Contents Index

"Frankenstein" -- Parable or Spectacle?

David Seed

Criticism, 24:4 (Fall 1982). 327-40

{327} "You may deduce an apt moral from my tale." With these words Frankenstein prefaces his narration to Walton in the middle of the Arctic ice.1 It is a statement which suggests one way of reading Mary Shelley's novel, namely to treat it as a cautionary tale which asserts the prime importance of domestic ties. Several comments are subsequently made in the narrative which bring out these values, the most famous reads as follows:
Learn from me, if not by my precepts, at least by my example, how dangerous is the acquirement of knowledge, and how much happier that man is who believes his native town to be the world, than he who aspires to become greater than his nature will allow. (p. 53)
Frankenstein is insisting that moderation, prudence and generally limited objectives are preferable to the sort of excessive ambitions he sees -- not without pride -- in himself. In the novel this opposition is expressed spatially in the contrast between the tightly-knit little Swiss towns on the one hand and the open (but dead) Arctic wastes on the other. The interesting thing about Frankenstein's admonition is that, at the same time as he asserts what we might call the "domestic moral" he is also suggesting an alternative way to view his narrative. He describes himself as a Faustian over-reacher, trying to go beyond the bounds of human nature in his thirst for knowledge. And this is a view which Walton enthusiastically supports; after Frankenstein's narrative he exclaims "What a glorious creature must he have been in the days of his prosperity when he is thus noble and godlike in ruin!" (p. 210). This is one of the many allusions to Milton in the novel, specifically of course to the fallen archangel Satan, and is obviously an allusion which might bolster Frankenstein's stature. In his last speech he himself sneers at what he calls "common projectors" and shows an aristocratic sense of his own superiority. In short he sees {328} himself as belonging to an elite which Mary Shelley describes in one of her essays, an elite of "those superior minds which are themselves the law, and whose innate impulses are the fiats, of intellectual creation."2 There are no qualifications here; the ambitious energies of the mind are their own justification. In a sense it is the opposite side of the coin from the insistence on domestic piety, and each emphasis, each viewpoint, seems to cope with significant aspects of the novel. The assertion of domestic values draws our attention to the prominence of the family and the pathos and horror of the series of deaths; the view of Frankenstein as a superior being draws our attention to the special and extreme nature of his destiny. The first approach would treat the narrative as a cautionary tale or parable, the second as a spectacle. In fact neither of these approaches does justice to the whole novel which subverts the moral status of the family and which consistently denies Frankenstein any heroic standing. The novel works characteristically by negatives, inversions and reversals; and it consistently focuses on the destructive energies unleashed by Frankenstein's desires.

We can begin by considering the nature of his family. The father is a magistrate and a paragon of virtue who marries and adopts a daughter out of pure benevolence. As Frankenstein himself says, "no human being could have passed a happier childhood than myself" (p. 37). There is no poverty; the parents are not tyrants; there are no internal tensions at all. When she revised the novel for the 1831 edition (the standard text) Mary Shelley increased the details of the family's idyllic life, as if to rule out any possible reason for Frankenstein's dissatisfaction with it. If this family is unable to limit his ambitions, the novel implies, what family can? Not only that. Frankenstein describes his early life as if to explain how his interest in science grew, but the origins of this interest remain shrouded in mystery:

. . . when I would account to myself for the birth of that passion, which afterwards ruled my destiny, I find it arose, like a mountain river, from ignoble and almost forgotten sources; but, swelling as it proceeded, it became the torrent which, in its course, has swept away all my hopes and joys. (p. 38)
This is one of the most important statements in the novel because it indicates that Frankenstein sees his own guiding impulse as somehow autonomous, as independent as a natural process. The curiosity which {329} the metaphor refers to is the premise of his character and, although we can observe this curiosity taking on different forms, there is never a suggestion that Frankenstein can bring it under control. The only point where he makes a decision is whether or not to make the Monster a mate. Not even the development of his interest in science seems methodical. He happens to find a book by Cornelius Agrippa; he happens to see a tree struck by lightning; and even though he meets an expert on galvanism he wilfully persists in reading the alchemists. In other words sheer chance and perversity figure prominently in the way Frankenstein pursues his studies, which reinforces the constant implication that he is too wrapped up in what he is doing to be conscious of why he is doing it.

Once he forms his project to create a living being the ironies multiply rapidly. Like Stevenson's Dr. Jekyll he rationalizes his enterprise in terms of philanthropy towards mankind although his real aspiration is to godlike privilege; he sees himself surrounded by docile admiring creatures. And although he is trying to create life the only way he can do so is by grubbing furtively around graveyards. In short the novel denies any grandeur either to Frankenstein's ambition or to his enterprise. It is a minor character, Professor Waldman at Ingolstadt University, who says of modern scientists,

. . . they penetrate into the recesses of nature, and show how she works in her hiding places. . . . they can command the thunders of heaven, mimic the earthquake, and even mock the invisible world with its own shadows. (pp. 47-48)
This is the most forceful articulation of Frankenstein's dream of power in the novel. It captures his curiosity, but the fact that he himself does not say these words marks an important difference from say Goethe's Faust (the Shelleys were familiar with Part One).3 At the beginning of that play Faust enacts his ambition through the figures of liberation which pack his first speech. He chafes at being pent up in his Gothic chamber and yearns to burst out on the wings of his studies in alchemy:
Up, up! Away to the champaign free!
Thy soul shall swell with tenfold force,
As spirit with spirit holds discourse.4
{330} It is the physical force of Faust's verbal gestures which convinces us of the energy in his ambition as well as its scope, and that in turn builds up his grandeur as a character. By contrast Frankenstein is denied any similar rhetoric and his own retrospective colouring of his narrative suggests doom and failure even before his experiments begin. When they do begin he labours obscurely in a cell and not in the laboratories full of bubbling flasks which constantly appear in film versions of the novel. Even the Monster turns out to be a grotesque assembly of bits and pieces cobbled together.

It is obvious that Frankenstein is in some sense a Faustian over-reacher and yet the novel sets up too many ironies for us to make this statement without a lot of qualification. Frankenstein is a particularly unimpressive Faust and the subtitle of the novel, The Modern Prometheus, again undercuts the mythic parallel. Prometheus brings fire, whereas Frankenstein creates not a higher being but a mutant.5 The theme of fire brings together the Prometheus myth and the contemporary experiments in galvanism which Mary Shelley mentions in her 1831 preface, and reinforces one of the novel's main ironies: that the creative impulse can easily reverse into its opposite, destruction. The first important appearance in the novel of fire comes when Frankenstein witnesses an electric storm in the Jura mountains:

I remained, while the storm lasted, watching its progress with curiosity and delight. As I stood at the door, on a sudden I beheld a stream of fire issue from an old and beautiful oak which stood about twenty yards from our house; and so soon as the dazzling light vanished the oak had disappeared, and nothing remained but a blasted stump. (p. 41)
It is strange to say the least that the impulse to creation should begin from a spectacle of destruction and it is the sheer power of the lightning which dazzles Frankenstein. But power is an ambiguous force which rebounds on this would-be creator to destroy him. So when he later realizes the full extent of the Monster's benevolence it is quite appropriate for him to internalize the very image which inspired him, "I am a blasted tree; the bolt has entered my soul" (p. 160). Whereas {331} Frankenstein's interest in fire is metaphysical, the Monster sees it first as a social means when he collects wood for the De Laceys.6 Then when that hope is dashed he burns down their cottage in a ritual of despair. The last time we see the Monster in the novel he is looking forward to his own funeral pyre. Although fire becomes associated symbolically with life itself we never lose our awareness of its destructive potential. Since Frankenstein begins this imagistic theme it is appropriately symmetrical for the Monster to conclude it and also to state the central paradox of the novel, "I, too, can create desolation" (p. 143).

The novel clearly deals with a creative urge gone horrifically wrong. In a short story called "The Mortal Immortal" (1834) Mary Shelley returned to this same theme, but this time in a comic way. The hero of the story, one Winzy, is an assistant to Cornelius Agrippa and also, for his pains, in love with Bertha, one of the beauties of his village. Bertha, however, will not have any truck with a mere alchemist's assistant and in his frustration Winzy drinks his master's elixir thinking it is a love potion. He gets Bertha but to her fury never ages so that people think she is his mother and finally drive them out of society. Once again a discovery -- the elixir of life -- which might be a boon to mankind reverses into a liability. Despite her references to Erasmus Darwin in her preface Mary Shelley was basically skeptical about the possibility of creating life. As she wrote in a letter of 1823, "I fear that no Frankenstein can so arrange the gases as to be able to make any combination of them produce thought or even life."7 Neither the secure comic detachment of the short story nor the calm skepticism of the letter comes out in the novel which dramatizes a fearful fascination with the possibility of creation and an underlying anxiety about the rightful bounds of science.

The twin emphases in the novel are on science and on the family; creation is articulated partly in terms of birth and consequences in terms of parental responsibility. At the center of the narrative stands Frankenstein of course and every other important character turns out to be related to him in some way.8 He describes Elizabeth as "my {332} more than sister"; Walton becomes his "brother"; the Monster, Frankenstein's brainchild, "adopts" the De Lacey family, and so on. These connections suggest that the family is being put forward as a model of human relationships; but even more than that, the narrative invites contrast between these characters and Frankenstein, as if they embody alternative aspects of one self. In the case of Clerval the contrast is clear: he shares Frankenstein's moral fervour but is planning to channel it in more humanitarian directions. Frankenstein makes the contrast between them explicit when he later describes Clerval as "the image of my former self" (p. 158). Therefore, since he is ultimately responsible for all their deaths we could see Frankenstein progressively killing off more and more humanizing aspects of his self. The logical end result of this sequence is that he should destroy himself, which he does, although the novel characteristically denies him either the conscious decision or suicide or any dramatic death. He simply dies from premature exhaustion.

It is clear that the connection between the Monster and Frankenstein is the central relation of the whole novel and before we examine it, we need to note the way in which the novel modifies the Gothic in reducing the fantastic and supernatural. The fact that "the event on which the interest of the story depends is exempt from the disadvantages of a mere tale of spectres or enchantment" (p. 12) was an obvious source of pride to Percy Shelley when he wrote the 1818 preface; and in her essay "On Ghosts" Mary Shelley went out of her way to mock conventional atmospherics:

. . . ghosts that lift the curtains at the foot of your bed as the clock chimes one; who rise all pale and ghastly from the church-yard and haunt their ancient abodes . . . whose cold unearthly touch makes the hair stand stark upon the head; the true old-fashioned, foretelling, flitting, gliding ghost, -- who has seen such a one?
Obviously the expected answer is "nobody"; but interestingly she does not close the door completely on the supernatural. She adds tentatively "there is something beyond us of which we are ignorant", and this sense of "something beyond" comes out in the novel as an evil whose sources are shrouded in mystery and in the repeated suggestion that the main processes at work are divorced from human management.9 It might be objected that Mary Shelley clung to the {333} Gothic vocabulary in calling the Monster a "spectre," "devil," "fiend," "ogre" or even "vampire," but the sheer variety of terms stops the Monster from fitting into any one category.

There is broad agreement among the critics who have written about the novel that the Monster and Frankenstein are two parts of one entity. Harold Bloom, for instance, compares them to doublings in the poetry of Blake or Shelley and calls them "the solipsistic and generous halves of the one self."10 This needs modification, however, because the Monster is a far cry from an emanation or an epipsyche, and a comparison with Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde at least reveals the complexity of Frankenstein. In Stevenson's novel Dr. Jekyll, like Frankenstein is trying to go against the bounds of human nature. Frankenstein is appalled by death, Dr. Jekyll by the duality of human nature, and he dreams of separating the halves:

If each, I told myself, could be housed in separate, identities, life would be relieved of all that was unbearable; the unjust might go his way, delivered from the aspirations and remorse of his more upright twin; and the just could walk steadfastly and securely on his upward path . . .11
Dr. Jekyll tries to split his libido from his super-ego in an effort to avoid the troublesome burden of conscience, and of course the experiment goes wrong because he loses control of his transformations. This is the source of horror. We have no doubts at all about the distinction between Jekyll and Hyde, only about when the one will become the other.

By contrast the relation of the Monster to Frankenstein is constantly shifting and this raises an enormous critical problem because any discussion will run the risk of falsely stabilizing the connection between the two. Thus Frankenstein dreams of creating a subject, in other words he foresees a relation of power. The birth-analogy implied in the sequence of labour, agonized horror when the Monster as it were "appears" and physical collapse, suggests another relation which the Monster recognizes -- that of parent to child. Once the series of deaths begins Frankenstein then sees the Monster as some kind of evil spirit, or "daemon," which the Oxford English Dictionary de- {334} fines as "an attendant, ministering or in-dwelling spirit."12 The relation is further complicated by the parallels between the Monster and Frankenstein. Both are moved, for instance, by pictures of Frankenstein's mother; the one repeats the words of the other; and each draws on Milton for Christian analogies with their predicament. The Monster sees himself as Adam to Frankenstein's God, but then decides on reflection that he's more like Satan. Even that analogy won't quite work, as he realizes, because he is in a worse plight than Satan in not having any companions. Frankenstein for his part compares himself both to Satan and to Adam experiencing the Fall. Obviously they cannot both be right. The point here is not so much that the analogies don't really fit, but that both the Monster and Frankenstein should try to find similar analogies. Frankenstein's original dream put no burden of responsibility on himself and as soon as the Monster comes alive his instinctive reaction is to run away. In other words he wants to separate himself from the Monster. The intricate network of parallels between them rhetorically undermines this attempt at separation and underpins the Monster's efforts to keep them both together. One of the main progressions of the novel is to force the Monster and Frankenstein closer together towards a final confrontation which never materializes.

The parallels between the Monster and Frankenstein have a further effect which can be seen in the central episode of the novel -- their meeting on the glacier which frames the Monster's narrative. Frankenstein exclaims "Devil . . . do you dare approach me? and do not you fear the fierce vengeance of my arm wreaked on your miserable head?" The Monster's reaction is comically calm; he says merely, "I expected this reception" (p. 99). His manner comes as a shock because he speaks in a calmly rational way; he speaks, in other words, as we might expect Frankenstein to. Whereas Frankenstein's violent language would be more appropriate to the Monster. After his narrative the position reverses briefly when Frankenstein speaks calmly and the Monster flies into a passion. The reversals in speech-style here relate to shifts in argument over the Monster's claim on Frankenstein. The whole episode in fact parallels Adam's request for a mate from God in Book 8 of Paradise Lost.13 The Monster uses Adam's argument {335} that without a mate he will be cut off from the "chain of existence," but the mythical parallel as usual doesn't quite fit because the Monster threatens Frankenstein as well as making a claim on him and this is typical of their relationship. Submission will reverse into threat; a feeling of power into helpless horror; and so on. The cumulative effect of these reversals is to complicate the reader's reaction to Frankenstein and the Monster. We might expect Frankenstein to join the gallery of Gothic heroes with striking names -- Montoni, Zastrozzi, Melmoth -- but in fact he comes across as a very unimpressive figure in the narrative. If anything Mary Shelley stresses his physical vulnerability (he collapses twice), and does not highlight him in relief against the background of social normality. Ironically he is as much a victim as the other members of his family being alienated into a kind of living death by his original act. His father thinks he has become deranged but he insists,

"I am not mad . . . the sun and the heavens, who have viewed my operations, can bear witness of my truth. I am the assassin of those innocent victims; they died by my machinations." (p. 86)
Here the immediate context smothers the force of Frankenstein's words; the more he says, the more convinced his father becomes that he is mad. And Frankenstein's general helplessness further detracts from the energy of his self-accusation. So should we look to the Monster to fulfill the stereotype Gothic hero who is usually tall and dark with flashing eyes? Again even in terms of physical stature the answer is not very satisfactory. The Monster is tall but his eyes are dull and yellowish, and the fact that he speaks in such a rational way temporarily blocks over our consciousness that he is a Monster. As the Monster and Frankenstein constantly shift roles it becomes increasingly difficult to apply terms like "hero" or "villain" to them and one of the fascinating and demanding aspects of the novel is that it invites speculation about the nature of its two protagonists. Their argument and counter-argument over the moral crux as to whether Frankenstein should create a mate is only one example of a constant alternation in perspective which lasts right up to the Monster's final soliloquy over Frankenstein's corpse.

Ironically the creature proves to have more awareness than its maker. The Monster's story, for instance, makes out a remarkably cogent case against society. He is originally benevolent and constantly {336} subjected to brutality, cruelty and ingratitude; in short it emerges as the innocent victim of man's "prejudice" -- according to the Monster, that is. The problem here is that the Monster is so articulate on his own behalf and he certainly convinced Percy Shelley who, under the effect of his rhetoric, jumped to the conclusion that the novel's moral is "treat a person ill and he will become wicked."14 The trouble is that the story is told by a monster and that we hear his story after his first murder which inevitably predisposes us against him. The fact that the Monster becomes narrator temporarily minimizes our sense of his appearance, in other words minimizes our sense of him as a monster until through a series of self-recognitions he becomes aware of the pathos in his situation. His recurring question "What was I?" [2.5.7, 2.7.2] mimicks Frankenstein's own metaphysical searches, just as the premise of his existence (his ugliness) resembles and is the consequence of Frankenstein's curiosity. So when Frankenstein says "his soul is as hellish as his form" (p. 209) what he should say is "his form is as hellish as my curiosity."

Frankenstein's original dream was of control but the steady increase in passive verbs imply that he is being caught up in a current of events where the Monster takes the dominant role. It is the Monster who says "You are my creator, but I am your master" [3.3.3] As the various members of the Frankenstein family die the action settles down into a monodrama where creator and creature pursue each other. Even in the energy to press on. One of the great achievements of the novel is that it creates such a claustrophobic atmosphere despite the variety of locations and the setting becomes progressively more bleak as the Monster's revenge takes its toll. The conflict between the Monster and Frankenstein first crystallizes when they meet on the glacier, which Mary Shelley describes as "the most desolate place in the world."15 Whereas fire connotes ambivalent energy which might be life-giving or destructive, ice connotes death and it is appropriate that the novel should shift to the Arctic wastes where we expect the final confrontation to take place. One reason why it doesn't materialize is that the action is internal as well as external. Frankenstein is pursued as much by the idea that the Monster will kill his family as by the Monster {337} himself; after Clerval's death he has a recurring nightmare of the Monster trying to throttle him, and during the whole pursuit articulates his suffering through private images of torture -- as if water was dripping on his head, for instance. If we accept the close connection between monster and maker, it is quite appropriate for the Monster to plan his own suicide[:] after the death of Frankenstein he cannot have any kind of separate existence.

Although there are a number of allusions to "The Ancient Mariner" in Frankenstein a much more useful text for comparison would be William Godwin's first novel, The Adventures of Caleb Williams, which describes a strikingly similar sequence of events. Like Frankenstein, Caleb Williams is driven by curiosity to discover what is the secret of his employer, Mr. Falkland. He spies on him and is even caught red-handed looking into a trunk, a metonymic representation of Falkland's guilty secrets. Falkland confesses that he is a murderer and from that point the roles of pursuer and pursued reverse. Wherever Williams goes in England he finds Falkland or his agents, and he seems the guilty one in accusing Falkland of a crime he can't prove. Frankenstein is the victim of a similar situational irony in that he can't convince any third party that he has created a monster. In both novels the claustrophobia grows from this realization that the struggle can only be worked out between the two antagonists; and in both the acceleration of the plot reflects growing panic in the one pursued that he is helpless. The sudden appearances of the Monster in the Alps, the Orkneys and even in Frankenstein's bridal chamber shock him into a horrified belief that the Monster is omnipotent. Similarly Williams realizes that nothing he can do will put him out of Falkland's reach:

Whithersoever I removed myself, it was not long before I had occasion to perceive this detested adversary in my rear. No words can enable me to do justice to the sensations which this circumstance produced in me. It was like what has been described of the eye of Omniscience, pursuing the guilty sinner, and darting a ray that awakens him to a new sensibility. . . .16
The passage is expressed in a more ponderous style than in Frankenstein but catches the mounting panic which comes from Williams' {338} realization that his power makes Falkland a grotesque imitation of God himself. Again like Frankenstein, Falkland is physically depleted by the pursuit; he ages prematurely and finally dies, whereupon Williams delivers a glowing eulogy on him and recognizes that he has no autonomous existence -- "no character," as he puts it. In both these details Williams resembles the Monster and Godwin's novel as a whole, like Mary Shelley's, mocks the ambitions of an individual by reversing them into persecution and horror. Although there is no explicit allusion to this novel in Frankenstein we should remember here that it was dedicated to Godwin, and that Mary Shelley read Caleb Williams in 1814, only two years before she began her novel.17

The similarities between these two novels revolve partly around the question of plot and plausibility. In his review of Frankenstein Sir Walter Scott argued that, given the original act of creation, everything else followed on plausibly.18 But surely this is an oversimplification because it doesn't begin to cope with the coincidence. How does the Monster appear in the Orkneys at the very moment when Frankenstein is having scruples about making a mate? How does the Monster choose to involve Justine in his revenge although he doesn't know she is in Frankenstein's family? And most incredible of all, how can he arrange things in Ireland so that Frankenstein is charged with Clerval's murder? Frankenstein drifts there -- so can the Monster control the tides? From a realistic point of view these coincidences seem incredibly far-fetched. From the internal point of view of the novel's plot they build up a grim sense of an inexorable process working itself out, as if Frankenstein has let loose a malevolent force which can only resolve itself through death. One of Frankenstein's standard narrative tactics is to refer everything -- retrospectively, of course -- to fate or destiny, which suggests a negative inversion of his original belief that he was destined for some great enterprise. This is such a tenacious belief that even when he is on the verge of death he harangues Walton's sailors on the value of glory. The contradiction reflects Frankenstein's lack of self-knowledge since he never really admits his responsibility, whereas at least the Monster recognizes that his appearance is his appearance is his destiny and accordingly transforms himself into an agent of retribution. Frankenstein aspires to find the ultimate prin- {339} ciple of Nature but ironically himself becomes a first cause in initiating a stream of disasters.19

Frankenstein's original metaphor of the mountain stream implies that there is a correspondence between the working of his mind and of natural processes, and in a letter Elizabeth insists that they are governed by identical laws. But then Elizabeth is myopically satisfied with the mere appearances of Nature as is Clerval. Their capacity for sheer irresponsible enjoyment just is not available to Frankenstein and every time he invokes Nature this acts as a prelude to horror.20 Wandering in the Alps near Chamounix he prematurely experiences consolation from the tremendous scenery. He notes: "These sublime and magnificent scenes . . . elevated me from all littleness of feeling" (p. 96). It is an ironic pleasure because shortly after this he will meet the Monster on the glacier.21 In fact Frankenstein underrates the power of wild Nature which finds its equivalent in the superhuman strength of the Monster. The mountainous and Arctic landscapes resemble Shelley's poem "Mont Blanc" written the same year that Mary began the novel. Shelley is dazzled by the non-humanized mountain scene: Mont Blanc appears -- still, snowy, and serene -- (l. 61) [the mountain becomes an embodiment of raw, threatening energy]:

Power dwells apart in its tranquillity
Remote, serene, and inaccessible . . . . (ll. 96-7)
The stress all the way through the poem is on the absence of human life and on the destructive force of Nature. This is also the main emphasis put in the novel except for the journey down the Rhine. But even here the listing of details is deliberately flat because it is Clerval not Frankenstein who responds so warmly to the scenery. He is the Wordsworth of the novel who experiences the beauty of nature and decides that he could spend the rest of his life in the Lake District. Frankenstein even quotes from "Tintern Abbey" the lines beginning "The sounding cataract / Haunted him like a passion," whereas the {340} only haunting Frankenstein experiences is of quite a different kind. Nature is simply not available to him as therapy and gradually attenuates down to the empty dead spaces of the Arctic where he can work out his conflict with the Monster.

The novel implies a profoundly pessimistic view of man. The reversals and contrasts which make up its structure always work in a negative direction. Creation suddenly reverses into destruction, the desire to procreate into the desire to murder, and so on. It swings from high ideals (Frankenstein's purpose) and moral excellence (Elizabeth and Frankenstein's family generally) to brutal vengeance and evil. There is no middle ground between these extremes. Similarly the novel undermines the status of Frankenstein's enterprise from the very start; any mythic parallels further reduce the stature of the action by showing ironically how far it is from the heroic or truly spiritual. Neither Frankenstein nor the Monster really understood what drives them on: we do not doubt the relish that the Monster shows in murdering William, but, as he explains to Walton, "I was the slave, not the master of an impulse which I detested, yet could not disobey" (p. 220). As George Levine puts it, "the 'psychology' of Frankenstein is essentially a psychology without explanation."22 One contemporary reviewer sensed that the novel works through negatives and exclaimed:

What a tissue of horrible and disgusting absurdity. . . . it inculcates no lesson of conduct, manners, or morality; it cannot mend, and will not even amuse its readers, unless their taste have been deplorably vitiated. . . .23
Needless to say, the conclusion does not necessarily follow from this description. In a novel so preoccupied with fear and destruction we would not really expect an affirmative moral.24 Of the two notional approaches I outlined at the beginning "spectacle" fits the narrative better, providing we recognize that the novel depicts a purely negative spectacle which moves inexorably towards death.


1. Mary W. Shelley, Frankenstein, ed. M. K. Joseph (London: Oxford University Press, 1969), p. 30. Subsequent page references are to this edition and are incorporated into the text.

2. "Giovanni Villani," The Liberal 2 (1823), 282.

3. Shelley, for instance, discussed Faust with Byron and Monk Lewis in the summer of 1816 (Richard Holmes, Shelley, The Pursuit [London: Quartet Books, 1976], p. 344).

4. W. H. Bruford, ed., Goethe's "Faust" (London: J. M. Dent, 1954), p. 15.

5. The various versions of the Prometheus myth are discussed in Christopher Small's Ariel Like a Harpy (London: Victor Gollancz, 1972), Chapter 3. It is also relevant that Kant described Benjamin Franklin as a "new Prometheus." Shelley had a set of Franklin's works at Field Place and in the first edition of Frankenstein Franklin's kite-flying experiment is repeated.

6. This is discussed in Andrew Griffin's "Fire and Ice in Frankenstein," in George Levine and U. C. Knoepflmacher, eds., The Endurance of "Frankenstein" (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979), pp. 49-73.

7. B. T. Bennett, ed, The Letters of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980), I, 401.

8. Cf. George Levine, "Frankenstein and the Tradition of Realism," Novel 7 (1973), 19-22.

9. "On Ghosts," London Magazine, 9 (1824), 254.

10. Harold Bloom, "Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus," Partisan Review, 32 (1965), 613.

11. Robert Louis Stevenson, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Weir of Hermiston (London: Nelson, n.d.), p. 76.

12. "Daemon" I.b.

13. Paradise Lost VIII, 357-451. As usual with the Miltonic parallels the result is either negative or reductive. Frankenstein's godlike aspirations are now brought home to him, to his discomfort.

14. D. L. Clark, ed., Shelley's Prose (Albuquerque: Univ. of New Mexico Press, 1954), p. 307.

15. Frederick L. Jones, ed., Mary Shelley's Journal (Norman, Oklahoma: Univ. of Oklahoma Press, 1947), p. 53.

16. William Godwin, The Adventures of Caleb Williams, ed. David McCracken (London: Oxford Univ. Press, 1970), p. 305.

17. Mary Shelley's Journal, p. 15. She also read "The Ancient Mariner" the same month.

18. Ioan Williams, ed., Sir Walter Scott on Novelists and Fiction (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1968). p. 262.

19. John R. Reed argues that aspiration or ambition in itself sets up illusory goals which can never be realized ("Will and Fate in Frankenstein," Bulletin of Research in the Humanities, 83 [1980], 319-38).

20. Cf. Peter Brooks, "Godlike Science/Unhallowed Arts: Language and Monstrosity in Frankenstein," New Literary History, 9 (1978), 591.

21. Frankenstein is retracing a journey of his youth and also that of the Shelley's in 1816. The end of Chapter IX and the beginning of Chapter X draw on Mary's Journal (pp. 51-53).

22. Levine, ["The Ambiguous Heritage of Frankenstein"] p. 20.

23. Quarterly Review, vol. 18, no. 36 (January, 1818), 382 and 385.

24. Nevertheless in a recent historical survey of Romantic literature Marilyn Butler states that the story "seems clearly designed to convey a social message" (Romantics, Rebels and Reactionaries [London: Oxford Univ. Press, 1981] p. 159). But what the social message is we are not told.