“You must abandon this dark endeavour” – Alphonse Frankenstein
Prepare to enter the mysterious hallways of Chateau Frankenstein, where ancient tomes and fiery passions combine to form a captivating story of jealous love, dangerous ambition, and thrilling adventure. This Dark Endeavour: The Apprenticeship of Victor Frankenstein by Kenneth Oppel is a prequel to the famous novel by Mary Shelley, exploring the little-known history of Victor Frankenstein as a teen, before he created his notorious monster. Oppel achieves the kind of success that befalls only the best of writers: he tackles one of the most celebrated, analyzed, and dissected stories of all time – and does so, brilliantly.
I really enjoyed this book. Proof? It took me one day to read, in between breaks at work (an advantage of a small, generally overlooked cubicle), and on my commute home. I read while ascending the escalator at Downsview station, and walking home from the bus stop, under an umbrella. If you’ve read Frankenstein, you’ll be delighted to recognize a few of the names woven into the story, subtle or obvious: Polidori, “Wollstonekraft” Alley, Henry Clerval, Elizabeth Lavenza and, of course, Victor, whose hunger for admiration, lust for knowledge, deep-seated insecurity, love for his brother, and desire for superiority paint a startling picture of the man before the monster. You will feel like you understand him more after reading this.
The story revolves around 16-year old Victor, his twin, Konrad, cousin, Elizabeth, and friend, Henry Clerval, as they discover the Dark Library and embark on an adventure in the forests and caves surrounding their home near Geneva to discover the Elixir of Life, after Konrad falls deathly ill. At first, I questioned the medical accuracy and history, as I was not sure, myself – the timing of the use of IV and the study of blood (viewed warily in the book and described as “outlandish“). Then I realized that it’s fictional and doesn’t matter, anyway. The real story lies in the characters.
From the beginning, we’re aware of a deep disparity between the twins– Konrad is clearly strong, sure, and calm, while Victor is passionate, short-tempered, and errant – in other words, he’s a hothead. But I like him. Why? As always, I tend to kind of fall in love with characters that are afflicted with good qualities and tragic faults. Oppel recreates the tragic character of Shelley’s work, and we as readers feel both sympathy and anger for him.
The suppressed jealousy Victor feels toward Konrad is immediately apparent, contrasted sharply with a deep-seated love for him. At the beginning, Victor thinks, “I was suddenly angry with him for being so sensible,” later admitting, after Konrad falls ill, “I was ashamed at how powerless I was to help him.” Moments of self-awareness reveal an unsettling internal struggle between the knowledge of who he is, and the desire to be more, both personally and intellectually. He realizes his selfish, insecure, dangerously ambitious nature, and we feel upset with him for it – for wanting his brother’s love, Elizabeth, for wanting glory.
“I felt a pang of remorse, but at least her eyes were on me.”
But then there are points that he is endearing, and his better side is revealed. When Elizabeth wanders into his bed, sleepwalking, he finds himself unable to take advantage of her and gently brings her back to her room. When he admits that he will never be like Konrad, and wonders if his qualities, too, could be loved. When he vows to see his brother again. Early on, he dabbles into science, feverishly reading books on anatomy, his aptitude and disquieting obsession for the subject already clear.
I’ve noticed a less-discussed topic in every review I’ve read of this book: religion. I found the age-old battle between science and religion lightly underlying the context of the novel, with references to ineffectual prayer and the dominance of science. Arguing with Elizabeth, a steadfast Catholic with an unwavering faith in God, she angrily quotes Victor’s father, who thinks religion is “an outmoded system of belief that has controlled and abused people, and that will wizen away under the glare of science.” While looking at a stained-glass window in the church, Victor thinks, “Wine to blood. Lead to gold. Medicine dripped into my brother’s veins. The transmutation of matter. Was it magic or science? Fantasy or truth?” And when Elizabeth is praying, he wonders if she believes herself or merely wants to. A question I’m sure we all wonder.
Oppel introduces a twist to Shelley’s story, by creating Konrad, Victor’s identical twin. Some may like this difference, and some may be slightly perturbed by the fact that he didn’t adhere to what is stated in Frankenstein about Victor’s siblings. Regardless, it is irrelevant: both stories are fictional, and the author may do as they wish. Further to the point, in Frankenstein, Victor is relaying the story to someone on his deathbed, and parts of it could be considered vague or discreet. Oppel has done a fantastic job of filling in the gaps and revealing a version of history.
I think the most important comment in the book was Henry’s, after the trio left Polidori’s: “Is the Elixir something that should be made?” Posed innocently, out of fear of reprisal from Victor’s father, the question is of essential concern, one that humankind has been confronting for centuries: Do we really want to live forever? And, if so, how?
In This Dark Endeavour, Oppel brings this topic, and the story of Frankenstein, back into the forefront, into the minds of youths who otherwise don’t know it, and adults who have forgotten.
Looking forward to the movie!
Click here to see Kenneth Oppel discussing Frankenstein and This Dark Endeavour.