Where Some Ideas Are Stranger Than Others...
A HIT, A PALPABLE HIT
Any attempt to write about Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley's first novel Frankenstein; or the Modern Prometheus (Frankenstein for short), guarantees a better than usual research rabbit hole to fall down. This rabbit hole has everything. A whole argument about whether the 1818 version of the novel should be favoured over Wollstonecraft Shelley's final 1831 edition that she did not rework again, and which of them is more radical. Wildly variant interpretations of what is a remarkably structured frame story with numerous inturning references. Flame wars on the question of whether the novel is gothic or science fiction, even long series of blog posts ostensibly about the novel but it seems about every man and what he wrote that Wollstonecraft Shelley knew instead. That is just the online part of the rabbit hole, leaving aside the dramatic tie-ins that savvy promoters brought to the stage as soon as the book was out and beginning to make a splash. Wollstonecraft Shelley herself has been the subject of numerous biographies, some of them even actually about her. I say this as a fact, not a swipe at the biographers. Her social surroundings are unusually interesting and well-documented, with plenty of real-life scandals. Biographers can understandably get lost in all that. Despite the habit of some instructors to denounce the novel as something of a pot-boiler, for sheer staying power and ability to sustain interest and serious engagement, there is no question that Frankenstein was and is a hit. So much so that it has helped ensure the enduring fame of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley. And Wollstonecraft Shelley knew it, knew it well enough to do some tongue-in-cheek storytelling at the start of her own revised edition, adding another layer of fiction, as scholar and biographer Charlotte Gordon observes.
1920-era german 50 pfennig notes from frankenstein, now Ząbkowice Śląskie in poland. Image courtesy of wikimedia commons
and understood to be out of copyright based on section 5
of the german Gesetz über Urheberrecht und verwandte Schutzrechte, april 2022.
Returning to Frankenstein after a long absence, I discovered somewhat to my surprise that it is not so easy to go into a bookstore and buy a paper copy of the 1831 edition today. The 1818 edition rules over just about all, often with an apparatus including at minimum a historical introduction, brief time line of Wollstonecraft Shelley's life, and perhaps some directions on "how to read it," even in a mid-range priced penguin edition. The very cheapest tend to stick to lurid covers and reproducing the text – the 1818 text. Never fear, since the text is out of copyright it is usually possible to turn to at minimum project gutenberg, where both editions are available. There are many others, including nowadays many online and offline annotated editions. To see an online edition annotated by Wollstonecraft Shelley herself, there is the morgan library and museum's scanned and transcribed project. One of the most recent annotated editions was co-published as an online and hard copy edition, Frankenstein: Annotated for Scientists, Engineers, and Creators of All Kinds as part of the gamut of projects completed for the bicentennial of the novel. Despite the visually gorgeous presentation and the series of essays intended to shoehorn Frankenstein into a sort of ethical and atheist bible for scientists, it strikes me as laboured and flat. The annotations come across as attempts to instruct a student who is incapable of drawing connections to ethics or scientific practice without being laboriously led by the nose to crass examples from the careers of recent famous male scientists. I also must agree with Jill Lepore that it "...is a way to make use of the novel, but it involves stripping out nearly all the sex and birth, everything female..."
As I read over reviews and reflections on Frankenstein both online and off to see if really there was any sense in writing yet another essay about it after all, more surprises were in store. For example, Lepore's exploration of the ways in which Wollstonecraft Shelley integrated reflections on slavery, its abolition, and the recent Haitian revolution. Or the puzzled excerpt of Francine Prose's introduction to the restless books edition of Frankenstein, which wonders why this actually very complex book is taught so often. I can vouch for it being on the syllabus in both high school and university, although it is probably taught more often in university. Arguably Prose answers the question as she goes on to talk about the intensity of the emotions depicted, and the power of the questions Wollstonecraft Shelley raises in the book that can't be answered once and for all. Her discussion of the novel's notorious and clever plot hole is brilliant. At least within the confines of this excerpt, I don't think that Prose does explain why Frankenstein is taught so often, although certainly she gives many contributing reasons. In any case, I mention these essays in particular because they are unique in their approaches to the novel, and available online, therefore especially easy to access for anyone reading this one. Otherwise most writers seem set on returning to the same few themes, although they have finally let go of the ridiculous "did she actually write it?" one. Instead most essays fixate on the origins of the novel, which allows the essayists to write more about Wollstonecraft Shelley's father, her husband, and retellings of the presumed sexual bedlam she lived in. The odd nod to the evidence that plenty of the "scandal" was exaggerated by those using the stories to sell periodicals can be hard to catch.
Unfortunately some of the most frustrating material to read derives from many of the people who want very badly to take Frankenstein as the first or at least a first science fiction novel. This was certainly not what Brian Aldiss had in mind when he originally suggested the idea. Alas that literary genres are at least ninety percent marketing, and therefore have no static definitions, as blogger Sean O'Hara commented in may of 2018. To illustrate the point briefly here, my desk copy of the OED informs me that science fiction is "fiction based on imagined future scientific or technological advances and major social or environmental change, frequently portraying space or time travel and life on other planets." I think we can all agree that this definition does not fit Frankenstein very well. There are other options though. Seo-Young Chu proposes a more nuanced definition intended to allow for recognition of science fiction avant la lettre, so to speak. She argues, as I explored in detail in an earlier essay, that all writing is "science fictional" in the sense that no art can simply represent anything or idea as it is. In defining science fiction she says, "...I conceptualize science fiction as a mimetic discourse whose objects of representation are nonimaginary yet cognitively estranging." So in her view, we write science fiction when we strive to describe something that we don't fully understand. This is a wonderful description to think with, because it helps us leave off the distracting and pointless arguments about whether the story we are looking at is "techy" or "sciency" enough. It doesn't matter whether the macguffin is defined well enough for us to say, "There! A spaceship!" or "Look, it's galvinism!" so long as it is developed well enough for the story the author is telling us.
The other endlessly worked angle is the heavily psychological reading. For one that is relatively subtle and part of a widely recognized literary theory classic, Gilbert and Gubar's discussion in The Madwoman in the Attic is hard to beat. They consider how the creature and Frankenstein himself embody different elements of the main characters in Milton's Paradise Lost and the ancient greek stories of Prometheus. The power of Milton's poetic imagery is such that Gilbert and Gubar spend very little time considering the Prometheus stories. This is to be expected, as this discussion is part of a much longer book that deals with women's writing through the whole nineteenth century in english. They couldn't cover everything. Wollstonecraft Shelley undertook a remarkable program of reading and study, and the evidence is clear that she was in many ways raised by books. She understood this about herself, thinking through what such an upbringing could mean for a person not only without parents but without any kind, direct human contact during their formative years. This is an embarrassment of riches for anyone undertaking a psychological reading, and in closing the introduction to theirs, Gilbert and Gubar provide this overview:
To be sure, this investigation of [her own] literary genealogy was done in a larger context. In these same years, Mary Shelley recorded innumerable readings of contemporary gothic novels, as well as a program of study in English, French, and German literature that would do credit to a modern graduate student. But especially, in 1815, 1816, and 1817, she read the works of Milton: Paradise Lost (twice), Paradise Regained, Comus, Areopagetica, Lycidas. And what makes the extent of this reading particularly impressive is the fact that in these years, her seventeenth to her twenty-first, Mary Shelley was almost continuously pregnant, "confined," or nursing. At the same time, it is precisely the coincidence of all these disparate activities – her family studies, her initiation into adult sexuality, and her literary self-education – that makes her vision of Paradise Lost so significant. For her developing sense of herself as a literary creature and/or creator seems to have been inseparable from her emerging self-definition as daughter, mistress, wife, and mother. Thus she cast her birth myth – her myth of origins – in precisely those cosmogenic terms to to which her parents, her husband, and indeed her whole literary culture continually alluded: the terms of Paradise Lost, which (as she indicates even on the title page of her novel), she saw as preceding, paralleling, and commenting upon the Greek cosmogeny of the Prometheus play her husband had just translated. It is as a female fantasy of sex and reading, then, a gothic psychodrama reflecting Mary Shelley's own sense of what we might call bibiogenesis, that Frankenstein is a version of the misogynistic story implicit in Paradise Lost.
Whatever our response may be to Gilbert and Gubar's reading or psychological interpretations in general, they do not often avoid much let alone "everything female." The results are certainly not flat. In any case, this quoted passage adds some detail specifically relevant to this essay, the evidence that Wollstonecraft Shelley was quite deliberately and consciously studying in order to be a professional writer. She was well aware that when push came to shove, she would be responsible for herself and likely any children she might bear. The information was recorded in her mother's books, and observation of her future husband's behaviour and that of his friends gave Wollstonecraft Shelley further warning. Her novel was no mere product of a waking nightmare, and she had challenging reflections to make sense of and somehow try to describe.
With this in mind, we can ask a very different sort of question about Frankenstein than usual. We can ask, what subject was Wollstonecraft Shelley striving to describe and discuss that she was trying to make sense of, and anticipated that many of her readers would not readily understand either? Her novel's title teases us, because as we read the novel even though we are encouraged to understand Victor Frankenstein as the "Modern Prometheus," somehow, the description doesn't fit. Prometheus is the greek mythical figure generally best known for stealing fire to give to humans out of selfless pity for human misery, and his subsequent terrible suffering. The general shape of the ancient story is there. Victor Frankenstein learns forbidden knowledge, how a man may "give life" without engaging in sexual reproduction. This is a power that in christian mythology only god, who is still default presumed male in britain and europe during Wollstonecraft Shelley's time, has. Frankenstein suffers terribly for his success. He is "modern" because he is all about self-fulfillment, a major concern of the rebellious set in almost any age, but of particular note in the late eighteenth to early nineteenth century, the age of romanticism with its emphasis on "...subjectivity and the primacy of the individual." Frankenstein is an extremist in his utter selfishness however, which taints even his decision not to share how he achieved this male-only creation. Maybe it is that he doesn't want others to suffer, but maybe it is because he insists on being the only mortal man to have done such a thing. Perhaps this mismatch only exists from a present-day perspective, with incessant propaganda to the effect that all "discoverers" and "inventors" are really heroes – except, the trope of the heroic discoverer or inventor is if not developed, at least solidified in Wollstonecraft Shelley's time.
Rereading Frankenstein after such a long gap, I found myself wondering, because I had first encountered it framed as a "horror story," what was supposed to be horrifying about it. If it is meant to shock and disgust us, whether or not we read it and then nervously leave the light on awhile, before we go to sleep, what is shocking and disgusting about it? My question is not facetious, or dependent upon an at best silly comparison to the clumsy horror films common through much of the later twentieth century with their crude gore. Nor is it dependent on a belief that people in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century were squeamish, because they certainly weren't. This is a time when executions were still public, and so was the slave auction. Wollstonecraft Shelley skillfully implied rather than directly describing Frankenstein's work with cadavers and stitching together his first creation. Of course, the novel was widely praised until Wollstonecraft Shelley's authorship was revealed in an undeniable way, at which it promptly became "shocking" and "disgusting" by proxy because she wrote it, and because of who her mother was. The last point getting a heavy underlining by her father's rigorous assassination of her character after her death, in one the strangest and foulest literary performances perpetrated in english. I do not write that lightly. Her father was not a stupid man, and it is hard to believe he had no understanding at all of the negative impact his book would have on Mary Wollstonecraft's legacy and on the life prospects of her daughter. Perhaps many psychological readings have discussed the striking resonances between Frankenstein's behaviour and its impacts upon the creature quite apart from any actions the creature might take and this aspect of Wollstonecraft Shelley's biography.
Based on my thoroughly unscientific sampling, many writers are more interested in Frankenstein as monstrous mother rather than monstrous father. This is certainly a rich vein of imagery and cultural history to explore. Rosi Braidotti in her contribution to the anthology Between Monsters, Goddesses, and Cyborgs discusses changing male beliefs about how women's experience of imaginings might or might not affect their fetuses during pregnancy. She also reminds us that in Wollstonecraft Shelleys' time, women's bodies were considered and treated by the male medical establishment as monstrous. "Monstrous" and "monster" are derived from the ancient latin verb meaning "to warn," as does the latinate verb "demonstrate." "Demonstrate" is more neutral in connotation though, referring to showing a proof or making a public performance. So it seems then and now, women's bodies in male thought stand as warnings of some type. The applications to Frankenstein are commonplaces in the english classroom: how his distorted vision of creating life produces not a beautiful result but a creature he finds revolting, his association with the destruction of potentially birth-giving women in his family, the way in which his creature is warning against hubris, and so on. I don't know that there is much discussion of Wollstonecraft Shelley's understanding of what an ideal living creation would be for a man such as Frankenstein. He doesn't seek to create a physically immature being, but a fully mature one, at least physically speaking. We can never be quite sure if Frankenstein is put off as much by the creature's appearance, as he insists, or by the sudden realization that while he may not have to change any diapers or feed the creature, the creature will still need some type of care and instruction. A cosseted and spoiled eldest son, Frankenstein expects to be served and to be a perpetual man-child, not take on full adult responsibilities. Regardless of which edition we read, Frankenstein clearly has no need to work for a living, and apparently never gets any awkward questions about how he spends money.
Going back over fragments of my own efforts to engage with the novel the first time, I noticed that what stuck in my mind to begin with was the vexed issue of names. Probably this started with the instructor making sure everyone in class understood that the creature had no name. Looking at the detail now, it gives me pause because it is so odd. In the novel, at no moment whatsoever does Frankenstein ever state that he had any name whatever in mind for the creature. He calls the creature lots of things, mostly uncomplimentary, rarely neutral, never positive. Naming is a basic and well-recognized prerogative of parents. Wollstonecraft Shelley demonstrates clear concerns about names, not least how she was given her mother's name, and how we can ponder the unanswerable question of whether that made her feel somehow nameless because she had no name unique to herself. But of course, women and girls tend to have name troubles, because in patriarchal cultures they may be deliberately denied names all together, or at least to be willing to surrender what names they have whenever a male authority demands it. It is a marker of Frankenstein's failure as both a parent and a creator that he apparently had not only no actual names in mind for the creature, but not even an intention or providing one. Still, this is not satisfactory, because it seems ham-fisted. It's not wrong, but hardly seems enough to explain the staying power and uncanniness of the story. It is worth going directly to the text to reread how Frankenstein first conceptualized what he was doing.
As the minuteness of the parts formed a great hindrance to my speed, I resolved, contrary to my first intention, to make the being of a gigantic stature, that is to say, about eight feet in height, and proportionately large....
No one can conceive of the variety of feelings which bore me onwards, like a hurricane, in the first enthusiasm of success. Life and death appeared to me ideal bounds, which I should first break through, and pour a torrent of light into our dark world. A new species would bless me as its creator and source; many happy and excellent natures would owe there being to me. No father could claim the gratitude of his child so completely as I  should deserve theirs. Pursuing these reflections, I thought that if I could bestow animation upon lifeless matter, I might in process of time (although I now found it impossible) renew life where death had apparently devoted the body to corruption.
What Frankenstein wants is not a creature or other creation, but power. Specifically, he wants power over another being, power over of such a complete sort that he would be at least to them a sort of deity on Earth. He doesn't want a creature like say, a golem, the animated clay figure from Jewish legend, which is not supposed to have a will of its own. Or at least, its will should be easily overruled by the magician who animates it. No, it seems that he does want to create a living being with will, but a will forced to subsume itself to his by his relationship to it. He wants a perfect slave. The echoes of slave narratives in the novel are not just a way for Wollstonecraft Shelley to provide the creature with a clandestine education. The feminized nature of the creature is another common discussion point, in the sense of his helplessness and lack of social options without Frankenstein. The creature says, as reported by Frankenstein who is not a trustworthy narrator but has no reason to try to make the creature sound sympathetic, that he was eager to form friendships and assist the De Laceys, whose lives he watched. But due to his size and ugliness, this was the best he could hope for. The creature is in fact best fitted to work as a drudging servant in the dark, living on cast offs and scraps. It would be easy to make too much of this, because there were definitely men deemed "feminized" and expected to undertake miserable work for their whole lives, from slaves to the ever more impoverished "lower classes."
The issue of power though, that is more promising. After all, Lucifer gets himself in trouble by trying to usurp power from his creator in Milton's poem, and it is not always remembered that a big part of Zeus' anger with Prometheus is that Prometheus challenges his power over humans. So far I haven't found anyone besides Anne McWhir taking note of how the creature parallels the figure of Pandora in Hesiod's version of how Zeus takes vengeance on humans for receiving Prometheus' gifts. Pandora is a creature, constructed of parts contributed by different deities, and given the nature of a female dog. She is literally designed to unleash havoc on the world, with no will of her own. In many ways, Hesiod's version of Pandora is a creepy predecessor to the Stepford Wife. At least within the world of Frankenstein, the creature's havoc is restricted by the combination of him unexpectedly having both self-awareness and a will, as well as his fixation on rendering Frankenstein into a mirror of himself by destroying his ties to society. For his part, Frankenstein is more of an Epimetheus than a Prometheus. Even when he seems to be thinking ahead, he isn't, not really.
Consider Frankenstein's argument for ultimately going back on his promise to the creature to make him not just a companion, but a mate. Frankenstein leaves us to wonder just what sort of instruction he had in biology, because he claims that to do this would enable his creatures to procreate on their own. Supposing we grant him this claim because we are taking part in the universe of the story. He actually has far greater potential issues than this. Could it be that he loses his nerve and tears apart his handiwork, because Frankenstein realizes that he cannot guarantee at all that the new creature will find her counterpart pleasing or want to be his companion? The creature is acutely aware that his size and appearance is what renders him a permanent exile from human society, and there is no reason that a female creature would not come to share that awareness in her own case. Not that Frankenstein was willing to tell the creature the truth on this point, if he was ever aware of it in a conscious way himself. Based on the text we have, it doesn't seem so. The gruesome description Frankenstein gives Walton of how he tears apart the partially completed female creature is creepy enough in itself, and even more so when considered with his lust for power in mind. He is the one with the resources and knowledge to make more creatures, and him alone. Frankenstein doesn't need to tear apart the partial female creature at all. That act is gratuitous. When he does it, he knows that much of the time, and he is not always sure when, the existing creature has been watching him at work. So Frankenstein puts on a very nasty show by which he demonstrates to the existing creature that he has power where it really counts. But the only way he can do it, at least in his mind, is by destruction.
With this in mind, it is far easier to appreciate why in Charlotte Gordon's view, the 1831 edition is the more potent and socially challenging than its 1818 progenitor, completely counter to descriptions of it as "revised for respectability.
By the time she had finished, Mary had written a new Frankenstein that was far more critical of society than the first. The 1831 edition depicts the harm caused by human (male) ambition and the lust for power. The female characters may lack the ability to save themselves or others, but they are entirely innocent. They suffer solely because they are connected to Frankenstein. For those naysayers who believed that Percy Shelley was responsible for the writing of the first version, and for those such as Trelawney and Claire, who accused Mary of being a timid compromiser, the 1831 Frankenstein stands as a supremely original accomplishment, a dystopian variation created entirely by its author, Mary Shelley. Without Shelley by her side, Mary had been forced to become increasingly independent, and, in becoming so, she was now able to write a more complex and powerful book than when she was nineteen years old and her beloved was still alive.
In one of those surreal accidents of reading, while looking into what I thought was an unrelated topic to any of this, what should turn up in the course of reading Carole Pateman on contract theory than her examination of aspects of William Godwin's philosophy. He of course, was Wollstonecraft Shelley's father, better known as a philosophical anarchist, and he spent a part of his own writing making arguments based on an abstract individual. It hardly seems coincidental that Wollstonecraft Shelley centred her first novel on the creation of an artificially created abstract individual with no proper social ties or obligations. She argues that such a being would be a catastrophe, because it is socialization and social integration that supply each person's ethical framework and assists them in learning how to behave responsibly. Indeed, Frankenstein makes such a being, but he is in fact such a being himself. Describing his early life to his interlocutor Walton, Frankenstein notes, "My life had hitherto been remarkably secluded and domestic; and this had given me invincible repugnance to new countenances." Too self-centred to maintain social ties himself, too irresponsible to think carefully through the implications of what he is doing, so much so that he declares late in the novel that "I felt as if I had committed some great crime, the consciousness of which haunted me. I was guiltless, but I had indeed drawn a horrible curse upon my head, as mortal as that of crime."
There are manifold ideas Wollstonecraft Shelley built into her first novel, most of which she could expect her readers to find cognitively estranging. Her unpacking of the possible actual behaviour of actual abstract individuals is among the most esoteric examples today, because Godwin's books are not much read today. She strove to make comprehensible to a male reader the double bind facing children deemed "illegitimate" and their mothers, as well as the plight of women more generally in her time. Deeply familiar with her mother's critique of female education and how it damaged girls and women unless by good luck, she took special care to illustrate the dangers of undisciplined reading. The creature's haphazard reading accidentally provides him with the elements of sensible ethics and encourages him to think well of people and society. But he does not have a strong enough foundation to resist abandoning them when faced with social rejection even after he matures enough to concede that he should not have been so impatient when he revealed himself to the De Laceys. Frankenstein's undisciplined reading is magnified in impact by his predisposition to denying responsibility. Wollstonecraft Shelley suggests that his indulgent upbringing makes him unable to accept and constructively apply correction since he is already selfish and headstrong. Most of all, Wollstonecraft Shelley's "cognitively estranging referent" is how an isolated individual man who understood himself as having no social ties he truly needed to respect to his own family let alone strangers, would respond to having something akin to absolute power over another being.
- Gordon, Charlotte. Romantic Outlaws: The Extraordinary Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley. London: Hutchinson, 2015, 242-243
- Project gutenberg 1818 edition, 1831 edition. For a quick summary of the major differences between them, see Edward James' Frankenstein 1818 and 1831.
- Lepore, Jill. The New Yorker: The Strange and Twisted Life of "Frankenstein," 5 february 2018.
- Prose, Francine. The New Republic: How Frankenstein's Monster Became Human, 16 june 2016. If this author uses a pen name, this is one of the best ever.
- The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction: Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley.
- Yes, We Have No Culottes: The History of Frankenstein Part XIII - What the Hell is a Genre, Anyway? 3 may 2018.
- Stevenson, Angus and Lindberg, Christine A. (Editors) New Oxford American Dictionary, third edition, 2010: science-fiction.
- See The Age of Mimesis.
- Chu, Seo-Young 2010 Do Metaphors Dream of Literal Sleep? A Science-Fictional Theory of Representation. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 3.
- StoryGrid: What is a Macguffin?, Larry Pass, june 2019.
- Gilbert, Sandra M. and Gubar, Susan. The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination, second edition. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1984: 221-247.
- Ibid, 223-224
- Theoi Greek Mythology: Prometheus.
- Stevenson, Angus and Lindberg, Christine A. (Editors) New Oxford American Dictionary, third edition, 2010: romanticism.
- Braidotti, Rosi. "Signs of Wonder and Traces of Doubt: On Teratology and Embodied Differences," 135-152 in Between Monsters, Goddesses and Cyborgs: Feminist Confrontations With Technology, edited by Nina Lykke and Rosi Braidotti. London: Zed Books, 1996.
- Wollstonecraft Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein: The Original 1818 Text. 3rd Edition edited by D.L. Macdonald and Kathleen Scherf. Peterborough: Broadview Editions, 2012. Pages 80, 80-81.
- See Helene Wecker's The Golem and the Djinni (Haper: London, 2013) for something of a crash course in the Jewish golem tradition.
- McWhir, Anne. "'Unconceiving Marble': Anatomy and Animation in Frankenstein and The Last Man," 159-175 in Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley: Writing Lives, edited by Helen M. Buss, D.C. Macdonald, and Anne McWhir. Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2001.
- See lines 560-612 in Hesiod's poem The Theogony. For this segment in english with the option to switch to the greek, see the perseus project.
- Gordon 2015, 504.
- Pateman, Carole. The Problem of Political Obligation. New York: John Wiley and Sons, Inc., 1979.
- Wollstonecraft Shelley 2012, 73.
- Wollstonecraft Shelley 2012, 171.