Jan. 11th, 2015

quarrel: Engraving of Thoth from the Luxor Temple. (thoth)

When I was a boy, my parents were good friends with our neighbors across the street. They had a son who moved away to college when I was still in junior high. As a result of repurposing his old bedroom, they donated a small shelf of his old books to me. I don’t remember anything about them except that several were Hardy Boys mysteries, which I was already too old for, and one was Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. That’s how I came into possession of a paperback printed the year before I was born, containing a story written almost a century and a half before that.

With my curiosity of the title piqued by frequent showings of the Hollywood version and its many sequels on one of our cable schlock movie channels, I picked this book as my Christmas travel filler. Somehow, despite all odds, I finished it shortly after returning home. (Seriously, I read more than half of it on the return flight in one sitting. I still don’t know how that happened. I don’t read quickly — hell, I don’t even read at an average rate — and no one burns through early 19th century grammar.)

The plot frequently relies on coincidence, inexplicable decisions, or sheer convenience to progress. For instance, when Frankenstein first animates his creature, he freaks out over how hideous it is and dashes from the building. He goes back that evening, searches for a bit but can’t find it, so he instantly and totally forgets about it for months. Then one of his relatives back home is murdered, and another on the far side of town is framed for it. (I’ll give you three guesses who’s to blame.) Also, the same setbacks tend to occur repeatedly. The following events all happen multiple times: the doctor spends weeks in a fugue state; the doctor tries to tackle the creature but it “eludes” him; a new relative is introduced; an innocent person is arrested for murder.

There is much philosophical fencing between the doctor and his creation. It touches on many subtleties of good and evil, right and wrong, forgiveness, fairness, and truth. It gets complex, though to its detriment it tends toward the melodramatic.

Frankenstein: “You’ve made my life miserable.”
Creature: “You’ve made my life miserable.”
F: “My life is more miserable!”
C: “It is now because I made it that way. If your life were already more miserable than mine, I wouldn’t have done that. But it was better, so I had to make it worse because you deserved it.”
F: “But that makes you evil.”
C: “Yes, I know. And I hate being evil— Gah! You’ve made my life worse than yours again. Now I need to take more revenge. This is why I hate you!”

Still, this interplay is the heart of the story, and it stands the test of time. The creature is a tragic figure who responds as appropriately to his extraordinary situation as we could reasonably expect anyone to.

And hey, I’ll even get to say I recently read a science fiction novel when Foolscap rolls around in a few weeks.

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