Friday, October 21, 2011

All Hallow's Read: A Tribute to Frankenstein

Yesterday I got my, "Heroine of Literature" Mary Shelley shirt from, and it got me thinking about my difficult relationship relationship with her crowning work.

I first read Frankenstein by Mary Shelley when I was in middle school and I felt it was cool to read harder books than my peers were reading.  This did not result in me being cool, but it did result in my reading a lot of classics as a young person that I would not have the patience for today, all because I stubbornly wanted to prove I could.

Frankenstein was a real slog for me then.  The Victorian language and difficult to like protagonist (because Victor Frankenstein is the protagonist) were hard for me to swallow, but I kept on because I stubbornly refuse to be defeated by a book.  (I've had mixed results with this way of thinking.)

(I adore the ultra-cheesy cover of the copy I read as a kid. It also had a "2 for $1" sticker on it)

I was fairly miserable reading Frankenstein.  Victor Frankenstein gets consumed by the idea of making his creation, taking parts from corpses of animals and human, which makes it unnaturally-sized.  I don't know why it takes the moment that he's given life to the thing for him to realize it is not a beautiful thing, but ugly and terrible, but it does.  So begins a recurring theme in the book.  Victor gets himself in over his head, shirks his responsibility, and lies in bed sick.  I think Victor Frankenstein is probably one of the most sickly characters in literature.  After every tense moment in the book, the bastard ends up in a sickbed having people look after him, comforting him.  He's a deadbeat dad, whiny, premadonna.

The Creature himself makes the move from compassionate character to serial killer in the book as well.  He is smart, and articulate.  He's not the shuffling, mindless corpse that we have come to see him in the media today.  He's cold, calculating, fast, and strong.  He shares a lot in common with the Immortals we see in literature today, vampires and the like, but he is not beautiful like they are.

It was such a challenging read to watch two men consumed.  Victor makes missteps constantly.  The Creature makes terrible choices and is forced into them as well.  When Dr. Frankenstein makes his Creature a bride on the promise that they will go away forever and leave him alone, then tears it apart when he sees how happy his creation is about getting a companion, I about lost it.  What the hell, Victor?  Can't a guy have a lady?

So like I said, I found reading the thing miserable.  It was hard for me to get through both because it was challenging my reading skills and because it is such a dark tale.  When it was finished, however, I was so happy I'd read it.  Not because it's a happy ending because obviously that was never in the cards, but because I was happy that such a book existed in this world and that Mary Shelley brought it to us.

Mary Shelley hung out with the rock stars of the Victorian literary scene: Byron and Percy Byshe Shelley, among others.  There was a whole lot of free love going on in that group, though she loved only her husband.  Like many Victorians she'd seen a lot of death, lost several children, and was obsessed with it as the Victorians were.  She made a brilliant tortured immortal, far more sympathetic than whiny Louis, callous Lestat, directionless Dracula, or, dare I even mention Sparkly Edward.  I even like those guys (well, not Louis or Edward) but I don't love them the way I love Frankenstein's monster.  (Yeah, I'm that girl who will correct you.  He never takes his creators name.)

Say what you will about Kenneth Branaugh's critically panned bit of opulence, Frankenstein.  Branaugh has always put the text in the forefront, and I think he was trying to tear down our notions of a mindless, stumbling corpse.  Frankenstein was a well-spoken, superhuman out for vengeance.  In this day and age, he'd have a comic book.

Classics are one of those things that people know they should read but don't actually do.  I understand, I closed the books on classics after college.  But read Frankenstein. Prepare yourself some mega-angst and a main character who faints as much as a Victorian lady without the excuse of a corset blocking his airflow, but read it anyway.

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