A Frankenstein Halloween Book Pairing!

A perfect Halloween book pairing! 
I've done a fair amount of spooky reading this October 2022, but I thought I'd cap it off with a monster classic: Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. I'd made the wonderful discovery of Susan Tyler Hitchcock's Frankenstein: A Cultural History in one of my local Little Free Libraries. Her book provided a wonderful accompaniment to the classic. 


As most who read it for the first time point out, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein is wholly dissimilar to our cultural conception of “Frankenstein” in pop culture, so it is worth reading just for the interest of it. And it is interesting. A relatively slim volume, it was an easy read and entertaining.  At times the prose can go on a bit, but for me that didn't detract. Reading the monster's coming of age chapters was beautiful and heartbreaking.  The gritty, gothic, horrific passages delighted during this spooky season. "Darkness had no effect upon my fancy, and a churchyard was to me merely the receptacle of bodies deprived of life, which, from being the seat of beauty and strength, had become food for the worm." 

I found the real interest of the novel for me was this: Shelley’s Frankenstein was an intellectual experience, and such fun! Highlighting and annotating along the way, the text challenged me to untangle metaphor and pick apart theme. It defies a single interpretation, which makes it all the more complex.

The most obvious theme is “presumption,” a cautionary tale. Humans should not attempt to play God and cheat death. If we do, we’ll be brought to task. “Learn from me…how dangerous is the acquirement of knowledge and how much happier that man is who believes his native town to be the world, than he who aspires to be greater than his nature allows,” cautions Victor Frankenstein. 

However, I couldn’t help but have fun with ambiguity here. I briefly entertained the Unreliable Narrator scenario. Could Frankenstein be so unable to accept death and dying that he turns killer to control death, the monster featuring as his id personified? Cool theory, but probably not possible literally because of logistics.

Instead of hubris, I imagined the monster as the embodiment of Frankenstein’s grief. He can’t accept death, so death takes physical form as the monster, and isn’t such a bad actor. Indeed, had Frankenstein accepted his creation and befriended him–ultimately making peace with the reality of death and suffering in the world–he and his monster could have coexisted peacefully. Alas, Frankenstein could not reconcile, and the monster destroyed him and all he loved.

And, of course, there is the ever-present straight up observation that as humans, we hate and reject the “other,” casting it out with hatred and disdain. We all suffer for it.
"Remember that I am thy creature; I ought to be thy Adam, but I am rather the fallen angel, whom though drivest from joy for no misdeed. Everywhere I see bliss, from which I alone am irrevocably excluded. I was benevolent and good; misery made me a fiend."   

As soon as I finished Shelley’s Frankenstein, I had Frankenstein: A Cultural History by Susan Tyler Hitchcock lined up and ready to read. It was a perfect pairing. Hitchcock’s book gave so much deeply interesting context to the book: not only how and when it was written but the societal and cultural milieu that helped birth it.

There’s a lot of material, and I focused on the first third of the book, while skimming the last half. It begins by detailing Mary Shelley’s life, her process of writing the book, and the story’s almost immediate transformation into a different narrative. It shows us how her original story began to transform into what we see in pop culture today.

What an interesting crowd Shelley ran with! She was only 16 when she met Percy Bysshe Shelley. He was already married with a child, but left his wife. They rented a villa with her step-sister Claire and Claire’s lover Lord Byron. Swirling around them was the philosophy of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who felt that “the imperfections and suffering in human life rose not from nature but from society.” These young adults sat around reading each other poetry like Milton’s Paradise Lost, which informed Shelley’s conception of her monster. Gothic literature was all the rage, and scientifically, galvanism was being demonstrated to crowds. What fertile grounds for Frankenstein to grow from! The book was the result of Lord Byron’s challenge to the friends that they should each write a ghost story.

Learning about Shelley’s life also gave me insight into the themes of death and grief that were so apparent in the book. Reading Frankenstein, I was aghast at the amount of death around Victor, albeit much of it as the hands of the monster. Much tragedy struck Shelley after she wrote Frankenstein, but her story of loss is likely instructive of the times. Her mother, the feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, had died after giving birth to her. Mary Shelley had a miscarriage, then a daughter and a son. In short course, her daughter developed dysentery as a toddler and died, then her preschool son William died of malaria within two weeks of symptom onset. Her cousin Claire’s daughter died, Mary had a dangerous miscarriage again, and finally her husband drowned in 1822. She did have one son who lived.

She rallied, wrote much more, and often attended the theatre to take in various productions of Frankenstein. The story changed and morphed, and A Cultural History details all of that. Reading this book, or even chapters that appeal, in conjunction with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, is fantastic. I learned so much that enhanced my reading of this wonderful classic novel.