Agony Column Home
Agony Column Review Archive


Mary Shelley

Penguin Classics /Penguin Putnam

US Trade paperback

ISBN 0-141-43947-5

Original Publication Date: 01-01-1818

Publication Date of this Edition: 05-06-2003

320 Pages; $8.00

Date Reviewed: 09-07-03

Reviewed by: Katie Dean © 2003



General Fiction, Science Fiction, Horror

07-31-03, 08-22-03, 02-13-04

'Frankenstein' (Mary Shelley) has entered fictional history as a book about a man-made monster. However, this is a gross understatement for a book that contains as its central themes ideas about idealism and passion, selfishness and cruelty, good and evil. Under any circumstance this would make for a compelling novel, but it is one that has gained new relevance amidst the contemporary debate about genetically created animals and genetically modified foods.

When it was first published in 1818, 'Frankenstein' must have appeared to be just another horror story, chilling, but ultimately inconceivable in reality. At a time when people believed God to be the author of creation, any serious suggestion that man could create life must have been considered blasphemous. In essence, 'Frankenstein' is the story of a young scientific genius, Victor Frankenstein, whose studies lead him to discover the means of creating life. Compelled by his passion, and thinking of nothing beyond scientific achievement and the consequent academic glory, Frankenstein uses this knowledge to create a quasi-human being. This one action changes the lives of Frankenstein and those around him in ways that he never imagined and he appears powerless to do anything to prevent the terrible consequences of his actions.

Today, two hundred years on, scientists are actually capable of creating a life and, like Victor Frankenstein, nobody really knows how this will affect the world. The modern reader must almost inevitably see 'Frankenstein' in the light of modern science. In this light, Shelley's novel reads like a treatise against genetic science containing a dire warning of the consequences of 'playing God'. However, Shelley's literary priorities may lie in a different direction. 'Frankenstein' also explores the duality of human nature and the way in which people are perceived by society. Shelley suggests that the treatment they receive as a result of social perceptions will ultimately draw out or suppress certain elements of their nature.

Frankenstein is surrounded by loving friends and family who draw out his own kind nature, but when faced with his hideous creation, he becomes selfish and unsympathetic. The monster is portrayed as an indescribably grotesque and evil creature, but surprisingly seems also to possess a generous and loving nature that his treatment at the hands of humans has forced him to suppress. The monster is shunned purely on the basis of his appearance, only being given the opportunity to display his kind nature by a man who is blind. It is the bitterness he feels at this treatment that brings out his desire for revenge against the human race. Mary Shelley herself came from a well-known and rather unconventional family. Her parents were the radical feminist thinker, Mary Wollstonecraft and the philosopher, William Godwin. She had an affair with the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, eloping with him in 1814 and later marrying him in 1816 after the death of his first wife. It is conceivable that 'Frankenstein' actually expresses Shelley's own frustration with her society's readiness to judge character based on appearance and to frown upon certain behaviour without very good reason.

'Frankenstein' is written in the first person, thus drawing in the reader's sympathy. The idealism and disappointment of Victor Frankenstein comes across very clearly. We are even made to feel sorry for the monster, despite his crimes. Shelley allows her audience to empathise with her characters, making her novel compelling as well as stimulating. It is easy to see why 'Frankenstein' has survived the test of time and remains a popular work of fiction today.