Contents Index

Frankenstein: Unbound and Otherwise

Patrick G. McLeod

Extrapolation, 21:2 (1980), 158-66

The blind Milton envisioned in Paradise Lost an embittered Adam rebuking God for having created him. "Did I request thee, Maker," he cries out, "from my clay / To mould me man? Did I solicit thee / From darkness to promote me?" (X.743-45). For Adam, consciousness has become a nightmare of inescapable reality, the horror of which is engendered in the terms of his own creation. A similar elemental terror is at the heart of Frankenstein, just as it is Adam's cry of anguish that Mary Shelley chose as the epigraph to her first novel. Like Adam before him, Victor Frankenstein yearns for more than his nature will allow, and the subsequent curse for such ambition and pride takes form in the towering monster that is the work of his own hands. From a curious dream about the creation of life, Mary Shelley shaped a tale of horror that continues to endure as a prominent myth in our own age.

From films alone, as Brian Aldiss remarks in Billion Year Spree: The True History of Science Fiction, we get some idea of the fascination accorded the Frankenstein myth as well as too many examples of the celluloid abominations visited upon it:

There were short silent versions, but the monster began his true movie career in 1931, with James Whale's Universal picture Frankenstein, in which Boris Karloff played the monster. The dials in the castle laboratory have hardly stopped flickering since. The monster has spawned Sons, Daughters, Ghosts and Houses; has taken on Brides and created Woman; has perforce shacked up wit Dracula and Wolf Man; has enjoyed Evil, Horror, and Revenge, and has eve had the Curse; on one occasion, it met Abbott and Costello.1
{159} If the cinema has generally distorted the terror of Mary Shelley's novel into febrile fantasies of shocks and giggles, Aldiss makes clear in his novel Frankenstein Unbound that Mary Shelley's nightmare is more than appropriate for the modern world and the future it is breeding through the monstrosities of science. Frankenstein's monster is with us again; indeed, the monster is the twentieth century.

But for Frankenstein to be unbound, as he is in Aldiss' novel, he must first be born, and the origin of the species is Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. The book springs from the famous dream which Mary records in her "Introduction" to the 1831 edition: "I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half vital motion."2 In the nightmare, Victor Frankenstein kneels beside the creature he will later call demon, the creator before his created, in a grotesque, parodic reversal of the relationship between master and slave, God and man. In the novel, the relationship between man and monster runs true to its initial conception in dream. Man becomes a slave to that which he creates, birth brings death, light evokes darkness, and truth reveals monstrosity. The novel's origin reveals much of its inherent terror. Frankenstein is, after all, the tale of man awakening to his dreams and to himself, and opening his eyes to horror.

The monstrous operates on many levels in the novel. The first is the most obvious as well as the most deceptive. Victor Frankenstein is the epitome of the unbridled intellect, soaring to dangerous heights like Icarus and with the same result, defying the law of God and nature like Prometheus and reaping a similar doom. "It was the secrets of heaven and earth that I desired to learn," Frankenstein tells Robert Walton, his fellow in ambition and intellectual curiosity, "and whether it was the outward substance of things, or the inner spirit of nature and the mysterious soul of man that occupied me, still my inquiries were directed to the metaphysical, or, in its highest sense, the physical secrets of the world" (p. 32). He finds out more about nature and the mysterious soul of man than he can deal with. Like Walton, who elevates the "intellectual eye" to "the acquirement of knowledge . . . for the dominion I should acquire and transmit over the elemental foes of our race," Frankenstein seeks the good of man by eliminating from the human frame what he calls "that most irreparable evil" -- death. His ambition is Promethean indeed when he attempts to break through the "ideal bounds" of life and death, to circumvent and even reverse the limiting laws of nature and, in his own words, "pour a torrent of light into our dark world" (p. 46). The results of such messianic foolhardiness are by now too familiar, and Frankenstein seals his doom with his dream. After him countless other mad scientists and doctors, like {160} H. G. Wells's Dr. Moreau and Robert Louis Stevenson's Dr. Jekyll, follow suit and suffer. Frankenstein's self-denunciation to Walton, which he reinforces with the story of his disastrous researches, seems on the surface clear and unequivocal, if not too attractive. "Learn from me," he pleads, "if not by my precepts, at least by my example, how dangerous is the acquirement of knowledge, and how much happier that man is who believes his native town to be the world, than he who aspires to become greater than his nature will allow" (p. 45).

If Frankenstein's creature primarily embodies the monstrosity of an unrestrained intellect, cold and forbidding as the glaciers he inhabits, the horror he reflects is not restricted to the cerebral. There is a curious connection in the novel between the terror and ugliness of the monster and the physical realities of sex. After retreating in disgust from the being he has just brought to life, Victor rushes to his bed and into the most grotesque of dreams, not about the monster but his fiancée:

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. (p. 49)
He rouses himself from this dream only to discover the monster standing erect before him. Later, Victor postpones any thought of marriage to Elizabeth until he can rid himself of the demon he has created but which nonetheless possesses him. Though his father makes anxious inquiries about the marriage plans, Victor, who has agreed to placate the creature by creating a mate for him, shudders at the elder Frankenstein's remarks: "Alas! to me the idea of an immediate union with my Elizabeth was one of horror and dismay. . . . I must perform my engagement, and let the monster depart with his mate, before I allowed myself to enjoy the delight of a union from which I expected peace" (p. 129). So Victor moves back to the drawing board and away from the marriage bed until the thought of the monsters copulating and begetting progeny causes him to destroy the half-finished bride in a fury. Understandably annoyed, the creature, who has been watching the destruction of his expectations through a window, utters his fateful promise: "I shall be with you on your wedding night!" (p. 143). As the creature departs, Victor refrains from pursuit, though he himself does not understand why: "Why had I not followed him, and closed with him in mortal strife? But I had suffered him to depart, and he had directed his course towards the main land. I shuddered to think who might be the next victim sacrificed to his insatiate revenge. And then I thought again of his words -- 'I will be with you on your wedding night'" (p. 143).

{161} One possible reason Victor does not pursue his nemesis is that he unconsciously wills the destruction of one kind of ugliness, sex, by another, his monster. Regardless, his wedding day comes and goes, and he paces the floor of the nuptial bedroom with anything but the eagerness of an expectant bridegroom. The description of his fears and what turns out to be the most unusual preparations for a wedding night is almost embarrassing in its possible implications:

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 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." (p. 165)
The creature quickly relieves some of that dreadfulness for Frankenstein by killing his bride, and Victor becomes a premature widower like his own poor creation. But freedom is again a horror, for the throttling of passion brings with it only loneliness and frustration. Victor must still grapple with himself, and his pursuit of the monster becomes his own final journey toward self-destruction. Death appears to be the only ultimate consolation for Frankenstein as well as the creature, and the mad chase into the polar North is as suicidal as it is vengeful. The creature has the final word as he stands over his maker's dead body, but in his profession of the relief he seeks in his own destruction, he voices the inner agonies which drove his creator to death as well: "But soon . . . I shall die, and what I now feel be no longer felt. Soon these burning miseries will be extinct. . . . My spirit will sleep in peace; or if it thinks, it will not surely think thus" (pp. 189-90/C).

The monstrosities of passion and intellect are thus two of the by-products of Victor's research into what he had called the "mysterious soul of man," revelations that seem to yield a grotesque, almost perverse portrait of human nature. But much of the puzzlement and complexity of the novel lies in the fact that what renders man such a malformed creature is the absurd order of creation itself, shaped in turn by inscrutable laws more horrendous in their indifference to man's plight than Victor Frankenstein's disastrous but well-intentioned efforts to reduce their oppression. We are back to Adam's angry rejection of the role imposed on him by God with which Mary Shelley prefaced her novel, and Frankenstein stands every bit in relation to God, or the impersonal order of creation, as the creature to {162} him -- a misunderstood outcast. It is true that Mary Shelley had written that her dream was so unusually horrible because "supremely frightful would be the effect of any human endeavor to mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world" (p. 10/I). Yet everything else in the novel, including the subtitle The Modern Prometheus, seems to indicate a sympathy with the ironically named Victor. Both Robert Walton and the creature proclaim his greatness and goodness. He has succeeded in ripping from the heavens the spark of life with which he meant to banish from mankind all illness and ultimately death. Why then must he suffer so much? The answer lies in the crowning monstrosity of the novel -- that stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world.

Frankenstein does discover the truth of life; however, it does anything but make him free. Intelligence is a curse, for it only reveals to man his own inadequacies and serfdom to the indifferent and sometimes hostile forces about him. The creature becomes aware of this when he proclaims that "sorrow only increased with knowledge. Oh, that I had for ever remained in my native wood, nor known nor felt beyond the sensations of hunger, thirst, and heat" (p. 102). Victor too bewails the tragedy of human consciousness: "Alas! why does man boast of sensibilities superior to those apparent in the brute; it only renders them more necessary beings. If our impulses were confined to hunger, thirst, and desire, we might be nearly free; but now we are moved by every wind that blows. . ." (p. 83). The condemnation and execution of Justine Moritz -- whose name, a derivative of Justice, is as bitterly appropriate as Victor's -- reinforce the cruelty and deception of the natural order, the moral darkness of which renders indistinguishable right and wrong, good and evil, innocence and guilt. Even the incredibly patient and long-suffering Elizabeth senses the presence of the monstrous when she reflects on the death of Justine. She intones: "Alas! Victor, when falsehood can look so like the truth, who can assure themselves of certain happiness? I feel as if I were walking on the edge of a precipice, towards which thousands are crowding, and endeavoring to plunge me into the abyss" (p. 79).

Thus the novel Frankenstein explores terror on many levels, but the myth of Frankenstein which has accumulated about Mary Shelley's characters has tended to accrue to the notion of science run amok and the intellect gone insane. In Frankenstein Unbound, however, Aldiss restores complexity to the myth even as he brings the monster to age. It is a curious book, not unlike its original model in its ambiguous expression of the monstrous. More than anything, however, it is a tribute by an unabashed admirer to Mary Shelley, author of what Aldiss hails as "the first novel of the Scientific Revolution and, incidentally, . . . the first novel of science fiction."3 When Joe Bodenland, the narrator of the novel, makes love to Mary Shelley, we sense a vicarious wish-fulfillment for Aldiss, particularly {163} evident when, in the flush of postcoital bliss, our middle-aged hero turns to young Mary and utters with her "the name that had united us: Frankenstein" (p. 108).

The novel opens in the second decade of the twenty-first century when, because of the proliferation of nuclear experimentation and warfare, the fabric of space and time has become so disjointed that past, present, and future tumble without chronology or order into one another. In one such timeslip, Joe Bodenland, a retired diplomat from New Houston in southwest America, suddenly finds himself in Geneva, Switzerland, in 1816. Mounted in his trusty Felder, a nuclear-powered automobile topped with a swivel submachine gun, this twenty-first-century knight soon discovers that not only space and time but also myth and reality are affected by the timeslip. He becomes acquainted with Percy Shelley and Lord Byron -- even sleeps with the former's wife -- but he also meets the agonized Victor Frankenstein on the eve of Justine Moritz's trial for the murder of his younger brother. Bodenland knows his science fiction, however, and he accosts Frankenstein with the knowledge of his monster and entreats him to save Justine by confessing the identity of the true murderer, his own creation. Various obstacles block his endeavors, including another timeslip, and when Bodenland next finds Frankenstein, he is preparing a mate for the creature. But now his attempts to circumvent Frankenstein's actions by his own knowledge of the book in which Frankenstein is a character come to naught due to the flexibility of myth and reality generated by the timeslip. The mate, whose face has been shaped from the severed head of Justine Moritz, stumbles out of Frankenstein's laboratory on the arm of her monstrous lover, and Bodenland watches in disgust and fascination the ritual of their mating. Though he fails to destroy the monsters, he does shoot Victor Frankenstein as Victor elaborates on his plans to construct yet another creature. Then, determined to rid mankind of Frankenstein's curse, Bodenland is off on the chase after the lovers across a frozen wasteland, apparently transplanted from the future in another timeslip. Just as they are about to enter the gates of a strange city in the icy wilderness, which Bodenland speculates might be "the last refuge of humanity" (p. 217), he opens fire with the machine gun. His aim is true, but the dying creature warns him that "though you seek to bury me, yet will you continuously resurrect me! Once I am unbound, I am unbounded!" (p. 222). The novel ends with an ominous echo from Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, at the conclusion of which the creature was "lost in darkness and distance" (p. 190/C). Now, however, Bodenland waits complacently for "someone or something" to come for him from the unknown city while he rests from his maniacal quest and bloody killings, "biding my time in darkness and distance" (p. 223).

Aldiss gives many new twists to a familiar story, but his evocation of the {164} monstrous elements in the tale is still consistent with Mary Shelley's. Even before the timeslip that catapults him into the past occurs, Joe Bodenland reads in the newspaper that his own century is "suffering from the curse that was Baron Frankenstein's in Mary Shelley's novel: by seeking to control too much, we have lost control of ourselves." The infrastructure of space and time has been damaged by man's tampering with the elements. "The Intellect," concludes the news account, "has made our planet unsafe for intellect" (p. 19). The same train of thought is later pursued in a discussion with the Shelleys and Lord Byron about the shape of the future, which Bodenland alone, of course, has already seen. He counters Percy Shelley's enthusiastic acceptance of the mechanical age as a means of freedom for man with his description of the twentieth century in which the relationship between man and machine is reversed and man becomes the servant of that which he has created. Later, Frankenstein's monster, whose face Bodenland describes as looking "like a machine, lathe-turned," becomes for him the ultimate reflection of his own age and ours, a world in which the "head had triumphed over the heart." The monster, he continues, is a "metaphor -- I saw the technological society into which I had been born as a Frankenstein body for which the spirit was missing" (pp. 172-73).

Given this view of the monster, it is certainly clear why Bodenland, like Victor in Mary Shelley's novel, takes upon himself the task of the monster's annihilation, for if he can eliminate the foreshadowing metaphor of destructive technocracy, perhaps he might prevent its appearance in reality. But there is another side to Aldiss' creature, like Mary Shelley's, that Bodenland, like Frankenstein, fails to appreciate simply because he will not accept its resemblance to himself.

The novel opens with Bodenland commenting upon a curious game he has been watching his grandchildren play. The youngsters bury one of their mechanical scooters and make of the event a formal ceremony which they call a "Feast." The burial ends with a prayer and a kind of dance, and then on impulse the little boy pulls his penis out of his trunks to show the girl. Bodenland remarks that the children "live in myth" and that their dance is "an instinctual celebration of their own physical health." "It seems to me," he asserts, "that in this world of madness, theirs is the only significant activity" (pp. 14-17). Later, however, the ritual dance is duplicated by the monsters outside Frankenstein's laboratory, but this time the sexual gesture is completed by their copulation. Bodenland is again the voyeur but this time his observations leave him "dry of mouth, sick at heart" (p. 192). He soon tells us why he can chuckle complacently at the myth I gestures of children but shudder at the realities of sexual expression. For among "a mixture of emotions," he says, ". . . I have to confess, was lust, reluctantly aroused by that unparalleled mating. A natural if unfortunate association of ideas made me think of Mary and wonder where she was, in {165} this increasingly confused universe. Sanctity and obscenity lie close in the mind" (p. 193).

In this mood of angry "self-disgust," he goes to murder Frankenstein and thus destroy -- symbolically at least -- what he detests in himself. Frankenstein's only defense, as he raves to Bodenland, is that his researches must continue in order that there might be found a tenable purpose to the human struggle:

. . . no purpose in life on this globe -- only the endless begetting and dying, too monstrous to be called Purpose -- just a phantasmagoria of flesh and flesh remade, of vegetation intervening. . . . Did you ever think it might be life that was the pestilence, the accident of consciousness between the eternal chemistry working in the veins of earth and air? So you can't -- you mustn't kill me, for a purpose must be found, invented if necessary, a human purpose, human, putting us in control, fighting the itness of the great wheeling world, Bodenland. You see, Bodenland? You're -- you're an intellectual like me, I know it . . . we have to be above the old considerations, be ruthless, as ruthless as the natural processes governing us. It stands to reason. (p. 196)
An hour or so earlier, Bodenland felt similar sentiments as he gazed at the form of the female creature Frankenstein was constructing. He tells us that "confronted with this unbreathing creature surmounted by that frozen but guiltless female face, I felt only pity. It was pity mainly for the weakness of human flesh, for the sad imperfection of us as a species, for our nakedness, our frail hold on life. To be, to remain human was always a struggle, and the struggle always ultimately rewarded by death" (p. 170). The confrontation occasions in Bodenland an instinctive religious reaction as a counter to the nullity of human existence which he has glimpsed. He bemoans a world deprived of organized religion by organized science and cries out, "Oh, God," for what he terms "the mess of the world." But his prayer is answered instead by the monster, "Frankenstein's Adam," who leaps from the skylight as from the heavens "to stand before me in his wrath" (p. 172). The creature is only protecting his mate, and Bodenland is able to escape his fury. His will nevertheless seems numbed by the encounter, and he does nothing to prevent the mating of the new Adam and Eve which takes place before his eyes. After that experience, religion can no longer quench Bodenland's horror -- only murder. The truth is too black for him, as it nearly was for Elizabeth; but whereas she was its victim, Bodenland becomes its agent. He kills Frankenstein only to be haunted thereafter by his dying image and the realization that he has "taken over Victor's role" (p. 203) and in his dogged pursuit of the fleeing pair "become machine-like" (p. 206).

Bodenland becomes what he seeks to destroy, even as he tries to destroy what he has become. His machine gun can silence the dying creature before him only after the creature within himself has been uncovered. Though {166} riddled with bullets, Frankenstein's creature still forces the issue: "In trying to destroy what you cannot understand, you destroy yourself! Only that lack of understanding makes you see a great divide between our natures. When you hate and fear me, you believe it is because of our differences. Oh, no, Bodenland! -- it is because of our similarities that you bring such detestation to bear upon me." Bodenland cries out, "We are of different universes!"; the creature duly corrects him: "Our universe is the same universe, where pain and retribution rule" (p. 221).

In Frankenstein Unbound, the monster has come of age -- from past to present to future, from creature to man, from myth to reality. He is again, as he was in Frankenstein, the reflection of his maker in both nobility and ugliness, but most especially in suffering. He is the worthy offspring of man and woman, Brian Aldiss and Mary Shelley.


1. Brian W. Aldiss, Billion Year Spree: The True History of Science Fiction (New York: Doubleday, 1973), p. 23.

2. Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus (New York: Collier Books, 1961), p. 10/1. For convenience, "Walton's Continuation" is marked with a "C," and the 1831 "Introduction" with an "I."

3. Brian W. Aldiss, Frankenstein Unbound (Greenwich, Conn.: Fawcett Crest, 1975), p. 71.