Sunday, October 27, 2013


I had long decided to read more classics when I came upon Mary Shelley's Frankenstein at the last Book Fair. I have recently finished it and must sadly admit to some disappointment, although it is probably mostly an issue of wrong prior expectations.

Obviously: Spoilers ahead.

First, I did not expect the book to be so terribly dull and long-winded. It is a horror story, after all, so would one not expect a bit of suspense, for example? But no, it is a very boring read, partly because of the structure of the story. Instead of starting with Frankenstein, we are at first treated to several chapters dealing with the letters a Captain Walton sends to his sister. He has set out to find a sea passage through the north pole, and we are treated in loving detail to his ruminations on his own upbringing, education and character, and then to descriptions of his travels and his success at hiring a ship and recruiting a crew. When he finally gets underway the reader would be forgiven to wonder whether they have got the right book, but then the crew picks up a sick and exhausted man who, after more boring drudgery, ultimately turns out to be Dr Frankenstein.

So within the completely superfluous frame story, Frankenstein now starts telling his story. Do we now get to the action, as it were? Of course not. He has to begin with the life of his parents, not omitting any detail about their and his family life, his education and whatnot. Now obviously we need to know and identify with his family because most of them will ultimately be murdered by the monster, but this was seriously too long.

But it gets better. After he has created the monster, he does not see it for two years, and when they meet again, the monster recounts in loving detail what it has done through all that time. On the level of "then I ate some berries for lunch" and whatnot. And it tells, in excruciating detail, the life story of a French family in exile in whose shack it hid for some time. So here we have four levels of storytelling being boxed into each other, like the convoluted writing equivalent of a Matryoshka doll: Captain Walton's narrative, Frankensteins's narrative, the monster's narrative, and the French family's narrative. I assume that some English teachers will enjoy discussing this awesome structure with their students but as a reader I found it tedious.

The second issue were really more my false expectations about how things would go and what the book would be about. To mention one minor detail, adaptations and parodies of the concept generally make one think that Frankenstein created the monster somewhere in a rural area in his family villa or suchlike, if not in the family castle on a stormy night somewhere in a vaguely Transylvanian-looking area. In the original, however, he creates the monster right in the middle of a busy German university town. That was a bit unexpected.

More importantly, from the way that Frankenstein's monster is generally used as a reference, I had somehow formed the idea that it was a cautionary tale about irresponsible science. It is, after all, often enough mentioned in the same breath as the nuclear bomb, or referred to by those scaremongering about genetic engineering: Scientist beware! Think what you may unleash on the world!

But now look at Frankenstein in the book. Is what he is doing actually science? Not really. It is more an irresponsible feat of engineering made possible by a divine flash of inspiration. It is not immediately clear what lessons a real scientist - i.e. a professional slowly chipping away at our ignorance about the workings and properties of nature in constant collaboration with other scientists - is supposed to draw from the book. On the one hand, no real scientist would be so stupid as to just let the freshly created monster walk out of the door and then not worry about it for the next two years. On the other, no real scientist would have the option of keeping other scientists from reproducing this result merely by taking the secret to the grave because in reality inventions such as the nuclear bomb are not the result of one singular flash of genius, they are the next incremental step from where the scientific community is at the moment. If you don't build it, somebody else will, 30 years later tops.

And yes, letting the monster walk out of the door right after it has been created. Not telling anybody about the work or its success. Not wondering whether it might be a good idea to track the monster down. When it starts murdering people, never ever considering to lay a trap for it or at least to arm oneself. (Frankenstein's efforts at attacking the much larger, stronger and faster monster boil down to lunging madly towards it two or three times, only to be easily evaded. One wonders what he thinks he would have done if he had managed to grab it.) When it has already targeted his friends and family, remaining completely unconcerned about the safety of his love interest.

Really the lesson of this book is not so much "scientist, think before you create something dangerous" but rather "if somebody is a complete idiot and perhaps somewhat insane, they may do lots of idiotic and insane things". Not very profound because too obvious, not very helpful because inapplicable to the average scientist.

Finally, my third issue with the book was how hard it was to maintain willing suspension of disbelief. As any well meaning reader, I was able to accept the premise that it is possible to create a living humanoid from body parts to enjoy this story, no problem. That is no more than magic, dragons or hyperspace drives. But that the monster is able not only to learn to speak and read over the course of as little as a few months by listening to a family in whose shack it is hiding, but to do so so well that it can converse in the posh and educated style that is presented in the book? That it is able to read Werther and ancient philosophy and immediately understand concepts such as gods and governments? Yeah no, sorry, but that does not work for me. To this we can add Frankenstein's aforementioned utter stupidity, which is simply too great to be swallowed especially when compared against the genius level intellect he must supposedly have to be such a brilliant "scientist". Unrealistic characters are much more problematic than unrealistic technology, and thus I found myself exasperatedly shaking my head more often than turning pages.

I still consider it worthwhile to actually read classics like these, and usually I enjoy 19th century literature (e.g. Doyle, Vernes). But this one was disappointing.


  1. Just visiting. Will come back and leave comments soon. In the meantime, thanks for the review.

  2. Well, it's a long time since I read it and, from a quick look at the first page, stylistically it's certainly not up there with Jane Austen.

    Is it a horror story? Or sci-fi? Well, it's early in the horror tradition, Gothic, and arguably one of the first science fiction novels. So if you start from now and look back, it's not going to be always as you'd expect.

    Without getting too English-teachery, yes, the frame story, or rahmenerzählung (popular in German literature too around the same time) is a way of distancing from the central story. When novels were newer, you first had to decide on your attitude to the truth of the narrative. So people were used to that. Part of the tediousness you described would be a way of establishing different levels of what's ordinary and what's not.

    Maybe people were in less of a rush. As I very sketchily recall it, the novel reads heavily, the sort of thing you'd plough through if you were confined to bed for a few days with an upset stomach. Maybe that was more the style back then!

    At any rate, while indisposed, you might be more disposed to accept the story as being like a bad dream, the logic of an inescapable nightmare rather than common sense.

    Everything you complained about fits with this. In fact, the story was inspired by a dream. For the movies, they'd have to fix it up differently, but in a dream it can frustratingly drift from one situation to another, without there being any other choice (unless you're a lucid dreamer - see

    If you think of it like a thought experiment, where some things you just have to accept in order to get on and discuss the things you want to talk about, then maybe you can at least see why the idea of it has sustained so long, whatever faults the book has. I don't think it's all down to Boris Karloff.

    Wouldn't her readers have been more interested in the idea of a thinking monster, an idea that still makes it to my twitter timeline today, than too much science about how it learned so quickly?

    A story needs to be consistent with its own world.

    But I'm sure if I read it again, I'd agree with you it dragged a bit. I've found that even with Conan Doyle.

  3. I acknowledge that the styles people are used to change over time. The classics I enjoy more - Vernes, Doyle, and for example Stoker's Dracula - are all from a few decades later, so that may be part of it.