Modern readers must jump through a number of hoops to enjoy this legendary novel. Written between 1816 and 1818, this is very much a novel of its era, and both language and ideas about plot are quite different from those of today. That aside, and unlike such contemporaries as Jane Austen, author Mary Shelly has never been greatly admired for her literary style, which is often awkward. But perhaps the biggest hurdle is that of our own expectations: while it certainly sent icy chills down the spines of 19th Century readers, FRANKENSTEIN is not a horror novel per se.
While Mary Shelly might have been stylistically weak, her story was not. Nothing like it had been written before, and the concept of a student endowing life upon a humanoid creature cobbled together from charnel house parts was unexpectedly shocking to the reading public. But even more shocking were the ideas that Shelly brought to the story. Having created this thing in his own image, what--if anything--does the creator owe it? And in posing this question, Shelly very deliberately raises her novel to an even more complex level: this is not merely the conflict of man and his creation, but also a questioning of God and his responsibility toward his creation.
In some respects, the book is written like the famous philosophical "dialogues" of the ancient world: a counterpoint of questions and arguments that do battle for the reader's acceptance. More than anything else, FRANKENSTEIN is a novel of ethics and of ideas about ideas, with Mary Shelly's themes arrayed in multiple layers throughout: God, self, society, science; responsibility to self, to society, to the things we bring to society, to the truth; life, integrity, and death--these are the ideas and issues that predominate the book, and any one expecting a horror novel pure and simple is out of luck. Mary Shelly is a rare example of a writer whose ideas clearly outstrip her literary skill--but whose ideas are so powerful that they transcend her literary limitations and continue to resonate today. And indeed, as science continues to advance, it could not be otherwise so. Mary Shelly could not see into the future of DNA research, laboratory-grown tissues, test-tube babies and the like--but between 1816 and 1818 she wrote a book about the ethical dilemmas that swirl around them. And for all its flaws, FRANKENSTEIN is perhaps even more relevant today than it was over a hundred and fifty years ago.