Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus by Mary Shelley

Frankenstein, or The Modern PrometheusTakeaway: The common conception of the book has nothing to do with what is really in the book.

So here is what is probably most interesting about reading ‘The Modern Prometheus’, almost nothing that I thought I knew about the story line is actually in the book.  Many stories we primarily know through movie adaptations and not the book itself.  That is not unusual.  But the fact that almost all of the central features of the cultural understanding of the book are not in the book is fascinating.

Igor, lightning, the slow walk, the arms raised, pretty much all the features about the monster are all wrong.  Not even wrong, it is the opposite of the book.  The monster was brilliant, well spoken, desired only to love and be loved.  Even the name is wrong.  Frankenstein is the name of the Doctor, the monster is never named (I did actually know that part before reading the book.)

When I talked about the book with some friends there are pretty different opinions of it.  My sister in law loves the book.  She is a scientist and talked about it as part of a discussion about medical and scientific ethics.

Another friend who has worked as an editor in the book world hated it.  She thought that Dr Frankenstein was such a horrible person that it defeats the purpose of the book.

Even the description seems off to me.  “Gothic thriller, a passionate romance, and a cautionary tale about the dangers of science” is one of the lines on Amazon’s description.  Gothic thriller I get.  A cautionary tale about the dangers of science also it true.  Although Frankenstein’s science seems more like Alchemy than modern science.  Even in the book he is fascinated with bringing a type of alchemy into the modern world.  He seems to be working on a type of gnostic secret that he is sure if he never shares no one will ever find out and be able to replicate.  But it does bring up several issues of ethics, the ethics of experimentation, the ethics toward the subject, the ethics of protecting society vs. the individual, etc.

It is the ‘passionate romance’ that seems most inappropriate.  Frankenstein was supposed to marry his adopted sister as the last wish of his mother on her deathbed.  And while they both say they can’t wait to get married, it is not exactly passionate.  Frankenstein goes months without writing and years without seeing her.  And if it is really talking about the desire of the monster for a wife that is the root of the passion, well that seems to be more about human companionship than about an actual romance.  Even Frankenstein is concerned about making a wife for the monster because he believes that she will be an independent rational individual that will probably not like being created to be the wife of a ‘horrible monster’.

An odd feature, that is about the story telling more than the book as a whole, is that it is layered first person narrative.  So most of the book is supposed to be a letter of a ship captain to his sister.  It has to be the longest letter ever.  So it is first person narrative from the Captain.  But he is retelling first person narrative of Frankenstein for most of the book.  And there are long sections where the Captain is retelling Frankenstein, who is retelling the monsters’ first person narrative.  It is not that it is confusing, just that is is odd that the first person never breaks even when it becomes convoluted.

I understand the push to read old books because ‘they are classics that have stood the test of time’. But the more I read them, the more I wonder if they are really worth reading as books.  I get that they have pushed boundaries   Shelly was exerting something new with the monster story.  And many other classics are classics because they did something that was new and innovative or beautiful.

The film version of this idea is Citizen Kane.  I watched the movie and thought that is ok, but nothing special.  Then I watched the documentary that came with it and understood why it is such and important movie.  But without the documentary, Citizen Kane does not really stand on its own.  The very nature of the classic means that we have seen others movies replicate the features of Citizen Kane.  The very features that were innovative we see as standard because they are now common.

Many classic similarly do not stand well on their own.  One of the comments on my Alice in Wonderland review was that much of what I didn’t get in the book was actually satire and cultural references.  But I am over 100 years removed from the culture.  So I need a class and a professor to tell me about the cultural references to be able to read the book and appreciate its importance.

At that point is it really an important book, or is it an important historical cultural reference point?  Certainly some books travel better through time.  They are less culturally bound and rely less on humor and satire or irony.

On the other hand there are books that I have liked that others do not.  I liked Anna Karenina.  But lots do not.  I could never get through Brothers Karamazov, but tons of people say it is one of their favorite books.  I really don’t like poetry.  But I appreciate Emily Dickinson because I had a wonderful professor and took a whole class on her poetry.  Same with Shakespeare in high school.

Maybe it just doesn’t matter, maybe we like what we like and shouldn’t worry about it when we don’t like what people say we should like.

Frankenstein Purchase Links: Free Kindle Edition, Audible.com Audiobook ($0.95 version)

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