Contents Index

Revising Frankenstein

Anne K. Mellor

Chapter 9 of Mary Shelley: Her Life, Her Fiction, Her Monsters (New York: Methuen, 1988), pp. 170-76

{170} By the time Mary Shelley revised Frankenstein for republication in Colburn and Bentley's Standard Novels Series in 1831, her philosophical views had changed radically.1 The 1831 Frankenstein is as different from the 1818 Frankenstein as Wordsworth's 1850 Prelude is different from his 1805 version, and in somewhat the same ways. By 1831, the deaths of her second daughter, her son William, and her husband, followed by Byron's death and Jane Williams's betrayal of her friendship -- together with her financially straightened circumstances and her guilt-ridden and unshakeable despair -- all convinced Mary Shelley that human events are decided not by personal choice or free will but by material forces beyond our control. As she confessed to Jane Williams Hogg in August, 1827:
The power of Destiny I feel every day pressing more & more on me, & I yield myself a slave to it, in all except my moods of mind, which I endeavour to make independant of her, & thus to wreathe a chaplet, where all is not cypress, in spite of the Eumenides.2
The biographical origin of her new vision of nature's relationship to humanity is registered in the novel itself. Elizabeth Lavenza Frankenstein now dies, not at Coligny, but on the shores of Lake Como, the place where Mary and Percy Shelley had first sought a home when they returned to Italy in the spring of 1818. After 1822, Italy figures conflictingly in Mary Shelley's imagination as both the locus of radiant light and warmth and peace, a heavenly haven to which she nostalgically yearned to return, and as the site of youthful disillusion, the place where natural beauty is forever shadowed by relentless death. {171} Thus she described it in 1840 when she again visited the shores of Lake Como with her son Percy Florence:
There I left the mortal remains of those beloved -- my husband and my children, whose loss changed my whole existence, substituting, for happy peace and the interchange of deep-rooted affections, years of desolate solitude, and a hard struggle with the world; . . .3
As Wordsworth put it in his "Elegiac Stanzas," "I have submitted to a new control/. . . a deep distress hath humanised my Soul." In the midst of that desolate solitude, in 1831, Mary Shelley reshaped her horror story to reflect her pessimistic conviction that the universe is determined by a destiny blind to human needs or efforts. As in The Last Man, nature is no longer a supportive mother, but rather an indifferent power entirely capable of betraying the heart that loves her.

In 1818 Victor Frankenstein possessed free will or the capacity for meaningful moral choice -- he could have abandoned his quest for the "principle of life," he could have cared for his creature, he could have protected Elizabeth. In 1831 such choice is denied to him. He is the pawn of forces beyond his knowledge or control.4 Again and again, Mary Shelley reassigns human actions to chance or fate. By happenstance, lightning struck when a scientist was standing nearby to explain the nature of electricity and galvanism. By "one of those caprices of the mind" to which youth is peculiarly susceptible, Victor then gave up his interest in alchemy and instead turned to the study of mathematics. As he now comments:

Thus strangely are our souls constructed, and by such slight ligaments are we bound to prosperity or ruin. When I look back, it seems to me as if this almost miraculous change of inclination and will was the immediate suggestion of the guardian angel of my life -- the last effort made by the spirit of preservation to avert the storm that was even then hanging in the stars, and ready to envelope me. Her victory was announced by an unusual tranquillity and gladness of soul. . . . It was a strong effort of the spirit of good; but it was ineffectual. Destiny was too potent, and her immutable laws had decreed my utter and terrible destruction. (239)
His decision to return to the study of chemistry is now attributed to "Chance -- or rather the evil influence, the Angel of Destruction" (240). The deaths of both William Frankenstein and Justine are portrayed by Victor as a curse ("the work of my thrice-accursed hands") imposed by "inexorable fate" (246).

Some readers might wish to argue that this rhetoric of fatalism was {172} introduced to emphasize Victor Frankenstein's capacity for self-deception, rationalization, and self-serving attempts to win his audience's sympathy, rather than to express the author's own views. But the fact that the female characters also propound this new concept of destiny suggests otherwise. Elizabeth now claims that the routines of her peaceful life are governed by exterior forces: "The blue lake, and snow-clad mountains, they never change; -- and I think our placid home, and our contented hearts are regulated by the same immutable laws" (243). And Justine envisions Heaven as a divine "will" to which we must "learn . . . to submit in patience" (246).

Mary Shelley thus replaces her earlier organic conception of nature with a mechanistic one. She now portrays nature as a mighty machine, a juggernaut, impelled by pure force. She turns directly to Percy Shelley's "Mont Blanc," borrowing for the first time his concept of Power or energy as the creator, preserver, and destroyer of all visible phenomena. Victor Frankenstein, alone like the poet of "Mont Blanc," visits the ravine of the Arve, and sees the very image of creation and destruction Percy Shelley had described:

The immense mountains and precipices that overhung me on every side -- the sound of the river raging among the rocks, and the dashing of the waterfalls around, spoke of a power mighty as Omnipotence -- and I ceased to fear, or to bend before any being less almighty than that which had created and ruled the elements, here displayed in their most terrific guise. (248)

I stood beside the sources of the Arveiron, which take their rise in a glacier, that with slow pace is advancing down from the summit of the hills, to barricade the valley. The abrupt sides of vast mountains were before me; the icy wall of the glacier overhung me; a few shattered pines were scattered around; and the solemn silence of the glorious presence-chamber of imperial Nature was broken only by the brawling waves, or the fall of some vast fragment, the thunder sound of the avalanche, or the cracking, reverberated along the mountains of the accumulated ice, which, through the silent working of immutable laws, was ever and anon rent and torn, as if it had been but a plaything in their hands. (249)

But where Percy Shelley, confronted with such Power -- "the secret Strength of things/ Which governs thought, and to the infinite dome/ Of Heaven is as a law" -- saw silence and solitude as a vacancy that might be peopled by the human mind's imaginings, Mary Shelley presents "the silent workings of immutable laws" as inexorable, beyond human control. She foreswears the positive sublime for the negative sublime. The landscape can manifest only the omnipotent, death-dealing power of "imperial" nature.

{173} Human beings thus become "playthings," far weaker than mountains of ice, mere puppets in the hands of destiny. Mary Shelley adopts a behavioristic model of human nature. Human beings are, like nature itself, only machines manipulated by external forces. As Frankenstein describes his response to Professor Waldman's lecture, "one by one the various keys were touched which formed the mechanism of my being: chord after chord was sounded, and soon my mind was filled with one thought, one conception, one purpose" (241). Frankenstein is entirely passive: "My internal being was in a state of insurrection and turmoil; I felt that order would thence arise, but I had no power to produce it" (241). Even morally good human beings are but "creatures of an angelic nature and celestial mechanism" (255).

Since fate controls human destiny, Victor Frankenstein's downfall is caused not so much by his own "presumption and rash ignorance" (245) as by bad influences. Frankenstein's curiosity about the workings of nature is presented as innocent and healthy. It is accidentally perverted by his reading of Cornelius Agrippa. His father, who "was not scientific" (238), was unable to explain Agrippa's errors -- Mary Shelley removed the suggestion that Alphonse Frankenstein willfully "neglected" to educate his son on this occasion (32.25-28). And Professor Waldman, who now functions as a kind of Mephistopheles, tempts his student's innocent thirst for knowledge with "words of fate, enounced to destroy me. As he went on, I felt as if my soul were grappling with a palpable enemy" (241). Frankenstein can therefore not be held entirely responsible for his actions; an arrow shot by a devil has poisoned him. As he insists, he is "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" (247).

Frankenstein's sin is no longer identified at least in part with his failure to love and take responsibility for his creature. Rather, it is his initial decision to construct a human being that is his only error. Even before the creature is born, while doing the experiments now described as an "unearthly occupation" (252), Frankenstein "shunned my fellow-creatures as if I had been guilty of a crime" (242). His scientific experiments as such, involving "harrowing sensations" and the total loss of "self-command" (252), become "unhallowed arts" (247). Frankenstein even suggests that the creature's evil acts may be the result of a predestined moral nature -- "the monstrous Image, which I had endued with the mockery of a soul still more monstrous" (255).

Not only is Victor Frankenstein held less responsible for his actions, but his actions are presented more positively. Although he still {174} abandons his creature in callous horror, he is moved to create a female creature both by his aroused sense of obligation to his Adam and by a new and passionate desire to "save" his family, whom he "loved . . . to adoration" (252). His failure to confess the existence of his monster is attributed not only to a self-serving pride ("My tale was not one to announce publicly; its astounding horror would be looked upon as madness by the vulgar" [245]), but also to a genuine wish to spare his father greater suffering: "I could not bring myself to disclose a secret which would fill my hearer with consternation, and make fear and unnatural horror the inmates of his breast" (256). To some degree the author has muted her criticisms of her protagonist in the 1831 text. Perhaps in deference to her dead husband and his reading of her novel, Mary Shelley now presents Victor Frankenstein more as a victim of circumstances than as the active author of evil.

Walton and Clerval, Frankenstein's alter-egos, are now portrayed in ways that reflect more positively on Frankenstein himself. Walton's similarity to Frankenstein is emphasized. "You are pursuing the same course, exposing yourself to the same dangers which have rendered me what I am," says Victor (232-33). Walton commits Frankenstein's hubristic error when he admits his Satanic willingness to sacrifice his crew to his own ambition. Both Walton and Frankenstein share the condition of Coleridge's Ancient Mariner. Despite Walton's claim that he will "kill no albatross . . . in the land of mist and snow" (15), both Walton and Frankenstein come to feel that they are living under a "ban" that deprives them of human "companionship" (252). But the allusion to the "Ancient Mariner" also suggests that Frankenstein's and Walton's crimes are unintentional, accidental.5 Moreover, Walton's sin is balanced against a new remorse. Walton confesses that "it is terrible to reflect that the lives of all these men are endangered through me. If we were lost, my mad schemes are the cause" (258). Even the concept of friendship shared by these two men has developed from a desire merely to extend one's ego to a desire to improve one's self. As Victor responds to Walton, "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" (232).

Significantly, Clerval no longer appears in the novel as Frankenstein's better half, a moral touchstone against which we can clearly measure Frankenstein's failures. Frankenstein's desire for scientific knowledge is now presented as the counterpart of Clerval's desire for knowledge concerning "the moral relations of things" (237). Clerval is now equally ambitious for fame -- "his hope and his dream was to become one among those whose names are recorded in story, as {175} the gallant and adventurous benefactors of our species" (237). Above all, Clerval has become another Promethean figure. He defies his father's injunction against attending university: Clerval "said little; but when he spoke, I read in his kindling eye and in his animated glance a restrained but firm resolve, not to be chained to the miserable details of commerce" (240). He gains his father's consent, not through gentle persuasion, but through a harsher and more rebellious sarcasm; as he sneers, "all necessary knowledge [is] not comprised in the noble art of book-keeping" (242). Clerval now intends to become, not his father's partner, but a colonial imperialist, using his "mastery" of Oriental languages as Frankenstein uses his scientific instruments and Walton his crew, to dominate and exploit the resources of nature. Clerval "turned his eyes toward the East, as affording scope for his spirit of enterprise" (243-44), convinced that "he had in his knowledge of its various languages, and in the views he had taken of its society, the means of materially assisting the progress of European colonisation and trade" (253).

More important, Mary Shelley undercuts her earlier ideology of the loving, egalitarian family. Maternal love is strikingly associated with self-destruction when Caroline Beaufort intentionally sacrifices her life to nurse the infectious Elizabeth. The lengthened description of the Frankenstein marriage sets up an ideal of the domestic affections only to undercut it by identifying Caroline Beaufort as a "fair exotic" who requires to be "sheltered . . . from every rougher wind" (233-34), a time-consuming responsibility that leads Alphonse Frankenstein entirely to withdraw from public life. Their attentive nurturing of their oldest son still provides a striking contrast to Frankenstein's failure to care for his creature:

With the deep consciousness of what they owed towards the being to which they had given life, added to the active spirit of tenderness that animated both, it may be imagined that while during every hour of my infant life I received a lesson of patience, of charity, and of self-control, I was so guided by a silken cord, that all seemed but one train of enjoyment to me. (234)
But however negatively this passage reflects upon Victor, it also suggests that even the most devoted parental care cannot prevent pedagogical mistakes -- in Victor's case, those caused by his father's ignorance.

Elizabeth Lavenza's place in the Frankenstein household is both more legitimate and more oppressed. No longer a blood-cousin, she is an orphan adopted by Caroline Frankenstein; no incestuous overtones accrue to her marriage to Victor. But she is now presented to Victor as {176} a "present," a "gift" that is entirely his to cherish and possess (235). As such, he comes to regard her as his "more than sister" (235). By 1831, Elizabeth Lavenza has become the prototype of the Victorian "angel in the house." Victor describes her as "a being heaven-sent," "bearing a celestial stamp in all her features," "fairer than pictured cherub" (235). Significantly, the two moments in the 1818 edition at which Elizabeth expressed her own views in opposition to the patriarchy are cut from the 1831 edition. No longer does Elizabeth protest against her uncle's plans for Ernest (59) or denounce the tyrannical, vengeful retribution of the law-courts (83). Bound by the "immutable laws of nature" and her dependence on the Frankenstein family, Elizabeth Lavenza has become a cypher, the woman as the silenced Other.

By 1831, Mary Shelley had lost faith in the possibility that a generous, loving, and nurturant response to both human and physical nature might create a world without monsters. The Russian sea-master is now "wholly uneducated," "as silent as a Turk," and guilty of an "ignorant carelessness" (230). Elizabeth's chosen profession for Ernest is no longer that of the constructive farmer but rather that of the destructive military soldier, controlling "foreign" lands. Above all, nature is imaged as an "imperial" tyrant, a mighty power whose constant changes spell only death to the living.

By coming to construe nature in the way that Waldman and Frankenstein did in the 1818 edition, as a mighty and amoral machine, Mary Shelley significantly decreased the critical distance between herself and her protagonist. In her added Introduction to the novel, Mary Shelley represents herself much as she now represents Frankenstein, as a victim of destiny. She was compelled to write by her parents' example, by Byron's challenge, by Percy Shelley's expectations; her "imagination, unbidden, possessed and guided" her (227); she is still "averse to bringing myself forward in print" (222). She ends with a defensive lie: "I have changed no portion of the story, nor introduced any new ideas or circumstances" (229). Thus Mary Shelley both disclaimed responsibility for her hideous progeny and insisted that she had remained passive before it, "leaving the core and substance of it untouched" (229). For invention "can give form to dark, shapeless substances, but cannot bring into being the substance itself" (226). Imperial nature, the substance itself, is thus triumphant. Before it, Mary Shelley's human invention, her imagination, "unbidden," could only mould shapeless darkness into a hideous monster. Like Victor Frankenstein, she has become the unwilling "author of unalterable evils."


1. Mary Poovey has perceptively discussed the role of fatalism in the 1831 revisions of Frankenstein, albeit to different purposes (The Proper Lady and the Woman Writer -- Ideology as Style in the Works of Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary Shelley and Jane Austen [Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1984], pp. 133-42). Jean de Palacio has stressed only the stylistic dimensions of these changes which he defines as a process "d'allongement et de commoration" (Mary Shelley dans son oeuvre [Paris: Klincksieck, 1969], pp. 576-85; 584).

2. The Letters of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, ed. Betty T. Bennett (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980, 1983), 1:572.

3. Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, Rambles in Germany and Italy in 1840, 1842, and 1843 (London: Edward Moxon, 1844), pp. 1-2.

4. For a telling study of the role of fate in the 1831 edition of Frankenstein, see John R. Reed, "Will and Fate in Frankenstein," Bulletin of Research in the Humanities 83 (1980): 319-38.

5. For a discussion of Coleridge's "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" as a discourse of open-ended indeterminacy rather than of moral didacticism, see my English Romantic Irony (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1980), Chap. 5.