Contents Index

Frankenstein's Ghost Story: The Last Jacobin Novel

Michael Scrivener

Genre, 19:3 (Fall 1986), 299-318

{299} Victor Frankenstein attends the university, practices his scientific lore and creates a monster at Ingolstadt, a place once identified by virulent anti-Jacobins like the Abbé Barruel as the city where the Illuminati originated, the Free Mason conspiracy which caused the French Revolution.1 Scholars have known about this peculiar allusion for some time, but the question remains as what to do with this and other allusions which evoke the revolutionary decade of the 1790s. The novel is dedicated to "William Godwin, Author of Political Justice, Caleb Williams, &c." The works mentioned are the radically intransigent ones of the 1790s, not the later, more Romantic novels like Fleetwood. Walton's letters to his sister are dated "17--," which can be translated as "179-," because the novel's characters cite 90s' texts like Volney's Ruins and Coleridge's Ancient Mariner, but most importantly because the novel represents at numerous points 1790s' Europe, not simply dramatic events like the Reign of Terror (hinted at in the episode of the de Laceys' exile) but the very cultural milieu of the period, its rhetoric, logic, and symbolism.

Victor's father, Alphonse Frankenstein, marries the daughter of his best friend Beaufort, who dies in poverty and despair. Beaufort had "a proud and unbending disposition, and could not bear to live in poverty and oblivion in the same country where he had formerly been distinguished for his rank and magnificence" (F 27). John Thelwall published a novel in 1801 entitled The Daughters of Adoption, using a pseudonym, John Beaufort. Thelwall, like Godwin, was one of the principal English Jacobins who enjoyed a brief moment of fame in the '90s until the political repression and cultural reaction forced him to retreat from active political life.2 Godwin too employed a pseudonym, Edward Baldwin, to publish his juvenile library for the same reason {300} Thelwall did: he had to make his living by writing and his "name" was too notorious for the book-buying public. I draw out the Beaufort allusion to make several points. For Godwin, Thelwall, and their circle the 1790s was traumatic. As intellectuals who lived by their writing, the actual political repression was not perhaps as profoundly disturbing as the cultural reaction which buried them in abuse by at least 1802, if not earlier. That this terrible sense of trauma was communicated to the author of Frankenstein as she was growing up can be taken for granted without resorting to deeply psychological speculation.3 By the time her novel was published, the phrase "novels of the Godwin school" signified not the Jacobin novel of the '90s but a Romantic novel which probed the psychological complexities of a deeply disturbed protagonist, such as Godwin created in Fleetwood (1805) and Mandeville (1817).4 Godwin's daughter would hardly resurrect the '90s merely in order to negate the radicalism of her father who had already distanced himself in print from his most radical views, for which he already had paid dearly. Rather, for Shelley and a new generation of intellectuals, the '90s were a provocative source from which they would articulate through revision their own ideology. At another level, the novel is a tribute and elegy to the defeated radicalism of her parents and their friends.5

The initial impetus for the novel was not political; rather, she wanted to complete a ghost story, prove herself as a writer and, not incidentally, bring in some needed money to the Shelley household. Once she began constructing a Gothic narrative, however, she superimposed on it another "ghost" story, the story of the revolutionary decade. All that Gothic narrative requires is the production and eventual elimination of fear in the reader. There are numerous ways to accomplish this, but usually a narrative has to have a protagonist with whom the reader can sympathize and who is mortally threatened by a villain who is either completely or partially demonic. The completely demonic villain can be defeated only by magic or physical force or some combination of the two. Presumably the novel's Preface (written by Mary's husband)6 refers to this kind of Gothic when it condescendingly alludes to "mere" tales of "supernatural terrors" and "a mere tale of spectres or enchantment" (F 6). A partially demonic villain is appropriate to the kind of "serious" Gothic which the novel announces itself as because such provides the author with a wider range of possibilities in both creating and eliminating terror. For narrative models in constructing her novel she turns not to the popular Gothic but to the narratives of the '90s intellectuals and of the Roman- {301} tics, including her husband. The type of narrative she draws upon has no familiar name but I will call it the story of the errant utilitarian.

Although "utilitarianism" primarily signifies to us the philosophy of Bentham and Mill, "utility" was of course a key concept for the Enlightenment intellectuals and radicals of the '90s and still possessed powerful associations for Shelley's generation. Utility signified what was best for humanity's interests. Quite deservingly the word has been subjected to all kinds of skeptical analysis, but if one situates it in the context where it was most meaningful, as the antithesis to "custom," "prejudice," "egoism," "privilege," "luxury," "superstition," "corruption," and so on, one sees that it was the inevitable concept by which aristocratic, monarchical and church-dominated culture would be opposed. Although the second generation of English intellectuals was critical of the '90s' concept of utility as defined by Godwin, Paine, Thelwall and their circle, the second generation (Hazlitt, Hunt, the Shelleys, Byron, Keats, Peacock, et alia) accepted the philosophical authority of utility in this sense: an intellectual's duty was to write and speak as someone opposing established power and promoting the interests of humanity and not of a sect, party or even nation. Defining what those interests were was more problematic for the second generation than for the earlier, but the younger group accepted utilitarian criteria.7

The narrative of the errant utilitarian was perhaps first composed by Godwin himself in the most famous Jacobin novel, Caleb Williams, when he revised the original ending. The first ending had Caleb in prison slowly going mad, thus maintaining to the end his status as a victim of aristocratic prejudice. The new ending has the long suffering victim become consumed by guilt for having wreaked his revenge on his oppressor Falkland. Although the new ending does not soften the relentless critique of injustice, it signals a new direction for reformist narratives. Wordsworth wrote a number of works in which the focus is on the education of a utilitarian whose mistakes are highlighted. In addition to the most famous of such poems, The Prelude, there are also The Borderers and "Lines left in a Yew near Esthwaite," which portrays an otherwise admirable character of exquisite sensibility who nevertheless sins against utility by being so self-centered. (Coleridge's The Ancient Mariner, cited a number of times in Frankenstein, is in some respects similar because the protagonist's "crime" seems far less serious than the guilt he is made to suffer). Shelley's Alastor portrays another otherwise exemplary character whose single error leads to his death. In a broader {302} perspective, one can see how the problem of utility preoccupied writers like Shelley (whose unregenerate Prometheus is an errant utilitarian) and Keats (who was, if also the least explicitly political of the Romantics, the most intensely troubled by the problem of poetry's -- and the intellectual's -- utility). The story of the errant utilitarian can turn against utility itself and become an apostate testament (to an extent, The Excursion and especially the Biographia Literaria are apostate stories: as soon as humanity's best interests are identified more or less with established power, utility's antithetical and negative purpose is eliminated, so that utility itself as an operative concept has been superseded). However, the Hunt circle of intellectuals revised rather than rejected utility, so that their narratives simultaneously assume utility's antithetical critique of established power and the necessity of qualifying utility. The defensive tone of the errant utilitarian narrative is obvious, and the reasons for the defensiveness are equally obvious (the political repression, the cultural reaction, the failure of the French Revolution to live up to its advocates' highest ideals, and so on). Nevertheless, to mistake the narrative of the errant utilitarian with apostate testaments or anti-Jacobin propaganda is to do extraordinary violence to the political culture in its historical context. In short, "utility" survived the '90s but only in the form of a utility whose demonic deviations from the true interests of humanity were exorcised.

Each of the three principal narratives comprising Frankenstein is a story of an errant utilitarian: Walton, Victor Frankenstein, and the monster. The major turning-points in the plot are governed by a utilitarian logic: Victor's decision to tell his story to Walton, to make a mate for the monster, to destroy the mate (the key episode for the utilitarian theme), and to berate the mutinous sailors shortly before he dies; Walton's decision to turn back from his quest; and the monster's decision to tell his story to Victor Frankenstein and finally to kill himself. If one examines the three main narratives for their rhetorical purpose, one sees Walton's monologue of self-justification, Victor's cautionary tale to a fellow utilitarian pioneer, and the monster's plea for utilitarian justice. In addition to this redundant treatment of utility, the behavior of each narrative's protagonist is carefully explained by reference to the doctrine of Necessity, an Enlightenment version of determinism whereby the particulars of human action can be traced to their "cause." (Again, an effort by the historical imagination is required to perceive in this Necessitarianism not simply a crudely mechanistic psychology, which of {303} course it was, but rather also as the inevitable cultural construct by which liberal intellectuals of that period could contest the hegemony of a free will linked to natural depravity and original sin). So, the novel has three stories of errant utilitarians in which the crucial turning-points of the plot are governed by the logic of utility and in which the characters are written according to the doctrine of Necessity, an indispensable assumption of utilitarianism. There is yet another level of redundancy: the numerous parallels, both structural and thematic, among the three narratives.

This extraordinary repetition of utility at so many levels would seem to indicate the novel's generic identity as a didactic fiction in the tradition of the Jacobin novel of the 1790s. I want to apply to Frankenstein some of the categories developed by Susan Rubin Suleiman in her recent book, Authoritarian Fictions. The Ideological Novel as a Literary Genre. The ideological novel or roman à thèse is defined thus: "a novel written in the realistic mode" (hence excluding fictions like Rasselas or Candide) "which signals itself to the reader as primarily didactic in intent, seeking to demonstrate the validity of a political, philosophical, or religious doctrine" (7. italics in original). Although Frankenstein is in the realistic mode (despite the supernatural elements), and although its degree of redundancy does indeed reduce ambiguity in order to "propose a system of values" (55-56), the novel also equivocates its didacticism as a typical Jacobin novel of the '90s would not. Before illustrating how the novel disguises its generic identity, I want to continue to develop its qualities as a roman à thèse in Suleiman's terms. The key elements of the ideological novel are the following: (1) "the presence of an unambiguous, dualistic system of values"; (2) "the presence (even if it is only implied, not stated) of a rule of action addressed to the reader"; (3) "the presence of a doctrinal intertext" (56). One of the principal ways to develop the ideological narrative is by putting the protagonist through positive and negative courses of "apprenticeship" during which the character learns and unlearns correct and incorrect values (chapter two). Frankenstein meets all the above criteria. The primary dualism is between correct and incorrect utilitarian behavior, but there is another dualism, the one typically assumed by the '90s Jacobin novel: "prejudice" versus "virtue," which corresponds to the conflict between established power and the oppressed. The rule of action addressed to the reader is clearly stated and implied a number of times, although the rule of action has two parts: utilitarian over-reaching is prohibited; and (applied primarily to the {304} monster's narrative) in Percy Shelley's words, "Treat a person ill, and he will become wicked."8 There are of course subsidiary moral injunctions in the novel, but these two are primary and unambiguous. The doctrinal intertext is ever present, namely, the '90s doctrines of utility and "universal virtue," especially as articulated in Godwin's Political Justice, as well as the narratives of errant utilitarians. The three protagonists are put through educational apprenticeships whereby the moral lessons of the novel are illustrated.

Since the novel seems to fit so neatly into the category of Jacobin novel, why then has it so rarely been interpreted as such? As I mentioned earlier, the novel disguises its generic identity in many ways. First, there is the Preface, which except for one paragraph (the third) would be unexceptional in a Jacobin novel. The author, according to the Preface, is "by no means indifferent" to the novel's "moral tendencies" (the double negative here is peculiarly understated for a didactic novel). The moral concern is "limited" to avoiding popular novels' "enervating effects" and exhibiting "the amiableness of domestic affection, and the excellence of universal virtue." A Jacobin novelist would not "limit" the novel's moral province, even if the domain were as large as Shelley has created it. Then there is the key sentence, the first part of which merely points out that the protagonist's "opinions" cannot be equated always with the author's, but the second part would never appear in a Jacobin novel: "nor is any inference justly to be drawn from the following pages as prejudicing any philosophical doctrine of whatever kind" (F 7). Although one can read this disclaimer as ironic (that is, orthodox and established ideas are mere prejudice and cannot qualify as philosophical), such casuistry is hardly the most obvious way to interpret this statement, which on the surface seems to signal the novel as something other than a didactic narrative. The distinctive feature of the Jacobin novel is precisely its advocacy of one system of values at the expense of another. I have indicated -- and will illustrate even more concretely later -- how relentlessly didactic the novel's narrative strategies are. That there is a blatant contradiction is unambiguous, and the problem is to interpret the contradiction.

That this particular disclaimer or apology in the Preface was not trivial is quite clear from the earliest reviews of the novel. For example, the reviewer in La Belle Assemblée refers to the disclaimer approvingly, if also somewhat suspiciously, as indicating the author's disagreement with the novel's many radical ideas. The reviewer, wishing the novel's "moral" were clearer, nevertheless identifies it in the following words: "the {305} presumptive works of man must be frightful, vile, and horrible, ending only in discomfort and misery to himself" (R, I, 42-43). The disclaimer did not satisfy all the reviewers, some of whom disapproved of the novel on moral grounds (Quarterly Review, Edinburgh (Scots) Review, Gentleman's Magazine, Monthly Review, British Critic), arguing that the novel was either immoral or amoral or morally unclear. Many of the reviewers nevertheless identified in one way or another the "presumption" moral, which was the way Shelley's culture read her narrative of the errant utilitarian. Indeed, the first theatrical adaptation of the novel was entitled Presumption; or, The Fate of Frankenstein (1823). Another 1823 presentation was entitled Frankenstein; or The Danger of Presumption. This and other theatrical adaptations and burlesques were popular in the London theatres.9

The Preface's disclaimer alone cannot fully account for either the reviewers' complaints about the novel's "moral" or the presumption moral by which Shelley's culture actually interpreted the novel. Rather, if one infers from the reviews and the theatrical adaptations, one realizes that Jacobin novel was no longer readable for Shelley's culture, that it existed only as a ghost whose shadows could be ignored or, if not ignored, would be interpreted according to the living codes of the audience. The reading public could not accept an ideological narrative whose doctrinal center was '90s radical philosophy. Moreover, the novel announces itself as a Gothic fiction whose apparently didactic elements matter only in a fairly innocuous way (one has to notice how "domestic affection" and "universal virtue" are rhetorically tamer than the anarchic "sensibility" and anti-establishment "reason" of the '90s.) Since Shelley's cautionary tales of errant utilitarians were so similar to another kind of narrative, of the presumptive over-reacher who is punished, which was moreover rather popular at the time, the utilitarian doctrines could be ignored and substituted by the more or less reactionary notion concerning "innovation," especially intellectual innovation. One reviewer in fact drew out the contemporary social significance of the novel's attractiveness to readers in political terms. The reviewer for the Edinburgh (Scots) Magazine, speculating on why the violent events of the novel were so compelling, suggested that readers, so traumatized by the shocking political events from the French Revolution to the rise and fall of Napoleon, craved a similar excitement in their literature (R, II, 819). The appeal of the novel, then, derived from a public taste for "presumptuous" Byronic heroes who exceeded normal boundaries but who {306} ultimately paid a price for their ambition. Naturally, since the "presumption" moral is not to be found in Shelley's novel except in the carefully qualified form of errant utilitarianism, reviewers would complain about the lack of moral clarity. Gothic narratives depend on a dualistic system of values which is present in Frankenstein, but not in a way that would gratify readers' expectations of a clearly defined "safe" world threatened by a "demonic" world.

The disclaimer, then, was necessary because the reading public would not accept an ideological novel of the left. It was also redundant because the novel's status as a Gothic narrative already disguised its Jacobin identity. Moreover, a narrative illustrating the errors of utilitarians is obviously similar to anti-Jacobin narratives, and unless the reader was attentive to the various cues which declared Frankenstein as operating within and not outside of utilitarianism, such a reader could assume anti-Jacobin values were being promoted. The one part of the novel which was closest to the Jacobin novel, the monster's narrative, did indeed give readers trouble; as I will show later, the monster's narrative was an ideological affront to established opinion. Even if readers were able to sympathize with the monster's victimization and rebellion, they could not help noticing that the creature's oppressors were almost exclusively representatives of the innovating intelligentsia already discredited -- in their minds at least -- by the presumption moral.

It is interesting to see how Mary Shelley responded to the reception of her novel in 1831 when she made considerable revisions and wrote an introduction. I would not go as far as some, like Mary Poovey, who claim that the 1831 edition is a different novel from the 1818 version, but undeniably Shelley does not explicitly contest the way her novel was read. Indeed, in one part of the introduction, she employs the religious rhetoric of "presumption" when describing the novel's genesis: "I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. . . . Frightful it must be, for supremely frightful would be the effect of any human endeavour to mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world" (F 228). Such rhetoric clearly assumes the "presumption" moral, yet the novel she revised contains not a single instance where the 1818 utility has been replaced by religious orthodoxy. There are some revisions which erase a few 1818 radical statements (most of them are minor, not central to the plot),10 but the bulk of the revisions are stylistic and emphatic, and the monster's narrative, which caused the most ire in the reviewers, was revised hardly at all. Whether Shelley was {307} playing games with the reading public by seeming to be more orthodox than she actually was, or whether she chose to maintain the novel's features as they were as a kind of tribute to her earlier radicalism, or whether her motives were so complex even she did not know why she did as she did, I cannot guess. At any rate, she decided, for whatever reasons, to preserve the 1818 novel in all its essential qualities, including the repetition of disguising the novel's utilitarianism in an introductory statement.

The novel itself disguises its utilitarianism in several ways, one of which I have already alluded to (the rather arcane symbolism of Ingolstadt and Beaufort, references which evoke the '90s only for those readers privy to the sophisticated allusions). In this and other ways, the narrative presents itself as an historical novel only to blur the various markers which would establish a definite historical reference; for example, the dating of Walton's letters has to be interpreted as 179-. The arrest of Safie's father (on account of his wealth and religion), the intervention of the de Laceys, their subsequent arrest and exile, all evoke the Jacobin Terror, especially as it affected the Girondins, with whom the English intelligentsia was sympathetic, but no where in the actual narrative are the political identities of the characters revealed. The novel's geographical center is republican Geneva, which suggests not simply Rousseau's homeland but the Switzerland invaded by revolutionary France -- perhaps the most important event which turned the English intelligentsia against the French Revolution (not its ideals or its earlier stages or its actual accomplishments, but France itself as a political entity, which no longer could be viewed as fighting a merely defensive war against Reaction). One particular moment of the '90s represented by the novel seems to be the point at which the English Jacobins could no longer support France (even if they still opposed the war against France and the Pitt repression), and were beginning to lose a sympathetic reading public, thus necessitating retreat or silence or retirement or accommodation with established opinion. Thelwall retired from active political life to a Welsh farm in 1796-97; the Foxite Whigs retired to their country estates rather than sit in parliament in the late '90s; the vicious cultural reaction against "innovating" intellectuals and the "New Philosophy" peaked in the late '90s, when an avalanche of anti-Jacobin -- and especially anti-Godwinian -- novels, poems, plays, sermons, burlesques and essays rolled off the press until around 1802, when the English Jacobins were completely discredited. Frankenstein repro- {308} duces this emotional climate of traumatized defeat. Mary Shelley would have been too young to have known what the late '90s were like, but she surely would have known second-hand.

The respective narratives of the errant utilitarians trace a process by which hopeful idealism leads to both despair and tragic enlightenment. These narratives rewrite the revolutionary decade in the way typical for the Romantics and the second generation of left intellectuals: the ideals and principles of the French Revolution and the English reform movement are preserved (one could also say redefined), but the errors of the left are unequivocally criticized. Percy Shelley was almost obsessed with revising the French Revolution (especially in his most ambitious works -- The Revolt of Islam, Prometheus Unbound, A Defence of Poetry, and The Triumph of Life), while others in his and Hunt's circle, if not as intensely concerned with this, certainly recognized the necessity of this intellectual enterprise. Given the nature of established opinion which governed the reading public's expectations, a certain emphatically defensive posture was necessary on the part of the left intellectuals of this generation. The "bad" intellectual had to be exorcised because, according to established opinion, intellectuals had caused the French Revolution and were responsible for its most evil consequences.

Frankenstein's exorcism of the bad intellectual operates primarily by distinguishing between the doctrine of utility, whose authority is never questioned, and the very fallible practitioners of the ideal, the utilitarian characters. The bad intellectual is condemned according to the logic of utility, so that however badly individual utilitarians behave, utility itself is protected. Indeed, the novel presents no criteria other than utilitarian ones by which to formulate positive values.

Although the novel lacks an authoritative omniscient narrator who could stabilize the moral ambiguities, each narrator's tale contains many didactic set-pieces whose redundancy settles doctrinal questions. A key element in each narrative is the "education" (or "apprenticeship," to use Suleiman's word) by which the protagonist comes to know himself. Each protagonist undergoes an education which is "mixed," that is, neither purely negative nor positive. The deficiencies in their education, however, have fatal consequences which are the substance of a negative education leading to self-knowledge.

Walton suffers from paternal neglect and authoritarianism. His passionate desire for a "friend" comes not simply from loneliness but from a perceived lack in his education: as an autodidact, he never had a paternal {309} authority guide him wisely through the artifacts of his culture (F 13-14). His father's only legacy was prohibitive, an injunction not to go to sea (F 11) -- an injunction especially difficult to obey because the library by which Walton educated himself was filled with sea-faring literature. Walton as a character is a particular literary type: the sensitive young man who defies customary authority and whose ambition is not for wealth or social position but for humanitarian "glory," first as a poet, and finally as an explorer-scientist. Like Victor Frankenstein, he is of the "innovating" intelligentsia, that middle-class group attacked so memorably by Burke in the 1790s.

According to Godwin's Political Justice, an action was properly virtuous -- that is, utilitarian -- if the motive was correct and if the action's consequences could be construed as promoting the real interests of humanity. In the 1818 edition, Walton's motives for his polar quest do not seem emphatically corrupt, but Shelley remedied this by adding some lines which establish their improper nature, especially this sentence which Walton delivers to Victor Frankenstein: "One man's life or death were but a small price to pay for the acquirement of the knowledge which I sought . . ." (F 231-32). Frankenstein labels such sentiments as "madness" and recognizes in Walton an earlier version of himself; such recognition motivates Frankenstein to tell his cautionary tale. (I assume the deficiencies of the 1818 edition were simply the consequence of Shelley's incompetence and not an alternative view of Walton's character). When Walton expresses his motives for the polar quest, the utilitarian justification comes last, after his desire for a polar paradise ("a region of beauty and delight" F 9), and after wanting to "satiate" his "curiosity" (F 10). According to the logic of utility, Walton's motives are unbalanced, and as explained by the novel, a consequence of his flawed education.

The doctrinal statements clarifying utility are numerous, but one of Frankenstein's is particularly important. He tells Walton that pursuit of knowledge can be excessive if such ambition weakens the "affections and destroys simple pleasures." Such ambition is "unlawful" but the law violated is not religious: "unlawful, that is to say, not befitting the human mind" (F 51). The presence of Enlightenment humanism here is obvious. The rhetoric is entirely within the values of utilitarianism whereby the only criteria for determining justice are the interests of humanity, "the human mind." To make even more emphatic the utilitarian basis of this moral injunction, Frankenstein declares that had {310} intellectual over-reaching not occurred, "Greece had not been enslaved; Caesar would have spared his country; America would have been discovered more gradually: and the empires of Mexico and Peru had not been destroyed" (F 51). Each cultural allusion here is a commonplace of Enlightenment thinking, especially republican political thought, which esteemed Greek and Roman democracy and was appalled by the plundering of the Americas.

A dramatic clarification of utility occurs when Frankenstein decides to destroy the mate he had been constructing for the monster. After listening to the monster's story, Frankenstein achieves what seems to be an education in utility because he accepts responsibility as a creator. The rhetoric used in the argument between creator and creature, however, alludes unmistakably to Godwin's Political Justice where promises, contracts and the doctrine of natural rights are criticized. When the monster detains Frankenstein on the Alpine mountain to argue for justice, he says, "'Do your duty towards me, and I will do mine towards you and the rest of mankind'" (F 94). At least up to this point (prior to the monster's telling his story to Frankenstein), the rhetoric is entirely Godwinian since "duties" as opposed to "rights" are recommended in Political Justice. But after telling his story, the monster uses another rhetoric. "'You must create a female for me. . . . I demand it of you as a right which you must not refuse'" (F 140). Political Justice criticizes the doctrine of rights rather extensively, disagreeing explicitly with Paine's notion of utility. With some reluctance, Frankenstein agrees to a contract, a promise, an exchange, which he thinks is just to both the monster and humanity (F 144). When Frankenstein changes his mind, destroying the female monster, he reasons accordingly: "[the female monster] might refuse to comply with a compact made before her creation. . . . Had I a right, for my own benefit [that is, safety for himself and loved ones], to inflict this curse upon everlasting generations? . . . The wickedness of my promise burst upon me . . . whose selfishness had not hesitated to buy its own peace at the price perhaps of the existence of the whole human race" (F 163). The word "promise" is repeated several times (F 164-65) before the monster makes his own promise to be with Frankenstein on his wedding night. The Godwinian argument against promises, contracts and rights was that an action, to be truly just and utilitarian, had to be so intrinsically. An action was just or not regardless of the context a promise, contract or sense of natural right placed on it.

{311} A pivotal moment in the plot, then, hinges upon an affirmation of Godwinian utility, for which Frankenstein sacrifices his best friend, his wife, and future happiness. The situation is analogous to the famous case in Political Justice of Fénelon and the fire; that is, if only one person could be saved in a fire, should one save a stranger capable of conferring many benefits to humanity or a beloved family member? Godwin, of course scandalously asserted that saving the stranger was truly utilitarian. Toward the end of the novel Frankenstein reaffirms the validity of his Godwinian commitment: "'In a fit of enthusiastic madness I created a rational creature, and was bound towards him. . . . This was my duty; but there was another still paramount to that. My duties towards my fellow-creatures had greater claims to my attention, because they included a greater proportion of happiness or misery'" (F 215). In effect he sacrifices "domestic affection" and the "simple pleasures" which define the boundaries of proper knowledge in order to affirm utility, but there is no real contradiction because utilitarian actions are not the same as intellectual innovation. The novel has a number of exemplary utilitarian deeds that entail some form of self-denial: Caroline Frankenstein's deadly illness incurred by nursing another back to health; the de Lacey's helping Safie's father; Walton's master sailor permitting his fiancée to marry another man; the monster's numerous attempts to help others. Frankenstein's utilitarian action, however, is made to seem quite extraordinary because he suffers so much for it and an easier option was available to him.

After hearing Frankenstein's moral injunctions and cautionary tale, Walton still wants to learn the "secret" of reanimation (F 207), still wants to move toward the northern pole even though "many" lives have already been lost (F 211). One cannot blame Walton for confusion because his pedagogue Frankenstein berates Walton's mutinous sailors with rhetoric that reflects Enlightenment idealism at its most aggressive moments. The sailors are encouraged to become "'the benefactors of your species'" and they should be willing to die "'for honour and the benefit of mankind.'" One sentence in particular is striking: "'Oh! be men, or be more than men'" (F 212). This rhetoric, which effectively persuades the sailors to continue at least for another day, expresses the intransigent commitment to utility that marked the acme of '90s idealism. Frankenstein's speech may very well echo, as suggested by James Rieger, that of Dante's Ulysses, thus signifying the return of overreaching ambition in Frankenstein's character (F, 212, n. 2). Also, {312} however, it expresses the most heroic aspects of utilitarian commitment, even though it certainly contradicts other didactic set-pieces in the novel which establish rules by which utility can be identified. When Walton decides to turn back, he does so not because he sees himself as an over-reacher but because the sailors will not cooperate (F 213). Walton's teacher leaves him with these last words:" 'Seek happiness in tranquillity, and avoid ambition, even if it be only the apparently innocent one of distinguishing yourself in science and discoveries. Yet why do i say this? I have myself been blasted in these hopes, yet another may succeed'" (F 215). To the very end both Walton and Frankenstein are heroic over-reachers, even though they also acknowledge the cultural authority which judges such ambition as unlawful. What are we to make of the fact that two didactic narratives conclude in such a way as to leave both protagonists more or less unrepentant? It would have been easy enough for Shelley to have written two unambiguous conversions, and indeed her audience would have preferred such clarity.

One answer is that the novel, despite criticizing the bad intellectual, also admires him. Also, however, that neither Walton nor Frankenstein converts completely to the doctrinal wisdom of a chastened utility illustrates the relative inefficacy of didactic narratives to determine behavior. In fact, almost every didactic gesture in the novel fails to effect its intended result. Frankenstein's entire narrative which comprises most of the novel fails to convert Walton or even its author. The monster's didactic tale to his creator succeeds initially to persuade Frankenstein to create a female companion -- until he changes his mind. Safie's father, for whom the de Laceys sacrificed their welfare, does not become "educated" to the incorrectness of prejudice; he is as bigoted as his French persecutors. Elizabeth's eloquence and the spotless "character" of Justine cannot save the young woman from the court, the priest, or the Frankenstein family's misperception of her guilt. The most poignant examples of failed didacticism are with the monster, who presents himself as a good student to his instructors, the de Laceys, who repeat upon the monster the narrative of prejudicial victimization which they themselves suffered. Meeting young William Frankenstein, the monster hopes to teach the boy to accept him since his youth would have preserved him from civilization's prejudice. Frankenstein himself has available to him so many exemplary actions from which to learn the correct lessons of utility, but a few "accidents" are more powerful than the positive education he received (his father's authoritarian rejection of the alchemists -- he con- {313} demned them without explaining; Clerval's father's authoritarian refusal to let his son go to the university -- Clerval's presence at Ingolstadt would have prevented Frankenstein's "madness"; the unlucky timing of his mother's death). The problem is not usually ignorance: characters know what the utilitarian rules are. Rather, the rules are difficult to apply in concrete situations and to become emotionally assimilated. "Prejudice," even among the utilitarian characters, reigns triumphant in the decisive crises, thus illustrating the failure of didacticism.

Prejudice's triumph is an explanation and a description of the 1790s from a utilitarian perspective. The monster becomes, however, by the novel's end, the exemplary utilitarian neither Frankenstein nor Walton could ever become. One cannot, however, point to a didacticism that has completely succeeded because after so purely embodying utilitarian doctrine, the monster culminates his education by killing himself. The monster's education as it is portrayed in his narrative is the novel's most explicitly Jacobin feature whose strategical location within Frankenstein's narrative makes it quite literally the "heart" of the novel: there are roughly the same number of pages before the monster's narrative as there are after. Before reading the monster's own words, the reader has already developed a notion of the monster as a hideous, violent creature, in short, the classical Gothic villain which arouses fear that must -- according to the logic of the genre -- be eliminated. The monster's narrative, however, undermines the reader's fear by representing the process by which a well meaning, innocent creature is turned into a monster. As the reader gets deeper into the novel, the generic markers shift from Gothic romance to Jacobin protest fiction and then back to Gothic, more or less. The way in which generic expectations shift can be viewed as a strategy to manipulate the reader: the least ideologically offensive genre entices the reader into the novel which shifts generic ground midway where the most ideologically offensive discourse is located, but in order not to alienate the reader the novel seemingly shifts generic ground again back to the Gothic, although by this time the Gothic has been so redefined that it merges in many ways with the Jacobin. The structure of the generic shifts also can work in another way: the reader severely annoyed by the monster's narrative can read it as an unfortunate interlude in an otherwise entertaining novel, so that what for one kind of reader would be the "heart" of the novel would be, for another, a dead space within which obsolete Jacobin doctrines are buried. That the monster's narrative was read in both ways at the time can be documented: Percy Shelley's {314} unpublished review of the novel places the narrative at the heart of the novel whose principal "moral" he reads as unjust mistreatment of an innocent victim who has been transformed into a "criminal"; the reviewers, however, in the contemporary journals and magazines objected especially to the monster's narrative on usually ideological grounds.

Precisely because the monster was a recognizable literary type -- the rebellious social victim so beloved in Jacobin reformist narratives -- most of the contemporary reviewers had little sympathy for him. Walter Scott's review of the novel in Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine, by far the most intelligent, balanced, disinterested, and responsive to the fiction's aesthetic features of all the reviews, could not refrain from sneering at the wildly improbable and excessively detailed education of the monster "in a pig-stye" (R, I, 77). For La Belle Assemblée, the monster's education was "prolix and unnatural" and was one of the few aspects of the novel the reviewer objected to (R, I, 43). John W. Croker made snobbish comments on the same thing, expressing doubts that a "savage" could be educated by the books within a "Swabian hut" (R, II 765). The reviewer in The British Critic characterized the books by which the monster was educated (Paradise Lost, Plutarch's Lives, Goethe's Werther, Volney's Ruins) in the following ideological terms: "poetical theology, pagan biography, adulterous sentimentality, and atheistical Jacobinism" (436). Scott too recognized the ideological pointedness of the monster's education (R, I, 77). Modern source studies of Frankenstein by Goldberg and Pollin indicate that in especially the monster's narrative, a discourse that is recognizably Enlightenment, revolutionary and reformist takes control (Goldberg 27-38; Pollin 97-108). The reviewers' lack of sympathy for the monster, then, is ideologically overdetermined. It is not surprising, then, that in the 1823 theatrical adaptation of the novel, the monster never speaks a single line. Although the actor was apparently able to elicit some audience sympathy for the monster, rendering him silent was a way to insure that the sympathy would not interfere with the presumption spectacle. The Edinburgh (Scots) Magazine review showed a degree of sympathy for the monster, and an 1824 article on the Shelleys in Knight's Quarterly Magazine expressed even more; but even in the latter instance, the monster's education was criticized (R, II, 449). Only if the monster could be read as a blameless victim who evoked no politically radical associations was it possible for the novel's earliest readers to sympathize with his tragedy.

The literature by which the monster achieved self-consciousness was {315} provocative in a left-wing direction, as I already mentioned. Although Paradise Lost was one of the most popular poems in England, possessed even by many of the poor, the monster's interpretation of Milton's poem was the unorthodox "satanic" reading. Plutarch's "pagan biography" would evoke the republican classicism of both the French Revolution and the Commonwealthman traditions. Werther's "adulterous sentimentality" (which readers also associated with Rousseau's Nouvelle Héloise) represented a dangerous cultural tendency associated with revolutionary excesses in France and subversion in England. Volney's Ruins, the monster's first book, was very popular among English radical booksellers, a text as subversive in the public mind as Paine's The Rights of Man. The texts themselves were bad enough, but the implications of the monster's education were perhaps more offensive to established views. His education followed a pattern already defined by Lockeans and French materialists, whose sensationalism traced all ideas back to sense experiences. Complementing the Lockean epistemology was the notion of spontaneous benevolence or "moral sense" that posited an instinctive social morality. Godwin himself, though a Lockean and Necessitarian, repudiated the utilitarian "self-love" school and adopted the assumptions of "moral sense" philosophy to strengthen his case for human perfectibility. Thus, as the monster acquired ideas through the senses and exhibited spontaneous benevolence, he was enacting the Godwinian synthesis of empiricism and "sensibility," both of which were subversive of established assumptions concerning human development.

The cultural aspects of education were at least as powerful as the philosophical. A passionately debated problem for the privileged classes was whether or how to educate the laboring, disenfranchised majority. The growth of a plebeian reading public after the French Revolution terrified conservatives. The immense popularity of first Paine and then Cobbett confirmed their worst fears. Despite severe government repression, "subversive" literature was gaining ground among the "lower orders." Partially in response to this, the government voted in the year Frankenstein was published one million pounds for church-building (Ward 389). In some ways, the monster's narrative was an educational nightmare: coming from a silent, animal ignorance, the creature happened to read subversive literature which he interpreted in a radical manner (F 114-16) and which he used to validate his violent rebellion against a social order which excluded him. Had the monster remained ignorant, he might not have been as destructive, and surely he would not {316} have been as clever. That precisely this kind of nightmare was evoked in the culture -- accounting for the reviewers' dislike of the monster's education -- is indicated by how the monster became part of English political iconography. As Lee Sterrenburg demonstrates, in 1832, 1867, and the Fenian riot period, Frankenstein was depicted in political cartoons as an idealistic, self-deluded reformer whose liberal notions gave birth to a violently destructive monster representing the revolutionary crowd. Empower the poor and disenfranchised with knowledge and the ballot -- so feared the conservatives -- and the results would be revolutionary violence.

The monster, however, is not simply a rebellious social victim or a Gothic villain spawned by a reforming intelligentsia; he is also a representation of that intelligentsia, particularly the innovating intellectual who is not permitted to employ his educated powers to reform society. After he understands Volney's radical social critique, he realizes that without aristocratic blood or wealth, even if he were not "'hideously deformed and loathesome,'" his best prospects would have been "'as a vagabond and a slave, doomed to waste [my] powers for the profit of the chosen few'" (F 115-16). The monster himself challenges established social views more fundamentally than either Walton or Frankenstein, and he initially at least employs the methods most esteemed by reformist fiction to become a useful reformer of society: benevolent deeds and "reason." In the monster's failure to remove the prejudice against himself, he reproduces the failure of the English Jacobins. To the reading public, the Jacobin intellectuals were monsters permitted back into the culture only if they disguised themselves as something else: Thelwall became an expert in "elocution" and speech therapy (an interesting career change for a radical orator), while Godwin produced Romantic novels and educational books, but withheld from publication his most heretical writings on religion. By the novel's end the monster uses his "powers" to forgive his tormentors, to understand the Necessitarian process by which he became a criminal, and condemn himself ultimately on utilitarian grounds, so that he affirms the doctrine which give him birth, which betrayed him, which he tried to actualize, and by whose logic he must destroy himself. Although Percy Shelley, relying on the generic logic of Jacobin fiction, read the monster's monstrosity as a creation by social prejudice, another possibility suggests itself, not as a better interpretation, but as a supplement: the monster was so monstrous, so deserving of extinction, precisely because he was such a {317} pure embodiment of utilitarian doctrine. Whether the reader judges established opinion (the reviewers) or the New Philosophy (Percy Shelley) as the most morally desirable hardly matters in this instance because in either case the gap between the values affirmed by the monster and those governing society is so huge, so monstrous, so disproportionate, that no happy compromise is possible. Violence is inevitable, one way or another.


1. In the late 1790s, Barruel's was one of several anti-Jacobin tracts which identified an intellectual conspiracy throughout Europe designed to overthrow established institutions. The liberal Monthly Magazine, 26 (1797), 503, for example, felt these books were important enough to attack in their review of Barruel and Professor Robison's Proofs of a Conspiracy against all the Religious Governments of Europe, carried on in the Secret Meetings of Free-Masons, Illuminati, and Reading Societies. Barruel and Robison are criticized in other Monthly Magazine articles (49 [1799], 589-90; 597). Another text from the Barruel-Robison school was unfavorably noted in the Monthly Magazine, 54 (1800), 1032: The Rise, Progress, and Consequences Of the new Opinions and Principles lately introduced into France. However preposterous, these conspiratorial exposes had considerable credibility at the time.

2. Thelwall, tried for treason in 1794 along with Godwin's best friend Thomas Holcroft, was a disciple of Godwin until they quarreled over political activism in 1795. Richard Phillips, who published Thelwall's novel, also published several of Godwin's works. That Godwin and his circle would know "Beaufort" 's identity can be taken for granted.

3. Sterrenburg, pp. 143-71, explores the novel's treatment of the 1790s and the anti-Jacobin cultural reaction. See Allen, 225-43.

4. The reviewer of Frankenstein for La Belle Assemblée, remarking on the novel's dedication to Godwin, observed that he had retracted his most radical beliefs (The Romantics Reviewed, I, 44). Subsequent references to Romantics Reviewed will be abbreviated by R. For characterizations of the "Godwin school" of novels, see the reviews of Godwin's Mandeville, R, I, 244-50; II, 757.

5. For an excellent appreciation of the Jacobin culture and the anti-Jacobin cultural reaction, see the work of Butler, especially Jane Austen and the War of Ideas. Romantics. Rebels, and Reactionaries and her introduction and notes to Burke, Paine, Godwin, and the Revolution Controversy. For the Jacobin novel as such, see Kelly, and Williams, pp. 74-77.

6. Although much has been made of Percy's writing the Preface, I am not convinced that husband and wife, at least in this particular instance, were at odds with each other. For a view contrary to mine, see Small.

7. To develop the utilitarianism of the second generation of Romantic writers would require more documentation and argument that I can provide here, but one example will indicate the kind of proof I would offer. When Percy Shelley disputed Peacock's obviously utilitarian critique of poetry (The Four Ages of Poetry), his defense of poetry redefines rather than abandons the concept. "Let us examine . . . what is here meant by Utility," Shelley asks in A Defence of Poetry, as he develops "imagination" as a counter to a narrowly conceived notion of utility. (Shelley's Poetry and Prose, p. 500.)

{318} 8. Shelley's statement appears in an unpublished review of the novel The Complete Works of Percy B. Shelley, VI, 264.

9. The theatrical history of Frankenstein is in Nitchie, pp. 218-31; Glut, pp. 28 and Lyles, pp. 219-23.

10. Erased from the 1818 edition are the following: (1) the extraordinarily libertarian education enjoyed by Victor and Elizabeth (F, 31); (2) Elizabeth's criticism of the middle-class professions (F, 59); (3) Elizabeth's radical critique of legal institutions after Justine's conviction (F, 82-83).

Works Cited

Allen, B. Sprague. "The Reaction Against William Godwin." Modern Philology 16 (1918), 225-43.

British Critic, n.s., 9 (1818), 436.

Butler, Marilyn. Burke, Paine, Godwin, and the Revolution Controversy. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1984.

-----. Jane Austen and the War of Ideas. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1975.

-----. Romantics, Rebels. and Reactionaries. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1981. The Complete Work of Percy B. Shelley. Eds., Roger Ingpen and Walter E. Peck. New York: Gordian Press, 1965.

Glut, Donald F. The Frankenstein Legend: A Tribute to Mary Shelley and Boris Karloff. Metuchen: Scarecrow Press, 1973.

Goldberg, M. A. "Moral and Myth in Mrs. Shelley's Frankenstein." Keats-Shelley Journal, 8 (1959), 27-38.

Kelly, Gary. The Jacobin Novel. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1976.

Lyles, M. H. Mary Shelley: An Annotated Bibliography. New York and London: Garland Press, 1975.

Nitchie, Elizabeth. Mary Shelley. New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 1953.

Pollin, Burton. "Philosophical and Literary Sources of Frankenstein." Comparative Literature, 17 (1965), 97-108.

Poovey, Mary. "My Hideous Progeny: Mary Shelley and the Feminization of Romanticism." PMLA, 95 (1980), 332-47.

The Romantics Reviewed. Contemporary Reviews of British Romantic Writers, Part C, Shelley, Keats, and London Radical Writers. Ed. Donald H. Reiman. New York and London: Garland Publishing, 1972.

Shelley, Mary W. Frankenstein. Ed. James Rieger. Indianapolis and New York: Bobbs-Merrill Co., 1974.

Shelley's Poetry and Prose. Eds. Donald H. Reiman and Sharon Powers. New York: W. W. Norton, 1977. Small, Christopher. Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, Tracing the Myth. Pittsburgh: Univ. of Pittsburgh Press, 1973.

Sterrenburg, Lee. "Mary Shelley's Monster: Politics and Psyche in Frankenstein," in The Endurance of Frankenstein. Eds. George Levine and U. C. Knoepflmacher. Berkeley: Univ. of Calif. Press, 1974.

Suleiman, Susan Rubin. Authoritarian Fictions: The Ideological Novel as a Literary Genre. New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1983.

Ward, William. "Some Aspects of the Conservative Attitude Toward Poetry in English Criticism, 1798-1820." PMLA, 60 (1945), 389.

Williams, Raymond. The Sociology of Culture. New York: Schocken Books, 1982.