Favorite Fictional Characters, #57: Victor Frankenstein
In 1816, young Mary Shelley and her lover Percy Shelley visited Lord Byron at Lake Geneva. Byron suggested they write ghost stories. Mary Shelley's entry would eventually be published in 1818 as Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus. It is one of the greatest books ever written, the forerunner of the science fiction and horror genres, a brilliant weaving of Gothic and Romantic themes, and a tragedy worthy of Shakespeare. And as compelling as the monster is, the true center of the story is Victor Frankenstein, the obsessed, arrogant usurper of God's power over life and death.
Frankenstein is a cautionary tale, arriving on the scene of a 19th century characterized by scientific inquiry often untethered from moral or ethical concerns. Doctors and natural philosophers were accelerating in their pursuit of understanding and knowledge, and Shelley's work illustrates the dangers of such unbridled curiosity. The Enlightenment suggested that all things were knowable, but Frankenstein asks whether all things should be known, or possible. Victor Frankenstein has no such qualms. Science will grant him power over death, the power to save loved ones, the power to preserve life at all costs. The quest costs him everything he seeks to protect, and like Anakin Skywalker, or Oedipus, or a thousand other tragic heroes, he brings about the disasters he seeks to avoid.
The book is one of my all-time favorites, and remains the most compelling version of Victor despite the hundreds of retellings and reimaginings that have littered popular culture in the last hundred years. I am partial to Kenneth Branagh's 1994 film, which is a largely faithful version, if a bit overwrought (with a dynamite score). I would be remiss, too, if I didn't mention Mel Brooks' 1974 Young Frankenstein, which might be the funniest movie ever made. Still, give me the original pronunciation and the haunting, unsettling brilliance of the novel that spawned it all.