Like one who, on a lonely road,
Doth walk in fear and dread,
And, having once turned round, walks on,
And turns no more his head;
Because he knows a frightful fiend
Doth close behind him tread
Doesn’t that chill your spine? Did you check behind you to see if the fiend was there or did you like the unknown wretch in the quote stay rigidly, facing ahead because you knew he was there? Is he still behind you now…?!
The above quote is not written by the hand of Mary Shelley, but is one that she has borrowed for Frankenstein from Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner. This quote summed up for me what I had thought Frankenstein was about before I read the book. But it turned out that this book had a few surprises in store.
The first revelation was that Frankenstein was the scientist, not the dreaded creature himself. It suddenly dawned on me that all these years people had been talking about Frankenstein’s monster, as in the monster belonging to Frankenstein. They weren’t talking about Frankensteins monster – the monster within Frankenstein. See what havoc is wreaked when you miss one teeny weeny apostrophe?!
The second source of astonishment for me was that this book was less a horror and more a social critique. It was about human societies and their predispositions. It was about how we treat people less fortunate than ourselves and what we owe to the people in our care. This book looked at the capacity in human beings for extreme cruelty. Take the following quote:
Was man indeed at once so powerful, so virtuous and magnificent, yet so vicious and base?
Shelley focuses on the good and evil that hustle for space inside us and on our attempts to get a handle on them.
So for those of you who (like me) didn’t know, Dr Frankenstein is a dude who spends too long in his laboratory and discovers how to create life. What he creates is: Frankenstein’s monster (nameless) who runs off and lives in the wild with no-one to teach him or care for him or show him any kind of love or compassion. This creature becomes Frankenstein’s nemesis, and vice versa, they seem to only live to torment each other. Basically nobody comes out of the experience particularly well. I recommend you don’t try creating your own monster at home. It’ll all end in tears.
Such a book has evergreen appeal. Anyone can pick up Frankenstein and ask themselves, who is the real monster here? Once you get past the archaic language it’s actually quite shocking to see how little has changed in the world in the 200 years since this book was written. We may have the internet and smartphones, but we are still those virtuous and vicious creatures that Shelley wrote about two centuries ago.
Next week I will be returning to the fabulous Anand Nair from Croydon Writers group, who has just published her memoirs of growing up in Kerala, As Fathers Go. Definitely one not to be missed!