Frankenstein, Mary Shelley (1818)
Review by Adam Roberts
Is there anything new to say about this, one of the most discussed and reinterpreted SF novels ever published? Well, there are the standard points, of course, some of which have become platitudes: that it is the first SF novel; the first great fable of the scientific age, a penetrating story of man’s material-technical overreaching and the danger of unintended consequences; or more specifically that it is a myth about the way Western science’s masculinist bias circumvents the feminine principle with disastrous consequences. There are critics who approach the novel from a biographical point of view, and argue that it embodies Shelley’s ambivalence to the Romantic and radical circles in which she moved, or that it encodes her horror at her miscarried pregnancy. This speaks to the multivalent nature of Shelley’s success, here, although it also points up the dangers of reductionism when trying to get a handle on what makes the book (for all its clumsinesses and awkward moments) so dream-haunting.
It probably is fair to say that most people know this book through its myriad adaptations than its early nineteenth-century prose, at least in the first instance; such that actually reading it, particularly the rather prosy outer frame narrative (an Englishman called Walton is exploring the Arctic, eager to push-back the boundaries of geographical knowledge; and he writes home to his sister with accounts of his voyage), can be rather estranging. The novel starts slowly; and even when Watson encounters Frankenstein, at the point of exhaustive collapse, pursuing a strange figure across the ice, it takes a while for the novel to start generating its distinctive, eerie and suggestive tone and affect. Frankenstein’s own first-person narrative is folded into Walton’s account here; and after his detailed account of his upbringing, his desire to conquer death, his researches and the creation of his monster—not to mention his horror at his own actions, a period of hysterical amnesia—he himself relates the monster’s own life story. This first-person narration nestles, the third, as the smallest Russian-doll inside the nested structure of the novel, is the one most people think of as ‘the story’ of Frankenstein. Indeed, the celerity with which adaptors and filmmakers stripped away Walton’s frame narrative (Branagh’s 1994 movie is an exception, here) suggests that it’s the relationship between the creator and his creation that really ignites the imagination, not the third party explorer and observer, the figure akin to us as readers. The issue here isn’t really one of story-details so much as tone. Filmmakers aim for a heightened intensity, a (melo)dramatic pitch; but Shelley’s own approach reaches its peculiar dark sublimity by going, as it were, down rather than up. Bring to mind any cinematic version you may have seen of the moment where the monster is brought to life: crashing thunder and lightning, dramatic music, the hysterical scientist screaming ‘live, my creation, live!’. Now take a look at how far Shelley herself was prepared to dial-down this crucial moment:
It was on a dreary night of November that I beheld the accomplishment of my toils. With an anxiety that almost amounted to agony, I collected the instruments of life around me, that I might infuse a spark of being into the lifeless thing that lay at my feet. It was already one in the morning; the rain pattered dismally against the panes, and my candle was nearly burnt out, when, by the glimmer of the half-extinguished light, I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open; it breathed hard, and a convulsive motion agitated its limbs.
Not quite anticlimactic, but more cannily downbeat, this. It speaks to something important about the way the novel has been creatively read, of course. Which is to say: Frankenstein the novel does deal with those intensities of the Romantic Sublime (‘sense of wonder’, ‘enchantment’) that get the hairs stirring on the backs of our necks; but it does so by descent, rather than ascent, and via an apprehension of the guilt of creation rather than human technological hubris. If you bear with me, I’ll explain what I mean.
Here’s something I wrote about Frankenstein in a book called 50 Key Figures in Science Fiction (Routledge 2009):
The novel’s core story is probably well-enough known not to need extensive summary. Scientist Victor Frankenstein constructs and animates an eight-foot-tall artificial man, but, obscurely horrified by what he has done, abandons his creation and temporarily loses his memory. The creature (it is never named) comes into the world a mental tabula rasa to be written upon my experience—as it transpires, mostly the experience of others’ hostility towards its hideous appearance. It learns not only to speak but, improbably enough, to read and write by eavesdropping unnoticed on a peasant family. Thereafter it becomes murderous, a consequence not only of others’ hostility but also its reading Milton’s Paradise Lost and identifying with the outcast Satan. Lonely, it seeks out its maker demanding that he create a monstrous bride. Frankenstein agrees and builds a second, female creature, but belatedly alarmed at the implication of his two creations breeding and populating the world with monsters, he tears it to pieces. In revenge the monster kills Frankenstein’s own wife. Frankenstein then pursues his creation to the arctic wastes, where he dies; the novel ends with the creature still alive, but promising to kill itself. Summarised so baldly, this perhaps seems a little clumsily plotted (Shelley was 19 when she wrote it) and the novel itself does sometimes lapse into a rather melodramatic crudeness. But it also possesses remarkable imaginative power, not least in the embodiment, in both heart-wracked scientist and sublime monster, of two enduringly iconic archetypes of the genre.
The opinion that science fiction starts with Mary Shelley’s novel has had several adherents (and several dissenters) but is most closely associated with British SF author and critic Brian Aldiss. For Aldiss, Frankenstein encapsulates ‘the modern theme, touching not only on science but man’s dual nature, whose inherited ape curiosity has brought him both success and misery’ [Aldiss, Billion Year Spree 26]. Aldiss wrote his own oblique fictional treatment of the same story, Frankenstein Unbound (1974), in which a modern man propelled by ‘timeslips’ back to the Romantic era meets not only Mary Shelley, but Frankenstein and his monster too—this latter proving an eloquent commentator upon man’s capacity for dialectically interconnected creation and destruction. As a description of the novel, and an implicit characterisation of sf as a whole, this has persuaded many.
Frankenstein, as every schoolchild knows, is the name of the scientist, not the name of the monster (although transferring the name from creator to creation is now so widely disseminated a solecism as hardly to merit rebuke). The monster has no name (its namelessness, indeed, strikes me as being a function of its motherlessness). What, then, is Frankenstein’s creature? It is a monster. Now, monster is an interesting word. It derives from the Latin, monstrum, which means (I pluck Lewis and Short from my shelf) ‘a divine omen, indicating misfortune, an evil omen, portent’. This word is in turn from moneo: ‘to teach, instruct, tell, inform, point out; to announce, predict, foretell’ (from this we get the French ‘montre’, and the English ‘demonstrate’). Originally a calf (say) born with two heads would be a monster in the sense of being ominous: through it the gods would be trying to tell us something. Though the word now has the connotation of a large and terrifying fantastical beast, the earlier meaning still haunts it. Godzilla, say, is a monster in the contemporary vulgar sense, but also in the sense that he is trying to tell us something (in his case, something about the evils of nuclear testing). Frankenstein’s monster, of course, is often read as a book trying to tell us something about science, or man’s hubris, or about the nature of creation itself. Me, I wonder if the monster’s main function, and the ground of its prodigious success, is that it demonstrates something closer to home: you. Yes, I mean you madam; and you sir. I’ll come back to this in a moment.
What about the creator’s name, ‘Frankenstein’? It’s a common-enough Germanic moniker (the invaluable Wikipedia tells us: ‘Mary Shelley maintained that she derived the name “Frankenstein” from a dream-vision. Despite her public claims of originality, the significance of the name has been a source of speculation. … The name is associated with various places in Germany, such as Castle Frankenstein (Burg Frankenstein) in Hesse or Castle Frankenstein in Frankenstein, Palatinate.’) But I have a fanciful theory about the name; or half-fanciful, and I intend to air it here. The half that’s less fanciful is the first syllable, which seems to me very likely, in its reference to France, to encode a symbolic allusion to the French Revolution. The half that’s more fanciful would link the stone (‘-Stein’ in German) with the French for stone, –pierre, as a sort of sidestep towards Robespierre, architect of the French revolutionary Terror … like Frankenstein, a well-bred, well-educated man impatient with old forms, who wished to conquer the injustices of the world but who ended up creating only a monster of Terror. This may strike you are more tortuously implausible than it does me, not just because I tend to see in this rebus (Frankenstein = French ‘stone’ = French [robes]-pierre) an example of the way the creative subconscious works, but because there are a great many people who share my sense than the novel is in a symbolic sense ‘about’ the French revolution. Chris Baldick’s book, In Frankenstein’s Shadow: Myth, Monstrosity and Nineteenth-Century Writing (Oxford 1987) traces the many appropriations of Shelley’s monster in the culture of the century noting how very often revolution, upheaval or popular dissent was troped precisely as a ‘Frankenstein’s monster’. Like the Revolution, the monster is a creature of power and uncanny novelty, brought into being with the best intentions, but abandoned by its architect and running into bloodsoaked courses of remorseless violence and terror. Which is to say: the monster emblematises Revolution because it focuses terror. Indeed, for an English liberal in the first decades of the 19th-century there were two key Revolutions in recent history: the French and the American. It may not be a coincidence that, after making his European monster, the French-Swiss Frankenstein is persuaded to make a second, on the understanding that the pair will emigrate to America. He changes his mind:
Even if they were to leave Europe and inhabit the deserts of the new world, yet one of the first results of those sympathies for which the daemon thirsted would be children, and a race of devils would be propagated upon the earth who might make the very existence of the species of man a condition precarious and full of terror.
That last word—terror—is crucial for the novel. The word ‘terror’ chimes like a bell through the whole text. Terror, of course, was Robespierre’s touchstone: here, for example, he is in his Discours sur les principes de morale politique (February 1794):
Si le ressort du gouvernement populaire dans la paix est la vertu, le ressort du gouvernement populaire en révolution est à la fois la vertu et la terreur : la vertu, sans laquelle la terreur est funeste ; la terreur, sans laquelle la vertu est impuissante. La terreur n’est autre chose que la justice prompte, sévère, inflexible ; elle est donc une émanation de la vertu ; elle est moins un principe particulier, qu’une conséquence du principe général de la démocratie, appliqué aux plus pressants besoins de la patrie.
[If virtue be the spring of a popular government in times of peace, the spring of that government during a revolution is virtue combined with terror: virtue, without which terror is destructive; terror, without which virtue is impotent. Terror is only justice prompt, severe and inflexible; it is then an emanation of virtue; it is less a distinct principle than a natural consequence of the general principle of democracy, applied to the most pressing wants of the country.]
Terror is an emanation of virtue because it is the purest form of justice; and Frankenstein’s mythic heft and potency derives surely in large part from the sense that there is a cruel, implacable justice behind the monster’s violence. If people had treated him well, and seen past his hideous exterior, he would have repaid their trust. Because they treated him with violence and disgust, those are the human qualities he mirrors back. This comes close to the secret brilliance of the book: it is that our creations will punish us, they will pursue us (as we pursue them, seeking to punish them); and that this will happen because, in a crucial sense, they are us. It is that out of ourselves and against ourselves comes the fiercest and most unrelenting urge to punish, to bring to justice, the most acute terror. I’m reminded of something Hazlitt wrote (this is from his essay ‘On Will Making’ (1821):
It is the wound inflicted upon our self-love, not the stain upon the character of the thoughtless offender, that calls for condign punishment. Crimes, vices may go unchecked or unnoticed; but it is the laughing at our weaknesses, or thwarting our humours, that is never to be forgotten. It is not the errors of others, but our own miscalculations, on which we wreak our lasting vengeance. It is ourselves that we cannot forgive.
I can’t think of a book that is as eloquent in its apprehension of the dark truth embedded in that last sentence as Frankenstein.
What, then, is Frankenstein? It is Revolution (and its bloody aftermath) as myth; it is the excavation of the guilt of Enlightenment creation and action. It is, in short, a descent into Hell. Indeed, I would suggest, we can read the novel as a thoughtfully structured piece of mythic intertextuality about this great theme. I’m thinking of Western culture’s many narratives about infernal descent; in particular, think about Dante’s great divina commedia. Dante’s Hell is a funnel shaped cavern located inside the earth—something Shelley’s own ‘funnel-shaped’ narrative structure apes, with Walton’s frame narrative containing the smaller but deeper account of Frankenstein himself, and that circle of story containing again the smaller yet more profound narrative of the monster. Thinking in these terms perhaps explains some of the odder moments in Shelley’s text; or at least, I’m prepared to be persuaded so. For example: one stumbling block for many readers is Frankenstein’s weird hysterical amnesia—having spent months making his creation, he is so horrified by the result that he stumbles away and forgets all about it until four months later, when the monster’s murders bring it all back to him. A reader who judges by standards of psychological verisimilitude will find this hard to swallow; but if we read with a sense of the mythic provenance—for of course entry to the underworld happens only after the shades of the dead have drunk of the waters of Lethe, or forgetfulness. By the same token, the novel’s final scenes in the frozen polar wasteland (striking and memorable stuff, if something rather gnashingly written by Shelley) are modelled on Dante’s final encounter with Satan at the conclusion of the Inferno: trapped forever not in fire, but embedded in a vast field of ice. The monster’s self-identification with the devil (via Milton) only reinforces this hellish troping. The hell of Enlightenment liberalism is you, or your hideous, monstrous doppelganger, your creation, your child.
Frankenstein is amongst other things a novel about being part of a family, about the generation of life and the toll taken by familial pressures. American critics Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar read Shelley as ‘this orphaned literary heiress’ for whom ‘highly charged connections between femaleness and literariness must have been established early’ particularly ‘in relation to the controversial figure of her dead mother.’ [Gilbert and Gubar, The Madwoman in the Attic (New Haven, Yale University Press 1979), 222] That mother, Mary Wollstonecroft was—of course—the author of that foundational text in Western feminist thought, Vindication of the Rights of Women. Gilbert and Gubar’s big, inspiring, occasionally wayward study of female writers was foundational in a smaller way, of the second wave of postwar academic feminist enquiry. Certainly their feminist reading of the novel, as a female appropriation of previously masculine myths of authorship and creation—a Romantic proto-feminist act of bibliogenesis—proved influential in academe.
Since the 1970s Frankenstein has been the subject of many perceptive feminist readings. Indeed, according to Diane Long Hoeveler this novel ‘has figured more importantly in the development of feminist literary theory than perhaps any other novel, with the possible exception of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre’ [Hoeveler, ‘Frankenstein, feminism and literary theory’, in Esther H. Schor (ed) The Cambridge Companion to Mary Shelley (Cambridge University Press, 2003), 45]. The brilliantly imaginative ways in which the novel deconstructs traditional understandings of ‘masculinity’ and ‘femininity’ (not least in its new myth of the man who gives ‘birth’ to life thereby birthing death and terror too; which is to say, its effective critique of masculinist structures of society, science and literature) speaks both to the great change in conceptions of femaleness that was starting to gain momentum in Shelley’s day, and also to the potential of non-realist modes of art such as science fiction to represent, dramatise and disseminate precisely those changes. Not for nothing does Debra Benita Shaw’s 2000 feminist study describe SF as a whole as The Frankenstein Inheritance.
But having said that, I can’t help feeling that this success has its own limitations. Certainly Shelley’s own career has been overwritten by the impact of Frankenstein: she wrote many other things, but only specialists know anything about them. More to the point, it could be argued that the novel has been almost hijacked by its heritage. What I mean by this is: we tend to read it nowadays as a science fiction novel (which is to say, in ways conditioned by the habits of reading twentieth- and twenty-first-century SF) rather than reading it as it was originally read and reviewed, as a novel of philosophical speculation in the tradition of Voltaire’s Candide (1759), Mary Wollstonecroft’s Mary (1788) or Godwin’s Caleb Williams (1794). To read the book this way would be to concentrate more upon the first section as a meditation on the proper boundaries of human knowledge, and to read the Monster’s first-person narrative as a bold attempt to dramatise the theory-of-mind of John Locke, and to pay less attention to the pitiful/Satanic intensities of the monster’s violence and alienation. But violence and alienation speak more directly to us today, I suppose.