Unread Classics

by Tom Ingram

There is a lot of mythology surrounding Frankenstein—particularly about the differences between the book and its various adaptations. The stories can spread unchecked because the book is one of those classics that nobody’s ever read, and the movie came out long enough ago that even if you wanted to see it, it’s not easy to find. Frankenstein is one of the archetypal book-is-better-than-the-movie novels. The movie was lurid and melodramatic and couldn’t even be bothered to get the characters’ names right.

Unfortunately, actually reading the book shatters a lot of convenient illusions. According to Mary Shelley’s own introduction, she liked to make up stories as a child, but had no interest in actual writing. It was only the encouragement of her husband and friends, spurred on by the fact that she was the daughter of two eminent authors, that pushed her into writing the novel (which began as a short story). She was eighteen years old at the time. These facts might be well-known, but something considerably less well-known can only be discovered by reading the book: it shows.

It reads like the work of a young person, especially one interested in making up a story but not necessarily writing. This is a distinction that is unclear to many neophytes, including myself not too long ago. It’s easy to think that the words just sort of come out, and the hard part of writing is in coming up with the right idea. However, any author will tell you that they’ve got a big stack of ideas written down somewhere, many of which they will never have the time to use. The hard part is putting out those ~90000 words for a proper novel (and, in my case, sustaining interest in the story long enough to accomplish this). Anyone can come up with a great idea, and the mark of a great author is that they do something with it.

What comes across in Frankenstein is that the author had a great idea, but never did anything with it. The most important scene of the story, the monster’s creation, is barely dwelt upon at all. If a page had been torn out of the book, you may not know there was meant to be a monster at all until it shows up again fifty pages later. The main plot is lodged in an unnecessary framing device—probably to pad the story—which leads to awkwardly nested narratives that are at times three or four deep. The tangent involving the blind man is a whole separate story that goes on for ages and has precious little to do with Frankenstein or his monster.

Another flaw stemming from Shelley’s essential indifference to writing is the prose, which dies on the page. There is no personality to it. All the characters use the same intensely formal mode of speech. She uses no specific adjectives. When she does see fit to describe something, her description is vague and superlative. Instead of conjuring up a vivid image of the monster, she describes him by saying “his countenance was horrifying to gaze upon”, or words to that effect. When a character is angry, we know because they say, “I am angry.” Or, more likely, they say, “I truly cannot convey in words the intensity of my anger.” Say what you will about dark nights, thunderstorms, mountaintop castles, and mad hunchbacked assistants, but at least the movie has some life in it.

I thought at first that this was just a peculiarity of early 19th century writing, but it can’t be. There’s plenty of writing from the period that, while written in an extremely formal style, has some punch to it. The edition I read also contained Byron’s “A Fragment” and Polidori’s “The Vampyre”, the other stories from the famous Frankenstein bet (the former never finished). Both of them use the same vocabulary as Shelley, but they use it in a way that jumps off the page.

The story does, however, carry quite a bit of metaphorical weight. Aside from the obvious theme intended by the author (the subtitle is “A Modern Prometheus”), which is odious and antithetical to the usual ideals of science fiction, it has quite a bit to say about the responsibility of parent toward child, creator toward creation, and society toward the individual. If not for iconic movie and its subsequent association with Halloween, these metaphors would be the only reason Frankenstein is still talked about today.

This happens every now and then. Sometimes an author will come up with a very good idea that seems to resonate with people, but the actual execution of it is flawed or worse. A good example of this is The Truman Show, a movie that has considerable depth to it, but is brought down by its hokey performances and lacklustre dialogue. It’s hard to be sure what to make of such things. After all, The Truman Show is definitely an important and prescient entry in the science fiction genre. But it’s just so agonizing to watch.

Usually, criticism (of the non-reviewing kind) ignores the technical quality of the work, assuming that the author intended everything to fall the way it did, but I don’t think this is wise. If we do not take style and execution into consideration, than we might as well write stories as a bulleted list of events, like David Foster Wallace’s “Adult World, Part II”. We shouldn’t ignore bad fiction, but if a story is poorly-executed, that’s an important fact to note about it. An analysis of, say, Left Behind or The Sword of Truth that doesn’t mention that these books are terrible isn’t doing its job properly.

Frankenstein will retain its place as a classic, and the mythology will continue. But like the good doctor and his monster, Shelley neglected to give her creation the care and attention it deserved, with a result that is horrifying to gaze upon. It is the kind of classic that no one actually reads, but perhaps it is better if it stays that way.