Mary Shelley: Frankenstein

Frankenstein, Mary Shelley's tale of "the modern Prometheus", has now become a modern myth known in outline to many who have not read the novel itself through the proliferation of Hollywood interpretations, although with the curious twist that most people usually now think of the title as referring to the creature himself rather than his creator. This is just one of numerous dubious changes to the novel that have been encouraged by film versions of the novel (think of bolts in the creature's neck) and contemporary stage versions (these removed the creature's capacity for speech). Published in 1818, it is written in an epistolary form, through the letters of a young explorer: Walton. During an ill-fated trip to the Arctic, he comes into contact with the Swiss scientist Frankenstein, who relates his history to Walton in order to warn him of the dangers of his ambitious project. Whilst studying natural philosophy at the university of Ingolstadt, Frankenstein discovers the secret of imparting life to inanimate matter, and so constructs a body out of dead flesh from graves and imbues it with life. However, once the being is animated by electricity, it is so horrible in appearance that it inspires disgust in its maker and all who come into contact with it. The creature goes into hiding and educates itself by observing the daily life of a family and reading works by Milton, Plutarch and Goethe, but having been rejected by both the family and his creator despite his kindness and affability (notably he is a able to befriend a blind man), his natural goodness sours into resentment. Failing to persuade Frankenstein to create a female companion for him, the creature murders those dearest to the scientist: including his brother, his best friend and his bride. Frankenstein realises his terrible responsibility and pursues his creation to the Arctic in an attempt to destroy it, only to die on the way in Walton's ship. Discovering Frankenstein's death, the creature vows to kill himself and disappears into the night.

Shelley's own account of how the novel was conceived has been well documented. Having listened to many conversations between her husband, Percy Shelley, and Byron, on the nature of life and the possibility of creating it scientifically, her thoughts were excited and she dreamt of the "pale student of unhallowed arts" constructing a living form only to be repulsed and haunted. When her companions suggested that each should write a ghost story, she set to work on expanding this tale into Frankenstein. The techniques and incidents of the novel derive to a great extent from the Gothic, and there is a skilful deployment of terror and suspense throughout the novel. However, the devices are used more sparingly than was usually the case, the novel being set in the 18th century in a relatively normal town environment (although, as in Radcliffe, the setting is largely central European). There is a strong Romantic flavour to the text, and the novel marks a move away from the indulgence in terror for its own sake towards the use of fear to reflect human concerns. It could be argued that the repetitive Gothic devices are the weaker aspect of the novel, while the true interest lies in the interplay of ideas and the complex medley of narrative viewpoints. Certain details of the plot, such as the creature's ability to follow Frankenstein anywhere and his learning of the language through eavesdropping, are somewhat improbable, but the immediate plot provided Shelley with a potent forum for expressing important currents in contemporary scientific and ethical thought. This was far from Lewis's Gothic for its own sake twenty two years beforehand.

There is a central moral issue regarding the responsibility of science. The dramatic scientific progress that occurred in the 18th century had initially been celebrated by those including Shelley's father, William Godwin, as a means of the aspirational middle classes achieving freedom and power. But such advances had in the long term a detrimental effect to many, alienating man from the fulfilment of nature in a new tyranny. Many of the Romantics saw the scientific, industrialised age as reducing man to a machine; for example in Rousseau's influential "Reveries", science is portrayed as an agent of division and dissection. This issue is expressed in the division between Clerval who is portrayed in an unambiguously sympathetic light and identified with the Romantic nature poet, and the more scientifically concerned Frankenstein. Indeed, Clerval is sacrificed to Frankenstein's ambition, a development that can be read as symbolic of the cost of progress. Hence the novel looks back to The Monk's horror at the demonic form that he has himself created, and forward to Henry Wooton's responsibility in encouraging Dorian Gray.

An important secondary theme is the schism between the natural and educated self, a staple of the Gothic and a point much examined by Lewis in The Monk. Frankenstein perceives the roots of his actions to be in childhood:

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