creation. Adopted sister Justine Moritz is accused, confesses and is executed, but Victor will not be convinced of her guilt. He blames himself for their deaths.
At last, on Montanvert summit near the village of Chamonix, his creation reveals itself and proves to be quite articulate, promising to leave Victor and his friends and loved ones alone if his demand is met: Create a woman for him, to be his lifelong companion. That's when we hear the creature's tale – the story of what transpired soon after he was created, a tale of being scorned and reviled for his ignorance and deformities, tempered by music and the innocence of youth.
Upon promise to fulfill the creature's wish, Victor and Clerval travel to the British Isles – Victor to find time and space to create the woman, Clerval to expand his experience and knowledge. It is fully expected by everyone that on his return, Victor and Elizabeth will marry.
He settles in Scotland, temporarily removed from his friend, to complete his promise to his creation. But he fails to keep his promise, resulting in the tragic murder of dear friend Clerval, and condemning all else whom he loved to a horrid death at the hands of his creation.
If you read Frankenstein with the movie stereotype images in your mind, you may become confused. There is no Transylvania, just Ingolstadt in Switzerland. There is no hunchbacked Igor. There is no flat-headed Boris Karloff stumbling about with leaden legs and arms stretched forward. There are no electrodes fastened to the sides of the creature's neck.
Shelley's writing style is flowing, yet tedious. That's to be expected, for that's the way the English language was in the early 19th Century. Thoughts are strung together, exactly the polar opposite of the way today's journalists are taught and trained to write to audiences.
There are stories told within stories, within yet more stories that hold the reader spellbound. Frankenstein, in its original form, is not a modern horror story, but one that evokes compassion and introspection before gracefully tumbling us over the edge of the precipice.
Human society, with all its glory and faults, is presented to us through the creature's naiveté, a fresh perspective of who we truly are and what we have become. He surmises that we humans are both kind and loving, and yet, on another level, cruel and heartless, especially in our xenophobic treatment of those who are different from us. He yearns for kindness and sympathy, neither of which is forthcoming.
Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley
Public Domain Books, hardcover ($7.95)