Forgotten Pearls: Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus, by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley

Book Reviews, Forgotten Pearls

Perhaps one of the most iconic pieces of literature across the globe is that of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus, a story reproduced over and over through the past two centuries in all forms of media. Frankenstein is also an integral part of science fiction, being the first sci-fi story to be produced and distributed in the modern age and kicking off a movement that soon after gave birth to all sorts of weird and wonderful sub-genres.

From science fiction to biopunk and strange fiction, Shelley’s Frankenstein has it all.

Of course, with any iconic meme, Frankenstein and his creature have both been portrayed untrue to the story. First being the confusion between who Frankenstein is, and second through how Frankenstein’s creature looks. In the many adaptations, there has been poetic flair inserted and this explains the pop cultural view of the creature and story of Victor Frankenstein.

Speaking of which, the prose in which Shelley wrote her book is highly poetic. Perhaps due to the language norms and literary mannerisms of the late 19th Century.

A Bit About The Book

Frankenstein is a story about a young ambitious man, so enthralled with the natural sciences that he ventured toward the answer of life itself. In his studies, he discovered it then set about working to create his own life. His tedious labours of wiring all the parts of a body together paid off on the night he used his answer to bring his creature to life.

But the young Victor Frankenstein regrets his decision when he succumbs to a fever and his creature appears to him. After recovering from his illness, with the help of his good friend Henry, he receives a letter informing him of the loss of his younger brother. Victor realises, upon arriving, that his creature was real and not a dream, and responsible for the murder. This and the events proceeding initiate Victor’s determination to hunt down his creature.

When he does, we get an account from the creature about his life up until that point, whereafter the creature gives Victor an ultimatum to build him a female companion of his own species. Frankenstein’s creature is no monster save for in appearance, and he’s a richly cultured person with a strong will and developed mind.

This story is too large to sum up in a few paragraphs and still do it justice so I will leave it at this: Frankenstein’s creature resigns to the uninhabited parts of the world in repentance for what he’d done. And Victor? Well, some people just refuse to change.

Review

Shelley’s use of poetic language makes this a difficult read for people of this century, but in no way does it detract from the story. On the contrary, the language pulled me in and I was immersed in 19th Century society. I felt like I had travelled back in time. Her use of letters to characters being the structure of the narrative made immersion challenging at first but soon after, I was trapped in the story. And this was a re-read. It says something about a story if, despite having read it a couple of times before and knowing the story like the back of your hand, you still get so enthralled with it and plunge head-first into imagination from the first sentence.

Frankenstein’s story is full of emotion and the characters are continuously developing, right up to the last line. Not only the main characters, but all of them. From Elizabeth to Safir, each character is fully fleshed out with a rich story of their own. What captures me the most about the story is the dichotomy between Victor and his creation. There’s no clear “good” or “bad” guy, and interestingly, the protagonist is neither.

There’s just so much readers can take away from the story and something in it for everyone and almost every circumstance, from the personal to the political.

Versus Contemporary

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is a stark contrast to the literature, of any genre, of today. The formal English and poetic structure of the prose speaks to the era it was written in and, subsequently, dates the book. Although the prose is very clearly to the point, the messages inside the narrative are subtle in comparison to the literature of the 70s and 80s, for instance, where social critique was blatantly delivered.

Continuing on the mention of dated language, it may make Frankenstein feel distanced and inaccessible to readers of the 21st Century, especially with language constantly evolving.

Nevertheless, Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus, is by far an essential read for everything it provides to the reader and the messages within being applicable still through today and probably into the future.


 

Have you read Frankenstein? I’d love to hear your thoughts on it. Did I miss something or have you perceived things differently? It would be interesting to read and discuss the different experiences people get from the book.

Read More in the Forgotten Pearls Series.

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Fates be Damned

Fiction, Micro Flash Fiction

The swan lay down its head on Tam’s lap. A tear streamed from its eye and began to glow. Light surrounded it, transforming it into a man.

What he’d done was unforgivable. But he seemed so innocent like this.

Tam cradled his head. “No more, Zeus.”

She twisted his neck.


For all Zeus did for humanity, according to Greek myth, he did less for women. Manipulating and tricking them into sleeping with him—even raping them—Zeus did women a great injustice. Not only from his actions but from the consequences resulting. It set the idea that women were easily seduced, objects for sexual measures, and untrustworthy to be loyal.

Of course, the myth of Zeus was created by humans, and therefore only a reflection of humanity at the time, but the stories still had a life of their own. In a sense, Zeus did  exist, as a metaphor for society in Ancient Greece. To treat Zeus as merely a fictional character underplays the effect he had on humans and society and, in turn, further disservices women.

While the myth has ceased being believed as reality, the effects and similar situations have lived on through society. These have infected fiction.

Starting with the early fairy tales and fables and branching into the various genres that have emerged over the centuries, it was always the men who saved the women—that poor, helpless, hapless damsel in distress—never the other way around. Only recently have we seen fiction and fairy tale retellings that reverse the roles and have women saving the men.

But still there is the unbalanced nature of the sexes in fiction. One saving the other perpetually.

Not only does this encourage inequality, either for women or for men or otherwise, it is not relatable, realistic, or achievable. It breaks suspension of disbelief—a vital aspect of storytelling. The characters lack agency, seeming to only follow their apparent destiny or fate, stripped of will and therefore of character. They end up being little more than cardboard cut-outs for all their usefulness to the reader.

Back to Zeus, known for transforming into a swam and seducing or raping women, what if his victims had agency—a will. That, for once, the Fates weaved in no-one’s favour and each person had to be accountable for themselves and their actions. Why, they’d bring Zeus down like the fowl beast he was, like they would any fowl they planned to prepare for dinner.

As Damian Jay Clay points out in his article, Enough Agency for the Agency (which inspired this story), agency is not only the action a character takes but also the choices they make.

In this scenario, no one saves anyone. Vengeance was had. The victim turned her attacker into her victim, and the hunter became the prey. That anger, the thirst for vengeance, hate, and bloodlust are emotions readers can relate to. Chivalry (as in the actual chivalry: battle manners, not men being courteous to women), fearless courage, total faith in the metaphysical, and two-dimensional heroism are not what the average person experiences and probably never will.

And in the situation the woman was placed, the former emotions would come as naturally to the reader as it would the character.

Zeus deserved it. No sympathy was shared on his behalf. And we end up with a natural villain. She saved herself. Took agency. Became a real person. And the story’s end, subsequently, can be satisfying in its resolution. Not because of the plot but from the choices of the character.

Pillars of the Sky

Fiction

Humans must be terrified of Lord Etin of Ire, at least according to the witch. That damned witch. She’s one of them.

A storm follows as Etin races toward the castle. His feet leave craters in the hard ground. The two fake heads on either shoulder bob around. He holds them in place. All this effort to turn the humans into stone seems unnecessary. Loathsome pests. The witch more so than others. But the pillars must be built if there is any hope of saving the world.

The witch said there’d be a storm before the Sky God falls. Etin looks up to the blue-black sky. Dark grey clouds swallow the stars. Almost time. The top branch of a tree scrapes his temple. He stumbles but the momentum keeps him upright. The straps holding the fake heads threaten to tear.

He looks up again. The storm won’t hold off for much longer. Time is running out. He picks up his pace. One greedy shepherd just had to talk about a raisetoday of all days. That shepherd can count his fortune that his work has produced results or he’d be used as a pillar. Just one more human to keep the Sky up.

The castle gates rise over the horizon, open and waiting for his return. A fire inside warms up the night. In front of the flames dances the black silhouette of the witch.

He runs up to her, bends at the waist, and whispers in her ear. “Is he here?”

She nods and points to the hole in the wall. Just as planned for her silly ritual. But humans like holes, apparently. Simple creatures, thinking a hole would hide them. It took Etin a whole week to dig it out. Still, it was easier than bribing those human shepherds to direct other humans to the castle. What is it with humans and gold? They always want more but never eat it.

Etin corrects his fake heads and clears his throat. How do the words go again? It’s been so long.

“Sniff there and sniff here, I smell an earthly man. Whether he’s living or dead, his heart will be the spread for my bread.” He looks at the witch who shakes her head and rolls her eyes. Wench.

With a sigh, he bends down and reaches into the hole, grabbing the human. Etin’s red hand covers his entire chest. The human squirms and mumbles something incoherent about his mother and cake. Etin shrugs then lowers him. Typical human nonsense talk.

Please don’t eat me?” The human clasps his hands together. Great, another beggar. “I only wanted to escape the storm. I can’t go anywhere else. Those giants outside… They’re frightening.”

How much more until he quivers? Etin clears his throat and lowers his head, his chin almost touching his neck.

“I myself am a Giant and this is my home. Do you know who I am?”

I-I do.” The human’s head bobs up and down. “Lord Etin, King of the Giants of Ire.”

Etin nods. “Now listen here.” He bares his palms to the human. “Answer me three questions and I will spare your life.” Patience. The anxious brew boiling in the pit of his stomach wants out. There isn’t much time left. The storm still comes.

Anything.” The human’s voice quivers. “I’ll answer anything.”

He clears his throat and winks at the witch. “Was Ire or Scot first inhabited by sentient life?”

The witch rolls her eyes and turns to face the fire again. What sort of messages does the Sky God send her through the flames? He looks at the human.

Knees tremble. “I…” The human licks his lips while scratching his yellow hair. “I don’t know.”

With a suppressed a smile, Etin takes a breath. “Well then, was man made for woman, or woman for man?” The human won’t know this one. Nor call him on the trick question.

While fidgeting with his fingers, the human looks around. “Uhm…” His eyes focus on the castle gates. “Uh, I don’t know that one, either. Woman for man?”

Good. All good. Almost time. “Then tell me this: were men made first, or giants such as myself?” No human can answer that. They’re too young a race to know the true history of the world. Never mind knowing about the Sky God.

The human hesitates then darts for the gates. Too slow. Etin grabs him and lowers him beside the fireplace. The human falls to his knees and clasps his hands together again.

Please? Let me live? I don’t know the answers. I’m a simple man.”

Oh, I know.” Etin lets the smile show. They’re all simple but they make for good stone. The final pillar to hold up the Sky God.

You’re not going to kill me?” The human looks up with furrowed brows and up-turned lips.

Why would I do that?” Etin unclips the mace from his belt. Silly human only thinking of himself. He taps the human’s head, in case he has any plans of trying to escape again.

The human’s feet turn to stone. Then his legs. He screams and writhes until his mouth too becomes rock. Etin folds his arms over his chest and admires his work. The statue’s arms  are straightened above the head. Perfect. The final pillar.

Better prepare the women you hold upstairs for the Sky God.” The witch turns around. “Another comes this way.” Always preparing. For years now, prepare, prepare. She just sits there and watches the flames. Trying to glean messages. Can anyone truly understand the gods?

Etin picks up the human statue and places him in the courtyard. He glares at the witch. “Another human?” Damn her vague, mystic talk.

This human’s brother.” The witch cackles and turns back to the fire.

He stares at the flames. There’s nothing in there. No message. Maybe she should be the last pillar instead? Etin huffs. “I’ll deal with him first then make pillars of the females.” So your precious pure stone won’t waste. He could have turned them into stone long ago. But, no. This damned witch insisted that would ruin the pillars. Does she not know the strength of stone? He corrects the fake heads again and walks to the back gate of the castle. This better not take long.

Through the crack in the wall, he spies the front gate. His stomach growls. These intrusive humans leave no time for meals. A nice salad, fruit no less, would be wonderful.

Sure as the Sky God is coming, the human’s brother arrives. He speaks to the witch who directs him to the hole. Of all the places to hide.

Etin sighs then stomps back into the castle. What were the words again? Oh, yes. “Sniff there and sniff here, I smell an earthly man. Whether he’s living or dead, his heart will be the spread for my bread.” How many times now? The words make his shoulders feel heavy. The fake heads don’t help at all. With a grunt, he bends down and pulls the brother from the hole.

Again, this human squirms and squeals. “I should have taken only half of Mother’s cake!” The brother looks to Etin. “Please? My mother cursed me. Damned woman. Don’t let it come true just because I chose to take the whole cake? Who does that to their son, any way? The curse should have stayed with my brother. Why he had to seek his supposed fortune, I don’t know.”

Etin narrows his eyes, frowns, then shakes his head. More human nonsense. They always talk too much. He puts the human down, gripping his shoulders between his forefinger and thumb. Is it really needed to ask this again?

The witch nods, as though hearing his thoughts.

Answer me three questions and I will spare your life and break your curse. Was Ire or Scot first inhabited by sentient life?”

The brother’s brows furrow and his head cocks back. “How should I know? I wasn’t there.”

Good. This is going faster than expected.

Was man made for woman, or woman for man?” Etin releases his grip.

The brother rubs his shoulders and scoffs. “Woman for man, of course.”

Excellent. At least he isn’t a beggar. Etin unclips the mace. “So who was created first: man or Giant?”

Man.” The brother’s eyes narrow. “Don’t you know your history?”

Etin lets out the laugh boiling from within his belly. “More than you, human.” He taps the brother’s head. He, too, becomes stone—his arms reaching for the sky.

If the Sky God isn’t content with the male, he now has one extra.” Etin chuckles as he picks up the statue and places it in the courtyard, beside his brother. They should do.

It’s not over, yet, Lord Etin. Your Red Giant hide assumes too much. Another yet comes.” The witch cackles once more and turns to the fire. Mad thing, that’s for certain.

His stomach grumbles again. “Is there at least time for something to eat before the other arrives?” The witch cackles again and points to the front gate.

That does it! As soon as the next human becomes a pillar, so will she. The Sky God won’t care. Humans are humans. Her ability to speak with him gains her no favour above anyone else.

He drags his feet to the back gate and takes position by the crack. Another human enters, approaches the witch, then dives into the hole. Does she tell them it’s safe? Simple creatures probably believe her because she’s old.

The pieces for the ceremony are fulfilled. This silly ritual of the witch isn’t necessary any more. Would it matter to make him stone? The witch turns to face the back gate and meets his eye. She nods. How does she know his thoughts?

Sniff there and sniff here, I smell an earthly man. Whether he’s living or dead, his heart will be the spread for my bread.” Etin stomps back into the castle. Partially in tantrum. He casts a glare at the witch. This better be the final time he has to say this. He clenches his jaw. “Come out, I know you’re in there.”

Unlike the others, this one shows no fear. Was he brave or stupid? Not much of a distinction with these creatures. Better ask the questions all at once. Get this over with. The clouds have swallowed the moon already. He’s almost here.

Answer me three questions and I will spare your life. Was Ire or Scot first inhabited by sentient life? Was man made for woman, or woman for man? And who was created first: man or Giant?” His stomach twists in knots. Food. He needs food. Hurry up, human.

Neither, as the definition of sentient life varies from scholar to scholar. What is your definition thereof?” The human holds out his hands then clasps them together. “Both man and woman were made for each other, the Earth God had no preference for one over the other.”

This human is smart. Damn the creature.

And, of course, Giants were created first as the Sky God was the first to be born.” The human pulls out a stick from his boot. A wand? Where did he get a wand?

How do you know all this, human?” Etin fumbles for his mace. Why won’t his fingers work any more? He looks to the wand. Is that a fairy’s? Can’t be. They don’t encourage harm. And yet, that wand is one of theirs. Woodland one, for certain. Dried, crooked, and twisted vines are their signature. This cursed human has numbed his fingers with fairy magic? His knees give out as the numbness crawls through his arms, down his chest, and into his legs.

Damn that witch and her rituals. The Sky God is almost here and the females still need to be turned into stone. The Earth God will be crushed without the pillars when the Sky falls. Silly humans and their ignorance. Etin shakes his head. “Wait, no!”

The human slips the wand back into his boot then reaches for an axe by the pile of wood and charges at him.

Stop! You will be the end of us all!” Etin tugs his arms but they refuse to move.

Still, the human comes. “I know of you, Lord Etin. You stole the daughter of Scot’s king. You are feared by all but me.” He chops off the fake heads in successive swings.

Etin wriggles his shoulders and shuffles backward into the courtyard. The stars and moon are gone. It’s not too late. He can still save the world. “Are you deaf or dumb?”

Neither, Etin! The Sky will not fall, because of me.” The human lifts the axe again and leaps from a step.

The witch’s cackling fades as the Sky God falls and the axe comes down.


This was my version of a fairy tale retelling of The Red Ettin collected by Joseph Jacobs and included in Andrew Lang’s collection, The Blue Fairy Book, as told from the perspective of the antagonist who may have simply been trying to save the world.


 

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