Mary Shelley: Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus
The 1818 text edited with introduction and notes by Marilyn Butler 1993
Oxford World’s Classics 1998
“[A] tale so strange, that I should fear you would not credit it, were there not something in truth which, however wonderful, forces conviction. The story is too connected to be a dream, and I have no motive for falsehood.” — Victor Frankenstein recounting the story so far, Volume III Chapter 6
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was first published on March 11th 1818,* and for two hundred years has never been out of print. Popular culture has led us to picture the Creature as portrayed by Boris Karloff (despite the name, an English actor called William Henry Pratt) in numerous films and parodies; but readers new to the novel might be surprised to first find themselves in the Arctic wastes, as revealed in a series of letters from Robert Walton to his sister Mrs Margaret Saville. He writes from St Petersburgh (sic), then Archangel (Arkhangelsk), and then from somewhere in the polar regions.
As we quickly discover, though, this is merely a framing device; the author then introduces us to Victor Frankenstein marooned on an ice floe. We no sooner get to what appears to be the meat of the story when we realise that Victor’s narrative is also a framing device, with the Creature’s story at the heart of it. And at the heart of the Creature’s story we read about a penniless French family, the De Laceys. Frankenstein is, structurally, nothing less than Russian matryoshka dolls, one nesting inside the other. Once we grasp this we can begin to rid ourselves of the popular modern stereotypes and start to come to grips with Shelley’s original, in its first incarnation as it were.
Walton, whom we soon understand has mounted an expedition to search for a passage into the North Pacific via the North Pole, sees first one being, a gigantic figure, racing across the ice, then another in desperate straits, who is taken on board. When the latter, Victor Frankenstein, eventually recovers he explains to Walton his quest for the Creature, whom he revitalised from (we assume) spare body parts at his laboratory in the Bavarian city of Ingolstadt. Appalled by what he has created he abandons his work, returning to his home city of Geneva, but remains haunted by what he has done.
Von Holst’s frontispiece for the 1831 edition of Frankenstein: Victor is appalled
The eight-foot high Creature, in the meantime, has had to grow up very quickly. Like the personified Israel of Isaiah 53 he “was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised…” His ugly appearance, the result of Frankenstein’s imperfect experimentation, causes fear in his Creator and in anyone who sees him, so he eventually hides in an outhouse belonging to the de Lacey family. By patient observation he learns language, writing, history and politics from their conversations, and morals from their treatment of Safie, a Turkish Christian. Unfortunately when he at last reveals himself to the blind father Felix (“happy”) and Agatha (“good”) attack him and he is again on the run.
The episode with the de Lacey family is at the core of Volume II, in which the Creature recounts all that has happened to him since his birth, his efforts to be good and the trials he has undergone. He has tracked Frankenstein to the Mer de Glace, the glacier at the foot of Mont Blanc, and forces the reluctant Victor to listen to his side of the story, Thereafter, however, it all goes (as the saying has it) really pear-shaped — deaths have already occurred — when the Creature is again rejected by his Creator, in effect a child rejected by the father. Frankenstein is given an ultimatum: make a female, the Eve as it were to the Creature’s Adam, and he will be left alone.
The basic narrative structure of Frankenstein (1818)
Frankenstein may appear overly melodramatic. Victor, in particular, is much given over to sighing and falling into a dead faint, his eyes starting out of their sockets, tears falling readily from those eyes. It’s hard to feel much sympathy for him, and indeed we’re not meant to: he is selfish, prone to self-pity, constantly prevaricates and dissembles to one and all. Victor is in truth an unreliable narrator, and the fact that most of the narrative — his own story and that of the Creature — is told in his own words makes us somewhat suspect his declaration that he has “no motive for falsehood”.
Then there is Robert Walton, who quite clearly hero-worships Frankenstein — in fact some have detected more than a hint of homoeroticism between not only Walton and Victor but also a suggestive love-hate relationship between Victor and the Creature. Because of Walton’s overt admiration of the Swiss scientist we also start to doubt his version of events. Overlay all that with the author’s select choice of incidents, and then our own expectations on top of that, and it’s clearly going to be difficult to credit anything as the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Towards the end Walton recalls Victor’s warning about the Creature’s “powers of eloquence and persuasion”, a perfect summing-up of Mary Shelley’s own beautiful con trick in convincing us of this novel’s possible authenticity.
The novel alternates between optimism and pessimism, light and dark, heat and cold. Victor’s spirits constantly rise up before being dashed down. The Creature oscillates between, on the one hand, a “love of virtue and feelings of happiness and affection” and on the other a “bitter and loathing despair”. Episodes in the Arctic, the Mont Blanc glacier and back to the Arctic alternate with more temperate scenes among meadows and woods. Victor’s brother Ernest is declared not fitted to train to be an advocate or judge, because that’s to “meddle with the dark side of human nature” (Volume I, Chapter V) and yet it’s the younger innocent brother, William, who serves as first victim in the catalogue of deaths, the direct result of Victor meddling with the dark side.
Life and death are of course the main motifs. “To examine the causes of life,” Victor believes, “we must first have recourse to death.” And later, “Life and death appeared to me ideal bounds, which I should first break through, and pour a torrent of light into our dark world.” Unfortunately what he does is the complete opposite; and as the body count rises we are forcibly shown this dark side of Victor’s own nature: his inability to come clean about what he has done, face up to his responsibilities and do the right thing. Reprehensible though the Creature’s deeds are — and they are truly vindictive — we can understand his unfulfilled needs and his drive to right some sort of balance.
Frankenstein appeared just three months after the posthumous publication of Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey. Both deal with Gothick themes, but what a contrast they offer. Austen’s novel, mostly written about twenty years before, plays with the young heroine’s expectations of mansions mingled with murder and mysterious messages, before all are shown to be the result of her fevered expectations. Shelley’s tale, though, runs a frantic race through time and place, the haunted house replaced by laboratories, refuge huts, inns and a wooden ship in pack ice, and punctuated with real murders by a menacing stalker. Austen reaches towards the light; Shelley points us down to the depths.
William Edward Parry’s Hecla in Baffin Bay (1821)
This is a complex narrative, rich in themes and character portraits, full of then current scientific and philosophical ideas, and hinting at contexts wider than may be at first evident. I hope to explore these in further posts during March 2018, giving them a little more consideration than a short review can offer, as well as discussing the merits of this particular edition and the notes of Marilyn Butler.
* According to http://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/frankenstein-published; but most accounts have January 1st 1818: http://shelleygodwinarchive.org/contents/frankenstein/frankenstein-chronology/ has a complete chronology, from which it seems that reviews first started appearing in March 1818, including a favourable one by Sir Walter Scott
In the Ultimate Reading Challenge this book counts as a book with a one-word title