I read Mrs Shelley’s Frankenstein for the first time this week and my experience with Frankenstein and his creature had hitherto been limited to what I gleaned through pop cultural osmosis, those animated Hotel Transylvania movies (all 3), and that ill-fated Aaron Eckhart film-shaped abomination that calls itself I, Frankenstein. As is the fashion of modern readers of this classical work by the “mother of science fiction”, I just want to join the obligatory chorus of surprise at how little resemblance the book bore to its present day legacy. Yes, I knew that Frankenstein is not the name of the monster before jumping in, and that there exists a popular interpretation that the creature is not the real monster (humans are)—but now that I have read the book, I ask: “Why not both?”
Mary Shelley is considered to be a feminist icon, so I find it amusing that her idea of a monster is basically a modern day incel. For those who is not up to snuff on misogynistic subcultures, the word “incel” is a portmanteau of “involuntarily celibate”. Whatever its origins may be, the current incel movement is a patchwork of male entitlement and toxic resentment of women for not giving men what they believe they are entitled to. You may have even heard of their “Supreme Gentleman” Elliot Rodger of the 2014 Isla Vista killings. His murderous rampage inspired other incel terrorists who name-check him in their own hateful scribbles. This is not a joke: young men are committing mass murders to fulfill some twisted revenge fantasy at women who refuse to sleep with them; women they believe they deserve because they are (self-declared) “Nice Guys”.
There are other reasons but being denied female companionship is actually Frankenstein’s creature’s primary motivation. He started out as a remarkably prodigous, intelligent, wellspoken, and empathetic individual. He learned how to forage, speak, read, write, and critically discuss the works of Plutarch, Goethe, and Milton within the span of just one year without the help of any instructors. He had attempted to foster friendship with the humans he encountered, did them favours anonymously, and even saved their lives. I can definitely understand his anger and frustration when his kindly overtures were met with fear, loathing, and violence due to his physical features—the same way I can sympathise with how fiction and the media had fooled a lot of young men into thinking that women are vending machines that dispense sex if they put in enough currency and effort. The primary conflict in Shelley’s Frankenstein is this battle of will between creator and creation: the creature threatens to kill Victor Frankenstein’s friends and family, unless Frankenstein agrees to create a female companion for the creature. Consider the creature’s own words—don’t they sound like ranting of an entitled incel “Nice Guy”?
If I cannot inspire love, I will cause fear!
There is love in me the likes of which you’ve never seen. There is rage in me the likes of which should never escape. If I am not satisfied in the one, I will indulge the other.
I was benevolent and good; misery made me a fiend. Make me happy, and I shall again be virtuous.
The monster saw my determination in my face and gnashed his teeth in the impotence of anger. “Shall each man,” cried he, “find a wife for his bosom, and each beast have his mate, and I be alone? I had feelings of affection, and they were requited by detestation and scorn. Man! You may hate, but beware! Your hours will pass in dread and misery, and soon the bolt will fall which must ravish from you your happiness forever. Are you to be happy while I grovel in the intensity of my wretchedness? You can blast my other passions, but revenge remains–revenge, henceforth dearer than light or food! I may die, but first you, my tyrant and tormentor, shall curse the sun that gazes on your misery. Beware, for I am fearless and therefore powerful. I will watch with the wiliness of a snake, that I may sting with its venom. Man, you shall repent of the injuries you inflict.”
Arguably one of the most incel-ish moments in the book comes when the creature chanced upon a sleeping Justine in a barn, and the words he said to her gave me the willies:
Awake, fairest, thy lover is near—he who would give his life but to obtain one look of affection from thine eyes; my beloved, awake!
And before she could stir to full consciousness, the creature had thoughts about how she would never warm up to him due to his hideous appearance, and decided that she must die by framing her for a murder he committed because he can never have her:
The thought was madness; it stirred the fiend within me—not I, but she, shall suffer; the murder I have committed because I am for ever robbed of all that she could give me, she shall atone. The crime had its source in her; be hers the punishment!
Society shaped both Frankenstein’s creature and incels and they exist as distorted reflections of humankind, but that does not excuse them, and we should not let them get away with blaming everyone else for their evil behaviour. Sure, we can feel sorry for the creature but I think excusing or forgiving his abominable acts are several bridges too far. His ugliness is not skin-deep—he is ugly all the way to his soul.
For a book that is touted as one of the parental figures of modern science fiction, details of the science behind the creature is incredibly sparse. While there are references to it being put together from cadaverous parts, a lot of the iconography of Frankenstein—like the hunchbacked lab assistant, the animating electricity of a lightning storm, the bolted neck—are missing. Also unlike contemporary science fiction, the book shares a stylistic kinship with Romanticism. It is filled with very navel-gazey passages focusing on the character’s emotions, individuality, and the grandeur of the world. The creature is no grunting semi-intelligent trog but rather, a fiercely passionate and eloquent orator.
I am surprised that I enjoyed this book as much as I did, given the reputation of older literary works of being difficult and inaccessible. It does require one to forgive some literary conventions that have become alien to us, like the level of warmth and tenderness men show one another in the book. This is probably because I am an emotionally stunted 21st century man, but I kept wondering if Walton wanted to fuck Frankenstein, or if Frankenstein wanted to fuck Clerval.
And I think I will also cease making fun of the level of angst in contemporary young adult novels from now on. Victor Frankenstein angst-ed so hard after creating his creature that he came down with a “nervous” fever” that left him invalid for several months. I literally cannot with this Genovese drama king.
I also didn’t expect to find a nesting doll of stories: Frankenstein is structured and framed by an adventurer named Walton who listened to a story told by Frankenstein who listened to a story told by his creature. It was like an Inception of angst.
But if you can look past these quirks, you would be rewarded with undeniably gorgeous and evocative prose. There are definitely advantages to modern fiction-writing and pacing, but sometimes, I just want to wallow in a book’s mood. Mrs Shelley’s Frankenstein would not frighten you like a regular horror novel would, but she excelled at weaving this dread that creeps under your skin and corrupts the colours of the world into yellows and greys.