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Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus: The…

Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus: The 1818 Text (1818)

by Mary Shelley

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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It seems that people either love or hate this book. I find myself closer to loving it. It was hard to read, but worth it. I love reading the original story that inspired SO many tv and movie adaptions, and I really wonder why so few did it justice! Frankenstein's monster was not what I expected, and I find myself hating him while also feeling sorry for him and hoping he finds peace again. Do we as a society create monsters by treating people horribly, or are monsters just born the way they are? I have a lot to think about after this one. ( )
  distantiation | Dec 3, 2018 |
Frankenstein might be one of the most analyzed and reviewed books of all time. Whole books have been written about this book and its author Mary Shelley. I’m not a literary scholar so my review is going to be short and sweet. You can dig as deeply as you want to on your own time!

My book club likes to read at least one classic per year and this year’s was Frankenstein. It was our October pick because it seemed the perfect month to review a book about a monster. Interestingly, there are two editions of Frankenstein. It was originally published in 1818. When it came out, people were aghast that an eighteen year old girl could conceive of such horrors and write about them – ladies being delicate flowers and all that. In 1831 a new edition was published that Shelley had revised from the 1818 version to make the book less shocking. Almost all of my book club buddies and I read the 1818 version published by Penguin Classics. Penguin included a short overview of Shelley’s life. She had quite an eventful one and several biographies about her have been written.

Frankenstein was a lot different than I thought it would be. The monster wasn’t an inarticulate beast afraid of fire and being chased by villagers with torches. He was actually quite intelligent. Also, a fair amount of the story was about Dr. Frankenstein’s life independent of the monster.

There was much to discuss about this book. We talked about Mary Shelley’s life and how it influenced Frankenstein. There were also many ethical issues to talk about, the first being is it okay for man to create life by means other than normal reproduction. Most everyone liked the book and our discussion went well over our one hour meeting time which hasn’t happened in the time that I’ve been a member.

As far as classic literature goes, Frankenstein is accessible and easy to understand. I recommend it for anytime of the year but especially if you’re looking for a good Halloween read. ( )
  mcelhra | Oct 29, 2018 |
"[A] tale so strange, that I should fear you would not credit it, were there not something in truth which, however wonderful, forces conviction. The story is too connected to be a dream, and I have no motive for falsehood." -- Victor Frankenstein recounting the story so far, Volume III Chapter 6

Mary Shelley's Frankenstein was first published on March 11th 1818,* and for two hundred years has never been out of print. Popular culture has led us to picture the Creature as portrayed by Boris Karloff (despite the name, an English actor called William Henry Pratt) in numerous films and parodies; but readers new to the novel might be surprised to first find themselves in the Arctic wastes, as revealed in a series of letters from Robert Walton to his sister Mrs Margaret Saville. He writes from St Petersburgh (sic), then Archangel (Arkhangelsk), and then from somewhere in the polar regions.

As we quickly discover, though, this is merely a framing device; the author then introduces us to Victor Frankenstein marooned on an ice floe. We no sooner get to what appears to be the meat of the story when we realise that Victor's narrative is also a framing device, with the Creature's story at the heart of it. And at the heart of the Creature's story we read about a penniless French family, the De Laceys. Frankenstein is, structurally, nothing less than Russian matryoshka dolls, one nesting inside the other. Once we grasp this we can begin to rid ourselves of the popular modern stereotypes and start to come to grips with Shelley's original, in its first incarnation as it were.

Walton, whom we soon understand has mounted an expedition to search for a passage into the North Pacific via the North Pole, sees first one being, a gigantic figure, racing across the ice, then another in desperate straits, who is taken on board. When the latter, Victor Frankenstein, eventually recovers he explains to Walton his quest for the Creature, whom he revitalised from (we assume) spare body parts at his laboratory in the Bavarian city of Ingolstadt. Appalled by what he has created he abandons his work, returning to his home city of Geneva, but remains haunted by what he has done.

The eight-foot high Creature, in the meantime, has had to grow up very quickly. Like the personified Israel of Isaiah 53 he "was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised..." His ugly appearance, the result of Frankenstein's imperfect experimentation, causes fear in his Creator and in anyone who sees him, so he eventually hides in an outhouse belonging to the de Lacey family. By patient observation he learns language, writing, history and politics from their conversations, and morals from their treatment of Safie, a Turkish Christian. Unfortunately when he at last reveals himself to the blind father Felix ("happy") and Agatha ("good") attack him and he is again on the run.

The episode with the de Lacey family is at the core of Volume II, in which the Creature recounts all that has happened to him since his birth, his efforts to be good and the trials he has undergone. He has tracked Frankenstein to the Mer de Glace, the glacier at the foot of Mont Blanc, and forces the reluctant Victor to listen to his side of the story, Thereafter, however, it all goes (as the saying has it) really pear-shaped -- deaths have already occurred -- when the Creature is again rejected by his Creator, in effect a child rejected by the father. Frankenstein is given an ultimatum: make a female, the Eve as it were to the Creature's Adam, and he will be left alone.

Frankenstein may appear overly melodramatic. Victor, in particular, is much given over to sighing and falling into a dead faint, his eyes starting out of their sockets, tears falling readily from those eyes. It's hard to feel much sympathy for him, and indeed we're not meant to: he is selfish, prone to self-pity, constantly prevaricates and dissembles to one and all. Victor is in truth an unreliable narrator, and the fact that most of the narrative -- his own story and that of the Creature -- is told in his own words makes us somewhat suspect his declaration that he has "no motive for falsehood".

Then there is Robert Walton, who quite clearly hero-worships Frankenstein -- in fact some have detected more than a hint of homoeroticism between not only Walton and Victor but also a suggestive love-hate relationship between Victor and the Creature. Because of Walton's overt admiration of the Swiss scientist we also start to doubt his version of events. Overlay all that with the author's select choice of incidents, and then our own expectations on top of that, and it's clearly going to be difficult to credit anything as the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Towards the end Walton recalls Victor's warning about the Creature's "powers of eloquence and persuasion", a perfect summing-up of Mary Shelley's own beautiful con trick in convincing us of this novel's possible authenticity.

The novel alternates between optimism and pessimism, light and dark, heat and cold. Victor's spirits constantly rise up before being dashed down. The Creature oscillates between, on the one hand, a "love of virtue and feelings of happiness and affection" and on the other a "bitter and loathing despair". Episodes in the Arctic, the Mont Blanc glacier and back to the Arctic alternate with more temperate scenes among meadows and woods. Victor's brother Ernest is declared not fitted to train to be an advocate or judge, because that's to "meddle with the dark side of human nature" (Volume I, Chapter V) and yet it's the younger innocent brother, William, who serves as first victim in the catalogue of deaths, the direct result of Victor meddling with the dark side.

Life and death are of course the main motifs. "To examine the causes of life," Victor believes, "we must first have recourse to death." And later, "Life and death appeared to me ideal bounds, which I should first break through, and pour a torrent of light into our dark world." Unfortunately what he does is the complete opposite; and as the body count rises we are forcibly shown this dark side of Victor's own nature: his inability to come clean about what he has done, face up to his responsibilities and do the right thing. Reprehensible though the Creature's deeds are -- and they are truly vindictive -- we can understand his unfulfilled needs and his drive to right some sort of balance.

Frankenstein appeared just three months after the posthumous publication of Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey. Both deal with Gothick themes, but what a contrast they offer. Austen's novel, mostly written about twenty years before, plays with the young heroine's expectations of mansions mingled with murder and mysterious messages, before all are shown to be the result of her fevered expectations. Shelley's tale, though, runs a frantic race through time and place, the haunted house replaced by laboratories, refuge huts, inns and a wooden ship in pack ice, and punctuated with real murders by a menacing stalker. Austen reaches towards the light; Shelley points us down to the depths.
* According to http://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/frankenstein-published; but most accounts have January 1st 1818: http://shelleygodwinarchive.org/contents/frankenstein/frankenstein-chronology/ has a complete chronology, from which it seems that reviews first started appearing in March 1818, including a favourable one by Sir Walter Scott

https://wp.me/p2oNj1-2zL ( )
3 vote ed.pendragon | Mar 3, 2018 |
A Fantastic Story.

Fantastic, filled with both vivid emotions and exciting action, Mary Shelley's story of the haunted Victor Frankenstein, and his creation who does the haunting, still stirs the soul. Just as Goethe's Faust sought the secrets of arcane knowledge, Victor Frankenstein engages in the secrets of both licit and illicit science to bring a being to life. Once this is accomplished he immediately rues his action and spends the rest of the novel trying through a variety of means to atone for his mistake.

The novel is a classic tale of the uncanny which, according to the novelist and critic David Lodge, invariably use "I" narrators, imitating documentary forms of discourse like confessions, letters and depositions to make events more credible. Beginning with letters from Robert Walton, whose own search for the source of the magnetic north pole mirrors Victor Frankenstein's quest, the first book of the novel relates Victor Frankenstein's narrative of his youth and education. It surely was more than coincidental that Victor attended University at Ingolstad which was heralded as the original site of the Faust legends that Goethe adapted for his immensely influential drama.

'Monster' or 'Creature'?

The center of the novel continues Victor's story and that of his creation, the monster. At least that is what he calls his creation. While it is monstrous in the sense that it is larger than normal human size it is a creature made of human parts and, we find after some intervening events in Victor's life that the creature has some very human traits like the need for companionship -- one that is not met by his creator. Victor's emotions seem to swing from the the heights of elation to the depths of despair coloring his actions and clouding his reason. I found the monster's narration to be the most persuasive of the two. He pleads with Victor, " Remember, that I am thy creature: I ought to be thy Adam; but I am rather the fallen angel, whom thou drivest from joy for no misdeed."(p 66) Victor is unable to satisfy him and the monster who searches for acceptance throughout attempts to exert power over his creator as he tells him, "You are my creator, but I am your master; -obey!"(p 116) His words and actions only serve to speed the descent of Victor.

I saw the monster as a classic example of "the other", a precursor to modern images much as those found in Kafka. The action builds effectively through the third book of the novel building suspense and leading to an ending that involves a triangle of relationships between Victor, the creature, and Robert Walton whose narrative in letters bookends the tale. The power of the book, however, remains in the questions it raises; questions that we are dealing with to this day.

The Narrative:

A man is found while near death by Robert Walton. Walton, an explorer, was on a trip to the Arctic where his ship is stuck and surrounded by ice. As they looked out on the enormous ice field, Walton and his crew saw a gigantic man being pulled by a dogsled. The following day they discovered another, smaller man, desperately ill, adrift on a sheet of ice. Walton writes that he brought the man onto his ship, allowed him to rest, and attempted to nurse him back to health. That man was Victor Frankenstein who goes on to relate the story of how he came to be in this place.

While at university, Victor became obsessed with the idea of bringing the dead back to life. He built the Creature out of body parts scavenged from charnel houses and graves. Victor succeeded in bringing the Creature to life, but upon seeing the hideous Creature Victor ran from the lab, abandoning his creation. Alone and abandoned, the Creature spent two years hiding in the forest, aware of his ugliness. He learned to read in this time, and eventually he came to understand that Victor was the cause of his misery. The narrative thus continues with the struggle of the Creature to find his creator and to end his misery. The catalyst for the denouement of the story is Victor's realization of the mistake he made with his original creation. Is this realization enough to save him and others? I will leave it to other readers to answer that question for themselves. ( )
  jwhenderson | Sep 20, 2017 |
Since so many reviews exist, there’s no use in adding yet another. But I would like to share where and why this book seemed to stir me and how unique it is considering the background events. Because theories on the origin of the species and creation were beginning to surface, even preceding Charles Darwin, (though strangely Erasmus Darwin is mentioned in the first line of the Preface), it is easy to understand where the concept for this book arose.

I read the entire story without adding a tab or underlining a section, but yet it lingered after I’d finished reading. This version included additional material, which I found refreshing. Particularly the reviews. I’ll start there.

On Reviews

Mary Shelley was a female writer, something seldom seen when the first edition of Frankenstein was published in 1818. To obtain fair reviews, she released the novel under her husband’s name.

Walter Scott writes a rather lengthy review in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine in which he identifies the flaws:

(view spoiler)

Though valid criticisms, I had to chuckle at the similarities between critics of that day and age and the current one. Suspension of disbelief is always an issue, and certain critics are unwilling to forgive one error in fact or just a little exaggeration in, let’s face it, a “fantastic” story which never pretends to be anything else. Shelley even discusses how Frankenstein started as a dare between her and other writers—P.B. Shelley, Byron, Polidori—to write a ghost story, so she wasn’t exactly in a “serious” frame of mind. We also have to consider what the story is – a romance (not in the current sense of the word, but along the lines of fantasy, legend, and the Romanticism that began in the middle ages and reached its peak in the late 1800s), and also an original horror story. If you can picture the entire stage, the misplaced props fade into the background.

Critics of the 19th century were also influenced by the theories of origin and creation I mentioned above, and very resistant in most cases.

Scott continues: “ ‘Creator,’ applied to a mere human being, gives us the same sort of shock with the phrase, “the man Almighty,” and others of the same kind, in Mr Southey’s ‘Curse of Kehama.’ All these monstrous conceptions are the consequences of the wild and irregular theories of the age; though we do not at all mean to infer that the authors who give into such freedoms have done so with any bad intentions. This incongruity, however, with our established and most sacred notions, is the chief fault in such fictions...”

Shelley was tapping into the prevailing scientific theories of the age and incorporating them into her story, much to the “horror” of certain critics. Well, it is a horror story ;-) Where she fails is in describing the method of creation – how Frankenstein imbued his monster with life.

(view spoiler)

Did you just groan? I did. Most modern-day speculative fiction writers throw their intellectual weight into explaining esoteric theories in hopes of satisfying the curiosity of readers. But since she had no modern (for the 19th century) knowledge of medicine and science, she couldn’t be expected to explain the concept in any reasonable way. Of course in movies and modern television shows, the “creators” inevitably turn to lightning and electricity as a reanimating device. But I don’t begrudge Shelley the ambiguity. A zap of electricity to the brain does little to explain the restoration of dead tissue and cells.

On Irony

I do so adore irony, and Shelley excels at delivering. Even in Shelley’s epigraph from Paradise Lost, she twists Adam’s protest against God:

"Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay
To mould me man? Did I solicit thee
From darkness to promote me?"

Adam eventually concedes that God is just, but this novel revolves around this statement and never admits that the monster’s maker was just in his decision to create. In fact it spits in his face.

I still have to wonder at cinematic portrayals of the monster, often so different from this novel. He is shown in a sympathetic light in Van Helsing and Penny Dreadful - the most recent ones I can recall. Yet in the novel his decision to kill so swiftly after the cottagers reject him, particularly an innocent child, elicits revulsion instead of sympathy. Is Shelley contrasting not only the monster’s appearance to Adam and Eve in Paradise Lost, but his behavior? Is everything about the monster ugly, or was he merely made that way by circumstances and social rejection?

The story is relevant in our time. We continue to make monsters. We have to wonder is rejection strong enough to induce mass murder, to drive young people to Isis and other cults? I recently read an interview with the mother of one of the Columbine shooting perpetrators. Her son didn’t sound like a monster, but he seemed susceptible to the persuasive voice of one. Can a single voice change a person’s perception of the world? How much more so, then, would many voices, especially if that person is already feeling excluded and wounded? Shelley’s novel is social commentary that is relevant throughout the ages. The irony is, we still haven’t learned how to stop making monsters.

On the Richness of the Language

I found, for the most part, the journey was as satisfying as the conclusion. Of course, language was richer in earlier ages. Today we pride ourselves on quick communication, and genre books are always lighter on language. Many people may argue our literary novels are just as deliciously dressed.

But . . . the story is never neglected in these older novels for the glory of a few choice words.

For instance . . .

“The ascent is precipitous, but the path is cut into continual and short windings, which enable you to surmount the perpendicularity of the mountain. It is a scene terrifically desolate. In a thousand spots the traces of the winter avalanche may be perceived, where trees lie broken and strewed on the ground; some entirely destroyed, others bent, leaning upon the jutting rocks of the mountain, or transversely upon other trees.”

The description is rich, the sentences dense, but the words are not strange or startling. They don’t eject you from the novel, savoring the spice but forgetting about the soup. And they don’t have you pondering what the author is actually trying to say. The scene is so beautifully rendered you can visualize and experience the mountain, the climb. But at the same time, it suggests Frankenstein’s spiritual decline.

Mary Shelley employs letters to describe the events (as did Bram Stoker nearly a century later). The letter technique lends a personal aspect to the story as if the character is bending over and whispering in his best friend’s ear. It adds another dimension that gives the tale more depth.

Another aspect of 19th century literature is the tendency to quote or allude to classical literature or other literary works. Since I haven’t read all these works, I can hardly comment on their usage. But they sometimes prompt me to seek out these older plays, poems or novels, to see if they impress me as much as they did the writer in his or her time period. It is this layering of literature and mythology that continues to intrigue me.

There is great joy in language, even to illustrate a tragedy. ( )
  Debjacks | Oct 25, 2016 |
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To Mrs. Saville, England

ST. PETERSBURGH, Dec. 11, 17--.

You will rejoice to hear that no disaster has accompanied the commencement of an enterprise which you have regarded with such evil forebodings.
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0192833669, Paperback)

Shelley's enduringly popular and rich gothic tale confronts some of the most feared innovations of evolutionism and science--topics such as degeneracy, hereditary disease, and humankind's ability to act as creator of the modern world. This new edition, based on the harder and wittier 1818 version of the text, draws on new research and examines the novel in the context of the controversial radical sciences developing in the years following the Napoleonic Wars, and shows the relationship of Frankenstein's experiment to the contemporary debate between champions of materialistic science and proponents of received religion.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:15:34 -0400)

(see all 6 descriptions)

Shelley's enduringly popular and rich gothic tale confronts some of the most feared innovations of evolutionism and science, topics such as degeneracy, hereditary disease, and humankind's ability to act as creator of the modern world. This new edition, based on the harder and wittier 1818 version of the text, draws on new research and examines the novel in the context of the controversial radical sciences developing in the years following the Napoleonic Wars, and shows the relationship of Frankenstein's experiment to the contemporary debate between champions of materialistic science and proponents of received religion.… (more)

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