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Frankenstein as Short Fiction: A Unique Adaptation of Mary Shelley's Novel

Edward W. R. Pitcher

Studies in Short Fiction, 20:1 (Winter 1983), 49-52

{[49]} Although critics and literary historians have long been aware of the adaptations for the stage1 of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus (1818 in three volumes; 2nd edition, 1823, in two volumes; revised edition, 1831, in one volume), an adaptation as "The Monster Made by Man; or, the Punishment of Presumption" in the short fiction serial anthology Endless Entertainment; or Comic, Terrific, and Legendary Tales (London: G. Hebert [1826]) seems to have escaped the notice of researchers. The variant tale was separately published as a pamphlet, number VII in the serial Endless Entertainment, dated Friday, June 17, 1825, and with a separate title page emphasising that stories in the compilation were "A series of Original Comic, Terrific, and Legendary Tales." Of course, the "originality" of this rendering of the Frankenstein tale lay primarily in its economical expropriation and moulding of parts of the original novel and its dramatic adaptations to make an exciting short story suitable for the common reader, but there are some changes and additions which suggest that the task of reworking the story was undertaken by a writer sensitive to the meaning of the original and alert to the limitations of the short story form.

{50} Endless Entertainment was published "with Eighteen Spirited Cuts, By J. Mark" and that which illustrates "The Monster made by Man" (p. 99) depicts the creature's moment of animation in the cave laboratory of his maker, Ernest Wallberg (who plays Victor Frankenstein). Wallberg has an assistant, Frantz, who was not part of the cast in the novel, but who had a counterpart named Fritz in Richard Brinsley Peake's play of 1823, Presumption, or the Fate of Frankenstein.2 The illustration depicts Frantz to the left of the creature and Wallberg to the right in the moment the creature first rose to a sitting position, opened its eyes, and "displayed two green balls, bedded in a yellow fluid" (p. 101). Various bones are stacked in the right foreground, a broken vessel lies in the center foreground (the elixir of life) and machinery (electrical?) is depicted in the left background. Frantz is horrified, with hair on end and hands clasped, while Wallberg is aghast to see his creature, shaped to be beautiful (as in the novel) suddenly altered to ugliness. Overhead the cave is illuminated by a hanging, oriental oil lamp (suggesting a further link among the various romance forms, old and modern, that are brought together in all versions of the tale).

In general, the illustration suggests the artist's alertness to the meaningful combination of symbolic objects, and to the story's most significant psychological crisis: the creator's sudden awareness that his dream has turned into nightmare. The narrative underscores this moment as well and offers the unique and thematically appropriate idea of the creature being modelled from fine clay -- as Prometheus had allegedly shaped man from clay. The Wallberg-Frankenstein character becomes more obviously the "modern Prometheus," but because clay now links man and the creature, the twinning of the two is explicitly underscored in the tale.

The theme of over-reaching (presumption) is also explicitly brought to the reader's attention in the story, but in a less subtle manner. The creature's first utterance follows shortly after his animation, with the deus ex machina suggestion that God inspires the creature with speech: "I am the punishment of thy presumption" (p. 103). This utterance follows a brief account of Wallberg's flight from the cave (the abandonment of his creation), his sense of guilt and recognition that he owned it a chance for life, and his return to the creature in the cave to offer assistance if the creature proved non-violent. This sequence of events has no parallel in the original story, but it is a logical and satisfying development and makes the protagonist less criminal in our regard. Before Wallberg returns, the reader is told how the creature, left alone, had attempted to leave the cave, but had been driven back by the startling glare of sunlight. The creature is found cowering in the cave, frightened and cold, when Wallberg returns, and it responds appreciatively when Wallberg throws a cloak over its shoulders, and gives it food. However, when Wallberg binds the creature to lead it away and then strikes it to urge it on, the creature's anger is aroused; it breaks free, cries "I am the punishment of thy presumption," and precipitates Wallberg's second flight.

{51} Wallberg falls ill after the second flight, as Victor Frankenstein had done after he had abandoned his creation. The short story, however, did not permit its author enough scope to treat the extended education of the creature -- as in the De Lacey section of the novel, all reference to which is dropped in this tale -- and used the device of divine inspiration to compress events and establish the principal themes early in the narrative. Some attention is given to the progressive learning of the creature, beginning in instinct and moving through inference from experience, to relative wisdom and higher emotions. Providence -- and literary precedent -- leads the creature to slay Wallberg's younger brother (but not cold-bloodedly, as the brother attacks the creature) and even to be partly responsible for the mother's death (she collapses after being confronted by him, but her health was first weakened through caring for Ernest in his illness), but the creature actually saves the life of Wallberg's fiancée (played here by Agnes). Altogether the creature is less monstrous, more an object deserving sympathy than in Mary Shelley's novel, although it is a question of emphasis more than an absolute difference of intentions that distinguishes short story from novel. This creature exists to torment his creator, to punish his presumption, but the reader is invited to consider that punishment as just, and not to think that providence is reckless in its aim or mindless of innocent bystanders.

Wallberg himself is conscious that he is responsible for all that happens and he is endowed with moral courage to a degree that clearly underlines the writer's reaction to the moral cowardice of Victor Frankenstein. Wallberg had returned to his creature to care for its needs; Wallberg is aware that his own illness had ruined his mother's health; he blames himself for the death of his younger brother. In the confrontation which follows Mrs. Wallberg's death, Wallberg feels that "he had with his own life rather make an atonement for his sin, than let further injury attend the innocent." To protect the guiltless, he arranges to bring together his beloved Agnes and his best friend Hartmann (the counterpart of Clerval) -- a twisting of the original plot which limits the deaths, and criminality of the creature, places the focus clearly on the suffering and torment of the protagonist, and allows the author to avoid the implausible business of Victor Frankenstein's negligence during Elizabeth's murder. The innovation of a love that grows between Hartmann and Agnes also leads to a restoration of order and a happy ending (for them) while allowing these witnesses and survivors to replace Robert Walton in his role as the one who profits by experience.

After encouraging the love between Hartmann and Agnes, Wallberg retires to the Alps, writes them of his intention that they should marry, and then again meets with the creature in a final confrontation. The creature has acquired understanding and knowledge and is a stark contrast with his creator because Wallberg is slipping into insanity. Wallberg actually turns himself over to the care of a creature in whom he recognizes a superiority based on the creature's having learned from nature. He calls the creature the "real philosopher" and "master" and the two of them ascend into the mountain snows. Coincident with this finale, Hartmann and Agnes arrive in search of Wallberg and find him in the company of the creature (Wallberg {52} being now as helpless as a child), but both are destroyed by an avalanche before Hartmann can aid his demented friend. Hartmann does subsequently destroy all evidence of Wallberg's hand in the making of the creature, and the story ends with a remark on the amazement of local villagers who discover the bodies when snow melted months after the avalanche. From such discoveries fabulous tales are spun.

"The Monster Made by Man" tells us something more about the popular reception of the story of Frankenstein in the decade following its first publication. The short story is more economical and less psychologically complex than the novel because it is designed for a particular readership. Nonetheless, the philosophical and moral themes of the novel are emphasised, while the crimes and Gothic sensationalism are muted. The ascent into reason on the creature's part is cleverly balanced by the descent into madness on Wallberg's part. The twinning of creator and creature is explicit and underscored by the Promethean analogue (man made from clay). A great deal is left out of the short story, but the "new" plot is coherent and effective, given the selective emphasis on only some of the novel's themes and moral implications. It is not great art, perhaps, but it is a bold, original adaptation that comes early in a long tradition of adaptations.


1. See Elizabeth Nitchie, "The Stage History of Frankenstein," Southern Atlantic Quarterly, 41 (1942), 384-98. Also Radu Florescu's In Search of Frankenstein (Boston: New York Graphic Society, 1975) and Martin Tropp's Mary Shelley's Monster (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1976).

2. The story also stole Peake's idea of using an avalanche to kill the creature and creator. The titles, of course, are similar in their emphasis of "presumption."