Frankenstein: The Original 1818 Text by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
About a book as over-familiar as this—and accompanied by infinitudes of scholarship, criticism, adaptation, and continuation, much of which I don’t intend to consult—there is everything and nothing to say. In two decades, I’ve read it three times, one time in the 1831 version, twice in the 1818 first edition (now preferred by critics), and I even taught it once. I find it elusive, better and worse than it should be, a work of intermittent Shakespearean power linking tragic drama and Gothic romance to modern horror and science fiction, alternating with the dull effusions of the sentimental novel and Romantic travelogue—in fact, it’s such a fantasia on Romantic themes (the sublime and the beautiful, the power of imagination, the solitary outcast, social injustice, the faults of the Enlightenment, domestic utopia, incest and parricide) that this subject of endless secondary sources almost seems to count as secondary literature itself. It was written by a 19-year-old in a radical milieu and is an unmistakable rebuke to radicalism, a reproof that only grew more definite with the novel’s later and more moralized revision.
The first thing to notice, though, is the novel’s form: three concentric rings of narrative, texts within texts. In the frame story with which Shelley begins and ends, an ambitious polar explorer named Walton writes to his sister back in England of his dangerous quest for a Hyperborean pastoral. Along the way, he meets the eponymous Swiss scientist half-dead on the fields of northern ice. Walton brings him aboard and there Frankenstein tells his own story: how this product of a mild and progressive domestic utopia in Enlightened Geneva, schooled first by occultist and alchemical texts and then at college by proper scientists, discovered the secret of vitality and made a new man—really a giant, ill-fashioned monster—in his laboratory. This monster escapes and returns two years later to wreak vengeance on his maker.
An articulate “daemon,” he plangently narrates his history in the novel’s central story when he confronts Frankenstein amid the Alps’ sublime scenery. Coming to consciousness in flight from his feckless creator’s laboratory, he find that his monstrous form causes humanity to despise him. He eventually finds secret shelter in a hovel annexed to the cottage of the De Laceys, a family of French exiles (they have a story of their own, a thinly imagined excursion into Enlightened Orientalism with a tale of a “treacherous Turk” and a “lovely Arabian”). There the monster learns to read, absorbs world history and geography, and attains ethical principles and emotional depth from perusing some stray volumes of Plutarch, Milton, and Goethe. Once these kindly cottagers, alarmed by his monstrous form, cast him out, he realizes he will be alone forever.
He appeals to Frankenstein, therefore, to make him a mate. The doctor at first agrees, but then rethinking the potential to unleash still more murderous monstrousness on the world—by this point, the creature has already murdered Frankenstein’s young brother and framed their good-hearted servant for the crime, condemning her to death—he demurs. With the chilling promise, “I will be with you on your wedding night”—a threat Frankenstein almost hypnotically repeats, with its hints of rape and incest—the monster takes his vengeance by killing off the scientist’s loved ones until he reduces his maker to a state of isolation almost as complete as his own.
We end as we began, in the icy northern wastes to which Frankenstein, insane with a desire for vengeance, has pursued the monstrous offspring of his imagination. The dying doctor is oddly unrepentant, urging his new friend Walton to continue his scientific quest at all costs. Finally, the monster appears and then disappears, lamenting his own lost potential, the loving heart he was “born” with, which the cruel world had destroyed.
I insist on the novel’s ring-structure because, with epistolary fiction’s customary lack of an authoritative “omniscient” perspective, and with an emphasis on storytelling and the writing of narrative, Frankenstein acknowledges in its very form that the tale it tells will be subject to revision, rewriting, and reinterpretation. All the critical ink spilled on its supposed allegorical meaning—is it about women’s fear of motherhood, men’s desire for homosocial love, the dangers of modern science, the excesses of Romanticism, the Terror of the French Revolution, the birth and revolt of the industrial proletariat, the psychology of the doppelgänger, or what?—find their justification and their limit in the novel’s metafiction. It is an open-ended set of images Shelley claimed came to her in a dream, like Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan.” Coleridge, by the way, theorized symbolism’s superiority to allegory, because the symbol is at once more grounded in reality and more open-ended in significance than the definitive but imposed and arbitrary X-means-Y tropes of allegory. Frankenstein is a great work because its so readily visualized central image makes so many varied meanings available, proliferating significance across two centuries.
No one can deny the generative force of Shelley’s modern mythopoeia, but how is the actual novel qua novel? Its scene-painting is effectively sublime, but as a prosy recreation of Percy’s poetry (“Alastor,” for example, or “Mont Blanc”) it seems a bit redundant. The editors of the edition I just re-read (Broadview Press, 1999) are especially impressed by the many discussions of justice. They have an idée fixe that the novel is a detailed commentary on the political philosophy of Shelley’s parents, the anarchist Godwin and the feminist Wollstonecraft, and maybe they’re right (I’ve read Wollstonecraft but not Godwin, except for the excerpts Broadview reprints). Yet for me the novel’s most powerful passages are always the monster’s verbal recreations of his pre-verbal coming to awareness—
“It is with considerable difficulty that I remember the original era of my being; all the events of that period appear confused and indistinct. A strange multiplicity of sensations seized me, and I saw, felt, heard, and smelt at the same time; and it was, indeed, a long time before I learned to distinguish between the operations of my various senses. By degrees, I remember, a stronger light pressed upon my nerves, so that I was obliged to shut my eyes. Darkness then came over me and troubled me, but hardly had I felt this when, by opening my eyes, as I now suppose, the light poured in upon me again. I walked and, I believe, descended, but I presently found a great alteration in my sensations. Before, dark and opaque bodies had surrounded me, impervious to my touch or sight; but I now found that I could wander on at liberty, with no obstacles which I could not either surmount or avoid.”
—and his bittersweet evocation of the colossal initial impact of reading great literature:
“In the Sorrows of Werter, besides the interest of its simple and affecting story, so many opinions are canvassed and so many lights thrown upon what had hitherto been to me obscure subjects that I found in it a never-ending source of speculation and astonishment. The gentle and domestic manners it described, combined with lofty sentiments and feelings, which had for their object something out of self, accorded well with my experience among my protectors and with the wants which were for ever alive in my own bosom. But I thought Werter himself a more divine being than I had ever beheld or imagined…
“But Paradise Lost excited different and far deeper emotions. I read it, as I had read the other volumes which had fallen into my hands, as a true history. It moved every feeling of wonder and awe that the picture of an omnipotent God warring with his creatures was capable of exciting. I often referred the several situations, as their similarity struck me, to my own. Like Adam, I was apparently united by no link to any other being in existence; but his state was far different from mine in every other respect. He had come forth from the hands of God a perfect creature, happy and prosperous, guarded by the especial care of his Creator; he was allowed to converse with and acquire knowledge from beings of a superior nature, but I was wretched, helpless, and alone. Many times I considered Satan as the fitter emblem of my condition, for often, like him, when I viewed the bliss of my protectors, the bitter gall of envy rose within me.”
In these moments when Shelley dwells on the birth of the psyche, she infuses the novel with Romantic psychology (Jane Austen is an infinitely better novelist, but has nothing like this) and looks forward to modernist fictions of consciousness.
If Shelley looks forward, she also looks back. This may be among the first modern horror and science fiction novels, but it’s also a compelling Shakespearean tragedy, via Milton’s Shakespearean Satan, to whose fate Frankenstein and the creature compare their own. Both the monster-maker and the monster are tragic heroes. Walton laments the ruin to which Frankenstein’s authentic, laudable ambition and brilliance led him:
His eloquence is forcible and touching; nor can I hear him, when he relates a pathetic incident or endeavours to move the passions of pity or love, without tears. What a glorious creature must he have been in the days of his prosperity, when he is thus noble and godlike in ruin! He seems to feel his own worth and the greatness of his fall.
The monster, likewise, with an eye still on Milton’s Satan, insists that he had a soul to lose before he lost it, crushed by the cruel world’s rejection (a theme that will resound throughout the later literature of real-world social injustice, where Shakespearean and Romantic tragedies of fate and psychology become tragedies of social doom in the work of realists and naturalists from Ibsen and Hardy to Richard Wright and Arthur Miller):
“When I run over the frightful catalogue of my sins, I cannot believe that I am the same creature whose thoughts were once filled with sublime and transcendent visions of the beauty and the majesty of goodness. But it is even so; the fallen angel becomes a malignant devil. Yet even that enemy of God and man had friends and associates in his desolation; I am alone.”
As open-ended as the symbolism may be, we are probably safe in reading the novel as Shelley’s implicit rejection of her family’s and social set’s revolutionary dreams. Thinking to create a new world utopia through the power of their imagination, they unleashed terror instead, whether on the large scale of the French Revolution’s bloody outcome and Napoleonic sequel, or on the small scale of their personal lives (the body count in Mary’s own early biography isn’t as high as her novel’s but consider only her half-sister—Wollstonecraft’s first daughter, born out of wedlock—and Shelley’s cruelly abandoned first wife, both dead of suicide). Anne Mellor is a good guide to this aspect of the novel in her chapter, “Promethean Politics”:
By representing in her creature both the originating ideals and the brutal consequences of the French Revolution, Mary Shelley offered a powerful critique of the ideology of revolution. An abstract idea or cause (e.g. the perfecting of mankind), if not carefully developed within a supportive environment, can become an end that justifies any means, however cruel. As he worked to restore life where death had been, Victor Frankenstein never considered what suffering his freakish child might later endure.
The novel dramatizes this theme most clearly when Frankenstein, enjoying the Romantic sublime in the environs of Percy’s beloved Mont Blanc, is forced to abandon his bodiless Alpine commune with Platonic ideals and confront instead what (Mary implies) women are never allowed to forget: domestic responsibilities, in the form of his abandoned child. Shelley embraces the anti-political politics of domestic middle-class sentiment, where women, tethered to reality by their children, act as guardians of the affective rectitude male Prometheans, with their heads in the clouds, can’t be trusted to maintain. Mellor elaborates:
Mary Shelley grounded her alternative political ideology on the metaphor of the peaceful, loving, bourgeois family. She thereby implicitly endorsed a conservative vision of gradual evolutionary reform, a position articulated most forcefully during her times by Edmund Burke.
Yet the “peaceful, loving, bourgeois” interlude of the monster’s beloved cottagers, the De Laceys, complete with their rescue of the “sweet Arabian, “an Arab girl with a Christian mother, from the cruel clutches of her Muslim father, is the novel’s weakest moment, mawkish and preachy. I have no interest in censuring Shelley for her politics; anyone married to Percy might have become a conservative. Yet a major novel is not a political tract (not even a major political tract, like Burke’s). Shelley would not have been able to write a visionary tragedy of such symbolic amplitude had she not conveyed so persuasively the longings and the quests of the men she imagined, no matter what doom it brought down on them.
The last sentence, narrating the monster’s disappearance, is beautifully inconclusive: “He was soon borne away by the waves and lost in darkness and distance.” This vanishing and elusive symbol of the inhuman or the failed human or the not-yet-human or the future human is ours to recover, the “human” itself ours to define, though it will require attention, labor, and patience. The gradual and perpetual process of reading, rereading, writing, and rewriting to which Shelley invites us is her finest tribute to a non-politics of endless, organic evolution, despite the requisite dream-provocation of an experiment in the inorganic gone irrevocably wrong.