Contents Index

Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley

Robert Kiely

Chapter 8 of The Romantic Novel in England (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 1972), 155-73

{155} It is something of a miracle that Frankenstein, originally published in 1818, has survived its admirers and critics. Although Scott had admired the Germanic flavor of The Monk, he praised the author of Frankenstein for writing in "plain and forcible English, without exhibiting that mixture of hyperbolical Germanisms with which tales of wonder are usually told."1 On the other hand, Beckford, who had little use for earnest horror, noted on the flyleaf of his first edition copy of Frankenstein: "This is, perhaps, the foulest Toadstool that has yet sprung up from the reeking dunghill of the present times."2

Opinion about Frankenstein was strong from the beginning, but no critical thinking on the subject was more elaborate and self-conscious than that of Mary Shelley herself. The genesis of this novel was -- even for a work of romantic fiction -- uncommonly bookish and artificial. It was supposedly begun as part of a literary contest among Shelley, Mary, Byron, and Polidori to write a ghost story in a vein popular in Germany and France.3 During the first year of her marriage to Shelley, Mary had set herself a formidable and exotic reading assignment which included Clarissa, The Sorrows of Young Werter, Lara, The Arabian Nights, Wieland, St. Leon, La Nouvelle Heloïse, Vathek, Waverley, The Mysteries of Udolpho, The Italian, The Monk, and Edgar Huntley.4 She repeatedly acknowledged the influence of Milton and Coleridge during this period of her life and, of course, Godwin and Shelley were major forces in shaping her mind.

{156} Frankenstein seems a little book to have borne up under such a mixed and mighty company of sponsors, midwives, and ancestors. Mary Shelley did not set out, like her father, to write a philosophical novel, yet her most famous work, written at Shelley's suggestion and dedicated to Godwin, is, to a large extent, an expression of her reaction to the philosophy and character of these two men. In places the narrative seems chiefly to provide the occasion for Mary to write a tribute to her father's idealism and a love poem to her husband. The hero of her novel, the young Genevese student of natural science, is a magnetic character, described by one admiring friend as possessing attributes which seem almost divine:

Sometimes I have endeavoured to discover what quality it is which he possesses that elevates him so immeasurably above any other person I ever knew. I believe it to be an intuitive discernment; a quick but never-failing power of judgment; a penetration into the causes of things, unequalled for clearness and precision; add to this a facility of expression, and a voice whose varied intonations are soul-subduing music.5 [Letter 4.7]
Yet despite such expressions of love and veneration for the nobility of Frankenstein, Mary expresses through her characters certain reservations about him which have led some readers to interpret the novel as an unconscious repudiation of Shelley. As M. K. Joseph puts it, "With unassuming originality, Mary's 'modern Prometheus' challenges the whole myth of Romantic titanism, of Shelley's neo-Platonic apocalypse in Prometheus Unbound, and of the artist as Promethean creator."6 Frankenstein is brilliant, passionate, sensitive, and capable of arousing feelings of profound sympathy in others, yet he is the creator of a monster which causes great suffering and finally destroys his maker. Signs of impatience and outright disgust with the obsessive ambitions of the hero are certainly present in the narrative.

Still, Frankenstein remains the hero throughout; he is the "divine wanderer" [Letter 4.7],his face lighted up by "a beam of benevolence and sweetness" [Letter 4.3], his spirit enlivened by a "supernatural enthusiasm" [1.3.3]. He is compared not with Faustus but with Prometheus in his desire to grasp "the secrets of heaven and earth" [1.1.6]. No one suffers more than he from his failure, and, indeed, there is a strong hint that the fault is more nature's than his that his godlike ambitions result in a monstrosity. For Mary, as for Shelley, nature's imperfect character only confirmed {157} a belief in the superiority of mind over matter. After her husband's death, Mary referred to him as "a spirit caged, an elemental being, enshrined in a frail image,"7 and confessed her reverence for the artist who would rather destroy his health than accept the limitations imposed by the body, whose "delicately attuned [mind] shatters the material frame, and whose thoughts are strong enough to throw down and dilapidate the walls of sense and dikes of flesh that the unimaginative contrive to keep in such good repair."8

In her novel The Last Man, published eight years after Frankenstein, Mary's narrator takes it as a universal truth "that man's mind alone was the creator of all that was good or great to man, and that Nature herself was only his first minister."9 And in that same novel there is a character named Adrian, even more obviously patterned after Shelley than is Frankenstein, whose "slight frame was overinformed by the soul that dwelt within."10 The fact that he is "all mind" does eventually make him behave strangely, but the implication is that the fault is the world's or society's, not his.

Applying the same logic to Frankenstein's attempt to manufacture a man, one might argue that the structural faultiness, the grotesqueness of the result, is another example of nature's failure to live up to man's expectations. Even the fact that the monster becomes a murderer and brings about the destruction of his master does not necessarily detract from the grandeur of Frankenstein's dreams. If he has not been able to create human life, he has been able to create a sublime facsimile. To some, a destructive force was still better than no force at all and the creation of a new menace better than a copy of a worn-out consolation. The Shelleys, like their friends Byron and M. G. Lewis, were fascinated by the correspondence between the terrifying and the magnificent, the proximity of ruinous and constructive forces at the highest levels of experience. "Nothing should shake the truly great spirit which is not sufficiently mighty to destroy it," said Shelley in reference to the personal relationships of geniuses.11 The risk of calamity becomes the measure of all endeavor, and a great catastrophe is preferable to a small success. Viewed in this way the catastrophic abomination represented by Frankenstein's creature is not proof of its creator's folly, but an inverse indication of his potential greatness.

Potentiality is a key concept in the delineation of Frankenstein's {158} character because, like so many romantic heroes, much of his allure derives from what he might have been, what he almost was, rather than from what he is. "What a glorious creature must he have been in the days of his prosperity," says his friend Walton, "when he is thus noble and godlike in ruin! He seems to feel his own worth and the greatness of his fall" [Walton 2]. The days of Frankenstein's prosperity do not occupy much of the narrative, but it is nonetheless clear that Walton is not altogether right. Though a good and gifted person before his "ruin," it is really afterward, by means of the uniqueness and depth of his suffering, that Frankenstein achieves superiority over other men. Having made a botch of his experiment, he may fail to impress any but the most loyal advocates in the days of his prosperity. But where actual achievement falters, the guilty and disappointed spirit can sketch the dimensions of its unfulfilled intention by describing the magnitude of its torment. We are reminded of Macaulay's remark about Byron: "He continued to repeat that to be wretched is the destiny of all; that to be eminently wretched, is the destiny of the eminent."12


Superiority through suffering is a major theme of Mary Shelley's novel, a romantic half-tragedy in which the fall from greatness is nearly all fall or, more accurately, where greatness is defined in terms of the personal pain which results from the consciousness of loss which cannot be recalled or comprehended by other men. In unique regret, Frankenstein discovers his true distinction: "I was seized by remorse and the sense of guilt which hurried me away to a hell of intense tortures, such as no language can describe" [2.1.1]. The failure of language, as always in romantic fiction, is meant to be a sign not of vacuity or of an imaginative limitation of the character or author, but of the singular noncommunicable nature of great experience.

It is unfortunate (though psychologically fitting) that in the popular mind the monster has assumed the name of his creator, because Mary Shelley considered it of some importance that the creature remain unnamed. As Elizabeth Nitchie points out, it was the custom in dramatic performances of Frankenstein to represent the monster's part on the playbill with "________." On first remarking this, Mary Shelley was pleased: "This nameless mode of naming the unnameable is rather {159} good."13 If the phenomenon itself cannot be named, neither can the feelings it evokes in its maker. No one can know what it is like to be the monster or its "parent."

What cannot be described cannot be imitated, and the pain it causes cannot be relieved. The following lines are Frankenstein's, but they might as easily have been spoken by the creature as by its creator:

"Not the tenderness of friendship, nor the beauty of earth, nor of heaven, could redeem my soul from woe: the very accents of love were ineffectual. I was encompassed by a cloud which no beneficial influence could penetrate. The wounded deer dragging its fainting limbs to some untrodden brake, there to gaze upon the arrow which had pierced it, and to die -- was but a type of me." [2.1.4]
"Gazing upon the arrow" can be a fairly protracted occupation even when no use is expected to come of it. Mary Shelley spends a great part of her narrative confronting her hero with images which evoke the sublimity of his mental state where ordinary words fail. Frankenstein journeys to Chamonix, where the mountain views elevate him from all "littleness of feeling" and "subdue and tranquilize" [2.2.1] his grief though they cannot remove it. Mont Blanc provides him with a moment of "something like joy" [2.2.3], but the Alps, though briefly impressive, are not in the end any more able than words to express or alleviate what Frankenstein feels. Trips up the Rhine, across the sea, even into the Arctic, hint at his unrest, but "imperial Nature" [2.2.1], in all her "awful majesty" [2.2.3], can no more provide truly adequate images of his misery than she can provide the fulfillment of his ambitious dreams.

At the end of the narrative, Frankenstein accuses himself of overreaching, but even in doing this, he immodestly compares himself with the prince of overreachers: "Like the archangel who aspired to omnipotence, I am chained in an eternal hell" [Walton 3]. Rather than looking back on his ambition with disgust, he remembers it with pleasure: "Even now I cannot recollect without passion my reveries while the work was incomplete. I trod heaven in my thoughts, now exulting in my powers, now burning with the idea of their effects." Despite the conventional speeches about the dangers of pride, it becomes more and more evident in the last pages of the novel that Frankenstein, though regretting the result of his extraordinary efforts, is not ashamed of having made the effort in the first place. He repeatedly warns Walton, who is engaged {160} in an expedition into the Polar Sea, to content himself with modest ambitions and a quiet life, but when Walton's men threaten to turn the ship back, the dying Frankenstein rallies to urge them on:

"Did you not call this a glorious expedition? And wherefore was it glorious? Not because the way was smooth and placid as a southern sea, but because it was full of dangers and terror . . . You were hereafter to be hailed as the benefactors of your species; your names adored as belonging to brave men who encountered death for honor and the benefit of mankind." [Walton 7]
In his last breath, he begins to warn Walton once more not to make the same mistake he did, but then changes his mind:
"Seek happiness in tranquility 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, but another may succeed." [Walton 11]
That Frankenstein does not die absolutely repentant once again raises the possibility that the monstrous result of his experiment was not the inevitable issue of pride but an accident of circumstance, the result of insufficient knowledge, or an imperfection in nature itself. If one wishes to accept Walton's reverent appraisal of his new friend, it can be said that Frankenstein has the immunity of all scientific and artistic genius from conventional morality, that he is somehow apart from and superior to material circumstances even when he himself seems to have brought them about. Just as Mary saw Shelley "caged" in a "frail image" and surrounded by misfortunes from which his superiority of mind detached and elevated him, so Walton sees Frankenstein as a man with a "double existence." "He may suffer misery and be overwhelmed by disappointments; yet, when he has retired into himself, he will be like a celestial spirit that has a halo around him, within whose circle no grief or folly ventures" [Letter 4.7].


Mary learned her lessons in idealism well, and there is in her narrative a level on which her hero is above reproach. But it must be admitted that there is a mundane side to this fantastic tale. If genius can escape or withdraw from the material universe, ordinary mortals cannot. {161} And however great their admiration for genius may be, they cannot fully separate it from the lesser objects of their perception.

Mary Shelley was a young and impetuous woman when she ran off with the poet; she was also an intelligent woman, but her journals and letters reveal that despite her efforts to form herself after her husband's image, common sense often intruded and made the task difficult. She was never intellectually disloyal to Shelley, yet she admitted that her mind could not follow his to the heights. Her novel, like almost everything else about her life, is an instance of genius observed and admired but not shared. In making her hero the creator of a monster, she does not necessarily mock idealistic ambition, but in making that monster a poor grotesque patchwork, a physical mess of seams and wrinkles, she introduces a consideration of the material universe which challenges and undermines the purity of idealism. In short, the sheer concreteness of the ugly thing which Frankenstein has created often makes his ambitions and his character -- however sympathetically described -- seem ridiculous and even insane. The arguments on behalf of idealism and unworldly genius are seriously presented, but the controlling perspective is that of an earthbound woman.

In making her hero a scientist rather than a poet or philosopher, Mary could hardly have avoided treating the material consequences of his theoretical projects. But, in almost all important respects, Frankenstein's scientific ambitions are at the level where they coincide with the highest desires of artists and metaphysicians, to investigate the deepest mysteries of life, to determine causes and first principles. The early descriptions of Frankenstein's youthful dreams are filled, like more recent forms of "science fiction," with outlandish schemes which combine the highest fancies of the imagination with an elaborate application of technical ingenuity. Though Frankenstein himself scorns the notion, his "scientific" method has a large dose of hocus-pocus in it and comes a good deal closer to alchemy than it does to physiology. The professor whom he most admires disclaims the inflated schemes of ancient pseudo-scientists, but then proceeds to claim for modern scientists the godlike ambitions previously invoked by poets and prophets:

"Modern masters promise very little; they know that metals cannot be transmuted, and that the elixir of life is a chimera. But these philosophers, whose hands seem only to dabble in dirt, and their eyes to pore over the {162} microscope or crucible, have indeed performed miracles. They penetrate into the recesses of nature, and show how she works in her hiding places. They ascend into the heavens. They have acquired new and almost unlimited powers; they can command the thunders of heaven, mimic the earthquake, and even mock the invisible world with its own shadows." [1.2.6]
The passage sounds like an answer to the Lord's questions about knowledge and power in the Book of Job. The obvious echoes of Biblical language show, among other things, that science is making religion (or, more particularly, the fear of God) obsolete. But, beyond this, the speech might be passed over as a conventional piece of hyperbole if Mary did not undercut it sharply by proceeding to show her hero trying literally to put his professor's words into practice by penetrating the "recesses of nature." Frankenstein digging about in graveyards and charnel houses, matching eyeballs and sawing bones, is not an inspiring sight. Even less so is the bungled construct of muscles, arteries, and shriveled skin which he had intended as a perfectly proportioned and beautiful being. The gap between the ideal and the real, the ambition and the accomplishment, produces a result as gruesome and absurd as any pseudo-science of the Middle Ages. Still, Mary is not criticizing exalted ambition, but the misapplication of it, the consequences of what Frankenstein himself describes as "unrelaxed and breathless eagerness" [1.3.6], a "frantic impulse" [1.3.6], a trance-like pursuit of one idea. Through the mouth of her hero, she raises a question which in life she could probably never bring herself to ask her husband: "Is genius forever separate from the reasonable, the reflective, and the probable?"

The question is one which troubled a great many romantic artists and critics. Hazlitt, for one, did not accept such a division as inevitable, and he criticized Shelley in words which parallel almost exactly Frankenstein's own terms of self-criticism after the failure of his experiment:

Shelley's style is to poetry what astrology is to natural science -- a passionate dream, a striving after impossibilities, a record of fond conjectures, a confused embodying of vague abstractions -- a fever of the soul, thirsting and craving over what it cannot have, indulging its love of power and novelty at the expense of truth and nature, associating ideas by contraries, and wasting great powers by their application to unattainable objects.14
Hazlitt's impatience with Shelley, as expressed in the opening analogy, is based, to a large degree, on the poet's departure from the natural. {163} Shelley himself was deeply aware of the problem, and Alastor, or the Spirit of Solitude, was, in part, a criticism of the pursuit of truth under unnatural conditions of isolation. The poet's invocation to Mother Nature could have been spoken by Frankenstein during the research which led to the creation of the monster:
        . . . I have made my bed
In charnels and on coffins, where black Death
Keeps record of the trophies won from thee;
Hoping to still these obstinate questionings
Of thee and thine by forcing some lone ghost,
Thy messenger to render up the tale
Of what we are. In lone and silent hours,
When night makes a weird sound of its own stillness,
Like an inspired and desperate alchemist
Staking his very life on some dark hope,
Have I mixed awful talk and asking looks
With my most innocent love; until strange tears,
Uniting with those breathless kisses, made
Such magic as compels the charmed night
To render up thy charge. [23-37]
The passage describes a kind of necrophilia, an unnatural probing into the secrets of nature; and yet, despite his disapproving moral, the poet appears to luxuriate in the contemplation of the forbidden and fruitless act. It is, after all, the poet-narrator, not Alastor, who is speaking in this passage. As the image of the "inspired and desperate alchemist" suggests, the question remains as to whether a poet of sufficient genius can transform inert and unlikely objects into "gold"; or, to extend the sexual metaphor of the lines, whether the intercourse of mind with dead matter can produce new and vital images of nature. Shelley seems to be reasoning in the negative and rhyming in the affirmative. He argues in the preface to Alastor, that no truly great human effort can succeed if it is removed from the nourishing warmth of "human sympathy." Yet neither his poetry nor his life provides consoling solutions to the solitude genius so often creates for itself. Even an early and, for Shelley, relatively simple definition of love must have given Mary uneasy moments.
Love . . . is . . . the universal thirst for a communion not merely of the senses, but of our whole nature, intellectual, imaginative, and sensitive; and which, when individualized, becomes an imperious necessity . . . The {164} sexual impulse, which is only one, and often a small party of (its) claims, serves, from its obvious and external nature, as a kind of type or expression of the rest, a common basis, an acknowledged and visible link.15
It is not the kind of statement D. H. Lawrence would have admired, nor can its Platonism have been altogether comforting to a companion for whom the "visible link" of sex was the one claim not rivaled by Byron, Peacock, Hogg, Hunt, or Trelawny.


In describing the way in which Frankenstein's experiment seems most "unnatural," Mary Shelley implies a definition of the natural which is peculiarly feminine in bias. For her, Frankenstein's presumption is not in his attempt to usurp the power of the gods -- she quite willingly grants him his "divine" attributes -- but in his attempt to usurp the power of women. "A new species would bless me as its creator and source," says Frankenstein in the enthusiasm of his first experiments. "No father could claim the gratitude of his child so completely as I should reserve theirs" [1.3.6]. He seeks to combine the role of both parents in one, to eliminate the need for woman in the creative act, to make sex unnecessary. At least that would be the net result of his experiment if it were successful, despite the fact that he himself tends to see its consequences in grander and vaguer terms. Thus, while Mary grants her hero the nobility and even the innocence of his intentions, she cannot help but undercut them with her own womanly sense of how things are.

Stripped of rhetoric and ideological decoration, the situation presented is that of a handsome young scientist, engaged to a beautiful woman, who goes off to the mountains alone to create a new human life. When he confesses to Walton that he has "worked hard for nearly two years" [1.4.2] to achieve his aim, we may wonder why he does not marry Elizabeth and, with her cooperation, finish the job more quickly and pleasurably. But one must be careful not to imply that Mary's irony is flippant or altogether conscious. Quite to the contrary, her reservations about her hero's presumptuous idealism are so deeply and seriously felt that they produce a symbolic nightmare far more disturbing and gruesome than the monster itself. As soon as the creature begins to show animation and Frankenstein realizes that he has made an abomination, {165} the scientist races to his bedroom, paces feverishly about, and finally falls into a troubled sleep:

"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 beheld the corpse of my dead mother in my arms; a shroud enveloped her form, and I saw the graveworms crawling in the folds of the flannel. I started from my sleep with horror . . . (and) beheld the wretch -- the miserable monster whom I had created." [1.4.2]
In this extraordinary rendition of an Oedipal nightmare, Mary shows, without moral comment, the regressive depths of her hero's mind. Frankenstein's crime against nature is a crime against womanhood, an attempt -- however unconscious -- to circumvent mature sex. For Mary, this is the supreme symbol of egotism, the ultimate turning away from human society and into the self which must result in desolation. Having moved array from family, friends, and fiancee to perform his "creative" act in isolation, Frankenstein later beholds the monster, in a grotesquely exaggerated re-enactment of his own behavior, "eliminate" his younger brother, his dearest friend, and his beloved Elizabeth.

All the crimes are sins against life in the bloom of youth and beauty, but the murder of the woman is the most effectively presented and, in a way, the most carefully prepared. Frankenstein's fears on his wedding night are presumably due to the monster's threat to pursue him even to his marriage chamber. But the immediate situation and the ambiguity of the language contribute to the impression that the young groom's dread of the monster is mixed with his fear of sexual union as a physical struggle which poses a threat to his independence, integrity, and delicacy of character. Frankenstein describes the event in the following manner:

"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, 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 shrink from the conflict, until my own life, or that of my adversary, was extinguished.

"Elizabeth observed my agitation for some time in timid and fearful silence; but there was something in my glance which communicated terror {166} to her, and trembling she asked, '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 reflected how fearful 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 as to the situation of my enemy." [3.6.1]

Frankenstein leaves the room, and it is while he is away that his bride is murdered by the monster on her untried marriage bed. The passage is filled with the language of anxiety, phallic inference, and imagery of conflict, yet it is in Frankenstein's absence -- not in an eager assertion of his physical presence -- that harm comes to Elizabeth. If we take the monster to be one side of Frankenstein's nature, an alter-ego, then we see his physically potent self as brutish, ugly, and destructive, completely unintegrated with his gentle spirit. To depict a radical separation of mind from sexuality is one way to explore an unsatisfactory rapport between the imagination and the natural world. But what is important in the thematic terms of the novel's not the mere existence of the separation, but the fact that physical life is made ugly (indeed, is made to wither and die prematurely) because it is inadequately tended by the mind. The problem is not abuse but neglect.

The importance of the wedding night scene lies in its sexual connotation insofar as that provides the basic and concrete context in which, once again, to exemplify the hero's withdrawal from physical and emotional contact with living human beings. There are earlier instances of his separating himself from his family and from his friend Clerval, even while protesting, as he has with Elizabeth, that he continues to love them in spirit. The outrage dramatized in this novel is not restricted to a specifically sexual offense -- nor is it directed against genius or ambition or idealism. The enemy is an egotism which, when carried to the extreme, annihilates all life around it and finally destroys itself.


While the main theme of the novel is the monstrous consequences of egotism, the counter-theme is the virtue of friendship. For, as Frankenstein's crime is seen as a sin against humankind more than {167} against the heavens, it is through human sympathy, rather than divine grace, that it might have been avoided or redeemed. In her treatment of friendship, Mary shows the Coleridgean side of herself. She sees a friend as a balancing and completing agent, one who is sufficiently alike to be able to sympathize and understand, yet sufficiently different to be able to correct, and refine. Above all, the friend, in giving ear to one's dreams and sufferings, provides not only a temporary release from them, but the immediate excuse to order them by putting them into words.

The entire narrative of Frankenstein is in the form of three confessions to individuals with whom the speaker has unusually close ties. First, the young explorer Robert Walton writes to his sister in England as he journeys into the Arctic. There he rescues Frankenstein from a shipwreck and listens to his tale, which, in turn, contains a long narrative spoken by the monster to its creator. There is not a great deal of difference in the styles of the three narratives, though the emphasis in each is determined to a large extent by the speaker's relation to the listener. Walton's sister is an affectionate English lady who needs to be reassured that her brother is not in too much danger. He is lonely and he writes to her in detail about everything, trying usually to maintain an air of competence and calm. Frankenstein is a genius on the verge of despair and death, brought to glow again by the admiration of his rescuer. He tells his story to dissuade Walton from ruining himself similarly through excessive ambition, spares no emotion or rhetoric, and condescends to him from the superiority of his suffering. The monster wants pity from his creator; his narrative is the most sentimental of the three and the most pathetically modest in its claims.

Each narrator speaks of the importance of friendship -- Walton and the monster because they feel the lack of it, Frankenstein because he has had friends and lost them. In Walton's second letter to his sister, he reports that he has hired a ship and is ready to set sail on his dangerous journey. The one thing that troubles him is that, though he has a well-trained crew, he has no soul companion:

I have one want which I have never yet been able to satisfy . . . I have no friend . . . When I am glowing with the enthusiasm of success, there will be none to participate in my joy; if I am assailed by disappointment, no one will endeavour to sustain me in dejection . . . I desire the company {168} of a man who could sympathize with me; whose eyes would reply to mine. You may deem me romantic, my dear sister, but I bitterly feel the want of a friend. I have no one near me, gentle yet courageous, possessed of a cultivated as well as of a capacious mind, whose tastes are like my own, to approve or amend my plans. How would such a friend repair the faults of your poor brother! [Letter 2.2]
When Walton's ship picks up the nearly frozen body of Frankenstein, the explorer hopes that at last he has found the ideal friend. He nurses, consoles, and entertains the survivor, but when he approaches the subject of friendship, Frankenstein, as always, agrees in theory, but finds a reason not to become involved in the situation at hand:
"I agree with you . . . we are unfashioned creatures, but half made up, if one wiser, better, dearer, than ourselves -- such a friend ought to be -- do not lend his aid to perfectionate our weak and faulty natures. I once had a friend, the most noble of human creatures, and, am entitled, therefore, to judge respecting friendship." [Letter 4.7]
Frankenstein condescends to poor Walton even on the subject of friendship. It is too late for him to take up any new ties in life, he explains, because no man could ever be more to him than Clerval was and no woman more than Elizabeth. Of course, as Walton and the reader soon discover, despite Frankenstein's avowals of mutual influence and attachment, neither Clerval nor Elizabeth had any effect on him at all after his childhood and early youth. In fact, it is precisely the qualities which each of them personifies which might have saved Frankenstein from proceeding in his mad experiment. Clerval, though refined and cultivated, is essentially the outgoing, energetic, and enterprising friend who would counsel Frankenstein to climb the mountain rather than brood over it. Elizabeth was the "saintly soul" [1.1.6], whose love softened and attracted, and who, whenever with Frankenstein, subdued him "to a semblance of her own gentleness" [1.1.6].

Mary was sufficiently her mother's daughter to assume that a woman, as easily as another man, could be the soul companion, the ideal friend, of a man. She did not regard sexual love as an impediment to ideal friendship, nor, it would seem, as a "small party" of the claims of true love. Elizabeth and Frankenstein almost always address one another as "dear friend," and she and Clerval simply complement different sides of Frankenstein's nature. If it were to come to a choice of one {169} or the other, the novel leaves little doubt that the feminine companion is the more valuable since she can provide both spiritual sympathy and physical affection. It is a great and painful loss for Frankenstein when Clerval is killed, but the death of Elizabeth is the end of everything for him. He dedicates himself to the pursuit and destruction of the monster, follows him to "the everlasting ices of the north" where, surrounded by blankness and waste, he confronts the sterility and uselessness of his life in a setting which anticipates that of the conclusions of Poe's A. Gordon Pym and Lawrence's Women in Love, and which was itself inspired by The Ancient Mariner.16 Walton writes to his sister that he goes to "the land of mist and snow" partly because Coleridge's poem has instilled in him "a love for the marvelous" [Letter 2.5]. But in Frankenstein, unlike The Ancient Mariner, the icy region is not an early stage of a long and redemptive journey, but an end point, a cold blank, an image of sterility and failure.

An earlier scene of frozen desolation associated with isolation from human -- especially feminine -- companionship takes place between Frankenstein and the monster on a glacier at the base of Mont Blanc. The monster begs his maker to listen to him and proceeds to explain in detail how he has observed and imitated the ways of man, but is shunned because of his ugliness and is forced to wander over glaciers and hide in caves of ice because these are the only dwellings "man does not grudge" [2.2.6]. In other words, despite the bizarre details associated with his creation, the monster's lament is much the same as that of the physically presentable Caleb Williams: the world does not see him as he really is. His narrative is punctuated by outcries of loneliness:

"Everywhere I see bliss, from which I alone am irrevocably excluded." [2.2.5]

"When I looked around, I saw and heard of none like me." [2.5.5]

"I had never yet seen a being resembling me, or who claimed any intercourse with me. What was I?" [2.5.7]

"I am an unfortunate and deserted creature . . . I have no relation or friend upon earth." [2.7.8]

The repetition of this theme, with slight variations, continues throughout the monster's narrative. However ludicrous or grotesque it may seem in the concrete, it is nonetheless in keeping with one of {170} the central arguments of the novel that the monster should ask Frankenstein to make him a wife. This, in fact, is the object of his narration:
"If I have no ties and no affections, hatred and vice must be my portion; the love of another will destroy the cause of my crimes . . . My vices are the children of a forced solitude that I abhor; and my virtues will necessarily arise when I live in communion with an equal. I shall feel the affections of a sensitive being, and become linked to the chain of existence and events, from which I am now excluded." [2.9.4]
The irony of the situation, though heavy-handed, is effective. Having removed himself from human companionship and the sexual means of procreation, Frankenstein brings into being a creature who, though not innately evil, is a torment to himself and to others precisely because he is without companionship and a sexual counterpart. In this respect the monster may well be taken as Frankenstein's alter-ego, his strange and destructive self, which finds no adequate means of communication with others, no true resemblances, no reciprocation, a repressed and hidden beast for whom all acceptable forms of human commerce are unavailable and therefore hateful. Frankenstein himself calls the unnameable creature "my own spirit let loose from the grave . . . forced to destroy all that was dear to me" [1.6.8].


Mary saw, as did her father, the duality in human nature which is capable of bringing misery and ruin to the most gifted of beings. Her novel is not so pessimistic as Caleb Williams nor are the solutions implied in it so optimistic as those outlined in Political Justice. Neither her father's trust in system nor her husband's unworldliness seemed satisfactory to her. On the contrary, judging from the events of her novel, both alternatives were too likely to lead to that single-mindedness which, when carried to the extreme, was a kind of insanity. It would seem, in fact, that of all the romantic influences on her mind and work, Shelley's undoubtedly stimulated, but Coleridge's comforted; Shelley's provided confusion and enchantment, Coleridge's provided psychological and moral consolation. The ethereal reveries of her hero are loyal attempts to imitate Shelley, but they are among the most strained and unconvincing passages of the novel. Mary's natural in- {171} clination was toward synthesis, integration, a constant effort to find balance, relationship, correspondence, to root all ideals in natural process, and to find in nature the external signs of an ideal region. Her heart is with those, described by Coleridge, "who measuring and sounding the rivers of the vale at the feet of their furthest inaccessible falls have learned, that the sources must be far higher and far inward."17 Despite his supposedly scientific approach to things, Frankenstein's error is to circumvent an elementary principle of nature in trying to achieve his rather vaguely conceived ambition.

In stressing friendship, and especially heterosexual love, as her "river of the vale," the natural symbol of a higher necessity, Mary presents her own concrete version of the theory of correspondence. We must give her more credit than to think that she supposed the problems of all men -- including geniuses -- would be solved by marriage to a good woman. What she does mean is that no being truly exists -- except in an insane wilderness of its own creation -- unless it finds and accepts a relationship of mutual dependence with another. The rapport with otherness is both the link with the objective world and the condition for self-delineation.

In his tenth essay from The Friend, Coleridge says, "In a self-conscious and thence reflecting being, no instinct can exist without engendering the belief of an object corresponding to it, either present or future, real or capable of being realized."18 Mary Shelley's definition of a monster is precisely that being to which nothing corresponds, the product of a genius who tried to exercise its will without reference to other beings. Even Caleb Williams, at least until Falkland's death, is better off than the monster in that he can draw energy to shape some identity for himself from his strange bond with his master. Godwin wrote in his preface that he amused himself with the parallels between his story and that of Bluebeard: "Caleb Williams was the wife, who in spite of warning, persisted in his attempts to discover the forbidden secret; and, when he had succeeded, struggled as fruitlessly to escape the consequences, as the wife of Bluebeard in washing the key of the ensanguined chamber."

Frankenstein's first act after creating a new life is to disown it. The problem is not, as in Caleb Williams, an ambiguous fascination leading {172} to abuse and immediate and obsessive pursuit. As soon as his dream is realized in concrete form, Frankenstein wants nothing to do with it. Despite his claims to scientific interest, he demonstrates no wish whatever to observe and analyze the imperfect results of his experiment. When he does finally pursue the monster, it is not in order to possess, dominate or torment it, but to annihilate it. Though there is something ludicrous in the way the monster stumbles upon books and learns to read during his lonely wandering, the thematic consistency of the episode is unmistakable. The monster is most impressed by Paradise Lost; he compares himself with Adam before the creation of Eve, but, like a good Romantic, he finds Satan an even "fitter emblem" [2.7.4] of his condition. Still, neither emblems, nor words can really help or define him any more than ordinary men can. He can find parallels but no connections and he concludes his encounter with books by envying Satan like all the others, for even he "had his companions" [2.7.4].

The two dominant themes of Frankenstein never truly harmonize, nor does one succeed effectively in canceling out the other. Surely, the most explicit "moral" theme of the novel -- expressed by the author with genuine conviction -- is that man discovers and fulfills himself through others and destroys himself alone. Yet played against this, not so much as an argument but as an assumption, is the idea that the genius, even in his failures, is unique, noble, and isolated from other men by divine right.

Frankenstein is neither a pure hymn of praise to Godwin and Shelley nor a simple repudiation of them. Mary's uncertainties are not reflected in parody or burlesque, as Beckford's and Lewis's are in Vathek and The Monk. Her prose style is solemn, inflated, and imitative, an unhappy combination of Godwin's sentence structure and Shelley's abstract vocabulary. Whatever else she may have thought, Mary obviously did not regard her father or husband as silly. Her reservations about them were deep, complex, and mixed with genuine admiration.

After Shelley's death, Mary considered how best to educate her son, and a friend advised that she teach him to think for himself. Mary is said to have answered, "Oh my God, teach him to think like other people!"19 If the young wife had been able to speak with the emphatic clarity of the widow, she probably would have had fewer nightmares {173} and Frankenstein might never have been written. The book is a bad dream entwined with a moral essay. Like all romantic fiction, it resounds with the fascinating dissonance which usually results from intimate encounters between irrational symbols and reasonable statements.


1. Sir Walter Scott, "Remarks on Frankenstein," Blackwood's (March 1818), reprinted in Critical and Miscellaneous Essays of Sir Walter Scott, I, 448.

2. Quoted in Howard B. Gotlieb, William Beckford of Fonthill, p. 61.

3. For a discussion of the genesis of Frankenstein, see James Rieger, The Mutiny Within (New York: G. Braziller, 1967), pp. 237-247.

4. Mary Shelley's Journal, ed. Frederick L. Jones (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1947), pp. 32-33.

5. Quotations are taken from Mary W. Shelley, Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus, ed. M. K. Joseph (London: Oxford University Press, 1969). The text is based on the third edition of 1831, Mary Shelley's revision of the 1818 first edition.

6. M. K. Joseph, Introduction to Frankenstein, p. xiv.

7. Mary Shelley's Journal, p. 183.

8. The Letters of Mary W. Shelley, ed. Frederick L. Jones, 2 vols. (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1944), I, 281.

9. Mary Shelley, The Last Man, ed. Hugh J. Luke, Jr. (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1965), p. 5.

10. Ibid., p. 18.

11. Quoted in Mary Shelley's Journal, p. 20.

12. Thomas Macaulay, "Review of Thomas Moore's Letters and Journals of Lord Byron," Edinburgh Review, no. 53 (June 1831), 544.

13. Elizabeth Nitchie, Mary Shelley (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1953), p. 219. For a fascinating account of the stage history of Frankenstein, see pp. 218-231.

14. William Hazlitt, "Review of Shelley's Posthumous Poems," The Edinburgh Review, no. 40 (July 1824), 494.

15. Percy Bysshe Shelley, "A Discourse on the Manners of the Ancients, relative to the Subject of Love," Essays and Letters by Percy Bysshe Shelley, ed. Ernest Rhys (London, 1886), p. 48.

16. For a discussion of the polar symbolism in Frankenstein, see James Rieger, The Mutiny Within, pp. 79-89.

17. The Complete Works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, ed. W. G. T. Shedd, 7 vols. (New York, 1884), III, 326.

18. Ibid., II, 449.

19. Quoted in Ford K. Brown, The Life of William Godwin (London: J. M. Dent, 1926), p. 375