Frank Lavallo hosts two readers and the three of them summarize the world’s greatest works of classic literature, giving their reactions along the way. If SparkNotes had an audio best friend, it would be us!
Plot: This early 19th century novel tells the story of Victor Frankenstein, a young scientist who creates a hideous creature in an unorthodox scientific experiment. Unbeknownst to the obsessed scientist, the creature is intelligent and longs for a mate. Tormented by isolation and loneliness, the once-innocent creature turns to evil and unleashes a campaign of murderous revenge against his creator, Frankenstein.
Frank: Hello and welcome. I'm Frank Lavallo and this is Novel Conversations, a podcast about the world's greatest stories. For each episode of Novel Conversations, I talk to two readers about one book; and together we summarize the story for you. We introduce you to the characters, we tell you what happens to them, and we read from the book along the way. So, if you love hearing a good story you're in the right place.
Frank: This novel conversation is about Frankenstein
by Mary Shelley and I'll be joined in my conversation by our Novel Conversations readers, Katie Smith and Peter Toomey. Katie, Peter, welcome.
Katie, Peter: Hi Frank. Thanks for having us!
Frank: All right, before we get started let me read a quick summary of our story and I know that this summary is going to be very different from what our listeners out there are familiar with, when it comes to Frankenstein. On an expedition to the North Pole, English explorer Robert Walton and his crew, find the weak and weary Victor Frankenstein stranded among the ice floes. They rescued the stranger who, in time, tells Walton the story of how he came to be traveling alone in the Arctic. Walton relays the tale in letters to his sister, Margaret Saville, in England. The tale that Victor Frankenstein tells Robert Walton, and that Robert Walton communicates to his sister, make up the bulk of our story, Frankenstein.
Frank: Ok, let’s start off with your initial thoughts of the novel. Peter?
Peter: Frank, I have to start out with even the title of the book. I thought Frankenstein was the name of the monster but of course it isn't. It's the name of the scientist who created Frankenstein.
Frank: Dr. Victor Frankenstein.
Peter: There was no Igor! (giggles)
Katie: I didn't even get a sense of the appearance of the creature. There wasn't much of a description of any of the characters. And perhaps the most interesting fact about our monster. He's a vegetarian! (giggles)
Frank: Yes. We find out a lot about the monster when the master tells his story.
Katie: But I could not physically describe to you. I couldn't picture in my mind what he looked like.
Peter: Well I think the author was allowing everyone to come up with their own version of a monster. She gave you enough of his enormous proportions and the speed and the eyes and I think she just allowed every reader you conjure up your own vision of a monster.
Frank: I think we're all a bit of a victim of the movies and as soon as you say the word ‘Frankenstein’, we all conjure up a very similar image in our minds. But that's not what Shelley had in mind.
Katie: Yes. And also what I find interesting is we not only get the creature’s story in this novel but we get the Victor Frankenstein story in this novel. We get the Walton story in this novel.
Peter: Do we really get a story though? It's all about letters. We have to trust that the dialogue in the letter is what the person actually spoke.
Frank: Did you have a problem with that, Katie?
Katie: No not at all. I think it was just a literary technique that Mary employed and you have many different ways to get your story across.
Peter: Because of that I didn't trust it.
Frank: So you see this novel really as a collection of stories that you're not sure you can trust or believe at the moment.
Peter: No I don't.
Katie: Well, Peter it is fiction.
Peter: Yes, it is fiction but now we're talking about the probability and the believability of that fiction.
Frank: Ok, I’d like to start the discussion here about this novel, how this story develops, how we get these various little stories that make up the collection of the novel, Frankenstein. Katie, how does Mary Shelley start her novel Frankenstein?
Katie: With the one character, Robert Walton, the adventurer, writing a letter to his sister Margaret who is in England.
Frank: Peter, is this just an adventure trip or is he in quest of something?
Peter: No, he came into some money and he wanted to do something that would bring him fame and fortune; try to go where no one else had been before.
Frank: So really, for the first 30 pages or so of our novel Frankenstein, we are dealing with a Robert Walton that we've never heard of before, have we?
Peter: Absolutely. We don't come into Victor until they pick up this man on an ice floe, half dead, and here it's Victor Frankenstein. They bring him back to health. Eventually Walton becomes friends with Frankenstein and tells him of his plans to sail to the North Pole; and then Victor tells him why he wants to go with them.
Frank: And Katie, this is where we now get Victor's story.
Katie: But even before we get to Victor's story, we have other little stories that Robert Walton tells. Walton talks about his own loneliness and that he really needs a friend. He becomes friends with the captain and he's very enamored with the captain because the captain tells the story that he had a tremendous love. But the woman was not in love with him. She was in love with a poor boy. And the woman's father would not allow her to marry him because he was poor. So, the captain in an act of true generosity of love, thought it was more important that his darling have true love with the poor boy, so he gives them money so that the poor man would be acceptable in the father's eyes. So we were not getting anywhere near a monster for pages and pages and pages.
Frank: Let's talk about Victor's story.
Peter: Victor was born and raised in an affluent comfortable family town outside of Geneva. He had very caring and doting parents and he was a bright young man.
Frank: But before he left for college, his ambitions were first fired by reading about the alchemist and the occult.
Peter: Yes, yes.
Frank: And that's where his interest in science first went.
Katie: Well he describes himself from early childhood on, as having all of these great interests, but he's also an only child for quite a few years. So, he is living in an adult world and he has more of the interests of adults than he does of a typical kid.
Frank: Eventually he does get two more brothers.
Peter: Ernest and William.
Frank: Yes, Ernest and William. And then, also, one of our other major characters comes to live in this family of the Frankenstein’s as well, and that's Elizabeth Lanza.
Peter: Elizabeth was the niece; and she was a similar age as Victor. And Alfonso Victor's father brought the child to Switzerland and raised her as one of the family.
Katie: And the parents would always talk about how this is the woman who is destined to be Victor's partner in life.
Frank: But not for a while… Let's get back to Victor. He goes to college and he comes to realize that all this reading he's been doing, all this learning he's been doing, he's been learning the wrong sciences.
Katie: Yes. Victor talks about two professors in particular. One is extremely abrupt with him. The other professor is much kinder and gentler in his treatment of Victor. And he introduces him to the modern scientists.
Frank: Those are the natural sciences: geology, botany, chemistry. And Victor of course becomes very proficient in these subjects.
Peter: It is marvelous the way all the characters, including the monster, can acquire vast amounts of information; and store it and be able to put it in practical use in periods of just a couple of months.
Frank: And the practical use that Victor Frankenstein puts his knowledge to…
Katie: … is, of course, creating the monster.
Frank: We get pages and pages of buildup, of the preparation that he makes to bring his monster to life. But then the monster comes to life in two sentences.
Peter: That was not his intention to create a monster. He wanted to create life.
Peter: So, we can honor him and be loyal to him.
Katie: … and of course it was incredible. And then the author doesn't even attempt to give an explanation on how the monster was created.
Peter: At least in Hollywood we had some electricity!
Katie: There was a reference to it. When Victor was in his teens he witnesses a tree exploding from being struck with a lightning bolt. At that point, Victor then has passages and passages about the power of electricity as a force in creating life. But the author does not give us any justification of that, I think just alludes to that this is going to be the means that the master comes to life.
Frank: What happens when the monster comes to life? This immediate reactions from Victor…
Peter: He goes to bed. (Laughter)
Katie: Yes. Victor does quite a bit of fainting in this book.
Peter: Now this is something that he spent a couple of weeks putting all these parts together…
Katie: Years, Peter.
Peter: And all of a sudden it's alive, and he decided, well this is ugly. He just turned around goes to bed.
Frank: But he doesn't just go to bed. He becomes violently ill. He does know that he's made a mistake. He comes to realize that rather quickly. (Katie: Yes.) And what happens to the monster during all these months when we have Victor Frankenstein sick in bed being taken care of by his friend?
Katie: The monster is devastated that his creator would desert him. He could tell by his face that he was horrified and runs from him.
Frank: Let me stop you there because I want to leave our creature on the run for a few more moments. Victor Frankenstein is now telling Robert Walton that after he creates his monster, he's sick in bed for six or seven months and then heads back to Geneva; and finds out that a disaster has struck his family.
Katie: Well he actually is informed of this before he leaves for Geneva. In a letter from his father. His father is saying that his youngest brother William, age six or seven, has been found murdered; and the father alludes to the fact that Justine, briefly described as a much loved nanny, has been accused of the murder. So, Victor, accompanied by Henry, returned home to Geneva.
Peter: And then when he goes down to the spot where William was found murdered, he looks up and he sees the apparition of the monster. And Victor comes to realization the monster had killed his brother.
Frank: And then when Justine was going to be tried for the murder, a locket that had been on William was found in Justin's pocket. That's why she was accused of the murder.
Peter: Yes. And everyone came forward including Victor to testify that Justine is the greatest girl in the world and the greatest servant. And she would never do this.
Frank: None of the townspeople believe that Justine could have done this murder, but Victor knew she didn't do the murder.
Peter: He could have, at this time, bring up the fact that he believes that this monster has done this.
Frank: Does he tell the authorities? (Peter: No.)
Katie: Now that's something Victor does a very good job at… He keeps the monsters existence to himself.
Peter: For his own protection.
Katie: But initially Victor says, of course justice will prevail and the truth will come out and she will be proven innocent.
Frank: And she is in fact executed...
Katie: Yes, she is hanged. And of course, Victor goes on at great length…He cannot tell anyone but he said I am as guilty for their deaths as the monster.
Peter: He can
tell someone but that's the sin right there. He did not and would not tell to anyone.
Frank: Eventually the time comes where he confronts his monster, though.
Katie: Up in the hills of the Alps, in a cave.
Peter: And the monster confronts him.
Frank: And when the monster and Victor confront each other, we get two things happening: We get the monster story and he makes a very demanding request of Victor Frankenstein.
Peter: The monster says, I have been rejected by everybody. I'm shunned. I receive no warmth or love. So, I want you to create another creature for me in the form of a woman. And we will go off to the jungles of South America and you'll never see us again. If you will not do this, I will turn back to my murderous ways and it will all come back to you. The only ones who will die will be the ones that will bring you sorrow.
Frank: Now Victor, of course, is shocked by this request. He refuses to make a second creature, he already knows the havoc that's been wrecked by his first creature; but the creature starts to tell him a story how he came to know about companionship, how he came to know the language. And once we hear the creature’s story, it did give Victor pause to consider his request. So now, let’s get into the creature’s story. Katie, do you want to start with that?
Katie: The monster has told Victor to come into my cave and I will tell you my story. Now of course when the master comes to life, he is able to walk and run but he doesn't have communication, he doesn't understand a language.
Frank: There's a great couple of scenes where he talks about, he doesn't even understand his senses.
Katie: He then goes off into the woods…
Peter: …but he travels by night.
Katie: Yes, that’s correct. He comes upon other people and he knows enough emotion to be so devastated by the rejection of all people who shrink from him, run from him, throw sticks at him, throw stones at him… He finds his way, he sees a light and so it's a cottage. And through a crack in the wall he's able to observe and he sees a very old man who is blind, a young man and a young girl. He hasn't learned language yet, but he is developing an emotion and he is actually an extremely intelligent monster.
Katie: He observes that there is goodness in the younger couple because they have very little food yet they immediately make sure that the old blind man has the greater portion of their food and the young man will begin reading at night and this is their recreation. This is how the monster begins to understand words.
Peter: Needless to say, within the next three or four months the monster had to learn to read Paradise Lost, Dante's Inferno, Hovels history of the World and he could speak a few languages too. It’s a little bit crazy, especially because you can smell him from a mile away!
Frank: Now, it does doesn't happen quite that fast. I agree with you, 100 percent Peter, that it's a little preposterous. But that's not really the point of the story. The point of the story is to tell us, as you said Katie, he's very bright and he can learn.
Katie: And he has a generous spirit. He wants to help these people so, he collects the wood at night. He sees that these people have happiness and he wants to have happiness.
Frank: And in order to get that happiness, he comes up with a plan on how he's going to introduce himself to this family.
Katie: But the masters plan of attack is wait for the three young people to leave. He'll talk to the old man the old man is blind. He'll be able to hear his heart speak.
Frank: And Peter how does that work out for the creature?
Peter: Oh it worked out fine! The old fella just laughs and then they get along just great but he makes a mistake. Instead of having the old man introduce him to the family. He attempts to just introduce himself in hopes that the old man starts doing some talking for him.
Frank: And how successful was that?
Peter: The son took one look at him and all the women scream and fainted. The sons started throwing rocks and clubs at him and ran him off.
Frank: And so this is really what leads the creature to make his request of Victor Frankenstein. He wants a companion and he promises that if given a companion, he will go into the most remote areas of the world and neither of them will ever be heard from again. Don't fulfill my request and I will make your life a living hell.
Katie: He pretty much tells Victor, ‘Look at I gave it a chance. It's not going to work. I've given up on trying to be accepted by you and other humans. Give me someone just like me so that I am not condemned to such a lonely life.’ And again he says, ‘I am really a good guy, Victor! You didn't create a monster, but the circumstances have made me a monster.’
Peter: I don't agree. This creature was murderous. He had no problems at all killing an innocent youth and covering this work. He’s not a good guy.
Frank: But he tells Victor that the death of Victor's brother at the hands of the creature was an accident.
Katie: Yes, he does. He presents it as an accident. When he saw William, he thought well this is a human that is young and childlike. They haven't learned to hate yet. Of course, the 7-year old William screams and shrieks and threatens the monster and mentions his name, ‘Mr. Frankenstein, We'll get you!’ He screams at the monster. And when he hears the name Frankenstein. ‘My God this is the family of the monster.’ The monster is referring to Victor now as the monster.
Frank: That's right Peter. Let's not forget that Justine's death we're attributing to Victor. We're not attributing that one to the creature at this point.
Peter: It's very self-serving to say, ‘Well they provoked me in they yelled your name and everything…’ He had no problem setting up Justine. This was plotted and this is what he wanted.
Frank: Notwithstanding all of that, Victor does agree to create a bride for Frankenstein. I hate to use that term. That does become the movie. But he does agree to create a companion. He decides to go off with his friend Henry and they go off through England and Scotland. Victor ends up on an island and he decides he's going to start to create a second creature.
Peter: Only five people lived on this island. Five little houses or huts.
Frank: And he rented one…
Peter: … and he got all the parts! (laughter)
Frank: Again with some license. We have to give Mary Shelley some license. He buys furniture on an island that only has three or four shacks on it. He brings in all these chemicals, presumably finds the body parts to create a woman, has all his tools with him and actually starts to create a second creature.
Peter: And none of the five people on the island, it doesn't bother them at all.
Frank: But it does bother Victor Frankenstein and eventually he decides he's not going to do this.
Peter: Because he couldn't trust it, he didn't trust the monster at all.
Katie: It was the woman that he was going to create that he could not trust. He actually trusted his own male monster but he thought if I make this woman she didn't make the pact with me; it was this monster that did. What if she is filled only with evilness?
Peter: This is where I feel Viktor finally gets religion and decides I'm not being a part of this. I'm not making any deals with this monster who is very, very devious and I don't know if I did complete this, would they keep their bargain. So, he said No I'm not going to do this and he destroys the work that he's put together. He rode out and dumped it in the lake.
Frank: And the creature sees this and confronts Victor and tells him that's it, all promises are off.
Katie: And he has the very strong line he says to Victor... I will be with you on your wedding night. And then he takes off. As you said Peter, Victor dumps the remains of the second creature and because of a storm, he's kept from landing through the night. Eventually the next morning he lands in another little village in Ireland only to be confronted with angry townspeople.
Katie: Victor says where am I? And they say something like, you were in the midst of a group of very angry Irishmen. Briefly, they take him to the magistrate because there has been a murdered body washed up on shore…
Frank: And Victor doesn't know who's been murdered, but he sure knows who the murderer was.
Katie: Well, here the reader will see it coming. But…
Frank: You know I'm not sure I saw it coming. I got to be honest I knew eventually it would happen but I didn't see it coming here in Ireland. So tell us what I didn't see.
Katie: Here it is, it’s his dear friend Henry who has been murdered.
Katie: And Victor of course faints again and he immediately has a brain fever and he is thrown in prison. But they tried to make the best of it for three or four months.
Frank: They rehabilitate him try to make them better because they don't want to hang a sick man they want him to be well when they hang him.
Peter: And here is something throughout the whole book… someone comes to Victor's rescue. (Katie: In that instance, it’s his father) Everybody throughout the whole book, Victor gives nothing. He wouldn't give anybody the sleeves out of his vest but everybody's doing for Victor. They have a lot of streets named after Victor…one way.
Frank: Okay. The father comes bails them out takes him home takes.
Peter: He takes him home, says you've had some desperate things happen in your life, some real disappointments… Well, your mother died, his brother was murdered, the family maid, she was hung. Best friend was murdered. He was going to be tried for murder. Yeah it's been a good day.
Frank: But finally now we might have a good day. Victor comes home and it is determined that the thing that will give Victor happiness is his marriage to Elizabeth. I think Peter, this is where I will disagree with you. Victor believes that his marriage to Elizabeth, although destined to be short, will make Elizabeth and the family happy. He knows he really shouldn't go into this marriage. He knows that on his wedding night the creature will kill him. He knows that will happen but he decides the only way to get this family out of the doldrums it's in, is to have this marriage, to have this ceremony, to give him a good day; and then yes, I will be killed or I'm going to try my darndest to make sure that doesn't happen. But at least we will have had a few good moments.
Peter: Everything in the entire book is telegraphed you know what's coming. So now we know how the master works. He does not harm Victor, he has no intention of harming Victor, he harms everything that Victor loves and everybody who's ever done things for Victor, pays the price. Not Victor.
Frank: And sure enough on the wedding night… What happens, Peter?
Peter: Now this is just the thing. With all this history, he sends Elizabeth up to the bedroom…. ‘I'll be up later and don't you worry about a thing because I'm going to take care of the monster.’ Well, he arms himself and sits down there. And nothing happens until surprise!... There is a scream from the bedroom. And by the time he gets up there and ‘oh my gosh I'm so surprised, the monster got Elizabeth.’
Frank: Now, that one I saw coming.
Peter: And well, this was a pretty bright guy. Why didn't he see it coming? He has never been confronted, never physically harmed by the monster.
Frank: I agree. I don't know why he didn't see it coming. That was Mary Shelley's decision and there we are with it. But now what happens after that, Katie?
Katie: He then decides he's going to devote his life now to chase down the monster and kill him. He is going to destroy the monster. And off he goes, he travels all over, he did go through all sorts of hardships and then along the way, when he's starving and on his last leg, he’ll there's some food laying there…
Frank: Left for him by?
Katie & Peter: The Monster.
Peter: The Monster says, ‘I'm may have a little fun with this too.’ And it gets the point they're going to the North Pole and then we end up half dead on a dog sled on an ice floe.
Frank: And this is where Robert Walton meets Dr. Victor Frankenstein. (Katie: Exactly.) And gets this story.
Peter: And then you know what happens? (Frank: Tell me.)
Peter: Victor has the unmitigated gall, to die. (Frank: He get sick again.)
Peter: Yep. And he dies. And then the monster, comes right back to that ship and comes in there and says, ‘Aww, Dang, I wanted to tell him I loved him. I’m just too late. But I'll tell you what I'm gonna do now…
Frank: Well wait, who is he telling this to now?
Katie: Robert Walton.
Peter: And Walton was standing there with his jaw on the floor when he sees this monster… you know he just lost his friend…
Frank: A friend who has just told them a story he didn't quite believe and then, now here it is standing right in front of him,.
Peter: And now it really gets exciting because the monster says, ‘Well I'm done now. So, I am going to go up to the North Pole and I'm going to set myself on fire and burn myself up and let the winds take my ashes and blow it all over.’ Well, I want to know how's he gonna start a fire up there in the North Pole? Not too many trees up there on the North Pole.
Katie: This was a ghost story. It lacks total, I think the word is verisimilitude. Of course it does. It is just a preposterous ghost story. The author might not have
to prove things as facts here. Right?
Frank: That’s a good point. Is this just a ghost story? Should we read it, relax and take it easy or are we demanding too much from it?
Peter: It was a conceit. That's the way I read it. This was a young girl who hung around with some literary heavyweights and she wanted to show them how smart she was. A ghost story, there's some sense of dread, a sense of suspicion, some mystery. There was none of that in this book.
Frank: Katie, are you onboard with Peter?
Katie: Well, the book was written 200 years ago. 200 years ago, the reader could have been frightened by some of the passages! The importance of the book is just that it was the first of the Gothic novels. I don’t’ think you can compare it today with Elm Street and Friday the 13th. (Laughter)
Frank: I think Mary Shelley was striving for something more here. I don't think it was just a cartoonish ghost story; I mean the subtitle is: A Modern Prometheus. She definitely wanted us to hearken back to some of the Greek antecedents, to think about how this might relate to a mythology. What did she say about women in this book? There's not a single strong woman in this book.
Katie: even to the point of their birth. None of the women had parents. They were all foundlings. They were orphaned.
Frank: And this is the daughter of one of the pro-feminist of the time, Mary Shelley Wilsoncraft…
Katie: …and her father. They were very visionary people. They were certainly the first bra-burners at that time. And I will tell you that I had a few chuckles while reading certain points in the book when the author would describe a couple of the men, as the adventurous pioneering men… I am telling you these men they fainted, they took to their bed for months on end, they suffered brain fevers, they were physically rather frail, they were very frail emotionally. They fainted more than any woman in southern romance novel!
Frank: Are there any lines or quotes or moments from the novel that you want to share with us, Peter?
Peter: Yes. The very end of it when the monster's going to do himself in… (Frank: Please read it us.) It says…
“Farewell! I leave you, and in you the last of humankind whom these eyes will ever behold. Farewell, Frankenstein! If thou wert yet alive and yet cherished a desire of revenge against me, it would be better satiated in my life than in my destruction. But it was not so; thou didst seek my extinction, that I might not cause greater wretchedness; and if yet, in some mode unknown to me, thou hadst not ceased to think and feel, thou wouldst not desire against me a vengeance greater than that which I feel. Blasted as thou wert, my agony was still superior to thine, for the bitter sting of remorse will not cease to rankle in my wounds, until death shall close them forever.”
Katie: I know, Peter, you felt that the monster had absolutely no soul to him. But from this passage, I think he did. And also, when he was pleading with Frankenstein to give him a partner, not to desert him, the quote that I liked was he said:
“Oh, Frankenstein. Remember that I am thy creature; I ought to be thy Adam, but I am rather the fallen angel, whom thou drivest from joy for no misdeed. Everywhere I see bliss, from which I alone am irrevocably excluded. I was benevolent and good; misery made me a fiend. Make me happy, and I shall again be virtuous."
Frank: He was like the real Adam and Eve. He knew about love. I'm glad you read that passage Katie, because for me, it was the reverse of the Adam and Eve story. Adam and Eve sinned and were forced out of the Garden of Eden. The creature, all he wanted was a companion, so that he could leave the hell that he was in. He would go to the wilds of south America, go to their garden of Eden. He wanted to get into the Garden of Eden.
Katie: Frank you're right. When the monster pleased with Dr. Frankstein again and again, he said ‘Look I have never harmed animals, I'm not concerned about eating animals, I eat berries, I eat nuts. Let us find our own paradise. No one will be harmed; no living creature is armed. We have no interest in them.’
Frank: It's those kind of moments that elevated the story for me, made it a little bit more than just a monster or just a ghost story. Clearly it was written 200 years ago, as you said there are holes in the story, there are holes in the narrative, there are some preposterous occurrences… I can't even read Milton and here we have a seven-month old creature reading Milton. I'm going to agree with you there Peter but I do believe there's more to this novel than just a couple of scary moments. Don't forget what scared people 200 years ago is different from what scares us now. We've become desensitized to some of this horror with writers like Stephen King or John Saw. I mean actually, is our monster in Frankenstein any more preposterous than a monster car threatening people or monstrous 30-foot shark threatening an island town in Peter Benchley Jaws?
Peter: Let's do a little comparison between this and Dracula - Which was written in the late 1800’s, a few decades after Frankenstein. There was a recognized evil in Dracula. What was the to fear in Frankenstein? What was there to even concern yourself with?
Frank: I think again, this novel is more than just about a scary monster. Mary Shelley had something to say about the act of creation. What does a creator owe his creation? What does a creation owe to his creator? You don't have to be scared by Frankenstein to find this a book worth reading. I believe this is a book worth reading. But you know what I'm going to ask my listeners out there to read this book for themselves. You pick it up, you read it, and maybe have a novel conversation about this with someone and find out for yourself if this was much more than a ghost story.
And with that, we’ll end our conversation here. I’d like to thank our guest readers, Katie Smith and Peter Toomey for joining us today to talk about the novel, Frankenstein by Mary Shelley.
Katie & Peter: Thank you so much for having us / Thank you Frank!