Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus by Mary Shelley

I had always intended to read Mary Shelley’s classic in 2015, however I hadn’t expected to come across it in so many forms before I picked it up in its traditional one, the book.

Captain R Walton and the scientist Victor Frankenstein, Arctic  Source: BBC Learning English

Captain R Walton and the scientist Victor Frankenstein, Arctic
Source: BBC Learning English

With the advanced English conversation class I teach, we began to listen to weekly episodes of Frankenstein via a BBC adapted audio drama, written for learners of the English language. Condensed to 10 episodes of about 7 minutes each, it introduces new vocabulary and a classic of English literature to learners, while keeping them entertained.

Midway through the audio drama, I heard that there was to be a relayed broadcast of the London National Theatre production of Frankenstein, starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller, cast as the Creature and Victor Frankenstein, directed by Danny Boyle.

Throughout the season, the actors switched roles on alternate nights, Creature and Creator, inhabiting each others skin, developing each others mannerisms and tendencies, drawn together and repelled simultaneously. The version I saw showed Cumberbatch as the Creature, a stunning and visceral performance beginning with the birth-like slump onto the stage, the first stages of development and observation of the enigma of man.

Creature_birth

A Creature is Born, National Theatre London

After these two modern-day introductions, I was even more intrigued to read the original text and learn about the origin of a book that was itself born via 18-year-old Mary Godwin (later Shelley) telling ghost stories one cool June summer evening in 1816 at Lake Geneva with companions Lord Byron, the physician John Polidari, Percy Shelley and her stepsister Jane.

FrankensteinThe book starts out with letters written by a Captain R Walton, who is in St Petersburg preparing to leave for an excursion of discovery to the North Pole, to his sister Margaret in London.

Like Victor Frankenstein, the young scientist he will rescue from an ice floe in the Arctic and whose story he will listen to day after day while trapped in the ice, Walton has a thirst for knowledge and an agitated spirit that pushes him forward in his quest. He wishes to make his mark on the world and make a difference. Like Frankenstein he has immersed himself in studies of logic and now desires to achieve something of magnitude, having already failed to become a significant poet.

His prose is now dedicated only to his sister Margaret, through whose letters we will learn of Walton’s failed voyage and the story Victor Frankenstein will narrate to him, as he too gives up his pursuit of the Creature that was to be his mark upon the world, one that had already made a difference, though in ways he never dreamed of and lived to regret.

Upon hearing the voyager’s naive hopes, Victor Frankenstein shares his own story in an effort to try to thwart Walton from following his ideals  into what may become yet another foolhardy madness.

“Unhappy man! Do you share my madness? Have you drunk also of the intoxicating draught? Hear me; let me reveal my tale, and you will dash the cup from your lips!”

The story he tells is of his own youthful thirst for knowledge, his fascination with science, alchemy and existence itself. His obsession with creating life above all else, with no forethought of the consequence of such an act, his fear and neglect of that which he created and the terrible consequences wreaked upon him, his family and those closest to him as a result.

“You may easily perceive Captain Walton, that I have suffered great and unparalleled misfortunes. I had determined at one time that the memory of these evils should die with me, but you have won me to alter my determination. You seek for knowledge and wisdom, as I once did; and I ardently hope that the gratification of your wishes may not be a serpent to sting you, as mine has been. I do not know that the relation of my disasters will be useful to you; yet, when I reflect that you are pursuing the same course, exposing yourself to the same dangers which have rendered me what I am, I imagine you may deduce an apt moral from my tale, one that may direct you if you succeed in your undertaking and console you in case of failure.”

Victor Frankenstein grew up in the countryside of Switzerland, in a kind of reverie, with his adopted sister Elizabeth whom he always viewed as a gift, initially from his mother who brought her into the family and eventually as his future bride. But first he wished to fulfil his destiny, that alchemy of existence, he wanted to create a sustainable life-form.

He pursued it with zeal, neglecting all else, only to run in fear of what he had done, until it pursued him, confronting him. The Creature forced him to listen and hear of the curse he had inflicted on him, by making him in such a way that all humanity would abhor him, sentencing him to a life without love, without friends, unknown.

“I expected this reception,” said the daemon. ” All men hate the wretched; how, then, must I be hated, who am miserable beyond all living things! Yet you, my creator, detest and spurn me, thy creature, to whom thou art bound by ties only dissoluble by the annihilation of one of us. You purpose to kill me. How dare you sport thus with life? Do your duty towards me, and I will do mine towards you and the rest of mankind. If you will comply with my conditions, I will leave them and you at peace; but if you refuse, I will glut the maw of death, until it be satiated with the blood of your remaining friends.”

Victor Frankenstein listens to the Creature and is moved from the desire to kill his creation to consider creating another, a companion, the only chance he may have to live in harmony in this world, for to be alone has driven him to madness, murder and mayhem.

The book, while framed at both ends by the letters from the explorer to his sister, the middle part is split into three, the first and latter parts as told by and from the perspective of Victor Frankenstein, while the middle part recounts the Creature’s tale of exile and in doing so gives voice to the creature.

Benedict-Cumberbatch-Jonny-Lee-Miller

Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller

It is in this section we have the most honest view of his creation and it is in this part that the theatre screenplay written by Nick Dear really excels.  It takes as the starting point, the metaphor of birth and Cumberbatch’s Creature slips from an embryonic web to the floor, resembling something more amphibian like than human, flaying its limbs about spasmodically as it tries to master them, this body with no instruction, no parent, a man with the gestures of a newborn.

Throughout his years of exile, his interactions with others teach him to survive, to communicate and slowly to understand the capacity and flaws of humanity. With understanding comes grief, he knows what is possible, that which will always be unreachable for him, a creature that thinks and is capable of acting as one of humankind but who will always be hated, rejected and worse, hunted to extinction.

“I cannot describe to you the agony that these reflections inflicted upon me; I tried to dispel them, but sorrow only increased with knowledge. Oh, that I had forever remained in my native wood, nor known nor felt beyond the sensations of hunger, thirst, and heat!”

An astounding read and such a pleasure after the introduction I had via the theatre and audio play. It’s true I’m not a great reader of the classics, but when they are given an alternate context and serve as inspiration in the way this creation has, I can’t help but read in awe the achievement that continues to inspire such great works in themselves.

A five star read for me!

For a glimpse of that theatre sensation, watch this one minute trailer, with extracts from the live production in London.

Danny Boyle’s Frankenstein with Benedict Cumberbatch

18 thoughts on “Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus by Mary Shelley

    • Having met him first on stage, I can’t say I felt that towards him, so in awe do we become of the creature and all that he is capable of and has achieved despite the tragic circumstances, Victor becomes secondary, reduced to the weakling, half hearted in his attempts, whether to destroy or to help his creation, we see them less as individual characters and more as the twin aspects of humanity. As you can see, I’ve been deeply influenced by the theatre adaptation.

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      • Good point about the duality of their characters. I think I can’t forgive the instant rejection of a creature he has created. I haven’t seen any of the dramatic representations, but reading your comment I think I should. They would certainly offer a variety of perspectives. Have you read Dracula? I haven’t but your post makes me think I should return to the classics a bit more. I love Hardy and read him every couple of years.

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  1. Very interesting. We tend to dismiss Frankenstein and Dracula because of the disservice done to them by Hollywood and Hammer films etc. – but the original books really are well worth reading in their own right, forgetting all the screen clichés. Mary Shelley was quite a gal!

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    • I’ve certainly avoided all the Hollywood cliché, but am truly intrigued by that gal Mary Shelley and her mother Mary Wollstonecraft, I think it goes back to listening to the writer Rebecca Solnit a couple of years ago when she published her book The Faraway Nearby, she speaks there about this mother daughter duo of writers, I’m going to read Mary Wollstonecraft’s book soon too, quite a pair!

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      • Yes – I came across them as a student in a very brief lecture on women in literature 1750 – 1850 many , many years ago. Overshadowed by Jane Austen, George Eliot and the Brontës..

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  2. What an excellent piece about this story and this character. You convey so well the real content of Mary Shelley’s classic, alongside glimpses of a very modern rendering onstage–one which has become legendary!

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    • Thank you Lucy, it was such a great experience to encounter them all in one short period and seeing the theatrical production added so much to the reading experience, I feel fortunate to have been able to combine them and take a few students along with me on the journey.

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  3. Excellent post, Claire. Shelley’s book has so much to say about humanity and compassion. I think the comment that Hollywood has ruined both Dracula and Frankenstein for us is spot on, too. Hats off to Danny Boyle for recovering Frankenstein’s dramatic reputation. Like you saw the Cumberbatch version and thought it was stunning.

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  4. I read this novel many years ago, and the story has stayed with me. It’s wonderful to be reminded of it here. Great review, Claire. Danny Boyle’s adaptation is terrific, isn’t it? The version I saw had Miller as the Creature with BC as Frankenstein, and I can’t imagine it any other way!

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  5. I’m with you in that there are so many books which have become so much a part of pop-culture that I want to go back and read them (this one included). I found the original Dracula to be even more interesting than what I thought it would be when I got around to reading it last year!

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  6. I recently ‘discovered’ National Theatre Live, and have seen several of its screenings in our Cineplex. Saw the trailer you’ve included here and I must say, it’s very intense and engrossing. It is great that you can use films, stage productions, or audio clips, as teaching materials. Students can easily engage in such a dramatic medium. I’ve bought ticket to Benedict Cumberbatch’s Hamlet coming out this fall. Really looking forward to that.

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    • I really like how it was adapted by Nick Dears and Danny Boyle, they chose to begin with the birth of the Creature as an adult, learning all about man, it really doesn depict just how insightful the text really is interms of humanity, its really a pity that the story had until now been represented as an evil monster story. I’m looking forward to reading the work of her mother soon.🙂

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  7. I had no idea there was a new film of this coming out, it’s now duly noted that I need to get out more. I came late to the book myself, reading it not so long ago, I was taken with how existential it all was, a fascinating character study, the ‘monster’ really is one of the classic characters in all literature.

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