Ask any ten people if they know Frankenstein and you will undoubtedly get a YES. Such is the power of the mythos created by Marry Shelley, an early female novelist who, in 1818, at the remarkable age of 18, hid the fact of her sex to get her book published. It is a testament to her writing talents that after nearly a century, countless movies, books, games, toys, and even a Frankenberry cereal exists. So it strikes me as odd that most people probably couldn’t correctly answer who, or what, Frankenstein is (not the monster). Even Dr. Frankenstein, from whom the book’s title is derived, has been, over the years, misrepresented as a “mad scientist”. It’s probable the whole archetype originated with him due to the film by the same name. But the book portrays the doctor differently, as brilliant, compassionate, and conflicted by moral quandaries that, to this day, have great relevance. Debates on cloning and stem cell research uncannily mirror issues raised in Mary Shelley’s remarkably prescient masterwork.
What makes Frankenstein a great read, and number #4 on my list, is that it was, for its time, a truly original concept. That scientific discoveries can have terrible, unintended consequences has been popularized by countless movies, TV shows and novels, most notably by Jurassic Park author Michael Crichton, but long before the atom bomb fell on Hiroshima, Frankenstein raised the issue of tinkering with nature. Shelley’s novel is so much more than a cautionary tale, however; it can be read in multiple levels, as a drama, a love story, an adventure, a morality play, and a social commentary. Dr. Frankenstein creates “the monster” as an experiment to bring back those he loves from the dead, but upon seeing his creation flees in terror. In this way, his monster is “born” abandoned and alone. Society mistreats him for his hideousness. He is shunned by every single human being until befriending a blind man living in the woods. At first, the monster shows good will toward the blind man and his family, but when the others lay eyes on him, they show only disgust and hatred. From here the monster earns his namesake, going on a killing rampage. Even still, you cannot help but feel sympathy for him by book’s end (another cliche way ahead of its time) or for the doctor whose torment derives only from a desire to do good. Though in some ways conventional in today’s world, Frankenstein stands apart for its gripping narrative and heartfelt characters, and will continue to stand the test of time well into the future.