Last night, I finished reading Frankenstein, checking off the first title for two of my current reading challenges (Gothic literature and books I should have read in high school). I’ve always been a fan of lists, and checking things off them, and the next few books on my challenge lists are on their way, as we speak. But what did I think of Frankenstein?
First, as I said after beginning the novel, I was surprised by its use of the epistolary form, and concurrently, by what a talky book it is. We get everything second-hand, as the narrator writes letters to his sister, telling of the forlorn and frantic Victor Frankenstein he meets one dark night in the Arctic. Frankenstein tells his gruesome story to his new friend and then dies shortly after, giving us our only first-hand glimpse of the monster himself.
This also means that none of the handful of murders committed do we actually see, and nor do we see the creation of the monster himself. Frankenstein refuses to divulge or describe his methods, for fear of what horrible use they might be put. All in all, for a legendary horror tale that has spawned legions of imitators, it’s a relatively bloodless book. The chills and thrills Shelley accomplishes are done the old-fashioned way, with atmosphere and emotion, with skillful characterization so that Frankenstein and his unnamed monster storm and rage and chase each other before our eyes, as we cower, wondering how the pursuit will end.
Like others, including Shelley herself, I felt more sympathy for the monster than I expected, not just because he is lonely, doomed to wander friendless forever, but because his agony is so sharp, his case so stark. The scenes where he lurks outside a forest cottage, leaving gifts of firewood for the family inside and crafting his futile schemes to trick them into loving him? Heartbreaking. There’s a kind of tragic nobility inside this murderer, and for this reader, he comes to overshadow his creator.
As soon I finished the book, I started jotting notes in the back pages, questions I would post to a group of students to help them tease out the greater themes, allusions I would prep them on, aspects of the novel I would want to make sure I focused on. I think this would be a very teachable book, and it’s not long or dense enough to be too intimidating. I never found myself falling in love with Frankenstein as a novel, but I think it’s such a rich text, full of possibility and texture, and more thought-provoking even today than when it was published.