This book is generally credited with being the first science fiction novel. (That's assuming that The Odyssey doesn't count.) It's interesting to speculate what it was like for a typical 19th Century person to read science fiction for the first time. It was a time when science (they called it natural philosophy) was beginning to explain many things that previously had been unexplained. A 19th Century reader could have easily thought that some of what was being described in Frankenstein could become reality some day. The limitations of science are more widely understood today, and most of us have become somewhat jaded from frequent exposures to science fiction. Nevertheless, Frankenstein continues to be an interesting story for the modern reader.
Frankenstein is a story of creation with unintended consequences. The story is inspired by and refers to the earlier stories of Adam and Eve, Prometheus, Divine Comedy and Paradise Lost. The book Frankenstein contains four different narrative-levels nested within each other, each exploring faltering efforts at creating something good.
Narrative Level 1:
Letters from seafarer Robert Walton to his sister Margaret Walton Saville forms the outer-frame for its particular story as well as for the other narratives. Robert Walton hopes to explore the polar regions and contribute to the human knowledge but ends up failing and nearly losing his ship.
Narrative Level 2:
The scientist Victor Frankenstein's tells his version of the story of the history of his creation, abandonment, and death struggle with the Creature. Victor Frankenstein strives to harness science to create new human life but in the end rejects his creation.
Narrative Level 3:
The Creature's version of his life gets told within Frankenstein's narration and describes the Creature's feeling of desperate loneliness and transformation from goodness to evil. The Creature wants to learn about his new world and fit in, but ends up taking revenge on those who mistreat him.
Narrative Level 4:
The Felix and Safie tale of heroism, injustice and love is told within the Creature's narration. Felix and Safie fight injustice, but in the end they are unjust in their treatment of the Creature.
It could be supposed that the above nesting of narratives within each other could make the story hard to follow. But that is not the case. The story unfolds in a natural way that is easy to follow. This is 19th Century writing where the author makes things clear; none of that obfuscation that 20th Century authors are sometimes guilty of.
It will come as a surprise to those familiar with movie versions of Frankenstein's monster that the Creature in Shelley's book can run faster, learn quicker and live off the land better than any human. The creature talks clearly and at length about his experience of feeling hurt and lonely. I see a parallel here with many of the inventions of the industrial revolution. Modern technology has made cars go faster, planes fly higher, and computers calculate faster than any human. But none of these modern inventions come close to being human. Dr. Frankenstein appears to have done a better job than God because his creation exceeds normal human capacities in many ways. It appears that the Creature's only shortcoming is his appearance. He's ugly. So ugly that he scares the daylights out of anyone who sees him. According to the Creature's narrative, he wanted to be a caring, loving and sensitive person. But he was so mistreated that he instead became a violent avenger. Could this be a lesson in the effect that the environment has on the making of the criminal mind?