Contents Index

Mary Shelley: Fiends and Families

Judith Weissman

Chapter 5 of Half Savage and Hardy and Free: Women and Rural Radicalism in the Nineteenth-Century Novel (Middletown: Wesleyan Univ. Press, 1989), pp. 123-138

{123} When Hawthorne gave Romantic radicalism three extraordinary heroines in 1850, the literary reaction to Romantic politics was already well established. Reaction had been virtually simultaneous with the revolutionary impulse of the late eighteenth century in England; literary radicals were never unopposed.1 Austen's Mansfield Park is a somber, rational, fictional defense of hierarchical and authoritarian order in England; Mary Shelley's virtually contemporary Frankenstein, published in 1818, is a reactionary novel of a different sort -- one that points the way to the worst of the Victorian future. In Mansfield Park men and women possess the same natures, have the same moral duties, and face the same dangers; in Frankenstein men and women are very different. Men make revolutionary mischief, and women stand guard -- pitiful, helpless, and saintly -- over the family.

Mary Shelley's girlish, awkward reactionary novel has held our imaginations for most of two centuries because her reaction against Romantic radicalism has the power of heartbroken experience behind it. Mary Shelley did not have Hawthorne's freedom to pick the best from Shelley's radical ideas; as a daughter and wife she was trapped in one of the most revolutionary families in England with the most radical pedigree possible, as the daughter of the theoretical anarchist William Godwin and the free-living feminist Mary Wollstonecraft. Wollstonecraft died a month after Mary was born and left as part of the family evidence of her own unconventional life -- Fanny Imlay, her daughter by a man {124} she had known before she married Godwin. When Godwin later married Mrs. Clairmont, Mary Godwin gained another set of siblings to whom she was not related in the usual way. She could not have been ignorant for a moment in her life, as a girl or a woman, that her family was not like other English families.

Mary Godwin did not even have the one reliable protection available to the unconventional -- wealth. Though she escaped from the poverty of her father's household when she eloped with the aristocratic and potentially wealthy Shelley, she simply changed one debtor for another. And besides debt, she acquired the real meaning of free love in her relationship with her husband. Unlike some other apostles of liberty, Shelley practiced what he preached -- or, to be cynical, he chose to preach as celestial freedom what he and other men have practiced as promiscuity. The seventeen-year-old Mary took up with him while he was still married to his first wife, Harriet; after Harriet committed suicide, Mary married him and had to live through his subsequent, repeated infatuations with other women. She had no settled home, but traveled with Shelley and various companions -- her sister Claire Clairmont, Leigh Hunt, Lord Byron -- from place to place. She knew the true, lived meaning of a life detached from the old institutions her mother, father, and husband considered spiritually imprisoning.

The Romantic radicalism of The Lyrical Ballads and "Michael" and Emma, that defended the moral economy of agricultural England against the exploitation of urban industrial capitalism, was something this wandering woman never knew. Her family was on the other side of Romantic radicalism, apostles of individual liberation, free minds, free love. Mary Shelley had this side of Romanticism thrust upon her, and so, without knowledge of other radical possibilities, turned her back on the whole complex of ideas, in the name of the family. Frankenstein could hardly be called a feminist novel, since it confers neither power nor dignity upon women, but it is absolutely a female novel, expressing in mythically powerful ways a hurt woman's sense of wrong. It is the first important fictional declaration in the nineteenth century that Romantic radicalism is not just bad -- it is especially bad for women. Frankenstein is a wail of pain, a young woman's protest that Romantic radicalism has too great a price, and that the people who pay are women and children.

Even Shelley himself knew, in the decade of the 1810s, that Romantic radicalism needed defense. Like Wordsworth and Blake before him, {125} he had to rewrite the French Revolution in poetry in order to redeem it from terror and from the final tyranny of Napoleon. His "Prometheus Unbound" and Mary's Frankenstein (or, The Modern Prometheus) amount to a literary argument, an argument about whether the mythic figure of Prometheus, the archetype of all revolutionaries, could be redeemed. Because Shelley wrote his revolutionary poem the year after Mary published her reactionary novel, her version of the myth cannot exactly be called a reaction to his. But because the ideas of "Prometheus Unbound" are not new to Shelley, largely borrowed from his father-in-law Godwin's Enquiry Concerning Political Justice (1793), her Frankenstein can legitimately be seen as a reaction to the revolutionary hopes of the early nineteenth century, of which "Prometheus Unbound" is a part.

"Prometheus Unbound" is the most hopeful re-vision of the French Revolution in English Romantic poetry. Like Wordsworth in The Prelude, Shelley locates the source of revolutionary wrong in the incompletely changed hearts and minds of those who make revolution; the great difference between The Prelude and "Prometheus Unbound" is Shelley's continuing belief that changed hearts and changed minds will bring political change. In his difficult, demanding poem he carries his reader through a double repentance and a double transformation; first we share the spirit of Prometheus, the chained revolutionary Titan, the male mind, the spirit of Greek liberty that has revived briefly and incompletely in Christ and the French Revolution. In the second act we imaginatively follow Asia, Prometheus' wife, a more ancient culture, the feminine spirit, the incarnation of Love. They are both corrupted, at the start, by hatred and a wish for revenge on the tyrant Jupiter; they are both potentially redeemable parts of all human beings. In "Prometheus Unbound" men and women are irrevocably connected in revolutionary struggle.

The length, the difficulty, the historical and poetic complexity of Shelley's poem make it persuasive. The idea that hearts and minds must be purged of hatred before they can make a good revolution sounds simple enough, but readers struggling through a poem full of cosmic characters, some recognizable, some not -- Prometheus, Asia, Furies, Jupiter, Demogorgon, a singing Earth and Moon -- feel and experience the mental and emotional difficulty of the transformation that must precede revolution. Both Prometheus and Asia must stop defining themselves as Enemies, even though they must oppose a tyrant; they must give up their wish to curse; they must escape {126} despair; they must recover hope and faith in spite of their failures. When both have changed, the tyrant Jupiter falls easily, without the bloodbath conservatives predict every time a revolution is about to succeed. "Prometheus Unbound" is certainly not a sure-fire program for revolution, but it is a true vision of the necessary transformation of the revolutionary mind. More recent history has shown not only that tyrannies can fall as easily as Shelley's Jupiter, but that the revolutionary victors are very likely to imitate their former oppressors. Shelley's hope remains alive, but his lesson remains unlearned.

In Frankenstein Mary Shelley refuses to give the myth of Prometheus a happy ending. She denies redemption to the monster and to his revolutionary maker. The book is a call to retreat, to hunker down in the home, to beware of men who meddle with dreams of revolutionary benevolence. Although Mary Shelley always spoke of her radical parents and radical husband with the utmost reverence -- "[Shelley was] a superior being among men, a bright planetary spirit enshrined in an earthly temple"2 -- the book speaks for itself. It is a fictional rejection of everything her radical family believed in.

The political content of Frankenstein is barely disguised as science; disguise is not even the right word, since science and politics were often inseparable in the minds of nineteenth-century revolutionaries. The three men who dominate this fiction -- Walton, Victor Frankenstein, and Frankenstein's created monster -- mirror both the benign hopes and the destructive lives of three other men -- Shelley, Godwin, and Rousseau. This nineteenth-century myth of mad scientists, a myth that has dominated the popular culture of the last two centuries, is a parable about revolutionary hope itself, a warning that any attempt to change the human world will bring untold trouble. It has gripped our imaginations because it is a myth for our time: these male scientists and their monster transcend their Christian predecessors, the Faustuses who have broken the laws of God, into the potential reality of political and scientific revolution. What brings together revolution and science, the goddess Reason of the French Revolution and the theory of animal magnetism, the Aryan Superman and the dream of spliced genes in our own century, is the idea that human nature can be made new. Not born again, but made again, not born by women, but made by men.

Walton, Mary Shelley's first narrator in Frankenstein, and Victor Frankenstein, like Percy Shelley and like Hawthorne's Holgrave, all {127} combine science and politics in their hopeful dreams. Walton, the explorer, wants to discover the secrets of magnetism; he is willing to sacrifice his life "for the dominion I should acquire and transmit over the elemental foes of our race" (letter 4). The presence of Walton reminds the reader that Victor Frankenstein is only one of many men who are enthralled by the utopian possibilities of science, and of scientific politics. Both men, we are supposed to believe, are entirely benevolent in their intentions. Through the portrait of Frankenstein Mary Shelley gives the reader a barely concealed double message about her own mad scientist, her sainted husband: both a madman and a saint, a genius and a destroyer. Walton's initial description of the pathetic creature he had rescued near the North Pole sounds very much like the Shelley his contemporaries described: "I never saw a more interesting creature: his eyes have generally an expression of wildness, and even madness; but there are moments when, if any one performs an act of kindness towards him, or does him any the most trifling service, his whole countenance is lighted up, as it were, with a beam of benevolence and sweetness that I never saw equalled. But he is generally melancholy and despairing; and sometimes he gnashes his teeth, as if impatient of the weight of woes that oppresses him" (letter 4). Other clues connecting Frankenstein to Shelley are hardly even subtle. When Frankenstein tells his story to Walton, he regularly echoes Shelley's poetry. He borrows a description of Mont Blanc from Shelley's poem, uses Shelley's favorite self-pitying metaphor, the wounded deer, to describe himself, and even quotes a whole stanza from Shelley's "Mutability."

The important meaning of the biographical connection is that the secret presence of Shelley reveals more than the text itself about the true target of Mary Shelley's rage. The biographical connection amplifies the political meaning of the kinds of science the two characters, one real and one fictional, share. For both, science has assumed the transfiguring power of magic; like Romantic poetry, it is a form of natural supernaturalism. Frankenstein tells Walton about his childhood fascination with alchemists, electricity, necromancy, in words that are virtually a paraphrase of the description of the youthful Shelley in the biography written by his friend Thomas Jefferson Hogg.3 "Under the guidance of my new preceptors, I entered with the greatest diligence into the search of the philosopher's stone and the elixir of life; but the latter soon obtained my undivided {128} attention. . . . What glory would attend the discovery, if I could banish disease from the human frame, and render man invulnerable to any but a violent death" (chap. 2). For Frankenstein and for Shelley the university provides a connection between the magic of their youth and the new possibilities of science. Frankenstein studies at Ingolstadt, the home of the eighteenth-century secret revolutionary society of the Illuminati, which fascinated Shelley;4 there his chemistry professor casts the fatal spell over him by telling him the powers of the new scientific philosophers. "They ascend into the heavens: they have discovered how the blood circulates, and the nature of the air we breathe. 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" (chap. 3). These words inspire Frankenstein to dream of a new, better race of men: "Life and death appeared to me ideal bounds, which I should first break through, and pour a torrent of light into our dark world. A new species would bless me as its creator and source; many happy and excellent natures would owe their being to me" (chap. 4).

Shelley, fascinated by the scientific enterprise of exploration, also made the easy leap to a utopian transformation of human beings in his years at Oxford. He even speculated that if Africa were explored, "the shadow of the first balloon, which a vertical sun would project precisely underneath it, as it glided over that hitherto unhappy country, would virtually emancipate every slave, and would annihilate slavery forever.5 Reason, the new deity of the French Revolution, could hardly have spawned two more devoted sons than the radical poet and his fictional shadow, for whom science leads inevitably to utopian political hopes.

With the postrevolutionary hindsight of 1816, Mary Shelley corrects such dreamers in Frankenstein, and she does her correcting in a unique, narrow way. She does not attribute malevolence, confusion, unpurged hatred, historical ignorance to her revolutionary scientist as the Romantic poets Shelley and Wordsworth do to theirs. In her fiction Frankenstein and his double Walton have good minds, pure hearts, benevolent motives; why need their dreams go bad? Mary Shelley's answer is simple: they are men, unguided by women. It is true that explorers, scientists, and revolutionaries have often been lonely men; loneliness itself is a deadly sin in Frankenstein. The hopeful revolutionary scientist is doomed from the moment he be- {129} gins his deadly venture, the creation of a new form of life, for the very process isolates him from both nature and love. Shelley's revolutionary, Prometheus, is in this state after the Tyrant Jupiter betrays him, not at the beginning of his attempt to aid man, and he can eventually recover his ability to love; Mary Shelley's revolutionary loses love forever when he begins to dream of scientific transformation of humanity.

Frankenstein's creation, the new man, the monster who has captured our imaginations in a way that his fey creator has not, is the final clue to horror's source in the minds of men. In our imaginations the name Frankenstein has been transferred to the monster, for it is mysteriously resonant; it sounds like Francophile, a word almost synonymous with devil worshipper in the Napoleon-hating England of 1816. The monster is not specifically Napoleon; he is the whole complex of French ideas that led to Napoleon by way of the French Revolution.

The monster owes his fictional character to one French man more than any other -- Rousseau, the father of the French Revolution. The original character of the monster and his subsequent development come directly and unmistakably from Rousseau's first revolutionary essay, The Discourse on the Origins and Foundations of Inequality among Mankind. Before he begins his story, the monster compares himself to both Adam and Satan, the characters of Christian myth to whom Rousseau gives new meaning -- the true original man, and the true cause of his fall. As an original man, the monster follows precisely the path Rousseau posited: discovery of the elements of the natural world, discovery of fire, emotional and intellectual growth through attachment to a family. At first he has only Rousseau's two newly invented instincts -- self-preservation and pity; having settled secretly by a family's hut, the monster first takes their food for himself, but when he recognizes their suffering, he stops stealing and he gathers firewood for them. He goes beyond his two instincts by learning affection and language from them.

Mary Shelley compresses into a few months of the monster's life what took many centuries in Rousseau's imagined history of man. The monster advances to a knowledge of social structures beyond the family by listening to readings from Volney's Ruins of Empires, another clue to his origins in nineteenth-century radicalism. "Unlike William Godwin's Political Justice (1793), whose influence was con- {130} fined to a small and highly literate circle, Volney's Ruins was published in cheap pocket-book form and remained in the libraries of many artisans in the 19th century. Its fifteenth chapter, the vision of a 'New Age,' was frequently circulated as a tract."6 The innocent monster's first reaction to historical atrocity is "disgust and loathing." And having learned to read, he discovers true social virtues in Plutarch and admires the same "peaceable law-givers, Numa, Solon, and Lycurgus" [2.7.3] whom Rousseau most admires in The Social Contract.

The extensive similarities between Frankenstein's monster and Rousseau's imagined man enlarge the meaning of Frankenstein himself. In personality he is like Shelley; as a type of Romantic revolutionary he is also like William Godwin and like Rousseau himself. Mary Shelley emphasizes the connection between Frankenstein and Rousseau by setting the beginning of her story in Geneva, Rousseau's birthplace. As she says in a famous letter, "Here a small obelisk is erected to the glory of Rousseau, and here . . . the magistrates, the successors of those who exiled him from his native country, were shot by the populace during that revolution which his writings mainly contributed to mature, and which, notwithstanding the temporary bloodshed and injustice with which it was polluted, has produced enduring benefits to mankind, which not all the chicanery of statesmen, nor even the greatest conspiracy of kings, can entirely render vain" (1 June 1816). Mary Shelley's final clue to the interrelationship between the monster, his maker, and the French Revolution is that the first language the monster learns, from the de Lacey family, is French.

The fictional, metaphoric view of the French Revolution, Rousseau's child, in Frankenstein is much harsher than the view expressed in the letter by Shelley's loyal wife. In her fiction "temporary bloodshed and injustice" predominate; the monster's "Reign of Terror" produces no enduring benefits whatsoever. Through the history of the monster, who begins as Rousseau's innocent original man, and matures into the violent creature spawned by Rousseau's revolutionary ideas, Mary Shelley suggests that no matter how well intentioned the makers of revolutionary dreams are, these ideas will create only horror when they are put into practice. The monster is still innocent when he tries to become part of the human world; when he carefully approaches the blind father of the de Lacey family, who will not recoil {131} from his ugliness, he is interrupted by the son, Felix, who beats him in self-protective terror. The family abandons their home, and the benevolently conceived, innocently disposed monster becomes a destroyer. "My protectors had departed, and had broken the only link that held me to the world. For the first time the feelings of revenge and hatred filled my bosom, and I did not strive to control them; but, allowing myself to be borne away by the stream, I bent my mind towards injury and death" (chap. 16).

The monster's creator, Victor Frankenstein, almost brings a version of this violence to England; the fictional, emblematic representation of the revolution so dreaded by the English at the beginning of the nineteenth century is just barely averted. Moved by the monster's plea that he would reform if he were not alone, Frankenstein goes to England to construct a mate for him; he breaks off only when he realizes that he would have no guarantee of the monster's good faith. "Even if they were to leave Europe, and inhabit the deserts of the new world, yet one of the first results of those sympathies for which the Daemon thirsted would be children, and a race of devils would be propagated upon the earth who might make the very existence of the species of man a condition precarious and full of terror" (chap. 20). Nothing will ever be able to tame the destructive force that he has loosed upon the world, in all utopian, Romantic, radical, good faith.

The blank spots in the political allegory of Frankenstein must be filled in by Mary Shelley's barely disguised messages about men and women, politics and families. Just as she forces us to relate Victor Frankenstein and his science to historical Romantic radicals and their politics to understand the metaphorical meaning of his monster, she forces us to fill in a connection between the politics the monster represents and the reaction he causes in people. Shelley and Wordsworth try to explain the failure of revolution in terms of incomplete spiritual change in both the revolutionaries and the people they would benefit; Mary Shelley shows us only the raw melodrama of a hideous eight-foot-high man with yellow skin and watery eyes who, understandably, strikes terror in everyone who sees him. He turns bad because he is rejected, and he is rejected because he is ugly, as he himself recognizes. "I had sagacity enough to discover that the unnatural hideousness of my person was the chief object of horror with those who had formerly beheld me" (chap. 15). Presumably if he {132} had looked like a normal human being he would have been accepted, and would have remained virtuous. We have to ask questions. Why didn't Victor Frankenstein notice that the creature he was constructing was turning out ugly? Why should people react to an ugly face more than to a good heart? What is the connection between the physical ugliness that evokes fear and the flaw in radical theory and practice that generates terror?

Against rational questions stands the mythic power of Mary Shelley's story. As readers we all understand why people react to the monster as they do. We may be ashamed, but we all shudder at the sight of deformity. Ugliness is one staple of horror fictions and horror films; we react because we cannot help it. The people who reject the would-be benevolent monster are otherwise good; Mary Shelley implicitly suggests a theory of the intractable nature of our instincts to explain why people scream in horror. To pursue her political allegory, we arrive at what has become a maxim of reactionary rhetoric, that people are not "ready" for radical change, no matter how noble that change may be. In Frankenstein, the daughter and wife of nineteenth-century radicals grants benevolence and intelligence in the creator of the monster, grants the original benevolence of the creation -- and still takes her stand, irrevocably, against them. She denies the deepest assumption of radical thought -- that wrongs can be eradicated, that people can change. In Frankenstein instinct wins -- not good instincts, but bad ones, not pity and mutual aid or attachment to home or capacity for joy, instincts radical writers defend against the falseness of bourgeois culture, but fear, cruelty, blindness. Mary Shelley returns, in this fiction, to the heart of all the repressive ideologies her father, mother, and husband fought against, the idea that human nature is essentially unchangeable and cruel.

Mary Shelley appeals to our emotions, as readers, in presenting this fictional case for reaction by making us understand and sympathize with the monster as well as with the people who fear and hate him. He is the most moving and eloquent creature in the book, both political emblem and neglected child. This poor creature, abandoned by his male creator as soon as he comes to life, is the saddest progeny in nineteenth-century fiction. Monster that he is, he can still break our hearts. He saves a child from drowning and is promptly shot. "I had saved a human being from destruction, and, as a recompense, I now writhed under the miserable pain of a wound, which shattered {133} the flesh and bone. . . . For some weeks I led a miserable life in the woods, endeavouring to cure the wound which I had received. The ball had entered by shoulder, and I knew not whether it had remained there or passed through; at any rate I had no means of extracting it. My sufferings were augmented also by the oppressive sense of the injustice and ingratitude of their infliction" (chap. 16). He is a neglected child precisely because he is a political emblem; he is an alien because he is the product of male revolutionary thought, not part of a family. Not belonging to a family of his own, he becomes a destroyer of other families. Through this monster Mary Shelley begins what has become another battle cry of conservative politicians for the last two centuries -- the real danger in radical change is that it will destroy the nuclear family, father, mother, and children.

Those the monster murders are themselves identified more as family members than as individuals. The monster takes revenge on Frankenstein, his creator, by murdering his family and close friends. He strangles William, the beloved baby of the family; plots the execution of Justine, a servant who has joined the family, by implicating her in the murder; strangles Frankenstein's closest friend, Clerval; strangles Elizabeth, Frankenstein's adopted sister and bride; drives Frankenstein's old father into death from grief. The monster's innocence, his ugliness, his anger, his destructiveness are inseparable; all of his multiple characteristics point back to one idea: his damned, doomed existence is a violation of the laws of the family because he was made, not born. The connection between revolutionary thought and the destruction of the family is neither logically nor historically necessary, but the experience of Mary Shelley's life conspired to bring these ideas together in her fiction. In the years when she was writing Frankenstein she had to endure three deaths: her first -- illegitimate -- baby died suddenly in 1815, and, in 1816, both Fanny Imlay, her illegitimate half sister, and Harriet Shelley, her lover's wife, committed suicide. What young woman could help feeling guilt and rage over the deaths of her child, her sister, her rival, all touched by illicit, revolutionary love? The absence of a mother, the presence of a revolutionary father, two inescapable facts of Mary Shelley's life, now converge with the absence of a marriage, the presence of a revolutionary lover, and a new series of deaths.

The two epigraphs with which Mary Shelley begins Frankenstein suggest that a father, for her, is not a source of family love. She {134} dedicates the book to Godwin with words that make him sound like an adored stranger: "To William Godwin, Author of Political Justice, Caleb Williams, etc. These volumes are respectfully inscribed by The Author." She adds the words of the fallen Adam to God in Paradise Lost: "Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay to mould me man? Did I solicit thee From darkness to promote me?" The words clearly apply to the monster's feelings toward his creator, Frankenstein; it is easy to believe that the trapped, hurt woman feels the same way toward hers, as she wanders through Europe forlorn, in debt.

In other nineteenth-century families the death of a mother might have been less disastrous. For Mary Shelley the death of her mother is compounded by the absences of an extended family, neighbors, a settled home. She is the victim of three men -- Rousseau, Godwin, Shelley. They took Romantic radicalism out of the rural community, away from labor, away from the ancient traditions of mutual aid, away from the moral economy of agricultural England, and tried to find the road to revolution through personal liberty and liberated love. In feeling she is as abandoned as her fictional monster, or as the children Rousseau cheerfully left at the foundling home.

The loneliness, misery, and rage that create a mad scientist and a murderous monster also conjure up in Frankenstein a fictional heaven, a family, and a new kind of saintly heroine. In a book full of untransmuted pain, it is not surprising that the author could secretly identify with both the saintly heroines and the monster; forbidden rage generates its opposite. As a political emblem the monster is mad, bad, male; as a lonely child he is also poor female Mary Shelley, his creator. Yet this angry fiction also demands some unalloyed innocence with which the creator and the reader can side; the women of Frankenstein embody that innocence. They are the forerunners of the angels who inhabit the houses of Victorian fiction. They preside over the family, loving and guarding it; if they fail it is the fault of the many misguided men who are working, unwittingly, against them.

Beneath the one, huge, lumbering revolutionary emblem who murders families are the smaller male villains of Frankenstein. Woman's family after woman's family is wrecked by a man, usually a man attempting to right a political wrong. The pattern of the book is consistent; angelic women are hurt by men, and need to be rescued by other, better men. Frankenstein's saintly mother, drawn into isolation and poverty by her economically imprudent father is rescued, {135} married, and protected by Frankenstein's father, who knows how to treat a woman right. "Everything was made to yield to her wishes and her convenience. He strove to shelter her, as a fair exotic is sheltered by the gardener, from every rougher wind, and to surround her with all that could tend to excite pleasurable emotion in her soft and benevolent mind" (chap. 1). She, in turn, protects their children. "I was their plaything and their idol, and something better -- their child, the innocent and helpless creature bestowed upon them by Heaven" (chap. 1). This fantastic family lives by emotions alone. In the fictional fabric of Frankenstein are no words about work, friends, neighbors, food, clothing, shelter. We know nothing about the material conditions or social relationships of this family; it is the true fictional precursor of the Victorian nuclear family.

The other angelic women of the book -- Justine, Agatha de Lacey, Saphie, and Elizabeth Lavenza -- are all cut from the same cloth, and need the same protection. Elizabeth is an orphan because her father was a patriot, imprisoned for his role in an abortive Italian revolution, "one of those Italians nursed in the memory of the antique glory of Italy -- one among the schiavi ognor fermenti, who exerted himself to obtain the liberty of his country. He became the victim of its weakness. Whether he had died, or still lingered in the dungeons of Austria, was not known. His property was confiscated, his child became an orphan and a beggar" (chap. 1). The orphan child, another victim of misplaced political fervor, is a heavenly being irresistible to Frankenstein's family: "Her brow was clear and ample, her blue eyes cloudless, and her lips and the moulding of her face so expressive of sensibility and sweetness, that none could behold her without looking on her as of a distinct species, a being heaven-sent, and bearing a celestial stamp in all her features" (chap. 1). Her character is essentially the same when she reaches a sexually desirable adolescence; she remains, for Frankenstein, "the living spirit of love to soften and attract" (chap. 2). These women of the Frankenstein family are "spirits of love" like Shelley's Asia, but they need no spiritual redemption and have no power. Elizabeth cannot affect Frankenstein, the Prometheus of this fiction, once he leaves the domestic circle.

Saphie, Felix de Lacey's sweetheart, and Agatha de Lacey are also powerless angels in need of protection. They are protected in exile by the men of their family, but they are in exile in the first place because Felix -- like Frankenstein, Walton, and Elizabeth's father -- tried to do {136} some active good outside the family. Saphie's father, a Turk, had been unjustly tried and condemned to death in Paris; Felix plots his escape only to be betrayed by him and then condemned by the French government. Mary Shelley does not cover up the fact that governments and legal systems, like the one that condemns Justine to death, are unjust; she simply suggests, in Frankenstein, that it is hopeless to try to change them. Every man who tries makes victims of the women in his own family, frail, beautiful, helpless angels.

The angelic helplessness of the women in Frankenstein lies behind the final lesson that the dying, repentant Victor Frankenstein bestows on Walton (who quickly repents and returns to his sister).

A human being in perfection ought always to preserve a calm and peaceful mind, and never to allow passion or a transitory desire to disturb his tranquillity. I do not think that the pursuit of knowledge is an exception to this rule. If the study to which you apply yourself has a tendency to weaken your affections, and to destroy your taste for those simple pleasures in which no alloy can possibly mix, then that study is certainly unlawful, that is to say, not befitting the human mind. If this rule were always observed; if no man allowed any pursuit whatsoever to interfere with the tranquillity of his domestic affections, Greece had not been enslaved; Caesar would have spared his country; America would have been discovered more gradually; and the empires of Mexico and Peru would not have been destroyed. (chap. 4)
The betrayal of domestic affections is not merely the result of revolutionary activity; it is also the cause of all political disaster. The transformation of Greece and Rome into empires, and the destruction of the native peoples of the Western hemisphere, political developments that have never been attributed to anyone's radical, benevolent dreams, are here joined with the specter of revolution. They are all the result of men's ambition. The world collapses in violence when men leave home. Women cannot join them and make political work better, nor can they even keep the home safe. Detached, isolated, liberated from land and community, the women and families of Frankenstein are precious, fragile, and impotent.

When Frankenstein tells Walton, "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" (chap. 4), we have to remember that these are false alternatives, thrust on Mary Shelley by her unusual life. The life of the "native town" she never knew and could not even imagine for her wandering fictional characters. It is the other possibility of Romantic radicalism, the life Wordsworth {137} wanted to protect, a solidly economic and social laboring life. And though such a life may indeed be incompatible with the scientific knowledge or radical activity that seafaring wanderers and itinerant freedom fighters seek, it is not incompatible with the ambitious poetry, philosophy, science that has been produced by settled men -- Wordsworth, Kant, Newton.

Mary Shelley's father and husband created this false opposition for her. They were the Romantic radicals who associated political revolution with sexual liberty, the end of political oppression with the end of marriage. The family does indeed survive better in a native town than on the run -- particularly if a debt collector is hot on its trail. It is for the sake of a new, fragile, detached uprooted family and helpless women that Mary Shelley cries anathema on science, on revolution, on all men who do anything but protect their wives. These families are the only source of goodness in the dangerous world Frankenstein projects.

Yet if Mary Shelley had been entirely wrong, if no one but the daughter of Godwin and Wollstonecraft and the wife of Shelley could feel so endangered, Frankenstein would not have become a mythic part of our popular culture. Fragile, endangered families, and a new ideal of the saintly, frail, loving, housebound woman abound in politically conservative Victorian fiction, the novels that followed Frankenstein by thirty years and more. Mary Shelley was not alone in her vision. Historically, it was not male-created revolution but a new economic order that changed the social life of England, wreaking havoc with native towns. There is a reason, though, why Mary Shelley's horrified reaction to Romantic radicalism, in a novel devoid of economic and social reality, should be the forerunner of Victorian images of the home and women. The form of Romantic radicalism Mary Shelley, as a human being, was victim to, shares several deep antipathies with the industrial capitalism that was the new economic power of England. They share antipathy to agricultural life, disdain for the ideals of justice rooted in common law and traditions of mutual aid, and contempt for the productive work once done by women. The radicalism of Godwin and Shelley can fit right in with an economic ethos valuing the "progress" and "development" of the lucky individual over the moral economy of the community. Shelley's form of Romantic radicalism, cut off from a genuine economic base, was easily adopted and transformed by a capitalist culture. Men {138} could use it to evade their responsibilities to women; women, in turn, could use it to evade their responsibilities to their children, their neighbors, and other women. Mary Shelley's frail, pure, victimized angels, the bourgeois saints of the Victorian novel, and Mary Daly's neo-witches are sisters under the skin; all are self-enclosed, ultimately narcissistic; all owe their identity to Percy Shelley's individualistic form of Romantic radicalism.


The recent trend in criticism by both men and women has been to re-read the reactionary qualities out of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. The enduring power of the story has kept the book alive as a topic for criticism, even though most critics now have ideological objections to the book's political message. For example, George Levine, in The Realistic Imagination (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981), says that Frankenstein "dramatizes the perversion in myths of male creativity and female dependence" (26). Kate Ellis, in "Monsters in the Garden, Mary Shelley and the Bourgeois Family," in The Endurance of Frankenstein: Essays on Mary Shelley's Novel, ed. George Levine and U. C. Knoepflmacher (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979), calls the book a critique of the bourgeois family (123-42). Both Gilbert and Gubar, in The Madwoman in the Attic, and Mary Poovey, in The Proper Lady and the Woman Writer: Ideology as Style in the Works of Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary Shelley, and Jane Austen (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984), read the book so metaphorically that the sex of both the monster and his creator are changed, so that Frankenstein becomes a parable about the victimization of women.

Excellent work has been done on the relationship between Mary Shelley's difficult life with Shelley and her horror story. In Ariel Like a Harpy: Shelley, Mary, and Frankenstein (London: Oxford University Press, 1972), Christopher Small has meticulously traced the similarities between Shelley and Victor Frankenstein (60-120). Peter Dale Scott has explored the implied sexual relationship between the Shelleys, in "Vital Artifice: Mary, Percy, and the Psychopolitical Integrity of Frankenstein," in The Endurance of Frankenstein, 172-202. Ellen Moers has written on women's horror of birth, in "Female Gothic," in The Endurance of Frankenstein; U. C. Knoepflmacher has written a persuasive essay on the possible influence of Mary Shelley's experience as Godwin's daughter on her fiction, in "Thoughts on the Aggression of Daughters," in The Endurance of Frankenstein, 88-119.

The relationship between Shelley's "Prometheus Unbound" and Mary Shelley's modern Prometheus has also received intelligent and exhaustive critical attention. Three of the best analyses of Shelley's poem are those of Gerald McNiece, Shelley and the Revolutionary Idea (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1969); Carl Woodring, Politics in English Romantic Poetry (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1970), 278-310; and Earl Wasserman, Shelley's Prometheus Unbound (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1965). A good essay on the two readings of the Prometheus myth is George Levine, "The Ambiguous Heritage of Frankenstein," in The Endurance of Frankenstein.

I have used Frankenstein, or, The Modern Prometheus (London: Oxford University Press, 1969); this is the 1831 edition, the one most readily available. I have cited chapters within the text.

1. Marilyn Butler provides useful surveys of the literary reactions to Romantic radicalism, in both Jane Austen and the War of Ideas (London: Oxford University Press, 1975) and Romantics, Rebels, and Reactionaries (New York: Oxford University Press, 1982). In "Mary Shelley's Monster: Politics and Psyche in Frankenstein," in The Endurance of Frankenstein, 143-72, Lee Sterrenburg also reviews the reactionary politics of the time.

2. The Letters of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980), 252.

3. Thomas Jefferson Hogg, The Life of P. B. Shelley (London: 1858), vol. 1, chap. 2.

4. Small, Ariel Like a Harpy, 43.

5. Hogg, Life of P. B. Shelley, vol. 1, chap. 3.

6. E. P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class (1963; reprint, New York: Vintage, 1966), 98-99.