FRANKENSTEIN / Mary Shelley. 1816. (196 pgs)
First Sentences: PROLOGUE – LETTER 1: “You will rejoice to hear that no disaster has accompanied the commencement of an enterprise which you have regarded with such evil forebodings.”
CHAPTER 1: “I am by birth a Genevese, and my family is one of the most distinguished of that republic.”
Prevailing Narrative Voice: Empathetic first-person storyteller, narrating events as told by another. Beginning with the prologue it is “you won’t believe the story I’m about to tell you…” and then switches at the beginning of Chapter One (and presumably for the remainder of the book) to the first-person account of the man who the story is about (Dr. Frankenstein) via first person accounts and letters.
What the reader learns in first paragraphs: Simply put, we learn that the stranger comes from a good family. Not only good in the sense of politically high-born, but from righteous, sensible, just and generous people.
What the reader learns in first 10 pages: In the fourteen-paged Prologue we meet Walton, an adventurer, who is undergoing a tremendously strenuous journey to discover a route from the North Pole through the middle of the earth to (I think) the Caribbean. He finds a stranger stranded on an ice flow with an unbelievable story. The prologue is told to Walton’s sister through a series of letters set in the summer of “17—“. The reader, even in 1816, would have known that such a route was impossible and so the story begins with the understanding that whatever happens is going to fail. Beginning with Chapter One the story shifts to events as told to Walton by the stranger on the ice. It is an odd shifting of gears, as the reader is asked to put aside the relationship he has made with Walton and his sister, albeit a short one, and shift his allegiance to the stranger. The stranger’s story begins with his youth and the adoption of his younger sister, who becomes an adored and key figure of his life, his growing-up and his studies in the “ancient sciences.” Planted into the narrative events of his life, the reader is given glimpses into concepts of charity, ownership, and relationship commitments embodied between non-filial children and their “parents.” One can imagine how this would play into the psyche of the Frankenstein / Jesus story.
Character: This is tricky! Which character? At this point there is not central character that has a name, just Walton and a stranger. We assume the stranger is the title character, but just exactly who is that? Is “Frankenstein” the creator or the creation? The same can be said for the stranger’s sister, who was of noble birth, abandon to a peasant family, and then adopted by the wealthy parents of “the stranger” on the pretext of charity. The charity angle seems thin, since more narrative is spent on her “fair flowering looks” and her striking demeanor as opposed to the “dark leaved vines” represented by her first set of adoptive siblings.
Setting: This is a story that travels the globe. In the first ten pages we are in Italy, Switzerland, the north pole, “home” and aboard ship in route to a “country beyond ethereal light.”
Plot & Expectations beyond tenth page: Anything “Abby Normal” aside, the reader has been set up for a second hand story; a retelling from journal entries, letters, and conversations as told by a man under considerable duress. Even the storyteller has a penchant for adventure and so it prepares this reader for a story that is not only fantastic, but one whose facts are greatly inflated. It is difficult to read Frankenstein in 2009 and not have images of Boris Karloff or Gene Wilder invade my read, but imagine how the reader of this novel, sitting around in her Empire gown (think Napoleon), where letters and stories are the prevailing method of communication, would approach this story. Thrilling! Now compare it to the unbiased experience of Orson Wells’ War of the Worlds or ET or Ordinary People for the very first time.
Random Comments: Read the book. See the movie. See the remake. See the remake. See the remake on Netflix.