Contents Index

The Monster Speaks: Mary Shelley's Novel

Chris Baldick

Chapter 3 of In Frankenstein's Shadow: Myth, Monstrosity, and Nineteenth-Century Writing (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1987)

Literary history is the great morgue where everyone seeks out his dead, those whom he loves or to whom he is related.

Heinrich Heine, The Romantic School

(i) 'Hideous progeny': the book as monster

Books themselves behave monstrously towards their creators, running loose from authorial intention and turning to mock their begetters by displaying a vitality of their own. 'Unluckily', writes Freud, 'an author's creative power does not always obey his will: the work proceeds as it can, and often presents itself to the author as something independent or even alien.'1 There is a sense in which all writing must do this, but with Mary Shelley's Frankenstein the process goes much further. This novel manages to achieve a double feat of self-referentiality, both its composition and its subsequent cultural status miming the central moments of its own story. Like the monster it contains, the novel is assembled from dead fragments to make a living whole, and as a published work, it escapes Mary Shelley's textual frame and acquires its independent life outside it, as a myth. These peculiarities of Frankenstein arise not because (as dogmatic versions of critical Deconstruction would have it) literary texts can refer to nothing beyond themselves, but because Romantic writing typically selects the creative labour of the artist as itself the adumbrating figure and symbol for all human engagement with the world, thereby making out of its apparently circular self-reference a wider domain of significance which aspires to the universal. There is even a case for reading Frankenstein as a dramatization of just this perversity in the Romantics' self-referring quest for universal meanings -- which would make the novel self-referential to the second power. Rather than get lost in this kind of infinite regression, though, {31} let us look more closely at the kinds of meaning which the textual monstrosity of Mary Shelley's work generates.

Her own description of the novel as 'my hideous progeny'2 has been one of the most suggestive starting-points for recent interpretation. Since Ellen Moers pointed out that Frankenstein could be read as a 'birth myth'3 concerned with the anxieties of maternity, the tissue of connections between the horror-story of Mary Shelley's own early life and the events of the novel has become more noticeable. Others have drawn connections beyond these events to the very 'textuality' of the work: Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar stress in The Madwoman in the Attic the extraordinary bookishness both of the novel and of the personal anxieties which produced it. In their reading, the 'birth' of Frankenstein is no longer a straightforward case of Art imitating Life; now, Life imitates Art in what Gilbert and Gubar call 'bibliogenesis'.4

Just as the creature and the creator tend to merge their identities in the novel, so in Mary Shelley's own role the categories of author, creator, and mother mirror and overlap one another. Both her parents were authors, but her mother Mary Wollstonecraft died as a result of giving birth to her. Mary Godwin was, then, the unwitting agent of her own creator's death, and -- again like the monster and like several other characters in the novel -- a motherless orphan. Her relationship with her mother had then to become a textual one, in rather morbid ways: she took to reading her mother's works at her graveside, and it was here that she kept her trysts with Percy Shelley prior to their elopement in 1814. Marc A. Rubenstein has speculated that she may also have read her parents' love-letters, in a textual quest for her own origins -- a form of research which reappears in the novel in the monster's perusal of (and disgust with) Frankenstein's {32} laboratory notes.5 Rubenstein observes too that Frankenstein is 'a book constructed like a pregnancy',6 in that the concentric Russian-doll structure of the narrative 'contains' the monster's story within that of its 'parent'. It has even been pointed out that the novel itself had a nine-month 'gestation' between the beginning of the first draft chapter and its acceptance for publication.7

If some of these bibliogenetic connections between textual and sexual generation appear far-fetched, we do have some confirmation from her other writings that the links are indeed a repeated feature of Mary Shelley's thinking. The hero of her later novel The Last Man, for example, observes of his own experience of authorship: 'Suddenly I became as it were the father of all mankind. Posterity became my heirs.'8 The metaphor is perhaps a hackneyed one, but there are strong reasons why Mary Shelley in particular should so firmly identify the anxieties of parenthood with what Harold Bloom (and following him, Gilbert and Gubar) understands as the anxieties of authorship. For Mary Shelley such a double anxiety is overdetermined in the first place by her literary parentage and her association with Percy Shelley and Lord Byron. The competitive pressures which she records in her famous account of the ghost-story contest bring these anxieties to a head, so that the daring transgression of Victor Frankenstein can itself be read as a projection of Mary Shelley's own ambitions in aspiring to authorship, her hero's struggles amplifying the mixed feelings, both assertive and guilty, of the adolescent for whom fully adult identity means both motherhood and (in her circle) authorship too. Barbara Johnson has shown how in these terms, 'Frankenstein . . . can be read as the story of the experience of writing Frankenstein', and has diagnosed a 'frustrated female pen-envy'9 in Mary Shelley's attitude to Byron and Percy Shelley, which in the novel becomes transposed into a tale of Victor's male womb-envy. Following the connections of authorship and parenthood still further, Johnson argues that Victor's narrative itself is, like all autobiography, a kind of self-reproduction, the creation of a 'life' after his own image, {33} so that he ends up with two monstrous offspring, the. creature and the story. He is acknowledged by the monster as both his 'father' and the 'author' of his being (F, 135/139; 217/220).

Even if we stop short of Johnson's conclusion, which sees the monster as 'a figure for autobiography as such',10 we can recognize that there is a peculiarly concentrated series of identifications between Frankenstein's creation of the monster and Mary Shelley's creation of the novel. Not just to some shocked readers in the early nineteenth century, but to Mary Shelley herself, the book appeared as a monster. She had unwittingly endowed it with a quality even more monstrously ungovernable than the deadly strength, size, and agility given to his creation by Frankenstein: an abundant excess of meanings which the novel cannot stably accommodate, a surplus of significance which overruns the enclosure of the novel's form to attract new and competing mythic revisions. My examination of Frankenstein will be less concerned with providing any new or improved interpretation than with surveying (as I have begun to do already) the range of readings which the novel has stimulated in modern criticism, in order to build up a picture of its special kind of mythopoeic 'productivity' as a generator of mythic possibilities.

(ii) It is assembled

That Victor Frankenstein assembles his monster from parts of corpses collected from charnel-houses and dissecting rooms is one of the most memorable and enduring features of the story, even to those who have never read Mary Shelley's novel. The monstrosity of the creature is clearly enough the consequence of its assembly from different parts, but it still sets us a puzzle, which James Whale's 1931 film version evades by introducing a faulty component, the Abnormal Brain: why should a creature constructed from parts which Victor selects as perfect and indeed beautiful specimens turn out to be hideously repulsive? The novel provides no explanation for the creature's ugliness, and if we are tempted to account for it psychologically as a mere projection of Frankenstein's guilty revulsion from his deed, we run up against the evidence of the other characters' reactions. The monster appears frighteningly ugly not just to his creator but to all who see him, even to himself as he studies his reflection in {34} water. By stressing clearly the beauty of the component parts and the ugliness of the finished combination, Mary Shelley is isolating and dramatizing a problem which was in her time central to philosophical, and by extension to aesthetic and political discussion; namely the question of the relation of parts to wholes.

Just as for Kant the mind had to be more than the sum of its sense-impressions, so for Coleridge, the British avatar of German Idealism, any living 'whole' -- whether a plant, a poem, or a nation -- was always more than a mere aggregation of its constituent parts. It was upon this principle that Romantic Idealism rounded its critique of the empiricist thought of the preceding century and set the terms of that central opposition between the mechanical and the organic which was to define so many of the conflicts within nineteenth-century culture.

In aesthetic theory, this opposition appears most clearly in Coleridge's own distinction between the Fancy, which merely reassembles ready-made memories and impressions, and the Imagination, which fuses and harmonizes into a new living entity not just images and sensations but the different faculties of the mind itself. In politics, a similar conviction is at work in the insistently organic imagery of Burke's writings, in which the organic integrity of the state is contrasted with the ridiculous and deadly artificial concoctions of the philosophes. And combining the political with the aesthetic, Friedrich Schiller's response to the French Revolution and the social fragmentation it threatened is to offer the harmonizing properties of art as a cure for the disintegrating tendencies of the age. Schiller's celebrated Sixth Letter in The Aesthetic Education of Man asserts that the development of human society has necessarily left behind it the noble simplicity of ancient Greek culture, 'but instead of rising to a higher form of organic existence it degenerated into a crude and clumsy mechanism'. Modern society is but 'an ingenious mechanism' made from 'the piecing together of innumerable but lifeless parts'.11 In Schiller's diagnosis an advanced division of labour has dismembered the human personality so completely into distinct faculties that 'one has to go the rounds from one individual to another in order to piece together a complete image of the species'.12 Now that the individual {35} has become just a stunted fragment, society can be little more than a monstrous aggregation of incomplete parts.

From such diagnoses of the disorganization of European society, a whole tradition of culture-criticism was to develop in the nineteenth century. The fragmented society, the patchwork or clockwork individual -- these become the themes of Romantic social analysis from Schiller through Carlyle and beyond. Mary Shelley's Frankenstein takes its place within this pattern of Romantic contrasts between lifeless parts and living wholes, partly as a dramatization of that principle of inorganic aggregation which Schiller saw as the modern disease. Viewed in this light, Victor Frankenstein's error is to have confused the beauty of the dead limbs he has collected with the beauty of a whole organism. According to the Idealist philosophy of the Romantics, the beauty of the whole can arise only from a pure vital principle within, to which all subordinate parts and limbs will then conform. The parts, in a living being, can only be as beautiful as the animating principle which organizes them, and if this 'spark of life' proceeds, as it does in Victor's creation, from tormented isolation and guilty secrecy, the resulting assembly will only animate and body forth that condition and display its moral ugliness.

Among the self-reflexive peculiarities of Frankenstein which I have mentioned is the fact that the novel is part of the same problem. As Mary Shelley herself recognized in her Introduction of 1831, what we too often call literary 'creation' is really a process of assembling and combining pre-existing elements:

Invention, it must be humbly admitted, does not consist in creating out of void, but out of chaos; the materials must, in the first place, be afforded: it can give form to dark, shapeless substances, but cannot bring into being the substance itself. (F, (226)/8)
From here she goes on to reveal as her raw materials the conversations at the Villa Diodati about galvanism and Erasmus Darwin's wriggling vermicelli. These conversations are, however, only a small part of the stock of materials from which Frankenstein was assembled. In addition to -- and in odd intimacy with -- the distressing problems of Mary Shelley's own life, of which some elements go into the book, there is a fund of literary sources upon which Frankenstein cannibalistically feeds. To form an idea of the range of both kinds of constituent material, we should begin with Mary Shelley's immediate circle and proceed outwards from there.

{36} To begin with, the names and status of some of the novel's characters are drawn from Mary Shelley's acquaintance: Elizabeth was the name of Percy Shelley's sister and his mother, and Victor was a name adopted in boyhood by Percy himself -- a fact which has encouraged some commentators to identify him too hastily with Victor Frankenstein, when his portrait is given more clearly in the character of Henry Clerval. William was the name not just of Mary Shelley's father but also of her half-brother and of the son she was raising while writing the novel. The killing of William Frankenstein dramatizes perhaps some hidden sibling rivalries, while the recurrence of orphaned (in particular, of motherless) characters more clearly echoes the facts of her own childhood: Safie, indeed, is given a deceased mother who has championed the rights of women (F, 119/123-4), and the monster's sense of neglect seems to derive partly from William Godwin's paternal remoteness. Closer still to the author's own feelings at the time when the novel was written lies the trauma of her own motherhood, as Ellen Moers has established. The fantasy of reanimating the dead occurred to Mary Godwin not just as a second-hand scientific speculation overheard from Byron, but as a most disturbing dream recorded in her journal of March 1815, in which her first dead child was brought back to life by being rubbed before a fire. The Alpine setting of the novel draws, obviously enough, upon the 1816 holiday which also inspired Percy Shelley's 'Mont Blanc' and Byron's Manfred; and the University of Ingolstadt appears as a result of Percy's interest in the alleged Illuminati conspiracy which Barruel traced to that town. Such lived 'sources' should not be forgotten, particularly those closest to Mary Shelley's personal troubles, but as a literary composition Frankenstein is constituted more fully by its written sources.

Mary Godwin kept quite extensive records of her reading from 1814 onwards, so the identification of literary borrowings has plentiful possibilities, ranging from the German' ghost stories mentioned in the 1831 Introduction, through the novels of the American Godwinian Charles Brockden Brown, to William Beckford's Vathek (1786), whose hero is driven by his restless curiosity to 'penetrate the secrets of heaven'.13 The major influences, though, can be reduced to a handful, among them being the works of the author's own parents.

{37} The Frankensteinian elements latent in some of their political writings and in Godwin's Caleb Williams have been touched on above; but in some ways just as suggestive a source is another of Godwin's novels, St. Leon, A Tale of the Sixteenth Century (1799). The hero of this tale discovers the secrets of the philosopher's stone and the elixir of life, only to be disappointed in his fruitless efforts to benefit mankind by their means. As his project inadvertently brings about the deaths of his loved ones and other innocents, he exclaims:

Fatal legacy! Atrocious secrets of medicine and chemistry! Every day opened to my astonished and terrified sight a wider prospect of their wasteful effects! A common degree of penetration might have shown me, that secrets of this character cut off their possessor from the dearest ties of human existence, and render him a solitary, cold, self-centered individual; his heart no longer able to pour itself into the bosom of a mistress or a friend; his bosom no longer qualified to receive upon equal terms the overflowing of a kindred heart. But no mere exercise of imagination . . . could have adequately represented the mischiefs of a thousand various names, that issued from this Pandora's box, this extract of a universal panacea. . . . I felt as truly haunted with the ghosts of those I had murdered, as Nero or Caligula might have been; my wife, my son, my faithful negro; and now, in addition to these, the tender Julia and her unalterable admirer. I possessed the gift of immortal life, but I looked on myself as a monster that did not deserve to exist.14
St. Leon's bafflement would seem to be another fictional exploration of the disappointments suffered by the rationalist radicals of Godwin's circle, a reworking of the frustrations embodied in the predicament of Caleb Williams: 'Why', St. Leon asks himself, 'was every power of the social constitution, every caprice of the multitude, every insidious project of the noble, thus instantly in arms against so liberal and grand an undertaking?'15 St. Leon abandons his experiments, having learned that his obsession with them has destroyed his familial loyalties, and he turns instead to cultivate the 'dearest ties of human existence' -- a conversion which even Godwin's sworn enemy the Anti-Jacobin Review had to applaud as a welcome sign.16 The same novel even contains a hideous giant named Bethlem Gabor, whose sufferings have made him a misanthrope. 'I hate mankind', declares Gabor; 'I was not born to hate them. . . . But they have forced me {38} to hate them.'17 There is more than a hint of Frankenstein's monster here, as there is of its creator in the disastrous scientific career of St. Leon.

From her mother's writings Mary Shelley undoubtedly derived an interest in the theory of education, and a tendency (prominent in many digressive passages of her novel) to stress the influence of a character's upbringing and early impressions. Mary Wollstonecraft, herself a governess and schoolteacher, repeatedly explored these issues in her work, especially in the celebrated Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), which is in part an extension -- and critique -- of Rousseau's educational doctrines, redirected against the artificiality with which young women were 'formed' by their upbringing. In the pages of the Vindication at least two incidental reflections can be found which seem to anticipate the themes of Frankenstein. In one, Mary Wollstonecraft defends herself against her contemporaries' horror of rational innovation and experiment:

Everything new appears to them wrong; and not able to distinguish the possible from the monstrous, they fear where no fear should find a place, running from the light of reason, as if it were a firebrand; yet the limits of the possible have never been defined to stop the sturdy innovator's hand.18
In the reactionary climate of the 1790s rationalist innovation and reform had been successfully identified with the 'monstrous',19 and Mary Wollstonecraft herself came to be displayed as a monstrous figure: when Godwin's posthumous memoir of her revealed that she had once attempted suicide when abandoned by a lover, the fact was deemed to illustrate the dire consequences of straying from virtue's path and woman's lot, just as Percy Shelley's drowning was later interpreted as a fitting judgement upon his atheism. Mary Godwin's strong identification with her mother's memory taught her to question the category of the 'monstrous' and to sympathize with moral outcasts; as an unmarried mother herself (she became Mary Shelley only in December 1816), she needed little reminding.

{39} A second Frankensteinian theme adumbrated in the Vindication is the questioning of heroic exertion. While agreeing with Bacon that the greatest human achievements are made by those who are unmarried, Wollstonecraft insists that she shall not therefore recommend all women to abandon marriage and domestic life, since 'the welfare of society is not built on extraordinary exertions; and were it more reasonably organized, there would be still less need of great abilities, or heroic virtues'.20 She is no more impressed by masculine heroism than she is by other ingredients of aristocratic ideology; rational and democratic reforms could bring it down to its true size. Like Godwin in his treatment of Falkland's inflated honour, Wollstonecraft recognizes the danger and the redundancy of the heroic ideal, particularly in its artificial divorce from the domestic. Frankenstein too investigates the same problem, from its opening contrast between the ardent but isolated adventurer Robert Walton and his sister's settled sanity, to Victor's closing speech against the alleged cowardice of Walton's crew.

To these parental influences we may add some of the more important sources in Mary Shelley's early reading. One story of her girlhood has her hiding behind a sofa while Coleridge himself read to Godwin his 'Rime of the Ancient Mariner'. Coleridge's hypnotic tale of guilt and isolation is clearly a significant source for the ice-bound voyage of Frankenstein's frame-narrative; and possibly for its doomed and transgressing hero too. Mary Shelley was careful to emphasize the connection herself, by having Frankenstein quote (anachronistically) the 'Rime' to express his fear of the monster (F, 54/59). In her revisions of 1831 she reinforced the allusions to the poem by both Victor and Walton, making the latter attribute his enthusiasm for polar exploration to Coleridge's inspiration (F, (231)/21). It seems that in the confessional mode of the 'Rime', especially in its contrast between the Mariner and the Wedding-Guest, Mary Shelley found some hints towards a narrative structure which could frame and partly domesticate the trials of the Romantic outcast.

There is some evidence, as Burton R. Pollin has suggested,21 that the myth of Pygmalion and his animated statue Galatea helped to stimulate the Frankenstein story, particularly in the form given to {40} it by Mme de Genlis in a dramatic sketch, 'Pygmalion et Galatee', from her Nouveaux contes moraux (1802-3), which Mary Shelley read in the summer of 1816. 'Pygmalion et Galatee' uses the device of the naive creature's initiation into human customs as a vehicle of social criticism, showing its heroine's horror upon learning of slavery, tyranny, poverty, and human guile, just as Mary Shelley has the monster respond to Safie's history lessons in the De Lacey cottage.

By far the most important literary source for Frankenstein, though, is Milton's Paradise Lost, as repeated allusions in the novel remind us, beginning with the title-page itself and culminating in the monster's own avid reading of the epic poem, which he takes to be true history. As the monster reflects upon his reading, he first compares his condition with Adam's, but then feels a frustration akin to Satan's, if not worse (F, 125-7/129-31). Victor, who ought to correspond to God in this new creation, comes also to feel like Satan; he too bears a hell within him. The monster's earliest memories resemble those of Adam in Paradise Lost Book VIII, while his first sight of his own reflection in water is a travesty of Eve's similar revelation in Book IV. Likewise, the monster's vengeful declaration of war against human kind arises from a bitter feeling of exclusion from human joys, a hopeless envy described in terms similar to Satan's (Paradise Lost, iv. 505 fl.; ix. 114 fl.).

Frankenstein's relationship to Milton's epic is, however, more than a matter of incidental borrowings. Unlike the story of Pygmalion, the subject-matter of Paradise Lost happens to be the most powerfully authorized creation myth in Western culture. Moreover, it elaborates upon the connections between two kinds of myth: a myth of creation and a myth of transgression. Frankenstein does this too, but its sinister travesty collapses the two kinds of myth together so that now creation and transgression appear to be the same thing, as they are also in William Blake's Book of Urizen. The accusations of impiety which greeted the publication of Frankenstein may surprise us today, but it seemed to some of Mary Shelley's first readers that the novel was calling into question the most sacred of stories, equating the Supreme Being with a blundering chemistry student. The particular impiety of Mary Shelley's Miltonic travesty forms part of that common Romantic reinterpretation of Paradise Lost which follows the Gnostic heresy in elevating Satan to the role of sublimely heroic {41} rebel.22 Blake's remark in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, that Milton was unwittingly of the Devil's party, and Percy Shelley's qualified admiration for Satan in his Preface to Prometheus Unbound are well-known instances, but William Godwin too conducted a defence of Satan's principled opposition to tyranny in his Political Justice (EPJ, 309), while Mary Shelley herself, in one of her unpublished corrections to the 'Thomas' copy of Frankenstein, refers to Satan's 'sublime defiance' (F, 125/--). The widespread cult of Prometheus in Romantic literature is often only a slightly Hellenized variant of the same heretical tendency.

As many commentators have pointed out, Milton had, by submitting God's providence to rational debate, inadvertently exposed the foundations of his religion to subversion. Nowhere is this clearer than in the very speech which Mary Shelley uses as her epigraph to Frankenstein, in which Adam bewails the injustice of his position:

Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay
To mould me man? Did I solicit thee
From darkness to promote me?

(Paradise Lost, x. 743-5)

As Adam complains a few lines later, God's justice seems 'inexplicable'. In the full context of Milton's poem, Adam's complaint can be discredited on several theological grounds, and the Christian readings are in the literal sense the authorized ones; but the Romantic revision of Milton is precisely a decontextualizing movement which, in plundering Paradise Lost for meanings, tears elements of the poem free from their doctrinal framework. Frankenstein takes part in this desecration by dramatizing Romanticism's sympathy for the Devil.

Actual devils, however, do not appear in Frankenstein. Victor calls his creature a devil and a demon, but he knows better than anyone in the tale that the monster is not literally a paid-up and fork-carrying member of that order. This absence of any demonic tempter behind Victor's transgression is the main reason why we have to eliminate the Faust myth from our list of sources (Mary Shelley appears not to have known Goethe's recent version, at least until after Frankenstein's composition); it is also the factor that most clearly marks the story's distance from Milton. It is tempting to jump from {42} the continuing significance of the Faust myth in Western culture23 to the hasty conclusion that all modern stories of transgression are derivatives of it, but to do this with Frankenstein would be to obscure a vital feature of the novel's modernity. While Faust's damnation and the Fall of Adam and Eve are brought about by the machinations of Mephistopheles and Satan, Victor Frankenstein has no serious tempter other than himself, his chemistry professor remaining a minor, innocent figure. If Frankenstein is any kind of Faust, he is a Faust without a Mephisto, that is, hardly a Faust at all; and if he is a Prometheus, as the novel's subtitle suggests, then he is a Prometheus without a Jove.

The novelty of Frankenstein which sets it apart from the phantasmagoria of Faust and of the Gothic novel is, as George Levine rightly insists, its starkly secular nature.24 Eschewing the geistig world of Germanic mythology, it belongs in many ways with the more earthbound materiality of that other English myth, Robinson Crusoe. The gross physical insistence of Frankenstein's central figure cruelly mocks the emptiness of spiritual aspiration, in what can be read as an ironic commentary upon Romantic idealism's 'angelic' transcendence of the flesh.25 At the same time, the narrative logic of the novel observes (perhaps even invents) the rules of what we now call science fiction, tracing a chain of probable consequences from a single implausible premiss without resort to magical interventions. The impiety which early readers found in Frankenstein lies partly in the fact theft its story is, as Levine says, 'acted out in the absence of God',26 that it follows the logic of a godless world; its tensions interest us because they thrive upon that disorientation which follows the subtraction of God and Mephistopheles from the known creation. Mary Shelley's impiety goes a step further than many of Romanticism's Satanic heresies, revising Paradise Lost in so decontextualized a manner that the great context Himself is removed, turning the novel into 'a Paradise Lost without angels, or devils, or God'.27 God is mentioned in the novel only as a minor character in Milton's epic, {43} or in blasphemous exclamations, and the only character to invoke His name piously ends up on the gallows, hanged for a crime she never committed, having made a false confession at the prompting of her priest.

Among the simpler interpretations of Frankenstein as a moral fable of presumption, it is often asserted that Victor Frankenstein is trying to 'play God' or usurp divine powers. Although Mary Shelley's 1831 Introduction hints at such a view, the novel offers very limited grounds for it: Victor aims at first not to rival God but to be useful to humanity by eliminating disease, and all he creates is a single living creature. If this is a blasphemous crime, then all parents stand condemned for it too. From the monster's point of view, though, Victor is a 'god' of sorts, and it is through this perspective that the novel's impieties emerge, the most mischievous of them being the incident in which the monster swears to Victor a solemn oath 'by you that made me' (F, 143/147). The monster's 'god' comes to be seen as an ineptly negligent creator whose conduct towards his creation is callously unjust. If Adam's complaint in the epigraph is borne in mind as well, the novel begins to look like a nightmarish parody of patriarchal religion, in which the Son is made, not begotten, the Flesh is made Word,28 and women cede the power of Conception to men while being legally framed as criminals (like Eve) or torn to pieces. It is not too hard to imagine the pious readers of 1818 feeling that their God and His creation were being grimly mocked.

Lowry Nelson Jr. has suggested that Frankenstein inaugurates a line of 'unchristian' or diabolical novels of a distinctive Romantic or mythic cast, which includes Wuthering Heights and Moby Dick (and, we could add, Heart of Darkness among others), and which is remarkable for its common use of complex narrative frames surrounding a central transgressing anti-hero.29 In Frankenstein as in these other works the diabolical nature of the narrative form inheres in what we could call its 'dialogical' openness. Since there is no Mephisto or recognizably evil tempter, and no Jove for the modern Prometheus to offend, the moral framework of the novel is dissolved into an open contest or debate between Victor and the {44} monster, in which the reassuring categories of Good, Evil, Guilt, and Justice can never be allotted a settled place. Other Gothic or Godwinian writers of this period, like Charles Brockden Brown in Wieland (1798) and James Hogg in Confessions of a Justified Sinner (1824), found double or multiple narration to be an ideal device for undermining the certainties of religious delusion; Mary Shelley achieves a similar effect in the narrative design of Frankenstein. As most readers of the novel attest, its most challenging effect comes from the reversal of sympathies demanded by the monster's narrative. This jolt is reinforced by the 'doubling' in the relationship between the monster and Victor (and in Victor's resemblance to Walton too), so that all identities in the novel are unstable and shifting, the roles of master and slave, pursuer and pursued alternating or merging. As in the Revolution debates, the accuser of monstrous offspring is himself accused of being a monstrously negligent parent. When Victor and his monster refer themselves back to Paradise Lost -- a guiding text with apparently fixed moral roles -- they can no longer be sure whether they correspond to Adam, to God, or to Satan, or to some or all of these figures. Like the iceberg on which Frankenstein makes his first appearance in the novel, their bearings are all adrift. Interpretation of the novel encounters much the same problem.

(iii) It speaks

Among the interpretative possibilities offered by Frankenstein, two need to be dismissed from the start, not as 'wrong' but as premature, since they come to have their place in the myth as it grows up around the novel. These are the readings which see Frankenstein as a technological prophecy or as a moral fable of blasphemous human presumption, and sometimes as both. The technological reading adopted by Martin Tropp and by Brian Aldiss in his novel Frankenstein Unbound (when he is not too busy contriving for his narrator a time-warped route into Mary Godwin's bed) tends to jump ahead from the text of Frankenstein to issues embraced by the myth at a later stage, distorting the status of the monster as he appeared in 1818. In Mary Shelley's novel Victor Frankenstein constructs his monster with no technological ends even remotely in view; not as a machine, a robot, a helot, or any other labour-saving convenience, but as the Adam of a new race which will love and venerate its creator (F, 49/54). More importantly, the monster has no mechanical {45} characteristics, and is a fully human creature. Indeed, in his range of sympathies and his need for companionship he is perhaps more human than his creator, as Harold Bloom has observed.30

The monster's most convincingly human characteristic is of course his power of speech. Since much of the myth's subsequent history revolves around this point, it is worth dwelling upon. The decision to give the monster an articulate voice is Mary Shelley's most important subversion of the category of monstrosity. As we have seen, the traditional idea of the monstrous was strongly associated with visual display, and monsters were understood primarily as exhibitions of moral vices: they were to be seen and not heard. For the readers of Frankenstein, though, as for the blind De Lacey, the visibility of the monster means nothing and his eloquence means everything for his identity. Moreover, his namelessness helps to dislodge him from that traditional notion of the monstrous which fixes its objects with a moral label or caption. He has himself acquired command over the 'godlike science' of language (F, 107/112), slipping free from its defining functions while mobilizing its persuasive power. The full effect of these reversals depends upon the emphasis which the novel gives to his very human needs and feelings, and to their painful frustration. Although the monster is the result of what is formally a 'mechanical' assembly, once animated he is as unexpectedly human as he is unexpectedly ugly. To read him even allegorically as a machine at this stage would be more than just premature; it would mean missing the monster's most disturbing immediate significance.

Rather than tie Frankenstein too soon to the issue of technology as such, it would be safer to say that the novel dramatizes certain doubts about the rewards of knowledge, in a broader sense. Knowledge is shown to be double-edged, its benefits and hazards depending upon the circumstances, and the spirit, in which it is pursued. It is not just Victor's experience which shows this; in many ways the monster learns the lesson more clearly. Mary Shelley's description of his first experiences is designed as an accelerated exposition both of infant development and of the early history of the human species. This empiricist version of Adam's story is perhaps partly inspired by Volney's Ruins, a book from which the monster learns of human {46} history, and in which the chapter on the 'Original State of Men' presents the earliest man as 'an orphan, deserted by the unknown powers that had produced him',31 learning purely by his senses. A crucial stage in the monster's education comes with his discovery of fire:

One day, when I was oppressed by cold, I found a fire which had been left by some wandering beggars, and was overcome with delight at the warmth I experienced from it. In my joy I thrust my hand into the live embers, but quickly drew it out again with a cry of pain. How strange, I thought, that the same cause should produce such opposite effects! (F, 99/104)
In discovering pain and pleasure arising from the same source, the monster has felt the contradictory nature of experience. He will feel its confusing force again in the 'mixture of pain and pleasure' inspired in him by the De Laceys' affections (F, 103-4/108) and in the record of human history which displays us as both vicious and virtuous (F, 115/119). His empiricist translation of the Eden and Prometheus myths here obviously preserves their sense of the ambivalence of knowledge, and in this episode at least it is the monster rather than Victor who is the modern Prometheus. 'Unlike Victor but like Prometheus, he uses his knowledge helpfully, collecting firewood for the de Laceys; but it is with fire too that he destroys their cottage and later himself.

The monster's further reflections on his discoveries also condense the novel's issues. As he compares his own position (and his appearance) with that of the De Laceys, he finds that 'sorrow only increase[s] with knowledge' (F, 116/120). 'Increase of knowledge', he adds later, 'only discovered to me more clearly what a wretched outcast I was' (F, 127/131). This is another lesson which Victor too -- like Godwin's heroes -- has to learn more slowly and painfully: the condition of solitude cannot be cured, only sharpened, by knowledge. All three of the narrators in the novel are self-educated, and fall victim to this problem; seeking knowledge in solitude, they are condemned to find only a more distressing knowledge of solitude. Bearing in mind this implied critique of solitude -- to which we shall need to return later -- we can concede that the novel is indeed about the perils of discovery.'

A straightforward cautionary tale, however, it is not. Although Mary Shelley's revisions and Introduction of 1831 did, as we shall {47} see, nudge the story in the direction of a parable of presumption, 'the grounds for this sort of reading are shifting and uncertain in the text as a whole, particularly in the first edition of 1818. The novel's inconclusiveness breaks out at the very moment when Victor Frankenstein seems to be drawing most tidily the moral of the tale:

Farewell, Walton! 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, 215/217-8)
This last escape clause could be read as evidence of Victor's incorrigible blindness, but it seems more likely to be an equivocation of Mary Shelley's own, perhaps reflecting her mixed feelings about her literary ambitions, and apparently aligning her with her mother's refusal to endorse the superstitions of Pandora's box and similar anti-scientific fables. In this sense Frankenstein shares in that duplicity with which many Gothic novels (Vathek, The Monk, and Zastrozzi among them) appear to reprove their villains while covertly driving them on to further blasphemous outrages. At the eleventh hour the text defers judgement, allowing true progress and discovery still to be made by 'another' -- by those who find a way out of the trap in which Frankenstein has been caught.

It is the nature of this trap that has to be defined by those more careful interpretations which look beyond Frankenstein's ostensible moral. The exegetical possibilities here range from psychological analyses of Victor's deficiencies to more or less allegorical readings of the novel as social criticism. In their simplest versions the psychological analyses see the monster as a projection of Frankenstein's unconscious urges; as an Id splitting away to enact those repressed desires which its controlling Ego (i.e. Victor) cannot openly acknowledge.32 So the murders of Elizabeth, William, and Justine can be accounted for as outbursts of sibling rivalry, Elizabeth in particular being unconsciously held responsible for Mme Frankenstein's death. There is, again, a danger in this 'divided {48} self approach of reading later developments of the myth -- the Jekyll and Hyde story especially -- into the novel prematurely, but the text certainly offers a credible basis for psychoanalytic interpretations. The powerful episode of the dream which immediately follows upon the success of Victor's experiment is only the most obvious point of departure:

I slept indeed, but I was disturbed by the wildest dreams. I thought I saw Elizabeth, in the bloom of health, walking in the streets of Ingolstadt. Delighted and surprised, I embraced her; but as I imprinted the first kiss on her lips, they became livid with the hue of death; her features appeared to change, and I thought that I held the corpse of my dead mother in my arms; a shroud enveloped her form, and I saw the grave-worms crawling in the folds of the flannel. I started from my sleep with horror; a cold dew covered my forehead, my teeth chattered, and every limb became convulsed; when, by the dim and yellow light of the moon, as it forced its way through the window-shutters, I beheld the wretch -- the miserable monster whom I had created. He held up the curtain of the bed; and his eyes, if eyes they may be called, were fixed on me. His jaws opened, and he muttered some inarticulate sounds, while a grin wrinkled his cheeks. He might have spoken, but I did not hear; one hand was stretched out, seemingly to detain me, but I escaped, and rushed down stairs. (F, 53/58)
This extraordinary passage firmly associates the first appearance of the monster with the simultaneous emergence of macabre incestuous disturbances in Victor's mind. In taking flight from the monster (whose outstretched hand is a greeting rather than a threat), Victor can be seen to be shunning the recognition of his own desire; his failure to acknowledge either as his own will make him their slave.

A strict equation of Frankenstein and his monster with Ego and Id runs the risk of becoming schematic, since Victor is in many ways more impulsive than his very rational creature, whose constant reminders of his creator's obligations towards him make him more of a Superego than an Id. There is still much to be said, though, for seeing their relationship as a drama of repression, an enactment of that Freudian formula so useful for the understanding of Gothic fiction, 'the return of the repressed'. The climax of this development in Frankenstein arrives with the fulfillment of the monster's promise, 'I shall be with you on your wedding night' -- a threat whose meaning Victor has repressed, assuming that he alone is the intended victim.

I had been calm during the day; but so soon as night obscured the shapes of objects, a thousand fears arose in my mind. I was anxious and watchful, {49} while my right hand grasped a pistol which was hidden in my bosom; every sound terrified me; but I resolved that I would sell my life dearly, and not relax the impending conflict until my own life, or that of my adversary, were extinguished.

Elizabeth observed my agitation for some time in timid and fearful silence; at length she said, 'What is it that agitates you, my dear Victor? What is it you fear?'

'Oh! peace, peace, my love,' replied I, 'this night, and all will be safe: but this night is dreadful, very dreadful.'

I passed an hour in this state of mind, when suddenly I reflected how dreadful the combat which I momentarily expected would be to my wife, and I earnestly entreated her to retire, resolving not to join her until I had obtained some knowledge of my enemy. (F, 192/194-5)

As with Adam in Paradise Lost, it is just this moment of separation from his wife which allows the fatal attack on her to be made. The fact that Victor leaves Elizabeth in the mistaken hope of obtaining knowledge makes the passage an unusually condensed resume of the action of the novel as a whole.

Perhaps more disturbingly, as Robert Kiely has pointed out,33 the ambiguity of this passage, in which the identity of the 'adversary' is left unspecified, allows us to read Victor's agitation as a sign that he fears the 'dreadful . . . combat' of sexual initiation itself, the more traditional 'impending conflict' of the wedding night. The coincidence of terms seems to imply that Victor's fear of sexuality and Elizabeth's murder are parts of a single 'complex'; and if we remember that the creation of the monster is an attempt to create life without encountering female sexuality, we begin to see how this connection might work. Nuptial forebodings are of course an established preoccupation of the Gothic from Bluebeard to Hammer Films, but few fictional wedding nights can have been as loaded with guilt as Frankenstein's. Just as Victor has called himself the true murderer of William, Justine, and Henry (F, 174/177), so he knows that he is his wife's assassin too, having condemned her indirectly but certainly to death by tearing up the unfinished female monster. In the relentless logic of this 'return of the repressed', what returns is not so much the monster as the content of Victor's earlier dream: the transformation of Elizabeth into a corpse, which in dream-logic is itself an 'exchange' for the transformation of a corpse into a living being.

{50} Observing Victor's anxious demeanour after his return home from Ingolstadt, his father and Elizabeth herself both guess that he wishes to break off his engagement to his childhood sweetheart, having formed another attachment while at university. Although in the plainest sense he proves them wrong by marrying Elizabeth, they are still right in a deeper sense. The monster is indeed a sort of matrimonial rival to Elizabeth, a dependant whose ties to Victor are, he claims, indissoluble until death (F, 94/99). Frankenstein delays his marriage because he remembers his solemn promise, his 'engagement' (F, 149/152) to the monster. In so far as the monster is Victor's own persecuting Doppelganger, he is in Freudian terms a symptom of a profound narcissism, displayed in his solitary and guilty attempt to achieve reproduction without a sexual partner. Viewed from a further stage of Freudian interpretation, Frankenstein's enterprise is a model of sublimation. As we saw in the wedding-night passage quoted above, he resolves not to join his bride in the marriage bed until after he has 'obtained some knowledge' of his enemy. This fatal moment of postponed consummation recapitulates the pattern of his researches at Ingolstadt, which delay his return to the affections of his family. Accounting for his inability to tear himself away from his loathsome experiments, Victor tells us: 'I wished, as it were, to procrastinate all that related to my feelings of affection until the great object, which swallowed every habit of my nature, should be completed' (F, 50/55). Victor's, case of deferred gratification in his abstinent withdrawal from Elizabeth into his researches reflects clearly that general exchange of sexual for artistic or scientific fulfillment's which Freud saw as the necessary price of cultural achievement. Frankenstein seems to formulate a law of psychic economy (essentially that of the return of the repressed) according to which the cost of sublimation has to be paid in an equal and opposite brutalization. It is of this cost, perhaps, that the monster's outrages are designed to remind us.

The discovery of narcissism and sublimation at work in Frankenstein's project offers a preliminary clue to the nature of the problem against which the tale warns, and a point of entry to the dimension of social criticism in the novel. Since, as we have observed, there is no God for Frankenstein to disobey, his transgression has to be defined in purely secular terms. There may be no divine prohibition that Victor can be said to flout, but there is still a society against which he can {51} offend, members of it he can harm, and a creature for him to neglect. M. A. Goldberg is surely right to argue, in these terms, that Victor's offence is a sin against society and against the monster;34 just as the feminist readings of the novel point out that he usurps not the privilege of God but the reproductive power of women. The terms of Mary Shelley's implicit criticism of Frankenstein appear now to be those of social obligation and irresponsible solitude. Victor's transgression is not a punctual disobedience -- an eating of the apple or a signing away of his soul -- but rather a continuous career which includes his early researches and his later neglect of the monster. What matters about his act of creation is not any heavenly law that has forbidden it but the nature of the entire transgressive process in which it is approached and carried through. In this light the monster's otherwise inexplicable ugliness can be accounted for more confidently as the visible symbol of the circumstances, the unhealthy conditions of production in which he is assembled.

Frankenstein's creation of his monster is a very private enterprise, conducted in the shadow of guilt and concealment, undertaken in narcissistic abstraction from social ties). The result of his 'secret toil' (F, 49/54) can be taken as embodying the socially irresponsible logic of private production itself. The monster is the spirit of private production brought to life, his asocial origin emphasized by his namelessness; through him Mary Shelley can show how a merely asocial course of private action harbours within it and realizes a fully anti-social potential. Frankenstein's sublimated 'abstinence' -- a form of renunciation to which the nineteenth-century bourgeoisie often referred as an explanation for its ascendancy -- produces a creature who is obliged to abstain from social intercourse. Victor's victory, the triumph of his ascetic masculine heroism, is a conquest over his own social and sexual being, fulfilled in a creature to whom social and sexual ties are denied. In this kind of 'social' reading of the novel the monster can be seen as a projection, not of some hidden part of Frankenstein's psyche but of his asocial conduct. Victor hides away from his friend, from his family, and from his fiancee to turn corpses into a living being. The monster, precisely because Victor's own solitary condition is forced (branded, as it were) upon him, turns {52} Victor's friend, family, and bride from living beings into corpses. Victor, miserable because he is asocial, makes the monster in his own image, thereby making him miserable and so antisocially malevolent. No recourse to the uncanny or the spiritual is really needed to account for the monster's appearance as Victor's 'double', and for the many correspondences which pair them. The trick is not done with mirrors but with a strict and old-fashioned causal logic, within which one of the connecting links involves a further issue of social criticism in Frankenstein: that of injustice, which Milton Mays and David Punter have read as the major theme of the novel.35

While the monster's condition may be an exact mirror image of Victor's divorce from social bonds, there is one crucial difference between them, namely that Victor's solitude is voluntary and the monster's is enforced. The fundamental injustice here is the same as that of which Adam accuses God: the creature has no say in its creation, yet it has to suffer the consequences more painfully than the creator. For the monster, his very existence is a miscarriage of justice, and his career of crime is really a prolonged protest against this anomaly. Although he explains with perfect Godwinian logic that he is malicious because he is miserable (F, 141/145), he is really driven by a conscious sense of equity rather than by mere frustration or vengeful rage; which is not to say that his actions are just. On the contrary, the victims of his attacks are all innocents, which is exactly his grim but satirical point. His outrages against the Frankenstein clan may be accepted as impetuous revenge, but in his framing of Justine as William's murderer, the monster's evident malice aforethought is likely to shock the fair-minded reader. It is criminal madness, but there is certainly a method in it, since what the monster is doing is providing an illustration of the arbitrary injustice of the human society which condemns him on sight.

The novel is peopled with characters who have been punished for crimes which they did not commit: the monster, Safie's father, Justine Moritz, the De Lacey family, and even Victor Frankenstein himself; the injustices against Justine and Victor being the work of the monster. Victor is arrested in Ireland after the murder of Henry Clerval, and the monster's message is brought home to him: as he {53} admits in prison (but fortunately not in his gaoler's language), he is Henry's murderer. The injustice is much more flagrant in the case of the tellingly-named Justine. Considering murder as a fine art, as we are at liberty to do only in fiction, we have to appreciate the setting up of this innocent servant as the monster's chef d'oeuvre, a perfectly executed representation of his own inequitable position, which implicates Victor, the good burghers of Geneva, and the Church in the worst of judicial crimes. If the monster is denied the solace of a female companion, he can at least fabricate a female partner-in-crime, with the help of the law's blindness. The Genevese court, indeed, is tricked into doing what Victor finally refuses to do for his creature: it makes a female 'monster' of Justine, and the priest even comes close to convincing Justine herself of her monstrous nature (F, 82/87), forcing her to confess falsely to the murder. Only by staging parodies of the injustice he suffers can the monster reproduce his outcast kind; so long as there are victims, he is not altogether alone.

'If there be any sight more humiliating than all others,' wrote William Godwin, 'it is that of a miserable victim acknowledging the justice of a sentence against which every enlightened spectator exclaims with horror' (EPJ, 654). Justine's confession and conviction are contrived to illustrate this Godwinian point, elaborated by Elizabeth, the single 'enlightened witness' to question the verdict. She draws the appropriate conclusion from the trial as she throws the accusation of monstrosity back upon society: 'When I reflect . . . on the miserable death of Justine Moritz, I no longer see the world and its works as they before appeared to me . . . now misery has come home, and men appear to me as monsters thirsting for each other's blood' (F, 88/92). Elizabeth has learned to look upon human institutions in much the same way as the monster does in his more extended reflections on social injustices.

The monster's initial naivete is a useful device by which Mary Shelley can lift the veil of familiarity from our view of social institutions, exposing their inequalities afresh:

Every conversation of the cottagers now opened new wonders to me. While I listened to the instructions which Felix bestowed upon the Arabian, the strange system of human society was explained to me. I heard of the division of property, of immense wealth and squalid poverty; of rank, descent, and noble blood.

The words induced me to turn towards myself. I learned that the possessions most esteemed by your fellow-creatures were, high and unsullied {54} descent united with riches. A man might be respected with only one of these acquisitions; but without either he was considered, except in very rare instances, as a vagabond and a slave, doomed to waste his powers for the profit of the chosen few. And what was I? Of my creation and creator I was absolutely ignorant; but I knew that I possessed no money, no friends, no kind of property. (F, 115/119-20)

The tortuous contrivance by which the monster is brought to reflect on these issues should not lead us to assume that this passage is some kind of extraneous supplement to the novel's main concerns. We are not dealing here with an 'organically' integrated work (if such a thing can exist), so the implausible lengths to which the author is prepared to go in order to include this social criticism appear rather to stress its importance than to betray its superfluity. The monster's application of these lessons from Volney to his own predicament, and his identification with the propertyless, invite us to regard him as a representative of the oppressed classes, while Victor appears to represent the callous neglect with which the ruling orders treat them.

Although Frankenstein is not exactly 'a straightforward allegory of the class struggle', as Paul O'Flinn has called it,36 the social and political metaphors of monstrosity which we reviewed in the last chapter would undoubtedly have been present in the minds of Mary Shelley and her readers, particularly in passages like that quoted above. Telling the story of a monster out of the 'control of its philosophical creator, Frankenstein reanimates recognizably the terms, of the debate over the French Revolution. As Lee Sterrenburg has argued,37 the monster is derived from the lurid imagery of Burke's counter-revolutionary polemics, but manages at the same time to voice the opposing views of Mary Wollstonecraft and others, indicting the prevailing system from the standpoint of the oppressed and outcast. The mythically productive equivocation of Frankenstein appears to emerge ultimately from this double -- indeed contradictory -- derivation from contending political positions. Read from the Burkean position, as it usually is, the novel seems to warn against the recklessness of the radical philosophe who tries to construct a {55} new body politic. But read from the position of Paine, Wollstonecraft, or Godwin, it seems to suggest that the violence of the oppressed springs from frustration with the neglect and injustice of their social 'parent'. Mary Shelley's own response is an uneasy combination of fearful revulsion and cautious sympathy for the monster; in short, an anxious liberalism, as O'Flinn remarks. The subsequent mythic career of the tale will also turn out to be a tug-of-war between the two contending political attitudes held in Frankenstein's unstable balance.

A more specific reading of the monster's social identity has been offered by Franco Moretti, who suggests that the piecing together of Frankenstein's creature is an image of the assembly in the late eighteenth century of the industrial proletariat, a new social 'body' thrown together from the disjecta membra of declining classes and later welded by the factory system into a dangerously powerful aggregation.38 This perceptive analogy is another of those readings which rely slightly prematurely upon important developments in the later myth. Paul O'Flinn, though, reminds us that wage-labour does rear its collective head elsewhere in Frankenstein, in the form of the crew which Walton has recruited from whaling ships. This crew threatens a mutiny unless Walton turns back from the increasing dangers of his polar expedition, much to the disgust of Frankenstein, who calls them cowards who prefer their firesides to glorious heroism. At this final stage of the novel, Walton's choice -- whether to follow Victor's example of solitary endeavour or to return to his sister's domestic sphere -- is settled for him by the employees whose lives he has risked, and he is saved from his folly by collective strike action.

Modern criticism has been able to read Frankenstein in a number of ways which go well beyond the formerly accepted interpretation of the novel as a simple cautionary tale; in so many ways, indeed, that the variety becomes bewildering. The possibilities surveyed in the last few pages cover only the main lines of recent enquiry. Paul Sherwin has listed several more, as they apply to the monster alone:

{56} If, for the orthodox Freudian, he is a type of the unconscious, for the Jungian he is the shadow, for the Lacanian an objet a, for one Romanticist a Blakean 'spectre', for another a Blakean 'emanation'; he also has been or can be read as Rousseau's natural man, a Wordsworthian child of nature, the isolated Romantic rebel, the misunderstood revolutionary impulse, Mary Shelley's abandoned baby self, her abandoned babe, an aberrant signifier, differance, or as a hypostasis of godless presumption, the monstrosity of a godless nature, analytical reasoning, or alienating labor.39
The source of this dizzying profusion of meanings appears to lie in Mary Shelley's overloading of the novel with approximately parallel 'codes' of signification -- psychological, pedagogic, sexual, Miltonic, political -- which overlap and interfere with one another at so many points that no single line of interpretation can convincingly fend off all the others. The first critical responses to Frankenstein's publication (perhaps one should say, its release) tried immediately to contain its chaotic abundance, and to resolve its equivocations.

(iv) It escapes

The reception of literary works is no straightforward matter of 'the reader' either consuming or producing the text's meanings, but a struggle which takes place among and between different readers who are already disposed in various camps, constituencies, and cultural factions, as Frankenstein's early reception shows quite clearly. The novel did not appear under Mary Shelley's own name until the second edition of 1823, so the only clue which readers had in 1818 about the anonymous author lay in the dedication to William Godwin. This was quite enough for the Tory Quarterly Review to damn it, while others were put on their guard against Frankenstein's possibly subversive and atheistic content. William Beckford, a pioneer of the Gothic novel in England, recoiled in disgust from this latest of his offspring, writing in the flyleaf of his copy: 'This is, perhaps, the foulest Toadstool that has yet sprung up from the reeking dunghill of the present times.'40 The Quarterly Review, along with the Edinburgh Magazine, drew attention to the novel's affinities with Godwin, and denounced it as 'a tissue of horrible and disgusting absurdity'. The objection continued:
{57} Our taste and our judgement alike revolt at this kind of writing, and the greater the ability with which it is executed the worse it is -- 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 . . .41
This reader at least, although seething with moral indignation, discerned no cautionary fable in the book; on the contrary, the basis of his objection is just this absence of a guiding 'moral'. The Edinburgh Magazine likewise found the views expressed in Frankenstein to be 'bordering too closely on impiety', even more dangerously than Godwin's novels.42 More astutely, this reviewer recognizes that Frankenstein 'has an air of reality attached to it, by being connected with the favourite projects and passions of the times'; it calls contemporary events 'wondrous and gigantic', presumably referring to the French Revolution and the Napoleonic wars. This review also carries the first attempt at the now established 'moral' reading: 'It might, indeed, be the author's view to shew that the powers of man have been wisely limited, and that misery would follow their extension.' It is worth noting that this remark is offered tentatively as a guess at the author's intention, to offset the more powerful feeling of Frankenstein's disturbing impiety ('some of our highest and most reverential feelings receive a shock from the conception on which it turns', particularly the idea of a mere man as creator). Sir Walter Scott in Blackwood's was kinder, admitting that Frankenstein showed 'uncommon powers of poetic imagination', although it 'shook a little even our firm nerves'.43

The conservative reviewers were not alone in emphasizing the Godwinian heresies of Frankenstein. Percy Shelley also wrote an appreciation which (although unpublished until 1832) was obviously 'intended to appear as an anonymous review, since it pretends ignorance of the author's identity and sex. In it he draws attention to the novel's similarities to Godwin in style and subject, admiring the way the monster's crimes are explained by definite causes rather than by any unaccountably evil propensity. For Percy Shelley the moral of Frankenstein is clear: 'Treat a person ill, and he will become wicked.'44 Another heretic, whose taste the Quarterly Review {58} would have regarded as vitiated, was the reviewer of Frankenstein's second edition in Knight's Quarterly Magazine, who enthused about the book's 'extreme power', and continued:

For my own part, I confess that my interest in the book is entirely on the side of the monster. His eloquence and persuasion, of which Frankenstein complains, are so because they are truth. The justice is indisputably on his side, and his sufferings are, to me, touching to the last degree.45
So far there is little sign, from either the horrified or the enthusiastic, of Frankenstein being received as a conservative parable of presumption. The novel appeared to these early readers to inculcate, in the Quarterly Review's words, 'no lesson', unless it were the radical Godwinian critique of injustice.

The moral outrage provoked among Frankenstein's more pious readers did, however, help to resolve this problem of interpretation by influencing the story's adaptation for the stage. The first dramatic version of Frankenstein appeared in 1823 with the staging of Richard Brinsley Peake's Presumption: or the Fate of Frankenstein at the English Opera House, T. P. Cooke playing the part of the monster. Mary Shelley herself went to see a performance, and although she was amused by it and impressed by Cooke's acting, she decided that 'The story is not well managed.'46 This is a remarkable understatement. The tendency of Peake's management of the tale can be guessed at from the title alone, which so baldly advertises the morally improving nature of the adaptation. What is more interesting is that, according to Elizabeth Nitchie's 'Stage History of Frankenstein', the production had to face what the playbills described as 'abortive attempts . . . to prejudice the Publick' in the form of placards apparently displayed by certain 'friends of humanity' who appealed to fathers of families to boycott the play. Under the pressure of this moral campaign, the theatre management went out of its way to announce that 'The striking moral exhibited in this story, is the fatal consequence of that presumption which attempts to penetrate, beyond prescribed depths, into the mysteries of nature.'47 One may {59} well understand that Peake's play had to pander to the conscience of the churchgoing paterfamilias. The same seems to apply to H. M. Milner's version, The Daemon of Switzerland, which was produced in the same year and was advertised as the illustration of an 'Instructive Lesson'.

A glance at Peake's adaptation (later retitled Frankenstein, A Romantic Drama) will show how the moralizing of the tale works. After creating the monster off-stage, Victor appears before the audience and describes his creature's ugliness in terms which are lifted verbatim from the novel, but then he suddenly departs from his literary source by announcing that 'a flash breaks in upon my darkened soul, and tells me my attempt was impious'.48 He goes on to cry, 'Oh that I could recall my impious labour, or suddenly extinguish the spark which I have so presumptuously bestowed' (FRD, 7). Earlier in the play Peake has introduced the comic character of Fritz, the country bumpkin who acts as Victor's assistant and who prepares the audience to interpret the tale according to received Christian notions of sin and damnation by telling them that 'like Dr Faustus, my master is raising the Devil' (FRD, 3). Peake makes several minor alterations in the story (Elizabeth becomes Victor's sister and is engaged to Clerval, while Victor is enamoured of Agatha De Lacey, who becomes the monster's victim), but the important changes are the dropping of Walton's frame-narrative and above all the silencing of the monster, who in this version has, as Frankenstein tells us, 'the mind of an infant' (FRD, 7). The monster is still responsive to music, he discovers the mixed blessings of fire, and he chops wood for the De Laceys, but he is never allowed to develop beyond blind power and rage, still less to learn of human language and customs before he is buried with his creator in an avalanche. From a sensitive critic of social institutions, the monster has been transformed into a rampaging embodiment of Victor's unleashed 'impiety', who is never given a hearing. In short, he is assimilated firmly into the traditional role of the monster as a visible image of presumptuous vice.

Peake's adaptation of the tale, and the fame of Cooke's rendering of the inarticulate monster (or '_______' as he was called in the {60} theatre programme), set the pattern for nearly all subsequent stage versions, and eventually for the 1931 screen version too, which even preserves Fritz along with the virtually silenced monster. As Nitchie's stage history records, the formula was successful and recognizable enough to spawn several burlesques -- tributes to its possibilities as an established myth:

The laboratory at the top of a staircase leading from the back of the stage, with a door for the monster to break down and a window for the frightened servant to peer through, was part of the setting for each play. There was almost invariably a cottage to be burnt. The monster always leaped the railing of the staircase; he always seized and snapped Frankenstein's sword; he always experienced wonder at sounds and was charmed by music. He was always nameless. He was always painted blue.49
While the monster was being recuperated into the traditional form of visible monstrosity in this congealing of a dramatic cliche, he was also beginning his career as an object of rhetorical allusion. In the year after the first stage productions of the story, the Foreign Secretary George Canning spoke in the House of Commons in a debate on West Indian slave emancipation, remarking of the slave that 'To turn him loose in the manhood of his physical strength, in the maturity of his physical passion, but in the infancy of his uninstructed reason, would be to raise up a creature resembling the splendid fiction of a recent romance.'50 Mary Shelley felt flattered by the attention shown to her tale in such quarters, but seems not to have noticed how Frankenstein was being used by nervous liberal statesmen to delay reform, nor how the monster (and worse, the slave) was being transformed by such rhetoric into a mindless brute. Canning, a former contributor to the Anti-Jacobin Review and a founder of the Quarterly Review, was clearly reclaiming the monster as a Burkean bogy figure to illustrate the danger of reform turning into rebellion. The same tradition of colourful rhetoric was maintained by the radical Tories of Fraser's Magazine, for whom Thomas Carlyle wrote in his early days. Fraser's seems to have invented the problem of the monster's 'soul' before even Mary Shelley herself did:
A state without religion is like a human body without a soul, or rather like an unnatural body of the species of the Frankenstein monster, without a {61} pure and vivifying principle; for the limbs are of different natures, and form a horrible heterogeneous compound, full of corruption and exciting our disgust.51
The allusion here not only absorbs the monster into the old image of the body politic, but provides retrospectively a pious explanation for Victor Frankenstein's disastrous failure. When Mary Shelley came to revise her novel for the third edition of 1831, on which virtually all modern editions have been based, she incorporated several of the more conservative readings implied in the dramatic and "rhetorical" uses to which the story had been put since 1818. Now distancing herself from her radical past, the author strengthened the cautionary element of the novel to the point where it could be read as an 'improving' work. Despite her misgivings about Peake's handling of the story, she even introduced his title into the book: the word 'presumption' appears for the first time in a new speech given to Victor, who now describes the monster as 'the living monument of presumption and rash ignorance which I had let loose upon the world' (F, (245)/80). Victor is twice made to describe his action in creating the monster as 'unhallowed' (F, (247)/89; (256)/185), and is given a chance to mention, for the first time, the problem of 'the mockery of a soul' with which he has endued his creature (F, (255)/183). Galvanism, unmentioned in 1818, also creeps into the text along with occasional phrases which stress the unhallowed nature of Victor's transgression, like the reference to his 'fervent longing to penetrate the secrets of nature' (F, (238)/39). Elizabeth's radical speech against retributive justice, in the dialogues before Justine's execution, is excised and replaced, absurdly, with some saintly advice from Justine, who now tells Elizabeth: 'Learn from me, dear lady, to submit in patience to the will of Heaven!' (F, (246)/88).

The figure of Walton is adapted to this process of conservative revision, turned into a far more deluded explorer than he was in 1818 so as to correspond to the new 'presumptuous' Frankenstein. 'I would sacrifice my fortune, my existence, my every hope,' declares this revised Walton, 'to the furtherance of my enterprise. One man's life or death were but a small price to pay for the acquirement of the knowledge which I sought' (F, (231-2)/28). In reply Victor {62} hints strongly at the similarity of their presumptuous endeavours: 'Unhappy man! do you share my madness? Have you drank also of the intoxicating draught? Hear me -- let me reveal my tale, and you will dash the cup from your lips!' (F, (232)/28). By the end of the novel Walton accordingly comes to regret his own 'mad schemes' (F, (258)/212). This revision of Frankenstein's narrative frame effects a decisive adjustment of the sense in which the central episodes are to be understood. In the 1818 text Victor tells Walton his story because he thinks his rescuer might find it interesting and useful. In the 1831 version, though, the similarities between the respective enterprises of the two men are drummed home in order to give Frankenstein's narrative a fully cautionary status: 'when I reflect', Victor tells Walton, 'that you are pursuing the same course, exposing yourself to the same dangers which have rendered me what I am, I imagine that you may deduce an apt moral from my tale' (F, (232-3)/30).

Provided thus with a moral, Frankenstein at last became an acceptable text, its meanings brought into line with the improving lessons of its dramatic versions. But while the developing tradition of stage, cartoon, and -- eventually -- screen Frankensteins managed more successfully to rein in the excesses of the story's multiple significance by exhibiting the monster as an awful warning, there remained a sphere in which the monster could live on in the less prejudicial condition of eloquent invisibility: the literary tradition. In this chapter I have sought to fend off the intrusion of later mythic developments into the reading of the 1818 novel, isolating the text from its offspring all the better to highlight the subsequent process of transformation from text to myth. In the following chapters this quarantine will be lifted, and the myth will be traced as it appears in nineteenth-century literature, often contaminated, distorted, masked, or disfigured, but unmistakably at large.


1. Sigmund Freud, 'Moses and Monotheism II', The Origins of Religion, trans. Angela Richards (Harmondsworth, 1985), 350.

2. Mary Shelley, Frankenstein; or The Modern Prometheus, ed. M. K. Joseph (Oxford, 1969), 10. Like most modern editions, Joseph's is based on Mary Shelley's third edition of 1831. Since part of my argument will involve discussion of differences between this text and the first edition of 1818 (see pp. 61-2 below), subsequent page references to Frankenstein, abbreviated as F, will be given in pairs, the first reference being to Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, Frankenstein; or The Modern Prometheus: The 1818 Text, ed. James Reiger (Indianapolis, 1974; rev. edn. Chicago 1982), and the second to the corresponding page in Joseph's edition. Where the material quoted appears only in the 1831 text, the first page reference (in parentheses) will be to the 1831 variants as printed in the appendix to Reiger's edition.

3. Ellen Moers, Literary Women (London, 1978), 92.

4. Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar, The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination (New Haven, 1979), 224.

5. Marc A. Rubenstein, '"My Accurs'd Origin": The Search for the Mother in Frankenstein', Studies in Romanticism, xv (1976), 172.

6. Ibid., 194.

7. Gay Clifford, 'Caleb Williams and Frankenstein: First-Person Narratives and "Things as They Are"', Genre, x (1977), 615.

8. Mary Shelley, The Last Man (London, 1985), 113.

9. Barbara Johnson, 'My Monster/My Self', Diacritics, 12 (Summer 1982), 8.

10. Ibid., 4.

11. Friedrich Schiller, On The Aesthetic Eduction of Man, ed. and trans. Elizabeth M. Wilkinson and L. A. Willoughby (Oxford, 1967), 35.

12. Ibid., 23.

13. William Beckford, Vathek, ed. Roger Lonsdale (Oxford, 1970), 4.

14. William Godwin, St. Leon, A Tale of the Sixteenth Century (London, 1831), 362-3.

15. Ibid., 424.

16. Anti-Jacobin Review and Magazine, v (1800), 152.

17. Godwin, St. Leon, 415.

18. Mary Wollstonecraft, Vindication of the Rights of Woman, ed. Miriam Brody Kramnick (Harmondsworth, 1975), 265.

19. The Anti-Jacobin Review (v. /427) called Godwin's followers 'spawn of the same monster'; and Thomas De Quincey recalled in 1837 that 'most people felt of Mr Godwin with the same alienation and horror as of a ghoul, or a bloodless vampyre, or the monster created by Frankenstein'. The Collected Writings of Thomas De Quincey, ed. David Masson (Edinburgh, 1890), iii. 25.

20. Wollstonecraft, Vindication, 155.

21. Burton R. Pollin, 'Philosophical and Literary Sources of Frankenstein', Comparative Literature, xvii (1965), 100-1.

22. See Paul A. Cantor, Creature and Creator: Myth-Making and English Romanticism (Cambridge, 1984).

23. On the modernity of Faust see Marshall Berman, All That Is Solid Melts Into Air: The Experience of Modernity (New York, 1982).

24. Levine and Knoepflmacher (eds.), Endurance of 'Frankenstein', 6-7.

25. On Frankenstein's critique of 'angelism' see Gerhard Joseph, 'Frankenstein's Dream: The Child as Father of the Monster', Hartford Studies in Literature, vii (1975), 97-115.

26. Levine and Knoepflmacher (eds.), Endurance of 'Frankenstein', 7.

27. Ibid., 7.

28. See Milton A. Mays, 'Frankenstein, Mary Shelley's Black Theodicy', Southern Humanities Review, iii (1969), 146-59; and Judith Wilt, 'Frankenstein as Mystery Play', in Levine and Knoepflmacher (eds.), Endurance of 'Frankenstein', 31-48. 29. Nelson, 'Night Thoughts', 251 ff.

30. Harold Bloom, 'Frankenstein, or the New Prometheus', Partisan Review, xxxii (1965), 618.

31. C. F. C. Volney, The Ruins, or a Survey of the Revolutions of Empires (London, 1878), 17.

32. See e.g. Tropp, Mary Shelley's Monster, 19-33; Nelson, 'Night Thoughts', 247-8; Masao Miyoshi, The Divided Self: A Perspective on the Literature of the Victorians (New York, 1969), 84. Mary Poovey, in her haste to present Victor's creature as a straightforward phallocratic weapon, argues implausibly that 'The monster is simply the agent that carries out Frankenstein's desire.' 'My Hideous Progeny: Mary Shelley and the Feminization of Romanticism', PMLA xcv (1980), 336.

33. Robert Kiely, The Romantic Novel in England (Cambridge, Mass., 1972), 165-6.

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

35. Mays, 'Black Theodicy', 147-53; David Punter, The Literature of Terror: A History of Gothic Fictions from 1765 to the present day (London, 1980), 127.

36. Patti O'Flinn, 'Production and Reproduction: The Case of Frankenstein', Literature and History, ix (1983), 199. O'Flinn sees the political origin of Frankenstein as the pattern of revenge and reprisal in the Luddite risings in England, rather than as the prior, and more lastingly traumatic, shock of the French Revolution.

37. Sterrenburg, 'Mary Shelley's Monster', in Levine and Knoepflmacher (eds.), Endurance of 'Frankenstein', 143-71.

38. Franco Moretti, Signs Taken for Wonders: Essays in the Sociology of Literary Forms, trans. S. Fischer, D. Forgacs, and D. Miller (London, 1983), 83-108. Much of this work is concerned to refute Formalist misconceptions of literature's necessary radicalism, and for this reason -- acceptable enough in itself -- Moretti's account of Frankenstein, the first Marxist study attempted, accepts too readily the second-hand readings of the novel as a conservative fable.

39. Paul Sherwin, 'Frankenstein: Creation as Catastrophe', PMLA xcvi (1981), 890.

40. Cited by Howard B. Gotlieb, William Beckford of Fonthill (New Haven, 1960), 61.

41. The Quarterly Review, xviii (1818), 385.

42. The Edinburgh Magazine and Literary Miscellany, ii (1818), 249-53.

43. Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine, ii (1817-18), 619.

44. The Prose Works of Percy Bysshe Shelley, ed. R. H. Shepherd, 2 vols. (London, 1888), i. 418.

45. Knight's Quarterly Magazine, iii (1824), 198.

46. The Letters of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, ed. Betty T. Bennett, 2 vols. (Baltimore, 1980-3), i. 378 (to Leigh Hunt, 9 Sept. 1823).

47. Cited by Elizabeth Nitchie, Mary Shelley, Author of 'Frankenstein' (Westport, Conn., 1953), 221. This section of Nitchie's book is reprinted from her article 'The Stage History of Frankenstein', South Atlantic Quarterly, xli (1942), 384-98.

48. Richard Brinsley Peake, Frankenstein, A Romantic Drama in Three Acts (London, 1884), 7. Subsequent page references in the text are to this edition, abbreviated as FRD.

49. Nitchie, Mary Shelley, 225.

50. Hansards Parliamentary Debates, 2nd set., x (London, 1824), col. 1103. See Mary Shelley's Letters, i. 417,564.

51. Fraser's Magazine (Nov. 1830), 481. Cited by Sterrenburg, 'Mary Shelley's Monster', 166.