Frankenstein

Category: Writing & Reading | Type: Discussion | Title: Frankenstein (in Context) | Author: Mary Shelley

For students, teachers, scholars, and the inquisitive general reader: To employ the full capacity of the annotations, please go to bookdoors.com and click on ReSearch Engine. You will discover a variety of ways to use the annotations' to this to any one of the BookDoors In Context editions. You will also be able to search the text of the nearly 100 works on the site. 

 

What follows is by way of an Introduction, portions of which the annotations will elaborate upon. Nowhere does this or any of the annotations divulge the plot.  

The reader may choose between two editions of Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, the 1818 and the 1831 (BookDoors is using the 1831). Recommending the 1831 is Mary Shelley's intention to supplant its youthful predecessor. Her husband, the poet Percy Shelley, made editorial suggestions and wrote a brief introduction to the 1818 Frankenstein, completed in June 1816; Mary now provides her own introduction and makes some revisions. Although the novel sold only 500 copies when it first appeared, an 1823 dramatic adaption staged in London and titled Presumption gave the novel "legs," just as a little more than a century later the Boris Karloff movie made Frankenstein a byword. 

The 1831 is marginally less sympathetic to Frankenstein than the 1818 and marginally more religious in outlook. The 1818 wavers between a light Deism (Search) and indifference to religion. By 1831 the age has become more orthodox and conservative. Mary Shelley is now a woman of thirty-two, not eighteen, and no longer under the commanding influence of her free-thinking husband, who drowned ten years before. And there had been other deaths that shaped her outlook.

The 1818 and 1831 have their respective strengths and weaknesses. The earlier is less coherent in its ideas, which bombard the text from every direction, and yet fresher in its writing. Patches are more obscure and some of the ideas undigested. Yet a reader feels she is present at the creation. The 1831 is a more artistically self-conscious work, more like her other five novels. 

Mary Godwin Shelley was born in 1797 and died in 1851, a period of immense political change in England as well as France. She was just turning nineteen when she began Frankenstein. It is a stunningly original work. Dwelling on a unique conception, gestation, and birth, Frankensteinl itself gave birth to a new genre, the sci-fi novel.  Shelley created a story as familiar to us now as are those of Don Quixote and Robinson Crusoe. She endows Frankenstein with the power reserved for God alone—the power to create life. Frankenstein is, though, an amateur whose skills and means are crude. The monster is a first draft (Shelley does not capitalize "monster" or ever name him). Frankenstein assembles him from the parts of various cadavers and then through electricity, itself a novelty, gives life to the composite corpse he has cobbled together. As the title indicates, Shelley's focus is upon the scientist, although for many readers the monster lumbers off with the novel. 

Mary Shelley's own methods resembled Frankenstein’s, for she assembled the novel from a diverse variety of sources. She had read Rousseau, Coleridge, and her husband's poetry; there was the often lurid English Gothic fiction and then the particularly grotesque, ingenious strain of German Gothic popular in her day; she had read her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft's writings, among which were a travel book, a short novel, and the famous A Vindication of the Rights of Woman and the earlier A Vindication of the Rights of Men. Her father, William Godwin, was a distinguished philosopher and the author of several novels, one of which, Caleb Williams, is a penetrating diagnosis of a sado-masochistic relationship. However, the immediate jolt that gave birth to Frankenstein were the conversations at Lord Byron's home, the Villa Diodati on Lake Geneva in the summer of 1816 among Byron, Percy, Shelley, and Byron's young physician, Polidori. Mary describes below the occasion and Byron's proposal that each write a ghost story. 

But, first, let us glance at the title page, for it is a map to the novel. The full title, Frankenstein: or, the Modern Prometheus, links the scientist with the divinity who was a benefactor of humanity. How much, if any, irony Shelley intends by the comparison the reader may determine for herself. A further comparison between the scientist and the god is that neither's motives are entirely pure. Prometheus, eager to spite Jupiter, gave fire to humanity; Frankenstein, egotistical and self-absorbed, lacked not only skill but pity and moral understanding. 

Prometheus, the son of Iapetus, who, the myth claimed, made man out of clay, belongs to the generation of Greek gods known as the Titans, over whom Saturn was sovereign. Learning of a prophecy that his children would rebel and overthrow him, Saturn began to devour them (illustration below). Prometheus's wish to help humanity is inseparable from his resentment of Zeus, who did overthrow the Titans. Prometheus conned Zeus regarding the nature of the sacrificial, placating offerings mankind would make the new gods. He presented Zeus with the choice between an offering consisting of a layer of glistening fat wrapped around a hodge-podge of bones or a superficially unappetizing ox's stomach that concealed succulent pieces of meat. Foolishly choosing the first, Zeus established the convention that mankind’s offerings would be symbolic rather than substantive. With the arbitrary logic of the tyrant, Zeus punished mankind by forbidding the gods to give them fire and thus consigning humanity to raw meat. Vindictive, he fastened Prometheus to a rock, exposing him to an eagle (or vulture) that gnaws for eternity at his immortal (and raw) liver.

The Romantic poets venerated Prometheus as they did that other rebel, Lucifer, both of whom, in the Romantic version valiantly challenged the arbitrary will of the tyrant. Lord Byron had written in the early summer of 1816 "Prometheus," a sixty-line poem describing the Titan as a heroic revolutionary opposing "The ruling principle of Hate." Percy Shelley in 1819 wrote the “lyrical drama” Prometheus Unbound, which describes the god's release and which the poet W. B. Yeats singled out as one of “the sacred books of the world.” Mary Shelley writes in a note to her husband's poem:

 …Saturn as the good principle, Jupiter the usurping evil one, and Prometheus as the regenerator, who, unable  to bring mankind back to primitive innocence, used knowledge as a weapon to defeat evil, by leading mankind beyond the state wherein they are sinless through ignorance, to that in which they are virtuous through wisdom.  

Where Percy Shelley’s Prometheus is pure in his motives—he is the idealistic revolutionary—Frankenstein's motives are mixed and not idealistic.

She tacitly invokes Lucifer, another revolutionary who opposes omnipotence, on the title page when she quotes John Milton's Paradise Lost, which includes an account of Lucifer’s challenge to God’s power. Lucifer’s defeat—he led one-third of the angels in revolt—results in his being cast into Hell, where he and his huge host build Pandemonium (the city of "all demons"). Determined now upon mayhem and revenge, he enters the Garden of Eden to incite a subsidiary rebellion, that of Eve's and subsequently Adam's disobedience in eating of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Shelley's epigraph to the novel quotes Adam's rhetorical question of God: 

Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay 

To mould me man? Did I solicit thee

From darkness to promote me?— 

                                         (Book X, 743-45) 

To such Romantics as Blake, Byron, and Shelley the answer to the question is obvious. God, has made mankind imperfect and then torments us with prohibitions for faults in his handiwork s with prohibitions and draconian punishments, punishment--everlasting torture, without the prospect of redemption--that grotesquely exceeds the crime. For the Romantics every creator or artist has sacred responsibilities to his creation. Can one expect less of a divinity. God and Frankenstein are each in his way inept and compound their ineptitude by punishing their creations rather than finding ways to remedy their mistakes, by, for instance, becoming “the regenerator…of primitive innocence.” To Percy Shelley the paramount faculty of the artist-creator is imagination. He writes,

The great secret of morals is love; or a going out of our own nature, and an identification of ourselves with the beautiful which exists in thought, action, or person, not our own. A man, to be greatly good, must imagine intensely and comprehensively.... The great instrument of moral good is the imagination.

Would one ask anything less of the supreme creator? Or conclude that such a god lacks imagination. William Blake, punning on horizon and reason, names this creator Urizen and portrays him (see below) as a blind law-giver. "Nobodaddy."  

Adam’s "Did I request thee, Maker...?" reflects on his responsibilities. The Fall means accursed wretchedness for every succeeding generation until time ends. All humanity, Adam believes, will revile him for having brought labor, the pain attending a woman's giving birth, and death to every human born after the Fall. The Romantics, seeing in the Judeo-Christian God the supreme tyrant, assail also the grotesque disparity between the crime—Eve's being cajoled and Adam's compassionate gesture in eating the apple from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil—and the punishment, to which is added Original Sin. Extending to every unborn human. 

Percy Shelley was expelled from Oxford for writing and disseminating the pamphlet The Necessity of Atheism. If there is a God, He is culpable. If none, then we have created an exemplary tyrant. His egotims—insisting upon his singular supremacy—leaves him supremely alone. He is  envious and resentful of such joy as we can squeeze from our wretched condition. Shelley’s revolutionary politics and theology mirrored one another. The monster, more outspoken and defiant than the subservient, terrified Adam, believes the creator must do something to ameliorate the conditions that make his creature miserable. Chief among these is his insufferable aloneness. He desires a wife. Adam at least had that comfort.   

God and the orthodox describe Lucifer as succumbing to the sin of pride. Revolutionaries may see him as risking all in his quest for equity and justice. The matter depends on who writes the history. William Blake said that John Milton, himself a revolutionary in sympathy with Cromwell, "was of the devil's party without knowing it." Living during or shortly after the American and French Revolutions, the Romantic poets and none more so than Percy Shelley equated omnipotence, divine or temporal, with selfishness and cruelty. The notion of a just omnipotence was an oxymoron. Power was an aphrodisiac. One had only to look around: King Louis XVI and his queen; George III; the English prime minister Pitt, who viciously suppressed dissent and mongered fear; the pope and his minions; to some, Robespierre, Danton, and the Committee for Public Safety once they had elevated themselves to dictators; and to some Napoleon, who had a pope crown him emperor in 1804. (Wordsworth described the occasion as a dog returning to its vomit.) Percy Shelley's most famous short poem, the sonnet "Ozymandias," celebrates the decay of a monument to monumental arrogance. None of the Romantics was more vehement in his critique of power than Shelley (see "The Mask of Anarchy," 1819, Shelley's response to the Manchester Massacre). Shelley, incidentally, was engaged in a Titan-like struggle with his own father, Sir Timothy.

Parents can be a curse, as Frankenstein suggests. Mary Godwin was fortunate in her genes. Named for her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary bore a distinguished heritage. Her mother's title for her pioneering feminist work, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1790), followed her answer in A Vindication of The Rights of Men (1790) to Edmund Burke’s attack on the French Revolution, Reflections on the Revolution in France. Mary's father, William Godwin, to whom she dedicated Frankenstein, was the author of the highly influential Enquiry Concerning Political Justice (1793) as well as of the accomplished novel Things as They Are; or, The Adventures of Caleb Williams (1794). 

Mary Wollstonecraft’s life was short. She died at thirty-eight as a result of giving birth to Mary Godwin. Yet her writing spanned genres: she wrote on child-rearing and education, Thoughts on the Education of Daughters (1787), and a year later published a children’s book, Original Stories from Real Life, whose subtitle, With Conversations Calculated to Regulate the Affections and Form the Mind to Truth and Goodness, captures the pedagogical purposefulness of much of her writing(Joseph Johnson, the publisher of William Blake and other distinguished radical writers, commissioned him to do six plates illustrating Wollstonecraft's text.) A year later she wrote Mary. A Fiction. Godwin edited and published posthumously in 1798 her unfinished novel The Wrongs of Woman, or Maria. She also wrote and Johnson published a travel narrative, Letters Written during a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark (1796). 

Mary Wollstonecraft’s life had been bohemian, adventurous, and brave. It was also a life of severe reversals and two formative rejections. In London she met through Joseph Johnson some of the most important figures of her time, among whom was the painter Henry Fuseli (below), a native Swiss who influenced Blake. She found Fuseli’s intelligence and talent enthralling and suggested a non-sexual, co-habiting ménage with Fuseli and his wife. (She would dismiss in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman sexual relations in an enlightened marriage as irrelevant.) The artist’s wife was incensed, and Fuseli severed all connections with Wollstonecraft. 

She departed London for Paris in December 1792 and reached the city shortly before King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette were guillotined. She fell naturally into a circle of mostly English sympathizers, expatriates, and Jacobins. Among them was an American businessman, Gilbert Imlay, and it appears that her attachment this time was deeply physical as well, a passion of the sort she deplored in women. In May 1794 in the port city of Le Havre, where Mary and Imlay had gone to escape Paris’s violence, their child, Fanny Imlay, was born. The surname belied Imlay’s refusal to marry Mary, though, following England’s declaration of war on France, he, an American, registered Mary as his wife, and she continued to use his name to give also the appearance of her daughter’s legitimacy. While in Le Havre, nursing Fanny and depressed over her relationship with Imlay, she wrote An Historical and Moral View of the French Revolution, an extraordinary achievement by an observer present in Paris that Johnson published in December 1794. 

Imlay left Mary and Fanny in Le Havre, ostensibly to pursue business, but the sparseness of his letters and his infrequent returns depressed and frightened her. Her letters alternately hectored and beseeched him. She was capable of cool, objective analysis of their relationship while at other times she sank into abjectly imploring him. Though she loved him unrestrainedly, she came to describe his love as a mix of "milk and water." He eventually abandoned her in France and returned to England. She followed in April, 1795, hopling for a reconciliation. Imlay refused, and in May Mary attempted suicide. She was saved, perhaps by Imlay.

She then conceived the idea of going to Scandinavia to recover some of his financial losses and to promote his business contacts. It was a difficult journey under any conditions, the roads poor, the coaches jarring and uncomfortable, but to undertake it with an infant,  assisted by only a maid, was heroic. Like so many other writers, such as Dickens, she used her letters as grist for a subsequent book, Letters Written During a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark (1796). Her heroic but futile act of devotion to Imlay left her understanding that nothing she did would recover him. She again tried to commit suicide, this time by drowning herself in the Thames, leaving Imlay a note that read in part,

May you never know by experience what you have made me endure. Should your sensibility ever awake, remorse will find its way to your heart; and, in the midst of business and sensual pleasure, I shall appear before you, the victim of your deviation from rectitude.

A passerby saw and saved her.

She gradually returned to social life in the Johnson circle and there met William Godwin at the peak of his fame. He had read her recent book, Letters from Scandinavia, and described his reaction: "If ever there was a book calculated to make a man in love with its author…. She speaks of her sorrows, in a way that fills us with melancholy, and dissolves us in tenderness, at the same time that she displays a genius which commands all our admiration." These are strong words from an author often skewered for his lack of feeling and suspicion of emotion. His moral thought had been strongly criticized for its denigration of emotion and exaltation of a pure reason as the sole instrument of our will and judgment. 

Not surprisingly, then, Godwin was something of an emotional not to say erotic innocent. That facet of his life seems to have been tepid if non-existent until he met Mary. Both had a principled opposition to marriage, yet once Wollstonecraft became pregnant they married (March 1797) so that their child would not be stigmatized as illegitimate. For Mary to marry Godwin required her to publicly ackonwledge that she had not been married to Imlay, and this caused some of their friends to ostracize the couple. However, consistent with their ideas on marriage the Godwins chose not to live together but to preserve their autonomy in adjacent homes. Though they saw one another almost daily, they continued to write to one another. Wollstonecraft gave birth to Mary on August 30, 1797, and ten days later died of puerperal fever (blood-poisoning). Some one in five women died during or shortly after childbirth, many from blood-poisoning, there being no germ theory at the time. Feminist critics especially have argued that Mary Shelley's fear of conception and childbirth, originating with her mother's death, bears on  Frankenstein

The life-spans of the second-generation Romantics was appalling. Byron died at thirty-six of malaria while leading an army of mercenaries he had financed to liberate the Greeks from Turkish rule, and Percy Shelley at thirty, drowning in a sudden squall off the Italian coast near Lerici in his new twenty-six-foot sailboat, the Don Juan. John Keats died at twenty-six of consumption. 

Godwin knew little about children but now found himself responsible for the three-year-old Fanny and the infant Mary, as well as for many debts. Mary's first years were ordinary, for she was attended by a loving governess and a doting half-sister. But when the governess left and as Mary entered childhood, she seemed to have felt more keenly the absence of a mother. The loss was exaggerated by her father's behavior. While kind to both girls, he was remote, dispassionate, and, strangely, indifferent to his only natural child. Mary Wollstonecraft had become only more attached to Imlay as he began to withdraw, and so it was with little Mary, who adored her father the more he seems to have withdrawn. He hardly involved himself in her education but, apart from music lessons, left her to educate herself in his library. 

By 1800 Godwin’s fame was a receding meteor. William Hazlitt, a contemporary and brilliant essayist, had written in The Spirit of the Age of Godwin that "No work gave such a blow to the philosophical mind of the country as the celebrated Enquiry ... Tom Paine was considered for a time as Tom Fool to him, Paley and old woman, Edmund Burke a flashy sophist. Truth, moral truth, it was supposed had here taken up its abode; and these were the oracles of thought." By 1800 Godwin wrote, "I have fallen (if I have fallen) in one common grave with the cause and love of liberty; and in this sense I have been more honoured and illustrated in my decline, than ever I was in the highest tide of my success." He thought of remarrying, in part for Fanny and Mary, but his political, religious, and moral views, which a few years before had been in the vanguard, were now suspect in an increasingly conservative environment, making him a less desirable prospect. Nor had he done himself or his deceased wife any favor by his memoir of her, which revealed her proposal to Henry Fuseli, her affair with Imlay, and her suicide attempts. Nonetheless, in 1801, a widow, perhaps a grass widow, Mary Jane Clairmont, the owner of a small London bookshop, approached him  with the operatically irresistible, "Is it possible that I behold the immortal Godwin?"

Mrs. Clairmont had two children, a boy six, a daughter, Jane, four and so some six months younger than Mary. The marriage was stormy at times owing to the usual problems in such marriages—finances and step-children, namely Mary, who detested her step-mother. The new Mrs. Godwin had a hot temper, was manipulative, and not well-disposed to Mary.

As Mary Godwin grew more attached to her father, he seems to have grown more remote from her. Deliberately or not, he neglected her education, though she received music lessons. The times are awash in the educational theory of Rousseau's of Émile and Nouvelle Heloise, Godwin, himself, had discussed in his writings the formative impact of education upon an adult. Yet little of that, it seems, was applied to his talented daughter's intellectual development. This is all the more notable if not perverse given Mary Wollstonecraft's writings on the importance of the education of girls to prepare them to become enlightened, strong, independent women. Perhaps there was a compensation for Mary. She grew up with considerable autonomy and, observant impressionable, she was fortunate to mature in the household of an eminent intellectual who still attracted luminaries of the first magnitude. Among them were the essayist Charles Lamb, the brilliant chemist Humphry Davy, and William Hazlitt. For Mary an unforgettable event and one that stamped Frankenstein was her hearing Coleridge, whose voice and modulations were generally known to be uniquely beautiful, recite "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner." She read, she imagined, she fantasized, and she wrote; she taught herself. She carried the matter of the benefits and hazards of self-education into Frankenstein are the benefits and hazards of self-education. The monster is self-taught and Frankenstein's education in science is largely acquired through his rejection of his teachers and the pursuit of his own researches. 

Father's dominate Frankenstein, though they are not wise or engaged fathersMary's second novel, Mathilda, begun in 1819 but not published until 1959, portrays a father's incestuous love for his daughter and her confused response. The novel has naturally raised questions with biographers and interested readers. It appears that if there were incestuous feelings, they were Mary's for her father. William Godwin showed more circumspection in this matter than he had with Mary Wollstonecraft's letters. To protect his reputation as well as Mary's, he insisted that she not publish Mathilda

By 1812 the fourteen-year-old Mary appears to have been regarded by the adults as an irritant in a household that now included William, born to the Godwins in 1803. The children—Fanny, Mary, Mrs. Clairmont’s own two children, and then her son with Godwin—had four different sets of parents. Godwin arranged for Mary to stay for an indefinite period with some acquaintances of his in Dundee, Scotland. She left in June, traveled mostly by boat and alone, which was unusual for a girl of her age. The hosting family was large, happy, and included girls with whom she became close. It was a happy summer of exploring the countryside, bathing, reading, and daydreaming.

The event that would alter Mary's life occurred in her absence. Percy Shelley, finding aspects of Godwin's philosophical thought an inspiration, sought him out at home. The Godwins were impressed by their visitor, for though only nineteen Shelley was a published poet, an intellectual visionary, the grandson of a wealthy landholder, the son of a baronet, and an unrestrained admirer of Godwin. Shelley, they supposed, was destined to inherit the title and an estate worth more than £6000 per year (Search Money). For Godwin the adulation must have reminded him of when Wordsworth and Coleridge, nearly twenty years before, would visit and admire. Given Shelley’s ready largesse with impecunious friends, there may also have been talk of a gift that would ease the family’s finances. 

Mary, recently turned fifteen, met Percy soon after her return from Scotland. He came to dinner at the Godwins with his wife, Harriet, and his sister-in-law, Eliza Westbrook, who lived with the couple. This was not uncommon but was typical of Shelley, who enjoyed the company of women and was quick to fasten on one or another as a sort of portable muse. Shelley had grown up the lone male child among four adoring sisters. 

Mary remained in London until June 1813 before returning to Scotland, though there were no further visits with Shelley. She stayed nearly a year in Dundee, returning to London in  March, 1814, and it was only in early May that she saw Shelley again. Although Harriet and he had an infant son and though she was pregnant, Shelley was considering a separation from a woman he regarded as intellectually vacuous. Mary was very smart and lovely. Shelley came for several dinners and soon was eating nearly daily with the Godwins. The visits extended to taking walks with Mary and her step-sister Jane Clairmont (she would soon change her name to Claire), the destination often being Mary Wollstonecraft's grave in St. Pancras Churchyard. It was there, having eluded Jane, who was both chaperone and vicarious participant, that Mary and Percy said they loved one another.

Godwin, Mary Wollstonecraft, and Shelley had similar views on sexuality, marriage, and freedom. It is not surprising that Mary would concur and that Shelley and she could expect acceptance of their conduct. The attraction between them was intense, and they appear to have consummated their relationship shortly after their declaration of love (doing so, the story goes, on Mary Wollstonecraft's grave). To their surprise, Godwin sought to end the relationship immediately upon learning of it. Shelley after all was married. The Godwins forbade Mary to see him, but Mary had by now acquired a mind of her own. And Shelley was a master of the dramatic. He suddenly appeared at the house and threatened in front of Mary, Jane, and Mrs. Godwin to kill himself. There was a rapprochement, and then, to the Godwins’ astonishment, the pair eloped to France on July 18, 1814. To add injury to insult, they took Jane with them. The intrepid Mrs. Godwin pursued them to Calais, remonstrated with all and appeared to have convinced Jane to return until Shelley persuaded her to continue with Mary and him. Jane's refusal to return home dramatically altered her life (she'd later meet and have a child by Byron) and over time antagonized Mary Shelley, who grew to loathe her, in part because some months later Shelley began a protracted if intermittent affair with her. 

Godwin was furious with his daughter and Shelley, yet anger did nothing to mitigate his financial difficulties whereas Shelley did. Relations between them became chilly, but, typical of Shelley's temperament, he remained an enthusiast of Godwin's thought. However awkwardly, matters seemed fixed in place until Harriet Westbrook Shelley drowned herself in December, 1816. Mary and Percy returned to England, married, and then departed again for the Continent. Tensions with the Godwins diminished, though it was some three years before Godwin could be reconciled with his daughter. Her dedication of Frankenstein to him expresses her love and, within the lines, her hope for his forgiveness. She has become a mother (In 1815 she gave birth prematurely to a daughter, who died a few days later, and in 1816 to a son, William, who survives just three years.    

Let us return to the crowded title page. Unnamed but as important to the novel as Prometheus and Milton is Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Not the political Rousseau of The Social Contract but the autobiographer and pedagogue, the author of the Confessions (1770), Julie, or the New Heloise (1761), and Émile (1762)the first the most influential Western autobiography after Augustine’s Confessions. Rousseau recorded in often shameless detail his conduct and moral growth. The other two works re-shaped the theory and practice of the education of girls and boys. Although Mary Wollstonecraft had deplored Rousseau's sexism, she absorbed much of his thought, as did Mary Shelley. Rousseau is an unnamed presence in what may be Frankenstein's most memorable and affectiing part, the monster's arrival at consciousness.  

Rousseau had also influenced Godwin and Percy Shelley, who read Émile to Mary during their first months together, and throughout the writing of Frankenstein the two returned repeatedly to Rousseau, a mind of stunning originality. In his educational writings he did much to focus attention upon what Wordsworth would describe as the child's being the father of the man. Frankenstein is in large part a novel of education or what is known as a bildungsroman though it is a circumscribed kind of education, for the narrator, Frankenstein, and the monster are self-taught. 

Rousseau and Voltaire, both exiles at times from France, sought refuge in republican Switzerland to escape monarchical tyranny. Here they wrote what became the intellectual tinder for the French Revolution. English travelers such as Wordsworth in his twenties and exiles such as Lord Byron and the Shelleys, all sharing a republican cast of mind, found Switzerland hospitable and exemplary. The mountains defined the Sublime, the chamois-hunters and shepherds embodied a dignified independence, and the country was a bracing example to the subservient, indigent populations of England and France crushed by monarchy and victimized by the class system. Some of Wordsworth's, Coleridge's, Byron's, and Shelley's most important poetry centers on the Alps.

The Villa Diodati, the large home Byron had leased on the shores of Lake Geneva, hosted a combustible mix of intelligence and imagination. Byron was the most famous poet in England and on the Continent. Percy Shelley was an intellectual of eclectic interests from Plato to chemistry and a poet with a distinctive, passionate voice. Byron’s personal physician, John Polidori, was the son of an Italian scholar and an English governess. Born in 1795 in London, he received his medical degree from the University of Edinburgh. At twenty he joined Byron. He had an imaginative mind and an aptitude for literature. And of course there was Mary Shelley. Her account of the genesis of Frankenstein appeared in her 1831 Introduction to the novel.  

In the summer of 1816, we visited Switzerland, and became the neighbours of Lord Byron.... 

         But it proved a wet, ungenial summer, and incessant rain often confined us for days to the house. Some volumes of ghost stories, translated from the German into French, fell into our hands.... 

        "We will each write a ghost story," said Lord Byron; and his proposition was acceded to. There were four of us. The noble author [Lord Byron] began a tale, a fragment of which he printed at the end of his poem of Mazeppa. Shelley, more apt to embody ideas and sentiments in the radiance of brilliant imagery, commenced one founded on the experiences of his early life. Poor Polidori [Byron's young physician] had some terrible idea about a skull-headed lad.... The illustrious poets also, annoyed by the platitude of prose, speedily relinquished the uncongenial task.

         I busied myself to think of a story, —a story to rival those which had excited us to this task. One which would speak to the mysterious fears of our nature, and awaken thrilling horror—one to make the reader dread to look round, to curdle the blood, and quicken the beatings of the heart. If I did not accomplish these things, my ghost story would be unworthy of its name. I thought and pondered—vainly. I felt that blank incapability of invention which is the greatest misery of authorship, when dull Nothing replies to our anxious invocations. Have you thought of a story? I was asked each morning, and each morning I was forced to reply with a mortifying negative....    

         Many and long were the conversations between Lord Byron and Shelley, to which I was a devout but nearly silent listener. During one of these, various philosophical doctrines were discussed, and among others the nature of the principle of life [the Vitalist controversy; below], and whether there was any probability of its ever being discovered and communicated. They talked of the experiments of Dr. Darwin...who preserved a piece of vermicelli in a glass case, till by some extraordinary means it began to move with voluntary motion. Not thus, after all, would life be given. Perhaps a corpse would be re-animated; galvanism had given token of such things: perhaps the component parts of a creature might be manufactured, brought together, and endued with vital warmth.

         Night waned upon this talk, and even the witching hour had gone by, before we retired to rest. When I placed my head on my pillow, I did not sleep, nor could I be said to think. My imagination, unbidden, possessed and guided me, gifting the successive images that arose in my mind with a vividness far beyond the usual bounds of reverie. I saw—with shut eyes, but acute mental vision, —I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half vital motion. Frightful must it be; for supremely frightful would be the effect of any human endeavour to mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world. His success would terrify the artist; he would rush away from his odious handywork, horror-stricken. He would hope that, left to itself, the slight spark of life which he had communicated would fade; that this thing, which had received such imperfect animation, would subside into dead matter; and he might sleep in the belief that the silence of the grave would quench for ever the transient existence of the hideous corpse which he had looked upon as the cradle of life. He sleeps; but he is awakened; he opens his eyes; behold the horrid thing stands at his bedside, opening his curtains, and looking on him with yellow, watery, but speculative eyes.

         I opened mine in terror. The idea so possessed my mind, that a thrill of fear ran through me, and I wished to exchange the ghastly image of my fancy for the realities around. I see them still; the very room, the dark parquet, the closed shutters, with the moonlight struggling through, and the sense I had that the glassy lake and white high Alps were beyond. I could not so easily get rid of my hideous phantom; still it haunted me. I must try to think of something else. I recurred to my ghost story, my tiresome unlucky ghost story! O! if I could only contrive one which would frighten my reader as I myself had been frightened that night!

         Swift as light and as cheering was the idea that broke in upon me. "I have found it! What terrified me will terrify others; and I need only describe the spectre which had haunted my midnight pillow." On the morrow I announced that I had thought of a story. I began that day with the words, It was on a dreary night of November, making only a transcript of the grim terrors of my waking dream.

        At first I thought but of a few pages of a short tale; but Shelley urged me to develope the idea at greater length. I certainly did not owe the suggestion of one incident, nor scarcely of one train of feeling, to my husband, and yet but for his incitement, it would never have taken the form in which it was presented. From this declaration I must except the preface. As far as I can recollect, it was entirely written by him.

        And now, once again, I bid my hideous progeny go forth and prosper. I have an affection for it, for it was the offspring of happy days, when death and grief were but words, which found no true echo in my heart. Its several pages speak of many a walk, many a drive, and many a conversation, when I was not alone; and my companion was one who, in this world, I shall never see more. But this is for myself; my readers have nothing to do with these associations.

         I will add but one word as to the alterations I have made. They are principally those of style. I have changed no portion of the story, nor introduced any new ideas or circumstances. I have mended the language where it was so bald as to interfere with the interest of the narrative; and these changes occur almost exclusively in the beginning of the first volume. Throughout they are entirely confined to such parts as are mere adjuncts to the story, leaving the core and substance of it untouched.

           M.W.S. London, 

           October 15, 1831.

The monster is a post-Revolutionary, the moral product of the American and French Revolutions, after Wollstonecraft’s two Vindications in which the word "Rights" figures imperatively, he has expectations and, he believes, the right to be as happy as others he sees about him, including his creator. Autonomous if alienated, untouched then by the deforming, inhibiting aspects of education, secular or clerical, he is also uncontaminated by the dogma of Original Sin. He is born good, given to candor, admiration, and love, and requires only kindness, learning, and acceptance as an equal to be an exemplary man. 

But another revolution, that in science, has contributed to the monster's genesis. He is the biological result of revolutions in chemistry, anatomy, biology, geology, and astronomy that have been taking place over the four decades prior to that rainy night at the Villa Diodati. At least two of the participants, Shelley and Polidori, were well-informed about this matter. These revolutions also impact the novel's success by encouraging Mary Shelley's er readers in 1818 no less in 1831 to conjure up the credible possibility of a scientist artificially creating life. The "horror," the "terror," words Mary repeats over and over, describe the scientist's venture into a realm, the creation of life, hitherto reserved only for God. Frankenstein rivals if he does not displace God. Horror and terror describe not only Frankenstein's forays among the cemetery, not only the monster's genesis and huge, repulsive presence, but finally Frankenstein's trespassing on terrain reserved entirely for divinity. The only precedent in man's attempt to arrogate God's power, the Tower of Babel, is puny by comparison.  

The annotations discuss particular scienftific developments in the context of the novel, yet one, the Vitalist controversy, deserves mention now because of its overarching impact on Frankenstein. Vitalism involves the belief that the origin and persistence of individual life depend on an invisible, immaterial force or entity within the organism. In humans this is the soul, the divine seed in mankind. Implicit in Vitalism is an omnipotent God who ordains and confers life. Vitalism was practically inextricable from belief in God. The anti-Vitalists were generally materialists. They argued that all phenomena, including life, can be explained by strictly material processes and required no deity to create and sustain, though it was quite possible to be a materialist and a believer in God. Yet the anti-Vitalists left an opening for atheism or for what the scientist T. H. Huxley a half-century later coined agnosticism.

Toward the end of the 18th c. discoveries connected with electricity foregrounded the Vitalist controversy. The negative and positive terminals of the debate were located in the respective laboratories of two rival professors at the University of Padua. Luigi Galvani (galvanism) and Alessandro Volta (volt). one principally an anatomist, the other a chemist. Galvani in 1786 was dissecting a frog clamped to a table by metal pins. When his scalpel touched the sciatic nerve, the frog's legs kicked about. Unknowingly, Galvani had discovered bioelectricity but instead he believed that he had released the Vitalist energy in the dead frog, thereby proving an immaterial principle of life. He called this "animal electricity" or "animal electric fluid"; the language became assimilated with other terms frequent in English of that time, such as "animal spirits" and "animal magnetism." 

Alessandro Volta had also been working with chemistry and electricity and had developed a machine that generated a small but sustained electric current. His experience led him to reason that static electricity, conducted by the scalpel, was the external agent that moved the frog's legs. There was no inherent, immaterial principle or essence of life. Volta's battery or pile, which produced electricity through the chemical interaction of its silver and copper, indicated to him that it was electricity originating outside of the frog's body that caused the legs to move. Galvani had in fact made an important discovery: the body has a network of internal electrical impulses that pass along the nerves and cause the muscles to move. Electricity, not the soul, was a key to life. 

Soul was at the center of the controversy, and inevitably it was also the soul of Christian belief that was at stake. Electricity preceded evolution as a threat to orthodoxy, and science, as threatening as Catholicism or Non-Conformism, could be viewed as the Anti-Christ. The English mob, always ready in the 18th century for a riot and easily manipulated to attack Jews, Catholics, Dissenters (Search), and atheists was happy to equate scientific progress with treason to church and state. In 1791 they attacked the Birmingham home of Joseph Priestley, credited with the discovery of oxygen, and burned his house, library, and laboratory. Priestley was a founding member of Unitarianism and had sought to show that belief in God and scientific materialism were compatible. Incidentally, his counterpart in Paris, also credited with the discovery of oxygen,  Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier, was guillotined in 1794 because he was an aristocrat. 

London by the first years of the 19th century had become far less dangerous and now the arena for scientific lectures and extraordinary demonstrations of the subject. Giovanni Aldini (he was a nephew of Galvani and a physician and professor of physics) in 1802 offered to revive by means of electricity, galvanism, a just-hanged murderer. The body spasmed convincingly but, once the conductors were removed, remained incontestably dead. The most charismatic lectures of the time were those of the young chemist Humphry Davy, the discoverer of, among much else, electro-chemical analysis. His demonstrations stunned his audiences. In 1806 he made the subject of his first Bakerian lecture (a distinguished lecture series) the chemical nature of electricity. He used a battery, itself a marvel, to dramatize his points. The second Bakerian lecture, 1807, again dwelt on the use of a battery, though now to produce potassium and sodium, the one exploding in a purplish-blue flame, and the other, when submerged in water, illuminating the hall with a blinding flash of orange light. Robert Lawrence, a young, iconoclastic medical doctor and professor of anatomy, in his lecture series sought to expose the sham of Vitalism. William Godwin took Mary to at least one of Lawrence's lectures, and Percy consulted with Lawrence about a number of ailments and nervous behaviors afflicting him.

Lawrence's lectures contained an irreverent attack upon his immediate medical superior, John Abernethy, who had just completed his own lecture series. He had argued the familiar Vitalist position that there was an immaterial that activated everything organic and suggested that electricity was the vehicle and proof. Lawrence flatly and impudently contradicted Abernethy pieties. He espoused an inflexibly materialist position that ridiculed those who believed in Vitalism, broadening his attack to include all pretenders to science who allowed theological cant, mysticism, and obscurantism to pollute their work.  The soul was for Lawrence nothing but a placeholder, a quaint anachronism allowed a feeble persistence awaiting the inevitable empirical proof that would finally extinguish it. 

Mary was fortunate in her husband's knowledge of current biology and chemistry. He eagerly tutored her and exposed her to the work of men such as Erasmus Darwin, Charles's grandfather, who had died in 1802. He had been one of his age’s most illustrious and versatile men, a sort of English Leonardo—physician to the king, a biologist, botanist, cosmologist, inventor, and poet. He speculated about evolutionary biology and about the origins of the universe, his theories appearing in poetry such as The Loves of the Plants (1789); The Botanic Garden, Part I, The Economy of Vegetation (1791);  Zoonomia, or, The Laws of Organic Life (1794-96), work that also influenced Wordsworth and Coleridge. 

There was, too, yet another revolution, this in astronomy. While it does not bear directly on Frankenstein, it lent further conviction to the view of the new science as offering a nearly unimaginable potential for knowledge, experiment, and speculation. The notionally impossible was becoming imaginatively possible. No one better illustrated this than the German émigré William Herschel. Alone, and then with his sister Caroline, he engineered and constructed innovative reflector telescopes, polishing the large mirrors himself. They enabled him to discover a new planet, Uranus, thousands of nebulae, and infrared light. Based on his study of nebulae, Herschel's observations combined with a daring theoretical mind led him to propound a theory of the origin of the universe independent of God or at least the God of Genesis. Hershel argued that Biblical chronology was but a temporal mote. The earth was not created in six days; it was not some 5500 years old. He recalculated the age of the universe—his hypothesis dwarfed anything formerly conjectured—and he in turn exponentially extended the age of the earth. His work, reinforced by that in the nascent geology of the time, would contribute to Charles Darwin's theory of evolution, which required eons. Herschel showed that the distances of deep space were mind-boggling and proposed his own evolutionary theory of the origin, present state, and death of our galaxy, the Milky Way. The notoriety of his work and the technological accomplishment of his telescopes led Lord Byron in 1811 to visit his home at Slough and see for himself the night sky: "I viewed the Moon and Stars through Hershel's telescope, and saw that they were worlds.

There were opponents to scientific materialism, among the most hostile being William Blake. His contempt for Bacon, Locke, and Newton, the materialist-mechanico-empiricists, was implacable. But Blake was in this an anomaly among the Romantics. Percy and Mary Shelley as well as Keats, who had been a medical student, were following in the footsteps of Wordsworth and Coleridge. They and the poet Robert Southey hiked with Humphry Davy, and Wordsworth was well-schooled in mathematics and in Newtonian optics and physics. Coleridge's brilliant and voracious mind seized upon the new science, which informed his imagery.and provoked his philosophical speculations. Both he and Wordsworth were also avid readers of the abundant literature of travel and exploration of their day, which, whether the narratives of Sir Joseph Banks in Tahiti or of Bartram in Florida or of Mungo Park in Africa, afforded further arresting examples of the improbable and implausible made real. Frankenstein and his electrified monster might just be credible. The “horror” Mary sought to instill originated not in the bizarreness of Frankenstein's unholy pursuits and his terrifying creation but finally in their plausibility.

Electricity provides us with an image for the young Mary Shelley herself. She acts as a lightning rod that conducts the disparate charged elements of her culture into her work. Among such conductors Mary Shelley remains unusual in that, possibly owing to her youthful impressionability, she renders the lightning strike without resistance, interference, or distortion. She records rather than filters. Her novel's origins in a trance-like waking dream, a vision, suggest a process outside the realm of conscious thought, one in which the imagination is autonomous and relatively undisturbed by the conscious mind. 

Ideas course through Frankenstein, more perhaps in the manner of asteroids than orderly solar systems. The novel can be confusing, obscure, and clumsy in places yet never dull. The many ideas don't consolidate themselves into a nucleus but appear more as a diffuse intellectual cloud. This is not a liability but a fertile if nearly exhaustible prospect of possible readings. The best criticism of the novel has recognized that it means many different and sometimes even contradictory things. The most compelling readings acknowledge its ultimate indeterminacy. The variety of theatrical and cinematic versions have taken advantage of this openness.  

Shelley keeps Frankenstein poised between being on the one hand a benefactor and on the other a monomaniac; she allows us to believe that the monster is both an innocent victim and a cunning perpetrator. He is at moments sweet, at others capable of sadistic plotting, a murderer and would-be parricide. Mary Shelley's method is allusive, associative, and oblique, and the result is that references to, for instance, Prometheus, Lucifer, and Adam have a way of crowding the foreground, so that no one myth dominates the novel but a plethora, with one or another moving in and out of focus as we read. We pass from the Prometheus myth to the expulsion from the Garden and the chief consequence of that—all living things will die, God ordains—to Frankenstein's determination to benefit humanity and reverse one consequence of the Fall, death, by the artificial resurrection of life from dead matter. 

Mary's dedication of the novel to her father connects Prometheus and Genesis as retold by Milton. Godwin’s most celebrated work, Political Justice, centered on the matter of reasoned benevolence in contrast with the punitive, oppressive nature of England's politics and religion. Her dedication is an acknowledgement of a daughter’s gratitude to her father, and aptly follows a quotation from Paradise Lost addressed to God the Father. Fathers figure prominently in the stories of Prometheus and Genesis. But with fatherhood comes responsibility. The novel insists that every creator has elemental obligations to his creation. Instead the fathers, she anticipates Freud, are jealous and frightened of their progeny or neglectful.  

Frankenstein is a disastrous family drama. There are four other fathers and their children (perhaps a result of Mary’s loss, mothers are invisible). You would suppose the children would be safe, but the males suffer a pervasive aloneness. Many lose or are denied or deny companionship. None of course is more alone than the monster, who is biologically and physically one-of-a-kind yet otherwise the essence of the human condition. He is the incarnation of what it means to be alienated, the word here having the force of both the adjective and the transitive verb. Blake was thought by some to be insane; young Thomas Chatterton, his poetry ignored, poisoned himself in his garret. Byron and Shelley (known as "Mad" Shelley as a boy at Eton) felt their differences keenly enough to become exiles. Romanticism and alienation seem sometimes synonymous, and, before the monster, perhaps the most isolated of Romantic creations is Coleridge's Ancient Mariner. It is thus no coincidence that that poem figures in the novel.  

The monster's origins and body and early experience render him unique. He is the quinetessence of the "individual." As such he tests what has been a principle of Romantic politics and literature, the value of the individual. What have the American and French Revolutions been about if not the measure and elevation of the (white and preferably Anglo-Saxonn) individual, whatever his or her appearance, beliefs, station, and condition to equality with the most favored? What makes the monster a monster is also what makes him most human. He is, however, the dark side of individualism—so individual as to be perceived as other. Embedded in the American and French Revolutions was Rousseau’s conviction that each of us is different and ideally must be recognized and revered as such. The Confessions practically begins with this hymn to the self:

 I have studied mankind and know my heart; I am not made like any one I have been acquainted with, perhaps like no one in existence; if not better, I at least claim originality, and whether Nature has acted rightly or wrongly in destroying the mold in which she cast me, can only be decided after I have been read. (transl. W. Conyngham Mallory)

Uniqueness cuts both ways. The monster suffers an existential isolation unimagined before Mary Shelley describes it, and yet from the moment she does isolation, loneliness, and their corollary, alienation, become so familiar as to be inseparable from modern life. She gives us the vehicle to recognize our own features.

Media

return to text