Reading Generously: Happy Endings

Published July 2, 2021

‘Frankenstein’ with Karen Swallow Prior

This is my third time to read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, this time with Karen Swallow Prior’s new edition, subtitled A Guide to Reading and Reflecting. Shelley’s book is one of four Prior has written annotated guides to, the others being Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, and Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre.

The first time I read Frankenstein I found it thrilling. The second time, discouraging. This third time, with Prior, enlightening.

Throughout this edition, Prior adds Reflection Questions, and the end of the book there are Questions For Further Reflection. It is the final question and its commentary which is sitting with me: Frankenstein is more than just a story–it’s a story about stories.”

Prior is right. Frankenstein is not just the monster’s story. It’s also Justine’s story, the DeLacey’s story, Walton’s story, and of course, Victor’s story — he with the proverbial red pen, editing everyone else’s story.

The thought of so many interwoven and overlapping stories, each distinct, frightens me because it’s so much like life. Who should I listen to? Which story is True?

All of us strive to make sense of our lives by telling our stories — whether with a friend over coffee or in a published memoir. The random becomes purposeful, with a theme and maybe a moral (if we’re extra imaginative, a soundtrack). But this is not reality. Even when we make our own monsters, we can’t always understand how they came to be who they are.

Reading Prior’s Introduction to the Author, I got the sense that with Frankenstein, Shelley found a way to tell her story. Prior writes this: “Mary’s life was haunted by death, and not just any kind of death, but death connected to the act of creation.”

With the background and themes and questions Prior provides, I am reading Frankenstein as if it is Shelly’s own story, not written to amuse or impress, but to express what was deepest within her —her own lifeless pieces. A single story was not enough. She needed to create layer upon layer of story.

But the thing about creating a story — or a person — is that both live independently. More than 200 years after Shelley wrote her story, people still think the monster is named Frankenstein. And yet within that misunderstanding lives a bit of truth.

I recently finished Learning from Henri Nouwen & Vincent Van Gogh: A Portrait of the Compassionate Life, Carol A. Berry combines the stories of three people, showing us that “our own stories are holy ones too.” Shelley seems to shows us something else — that our own stories are monstrous ones too. We may have started them among friends, around a cozy fire, but once animated, they live and move and have their being apart from us.

Prior writes, “Creating is a complicated process, and messy ambivalence about creation is one of the central themes of Frankenstein.”

For this third read-through of the book, my husband is accompanying me. He heard Prior on The Holy Post podcast and was intrigued; if Frankenstein is good enough for Bob the Tomato, it’s good enough for John Willome. John’s not a lit guy, but an economics major, a director of a nonprofit, so a piece of literature from 1818 is an unusual choice for him (but he does like a good discussion question, of which Prior provides dozens). We began our discussion not around a cozy fire but on a cozy porch swing.

After 29 years of marriage, we’re still sometimes astounded at how our stories of the same event differ. Even as we walk this same road, there is a John version and a Megan version. I edit his, and he edits mine. The truth is its own creation, independent, spinning its own tale.

I received a promotional copy of Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein: A Guide to Reading & Reflecting” by Karen Swallow Prior, but my review is my own.