Edited by Rachel S.
The novel, capable of producing shock and terror in its unprepared readers, was the work of a young woman of 18 who would describe herself later in life as one who was “not for violent extremes” and apologise for her tendency from childhood to “hang back”. The puzzle is not why the novel was written: the question, as Shelley herself said, is “How I, then a young girl, came to think of and to dilate upon so very hideous an idea?”
Mary Shelley, the daughter of two of the most celebrated radical writers of the Romantic period, William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft, and the wife of the genius poet, Percy Bysshe Shelley, was bound to write something brilliant. Mary and Percy spent the summer of 1816 in Switzerland, living next to the poet Lord Byron on the shore of Lake Geneva. Confined by incessant rain during a stormy season, Byron proposed: “We will each write a ghost story.” Frankenstein was thus conceived.
Biographical Context - Mary Shelley’s Family
William Godwin (1756–1836)
Mary Shelley’s father was a radical political thinker whose most famous work, Enquiry Concerning Political Justice, published in 1793, just after the French Revolution, made him an overnight celebrity.
The basic argument of Political Justice is that human beings are perfectible. They achieve full humanity when they are aware of their power of choice and capable of using it through free exercise of reason. Their imperfect state is largely the fault of repressive social institutions and artificial restraints.
However, Godwin’s fame was short-lived. He lost credibility in the backlash against the terror unleashed by the French Revolution in the mid-1790s, until his ideas were rediscovered in 1812 by Percy Bysshe Shelley, the brilliant young poet (and his daughter’s future husband), who became his benefactor as well as his champion.
Mary Wollstonecraft (1759–1797)
Like her husband, Wollstonecraft was inspired by the possibilities of real political change which the French Revolution appeared to promise. But her theories were all the more strikingly radical for being about women and written by a woman whose life was as courageously unconventional as her thinking.
Her most famous work, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman(1792), was a passionate feminist plea for women’s rights. She believed that the oppression and enslavement of women corrupted both sexes and that social progress was impossible if one half of society was subject to the misery of ignorance by being barred from all opportunity for enlightenment. Education was critical to the accomplishment of this vision of equality.
Frankenstein’s monster, feminist critics argue – a type of “half being” – is an image of the female degradation that A Vindication of the Rights of Womandepicts. There are strong grounds for the idea that Frankenstein continues Wollstonecraft’s work of giving voice to the hidden yet universal injuries and injustices of female experience.
When Mary Wollstonecraft gave birth to Mary Shelley she fell ill and died 10 days later. The only intimate knowledge that Mary Shelley was to have of her mother was through reading her journals and books, which she did compulsively through her teenage years, by her graveside.
Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792–1822)
Shelley privately published fiction and verse in his teens, with his sister, Elizabeth (names which are duplicated in the Victor-Elizabeth relationship in Frankenstein), and was an ardent experimenter.
From 1812, Percy became a frequent visitor to the Godwin household, claiming William Godwin as his philosophical parent-mentor. A passionate and eloquent disciple, Percy was soon also attached to Godwin’s daughter, Mary. In 1814, they ran away to get married when Mary was just 16.
The losses in his life were also profound. Mary and Percy’s first daughter died at a few days old in 1814. Over the next six years, Mary and Percy would lose two more children and Mary would suffer miscarriages. The couple became increasingly estranged, and Mary was often alone and depressed. Percy was drowned in violent storms off the coast of Italy in 1822.
Some details suggest that Percy Shelley may have provided one model for the novel’s protagonist. Both Frankenstein and Walton are associated with the creative impulse of poets – whose “effusions”, says Walton, “entranced my soul and lifted it to heaven. I also became a poet and for one year lived in a Paradise of my own creation” (Letter 1). Clearly, Percy Shelley is not just written into the novel, he is central to its very conception. With his “passion for reforming the world” and his “mad enthusiasm” for science (chemistry in particular), he “provided the subject” of Frankenstein, says Christopher Small.
The novel’s subtitle, The Modern Prometheus, is the essential clue to his influence. Prometheus, the Greek fire-God of classical legend, rebelled against the presiding deities of Mount Olympus by stealing fire from the Gods to give it to humankind. It was virtually the gift of life itself, for which Prometheus suffered the eternal punishment of being chained to a rock, subject to the torture of having his liver eaten away daily by an eagle.
In his poem and political-socialist allegory, Prometheus Unbound (1919), Percy Shelley presented Prometheus as the hero of moral perfection and true motive, benefactor and champion of mankind, defying oppression to save the human race. In the same way, Walton and Frankenstein are determined that any success they enjoy should rebound to the benefit of humankind – a far more important motive than the “enticement” of riches.
Mary Shelley’s parents, William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft
A Summary of the Plot
Robert Walton, an Englishman on a journey to discover a passage to the North Pole, writes a series of letters to his sister, expressing excitement at the prospect of his voyage. He rejoices at the idea that this will benefit mankind but also at the prospect of personal glory.
Three months later, Walton hires a ship and collects crew members for his voyage. The weather is too severe to sail, and he finds himself feeling isolated despite the courage of his crew members. Walton references Coleridge’s ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ in describing his forthcoming voyage, reassuring his sister that he will not return home “woeful” as the Mariner in the poem.
Four months later, Walton and his crew are in “good spirits” and “well advanced” into their voyage. They ignore the floating sheets of ice that indicate danger ahead as Walton feels confident that his journey will be successful.
One month later, Walton and his crew are surrounded by ice and fog. They see a large being carried in a sled, pulled by dogs, whilst they wait for the weather to pass. The following day, the crew take on board a frail, exhausted and frozen man, whose own sledge has drifted toward the ship on a fragment of ice. The man is Victor Frankenstein, whose pursuit of the creature Walton had seen earlier has brought him close to death. Victor talks of “the demon” that the crew had seen the day before, and, after he is well enough, he begins to tell his own tale to persuade Walton to stop his quest for knowledge. Walton decides to “make notes” of Victor’s story.
Victor begins his story. He tells of his parents’ marriage and their loving relationship with him. During one of his mother’s charitable trips, she finds a beautiful orphan, and brings her to the Frankenstein home. The orphan is Elizabeth, and becomes Victor’s adopted sister and adored companion.
Frankenstein grew up in Geneva, with his adopted sister Elizabeth, and his younger two brothers, William and Ernest. Victor’s young imagination is fired by scientific philosophies of the ancients and especially by their pursuit for the elixir of life – the key to immortality. He discovers a book written by Cornelius Agrippa, which his father, Alphonse Frankenstein, dismisses as “sad trash”. Victor disobeys him and continues to read it. During a thunderstorm, he is inspired by contemporary theories of electricity and galvanism. It is these experiences that Victor claims that sealed his fate.
Before Victor leaves home to pursue his scientific studies at the University of Ingolstadt, his mother, Caroline, dies of scarlet fever, expressing as her last wish that Victor and Elizabeth will marry. At University, Victor is inspired by his professors to an obsessive pursuit of chemistry and the mysteries of creation.
For two years, he devotes himself to unceasing study, day and night, seeing neither family nor friends, until he discovers the secret which had eluded science until this moment: the “cause of generation”, “the principle of life”. His obsession isolates him and makes him mentally and physically ill. His father writes to express his worry at the lack of communication between them.
With this power at his disposal, he succeeds on one fateful night in bringing to life a creature of his own fashioning. Instead of the beautiful creature he has envisaged, the Creature’s appearance is repulsive and Victor instinctively flees from it in horror. In his sleep, Victor dreams of Elizabeth, and as he kisses her, her features change into the corpse of Victor’s mother. He awakens and sees his creation stretching his hand out towards him. Victor again flees. The Creature disappears, meanwhile Victor is struck by a feverish illness in which he loses his senses, and is nursed slowly back to health by his childhood friend, Henry Clerval.
Victor receives a letter from Elizabeth, she reminds him of his younger brother William and how Justine Moritz came to be a servant at the Frankenstein household. Victor describes his recovery from ill health but still cannot bear to think of his scientific studies. Victor and Clerval go on a tour around the countryside of Ingolstadt and Victor begins to feel at peace.
When news arrives of his brother William’s murder, Victor hastens to Geneva. In the woods where William was strangled, he believes he caught sight of his creature, and is immediately convinced that it has killed his brother. Arriving home, however, Victor finds that the Frankensteins’ servant, Justine, beloved of the family and adopted by it, stands accused as the murderer, having been found with the locket that William was wearing on the night he died. Elizabeth hopes that Victor will prove Justine’s innocence, but Victor worries that if he raised his suspicion that it was his creature’s doing, he would be called a madman.
Elizabeth speaks in Justine’s defence at her trial but the court is moved only by her loyalty. When Justine is tried and executed, Victor’s guilt at his part in the deaths of William and Justine is as profound as it is lonely, since he feels no one will believe his story.
Full of guilt, Victor isolates himself to deal with his grief. He is tempted by suicide but fears to leave his family and friends exposed to the Creature. Elizabeth has changed, she has lost faith in humankind. Seeking to ease his grief, Victor sets off for the mountains.
Victor receives some comfort from nature, but as the weather worsens so does his mood. He climbs to the top of the summit of Montavert where he beholds a figure of a man approaching with superhuman speed. It is the Creature, who proceeds to tell his own sorry tale after convincing Victor to listen to him first.
Eloquent and learned, the Creature explains that after leaving Victor’s workshop and finding himself shunned by mankind, who fled from him in terror, he took refuge in the wilderness. He found a hovel adjacent to a nearby cottage belonging to the De Lacey family and made this his home.
The Creature learns language from the De Laceys, hoping that his knowledge would make the family overlook his appearance. He observes their poverty from a distance and secretly helps them with their manual labour. Admiring their beauty, the sight of his reflection in a pool mortified him when it revealed his horrific appearance. The gentleness of the family led him to hope that they might receive him with kindness, that they would see beyond his disfigured body to his human need for love.
He recounts the arrival of Safie who is taught English by the family. He learns from their loving ways, as well as indirectly from their conversation, how to speak, read and write. The Creature listens to conversations about history, politics, religion and the cruelty of humankind towards what is different.
The Creature explains that the De Lacey family were also outcasts from society. Safie’s father, a Turkish merchant, was condemned for a minor crime in which Felix De Lacey planned his escape and fell in love with Safie. Felix’s plan was discovered and his family were thrown in prison. On their release, they took refuge in Germany and Safie eventually managed to find her way back to Felix at the cottage.
The Creature discovers 3 books; Paradise Lost, a volume of Plutarch’s Lives, and the Sorrows of Werter. The books, especially Paradise Lost, had a profound effect on him. He also discovers, in the clothing he took from the laboratory he was created at, Victor’s journal. The Creature learns that Victor is horrified by him and curses Victor for rejecting him. He decides to approach father De Lacey, who is blind, when he is alone. All goes well until the rest of the household returns, where on sight of the Creature, Felix attacks him. The Creature returns to his hovel.
Hurt and enraged by the De Lacey family’s rejection, the Creature destroys their cottage and garden. On his journey towards Geneva, he is shot by a man whilst saving a girl from drowning and vows revenge on mankind and especially his creator. He falls asleep, and when awoken by a young boy, he seizes him in the hope he will be his companion. The child rejects him and reveals he is William Frankenstein. The Creature, wanting revenge strangles him. The murder of William, and the implication in this act for Justine (with whom the monster himself had left the locket while she was sleeping), are the result of his suffering, abandonment and loneliness. He pleads with Frankenstein to create a female mate for him so that he can finally experience companionship and happiness.
Victor initially refuses the Creature’s request but then is persuaded when the Creature swears he and his mate will never see another human being again as they will travel to the “wilds of South America”. Victor returns home to Geneva and resolves to save his family by carrying out the Creature’s request.
Reluctant to start his work, Victor spends many weeks in Geneva. His father brings up the subject of his marriage to Elizabeth, in which Victor meets with feelings of “horror and dismay”. Victor, accompanied by Henry Clerval, sets out first for England in preparation for his task, which he decides must be completed before he marries Elizabeth.
Henry and Clerval travel to Scotland where he and Henry separate. Secluded in the Orkney Islands, Victor begins his creation of a female companion for the Creature.
Whilst working on his female creation, Victor is struck with alarm that he will be unleashing a new breed of monsters to afflict the human race. When he finds his first foul creation watching his work through a window, he destroys his second before it is completed. Enraged, the monster vows to be with Victor on the night of his forthcoming wedding to Elizabeth. Frankenstein disposes of the remains of the female creature in a lake only to be arrested on suspicion of a murder when he arrives on shore.
The murdered victim is his friend, Henry Clerval, who has been strangled by the Creature. Imprisoned, Victor suffers another breakdown, and spends two months in a fever. He eventually returns to Geneva with his father on being acquitted.
Victor receives a letter from Elizabeth asking if he regrets his commitment to marry her and if there is someone else he loves. He reassures her, marries her and they begin to start their journey to Lake Como for their honeymoon.
Fearing the monster’s sworn revenge, Victor sends Elizabeth to their room, while he seeks the monster’s whereabouts. When he hears Elizabeth screaming, he realises that his wife, and not himself, is the intended victim. His father, stricken with grief by the deaths of so many loved ones, also dies. Victor spends time in a mental asylum and on release tells his story to a magistrate who refuses to take any action.
Bent on revenge, Victor pursues his monster to the North Pole. In a dog sled chase, he almost catches up with his creature, but the sea beneath them swells and the ice breaks, leaving an unbridgeable gap between them. At this point, Walton encounters Victor, and the narrative catches up to the time of Walton’s fourth letter to his sister. At the end of his narration, Victor asks Walton to continue his quest in finding and killing the monster if he should die. Walton then continues the story again in letters to his sister. When the ship becomes packed with ice, Walton and his men have to abandon their voyage and head homeward. Victor, whose health has steadily worsened, dies soon afterwards. Walton finds the Creature on the ship, hanging over Victor’s body, in agony of grief for the loss of his creator and struck with remorse for the suffering he has caused him. The Creature tells Walton of his suffering, and then, vowing to end this in death, he disappears into the darkness.
Geneva, Switzerland – the ideal setting for a gothic novel
What is the novel about?
One reading sees Frankenstein as a disguised autobiography, variously expressing Shelley’s experience (as daughter, wife, mistress, mother and writer); and an anti-rational vision produced in reaction to her father’s intellectual emphasis on mankind’s capacity for reason.
Other critics find this view too narrow and too personal. They see the figure of Frankenstein’s monster as reflecting the fundamental questions – social, moral, political and metaphysical – which were provoked by the French Revolution of 1789, questions which remain unresolved. Mary Shelley illustrated the shift towards a secular world – about the passing of power and values from God to man. This is why great secular thinkers (Darwin, Marx and Freud) are frequently invoked in discussions of this wild and improbable horror fantasy.
For Mary Poovey, it is a founding principle of the novel that individual appetite “can and must be regulated – specifically by the give-and-take of domestic relationships”. This thesis is supported by the fact that the following dialogue between Walton and Frankenstein was substantially added to by Mary Shelley for the 1831 edition of the novel. “I spoke,” says Walton of his first encounter with Frankenstein, “of my desire of finding a friend, of my thirst for a more intimate sympathy with a fellow mind than had ever fallen to my lot, and expressed my conviction that a man could boast of little happiness who did not enjoy this blessing”. Frankenstein is, on some level, about the virtues of friendship.
Further readings of Frankenstein:
● A tale of scientific transgression
● A woman’s tale of male destructive activity
● A tale of familial responsibility and negligence
Mary Shelley (1797-1851)
Themes and Analysis
What kind of novel is Frankenstein?
For many readers, Frankenstein is the archetypal Gothic horror tale. An atmosphere of gloom is felt from the first pages where the vast, inhospitable landscape is succeeded in later chapters by secret, unholy work that is no less obscure and menacing. Violent ambition, mad ravings and unlicensed desire share centre stage with wild creations, life-threatening pursuits, supernatural evil and criminal villainy. The whole is an enticing mix of terror and suspense, revulsion and excitement, strangeness and marvel.
Yet Frankenstein’s real similarity with the Gothic tradition is with the backlash it represents against the values of a previous age – those of 18th-century Enlightenment. Emphasising Greek-classical restraint in its art, and rational consistency in its thought, the Enlightenment had made life everywhere susceptible to question. The world was no longer strange or uncertain – inaccessible in its secrets – as it had once been. It was complete and knowable, and existed to meet the needs of an exalted human civilisation.
While this rationalism was secure and safe, it was also lacking in energy and wonder. Reasoning with life, one did not fear it. The Gothic, therefore, was a revival of interest in all that was antique, raw and basic. It expressed and satisfied a primal need for the greatness of spiritual mystery – what Edmund Burke called the “sublime”.
Yet, in so far as Gothic was an ideology as much as a literary genre, it was only a more brazen and violent version of the literary movement to which it was most closely allied – Romanticism, itself a reaction against Enlightenment restraint.
Mary Shelley’s Gothic tale was enmeshed in Romantic radicalism. She was the wife of one of the leading lights of the Romantic movement, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and the daughter of two of its originators, William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft. The “politics” of Gothic are arguably nowhere more potent than in Frankenstein.
In fact, Frankenstein’s relationship with the wider Romantic movement explains why, in some respects, the novel is remarkably un-Gothic. There are no castles, no monasteries, no churches, no abbeys characteristic of Gothic novels. Mary Shelley’s “ghost” story does not contain any supernatural elements at all in the conventional sense. The laboratory replaces the looming Gothic ruin, and scientific experimentation takes the place of the malevolent scheming of the villain-hero. Above all, Frankenstein is not set in the remote medieval past, but in a modern present, breaking altogether with the Gothic’s association with retrospection and nostalgia.
The novel engages directly with the pressing issues of its time. As her 1831 preface explains, the novel was inspired by cutting-edge scientific thinking – “the nature of the principle of life, and whether there was any probability of its ever being discovered and communicated”. In that momentous summer of 1816, Lord Byron and Percy Shelley talked of the experiments of the physician and natural philosopher, Erasmus Darwin (grandfather of Charles Darwin) who preserved a piece of vermicelli in a glass case where it began to move with voluntary motion.
Yet it was also horror at what might be invented which inspired this enduring tale. Frankenstein’s creature raises fundamental questions about the limits not only of scientific endeavour, but of human activity itself. The novel is a story uncannily modern in its concerns, in the way it raises challenging questions about how we live in a secular world.
Ultimately, this novel refuses to be contained by genre – which is one reason it has spawned so many interpretations. Like the monster whose story it relates, the tale has a life and meaning beyond the intentions of its own creation.
The novel is as much a Science Fiction novel as it is a Horror or Gothic
Who is telling the story?
In the opening of Frankenstein, the language of extremes (“rejoice”, “disaster”), as well as of risk (“enterprise”, “evil”), is one which we might expect to belong to the story’s protagonist-hero, more especially since the narrating voice is speaking in the first-person.
But this is the voice of Robert Walton, writing to his sister, Mrs Saville, while starting out on a treacherous voyage of discovery to the North Pole. In a series of four such letters, Walton recounts meeting a wild and despairing Victor Frankenstein, who – almost mad and almost dead – is at the end of his own adventure. “Chapter 1” of the novel begins when Frankenstein tells his own tale, retrospectively, in his own person.
Why doesn’t the novel simply begin at the beginning? One clue lies in Frankenstein’s prefatory remarks to his narrative:
Prepare to hear of occurrences which are usually deemed marvelous. Were we among the tamer scenes of nature I might fear to encounter your unbelief, perhaps your ridicule; but many things will appear possible in these wild and mysterious regions which would provoke the laughter of those unacquainted with the ever-varied powers of nature. (Letter 4)
The introduction of these marvellous occurrences within Walton’s letters back home to his beloved sister defends the story against the reader’s “unbelief” or ridicule. The letters are a bridge between the “wild and mysterious regions” into which Frankenstein’s tale gives access, and the conventional and familiar middle-class society to which the tale’s Gothic matter is opposed.
In many ways, the anonymous and silent “Mrs Saville” is there on behalf of the reader, hearing a tale related with eye-witness convincingness which, nonetheless, she would find implausible and unbelievable were it not told to her by someone she trusts. Robert Walton has much the same function in Frankensteinas does Mr Lockwood in Emily Brontë’sWuthering Heights, grounding strange and improbable events and characters within ordinary, “real life”.
Like Wuthering Heights, the narration of Frankenstein proceeds as if by a series of Chinese boxes: from Chapter 1, Frankenstein’s story nests inside Walton’s; from Chapter 11, the monster’s tale nests inside Frankenstein’s. Within these narratives, there are multiple smaller ones belonging to mothers, sisters, friends or casualties who are affected by the catastrophe. At the conclusion, the novel resumes Walton’s “outer” or framing narration as part of the return to reality and matter-of-fact normality. In this way, the energies and nightmare qualities unleashed by the book are contained within a tight, restraining structure.
The monster’s subjective experience is offered as an “excuse” for his cruel offences in the external world. In explanation of his brutal deeds, the monster says:
I was forever deprived of the delights that such beautiful creatures could bestow… the joy-imparting smiles… on all but me… Can you wonder that such thoughts transported me with rage?” (Chapter 16)
The fact that these experiences are offered in the absence of a controlling narrator means that the novel never has to endorse or condemn them. Indeed, for Mary Poovey, the narrative structure is a means of deliberately avoiding responsibility for any one point of view. It is an evasive strategy, symptomatic of Mary Shelley’s ambivalence towards artistic expression when – in an era in which a woman was expected to conform to a conventional model of propriety – being a writer at all could be in conflict with social acceptance.
Yet if Shelley’s narrative method is a way of meekly hiding behind her creation, another important effect of the novel’s structure, says Anne K. Mellor, is “to slow down the narrative, allowing time for extended meditations by both the creature and Frankenstein on the nature of morality, the responsibilities of God and parents, and the very principle of life itself”.
Walton’s narration helps make the story more believable
Is Frankenstein a feminist novel?
According to Diane Long Hoeveller, Frankenstein may be more important in the development of feminist literary theory than any other novel. “All the interesting, complex characters in the book are male,” says Barbara Johnson, “and their deepest attachments are to other males. The females, on the other hand, are beautiful, gentle, selfless, boring nurturers and victims who never experience inner conflict or true desire.”
Yet understanding the way women are portrayed in Frankenstein is crucial to under-standing the novel. In one landmark feminist reading in the 1970s, Ellen Moers saw it as a “birth myth”, a frightening vision in which Mary Shelley atones for the guilt she feels about “causing” her mother’s death. This view of the novel as expressing Mary Shelley’s “revulsion of newborn life” led to an explosion of feminist interest in the novel in the 1980s. To Barbara Johnson, for example, Frankenstein is, in part, an “unsettling formulation of the relation between parenthood and monstrousness… a study of post-partum depression… a representation of maternal rejection of a newborn infant”.
In the thematic emphasis of the novel, Shelley expresses the tension she felt between the self-denial demanded by domestic activity and the self-assertiveness essential to artistic creation… She finds literary production to be a perverse substitute for woman’s natural function: a “hideous corpse” usurps what should be the “cradle of life”… As Mary Shelley imagines her female self, she gives her own conflicted energy the form of a monster.
Gilbert and Gubar also suggest that Frankenstein is a woman’s re-reading and re-writing of Milton’s Paradise Lost in which “both Victor and his monster” play the neo-biblical parts – not only those of Adam and Satan, but also Eve. Victor Frankenstein’s “single most self-defining act”, after all, is that of procreation – and this “transforms him definitively into Eve”, especially since the central transgressive act involves his eating, like the first woman and mother, from the forbidden tree of knowledge.
But the monster, too, what Gilbert and Gubar believe, is “a female in disguise”; marginalised by society, his narrative is “a philosophical meditation on what it means to be born without a soul or history, as well as an exploration of what it feels like to be a ‘filthy mass that moves and talks’, a thing, an other, a creature of the second sex”. In his “shuddering sense of deformity” – as in “his namelessness and his orphaned motherless isolation” – the monster resembles most closely the Eve who was “made in the image of a male creator” and whose “unprecedented femininity” seemed merely “a defective masculinity, a deformity”.
Mary Shelley retells the story of the Fall, conclude Gilbert and Gubar, “not so much to protest against it, as to clarify its misogynistic meaning”.
Mary Jacobus’s study of Frankenstein also regards it as a “bizarre parody of the Fall” but her emphasis is on how women in the novel are, nonetheless, a major problem for the monster:
A curious thread in the plot focuses not on the image of the hostile father (Frankenstein/God) but on the dead mother who comes to symbolize to the monster his loveless state. Literally unmothered, he fantasises acceptance by a series of women but founders in imagined rebuffs and ends in silence… On Justine’s person the monster wreaks his revenge on all women, planting among her clothes the incriminating evidence of the mother’s portrait as the supposed motive for the murder of the little boy. She is duly tried and executed, even confessing to the crime – for in the monstrous logic of the text, she is as guilty as the monster claims: “The crime had its source in her: be hers the punishment.” Eve is to blame for having been desired.
By the same “monstrous logic”, Jacobus argues, if woman is the cause of the monster’s crimes, then the only cure for the monster is a mate “as hideous as myself” (Chapter 17). But Mary Shelley no more than Frankenstein can bring herself “to embody woman as fully monstrous”, because, as Barbara Johnson puts it: “Monstrousness is incompatible with femininity.”
For Anne Mellor, it is Frankenstein’s scientific project itself which carries the novel’s central feminist message: the ambition to “become the sole creator of a human being” supports a “patriarchal denial” of the value of women and female sexuality:
By stealing the female’s control over reproduction, Frankenstein has eliminated the female’s primary biological function and source of cultural power. Indeed, for the simple purpose of human survival, Frankenstein has eliminated the necessity to have females at all. One of the deepest horrors of this novel is Frankenstein’s implicit goal of creating a society for men only; his creature male, he refuses to create a female; there is no reason that the race of mortal beings he hoped to propagate should not be exclusively male.
Recent feminist criticism, however, concentrates largely on the exclusively male cast of characters. In the early 1990s, for example, Bette London read Frankenstein as a novel concerned with the “production of masculinity”, with “the troubled and troubling representation of the male body” – with, in short, “man-making”. Frankenstein sets out to create the perfect man according to an ideal masculine prototype. The incoherent and monstrous being he assembles discloses how patriarchal conventions of masculinity are disastrous distortions of maleness as it is individually experienced. The novel suggests that:
masculinity as much as femininity is created by cultural negotiations and contestations. It insists that brokenness has no necessary or exclusive connection to the feminine – witness Frankenstein’s self-exhibition as “a miserable spectacle of wrecked humanity”.
Frankenstein’s “dreadful secret”, London suggests, is “the repression of masculine contradiction”. In these later feminist readings, then, Victor Frankenstein is understood not so much as a perpetratorof patriarchal oppression of women but as a victim, himself subject to the pressure of coercive social norms which, in demanding conformity, produce damage, fragmentation and deformity.
Cinematic depictions of the monster often emphasise his ‘revulsion’
Is Victor Frankenstein a hero?
The language of heroic enterprise dominates the first quarter of the novel. It is the key point of contact not only between Frankenstein’s narrative and Walton’s but between the novel and the whole ideology of individualist endeavour which had founded the Romantic movement.
For Robert Kiely, Victor Frankenstein’s endeavour, and his monstrous creation itself, in part represents the Romantic valuing of “a great catastrophe” over a “small success”. “A destructive force,” says Kiely, was for the Romantics “better than no force at all and the creation of a new menace better than a copy of a worn-out consolation”:
Even the fact that the monster becomes a murderer and brings about the destruction of his master does not necessarily detract from the grandeur of Frankenstein’s dreams. There is a strong hint that the fault is more nature’s than his, that his godlike ambitions result in monstrosity. The grotesqueness of the result [of Frankenstein’s attempt to manufacture a man], is another example of nature’s failure to live up to man’s expectations.
Kiely’s “Romantic” reading is arguably borne out, when, even at the last, Frankenstein looks back on his endeavours more with nostalgic pleasure than with loathing: “Even now I cannot recollect without passion my reveries while the work was incomplete. I trod heaven in my thoughts, now exulting in my powers, now burning with the idea of their effects” (Chapter 24). Frankenstein bitterly regrets the consequences of his endeavour, but not his capacity for it.
Frankenstein’s continuous experience of pain, punishment and loss makes him a powerfully Romantic figure: “The wounded deer dragging its fainting limbs to some untrodden brake, there to gaze upon the arrow which had pierced it, and to die – was but a type of me” (Chapter 9). Not for nothing is the central Romantic icon of isolation, guilt and despair, the Ancient Mariner, several times mentioned in this book.
“It was the Promethean ‘maker’, ‘artist’, ‘shaper’ of men in scientist-hero guise that interested Mary Shelley,” says Maurice Hindle, arguing nonetheless that Shelley's interest in the Promethean myth goes beyond its Romantic connotations. “In using the Promethean motif for her novel, she had virtually declared herself to be dealing with a problem” – mankind’s relationship to forces larger than itself – “which had an enormously long and deep provenance in the West.” Frankenstein’s relationship to ancient mortal problems, as well as its criticism of the Romantic tradition in which it was produced, are in the end arguably as strong as its self-evident Romantic credentials.
Victor Frankenstein – does he represent the Romantic valuing of “a great catastrophe” over a “small success”?
Is Victor Frankenstein a monster?
One complicating factor in trying to understand Victor, morally or allegorically, is the fact that this Romantic ‘hero’ of noble ambition casts himself unambiguously throughout his account as an overreacher – one with God-usurping aspirations toward divine creativity.
The archetypal seeker of forbidden knowledge, Frankenstein transgresses the boundaries between the human and the natural, on the one hand, and the human and the divine, on the other. His tale owes its existence to its potential power as a cautionary tale:
● Unhappy man! Do you share my madness? Have you drunk also of the intoxicating draught? Hear me - let me reveal my tale, and you will dash the cup from your lips! (Letter 4)
● You seek for knowledge and wisdom, as I once did; and I ardently hope that the gratification of your wishes may not be a serpent to sting you as mine has been. (Letter 4)
● Learn from me… how dangerous is the acquirement of knowledge and how much happier that man is who believes his native town to be the world, than he who aspires to be greater than his nature will allow. (Chapter 4)
The very pretext for the story being told is the prevention, thereby, of its repetition, not just because of the monstrous consequences of Frankenstein’s over-reaching but because of the dramatic magnitude of his Fall.
The forbidden understanding which Frankenstein explicitly seeks is that of the alchemists: the secret of eternal life.
● “I entered with the greatest diligence into the search for the philosopher’s stone and the elixir of life” (Chapter 2).
● But the discourse of “penetrating” the “hidden laws” and “secrets of nature” applies to scientific endeavour in general: “It was the secrets of heaven and earth that I desired to learn… in its highest sense, the physical secrets of the world” (Chapter 2).
Moreover, Frankenstein’s processes of enquiry and discovery are those of empirical scientific study. Frankenstein recounts:
I pursued nature to her hiding-places. Who shall conceive the horrors of my secret toil as I dabbled among the unhallowed damps of the grave or tortured the living animal to animate the lifeless clay?… I collected bones from charnel-houses and disturbed, with profane fingers, the tremendous secrets of the human frame. In a solitary chamber, or rather cell, at the top of the house, and separated from all the other apartments by a gallery and staircase, I kept my workshop of filthy creation. (Chapter 4)
The emphasis of the text at this point of the story is not only upon Frankenstein’s own incredulous horror and guilty shame at the unnaturalness of his proceedings:
● “My limbs now tremble, and my eyes swim with the remembrance… my eyeballs were starting from my sockets in attending to the details of my employment… often did my human nature turn with loathing from my occupation” (Chapter 4).
● A resistless and almost frantic impulse urged me forward; I seemed to have lost all soul and sensation but for this one pursuit. (Chapter 4)
● I pursued my undertaking with unremitting ardour. My cheek had grown pale with study, and my person had become emaciated with confinement. (Chapter 4)
For many readers, the obsessive nature of Frankenstein’s goal, and the way it is pursued, are evidence that criticism of “the illusion of pure scientific enquiry”, shorn of any interest in society or morality, “is one of the major arguments of the book”. Frankenstein, Anne Mellor says in agreement, is cited so often in everyday life precisely because it engages the ethical dimension of scientific invention.
For Mary Poovey, however, Mary Shelley’s target is not science alone, but the pursuit of knowledge and truth itself, especially as it is manifested in art and poetry. Frankenstein is its female author’s attack, argues Poovey, on the egotism she associates with the male “artist’s monstrous self-assertion”.
This principle, Poovey goes on, constitutes the major dynamic of Frankenstein’s plot, where the ego’s destructiveness is made literal in setting in motion the character of the monster.
What [Frankenstein] really wants is not to serve others but to assert himself… his “benevolent” scheme actually acts out the imagination’s essential and deadly self-devotion… In effect, animating the monster liberates Frankenstein’s egotism, for his indescribable experiment gives explicit and autonomous form to his ambition and desires.
For Poovey, Frankenstein is not a celebration of poetics and politics, as some argue, but an imaginative criticism of his self-serving poetic ambitions.
Critics who take this view see Frankenstein as at root an anti-Romantic text which repeatedly stresses a fatal kinship between human imaginative desire and violent destruction and death:
When I would account to myself for the birth of that passion which afterwards ruled my destiny, I find it arise, like a mountain river, from ignoble and almost forgotten sources; but, swelling as it proceeded, it became the torrent which, in its course, has swept away all my hopes and joys. (Chapter 20)
Essentially opposed to creative liberation, Frankenstein’s passion is like a travesty of Romantic-poetic inspiration. That passion is also unmistakably sexual and, for feminist critics, misplaced. For feminists, Frankenstein’s deepest sin is the act of creation without a woman – “the story of a man,” as Barbara Johnson observes, “who usurps the female role by physically giving birth to a child”. Anne Mellor makes the same point: “Victor’s quest is precisely to usurp from nature the female power of biological reproduction, to become a male womb.”
But there is no agreement on how we should interpret Frankenstein; on the contrary, possible readings collide as if to prevent any definite understanding of what it is really “about”. As Robert Hume has pointed out, its threefold structure enacts a series of quests which not only invalidate one another but where quest itself is parodied in a circular journey to nowhere.
The novel confronts not just the ethics of scientific invention, but of the pursuit of knowledge and truth itself.
In what ways is Frankenstein’s “miserable monster” monstrous?
Without the Creature’s personal voice and account of motivation, one is left with the de-personalised factual events of his story: violence, child murder, ugly revenge, sexual desire.
But, for some readers, Frankenstein’s creature incarnates political as much as sexual transgression, representing more an expression of collective social fear than a release of culturally forbidden desire. In this reading, Frankensteincreated an embodiment of all that English bourgeois society repudiated – both the subversive political energies it suppressed at home and the ‘foreignness’ it sought imperially to subdue or enslave elsewhere. For H. L. Malchow, for example,
Shelley’s portrayal of her monster drew upon contemporary attitudes towards non-whites, in particular on fears and hopes of the abolition of slavery in the West Indies, as well as on middle-class apprehension of a Luddite proletariat… [The monster] has been constructed out of a cultural tradition of the threatening “Other” – whether troll or giant, gypsy or Negro – and from the dark inner recesses of xenophobic fear and loathing.
Literary-historical readings of the novel show that the idea of the threatening “Other” central to Frankenstein was, in fact, very real at the time it was written – in the threat posed to the English social order by the French Revolution of 1789.
Since the ancients, says Chris Baldick, the image of physical deformity has been used to suggest what is wrong with ‘the body politic’. “When political discord and rebellion appear this ‘body’ is said to be not just diseased, but misshapen, abortive and monstrous.” In the era just before Frankenstein was written, this imagery came with particular ferocity from the pens of those who opposed the age’s revolutionary driving force. In Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), the insurgent Parisian army is a harmful and incoherent “monster” that “can hardly fail to terminate its movements in some great national calamity”. The French revolution stalks forth exactly like an animated corpse.
For Burke, says Baldick, “the monster image” is a powerful means of understanding “the chaotic and confused nature of revolutionary events”.
Burke’s treatise, moreover, was an attack not only upon the revolutionaries in Europe but on their counterparts in England, the intellectual leader of whom at the time was Mary Shelley’s father, William Godwin. His Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Political Justice (1793), in which he set out his principles for a new utopian world order (and in which he himself employs monstrous imagery to highlight the consequences of social injustice), was demonised by Burkean conservatives as the “spawn of the monster”.
Mary Shelley dedicated her novel to her father, and for some readers Frankensteinis a powerful homage to her father’s politics. She opposes his adversaries, in this view, by highlighting the social origins of monstrous deeds. Lee Sterrenburg, however, has argued, in his influential critique of the novel, “Politics and Psyche in Frankenstein”, that Mary Shelley’s monstrous fiction is not an expression of loyalty, but an implicit critique of her father’s rational republican views.
Pamela Clemit also sees the novel as a critique of revolutionary idealism. “Mary Shelley represents radicalism’s Utopian expectations on a grand scale in a distorted way. Victor Frankenstein aspires to a ‘new species’, but ends up fearing a ‘race of devils’, and his fantasy of benefiting mankind is replaced by the apocalyptic dread of inflicting a ‘curse upon everlasting generations’ and wiping out ‘the whole human race’.”
But this is not to argue that the novel is a straightforward attack on revolutionary politics. Mary Shelley’s monster is “a hybrid”, argues Lee Sterrenburg:
a cross between two visions that produces a unique third. From the Burkean tradition of horrific, evil, and revolutionary monsters, he seems to have derived the grotesque features which physically mark him and set him apart. From the republican tradition he derives his rationale for insurrection. But Mary Shelley does more than combine the two traditions. She moves inside the mind of the monster and asks what it is like to be labeled, defined and even physically distorted by a political stereotype. This is a new perspective. It is something her Enlightenment predecessors could not see, preoccupied as they were with charting, explaining and debating the external influences which inspire revolution.
Frankenstein’s monstrous creation should be seen not merely as a reaction against the Utopianism of Godwin, but rather as a response to the entire world view of the Enlightenment revolutionary age, with its omission of the personal for the sake of the social. “Mary Shelley exploits the first-person narrative as a means of internalising public issues, moving away from the direct public engagement of the 1790s” to explore the psychology of political radicalism.
Acknowledging the novel’s historic context is important in order to understand the importance of the “other”
In what ways is the monster Frankenstein’s double?
● Could he be the murderer… of my brother? No sooner did that idea cross my imagination than I became convinced of its truth… I considered the being whom I had cast among mankind and endowed with the will and power to effect purposes of horror… nearly in the light of my own vampire, my own spirit let loose from the grave and forced to destroy all that was dear to me. (Chapter 7)
● I, the true murderer, felt the never-dying worm alive in my bosom, which allowed of no hope or consolation. (Chapter 8)
● “I, not in deed, but in effect, was the true murderer” (Chapter 9)
● Incorporated in the idea of the “double” are all those unfulfilled but possible futures to which we still like to cling in fantasy, all those strivings of the ego which adverse circumstances have crushed, and all our suppressed acts of volition which nourish in us the illusion of Free Will. (Sigmund Freud, “The Uncanny”, 1919)
What should we make of the murder – by the monster – of Victor’s younger brother, William? Psychoanalytic critics see it, and the schizophrenic language which it produces in Victor, as an expression of the creator-hero’s own suppressed fraternal hostility and rivalry. “In an orgy of narcissism, and as a sort of horrible retribution,” writes Lowry Nelson, Frankenstein has succeeded in creating his own ‘Doppelgänger’, or ‘double’.
The monster, in this reading, is a nightmare projection of Victor’s unconscious urges, the embodiment of his primitive being which has been rejected, expelled, split away and located in another, in order to enact the monstrous, repressed desires which the civilised, controlling Ego dare not acknowledge.
“The monster has no name,” says Rosemary Jackson. “It is anonymous, given identity only as Frankenstein’s other, his grotesque reflection (hence the common confusion of the monster as Frankenstein).” It is altogether appropriate, psychologically, that the monster has been popularly christened with the name of its creator. For, on this psychoanalytic reading, its murderous impulses are not in rebellion against his creator. (“You are my creator, but I am your master,” says the monster (Chapter 20).) Rather, its actions are working to fulfill its originator’s deepest impulses. The monster is not supernatural, as Lowry puts it, but subnatural – the “irrational, the impulse to evil, the uncontrollable unconscious”.
The first clear sign that we are witnessing the drama of a pre-Freudian psychology occurs at the moment the monster first comes to life. “Unable to endure the aspect of the being I had created,” Victor relates, “I rushed out of the room… and threw myself on the bed”:
I slept… but I was disturbed by the wildest dreams. I thought I saw Elizabeth, in the bloom of health, walking in the streets of Ingolstadt. Delighted and surprised, I embraced her, but as I imprinted the first kiss on her lips, they became livid with the hue of death; her features appeared to change and I thought that I held the corpse of my dead mother in my arms; a shroud enveloped her form, and I saw the grave-worms crawling in the folds of the flannel. I started from my sleep with horror; a cold dew covered my forehead, my teeth chattered, and every limb became convulsed. (Chapter 5)
The instantaneous revenge which the monster exacts is a psychic one, in which the hero is forced to confront the regressive depths of his being in an oedipal-necrophilic nightmare which is doubly incestuous (he kisses first his cousin, virtually his sister, and then his dead mother). The image of the mother resurfaces in the context of death and guilt when Justine, another family figure, is found with the locket bearing the picture of Victor’s mother, which William had worn, and which has been planted on Justine by the monster. When Justine is then convicted of and executed for the boy’s murder, “This also was my doing!” is Victor’s instant confession to himself.
The submerged sibling and oedipal fantasies take place, moreover, within a fantastical narrative where the forbidden knowledge of which Victor is in pursuit is both explicitly sexual – he seeks the key to human reproduction – and repeatedly expressed in a “phallic” language: his goal is to “penetrate” what is ‘secret” and “hidden”, primal and dangerous.
Moreover, the dream is prophetic. The monster’s repeated fiendish threat to Frankenstein, when the latter refuses to provide him with a mate – “Remember, I will be with you on your wedding-night” – is brutally fulfilled in the murder of Elizabeth before her marriage to Victor is consummated:
She was there, lifeless and inanimate, thrown across the bed, her head hanging down and her pale and distorted features half covered by her hair… her bloodless arms and relaxed form flung by the murderer on its bridal bier… I rushed towards her and embraced her with ardour, but the deadly languor and coldness of the limbs told me that what I now held in my arms had ceased to be the Elizabeth whom I had loved and cherished. (Chapter 23)
The monster’s vanquishing of the bride has been interpreted, variously, as expressive of Frankenstein’s fear of sexual union; his misogynistic horror of female sexuality; the withdrawal from physical and emotional contact which characterised his scientific labours; anxiety at the loss of self-sufficiency and independence; and the narcissism of his every act.
For some critics, the presence of these unconscious sexual elements is the very essence of Gothic and, as such, an emancipation for the reader as much as for the protagonist. Rosemary Jackson, for example, thinks that Gothic literature “attempts to create a space for a discourse other than a conscious one”. It reveals “an obscure, occluded region which lies behind the homely and native”.
But some of the most influential readings of Frankenstein, especially feminist ones, find a psychology specific to its hero. The particular nature of his own self-fulfilment – altering natural procreation in order to bring a corpse to life – is, as Mary Jacobus puts it, an “exclusion of woman from creation” which symbolically “kills” the mother. Mary Homans makes much the same point. “The demon’s birth,” she says,
violates the normal relations of family, especially the normal sexual relation of husband and wife. Victor has gone to great lengths to produce a child without Elizabeth’s assistance… To circumvent her, to make her unnecessary, is to kill her and to kill mothers altogether.
This psychic killing occurs within a plot, as Homans points out, in which mother-death exists. Elizabeth, Justine, and Frankenstein’s own mother are as orphaned in this respect as is the monster. Moreover, the monster not only depends upon but perpetuates the death of the mother and of motherhood when, in killing Elizabeth, he murders “the last remaining potential mother”. For Homans, this wholesale “circumvention of the maternal” is of a piece with Mary Shelley’s implicit criticism of the male Romantic artistic ego: “The new creation of the demon in the image of the self [is a substitute] for the powerful creating mother and places creation under the control of the son.”
Even as the novel’s doublings and displacements seem to summon psychic and symbolic interpretation, they contribute nonetheless to the gripping narrative of persecution and pursuit which occupies the final third of the novel. But, for Sherwin, the “astonishing achievement of Frankenstein” is the construction of a primal, erotic and catastrophically total repression “so radically alienated from the ego that it disqualifies any attempt at integration”. The monster, in other words, is not reducible to interpretation as Frankenstein’s alter ego or to any psychoanalytic interpretation. For what it represents is Chaos itself, the unformed and uncontrolled within. Frankenstein calls the unnameable creature “my own spirit let loose from the grave… forced to destroy all that was dear to me” (Chapter 7).
Sherwin’s psychoanalytic reading of the monster’s meaning recalls the monster’s associa-tion with the political anarchy threatened by revolution. It is also barely separable from the idea of Hell which the novel borrows from Paradise Lost.
 oedipal as in the Oedipus Complex, Freud’s theory that all young boys at a deep subsconscious level want to marry their mothers and kill their fathers; necrophilic from necrophilia, meaning sexual attraction to or intercourse with corpses.
Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller as Frankenstein/Monster in Danny Boyle’s brilliant stage adaptation
In what ways is Frankenstein’s monster virtuous?
What gives special power to the monster’s story is its “inhuman” capacity to do what no mere mortal narrative could do. The story begins, that is to say, at the verybeginning:
● I was a poor, helpless, miserable wretch; I knew, and could distinguish, nothing; but feeling pain invade me on all sides, I sat down and wept. (Chapter 11)
● No distinct ideas occupied my mind; all was confused. I felt light, and thunder and thirst and darkness; innumerable sounds rang in my ears, and on all sides various scents saluted me. (Chapter 11)
The monster’s creation may be artificial, but – from the monster’s point of view – the moment and trauma of his birth is an experience entirely human. He is first bathed in the created world, a repository of innocent sensory responsiveness to its formless wonder: “soon a gentle light stole over the heavens and gave me a sensation of pleasure. I started up and beheld a radiant form rise from among the trees” (Chapter 11). Thence he undergoes the familiar human stages of growth and adaptation – “distinguishing sensations from each other” and perceiving the boundaries and forms of things, “the radiant roof of light which canopied me… the clear stream that supplied me with drink… the pleasant sound… from the throats of the little winged animals” (Chapter 11). In this accelerated version of both infant and species development, he also discovers involuntarily his need to communicate: “Sometimes I tried to imitate the pleasant songs of the birds… but the uncouth and inarticulate sounds which broke from me frightened me into silence again” (Chapter 11).
Frankenstein’s monster begins life as the kind of “natural man” imagined by Jean-Jacques Rousseau – the “noble savage” whose primitive instinct for life “knows neither hatred nor revenge”. On the contrary, this pre-civilised creature possesses an innate responsiveness to goodness and love. When he occupies the hovel next to the de Lacey family and observes their daily life, their benevolence and gentleness win his reverence:
The young girl… sat down beside the old man, who, taking up an instrument, began to play and to produce sounds sweeter than the voice of the thrush or the nightingale. It was a lovely sight, even to me, poor wretch! who had never beheld aught beautiful before. (Chapter 11)
The monster’s original goodness is the source of his sentiment – “when they were unhappy, I felt depressed; when they rejoiced I sympathized in their joys” (Chapter 12) – as it is the spring of his action. When he finds that his nightly habit of stealing food for his own sustenance is inflicting pain upon the family (who are also hungry), he uses the night-time to collect firewood for them instead.
What the monster really offers in his “infant” stages is an animated illustration of William Godwin’s theory of human perfectibility: born innocent – a tabula rasa, or a blank slate, susceptible to the circumstances in which he is placed – he is formed in relation to the good influences which act upon him. “I looked upon crime as a distant evil: benevolence and generosity were ever-present before me” (Chapter 15).
Like natural man, altruistically taking creation as he finds it, the monster seems, moreover, not his creator’s double but his antithesis – he does not share Frankenstein’s egoistic will or desire to conquer nature’s secrets. As an educated being, his learning confirms and extends his instinctive morality and sense of human relations instead of providing, as was the case with Frankenstein, the means to usurp them.
Goethe’s The Sorrows of Werther impresses the monster with its “lofty sentiments and feelings, which had for their object, something out of self” (Chapter 15); reading the political history, Plutarch’s Lives, he feels “the greatest ardour for virtue rise within me, and abhorrence for vice” (Chapter 15).
But when the monster’s virtue cannot survive contact with the human society he craves, his story offers an object lesson in Rousseau’s and Godwin’s belief in the corrupting power of civilisation. In return for his instinctive love and his longing to “join them”, humans repay the Creature’s near approach with fear and horror. Not even the enlightened De Laceys, whom the creature has looked upon as “superior beings who would be the arbiters of my future destiny” (Chapter 12), can overcome the universal hostility and overlook his deformity: “a fatal prejudice clouds their eyes, and where they ought to see a feeling and kind friend, they behold only a detestable monster” (Chapter 15). With no knowledge of his origin or parentage, the monster has no other judge or measure of his own intrinsic worth:
I had admired the perfect forms of my cottagers – their grace, beauty and delicate complexions: but how was I terrified when I viewed myself in a transparent pool… I became convinced that I was indeed the monster that I am. (Chapter 12)
It was an idea of Godwinian political theory that monsters are not born; they are made. Evil is not inherent but imposed by the inequalities and oppressions of corrupt institutions.
“I, the miserable and the abandoned,” the creature says to Walton at the close of the novel, “am an abortion, to be spurned at, and kicked, and trampled on. Even now my blood boils at the recollection of this injustice” (Chapter 24). Unloved and alone, the creature inevitably becomes monstrous:
My feelings were those of rage and revenge… There was none among the myriads of men that existed who would pity or assist me; and should I feel kindness toward my enemies? No; from that moment I declared ever-lasting war against the species. (Chapter 16)
Just so, the violent energies of an uprising are unleashed by social injustice. This is why, for many readers, the Creature offers a sympathetic embodiment of the forces and needs which motivated the terror of the French revolution. If, at one level, the Creature’s perversion is an image of the psychological damage that flows from social oppression and tyranny, at another level, his physical deformity is itself an analogue of the institutionalised distortions of social injustice itself.
I learned that the possession most esteemed by your fellow creatures were high and unsullied descent united with riches. A man without either [was considered] a vagabond and a slave… And what was I? I possessed no money, no friends, no kind of property… Was I, then, a monster, a blot upon the earth? (Chapter 13)
The monster is not only Frankenstein’s double, but our own. In this reading, the monster is only the grossest example of the perversions of natural justice and humanity which injure almost every individual or social grouping in the book – from the wrongly condemned Justine, to the De Lacey family and Safie’s father, who suffer at the hands of governmental authorities which abuse their powers.
Moreover, when the novel is read as a political parable, it is not the monster who is at fault, but his creator:
Where were my friends and relations? [those which] bind one human being to another in mutual bonds. No father had watched my infant days, no mother had blessed me with smiles and caresses… All my past life was now a blot, a blind vacancy… Of my creation and creator I was absolutely ignorant. (Chapter 13)
Arguably, Frankenstein’s chief error is not that of Romantic or scientific-intellectual hubris: it is a paternal one. His great mistake is not creating the monster, but refusing to take responsibility for it. His first act in relation to his creature is to disown it. When they meet again face to face on Mont Blanc, and the monster asks for love from his creator, the latter hurls insults at him (“Begone, vile insect!… Abhorred monster! Fiend that thou art!… Wretched devil!”), sealing a vicious circle of rejection and revenge, which the monster describes with penetrating and persuasive accuracy. “I am malicious because I am miserable” (Chapter 17). “I was benevolent and good; misery made me a fiend. Make me happy, and I shall again be virtuous” (Chapter 10).
When Frankenstein abandons his creature, he offers at once an allegory of the neglect of a parent and a warning of the abominations which can result from this neglect. “Frankenstein’s negligence leaves the creature no option but to repeat his own tyrannical actions,” says Pamela Clemit.
There is no better measure of the creature’s keen and exemplary power of reason than the fact that Frankenstein, detesting the idea of a second creature with all the revulsion he feels for the first, is himself convinced by the monster’s case that he should be provided with a companion: “I was moved. I shuddered when I thought of the possible consequences... but I felt that there was some justice in his argument” (Chapter 17).
But for all the strong Godwinian heritage which animates the monster, he is also consistently expressive – especially in this insistence on having a mate – of a world view that is Mary Shelley’s own: the belief, as she writes in her own essay on Rousseau, that “the most characteristic part of man’s nature is his affections”.
“Affection”, not reason: this, it seems, is the basis of human perfectibility for Mary Shelley. It is what Walton and Frankenstein both have as a birthright and what, for the sake of adventurism, they both reject even as they feel the sacrifice: “I bitterly feel the want of a friend,” is Walton’s lament at the very outset of the book (Letter 2).
Frankenstein once enjoyed the “living spirit of love” (Chapter 2), engendered by the company of Elizabeth and Clerval in his childhood, and his mournful regret at how this was exchanged for the “gloomy and narrow reflections upon self” (Chapter 2) is given priority as his own story begins. For Robert Kiely “the most explicit ‘moral’ theme of the novel” is that “man discovers and fulfills himself through others and destroys himself alone”. The counter-theme to the monstrous consequences of egotism “is the virtue of friendship”.
The monster embodies the notion that monsters are not born, but rather made.
Is the monster the novel’s hero?
One reason the monster’s narrative is, for some, one of the most moving in literature is that the monster, more than any other character, thoroughly embodies the novel’s central myth. Right at the heart of this book – at its deep centre, literally, in this work of stories-within-stories – is the monster’s own version of the Christian myth of the Fall.
The myth is mediated for the novel’s protagonist, as it was for its author, by John Milton’s 17th-century epic poem, Paradise Lost, virtually the bible itself for Mary Shelley and her Romantic circle. Adam’s famous heavy lament, in Book 10 of Paradise Lost, as he realises his fallen condition provides the epigraph to Mary Shelley’s novel:
Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay
To mould me man? Did I solicit thee
From darkness to promote me?
When the monster himself reads Paradise Lost in Chapter 15, it is this picture of a creature who has no say in his own creation, and yet suffers most of all for the consequences of it, which stirs “far deeper emotions” than the monster has ever known before. “I read it,” he says “as a true history… I often referred the several situations to my own.” These are also the novel’s explicit internal directions to the reader to recognise how the monster’s story parallels and reproduces the grand religious narrative of Western civilisation, the myth of origins, and especially those aspects of the myth which were most potent for Romanticism.
The first striking echo of Adam’s situation is the monster’s experience of knowledge as inevitable suffering.
● Sorrow only increased with knowledge. Oh, that I had forever remained in my native wood, nor known nor felt beyond the sensations of hunger, thirst, and heat!” (Chapter 13)
● Of what a strange nature is knowledge! It clings to the mind, when it has once seized on it, like a lichen on the rock. I wished sometimes to shake off all thought and feeling, but I learned there was but one means to overcome the sensation of pain, and that was death – a state which I feared yet did not understand. (Chapter 13)
● Increase of knowledge only discovered to me more clearly what a wretched outcast I was. (Chapter 15)
Knowledge for the monster is what it was in the Garden of Eden – the consciousness of good and evil. That same knowledge of the deepest truth of things which was the prized goal for Victor Frankenstein, is, for his creature, the terrible condition of innocence lost – and lost forever – that it was for the first man.
In the monster, Mary Shelley embodied the optimistic belief in original innocence which inspired Romantic politics, and the pain of expulsion from innocence into a mortal hell of sin and death – the world of “the never-dying worm” (Chapter 8) – which gave spiritual depth to the most rational and secular Romantic philosophies.
But the monster’s strongest claims to status as the Romantic hero of the novel is his conscious likeness to Milton’s demonised archangel, Satan: “I remembered Adam’s supplication to his Creator… But where was mine?” “Many times I considered Satan as the fitter emblem of my condition,” he says, “for often, like him” – who witnessed with mingled jealousy and admiration the paradisal state of Adam and Eve – “when I viewed the bliss of my protectors, the bitter gall of envy rose within me” (Chapter 15). When the de Laceys desert him, a rage of anger at his state drives him to “spread havoc and destruction around me, and…enjoy the ruin’; ‘I, like the archfiend, bore a hell within me.” Though “I ought to be thy Adam,” he tells Frankenstein, “I am rather thy fallen angel” (Chapter 10).
Satan’s capacity to elicit awe, fear and terror deeply impressed the Romantic imagination, for which his purpose as avenger and devilish usurper of God’s power was an ambiguous virtue. As a Romantic reincarnation of the heroic fiend, the monster is all the more sympathetic for being undeservedly thrown from grace and being only reluctantly a serpent-devil. When, like Satan, he demolishes his former Eden – placing “a variety of combustibles around the cottage [I] destroyed every vestige of cultivation in the garden” (Chapter 16) – he is even yet the would-be angel: “Unable to injure anything human, I turned my fury towards inanimate objects” (Chapter 16).
“Nothing,” wrote Percy Shelley, “can exceed the energy and magnificence of the character of Satan as expressed in Paradise Lost.” Mary Shelley’s own creature of transgressive excess comes close, however, not least because of his constant capacity to mutate. Joyce Carol Oates writes:
The inhuman creation becomes increasingly human while his creator becomes increasingly inhuman. Most suggestively, he has become by the novel’s melodramatic conclusion a form of Christ: sinned against by all human kind, yet fundamentally blameless, and yet quite willing to die as a sacrifice: “soon… I shall die. Soon these burning miseries will be extinct.” (Chapter 24)
Yet, if the monster is a more sympathetic version of Milton’s Satan, he is also far worse off than him: “Satan had his companions, fellow devils, to admire and encourage him, but I am solitary and abhorred” (Chapter 15). The monster is, he finds, no more a Satan than he is an Adam: “He had come forth from the hands of God a perfect creature, happy and prosperous, guarded by the special care of his Creator”; “God, in pity, made man beautiful and alluring, after his own image; but my form is a filthy type of yours, more horrid even from the very resemblance” (Chapter 15).
The truth, in fact, is that the creature most resembles his creator precisely in not fitting any prototype, in not having a settled role in a preordained universe. For Victor, too, is first Adam – blessed with an Edenic childhood, a nurturing parent, and (in his cousin Elizabeth) an Eve; then he is God, the master-creator whose new species will “bless” him as its father; and now he is Satan, the killer of innocence – “I, the true murderer… bore a hell within me that nothing could extinguish” (Chapter 8) – who has unleashed upon the world a monster of sin made in the image of “the fiend that lurked in my heart” (Chapter 9).
Moreover, in what Muriel Spark called the dance of mutual pursuit, rage and revenge, the interchangeability and reversals of victim and persecutor, aggrieved and aggressor, produce an ever more complex and inseparable tangle of identities, of good and evil, love and hate. “There is great good and great evil, but which is really which?”
For some influential critics, this moral uncertainty is central to the work’s enduring power. The protagonists, say Gilbert and Gubar, appear, like Mary Shelley herself, “unlike Adam, seem to have fallen not merely from Eden but from the Earth, fallen directly to Hell, like Sin and Satan”. This sense of generalised fallenness is compounded by a shared sense of guilt which stretches beyond the central protagonists (Justine, for example, confesses to William’s murder even though she is wholly innocent). It is as if the world of the novel were indeed infected by original sin.
Moreover, characters who are otherwise very different such as Justine, Felix, Elizabeth, Safie, Victor, Walton and the monster, share a common orphanhood. The monster’s central questions – “Who was I? What was I? Whence did I come? What was my destination?” (Chapter 15) (which are them-selves a parody of Adam’s wondering in paradise, “who was I, or where, or from what cause/[I] knew not” in Book Eight of Paradise Lost) – belong, on some level, to all of them. So, increasingly, as knowledge and experience cause him to suffer, does the monster’s anguish grow at being “cast abroad” (Chapter 16) without assistance or guide.
The novel’s modernity, concludes George Levine, lies “in its transformation of traditional Christian and pagan myths into unremitting secularity, into the myth of mankind as it must work within the limits of the visible, physical world”.
Is pure good and pure evil two undisguisable concepts?
The Myth of Prometheus
In classical Greek legend, Prometheus was the Titan fire-God who stole fire from the Gods to give to mankind. Mary Shelley, Percy Bysshe Shelley and Lord Byron had all read the ancient Greek tragedy, Prometheus Bound by Aeschylus, but it was Percy Shelley who assimilated the Promethean myth most completely to his poetic and socialist aspirations. In his political allegory, Prometheus Unbound (1919), Prometheus is presented as the heroic champion of mankind, defying divine tyranny and oppression, from impulses pure and just.
Percy Shelley’s poem was a rehabilitation of a figure who, for the ancients, had been more reprehensible than heroic. His brilliant and bold theft of fire not only brought eternal punishment upon himself – the perpetual torture of being chained to a rock, an eagle eating away at his liver: it had also, in most versions of the myth, brought disaster upon mankind. The ambivalence of the fire-bringer’s gift – as at once life giving and life-destroying – is encapsulated in the monster’s narrative in Frankenstein:
“In my joy I thrust my hand into the live embers, but quickly drew it out again with a cry of pain. How strange, I thought, that the same cause should produce such opposite effects… When night came again I found, with pleasure, that the fire gave light as well as heat and that the discovery of this element was useful to me in my food.” (Chapter 11)
Victor Frankenstein’s “search for the philosopher’s stone and elixir of life” is a version of the Promethean and transgressive aspirations to immortality. But so ambiguous is Mary Shelley’s subtitle, as Muriel Spark has pointed out, that we do not even know to which character it applies: “Though at first Frankenstein is the Prometheus, the vital fire-endowing protagonist, the Monster, as soon as he is created, takes on a different aspect of the role.” The attributes of the Promethean hero are split between the protagonists, so that Frankenstein defies divine power by creating life, but his creature suffers at least part of the consequences and punishment.
Frankenstein and The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (1798)
One of the founding texts of the Romantic movement, The Ancient Mariner (1798) was an early influence in Mary Shelley’s life. It tells the story of a sailor, shipwrecked by a storm at the South Pole, and led to clear waters following the appearance of an albatross. Believing the latter to be a bird of ill omen, the mariner cruelly shoots it, after which the ship falls under a curse, the crew hang the albatross around the despised mariner’s neck, and the ship encounters Death in a ghostly hulk. While the crew perishes, the mariner’s punishment is to wander from land to land, recounting his cautionary tale of deep and lonely terror.
But what the Ancient Mariner most powerfully gave to Mary Shelley was a model of “the Wanderer”, not just for Frankenstein and Walton but for the monster too. A figure of primal guilt and alienation, of essential loneliness, he is a creature abandoned by his creator, cut off from his own kind and from his once whole self. He is an outcast whose crime is matched only by his suffering. Persecuted and defeated, he offers something like the pain of original sin.
Frankenstein and Paradise Lost
Mary Shelley was brought up in a family circle where John Milton’s Paradise Lost was required reading. Paradise Lost was a potent work for the Romantics, as the tragic-heroic depiction of Satan, whose refusal to be subjugated, appealed strongly to the Romantics. Lines from Paradise Lost provide the epigraph to Frankenstein; and the Creature himself reads the work in Chapter 15.
The epic telling of the Biblical story of the Fall of Man, the poem recounts the temptation of Adam and Eve by the fallen archangel, Satan, and their subsequent casting out from the Garden of Eden.
The narrative begins in Hell, to which Satan and his fellow angels have been banished following their failed attempt to usurp God’s authority. There, they plan to exact revenge for their ejection from Heaven by leading God’s new creation, Man, to disobedience against God’s law: Adam and Eve have been commanded, on punishment of death, not to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. When Satan, disguised as a serpent, persuades Eve to eat the fruit, Adam, finding that Eve has transgressed and is lost, eats the fruit too, in order to share the sin. At the close of the poem, they leave Paradise together.
There are many intertextual references to Milton’s epic Paradise Lost
“Perhaps the foulest toadstool that has yet sprung up from the reeking dunghill of the present times.”
William Beckford, author of the 1786 Gothic novel, Vathek
“For a man it was excellent, but for a woman it was wonderful.”
Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, 1823
“Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein made the Gothic novel over into what today we call science fiction. Frankenstein brought a new sophistication to literary terror and it did so without a heroine, without even an important female victim. Paradoxically, however, no other Gothic work by a woman writer, perhaps no literary work of any kind by a woman, better repays examination in the light of the sex of its author.”
Ellen Moers, 1977
“‘Frankenstein’ became an entry in every serious recent dictionary by way of the variations – dramas, films, television versions – through which Mary Shelley’s monster and his creator most obviously survive. But while Frankenstein is a phenomenon of Western culture, it is so because it has tapped into the centre of Western feeling and imagination… Frankenstein has become a metaphor for our own cultural crises.”
George Levine, 1979
Question: Why were critics against Frankenstein when it was published?
Points to consider:
● The fact it was written by a woman
● The fact that Shelley was young
● The fact that there was nothing written like Frankenstein before
A first edition copy of the novel
The Sublime in Frankenstein
The notion of the sublime was a cherished concept of the Romantics and, as Coleridge’s definition makes clear, related to Gothic as a genre. The founding text of the sublime was the work of the conservative Romantic, Edmund Burke, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origins of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757):
Whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain, and danger… whatever is in any sort terrible… is a source of the sublime; that is, it is productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling. I say the strongest emotion, because I am satisfied the ideas of pain are much more powerful than those which enter on the part of pleasure… Pain is always inflicted by a power in some way superior, because we never submit to pain willingly.
It is towards the sublime “magnificence” of the “terrifically desolate” Alpine regions that Victor Frankenstein turns after the monster has destroyed the lives of those he loves, as the only scene commensurate with his woe:
The weight upon my spirit was sensibly lightened as I plunged yet deeper in the ravine of Arve. The immense mountains and precipices that overhung me on every side, the sound of the river raging among the rocks, and the dashing of the waterfalls around, spoke of a power mighty as Omnipotence – and I ceased to fear or to bend before any being less almighty than that which had created and ruled the elements, here displayed in their most terrific guise. (9)
The mountains and ravines are the ideal landscape to reflect the characters’ magnificence and isolation
Science and the Shelleys
Frankenstein, says Anne Mellor, “is a thought-experiment based directly on the work of three scientists”:
● Chemist and first President of the Royal Society of Science, Humphry Davy – whose work Mary Shelley read in the year she began Frankenstein – she derived the idea of the chemist as a “creative” scholar whose duty is not only to “interrogate” the “most profound secrets of nature” but to “change”, “modify” and “master” it.
● From the botanist-poet Erasmus Darwin, grandfather of Charles Darwin and the first pioneer of the theory of evolution through sexual selection
● And from Italian scientist, Luigi Galvani and his disciples, who attempted to reanimate dead animals – and even a human corpse – using electrical impulses, she took the idea for the central experiment of Frankenstein.
Mary Shelley’s scientific interest was by no means neutral, however, argues Mellor. In an interpretation of the novel as a part-feminist, part-ecological attack on the egoism of male scientific thought, Frankenstein’s experiment fails to succeed, says Mellor, “not merely because the creature turns on him, but also because ‘Mother Nature’ fights back”, destroying Victor’s health, preventing him from engendering his own natural child on his wedding night, and relentlessly pursuing him with elemental power.
“Ultimately, in Frankenstein … the penalty for pursuing Nature to her hiding places is death.” As demonstrated, an exclusively secular and scientific reading resonates with the novel’s central “religious” story of the Fall.
Erasmus Darwin (1731-1802) – a target for Shelley’s criticism of how scientific thought is dominated by male egotism?
Frankenstein on Film
In modern times, the power of Frankenstein as a story and as a myth stems largely from film versions of the novel. There were more than a dozen of these in the first half of the century alone, the most famous of which, James Whale’s 1931 film for Universal Pictures, starring Boris Karloff, left an indelible mark on what Frankenstein “means” today.
Aside from defining – in Karloff’s rectangular face and bolted neck – the monster’s visual iconography for successive generations, the film also “upends”, as Paul O'Flinn puts it, Mary Shelley’s meaning. Not only is the monster’s own voice and extensive personal story excised: in addition, where Mary Shelley’s monster saves a drowning child, in the film he drowns a child. “The novel makes him human,” O’Flinn concludes, “while the film makes him subhuman”, and this “twisted” version of Frankenstein’s monster has never really been rehabilitated.
In the 1957 film, Peter Cushing’s Frankenstein is unambiguously the villain and “real monster” – a scientist to fear and hate – and this version of the novel, argues O’Flinn, directly coincided with “the development of atomic bomb and the nightmare possibility of universal destruction at the hands of a deranged individual”. The fact that The Curse of Frankenstein was one of the most commercially successful films in the history of British cinema is evidence, for O’Flinn, that “Frankenstein’s monster is most urgently hailed at times of crisis” and “ransacked for the terms of articulate cultural hysteria” .
● Graham Allen, Mary Shelley: Critical Issues (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008).
● Chris Baldick, In Frankenstein’s Shadow: Myth, Monstrosity, and Nineteenth-Century Writing (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996).
● Harold Bloom, Mary Shelley: Modern Critical Views (New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1985).
● Fred Botting, Making Monstrous: Frankenstein, criticism, theory (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1991).
● Marilyn Butler, Romantics, Rebels and Reactionaries: English Literature and its Background; 1760-1830 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1981).
● Pamela Clemit, The Godwinian Novel The Rational Fictions of Godwin, Brockden Brown, Mary Shelley (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1983).
● Kate Ellis, The Contested Castle: Gothic Novels and the Subversion of Domestic Ideology (Chicago: University of Illinois, 1989).
● Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar, The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1979).
● Rosemary Jackson, Fantasy: The Literature of Subversion (London and New York: Methuen, 1981).
● Mary Jacobus, Is There a Woman in This Text? New Literary History, 14 (1982) 117-41.
● Robert Kiely, The Romantic Novel in England (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1972).
● George Levine and U. C. Knoepflmacher, The Endurance of Frankenstein (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979).
● Robert Miles, Gothic Writing 1750-1820: A Genealogy (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2002).
● Ellen Moers, Literary Women (London: The Women’s Press, 1978).
● Timothy Morton (ed), Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein: A Sourcebook (London and New York: Routledge, 2002).
● Paul Sherwin, ‘Frankenstein: Creation as Catastrophe’, Modern Language Association 96:5 (Oct. 1981)
● Mary Poovey, The Proper Lady and the Woman Writer (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1984).
● David Punter, The Literature of Terror: A History of Gothic Fictions from 1865 to the Present Day (London: Longman, 1980).
● Muriel Spark, Child Of Light (London: Tower Bridge Publications, 1951)
From the first cinematic adaptation of Frankenstein; a14-minute film written and directed by J. Searle Dawley in 1910