Some Reflections on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein

Last week I had to go out of town and found myself with an eighteen-hour road trip (round-trip).  So, to kill the time, I routed my Kindle through my car stereo speakers and downloaded a free copy of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein to listen to on the way.  Why?  I have no idea, really, other than that I wanted to listen to something fictional, something that I had never read before, and something that would not require much thought.  For some reason, I thought of Frankenstein, downloaded it, hit text-to-speech on the Kindle (which worked well with this book, with the speech setting on “Slower”), and headed on down the road.

In summary, it was amazing and, frankly, very thought-provoking.

I am used, of course, to the pop culture Frankenstein, he of the bolts-in-the-neck.  I suppose I’ve seen two or three versions of the story on film.  None of them match the book.

The book has stayed with me a bit, so I thought I’d share a few thoughts about this amazing story in no particular order.

  • I KNOW that the monster is not named “Frankenstein.”  Frankenstein is the doctor: Dr. Victor Frankenstein.  But man, oh man, it’s hard to break that habit, isn’t it?  The monster has no name, other than “monster” or “demon” or somesuch.  But I suspect that battle is lost, as far as popular culture is concerned:  witness the name on the bobble-head picture fronting this post.
  • I was surprised at how little the book actually says about the actual means of creating the monster.  The actual act of creation is passed over very quickly.  There are hints earlier, of course, of harnessing electricity for reanimation, but the act is never shown.  In fact, when the captain of the Arctic-bound ship asks Frankenstein how he did it, Frankenstein grows utterly incensed at the question and refuses to say (since he never wants it done again).
  • That story really is a brilliant example of how to elicit conflicting emotions: you simultaneously sympathize with the monster, even as you loathe his cold blooded-ness.
  • Ditto for Dr. Frankenstein.
  • I was surprised at the eloquence of the monster, even to the point where Dr. Frankenstein has to warn the captain not to be swayed by his eloquence.
  • Mary Shelley’s writing really is beautiful.
  • The interplay between the story and the Genesis account of creation really is fascinating, if you think about it.
  • I was really hooked when the monster describes to Dr. Frankenstein his sensations on reading Milton’s Paradise Lost (what a fascinating picture), and his perceptions of how he is like and unlike Adam and Lucifer.
  • In doing some follow-up reading on Shelley, I was amazed to find how much the book really is an interaction with Paradise Lost.  (i.e., God is referred to as “the Victor” in Paradise Lost, etc.)
  • The book is a powerful and damning indictment on the cruelty of man.
  • The book is a probing exploration of the limits of man’s knowledge and the limitations of the natural sciences.
  • I kept wandering if Shelley was making some commentary on the Christian story in this book:  i.e., man is created, abandoned and cursed by his creator, who he is simultaneously drawn to and hates (I’m not saying that is the Christian story, of course.  I’m just wondering if Shelley was trying to summarize her own take on Christianity through the character of Frankenstein.)  Maybe not, but I think it likely.
  • I hate to say it, but I’ll probably be hunting down a biography of Shelley now to figure this out.
  • Shelley’s description of the physical features of the monster are more terrifying than anything I’ve seen in the movie renditions (i.e., yellow skin, watery eyes, etc.)
  • Oddly enough, it was wonderful hearing the story read.  There’s just something about hearing scary stories, no?
  • The book is amazing.  Read it (or, as I did, listen to it).

Walter M. Miller, Jr.’s A Canticle for Leibowitz


I’m still reeling from this book, so you will have to be patient.  Mrs. Richardson and I finished it last night, and I found it to be, in a word, astounding.  Of all the novels we’ve read together, this will go down as one of the most memorable.

Originally published in 1959, the late Walter Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz is one of the most profound, unsettling, haunting, effective, and brilliant novels I have ever read.  It’s a scifi cult classic, and with good reason.  I think I agree with Time magazine’s initial assessment of the book as “Extraordinary…Chillingly effective.”

I should probably call my father and apologize to him, for he has been telling me for years that I really need to read this book.

He was right.

A Canticle for Leibowitz is a post-apocalyptic novel set in the future and tracing the events of the human race primarily through the lens of a monastic community in the deserts of western North America called The Albertian Order of Saint Leibowitz. The book consists of three movements dealing with three different periods of time:  the 26th century, the year 3174 A.D., and the year 3781 A.D.

The first period deals with the resulting dark ages of ignorance, savagery, and brutality following nuclear holocaust (the “flame deluge” in Miller’s memorable terminology).  The Order of Leibowitz is a monastic community determined to preserve “the memorabilia,” or the remains of the past society of men.  The second movement finds the order dealing with an increase in scientific knowledge, the beginning emergence of the human race out of the long darkness of its own ignorance, and the reconstruction of the basic contours of society.  It is, however, a time also of great strife and war.  The final movement finds the human race in a state of great technological advancement but plagued by the old, consistent malady of man’s moral, societal, and ethical corruption.

In truth, the common thread throughout each epoch, and, in my opinion, the primary concern of Miller’s novel, is precisely the problem of original sin and man’s refusal to recognize that all political and social attempts at reestablishing Eden on the earth inevitably dissipate into barbarism and, ultimately, self-destruction.

Miller was a tail-gunner in WWII, and he knew well the ravages of war.  He participated in the bombing and destruction of a famous monastery in Italy, an event that had a dramatic impact on his life and, obviously, his writing.  He converted to Catholicism (a point that must be grasped if the novel is to be understood) but later lived in adultery, became extremely reclusive, and, finally, died at his own hand in 1996.

Miller understood theology very, very well, and the book is marked by both theological depth and, at times, density.  Some readers may find the copious Latin references burdensome, but they are quite germane to the story and helpful in creating mood and context.

Miller is thoroughly Augustinian in his view of the sinfulness of man.  More than once the abbots of the Leibowitzian order pontificate on the disastrous effects of both the Fall of Man and man’s refusal to see and understand the radical implications of that Fall.  This aspect of the novel reaches its apex in the concluding thoughts of Abbot Zerchi during the second nuclear holocaust as he lay dying.

“The trouble with the world is me…Thee me Adam Man we.  No ‘worldly evil’ except that which is introduced into the world by Man – me thee Adam us – with a little help from the father of lies….’Me us Adam, but Christ, Man me; Me us Adam, but Christ, Man me,’ he said aloud.” (330)

In truth, Miller’s handling of harmatology, soteriology, and theophany in this novel are quite impressive.  Along the way, the novel also offers powerful reflections on war, technology, and euthanasia (particularly in part 3).

In many ways, it’s harder to describe an overwhelming book than a lesser one, and I find that I’m experiencing that even now.  So perhaps I should simply end with this:  A Canticle for Leibowitz is everything a great book should be.  It is thought-provoking, psychologically and emotionally engaging, challenging in the various dilemmas it offers the reader, memorable in its descriptive force, and, ultimately, expressive of the grand verities of the gospel.

This is undoubtedly one of the greatest novels I’ve ever read, and I intend to read it again.

A great, great read.

Highly recommended.