views updated May 29 2018


Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley


(Full name Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin Shelley) English novelist, poet, playwright, short-story writer, travel writer, essayist, and editor.

The following entry presents commentary on Shelley's novel Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus (1818) through 2005.


A seminal work of Victorian literature, Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus (1818) is considered one of the most influential and popular novels in the English language. Equal parts Gothic romance, science-fiction adventure, and horror story, Frankenstein has spawned numerous stage and screen adaptations, emerging as an icon of modern popular culture. First published anonymously in 1818, the book came to be regarded as Shelley's masterpiece and paved the way for such horror genre classics as Bram Stoker's Dracula and Robert Louis Stevenson's The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Critical interest in Frankenstein, which greatly increased in the twentieth century, has largely focused on the enduring ethical, moral, and social implications of Shelley's tale. Though Frankenstein's creature is regarded as a horror icon, the novel itself has been adopted by many grade-school and high-school reading lists and has been adapted in several young adult-friendly formats, including a version which appeared in Gilberton Publications's popular "Classics Illustrated" comic book series, which ran from 1941 to 1962. Frankenstein's creature has also been featured as a character in a number of picture books targeted at beginning readers, such as Frankenstein Makes a Sandwich (2006) by Adam Rex and Mommy? (2006) by Maurice Sendak, Arthur Yorinks, and Matthew Reinhart, among others.


Born on August 30, 1797, Shelley was the daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft, the outspoken feminist and author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, and William Godwin, the novelist and philosopher. Ten days after Shelley was born, her mother died. Shelley and her half-sister Fanny Imlay did not receive a formal education; instead, Godwin raised the girls on progressive ideals and encouraged self-expression and analytical thinking. With this influence, Shelley came to believe in female independence and sexual freedom—concepts that deviated from the values prevalent in English society of the time. In 1801 her father remarried, which caused Shelley to feel alienated and unhappy. She took refuge in books and discussions with the poets and intellectuals who visited her father's house, including Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Charles Lamb, William Wordsworth, and Percy Bysshe Shelley. At the age of sixteen, she fell in love with Percy Shelley, a twenty-two-year-old poet and free-thinker. Their relationship caused much consternation and public controversy, as he was married and his wife was expecting their second child. Nevertheless, in July 1814, one month before her seventeenth birthday, Mary ran off with him to Europe. For the next several years, they traveled in Switzerland, Germany, and Italy. They eventually returned to England, where they married. These years were not idyllic ones: Percy was cut off financially by his father; Fanny committed suicide; Percy's estranged wife, Harriet, drowned herself; and Percy was denied custody of his two children. Mary and Percy had three children, all of whom died. In the wake of these personal hardships, Percy and Mary's marriage suffered, and Percy began to form attachments to other women. While these were trying years in the lives of the Shelleys, it was also a productive time for both of them as writers. In 1818 Mary published the novel Frankenstein, which remains her best-known work. In 1819 she gave birth to Percy Florence, her only surviving child. The elder Percy drowned in Italy, on the Gulf of Spezzia, in 1822. Heartbroken, Mary returned to England with her son in 1823. After her husband's death, Shelley's life was marked by financial hardship. With a meager stipend from her husband's family, she struggled to support herself and her son. Already an established writer, she used her influential contacts to write biographical and critical sketches for Chamber's Cabi-net Cyclopedia as well as numerous short stories for popular English periodicals and the annual The Keepsake. In 1840 her financial situation improved when her son's allowance was increased, which allowed mother and son to travel to Italy and Germany. She recounted these adventures in Rambles in Germany and Italy in 1840, 1842, and 1843 (1844). Despite poor health, her last few years were spent in relative contentment. On February 1, 1851, she died as a result of a brain tumor.


Told from a series of shifting perspectives, Frankenstein opens with a prologue explaining the novel's origin as part of an informal contest among friends to compose a story of the supernatural. The prologue—which is commonly attributed to the author's husband, renowned poet Percy Bysshe Shelley—also cites such literary influences as John Milton's Paradise Lost and Homer's Iliad. The narrative begins as a series of letters written by Captain Robert Walton, an Arctic explorer, to his sister. While detailing his journey toward the North Pole, Walton describes his chance encounter with Doctor Victor Frankenstein, whose sledge has become stranded on an ice floe. The novel adopts Frankenstein's perspective as he recounts his childhood in Geneva, Switzerland. Frankenstein's early years are spent cultivating an interest in alchemy and philosophy in the company of his close friend, Henry Clerval, and his romantic interest, Elizabeth Lavenza. He also expresses great fondness for his mother, Caroline, and father, Alphonse. After his mother succumbs to scarlet fever, Frankenstein leaves home to study science at the University of Ingolstadt in Bavaria, Germany. Encouraged and inspired by his professors, he devotes himself to uncovering the mysteries of life. Doctor Frankenstein soon becomes fixated on the idea of creating a superior race and uses the body parts of corpses to assemble a synthetic man, imbued with the spark of life through galvanic electrical power. When the creature comes to life, the doctor is repulsed by it and flees; he later returns home later to find the creature gone. The situation worsens when Frankenstein learns of the murder of his youngest brother, William. While returning home to Geneva, he notices the creature lurking near the scene of his brother's death. Convinced of the creature's culpability, Frankenstein is horrified to learn that the murder has been blamed on Justine Moritz, a dear friend of the family. Moritz is subsequently executed, and the doctor, wracked with guilt, leaves Geneva to wander the countryside. Scaling a mountaintop glacier, Frankenstein is accosted by the creature, who confesses to the crime and pleads for his creator's understanding.

The narrative shifts to the creature's point of view while retracing the events following his initial escape from Frankenstein. Having spent the winter and spring observing a poor but loving family, the creature teaches himself to speak. He deduces that the head of the family, De Lacey, and his children, Agatha and Felix, were exiled from France for helping an innocent man escape from prison. After finding a bag containing copies of Paradise Lost, Plutarch's Lives, and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's The Sorrows of Young Werter, the creature learns to read. More importantly, he now realizes the possibility of kindness and companionship. Yet his attempt to approach the family is thwarted by his hideous appearance. The creature begs Frankenstein to provide him with a mate, and the doctor's sense of personal responsibility compels him to grant the creature's request. Frankenstein enlists the aid of Clerval, and the two set out for England to conduct further research. Anxious to erase his indebtedness to the creature, Frankenstein parts ways with Clerval and sets up a laboratory in the Orkney Islands, located north of mainland Scotland. The doctor immerses himself in his work, but has a change of heart just before completing his task. The creature becomes enraged by Frankenstein's sudden decision to abandon the project and makes an ominous threat concerning the doctor's impending marriage to Lavenza. Before he can leave the Orkneys, Frankenstein is arrested for the murder of Clerval, whose body has been found strangled nearby. The doctor becomes gravely ill, and the local court eventually acquits him for lack of evidence. Alphonse soon arrives to take his son back home to Geneva. Once there, Frankenstein and Lavenza are wed, but the creature attacks and kills the new bride. Overwhelmed by the tragic chain of events, Alphonse dies shortly thereafter. The doctor pledges to track down and destroy his creation, following him all the way to the Arctic. The narrative now reverts to Walton's letters, which tell of Frankenstein's final days aboard the explorer's ship during the return trip to England. After Frankenstein's demise, Walton discovers the creature crying over his creator's body. The creature tells Walton of his unbearable loneliness, expresses remorse for his actions, and leaves the ship to die alone on the ice.


The novel's subtitle, The Modern Prometheus, alludes to its key theme—the danger of seeking forbid- den knowledge. In Greek mythology, Prometheus steals fire from Zeus, the ruler of the heavens, and gives it to the mortals for the benefit of mankind. Like Prometheus, Frankenstein assumes godlike powers when he uncovers the secrets of creation and fabricates a new life. The horrors unleashed by Frankenstein's actions turn his story into a cautionary tale, and Walton takes heed by relinquishing his similarly lofty aspirations as an explorer. This connection to the Prometheus myth is emphasized by the novel's use of light as a symbol for knowledge and its inherent limits. For example, when the creature discovers a fire in the woods, he is mesmerized by its ability to cast light into the darkness. In this scene, Shelley suggests the potentially harmful consequences of enlightenment, depicting the creature as he unwittingly thrusts his hand into the flames. The search for greater understanding in Frankenstein correlates directly to the disciplines of science and technology. Rather than seeking it inwardly via compassion or empathy, the protagonist devotes his life to achieving wisdom through scientific experimentation. Another recurring theme of Frankenstein is the power of the natural world. In a manner characteristic of Romantic literature, nature serves to heighten or reflect emotional states throughout the novel. For instance, the utter desolation that has overtaken Frankenstein and his creation by the story's end is accentuated by the harsh and bitter Arctic weather. Additionally, the book calls into question what it means to be a "monster," demonstrating Frankenstein's tendency toward destruction and the creature's capacity for compassion. As the consequences of Frankenstein's hubris become increasingly horrific, the creature begins to express signs of emotional complexity and humanity. In this way, the doctor and his creation are regarded as doppelgängers, or doubles, representing the dual nature of mankind and the relationship between intellect and emotion.


Upon its publication, Frankenstein garnered commercial success as a Gothic novel, but critically it was for the most part condemned as sensationalist and gruesome. While the quality of prose in Frankenstein has often been maligned, the novel's thematic elements have inspired a wealth of critical study. Some scholars have explored the religious undertones of the book, noting parallels between Christ's parable of the prodigal son and the predicament of Frankenstein's creature. Others have approached Frankenstein from a psychoanalytical standpoint to further expound on the creature's inner turmoil and conflicting emotions toward his creator. Additionally, Victor Frankenstein's determination to "play God" and employ science to create new life has been examined in relation to the Prometheus myth and the modern ethical debate concerning cloning and biotechnology. Another major source of critical attention has been the novel's portrayal of gender roles, leading some commentators to interpret Frankenstein as a thinly veiled response to male dominance in the creative arts. Critics also have cited the tenuous social climate of Europe after the French Revolution as crucial to understanding Shelley's authorial intent, finding political significance in the selection and progression of geographical settings for the story. While the novel has been favorably compared to such classic works as Ovid's Metamorphoses, Samuel Taylor Coleridge's "The Rime of the Ancyent Marinere," and Marge Piercey's Woman on the Edge of Time, modern academics have also found parallels between Frankenstein and recent works of children's literature—for example, in an essay in Lion and the Unicorn, Noel Chevalier has noted parallels between the portrayals of social justice and human rights in Frankenstein and J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter series.


History of a Six Weeks' Tour through a Part of France, Switzerland, Germany, and Holland, with Letters Descriptive of a Sail Round the Lake of Geneva and the Glaciers of Chamouni [with Percy Bysshe Shelley] (nonfiction) 1817

Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus. 3 vols. [anonymous] (novel) 1818; revised edition, 1831

Valperga; or, The Life and Adventures of Castruccio, Prince of Lucca. 3 vols. [as "The Author of Frankenstein"] (novel) 1823

Posthumous Poems of Percy Bysshe Shelley [editor] (poetry) 1824

The Last Man. 3 vols. [as "The Author of Frankenstein"] (novel) 1826

The Fortunes of Perkin Warbeck. 3 vols. [as "The Author of Frankenstein"] (novel) 1830

Lodore [as "The Author of Frankenstein"] (novel) 1835

Falkner [as "The Author of Frankenstein"] (novel) 1837

The Poetical Works of Percy Bysshe Shelley. 4 vols. [editor] (poetry) 1839

Rambles in Germany and Italy in 1840, 1842, and 1843. 2 vols. (travel essays) 1844

*"Proserpine" and "Midas": Two Unpublished Mythological Dramas by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley [edited by A. Koszul] (plays) 1922

Mathilda [edited by Elizabeth Nitchie] (novella) 1959

Collected Tales and Stories [edited by Charles E. Robinson] (short stories) 1976

The Letters of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley. 3 vols. [edited by Betty T. Bennett] (letters) 1980, 1983, 1988; also published as Selected Letters of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, 1994

The Journals of Mary Shelley, 1814-1844. [edited by Paula Feldman and Diana Scott-Kilvert] 2 vols. (journals) 1987

*Written in 1820.

Written c. 1819.


A. James Wohlpart (essay date spring 1998)

SOURCE: Wohlpart, A. James. "A Tradition of Male Poetics: Mary Shelley's Frankenstein as an Allegory of Art." Midwest Quarterly 39, no. 3 (spring 1998): 265-79.

[In the following essay, Wohlpart analyzes the notion of artistic creation in Frankenstein, focusing on issues of personal affection and domesticity.]

Central to any analysis of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein is the relationship between the Monster and his Creator. Several critics, including especially Robert Kiely and Paul Sherwin, have suggested that we read this relationship as a metaphor for the relation between the artist and the created artwork. More specifically, others have asserted that Shelley was centrally discussing her own creative process in the novel. Instead, I believe that she defines the nature of artistic production in her own society, especially as that production emerges from a male poetic, a theory of art which dangerously ignores the human affection that arises from the domestic sphere. Thus, in Frankenstein, Shelley analyzes the ethical nature of the male poetics of her time. In setting up a common parallel, that between the artist as creator and God as Creator, Shelley suggests that the artist must take moral responsibility for his fictive creations. Significantly, such a depiction of the artist's role parallels the role of Victor within Mary Shelley's novel; as he slowly comes to accept his part as the creator of the monster, Victor begins to see his own complicity in the monster's actions.

In her retrospective introduction, Mary Shelley clearly indicates that Victor's creation of the monster parallels the creation of art. She recounts a discussion between Byron and Percy Shelley about the principle of life, after which Mary Shelley went to bed but could not sleep; instead, she conceives her novel in a waking vision. She concludes: "Frightful must it be; for supremely frightful would be the effect of any human endeavour to mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world. His success would terrify the artist …" (9). In her own analysis of the creative act which produced the novel, Mary Shelley notes the ethical implications of representation apparent in her society. She then concludes her discussion of the waking vision with a description of the creative process itself: "Swift as light and as cheering was the idea that broke in upon me" (10). Similarly, Victor Frankenstein's creation of his monster begins after visiting the lectures of M. Waldman on modern science; Victor notes that "I closed not my eyes that night" (48). After a great deal of research into the "principle of life," Victor explains how, one day, "I paused, examining and analysing all the minutiae of causation, as exemplified in the change from life to death, and death to life, until from the midst of this darkness a sudden light broke in upon me …" (51-52).

As I have noted, critics such as Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, Beth Newman, and Marc Rubenstein, locate the critique of artistic creativity apparent in the novel in Mary Shelley's own process of creation. I contend, however, that the critique finds its locus in the male-dominated artistic arena of her time. Not only does Mary Shelley implicate the Romantics in her novel, and especially Percy Shelley and Lord Byron, but she also implicates the tradition which led up this period, suggesting that artistic creativity has predominantly become, as Gilbert and Gubar so aptly point out, a male pursuit. At the center of Shelley's critique is the way in which male creativity omits any feminine influence and thus creates a series of monsters. Yet Mary Shelley does not suggest that a sudden acceptance of the feminine will alleviate the overwhelmingly male dominance of art; rather, she shows how such a domination insidiously inscribes the female in such a way that responsibility for the monster's actions is unfairly forced upon her as she becomes a semblance of the monster himself.

The Central Relation: Victor Frankenstein, Scientist, and His Hideous Progeny

As an allegory of artistic creation, the specifics of Victor's creation of his monster, as well as his subsequent relation to his progeny, need close attention. While it is clear that Frankenstein is born of parents who bestow much affection on him as a child and that Elizabeth Lavenza tempers Victor's searching after truth while young, when he moves towards the creation of the monster, Victor leaves these influences behind and isolates himself in a solitude that excludes not only society but also nature, which becomes symbolic of the feminine. After arriving in Ingolstadt and setting up his "solitary apartment," Victor explains his predilection for an ancient science based on pursuing dreams and visions of the ideal: "I had retrod the steps of knowledge along the paths of time, and exchanged the discoveries of recent enquirers for the dreams of forgotten alchymists," preferring those who search for "immortality and power" (45-46). As his studies advance, science, and especially chemistry, becomes his "sole occupation." He explains: "Two years passed in this manner, during which I paid no visit to Geneva [his family and friends], but was engaged, heart and soul, in the pursuit of some discoveries, which I hoped to make" (50).

After discovering the principle of life, Victor devotes himself to building the frame for his monster. He notes that he "seemed to have lost all soul or sensation but for this one pursuit" before describing his laboratory: "In a solitary chamber, or rather cell, at the top of the house, and separated from all the other apartments by a gallery and staircase, I kept my workshop of filthy creation …" (54-55). The site of the monster's creation is an isolated workshop wherein Victor separates himself from all society, a neglect paralleled in his relation to nature. He states that he is completely insensible of society and of the outside world: "And the same feelings which made me neglect the scenes around me caused me also to forget those friends who were so many miles absent, and whom I had not been for so long a time." While he knows that he is not thinking of his family as he promised both his father and Elizabeth that he would, he feels irresistibly drawn by his pursuit: "I wished, as it were, to procrastinate all that related to my feelings of affection until the great object, which swallowed up every habit of my nature, should be completed" (55). Victor continually emphasizes not only that he is creating his monster in an atmosphere of isolation and solitude but that his isolation is of a specific kind: from family and friends which leads to the neglect of feelings and affections.

In fact, at this point in his narrative, he turns to Robert Walton to deliver an admonition: "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" (56). To demonstrate the way in which his relation to the feminine has been destroyed as a result of his "study," he describes a dream vision which he has immediately following the animation of his monster. In the dream, Victor sees Elizabeth who is at first "in the bloom of health"; after he embraces and kisses her, however, she becomes "livid with the hue of death" and then transforms into the corpse of Victor's dead mother (58). Significantly, immediately after the monster is brought to life, a transformation occurs in Victor, symbolized by a renewed awareness of the world outside: "It was a divine spring; and the season contributed greatly to my convalescence. I felt also sentiments of joy and affection revive in my bosom …" (62). Both family and nature once again influence Victor now that he is no longer in the process of creating his monster.

The hideous nature of Victor Frankenstein's creation seems to stem in part from the circumstances of his creative process. Mary Shelley suggests that, because of his isolation, Victor's creativity results in a deformed and hideous being. But Mary Shelley goes beyond such an implication, demonstrating further the creator's moral responsibility when he creates a work of art. Because the monster has at its foundation a male poetics, that is, a creative process dominated by male perceptions and ideas to the exclusion of any feminine influence, he eventually goes astray and murders three victims (William Frankenstein, Henry Clerval, and Elizabeth Lavenza Frankenstein) and causes the death of three others (Justine Moritz, Alphonse Frankenstein, and Victor Frankenstein)—deaths which Victor must eventually attribute to himself.

Alphonse Frankenstein describes the first murder, that of Victor's younger brother William, in a letter. He notes that, when they discovered William's body, "the print of the murderer's finger was on his neck" (72). As if to represent an extension of Victor's creative act, an act akin to artistic creativity and thus to writing, the monster leaves his print on the body of his innocent victim. Only during the trial of Justine Moritz, the girl accused of William's murder, does Victor begin to sense his complicity in the actions of the monster. When discussing the possible outcomes of the trial, Victor notes that it "was to be decided, whether the result of my curiosity and lawless devices would cause the death of two of my fellow- beings …" (81). Victor's reaction to the evil actions of his creation suggests that he realizes that they are an extension of his own creative act. Just as he sought solitude and isolation while creating the monster, after admitting that the murders of the first two victims result from his creative act and are thus his responsibility, he turns once again to solitude: "I shunned the face of man … solitude was my only consolation—deep, dark, deathlike solitude" (90).

Victor's reaction to the second murder, that of Henry Clerval, follows a similar pattern of first acceptance of responsibility and then abandonment of society. Indeed, after returning home, Victor reiterates "that Clerval … had fallen a victim to me and the monster of my creation" (183). He then emphasizes his isolation: "I abhorred the face of man. Oh not abhorred! … But I felt that I had no right to share their intercourse" (184-85). Once again, Victor responds to the complicitous nature of the monster's crime through an increase in his solitude and isolation. He continually insinuates his responsibility in the deaths of William, Justine, and Henry, but he no longer perceives the monster as a mediator between himself and the crimes. Rather, he begins to accept his own direct responsibility: since he created the monster, he is directly accountable for its actions, just as an artist is morally accountable for the occurrences depicted in a work of art.

The third and final murder, that of Elizabeth Lavenza on the night of her marriage to Victor Frankenstein, implicates Victor's creative act in a new way because this final murder destroys any possibility of a feminine influence. Victor decides to marry Elizabeth after he abandons his creation of a female mate for the monster because he knows that "Elizabeth alone had the power to draw me from these fits …" (190). Victor, however, never gets the opportunity to feel Elizabeth's influence for on the night of their marriage, the monster murders her: "The murderous mark of the fiend's grasp was on her neck …" (196). As if finally to demonstrate the complete lack of any feminine influence in the creative process, the monster, with Victor's complicity implied, destroys the representative of such influence.

The deaths of these central figures, who comprise the totality of Victor's friends and the center of his family, conclude the monster's actions within civilization, and he leads Victor to the wastelands of the Arctic region where Victor eventually meets Robert Walton and tells him his tale. But before Victor departs to these wastelands, and even before he attempts to consecrate his own happiness with his marriage to Elizabeth Lavenza, Victor meets the monster on the slopes of the Swiss Alps and hears his tale, a tale which becomes embedded in Victor's own tale to Walton. Significantly, both Victor's tale to Walton and the monster's tale to Victor are told in the icy wastes of isolation, suggesting that such male-centered narratives have a founding flaw similar to that of Victor's creation of the monster. In his tale, the monster notes that he would have been a benevolent creature if he had had the opportunity of communing with others.

The monster's tale concludes with a plea for Victor to create a mate for him so that he can remain a benevolent being. He tells Victor: "If I have no ties and no affections, hatred and vice must be my portion…. My vices are the children of a forced solitude that I abhor; and my virtues will necessarily arise when I live in communion with an equal. I shall feel the affections of a sensitive being, and become linked to the chain of existence and events, from which I am now excluded" (147). A feminine influence, as the monster realizes, is necessary so that he might interact benevolently with the world. As already noted, however, Victor abandons his project of a second creation, thus withholding any feminine influence from his monstrous progeny. In this way, the female remains decidedly outside of the solipsistic male creative process.

However, while such an influence does remain excluded from male creativity, the female is inscribed within the male poetics in such a way that the female seemingly becomes complicitous in, and thus responsible for, the actions of the hideous progeny. Even though Victor perceives that, ultimately, he is responsible for the crimes resulting from his creative act, he watches silently as the female is found guilty of those crimes. Obliquely emphasizing the nature of the condemnation of the female, Justine explains to Elizabeth that the confessor threatened her "until I almost began to think that I was the monster that he said I was" (87). The male poetics not only silently acquiesces to the female's suggested complicity, but it turns the female into the monster itself, into the very being who perpetrated the crime. When Justine asks whether the silent Victor believes in her innocence. Elizabeth must answer for him that indeed he knows Justine to be innocent. Justine replies to Victor through Elizabeth: "I truly thank him. In these last moments I feel the sincerest gratitude towards those who think of me with kindness. How sweet is the affection of others to such a wretch as I am!" (88). Just as the confessor not only implicates Justine in the monster's crime but also equates her with the monster, Justine's final speech most ironically equates her with Victor Frankenstein's creation. Earlier in the novel, after having gathered his materials for his creation, Victor noted that "A new species would bless me as its creator and source…. No father could claim the gratitude of his child[ren] so completely as I should deserve theirs" (54). In Justine's "sincerest gratitude" and acceptance of her fate, she ironically appears to become one of Victor's own creations.

The inscription of Justine within the male poetics ultimately silences her and thus perpetuates the very lack that causes the male poetics to create monsters in the first place. After the condemnation of Justine, Elizabeth emphasizes this circularity:

When I reflect … on the miserable death of Justine Moritz, I no longer see the world and its works as they before appeared to me. Before, I looked upon the accounts of vice and injustice, that I read in books or heard from others, as tales of ancient days, or imaginary evils; at least they were remote, and more familiar to reason than to the imagination; but now misery has come home, and men appear to me as monsters thirsting for each other's blood.


The appearance of the monster in the home has destroyed the felicity once enjoyed there, a destruction which bars the home from influencing the creations of the imagination and thus perpetuates further appearances of the monster.

In detailing his murder of William, the monster also explains the nature of this cycle. After the monster leaves his print on Victor's brother, he steals the portrait which hangs around William's neck, the portrait of a female and thus a representative of that influence from which the monster is excluded (143). The monster then proceeds to the barn and discovers Justine asleep in the hay. Before placing the portrait of the female in Justine's pocket, the monster notes that "the murder I have committed because I am for ever robbed of all that she could give me, she shall atone. The crime had its source in her: be hers the punishment!" (144). Not only is Justine then implicated in the crime in that she will have to atone for it, but she is also held responsible for the crime as its source. Significantly, the very object which both implicates Justine in the crime and eventually equates her with the monster is a representation of the female figure.

Spiralling Outward: Robert Walton, Explorer, and the Silent Female Reader, Margaret Saville

As Peter McInerney has noted, just as Victor Frankenstein's scientific creation finds its analogue in artistic creation, so too does Robert Walton's exploration of the North Pole. Moreover, the central element in Robert Walton's discovery voyage, as in Victor Frankenstein's discovery of the principle of life, becomes that of connection to the feminine. Unlike Victor, however, Robert Walton vacillates between isolation and community. While Walton admits to his sister that he lacks one element which he feels important to his journey, a close, male friend, he is connected to the feminine, as Fred V. Randel has suggested, in that he does at least attempt, unlike Frankenstein, to commit his emotions to paper and dispatch them to his sister (530). As Walton notes, however, paper is a poor medium for the necessary communication of affections, linked throughout the novel to the feminine. Yet Margaret Saville's influence on Robert Walton is thorough, for even though he turns from dispatching letters to writing daily entries in his journal, he continues to record events in order eventually to communicate his experiences. Her influence can also be seen in the care that Walton takes with his sailors. Although anxious to embark on his journey, he tells Margaret in a letter that he will wait until the weather clears: "you know me sufficiently to confide in my prudence and considerateness, whenever the safety of others is committed to my care" (21).

But Robert Walton travels far enough from the influence of his sister that he becomes privileged to hear Victor's tale, a tale whose purport is a warning against such a disengagement from the feminine. Shortly after the conclusion of Victor's tale, the sailors come to Walton and reveal their own forebodings. At this point, he begins to feel the depth of his responsibility: "The brave fellows, whom I have persuaded to be my companions, look towards me for aid; but I have none to bestow…. [I]t is terrible to reflect that the lives of all these men are endangered through me. If we are lost, my mad schemes are the cause" (212). As Victor slowly comes to realize his own complicity in the murders of his creation, Walton understands the nature of his responsibility to the lives of those aboard the ship. And just as Frankenstein's creation claimed it his "right" to have a female mate, the sailors come to Walton and ask for his promise that they will return home if they are freed from the ice, something which, "in justice," he could not refuse (214).

When the ice does break, Walton demonstrates unequivocally the strength of his sister's influence. Rather than continue his voyage to the North Pole as Victor urges, Walton agrees to return home: "It is past; I am returning to England…. [W]hile I am wafted towards England, and towards you, I will not despond" (215). But Walton demonstrates the influence of his sister not only in deciding to return home but also in his interaction with the monster. As the ship departs the Arctic wastes, the monster leaps aboard and visits the corpse of his creator. Walton hears the monster and enters the cabin to find him crouched over the body of his master. As Laura P. Claridge has demonstrated, his reaction to the monster suggests a new paradigm in the novel; instead of immediately rejecting the monster, Walton asks him to stay: "I shut my eyes involuntarily, and endeavoured to recollect what were my duties with regard to this destroyer. I called on him to stay." Walton's hesitation suggests that Frankenstein's desire to have the monster destroyed has not fully infected the explorer. Instead, Walton reacts with "a mixture of curiosity and compassion" (219).

While it appears that Mary Shelley offers hope in the character of Robert Walton, as he eventually tempers his male spirit with a feminine influence, two significant events occur at this moment in the text. First, while Walton himself has abandoned his voyage to the North Pole in order to preserve the lives of his sailors, his pursuit is not totally forsaken, for the monster figures to complete Walton's voyage. Second, and perhaps more important, at the moment that Walton fully accepts the feminine influence, in that he decides both to return to England and to allow the monster to live untouched, he stops writing and the novel ends abruptly. As if to demonstrate the incompatibility of the feminine and an artistic world dominated by males, Mary Shelley does not allow Walton to continue writing.

Once again, however, Mary Shelley delineates the way in which the female resides both within and without the male poetics. As Peter McInerney has commented, the novel appears to be presented as if constructed by Robert Walton, the explorer who not only pursues the North Pole but also hears and transcribes Victor Frankenstein's tale. But, in actuality, the novel has a mediating force beyond that of Robert Walton in his sister Margaret Saville. For we know that the first three of Walton's letters are dispatched to his sister and that it is only the fourth letter, which transforms into a journal, that Walton retains. Thus, apparently, Margaret Saville is the final destination, and the silent destination, of the male text.

At the point where Robert Walton transforms his fourth letter into a journal, he notes to Margaret his reason for transcribing not only Victor's tale but also his own: "You have been tutored and refined by books and retirement from the world, and you are, therefore, somewhat fastidious; but this only renders you the more fit to appreciate the extraordinary merits of this wonderful man" (29). Again the circular implication of the female must be noted: the female is rendered incapable of a significant relation to the artistic sphere because of her indulgence in that sphere. Rather than suggesting a remedy for such an entrapment, Robert Walton dispatches the male text to the silent female reader to further implicate her in this inescapable circle. As we might assume that the entire text of the novel is Margaret Saville's transcription of Robert Walton's letters and journal about this "wonderful man," we can see Mary Shelley's final judgment of the female's place, or non-place, in the world of art. In the end, all artistic pursuit seems to be based on a male poetics, even, apparently, the artistic pursuit of the female, for she can only silently transcribe the male text.

In Conclusion: A Tradition of Male Poetics

Because of his isolation from any feminine influence, Victor Frankenstein, as a pseudo-artist, creates a monstrosity. Clearly, however, the monstrous nature of Victor's creation derives from more than just the creative atmosphere itself. As the monster continually notes, if he had communed with a female mate, he would have been not a monstrosity but a benevolent and beneficent creature. But Mary Shelley suggests yet another source for the creation's monstrosity, a source which is perhaps paramount to the others: that of the three texts of the monster's training (Johnson, 10). While Gilbert and Gubar aptly demonstrate the overwhelming influence of Milton's Paradise Lost on subsequent literary artists, especially female artists (219-30), a similar case can be made within the text of Frankenstein for both the Sorrows of Werther and Plutarch's Lives.

The monster describes the protagonist in The Sorrows of Werther as a man of such sensibility that he cannot exist within his own society and is ultimately destroyed. Plutarch's Lives expands the sphere delineated in the Sorrows of Werther from a focus on the male self to a focus on historical selves—all male. Finally, as Gilbert and Gubar point out, the monster's description of Paradise Lost omits any mention of the major female figure, Eve, concentrating, rather, on comparisons between himself and the major male figures. Gilbert and Gubar conclude that each of these three texts "must have seemed to [Mary Shelley] to embody lessons a female author … must learn about a male-dominated society" (237). Indeed, as Peter Dale Scott and Paul Sherwin have noted, Frankenstein directly critiques Percy Shelley's Romantic position, suggesting how his idealism inscribes his poetry within a similar circle. Concentrating on such poems as Prometheus Unbound and The Cenci, William Veeder comes to the conclusion that Mary Shelley's warnings were too late, that Percy Shelley's isolation was complete and total. Yet few critics have pointed out that it is Mary Shelley's very critique of art which also confounds her husband. While the plea to the west wind in Shelley's ode is that his poetry will be scattered among humankind, there is also implicit in the poem a despondency about his lack of any real connection with the flow of life. Indeed, Percy Shelley's last poem, The Triumph of Life, breaks off, as does Frankenstein, just as it suggests such a connection.

In addition to Mary Shelley's indictment of her husband is an indictment of Lord Byron, the other male artist from whose company Mary Shelley feels alienated. As she notes in her introduction, while she and Percy live in Switzerland and she conceives the idea of and writes Frankenstein, Byron composes the third canto of Childe Harold. Byron's famous canto centers on the Byronic hero's isolation from life and, specifically, the narrator's isolation from his daughter Ada. Just as Robert Walton's text has its ultimate destination in his silent sister, Margaret Saville, one senses that Byron's canto is also a dispatch to his daughter explaining his lack of paternal responsibility. Andrew Griffin, Rosemary Jackson, and Kiely have all suggested that Frankenstein be read as a feminist commentary on such poets as Percy Shelley and Lord Byron, as well as on the literary tradition which leads up to the Romantic period. As such, Frankenstein might be expected to liberate itself from the male poetics which Mary Shelley finds isolated from any feminine influence. Yet the very point of the novel is the apparent impossibility of such a liberation. Indeed, the very process in which the novel was constructed demonstrates this impossibility, for while Mary Shelley was the primary author of the novel, Percy Shelley closely monitored its production (see Murray). Not only did he guide Mary's hand in the creation of the work, but he had the final hand in its construction. Mary Shelley notes, in her journal on Wednesday, 14 May 1817, "Shelley reads ‘History of the French Revolution,’ and corrects Frankenstein. Write Preface. Finis" (79).

Mary Shelley clarifies, however, the kind of influence that she received from her husband. After having put but "a few pages" of a "short tale" on paper, Mary Shelley is incited by her husband "to develope the idea at greater length" (10). She goes on to note, however, that "I certainly did not owe the suggestion of one incident, nor scarcely of one train of feeling, to my husband …" (10). In detailing the lack of human affection implicit in Percy Shelley's creativity, Mary Shelley counteracts Percy's claim, in the Preface to Frankenstein written by Percy in Mary's name, that her aim was "the exhibition of the amiableness of domestic affection" (14). Indeed, the novel shows, rather, the results that a lack of domestic affection can have on art, results which allow Mary Shelley to call her novel "my hideous progeny" (10).


Claridge, Laura P. "Parent-Child Tensions in Frankenstein: The Search for Communion." Studies in the Novel, 17 (Spring 1985), 14-26.

Cottom, Daniel. "Frankenstein and the Monster of Representation." Sub-Stance, 28 (1980), 60-71.

Coyle, William, ed. Aspects of Fantasy. Westport: Greenwood Press, 1986.

Damrosch, Leopold, Jr. God's Plot and Man's Stories: Studies in the Fictional Imagination from Milton to Fielding. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985.

Fleenor, Juliann E., ed. The Female Gothic. Montreal: Eden Press, 1983.

Foust, R. E. "Monstrous Image: Theory of Fantasy Antagonists." Genre, 13 (Winter 1980), 441-53.

Gilbert, Sandra M., and Susan Gubar. The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1984.

Griffin, Andrew. "Fire and Ice in Frankenstein." Levine and Knoepflmacher, 49-73.

Jackson, Rosemary. "Narcissism and Beyond: A Psychoanalytic Reading of Frankenstein and Fantasies of the Double." Coyle, 43-53.

Johnson, Barbara, "My Monster/My Self." Diacritics, 12 (Summer 1982), 2-10.

Kiely, Robert. The Romantic Novel in England. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1972.

Levine, George. "Frankenstein and the Tradition of Realism." Novel, 7 (Fall 1973), 14-30.

———, ed. One Culture: Essays in Science and Literature. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1987.

———and U. C. Knoepflmacher, eds. The Endurance of Frankenstein: Essays on Mary Shelley's Novel. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979.

McInerney, Peter. "Frankenstein and the Godlike Science of Letters." Genre, 13 (Winter 1980), 455-75.

Mellor, Anne K. "Frankenstein: A Feminist Critique of Science." Levine, One Culture, 287-312.

Moers, Ellen. Literary Women. Garden City: Doubleday, 1976.

Murray, E. B. "Shelley's Contribution to Mary's Frankenstein." Keats-Shelley Memorial Bulletin, 29 (1978), 50-68.

Newman, Beth. "Narratives of Seduction and the Seductions of Narrative: The Frame Structure of Frankenstein." ELH, 53 (Spring 1986), 141-63.

Randel, Fred V. "Frankenstein, Feminism, and the Intertextuality of the Mountains." Studies in Romanticism, 23 (Winter 1984), 515-32.

Rubenstein, Marc A. "‘My Accursed Origin’: The Search for the Mother in Frankenstein." Studies in Romanticism, 15 (Spring 1976), 165-94.

Scott, Peter Dale. "Vital Artifice: Mary, Percy, and the Psychopolitical Integrity." Levine and Knoepflmacher, 172-202.

Seed, David. "Frankenstein—Parable of Spectacle?" Criticism, 24 (Fall 1982), 327-40.

Shelley, Mary W. Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus. Ed. M. K. Joseph. London: Oxford University Press, 1969.

———. Mary Shelley's Journal. Ed. Frederick L. Jones. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1947.

Sherwin, Paul. "Frankenstein: Creation as Catastrophe." PMLA, 96 (October 1981), 883-903.

Small, Christopher. Ariel Like a Harpy: Shelley, Mary, and "Frankenstein." London: Victor Gollancz, 1972.

Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. "Three Women's Texts and a Critique of Imperialism." Critical Inquiry, 12 (Autumn 1985), 243-61.

Tillotson, Marcia. "‘A Forced Solitude’: Mary Shelley and the Creation of Frankenstein's Monster." Fleenor, 167-75.

Veeder, William. "The Negative Oedipus: Father, Frankenstein, and the Shelleys." Critical Inquiry, 12 (Winter 1986), 365-90.

Waxman, Barbara Frey. "Victor Frankenstein's Romantic Fate: The Tragedy of the Promethean Overreacher as Woman." Papers on Language and Literature, 23 (Winter 1987), 14-26.

Terry W. Thompson (essay date summer 2000)

SOURCE: Thompson, Terry W. "Shelley's Frankenstein." Explicator 58, no. 4 (summer 2000): 191-92.

[In the following essay, Thompson probes similarities between Christ's parable of the prodigal son and the plight of the creature in Frankenstein.]

In chapter 15 of the Gospel of Luke, Jesus tells his disciples the parable of the prodigal son. Christ describes the travails of an immature young man who demands and receives his inheritance from his doting father and then wastes every bit of it on high living and self-aggrandizement. When his funds are exhausted and his fair-weather companions have vanished, he finds himself isolated in a foreign land, dwelling in squalor among strangers who do not care about his plight. Eventually, his situation becomes so desperate that he is forced to take the vilest job imaginable for a Jewish male: He becomes a herder of swine, the keeper of a Gentile's filthy pigsty: "And when he had spent all, there arose a mighty famine in that land; and he began to be in want. […] And he would fain have filled his belly with the husks that the swine did eat: and no man gave unto him" (Luke 15.14-16). Because swine are, according to Old Testament Jewish law, unclean and therefore unholy in the eyes of God, the prodigal son has not simply fallen on hard economic times. Rather, by living with and touching forbidden animals, he has degraded himself, defiled his family, and betrayed his faith. This wayward son cannot fall any farther from grace.

Like most of the writers in her literary circle, from Lord Byron to Doctor Polidori, Mary Shelley—self-educated and one of the best-read women of her time—was intrigued by old tales and ancient myths concerning lost and outcast wanderers. Jesus' parable of the prodigal son fits perfectly into the Romantic notion of the isolated soul, the tortured, wandering loner who is, by fate or circumstance, cast adrift on a sea of loneliness and despair. In chapter 11 of Frankenstein —the first chapter narrated exclusively by the monster—there is a very subtle yet unmistakable allusion to Christ's parable.

Within hours of being animated by Victor Frankenstein's unnatural "spark of being," the creature—confused and frightened by all the unfamiliar sensations around him—abandons Victor's apartment and begins to wander aimlessly through the forests of southern Germany (Shelley 52). After a few days of foraging for sustenance, he encounters a village of modest but well-kept cottages. Suffering from the intense hunger pangs of a giant man-child, he innocently enters one of the dwellings, drawn by the aroma of freshly cooked food, and he is shocked when the occupants scream, faint, or scatter in terror. The entire village is quickly roused into action, and the monster is viciously and repeatedly attacked until, "‘grievously bruised by stones and many other kinds of missile weapons,’" he flees for his life, finally reaching the safety of the pathless forest (110). After putting many miles between himself and his attackers, the creature finds humble refuge "‘in a low hovel, quite bare, and […] wretched’" (110). This cramped shelter has a dirt floor, and icy winds whistle through large chinks in the walls. The hovel, barely large enough for his huge frame, is attached to the rear of the De Lacey cottage. But most important, the monster's shed is "‘surrounded on the sides […] by a pig-sty and a clear pool of water’" (111). This is Mary Shelley's faint but telling echo of the parable of the prodigal son. Like the biblical figure, Dr. Frankenstein's creature has reached bottom. Literally, the monster now lives with pigs, and because he gathers roots and berries in the forest by night and brings them back to his hovel to eat while he hides during the day, he dines with swine as well. He is an outcast, dirty, unloved, unwelcome, and penniless. He is far removed from his father, Victor, who is still back in Ingolstadt, oblivious to the vile squalor into which his young son has fallen.

Although both the prodigal son and the monster are on the verge of starvation, they choose not to kill and eat the pigs that keep them company. The prodigal son will not eat them for religious reasons. The monster will not eat them for moral reasons, explaining, "‘My food is not that of man; I do not destroy the lamb and the kid to glut my appetite; acorns and berries afford me sufficient nourishment’" (157). In another parallel, the creature learns bitter lessons about humanity during his solitary suffering by the pigsty; eventually he will undertake a difficult pilgrimage back to his father in hopes of a warm welcome. For the monster, however, that welcome will prove violent; he will not be accepted back into the embrace of familial love, because the creature's father is not a forgiving man. Unlike the good father in the Bible, Victor offers hatred in place of affection, violence rather than acceptance, and vengeance instead of understanding. Throughout the entire novel, Victor is portrayed as the antithesis of a good father, whereas in the parable, the father is held up as a model parent, loving his wayward son unconditionally: "Bring forth the best robe, and put it on him; and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet: And bring hither the fatted calf, and kill it; and let us eat, and be merry: For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found" (Luke 15.22-24).

Mary Shelley's many overt biblical references, which serve to layer and enrich her novel with echoes of archetypal figures, have been explicated at length in the nearly two centuries since the publication of her cautionary tale of science gone horribly awry. Yet often it is the subtle allusion—a familiar image, a fleeting turn of phrase, a telling echo in a sentence—that catches the reader's attention, tweaks the curiosity, and demands another perusal.

Work Cited

Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein. New York: Modern Library, 1984. All quotations from the novel are from this edition.

Marcia Bundy Seabury (essay date winter 2001)

SOURCE: Seabury, Marcia Bundy. "The Monsters We Create: Woman on the Edge of Time and Frankenstein." Critique 42, no. 2 (winter 2001): 131-43.

[In the following essay, Seabury compares elements of science, morality, and female identity in Frankenstein and Marge Piercy's Woman on the Edge of Time.]

Was I, then, a monster […]?

          —Frankenstein's creature

She would be their experimental monster.

          —Connie Ramos

Discussions of Marge Piercy's Woman on the Edge of Time (1976) have tended to focus on the striking characteristics of the utopian future she portrays—appropriately enough, for Piercy has commented, "What I was doing was taking all my favorite ideas out of the various movements for social change that were around and attempting to give them as concrete a form as possible so it would seem real" (Gifford 15). The novel has also evoked frequent extended comparisons with other feminist utopian fiction of the 1970s. Critics have gained historical perspective on the novel by looking to the tradition of utopian writing, in particular Charlotte Perkins Gilman's Herland (1915). But to understand Piercy's novel—its present as well as its future worlds—in context, one might well look back another century, to Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1818, 1831).1

Frankenstein, often called the first work of science fiction (e.g., Scholes and Rabkin 7, 192) and "perhaps the single most influential work of science fiction by a woman" (Jacobs 192), inaugurated a related genre within which Piercy works. In their use of other genres—for example Shelley, the epistolary and the gothic; Piercy, time travel and utopian and dystopian fiction—as well as in other respects, Frankenstein and Woman on the Edge of Time differ greatly, making the continuities less readily apparent. Discovering some of them contributes to recent efforts to develop a sense of a "continuous literary tradition" of speculative fiction by women, of these works speaking to one another (Donawerth and Kolmerten 1). The two novels contain revealing similarities, especially in their portrayals of the outsider and of science, two key aspects of what has become known as the Frankenstein myth. To explore the various connections entails delving into the realm of the monstrous: that which deviates from the norm, that which is perceived as violent, unnatural, unacceptable.

In Frankenstein and subsequent science fiction, the fantastic is reached through potentially credible science. Shelley gives no details of the creation of the creature but portrays a scientist who definitely did his homework, experimenting for long hours at his dissecting table. The two alternative futures Piercy portrays, Mattapoisett, Massachusetts, in 2137 A.D. and a high-rise world opposite to it in many ways, are clearly possible outgrowths of our own science and technology. Science fiction emerged amidst the Industrial Revolution, as people saw that science and technology could change their world, change their daily lives. Piercy's novel emerged from the next stage, the Computer Revolution, which has catalyzed us to see anew the radical changes we might anticipate. Physical changes may be internal as well as external, as medical technology gives us the power to alter behavior and manipulate genes. Indeed, among the more important changes made possible by computers may be control of biological processes, reanimating questions posed by Victor Frankenstein's experiment. Piercy herself explicitly looks beyond the Industrial Revolution when she notes that "you will never hear me talking about control of the means of production, but rather control of the means of production and reproduction" (Parti 129). As one of the characters in Woman on the Edge of Time, puts it, "the crux […] is in the biological sciences" (223). Varying approaches to human intervention distinguish the protagonist's present life and both of the future worlds she visits.

Many works of science fiction have flattened character depictions while pursuing other ends, as Ursula Le Guin and others have noted (20). But already in its origins, Mary Shelley demonstrated Le Guin's conviction "that the science fiction writer [should] be also a novelist of character" (26). In language reminiscent of Coleridge's Biographia Literaria, the preface of Frankenstein (probably by Percy Shelley) emphasizes that the "novelty of the situations which it develops […] affords a point of view to the imagination for the delineating of human passions" (xxvii).2Woman on the Edge of Time follows this lead. Although one critic has labeled Connie flat, a character in a "teaching story" (DuPlessis 2), most have responded to Piercy's own stated interest in character: Alongside comments about the "image of a good society" she sought to portray, Piercy claims "Consuelo Ramos is the best character I ever created, the fullest and deepest"; "it's primarily a novel about Connie" (Parti 215, 100). Susan Kress notes, in discussing Piercy's "search for appropriate form," that "the science fiction form has provided her with the perfect solution to the problem of combining the novel of character and the novel of ideas" (109, 120).

In her three related characters—Walton, Frankenstein, and the creature—Shelley both employs and subverts the figure of the intense, isolated, introspective, questing Romantic hero. We hear part of the story from the first-person viewpoint of each of the novel's three Romantic individuals. The Romantic hero, found in so many works of art and music as well as literature during the nineteenth century, is often trapped within his own consciousness, subject to insatiable longings that are doomed to disappointment. He is the alienated, misunderstood outsider. Piercy's Connie is in this line but as a woman and sole center of consciousness, although she is doubled by other characters in the novel. The main action takes place in her thoughts, whether or not she really visits a future society in Mattapoisett (a question Piercy claims she deliberately left ambiguous [Parti 110]). Connie is a mental traveler, who both in her present world and in the future thinks intensively about herself and her world. And like Walton, Frankenstein, and the creature, she cannot share or discuss her journey with others, who simply do not or would not understand. Frankenstein says if he had told others about the creature he would have been thought mad (as his experience with the Swiss magistrate supports); Connie understands that references to Mattapoisett would reinforce that diagnosis she has already incurred. Like so many protagonists of the Romantic era, Connie's heightened consciousness brings her not satisfaction but ongoing and seemingly inescapable pain. And like Coleridge's Ancient Mariner and like the Byronic hero, she bears a burden of guilt from which she cannot free herself. She suffers alone, tormented.

The connections between Connie and Shelley's creature are worth exploring.3 Piercy emphasizes that the novelist can "seduce the reader into identifying with characters whom the reader would refuse to know in ordinary life" (Parti 169). With Connie and the creature, both Piercy and Shelley engage that challenge. And the language of these outsiders is sometimes similar enough that one seems to speak for the other. In this essay I focus mainly on Connie in her present world because there Piercy establishes the themes she returns to in the alternative futures Connie visits.

The creature is an experiment created by a scientist. Connie becomes an experiment recreated by scientists. In both cases, the results are monstrous, deviating from the norm. Piercy's text encourages the reader toward such a connection through repeated references to monsters in the chapters about a planned operation to control Connie's personality: "She would be a walking monster with a little computer inside" (282-83; also see 279, 304). Connie and Skip greet each other after their brain implant operations, "Hello, monster" (285). We do not know much about the appearance of Shelley's creature. Ironically, however, as Connie is drugged into a shuffling walk and slurred speech and later has a plate implanted, affixed with "sharp metal pins" (281), she comes to resemble the creature's recurring representation in movies—with bolts, metal plates, and so on.

In such passages, Piercy seems to emphasize Connie in the hands of the doctors as a created monster, but other passages suggest that previously she also was a "monster" or "misfit." Whereas Victor constructed the creature from the dead parts of other human beings, Connie has been "constructed" in constricting ways by her society, on the basis of gender, ethnicity, and class. She is female, abused by men from childhood: "From an early age she had been told that what she felt was unreal and didn't matter" (282). She is Chicana, in a world where college, a youthful appearance, and a clean job seem to be Anglo characteristics (35, 47) and where a professor as employer will bed his "Chicana of the year." She is poor, in a world where that seems to be a crime (62). In fact, the creature is her predecessor in awareness of such constructions:

[He] learned that the possessions most esteemed by your fellow creatures were high and unsullied descent united with riches. A man might be respected with only one of these advantages, but without either he was considered, except in very rare instances, as a vagabond and a slave, doomed to waste his powers for the profits of the chosen few! And what was I?


The creature is different from the dominant society and thus cannot "pass" no matter what he does. Connie, before and after her operation, feels different and unable to "pass" into the dominant society. Both are beings of great power but powerless within their world.

Names by which we refer to them emphasize their misfit status. The creature has no name. Others do label him: in particular, Victor calls him "devil," "demon," "monster," language that Walton picks up. Connie sees that she has multiple identities, multiple names: She describes herself as Consuelo, the silent, suffering, enduring Mexican woman; Connie, who tried to learn and work within the mainstream society; and Conchita, a drunken, mean self (122). Geraldo calls her a bag; her second husband Eddie calls her a witch. Friends in Mattapoisett see other potentialities, calling her Salt-and-Pepper—suggesting not only her hair color but also vitality, spice. In that society, people choose their own names, changing them at will. The medical establishment, in the reports at the end of the novel, gives Connie no name, only a set of delimiting labels—a Mexican-American (or erroneously in another report, Puerto Rican; at least for sure an outsider), child abuser, schizophrenic. In this essay, for convenience, I use the novels' most frequent usages—"the creature" and "Connie," but with the awareness that these are not neutral pointers but rather ones that emphasize the protagonists' outsider status. Who are they? The reader is brought into the act of discernment as the characters themselves struggle with "Who am I?" They see how others answer that question for them but continue to long for different possibilities.

What does the monster want? Most simply, not to be a monster; not to be deemed deviant from humanity; to be able to fulfill basic human needs. In each case, both learning and caring are central among their wants. Both the creature and Connie integrate the traditional dualism of head and heart. The creature in his hovel listens in on society with a hunger, a thirst for learning, but revelation of his monstrosity discontinues his lessons. In her "pursuit of knowledge and some better way to live" (47), Connie highly values her time at a community college, but in a sense she too is "listening in" from the outside. Her pregnancy forces her to discontinue her lessons, but she continues to wish for learning (e.g., 215). These "monsters" also want contact, connection, kindness, understanding, not just to be loved but to love and care for others. From the beginning, the creature is unloved: Victor, in his flight and subsequent ignoring of what he has done, seems to treat the creature as a nuisance that if ignored might simply go away, disappear. Connie's father beats her; she hungers for the mothering her brother Luis received but she did not, and Luis, it seems, by Americanizing his name, would like to forget that he has a sister, forget the link that binds them—the monstrosity of ethnicity and class. Both Connie and the creature continue to be rejected by those who should be family.

Discussion of these two characters often emphasizes their quests of the heart. But we need to see that their quests are set within a broader search for a social role. Connie is perceptive enough to see that connection: "we often want love when we need something else, like a good job or a chance to go back to school" (86). That comment sheds light back onto the creature's quest. Yes, he wants love, but he also burns "to become an actor" in the busy scene of human affairs, with an "ardour for virtue" (112-13). Connie sees that in Mattapoisett, unlike in her world, she could be useful (214) and would have the respect and self-respect she lacks. Luciente of Mattapoisett has scope to act, whereas her dystopian counterpart Gildina contributes only sex.

Like the creature, Connie reaches out again and again but each time is slammed back into isolation. The reaching out may entail trying to help someone in danger. The creature tries to save a drowning girl, for which he is shot. In the striking opening scene of Woman on the Edge of Time Connie tries to help Dolly escape beatings and a forced abortion, for which Connie herself is beaten and institutionalized. Both helpers are "misdiagnosed" as violent beings. The creature tries to explain himself to the common man—the senior De Lacey—but the son drives him out of the cottage. The scientist momentarily listens but ultimately disregards the creature's feelings and needs. Connie tries to explain herself to her niece and her brother, but to no avail. The hospital employees and the doctors either ignore or disregard her: "No one had heard a word she said"; "it was as if she spoke another language" (17, 19). Only the external is visible: a giant, ugly man; a poor Chicana with a record. The voices of the outsiders are silenced.

The creature and Connie modify their dreams. The creature finally hopes to go away with just one other being, to live in seclusion and mutual caring. Connie was "at fifteen full of plans and fire" (47); despite her rejections then of the dream of domesticity, she later fantasizes about living as a family with Dolly and Dolly's children (46, 14). Realizations of even such dreams are for others, not for them. There is no bride of Frankenstein, no family for Connie (except her fellow mental patients, who have no power to elect an ongoing bond). Connie, "lying in enforced contemplation" (19) but longing for connection, is in the line of the creature. For both, this drive remains "unsatisfied, yet unquenched" (F [Frankenstein ] 205). When Connie visits the future, she sees one possibility where citizens are alone when they choose, or as part of a rite of passage, and another where Gildina is so accustomed to solitude that she does not know what she is missing (Friends? "‘What for?’" [291-92]).

Connie, like the creature, has "too little of what her soul could imagine" (280). Anger rises up in both of them, and they finally resort to violence, but only as a last resort, after realizing that any further efforts will meet with the same kinds of results as before. In terms reminiscent of the creature's, Connie says late in Woman on the Edge, "If only they had left me something! […] Only one person to love. […] For that love I'd have borne it all and I'd never have fought back. […] But I have nothing. Why shouldn't I strike back?" (371-72). Revenge seems all that is left. In similar and stark terms, the creature turns to "war against the species" (121), and Connie says, "it is war" (375). The creature vows to destroy the scientist who has created him. Connie vows to destroy the doctors who have created her as a mental patient and are creating her as an experiment.

Does the protagonist "go over to the Dark Side," believe in violence, the movement with which we have become so familiar through our contemporary myth of Star Wars? Hardly—except in various movie versions of Frankenstein. To the end, the creature says, "still I desired love and fellowship" (204); and Connie wishes for "just one little corner of loving of my own" (372). The violence destroys both the perpetrator and its targets. The creature brings down the scientist, but all that is left for him is to go off and destroy himself as well. Connie poisons four people, but nothing is left for her but final subjection to the mental institutions.

Many critics have seen the violence at the end of Woman on the Edge of Time as a liberation, repeatedly describing it in glowing terms.4 "Connie's action in poisoning her doctors is clearly an achievement of the self. […] Piercy asks us to see Connie's action as part of a pattern of empowerment" (Jones 125). Connie is "our hero and avenger" (Gardiner 75); she plays a "Messianic role" (Adams 49); she "takes independent action, and […] conquers her society heroically" (Cramer 232-33). "Piercy interprets [Connie's murders] as justifiable defense against an essentially violent system" (Drake 117). Pearson (132), in milder terms, also justifies Connie's action. Such commentaries offer no questioning of the violence. Death to the oppressors! Are we to have bought into the perspective of Connie to such an extent that we cheer murder? Or do we ask, "Wait a minute. Why did it have to be this way?" Granted, Piercy herself has said that the novel portrays "how a woman stops hating herself and becomes able to love herself enough to fight for her own survival" (Parti 100). But alongside that comment we should note her response to a query about whether her characters speak for her—or, we might add, act for her:

Directly, seldom. [… T]o me the truth of the novel isn't in what any character says, but rather in the whole of the fiction. As a known feminist I find critics often naively imagine I am putting my politics directly into the mouth of my protagonist. That I could not possibly be amused, ironic, interested in the consonances and dissonances.

          (Parti 148-49)

The echoes of Frankenstein in Woman on the Edge of Time remind us that Connie's acts are monstrous. And society has created its monsters.5 Things could have been otherwise. The murderers could have been nurturers. They wanted desperately to be; as the creature reemphasizes at the very end, "My heart was fashioned to be susceptible of love and sympathy […]" (202). The creature feels great regret, unlike Connie, but both cast a critical look outward at the society. The creature says,

Am I to be thought the only criminal when all humankind sinned against me? Why do you not hate Felix. […] Why do you not execrate the rustic who sought to destroy the saviour of his child? Nay, these are virtuous and immaculate beings! I, the miserable and the abandoned, am an abortion, to be spurned at, and kicked, and trampled on. Even now my blood boils at the recollection of this injustice.


As Connie puts it, "I murdered them dead. Because they are the violence-prone. Theirs is the money and the power, theirs the poisons that slow the mind and dull the heart. Theirs are the powers of life and death" (375).

Some critics (e.g., DuPlessis 3-4) who do question the violence at the end of Woman on the Edge of Time object to it on the grounds that others will perceive the murders as an individual, "crazy" act, further evidence of Connie's supposed violent tendencies, rather than a political act, because she left no trail to indicate her motivation. Here, too, Frankenstein is something of a predecessor: the public will not understand the creature's acts. Yet the listener to his story, Walton; the reader in the text, his sister; and we the external readers-listeners have the opportunity to sense something of the broader implications. Connie's act is indeed individual, unlikely to help toward bringing the utopian future into being. Following the murders, she can no longer make contact with Mattapoisett; she had "annealed her mind" (375), even as the creature had hardened himself. But the jolt of the shift of point of view to the "official" view of Connie in Piercy's last chapter brings readers face to face with the larger context, with the issues that the novel clearly invites them to engage. In a much-quoted passage, Luciente had told Connie that nothing is inevitable: "We are only one possible future. […] Yours is a crux-time. Alternate universes co-exist. Probabilities clash and possibilities wink out forever" (177). In different ways—Shelley with her closing pages that bring together the novel's multiple points of view and pull the reader in multiple directions, and Piercy with her last chapter that forces the reader to confront the inadequacy and often downright falsity of an "objective" view of Connie—both writers break the reader out of a passive reading stance.6

Thus the reader reflects on the complex realities in juxtaposition with the definitions of the creature and Connie. These characters have become the "monstrous" beings they were defined to be. Because these definitions so severely circumscribe their choices, the definitions—monolithic, inhumane, and incorrect—have become part of their reality. Who set them? The more powerful; and because the protagonists are so low in the social hierarchy, includes multiple layers. As the creature makes clear, one layer is the common person. Even here there is a hierarchy, with males on top. Felix beats the creature off from the senior De Lacey; a male rustic shoots him after he saves a drowning girl; William invokes the patriarchal authority of his father. (Note that Justine, without status of birth, wealth, or gender, is also defined as a "monster" and a "wretch" [71].) Geraldo, a common pimp, beats Connie away from Dolly (who submits to his institutionalizing Connie) and then has more credibility than Connie at the hospital; Connie's brother Luis—male, well-dressed, and thus considered a "reliable informant" (381)—reinforces the definition. The utopian and dystopian futures Connie visits take this issue of definition in opposite directions: Mattapoisett embraces differences of all kinds; the dystopia rigidly categorizes all people within an oppressive hierarchy.

The scientists in each novel, of course, have great power to define and to act. In each text the scientist is both target and cause of the violence. Shelley's novel launched science fiction, which "above all else […] has used its special vision and its unique knowledge to face the history of human power over nature and to ask how that power ought to function" (Scholes and Rabkin 191). The scientists in Woman on the Edge of Time are pioneering experimenters, as is Dr. Frankenstein, but updated to our century they are not isolated geniuses but collaborators with concerns about funding. Shelley gives Victor the dignity of a mythic model: he is a Modern Prometheus (the subtitle of the novel), an overreacher. And for multiple reasons, including our hearing much of the story from his point of view, the reader is brought into partial sympathy with him. Piercy gives no such dignity to the heartless doctors of Woman on the Edge of Time.

But there are important similarities. The "real world" of Woman on the Edge of Time has become like the science fiction world of Frankenstein. In both cases, the declared intention of the scientists is to do what has not been done before, to gain control over the mysteries of life. Why try to get to those mysteries? Ostensibly to do good for mankind. For Victor, "life and death appeared to me ideal bounds, which I should first break through, and pour a torrent of light into our dark world" (38-39). Piercy's doctors cite the good for society of gaining control of violence, which entails controlling human emotion itself. In each case those intentions are complicated (if the control could be achieved, to what extent would we want it to be?), but one factor is the self-interest of the scientist. Frankenstein looks to "glory" (26), to the gratitude of "a new species [that] would bless me as its creator and source" (39). Piercy's scientists want a successful experiment so they can assert their power, achieve recognition, win grant money (91, 306).

Feminist critics have noted that Frankenstein's scientific quest is described in terms of sexual aggression against (female) nature. Frankenstein sees nature as "maternal," becomes obsessed by a "fervent longing to penetrate the secrets of nature," and "pursue[s] nature to her hiding places" (25, 39). Piercy's scientists are his successors in their experimenting on the literal female: "cold, calculating, ambitious, believing themselves rational and superior, they chased the crouching female animal through the brain with a scalpel" (282). Anne Mellor develops the link between "the exploitation of nature and of the female implicit in a technological society," discussing Frankenstein's view of nature as something that should be "penetrated, analyzed, and controlled" (38, 100)—just the attitudes Connie's doctors have toward her. If Victor Frankenstein is "engaged upon a rape of nature" (Mellor 122), Connie makes the domination explicit: "they would rape her body, her brain, her self" (279).

When Frankenstein's creature comes to life, he abandons it, with no regard to its possible thoughts and feelings. Connie's doctors, with similar disregard, treat her and her fellow inmates as dispensable laboratory animals. The scientists in a sense play God but are not up to the part. The results in each case are not what they expect or want. Frankenstein says "the beauty of the dream vanished" with the reality of the creature (42). The doctors' fantasy of benevolent control in Woman on the Edge of Time meets the reality of unanticipated and uncontrollable consequences, including Skip, "cured" of his homosexuality but just waiting for an opportunity to end his life; Alice, "cured" of her strong emotions but left a kind of zombie; and Connie, plotting the scientists' murder. The scientists explore the unknown. Yet those whose profession should entail curiosity ironically show no curiosity where one might expect it, much less any empathy and caring. Frankenstein and Connie are objectified, depersonalized. As has frequently been pointed out, Shelley suggests that science divorced from human concerns is itself monstrous, dehumanizing; Piercy certainly does as well.

Both novels, then, critique the scientists and their utterly determined but heartless ambition, without car- ing, without morality. We see Frankenstein, the isolated, brooding Romantic hero, as introspective, unlike the scientists in Woman on the Edge of Time, but Shelley's novel, too, makes clear that the scientist does not understand: he does not see his own egotism, does not confront the pain he causes, does not confront his responsibility. Right to the end Frankenstein reexamines his conduct and does not "find it blamable. […] I created a rational creature and was bound towards him to assure, as far as was in my power, his happiness and well-being" (199)—in reference to the possibility of creating a female—but oblivious to his prior responsibility. Frankenstein is contrasted with the creature, who has self-knowledge, sees and accepts responsibility. The doctors in Woman on the Edge of Time, obsessed with their own powers and assured of being in the right, are contrasted with Connie, who lacks confidence in herself, and is bereft by her society of all power, but learns through contact with Mattapoisett that she has more powers than she realized and ultimately accepts responsibility for her actions.

In the dystopian future that Connie visits, scientists busy in Frankenstein's quest of "thrusting back the frontiers of life" (WET [Woman on the Edge of Time] 292) have become unanswerable and completely out of touch with people. Genetic engineering has made it hard to tell who is human and who is not, with men altered for battle and women for sex. That world resembles the society against which the people of Mattapoisett fight, in which the powers of Frankenstein have gone wild, creating "a population mostly of androids, robots, cybernauts, partially automated humans" (267).

Mattapoisett provides an alternative to the patterns of Connie's present and the dystopian future. Instead of heartless scientists we meet Luciente, a plant geneticist with deep concern for other people and the environment. In this society, the "result of a full feminist revolution" as Piercy comments elsewhere (Parti 215), scientists have explicitly turned from the challenge Victor engaged—to triumph over life and death. They considered the possibility and chose not to try, a decision taken by councils, not by an isolated individual, and with careful consideration of all the consequences they "could foresee or guess" (277). Many of the key characteristics of this society result from citizens' ongoing attempts to keep science and technology linked to human concerns.7 They object that the scientists of our day—in which obviously we might include Frankenstein—learned "never to ask consequences, never to consider a broad range of effects, never to ask on whose behalf" (196). In Mattapoisett, Piercy specifically revisits Mary Shelley's great theme of human-directed creation. Instead of having a single male attempt to create without a female and then become an uncaring, irresponsible father, she imagines a community that creates children ex utero,8 who each have three caring and responsible parents of any gender. How science and technology are handled is central in both novels.

The connections between Frankenstein and Woman on the Edge of Time go far beyond passing references in the latter to monsters. Piercy's jumps in narrative from Connie's present world to two antithetical possible futures and finally to her "official" history make it clear that Piercy is employing the multiple genres of realist fiction, utopian fiction, dystopian fiction, and medical records. But permeating and unifying these genres are revealing echoes of the first science fiction novel. Science fiction critics note that although the creature lacks a mate, his story "has had so many offspring that we now recognize it as the progenitor of a species" (Scholes and Rabkin 6). That assertion sheds light on Woman on the Edge of Time in fairly specific as well as more general ways. The Frankenstein myth connects with and reinforces the key concept in Woman on the Edge of Time of alternative possible futures. Who or what is monstrous? The monstrosity in our world may not lie where we think it does. The monsters are we. But if we create monsters and monstrosity, then we could also do otherwise.


1. For a sample of the more recent analyses of Woman on the Edge of Time in juxtaposition with feminist utopian writings of 1970s writers like Ursula Le Guin, Joanna Russ, Marion Zimmer Bradley, Dorothy Bryant, Suzy McKee Charnas, Sally Miller Gearhart, and Mary Staton, see Spector, Fitting, Bammer, Drake; with traditions of utopian writing, see Ferns, Kessler ("Fables"); with Charlotte Perkins Gilman, see Jones. To date, the nearest that literary criticism has come to bringing together Woman on the Edge of Time and Frankenstein may be in the separate chapters on utopian fiction and science fiction in Cranny-Francis's book on feminist uses of generic fiction (that is, aside from a single phrase I discovered after writing this essay [Jones 124]). Piercy was certainly aware of the works of the Romantics: she notes the influence on her at age fifteen of Byron, Shelley (presumably Percy in this context), and Keats; later Blake and Wordsworth (Parti 305). Levine is one of many who have emphasized "reverberations of Frankenstein through the subsequent literature, even where no direct allusion is intended" (21). This essay draws on the 1831 revised edition of Shelley's text, the one most widely available. Page numbers to both primary works will appear in the text, with abbreviations where needed for clarity (F for Frankenstein, WET for Woman on the Edge of Time).

2. Parrinder cites this preface as "an aesthetic statement closely anticipating modern theories of the science-fiction genre" (6; cf. Scholes and Rabkin 192).

3. This linking of the creature and Connie accords with many recent feminist interpretations of Frankenstein that see the creature, constructed and marginalized, as suggestive of woman in a male-dominated society (e.g., Poovey 128, Cranny-Francis 44, Purinton 59-60). Linking the creature and Connie also accords with recent analyses of class issues in Frankenstein (e.g., Vlasopolos, Perkins, O'Flinn). Haraway links "constructions of women of color and monstrous selves in feminist science fiction" (93).

4. The only book-length study of Piercy's novels to date, en route to demonstrating Piercy's celebration of the "life enhancing" impulse toward connection and her main theme of "the repair of the world" (Shands 22), does not discuss the ending of Woman on the Edge of Time at all.

5. Baldick, pointing to the Oxford English Dictionary notes that "the fear that human society may itself be producing monsters emerges as early as 1697" (53). He traces the terms "monster" and "monstrous" through Shakespeare and elsewhere as linked with rebellion and disobedience, especially toward parents. The terms were much in the air in Shelley's day, linked with social issues: Burke had used them to discuss rebellion, whereas Paine as well as Shelley's own parents Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin reversed the reference to portray as monstrous the aristocracy and the class system (Baldick 54-60).

6. For the effect on the reader of Woman on the Edge of Time, see, for example, Kessler, "Woman" 315; Rosinsky 95-96; Orr 73. See Fitting and Cranny-Francis, for example, concerning Piercy's novel within the context of other narratives of a visitor to utopia as they create an activist reading position. Readers come to see their own world as not "natural or obvious or inevitable, but a construction of particular parameters (economic, social, political), and therefore liable to transformation" (Cranny-Francis 116). Cranny-Francis and many others emphasize, however, that such contemporary feminist utopias as Woman on the Edge of Time should not be viewed as "blueprints" for specific actions (140). Booker briefly notes that the ending of Woman on the Edge should be read as ambiguous (341).

7. Baruch and others note that emphasis on this connection is representative of much women's utopian and science fiction (xiii). Maciunas develops at some length Piercy's handling of feminist views of science.

8. This feature of Woman on the Edge of Time has received considerable critical attention, often in connection with Shulamith Firestone's The Dialectics of Sex (1972). Piercy thus creates a Brave New World revisited, but perceived quite differently, a linkage that is occasionally noted in the criticism but deserves further attention. The connections are quite conscious, as revealed in Piercy's comments on Huxley's novel in her preceding novel Small Changes (1973, 393).

Works Cited

Adams, Karen C. "The Utopian Vision of Marge Piercy in Woman on the Edge of Time." Ways of Knowing: Essays on Marge Piercy. Ed. Sue Walker and Eugenie Hammer. Mobile, AL: Negative Capability P, 1991, 39-50.

Baldick, Chris. "The Politics of Monstrosity." Frankenstein/Mary Shelley. Ed. Fred Botting. NY: St. Martin's, 1995. 48-67.

Bammer, Angelika. Partial Visions: Feminism and Utopianism in the 1970's. NY: Routledge, 1991.

Baruch, Elaine Hoffman. "Introduction: The Quest and the Questions. Part 1." Women in Search of Utopia: Mavericks and Mythmakers. Ed. Ruby Rohrlich and Elaine Hoffman Baruch. New York: Schocken, 1984. xi-xv.

Booker, M. Keith. "Woman on the Edge of a Genre: The Feminist Dystopias of Marge Piercy." Science Fiction Studies 21.3 (1994): 337-50.

Cramer, Carmen. "Anti-Automaton: Marge Piercy's Fight in Woman on the Edge of Time." Critique 27.4 (1986): 229-33.

Cranny-Francis, Anne. Feminist Fiction: Feminist Uses of Generic Fiction. New York: St. Martin's, 1990.

Donawerth, Jane L. and Carol A. Kolmerten, eds. Utopian and Science Fiction by Women. Syracuse: Syracuse UP, 1994.

Drake, Barbara. "Two Utopias: Marge Piercy's Woman on the Edge of Time and Ursula Le Guin's The Dispossessed." Still the Frame Holds: Essays on Women Poets and Writers. Ed. Sheila Roberts. San Bernardino, CA: Borgo, 1993. 109-27.

DuPlessis, Rachel Blau. "The Feminist Apologues of Lessing, Piercy, and Russ." Frontiers 4.1 (1979): 1-8.

Ferns, Chris. "Dreams of Freedom: Ideology and Narrative Structure in the Utopian Fictions of Marge Piercy and Ursula Le Guin." English Studies in Canada 14.4 (1988): 453-66.

Fitting, Peter. "Positioning and Closure: On the ‘Reading-Effect’ of Contemporary Utopian Fiction." Utopian Studies 1 (1987): 23-36.

Gardiner, Judith Kegan. "Evil, Apocalypse, and Feminist Fiction." Frontiers 7.2 (1983): 74-80.

Gifford, Dawn. "Marge Piercy: A Class Act." Off Our Backs 24.6 (1994): 14-15, 23.

Haraway, Donna. "A Manifesto for Cyborgs: Science, Technology, and Socialist Feminism in the 1980s." Socialist Review 15 (1985): 65-107.

Jacobs, Naomi. "The Frozen Landscape in Women's Utopian and Science Fiction." Donawerth and Kolmarten 190-202.

Jones, Libby Falk. "Gilman, Bradley, Piercy, and the Evolving Rhetoric of Feminist Utopias." Feminism, Utopia, and Narrative. Ed. Libby Falk Jones and Sarah Webster Goodwin. Knoxville: U of Tennessee P, 1990. 116-29.

Kessler, Carol Farley. "Fables Toward Our Future: Two Studies in Women's Utopian Fiction." Journal of General Education 37.3 (1985): 189-202.

———. "Woman on the Edge of Time: A Novel ‘To Be of Use.’" Extrapolation 28.4 (1987): 310-18.

Kress, Susan. "In and Out of Time: The Form of Marge Piercy's Novels." Future Females: A Critical Anthology. Ed. Marleen S. Barr. Bowling Green: Bowling Green UP, 1981. 109-22.

Le Guin, Ursula K. "Science Fiction and Mrs. Brown." Science Fiction at Large. Ed. Peter Nicholls. New York: Harper, 1976. 13-33.

Levine, George. "The Ambiguous Heritage of Frankenstein." The Endurance of Frankenstein: Essays on Mary Shelley's Novel. Ed. George Levine and U. C. Knoepflmacher. Berkeley: U of California P, 1974. 3-30.

Maciunas, Billie. "Feminist Epistemology in Piercy's Woman on the Edge of Time." Women's Studies 20 (1992): 249-58.

Mellor, Anne K. Mary Shelley: Her Life, Her Fiction, Her Monsters. New York: Methuen, 1988.

O'Flinn, Paul. "Production and Reproduction: The Case of Frankenstein." Frankenstein/Mary Shelley. New York: St. Martin's, 21-47.

Orr, Elaine. "Mothering as Good Fiction: Instances from Marge Piercy's Woman on the Edge of Time." The Journal of Narrative Technique 23.2 (1993): 61-79.

Parrinder, Patrick. Science Fiction: Its Criticism and Teaching. New York: Methuen, 1980.

Pearson, Carol. "Beyond Governance: Anarchist Feminism in the Utopian Novels of Dorothy Bryant, Marge Piercy and Mary Staton." Alternative Futures 4.1 (1981): 126-35.

Perkins, Margo. "The Nature of Otherness: Class and Difference in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein." Studies in the Humanities 19.1 (1992): 27-42.

Piercy, Marge. Parti-Colored Blocks for a Quilt. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1982.

———. Small Changes. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1973.

———. Woman on the Edge of Time. New York: Fawcett Crest, 1976.

Poovey, Mary. The Proper Lady and the Woman Writer: Ideology as Style in the Works of Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary Shelley, and Jane Austen. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1984.

Purinton, Marjean D. "Ideological Revision: Cross-Gender Characterization in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein." CEA Critic 56.1 (1993): 53-64.

Rosinsky, Natalie M. Feminist Futures: Contemporary Women's Speculative Fiction. Ann Arbor: UMI Research P, 1984.

Scholes, Robert, and Eric S. Rabkin. Science Fiction: History, Science, Vision. New York: Oxford UP, 1977.

Shands, Kerstin W. The Repair of the World: The Novels of Marge Piercy. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1994.

Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein. 1818, 1831. New York: Bantam, 1981.

Spector, Judith. "The Functions of the Sexuality in the Science Fiction of Russ, Piercy, and Le Guin." Erotic Universe: Sexuality and Fantastic Literature. Ed. Donald Palumbo. New York: Greenwood, 1986. 197-207.

Vlasopolos, Anca. "Frankenstein's Hidden Skeleton: The Psycho-Politics of Oppression." Science Fiction Studies 10 (1982): 125-36.

Fred V. Randel (essay date summer 2003)

SOURCE: Randel, Fred V. "The Political Geography of Horror in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein." ELH 70, no. 2 (summer 2003): 465-91.

[In the following essay, Randel highlights the importance of setting and socio-historical context in Frankenstein, underlining the revolutionary spirit pervading eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Europe.]

The monster who startles unsuspecting victims in Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley's Frankenstein by his sudden and fatal appearance seems to them to come from nowhere. He steps out of the placeless space of our most terrifying nightmares. For many fans of the novel and its filmic adaptations, the murders of Frankenstein are likewise situated in a shadowy land of Gothic fantasy and thrill-provoking manipulations of our unconscious. Thanks to recent scholarship, however, many of the historicities of Frankenstein —its interactions with French Revolutionary era discourses about gender, race, class, revolution, and science—are now as recognizable to informed readers as its psychodrama.1 But we have only begun to decipher the significance of the geography of this novel, the rationale for setting its horrors in particular places, arranged in a specific sequence. Franco Moretti's Atlas of the European Novel 1800-1900 argues that "in modern European novels, what happens depends a lot on where it happens," but omits Frankenstein from his analysis.2 Does it really matter that William Frankenstein dies at Plainpalais, Justine Moritz and Alphonse in or near Geneva, Elizabeth at Evian, and Henry Clerval in Ireland? Does Victor's trip through England and Scotland serve any purpose except to evoke personal memories of Mary and Percy Shelley? Why does the novel begin and end in Russia and the Arctic?

Mary Shelley inherited a usage of the Gothic that, in contrast with the expectations of many modern readers, foregrounded history and geography. As Chris Baldick and Robert Mighall have shown, Renaissance humanists used "Gothic" to refer scornfully to the architecture of northern European barbarians (as they viewed them), with particular reference to the Germanic and the medieval, but late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century English Protestant writers typically set their "Gothic" fictions in Catholic southern Europe, while keeping the term's crucial association with the archaic and oppressive.3 "Gothic," therefore, was implicated in shifting regionalist, nationalist, and sectarian mythologies, but it was characteristically used to align the author and reader with the supposedly enlightened, against the anachronistic and benighted. "The present study," Robert Mighall writes, "will challenge the notion that settings in the Gothic are its most dispensable properties, by observing how various historical and political factors help to shape the narrative material and determine those settings." He excludes Frankenstein, however, from the history of Gothic and from his own treatment, on the ground that its greatest horrors are the product of enlightenment and a projected futurity rather than "legacies from the past."4 I suggest, by contrast, that Mary Shelley's novel is an astute extension and complication of the political geography of Gothic, as applied to the spread of revolutionary ideas, and revolution itself, in Europe and beyond since the mid-seventeenth century. She complicates the Gothic fear of being pulled back into a despotic past by exposing the despotic residue which, in her view, can shadow—but not stop—a potentially liberating, progressive process. At a time when the Congress of Vienna had just given official status to a reactionary interpretation of the French revolutionary era and a reactionary reconstitution of Europe as a whole, Mary Shelley imagines a liberal alternative through the geographical subtext of a European Gothic fiction. She anticipates Percy Bysshe Shelley's "A Philosophical View of Reform" (1819) by opting for an international and comparatist frame of reference, invoking a relatively long-range perspective, and urging the need for the dominant forces of society to abandon Restoration intransigence in favor of fundamental reform—a liberal version of enlightenment—as the only alternative to the spread of violent revolution.5

I. Ingolstadt and Northern Ice

Lee Sterrenburg first showed why Mary Shelley chose Ingolstadt in Bavaria, as the place where Victor Frankenstein brought the monster to life.6 An influential ultraconservative cleric, the Abbé Augustin Barruel, whose Memoirs, Illustrating the History of Jacobinism Mary and Percy read on their honey- moon, had claimed that the French Revolution was the product of a conspiracy of intellectuals originating in that university town. The novel's indebtedness to Barruel is even more extensive than Sterrenburg suggested. When Adam Weishaupt founded a secret society called the "Illuminees" at Ingolstadt on 1 May 1776, he "formed a monstrous digest," in Barruel's words, of the various kinds of subversive thinking already current in the Enlightenment, much as Victor Frankenstein combines an assortment of body parts to form his monster.7 Like Victor, Weishaupt led a double life at the University of Ingolstadt: distinguishing himself in respectable academic pursuits while secretly, in the privacy of his rooms, pursuing an invisible project. Both men took intellectual shortcuts: Weishaupt, unable to endure delay, recruited disciples by pretending to have a new "code of laws" that he had not yet formulated, while Victor Frankenstein makes an eight-foot giant, rather than a creature of normal human size, for the same reason (81; vol. 1, chap. 3). Weishaupt's secret society then infiltrated the Freemasons, penetrated France, enlisted the Duke of Orléans, and spawned the Jacobins, "that disastrous monster" which would wreak "days of horror and devastation." But the details of the conspiracy's growth are as mysterious as the comings and goings of Frankenstein's creature: "The monster has taken its course through wildernesses, and darkness has more than once obscured its progress."8 This sentence, remarkably, is Barruel's, not Mary Shelley's, although it would, except for its neuter pronoun, be as suitable in the novel. No killing occurred at Ingolstadt in either version, but the monster formed in that place eventually causes multiple killings elsewhere. In borrowing from Barruel, Mary Shelley accepts his metaphoric equivalence between the French Revolution and a monster, together with his assumption that ideas can have profound social and political consequences. She also assimilates Barruel's suggestion that the conspiratorial secrecy and deceptiveness in which the monster was formed foreshadow major flaws in its socialization. But she adds a sympathy for the monster and an entrance into his thought-processes wholly lacking in the Abbé's diatribe against the Enlightenment and revolutionary change. She uses a conservative text as a sourcebook for political geography but without accepting its ideology.

Rather than constituting an exception, her method in treating Ingolstadt instantiates her systematic procedure in this novel. For example, her creature not only shares a birthplace with the French Revolution, but also a scene of putative endings. St. Petersburgh is the address from which Walton sends off his first letter on the first page of the novel, and St. Petersburgh was understood to be Napoleon's initial destination in his fateful Russian campaign of 1812.9 The novel's subtitle—"The Modern Prometheus"—would have invoked Napoleonic associations for a contemporary audience. As Paulson observes, "Napoleon was associated with Prometheus by Byron and his own propaganda machine."10 Victor's pursuit of the monster across Russia, as "the snows thickened, and the cold increased in a degree almost too severe to support" (227; vol. 3, chap. 7), would recall for readers in 1818 the Napoleonic army's desperate retreat from Moscow by a northern route as a severe early winter began in November 1812: "The Russian winter, which began on the 7th with deep snow, greatly added to their difficulties and sufferings, and their bulletins acknowledge the loss of many men by cold and fatigue in their night bivouackings." Victor, like the Grand Army, forages for food, and lacks the Russian natives' ability to endure the temperature: "amidst cold that few of the inhabitants could long endure, and which I, the native of a genial and sunny climate, could not hope to survive" (228; vol. 3, chap. 7). The "sledge" (57; vol. 1, letter 4), chosen by Victor and later by the monster for transportation (228; vol. 3, chap. 7), repeats the vehicle reportedly used by Napoleon when he left his army in Russia and headed secretly back to Paris: he "set off in a single sledge under the title of the Duke of Vicenze."11

The French army was never trapped amidst ice floes in the Arctic like Victor, his creature, and the men on Walton's ship. But the atmosphere of baffled movement, wintry disorientation, and despair which envelops the novel's characters is a figurative counterpart to the plight of Napoleon's retreating forces. A celebrated account of the latter, published in France in 1824, supports the connection. The Count de Ségur, Napoleon's Quartermaster-General on the Russian Campaign of 1812, invokes the metaphor of a ship on a sea of ice to describe the French decision to throw into a Russian lake the trophies of the conquest of Moscow: "There was no longer any question of adorning or embellishing our lives, but merely of saving them. In this shipwreck, the army, like a great vessel tossed by the most violent storm, was throwing overboard on a sea of ice and snow everything that might encumber it or delay its progress."12 Although Mary Shelley could not have read Ségur when she wrote the 1818 Frankenstein, she and the Count were drawn to similar symbolic seascapes to represent the same momentous historical events.

Against the novel's final setting of Northern ice, one contrasting image has striking force: the monster's planned suicide by fire on the book's final two pages. The comparable historical image is the burning of Moscow by the Russians, as the Napoleonic army prepared to settle into it for winter quarters.13 The monster's announced motive—that his "remains may afford no light to any curious and unhallowed wretch, who would create such another as I have been" (243; vol. 3, chap. 7)—resembles the Russian action insofar as it immolates something priceless of one's own to deny use of it to another. The novel is not proposing that the monster represents the anti-Napoleonic forces of the Czar. Rather, the creature's trajectory from birth in Ingolstadt to death by fire, amidst Northern ice, is a figure for the history of the French Revolution. Not only Napoleon's victorious career, but also the revolutionary age itself seemed to have met its fatal blow in the flames of Moscow and the consequent retreat. With the Grand Army now severely reduced in size and morale, Napoleon's days were numbered. His message in this period was the same as the monster's inscription on trees and stone: "My reign is not yet over" (226; vol. 3, chap. 7). But for the Emperor of the French, the end was in sight. The dominant powers, which had assembled at the Congress of Vienna, sought to convince the world that the French Revolution itself was now finally over.

But was it? In the novel's last line, the monster is "lost in darkness and distance," producing a sense of obscurity and open possibility, rather than certainty. The monster's inscription echoes beyond Napoleon's fate to suggest the possible return of revolutionary violence. The novel uses the idea of a recently completed French revolutionary history as a point of departure for a sustained confrontation with the international legacy of revolution, including its promise, its violence, its possible continuance, and its geographical emplacement.

II. Geneva

For the Byron-Shelley circle, Geneva was above all the city of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the deeply flawed but uniquely prophetic and instigative intellectual father of the French Revolution. During the sojourn of Lord Byron, Mary Shelley, and Percy Shelley there in 1816, they read and wrote about him extensively. Geneva was also the site of actual revolutionary events in both 1768 and 1794. Mary's three and a half months in and near the city gave her an incentive to read about its history and an opportunity to draw upon the living memory of natives and longtime residents. Frankenstein puts this geographically specific material to use.

Frankenstein's monster commits his first murder—the killing of Victor's youngest brother, William—just outside the ramparts of Geneva in Plainpalais (98-99, 102-3; vol. 1, chap. 6), to which Mary had attributed political significance in History of a Six Weeks' Tour :

To the south of the town is the promenade of the Genevese, a grassy plain planted with a few trees, and called Plainpalais. Here a small obelisk is erected to the glory of Rousseau, and here (such is the mutability of human life) 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 all the chicanery of statesmen, nor even the great conspiracy of kings, can entirely render vain. From respect to the memory of their predecessors, none of the present magistrates ever walk in Plainpalais.14

Both Frankenstein's creature and revolution engage in "temporary bloodshed and injustice," which readily invite a response of wholesale condemnation. That is precisely the response given to the Genevese political executions in the source most readily available to an English reader of the early nineteenth century: Francis d'Ivernois's A Short Account of the Late Revolution in Geneva.15 Ivernois, like Barruel, was an emigré who had settled in England, but unlike the Abbé, he had credentials as a political moderate: a supporter of the Genevese revolutionary settlement of 1768, he was the principal historian of that earlier revolution, in which his father had been a major participant. In an emigré society of monarchists, the younger Ivernois was a republican who supported a somewhat extended franchise, but he thought universal suffrage inevitably caused mob rule. He was entrusted by the Genevese government with negotiating a treaty with France, when Geneva was under siege by a French army in 1792. In July 1794, while Maximilien Robespierre was at his height of power, an uprising occurred in Geneva, instigated partly by France and partly by disenfranchised residents of the city-state. A Revolutionary Tribunal now preempted the constitutional government. Under the influence of intimidation by "the savage multitude," and without credible judicial proceedings or evidence of violation of law, according to Ivernois, the Tribunal executed eleven persons, including at least four magistrates, two of whom were ex-syndics or presidents of Geneva. Ivernois sums up these events—including the executions which Mary Shelley links to Plainpalais and to Will- iam's murder—as a "work of horror" or "horrors."16 Mary Shelley, whose only son at the time was also a child named William, registers the horror; in that sense, she is no apologist for murder. But she refuses to demonize the revolution or the monster: the first, she claims "has brought enduring benefits to mankind," and the second, she gives a sympathetic hearing on the basis of Rousseau's revolutionary philosophy.

Plainpalais is the site of a monument to "the glory of Rousseau," whose "writings mainly contributed to mature" the revolution of France as well as Geneva. By locating the novel's first murder at a spot consecrated to the memory of the prophet of revolution, situated just outside the city where he was born and bearing its own history of revolutionary bloodshed, Mary Shelley establishes an equation between the monster's murders and revolutionary violence. Although some recent critics position this novel in a conservative direction, her explicit ruminations about Plainpalais suggest otherwise.17Frankenstein itself is sympathetic to the monster of revolution and, as David Marshall and James O'Rourke have shown, is pervaded by the philosophy and literary precedent of Rousseau.18 Even the murder of the child William is seen through a largely Rousseauvian lens. Following the Genevese philosopher's revolutionary premise, that all human beings are naturally good, Mary Shelley claims that the monster is naturally good as well, but society has imposed its evil ways upon him.19 As in Rousseau's state of nature, the creature's first feeling toward others is pity: he stops stealing food from the De Laceys "when I found that by doing this I inflicted pain on the cottagers," and he gathers wood for their fire to save them labor (137; vol. 2, chap. 4). When his first effort to tell his story is brought to a traumatic end with an unmerited beating by Felix De Lacey, he refrains from striking back though "I could have torn him limb from limb" (160; vol. 2, chap. 7). He saves the life of a "young girl" who has fallen into a stream, only to be shot by her male companion (165; vol. 2, chap. 8). Biased people torment him solely because of his appearance, but he has still not harmed or sought to harm any of them, and he yearns for acceptance in some kind of social unit. He concludes that his only chance for a friend is to talk to a child who is "unprejudiced" because society has not yet corrupted him (166; vol. 2, chap. 8). Young William, however, turns out to be already the product of an artificial and malignant society: he labels the creature with visual stereotypes—"monster," "ugly wretch," and "ogre"—and pulls social rank upon him by insisting that his father is "a Syndic" (167; vol. 2, chap. 8). The creature is finally stained by the social evil that already infects William. By killing the boy, he shows the extremity of social wrong that surrounds him, and he illustrates the need in the novel's implied system of values for profound social and political change, in the direction of greater inclusiveness. But he never ceases to have a core of natural goodness, as his final remarks about his persistent craving for "love and fellowship" attest (243).

Before committing his first murder, the creature resorts on one occasion to violence of a lesser kind. When he learns that he will never get a second chance to try to gain the friendship of the De Laceys because they have permanently abandoned the cottage in fright, he burns the unoccupied structure down at night (163; vol. 2, chap. 8). This episode bears a striking resemblance to a famous event in the revolutionary history of Geneva. In January 1768 the city faced a constitutional crisis, as the patricians who controlled the Small Council were locked in dispute with the General Council of Burghers about the respective rights of each body and how restrictively citizenship should be defined. One night a public building burned to the ground, and it was believed by many that the burgher faction set the fire. The patricians agreed to a major constitutional compromise, which secured the public peace. The incinerated structure was a theater built by the patricians in defiance of the burghers' view, articulated by Rousseau in his Letter to M. d'Alembert on the Theatre (1758), that such an institution would corrupt Geneva's republican manners and morals with aristocratic decadence.20 The first revolution in the post-Enlightenment West—and the first to bear the imprint of Rousseau—had, as one of its central events, a nighttime conflagration similar to that which Mary Shelley uses as the first act of violence by a Genevese thinker's creation.21 A happy outcome followed in the city-state in 1768: patrician accommodation and a more inclusive political order, which lasted until royalist France imposed the reactionary Black Code on Geneva in 1782. In Frankenstein, on the other hand, continued rejectionism and exclusion make bloodshed inevitable.

William's death is followed by another: the authorities in Geneva execute the innocent servant, Justine Moritz, for the crime. This fictional miscarriage of justice is rooted in Genevese political history. The revolutionary executions in Geneva in the summer of 1794 had been swiftly followed by Robespierre's fall and execution, and the Thermidorean Reaction in Paris. Geneva too recoiled against radical excesses and sought scapegoats. Six weeks after Jacobinism seemed triumphant in Geneva, a reactivated Revolutionary Tribunal condemned four members of the radical Mountaineer faction to death although, according to Ivernois, "no positive evidence was adduced" to support the charges, and testimony was introduced implicating the judges in the crimes for which they condemned the defendants.22 As in Justine's wrongful execution, the institutional punishment for one fatal crime becomes another murder.

The only observer who behaves creditably at Justine's trial is Elizabeth Lavenza. While Victor Frankenstein remains silent, despite his knowledge of who killed William and his own responsibility for making that creature what he is, Elizabeth speaks eloquently in defense of Justine's character. But her testimony fails to overcome the "public indignation" against the defendant (111; vol. 1, chap. 7), and the guilty verdict follows. There is a precedent for this combination of male silence and admirable, though futile, female intervention amidst popular frenzy. Ivernois's account of the history of Geneva in the summer of 1794 includes this memorable episode:

One generous effort, indeed, was made by the women of Geneva (for the experiment was too hazardous for men to engage in), who, to the number of two thousand, went in a body to the Revolutionary Tribunal, to intercede for them ["the unhappy victims"]; but their tears and entreaties had no other effect, than that of exposing them to the brutal ridicule of the Judges, who ordered the fire-engines to be got ready, in order to administer what they profanely called, the rights [sic] of Civic Baptism.

Elizabeth speaks not merely for herself in Mary Shelley's book, but for a multitude of women who, in recent Genevese history, had bravely sought to inject generosity into a dehumanized political context—and who had been spurned for their efforts.

Justine's execution is, in one sense, highly untypical of Geneva's experience in 1794. Ivernois contrasts France's conduct with his own city's:

In one point indeed, and in one point only, the French are still without a rival; for out of no less than 508 persons, on whom different sentences were passed, on the late occasion, there was but one Woman, who was condemned to be imprisoned for life, for having given assistance, and forwarded letters, to some French Emigrants; and it is more than probable, that even this sentence was obtained by the influence and intrigues of the French Resident.23

The murdered females of Frankenstein, to the extent that they represent revolutionary executions of women, point to French rather than Genevese political history. Yet Geneva does not escape responsibility since its native son, Rousseau, hovers over French as well as Genevese practice, as the monster's involvement with Justine's death reveals. He admits planting on the sleeping young woman the incriminating evidence—a necklace taken from William's body—that led to her conviction (168; vol. 2, chap. 8). But he echoes Rousseau's explanation of evil by shifting the blame onto society. It had deprived him of the love of women, such as Justine, because of his appearance, and through the "lessons of Felix, and the sanguinary laws of man," it had taught him "how to work mischief" (168; vol. 2, chap. 8). Rousseau not only provides a philosophical defense, but a specific precedent for the monster's deed. When Rousseau was about nineteen years of age, he stole a pink and silver ribbon and blamed an honest, young female servant named Marion for the theft. His accusation, he believes in retrospect, probably prevented her from finding another situation, and betrayed her into a life of misery and friendlessness.24 In occupation, gender, innocence, and unjust fate, Justine is Marion's mirror image. Rousseau professes excruciating remorse for this deed, as does Victor for his silence, but remorse fails to help the two young women. The legacy of Rousseau, including the treatment of women and the sidestepping of personal responsibility, is as Janus-faced and problematic for Mary Shelley, as it had been for her mother in Vindication of the Rights of Woman. She is much indebted to the Genevese thinker, but she seeks a more balanced and inclusive way to rectify the social wrongs that he exposes.

The last murder to occur in Geneva or its environs is that of Alphonse Frankenstein, Victor's father. He dies of an apoplectic fit, brought on by grief shortly after learning of Elizabeth's murder (220; vol. 3, chap. 6). From the point of view of political geography, the two most important things about him are, first, that he was a syndic, as William tells the monster just before his own murder (167; vol. 2, chap. 8) and, second, that his death is the indirect result of the monster's killing. Syndics were not merely high public officials, but chief executives, the apex of political authority in Geneva. Two of those executed by order of the Revolutionary Tribunal in the summer of 1794 were ex-syndics, like Alphonse, who has long since withdrawn from public life. To kill a syndic was the closest the republic of Geneva could get to the traditionally most horrendous crime of regicide, the act taken by the French National Convention in January 1793. Alphonse's death in Frankenstein carries some of the traditional aura of a ne plus ultra insofar as it is a culmination of a relentlessly murderous logic, which carries us through a sequence of victims, beginning with "W" (William) and ending with "A" (Alphonse) in consistent reverse alphabetical order.25 But the novel rejects both the traditionalist view that killing the king is the ultimate crime and the radical view that regicide is a major ingredient in achieving a just society. Alphonse's end is anticlimactic, briefly told, and lacking in the emotional force and impact on the narrative of all the other monster-caused deaths in the book. Mary Shelley rejects the hierarchical premise that society's happiness depends chiefly on the presence or absence of a king, president, or syndic. She substitutes a more egalitarian model, in which the fate of a child, a servant, or a spouse may be at least as influential.

In the lives of the novel's major characters, the natural death of Caroline Beaufort Frankenstein, Victor's mother, just outside Geneva is more consequential than the death of his father. It helps motivate Victor to master the boundary between life and death by creating the monster, and, by a dream-logic that supplements the literal narrative, it becomes the book's first murder. Victor eliminates the role of the mother in the birth which he causes in his laboratory, and immediately afterwards—as if reaping the consequences—dreams of holding his own mother's corpse in his arms (85; vol. 1, chap. 4). She had died of scarlet fever in the same chapter as, and just one paragraph before, he left home to study in an all-male environment in Ingolstadt (72-73; vol. 1, chap. 2). The demarcation of this chapter so that these two events constitute a unified textual space implies an equation between them: his abandoning female companionship and input at this point is tantamount to killing her. It is the erasure of the mother, not the killing of the father/ruler, which plunges the world of Frankenstein into catastrophe. The prototype behind this entire process is the death of one's mother after, but in a sense because of, one's own birth—an experience that happened first to Rousseau in Geneva, and later to Mary Shelley in London. These events left the surviving offspring in situations fraught with a potential for matricidal guilt. Mary Shelley responded by foregrounding the positive value of the maternal role and striving intensely throughout her life to be the kind of mother her mother wanted to be. Rousseau and Victor, by the implied value system of this novel, exacerbated their guilt: Rousseau by taking his five newborn children from their mother and abandoning them to the Foundling Hospital; Victor, his fictional counterpart, by not only eliminating the role of the mother from the birthing process, but also by repeatedly abandoning the offspring.26 Geneva's eighteenth-century political prophet, from the point of view of Frankenstein, has been the source for all of Europe of a salutary revolutionary inspiration—and of a model of society that reinforces longstanding gender-based and dehumanizing suppressions and exclusions.

III. England and Scotland

Victor Frankenstein's "many months" (192; vol. 3, chap. 3) or "nearly a year" (194; vol. 3, chap. 3) in England and Scotland, while shadowed by the monster, are seemingly a respite from murder. Yet Victor agonizes over his fatal past and possible future, mulls over the seventeenth-century killings of King Charles I, Lord Viscount Falkland, and John Hampden (184-85; vol. 3, chap. 2), and physically destroys the female creature that he was laboring to complete on one of the Orkney Islands. The stay in Britain puts special emphasis on the role of the author's country in the development—and retardation—of modern revolutionary thought and practice.

Victor's visit is partly a representation of transnational influences and misunderstandings, in the development of subversive thinking in Europe during the eighteenth century. After promising to make a female mate for the monster, Victor visits England in order to tap the knowledge of "the most distinguished natural philosophers" (183; vol. 3, chap. 2). At this stage, Victor reenacts the French Enlightenment's indebtedness to English science and politics, especially Voltaire's stay in England from 1726 to 1728, which resulted in his Lettres Philosophiques (1734), where the celebration of Sir Isaac Newton, John Locke, and English liberty was used to criticize established French practices and institutions.27

But in London Victor swiftly finds "an insurmountable barrier placed between me and my fellow-men." His mental state becomes "sorrowful and dejected," afflicted by "extreme anguish" (183; vol. 3, chap. 2), "tormented" by thoughts of the monster's revengeful plots against him and his family, "guiltless" yet cursed (187; vol. 3, chap. 2). He journeys to Derbyshire (186; vol. 3, chap. 2), among other places, and responds to the hospitable invitations of a "person in Scotland" (184; vol. 3, chap. 2), a "Scotch friend" (186; vol. 3, chap. 2), with much less than "the good humor expected from a guest" (187; vol. 3, chap. 2). He craves solitude and eventually finds it on a remote and almost uninhabited island, where he can go about his work "ungazed at and unmolested" (188; vol. 3, chap. 2). In each of these instances, Victor relives Rousseau's tormented visit to England from 1766 to 1767. The latter had been invited by the cosmopolitan Scotsman, David Hume, and he stayed most of the time at a house in Wooton, Derbyshire, isolated from society. His mental condition was unstable, partly because he had been subjected to fierce personal attacks, public condemnations, outlawing, and even stoning on the continent, and he imagined plots by nearly everyone, including his friends, against him. He and Hume had a much publicized quarrel, as a result of mutual misunderstandings and Rousseau's frenzied and unfounded suspicions.28 He fantasized about the period in 1765, when he withdrew from society to the Island of Saint-Pierre in the middle of Lake Bienne in the Neuchâtel region, as the happiest period in his life and celebrated it at length in his Confessions and Reveries of the Solitary Walker.29 Rousseau's recoil against society is itself a form of identification with and adaptation of an English cultural model of individualism, pushed toward solipsism: in the Confessions he explicitly resolves to be another Robinson Crusoe and, in the process, he alienates himself from his British hosts. He reveals what Mary Shelley would see as a defective grasp of human interdependence behind his—and his English prototype's—reconceptualizations of politics and society.

Victor's stay in Oxford constitutes a meditation on English revolutionary history, from the point of view of a narrator who is himself subject to the author's criticism. He lingers nostalgically over the "spirit of elder days" in the Oxford of Charles I and his beleaguered royalist forces and followers, between 1642 and 1645: "This city had remained faithful to him, after the whole nation had forsaken his cause to join the standard of parliament and liberty." The beheading of "that unfortunate king" in January 1649 is the imminent event that looms over an Oxford of "peculiar interest" (184; vol. 3, chap. 2) to Victor, as he reconstructs it. He finds in the king's environment a mirror of his own mood of anxious waiting for an inevitable catastrophe. Instead of drawing practical lessons for himself about what might have been—and what might be—done differently to minimize bloodshed, as Mary Shelley's royalist source, Edward Hyde, Earl of Clarendon's History of the Rebellion, attempts often to do, he aestheticizes the scene, making its "ancient and picturesque" college buildings and their "lovely" (185; vol. 3, chap. 2) natural setting into a still visible correlative for an irremediably doomed circle. Victor's naming of "the amiable Falkland" and "the insolent Goring" (184; vol. 3, chap. 2) on the royalist side implies a large moral spectrum within that faction, with much unintended reference to his own ambiguous moral personality. Clarendon, whose history Mary Shelley referred to unmistakably in her manuscript version of the Oxford passage, had vividly portrayed Lucius Cary, Viscount Falkland's brilliance, idealism, absolute integrity, and courage in the years up to his death in battle, as well as George, Lord Goring's irresponsibility, treachery, and insolence, ending in his ignominious desertion and flight.30 But, from Mary Shelley's point of view, neither character represents a viable option, granted the historical transformation occurring in his time. Both are stuck within too many of the assumptions of a no longer viable, absolutist order. Victor's romantic antiquarianism and morally equivocal life-history replicate what the duo jointly exemplify. The British section of Frankenstein faults the monster's creator and recent British society, not for excessive radicalism but for not being radical enough.

Before leaving the Oxford area, Victor sees another spot sacred to English Civil War history, but this one is potentially exemplary for his own life:

We visited the tomb of the illustrious Hampden, and the field on which that patriot fell. For a moment my soul was elevated from its debasing and miserable fears to contemplate the divine ideas of liberty and self-sacrifice, of which these sights were the monuments and the remembrancers. For an instant I dared to shake off my chains, and look around me with a free and lofty spirit; but the iron had eaten into my flesh, and I sank again, trembling and hopeless, into my miserable self.

          (185; vol. 3, chap. 2)

For the only time in Britain, Victor here experiences the possibility of liberation. Mary Shelley relies on Clarendon's character sketch of John Hampden but not his underlying evaluation of the man. Clarendon pays eloquent tribute to Hampden's reputation for probity and courage, his sagacity and yet modesty in debate, and his unique rapport with the people of England: "He was indeed a very wise man, and of great parts, and possessed with the most absolute spirit of popularity, that is, the most absolute faculties to govern the people, of any man I ever knew." But as an opponent of the radical parliamentary Independent group, in which Hampden was (with John Pym) a co-leader, Clarendon thinks him a subtle deceiver, pretending moderation but instigating root and branch extremism behind the scenes: "he had a head to contrive, and a tongue to persuade, and a hand to execute, any mischieve."31

For Mary Shelley, as for her father and husband, Hampden was the supreme English model of political leadership. William Godwin, in his History of the Commonwealth published six years later, would treat him as the greatest hero of his period and "one of the most extraordinary men in the records of mankind."32 Percy Shelley, in his "Philosophical View of Reform," would rank Hampden as one of the four greatest Englishmen of all time, the only one not a major writer.33 Unlike Charles I, Falkland, and Goring, he had a profound sense of his historical moment, and of the possibilities and promise of radical change. In contrast to Rousseau and Victor, he had a firm grasp of social and political reality, and an unbroken bond with the people. In contrast with Rousseau and Victor, whose irresponsibility toward their offspring is notorious, he was thought so suitable a mentor for a young person that he was proposed by the parliamentary forces as a tutor for the Prince of Wales (later, Charles II), then ten years old—a window on Hampden's remarkable character that Godwin will emphasize.34 Hampden first came to public notice by defying an absolutist monarchy and refusing to pay thirty shillings for a tax, imposed by the king without the consent of parliament. He died courageously in battle against a royalist army in 1643 before having an opportunity to participate in the execution of the king.35 He is Frankenstein 's ideal male revolutionary.

Mary composed the passage about him in October 1817, when she visited his monument in the church at Great Hampden, Buckinghamshire, with her father.36 In the England of 1817, Hampden was not merely a subject of antiquarian interest. The principal vehicle of organized popular agitation for parliamentary reform and working people's economic relief was the Hampden Clubs, named after the seventeenth-century parliamentary leader and founded by Major John Cartwright in 1812. The first national meeting of Hampden Club delegates was held in London in January 1817, and it was linked to the presentation of a petition, signed by a half million to a million and a half persons, calling for annual parliaments, universal manhood suffrage, and vote by ballot.37 Percy recalls the episode vividly in "A Philosophical View of Reform": "The people were then insulted, tempted, and betrayed, and the petitions of a million of men rejected with disdain." Like the monster addressing Victor for the first time in the Alps earlier in the book, these people craved a hearing.38 In February and March repressive legislation, including the Seditious Meetings Act and the suspension of Habeas Corpus, drove the reform movement underground and crushed the Hampden Clubs. The trip to Greater Hampden by Mary Shelley and her father and the insertion of a paragraph celebrating Hampden into the novel was, in late 1817, a political act implying just the reverse of the conservatism now sometimes attributed to Frankenstein.

But Victor cannot sustain his momentary identification with the Hampden model; by the end of the paragraph he relapses into a politically passive pathology. He is still in such a state when he happens upon the Lake Poets in Cumberland and Westmoreland, "men of talent" "who almost contrived to cheat me into happiness" (186; vol. 3, chap. 2). These influential British intellectuals figure as male sirens who lure people away from decisive political engagement. It will take more than aethetic pleasure, according to Mary Shelley's pointed (but reductive) put-down, to break out of the chains.

On "one of the remotest" Orkney Islands in Scotland, Victor will learn that the monster has secretly accompanied him throughout his travels in Britain (188; vol. 3, chap. 2,). Yet the monster has killed no one during this period. This interruption of bloodshed has two distinct referents. If the excluded and oppressed believe their problems are being seriously addressed, as the monster does while Victor works on making a female creature, they will feel no need for violence: this is an argument for political and social reformation, an expression of hope. On the other hand, the remission of killing points to a historical reality: revolution never happened in Britain in the 1790s. There were no executions by revolutionary tribunals, but neither did significant progressive change occur in Britain during this period. The country lurched into reaction and repression. Ultimately, in the book's narrative, what gets killed is the female creature. The explanation for why and how she dies is rooted in the political geography of England and Scotland in this novel.

Victor makes his decision to kill her, while suffering the pathological effects of the island existence celebrated by Defoe and Rousseau. His "solitude" (188, 189; vol. 3, chap. 2) is not just a matter of miles from population centers. He is psychologically remote from the few impoverished inhabitants of the island, whose misery facilitates his isolation by numbing their awareness. He sinks into anxiety, speaking repeatedly of his fear. He will soon let his boat drift at sea, like Rousseau on the lake surrounding his island.39 He stifles the compassion which had once made him agree to provide the monster with a female companion. In this state, his reasoning is as unbalanced as his emotions.

His analysis of the possible catastrophic consequences of letting loose a female monster on the world depends on two fallacious premises: that a creature's appearance is an accurate indicator of his or her moral state, and that both male and female monsters can be expected to be "malignant" (190; vol. 3, chap. 3) and "wicked" (192; vol. 3, chap. 3). While the monster's earlier narrative had shown him to be naturally good but forced into crime by a biased and exclusionary society, Victor now assumes, in opposition to Rousseau, that both creatures must be naturally depraved. To prevent "terror" (190; vol. 3, chap. 3), he, therefore, reinforces the mistreatment that drove the monster into crime in the first place. By couching his uncompromising rejectionism in the vocabulary of high-minded altruism toward future generations, he reverts to the historically obtuse posture of saintly absolutism taken by Charles I. Like Goring, he is a treacherous and insolent promise-breaker. He fails to measure up to Hampden's precedent of adopting new insights and placing himself in the vanguard of history.

By tearing up the female creature, Victor kills society's best hope for deliverance. In Mary Shelley's fiction, she holds the potential of restoring human balance to an all male social formation, by substituting love and caring for repulsion and irresponsibility. She offers human connectedness in place of island disjunction. Her prototype is the author's mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, whose version of revolutionary ideology, in her daughter's estimation, was the best of what Britain had to offer during the 1790s. Wollstonecraft was sensitive to the wrongs suffered by people excluded from social acceptance and political voice, by reason of gender and class, while also affirming and practicing the nurturing processes that Victor and Rousseau conspicuously failed to cultivate. The description of the female creature's murder reenacts in displaced and inverted form the circumstances of Mary Wollstonecraft's death, shortly after her daughter's birth. Instead of a physician unsuccessfully picking the pieces of a retained placenta out of the birth canal, as occurred after Mary Shelley's birth, Victor dismembers the yet uncompleted female creature and drops the pieces into the sea.40 As we read the account in the novel, the grown-up offspring of that 1797 birth is telling the horrific story of a quasi-abortion in which her mother was aborted. The agonizing nature of the event has personal roots, but it affects an entire civilization.

When Victor places the "relics" (194; vol. 3, chap. 3) of the riven female form into "a basket," "cast" it into the sea, and "listened to the gurgling sound as it sunk, and then sailed away from the spot" (195; vol. 3, chap. 3), he is enacting a nightmare transformation of what Moses's mother did with him when he was three months old: "And when she could not longer hide him, she took for him an ark of bulrushes, and daubed it with slime and with pitch, and put the child therein; and she laid it in the flags by the river's brink." Unlike Victor, she carefully sealed up the container to keep the water out and placed it near the edge of a river where it would be likely to be found. The Pharaoh's daughter found the child, "had compassion on him," and named him Moses "[b]ecause I drew him out of the water."41 Victor, lacking such compassion, does precisely the reverse. In the Bible, Moses would lead his people out of bondage. In Frankenstein, the female creature had the same potential for liberating a society. Her ending recalls not only Mary Wollstonecraft's catastrophic demise in her most productive years, but also the near simultaneous destruction of her reputation and the elimination from public discourse in Britain of the point of view which she championed. The silencing of her emancipatory voice has, in Mary Shelley's estimate, been climactic in a series of obstructions and choices which have prevented Britain, despite its seventeenth-century revolutionary legacy, from exerting a decisive positive role in the era of the French Revolution.

IV. Ireland

Just after the novel's treatment of an event of 1797, the monster murders Victor's friend, Henry Clerval, in Ireland. This outbreak of violence is Mary Shelley's representation of the bloody Irish rebellion of May to September 1798. Unique among the important settings in Frankenstein, Ireland is not chosen by Victor: a storm drives him there at night, and he assumes when he lands that he is still in England or Scotland. His first human encounter forces him abruptly to change his premises:

"Why do you answer me so roughly?" I replied: "surely it is not the custom of Englishmen to receive strangers so inhospitably."

"I do not know," said the man, "what the custom of the English may be; but it is the custom of the Irish to hate villains."

          (197; vol. 3, chap. 3)

In this exchange, the book posits a new sense of culture clash; previous transitions from Bavaria to Geneva to Britain lacked this sharply contrastive rhetoric. Upon seeing Henry's corpse, Victor is startled to learn that the monster's murderousness—and his own unwitting causality—have reached in an unexpected direction: "Have my murderous machinations deprived you also, my dearest Henry, of life?" (200; vol. 3, chap. 4). The question points, on one level, to historical fact. The most likely landing-places for Victor's boat are Northern Ireland or County Mayo: he is blown to the Irish coast from the Orkneys by a high north-east wind (196; vol. 3, chap. 3), which becomes a "strong northerly blast" (198-99; vol. 3, chap. 4). If he lands in Ulster, his trip points to the role of the United Irishmen in preparing Ireland for revolution. Founded in Belfast, but extending their influence during the next few years over much of Ireland, the United Irishmen distributed selected writings by such authors as Locke, Voltaire, Rousseau, Constantin-Francois de Chasseboeuf, comte de Volney, Godwin, and Thomas Paine to a wide Irish readership.42 Victor now resembles the European intellectuals who flirted with or actively promoted radical ideas at home, but were aghast when overseas colonies chose to apply Enlightenment notions of human rights to their own condition. Revolutionary leaders in France, for example, recoiled against the revolutionary aspirations of black slaves in Haiti.43 The alternate likely landing point for Victor's boat is the Killala region of Mayo, where French forces landed in 1798 to give military support to the Irish rebellion and were ultimately defeated.44 Most English admirers of Locke, Godwin, and Paine drew back from supporting a French invasion coupled with an Irish rebellion. Murder in Ireland, therefore, adds to Frankenstein the reminder and prospect of revolutions and imperial conflicts multiplying throughout the empires of Britain and other European powers. Imperialism and philosophies of popular sovereignty were an explosive mix. Clerval's death extends the book's implied political geography of horror to Asia, Africa, and the Americas, as well as to the rebellious subjugated people across the Irish Sea.45

Conservative Victorian Englishmen regularly turned the monster of Frankenstein into a patronizing figure for troubles in Ireland.46 But it is not generally recognized that the monster, as originally conceived by Mary Shelley, already included Irishness in his hybrid composition. An earlier text resonates behind the creature's first self-initiated action in the novel:

He held up the curtain of the bed; and his eyes, if eyes they may be called, were fixed on me. His jaws opened, and he muttered some inarticulate sounds, while a grin wrinkled his cheeks. He might have spoken, but I did not hear; one hand was stretched out, seemingly to detain me, but I escaped, and rushed down stairs.

          (86; vol. 1, chap. 4)

Compare Gulliver's first personal encounter with a Yahoo:

The ugly Monster, when he saw me, distorted several Ways every Feature of his Visage, and stared as at an Object he had never seen before; then approaching nearer, lifted up his fore Paw, whether out of Curiosity or Mischief, I could not tell: But I drew my Hanger, and gave him a good Blow with the flat Side of it.47

Jonathan Swift and Mary Shelley tell of a monster who gestures to signal a wish for friendship, but gets contemptuously rebuffed by the title character. Gulliver will accurately read the extended hand or foreleg as a token of friendship when the dominant Houyhnhnms employ it, or when he uses it himself.48 The Yahoo's "distorted" face, in this light, may be as much a "grin" as the facial expression on Frankenstein's creature. But Gulliver fails to penetrate cultural differences far enough to translate the body language of the Yahoos reliably or to see their positive humanity. Swift's characterization of these savage creatures was in part his own conflicted representation of the indigenous Irish population that he lived among, condescended to, and courageously defended.49 As in Frankenstein, a refusal of sympathy toward a friendly monster provokes a hostility, which is social and political as well as individual. Where Swift writes of a mob of Yahoos gathering around Gulliver, climbing a tree above him, and discharging their excrement on his head, Mary Shelley imagines a murder which recalls a widespread rebellion.

She alludes to, but rises above, then current English stereotypes about Ireland. The book's first sentence about the place is a concentrated example of a process that will recur during Victor's two months there: "It had a wild and rocky appearance; but as I approached nearer, I easily perceived the traces of cultivation" (196; vol. 3, chap. 3). First impressions focus on "rude" (197, 201; vol. 3, chap. 3, 4) appearances and behavior, "frowning and angry countenances," "ill-looking" faces (197; vol. 3, chap. 3), the look of "brutality" (202; vol. 3, chap. 4). In the most influential account of the 1798 Irish rebellion available to Mary Shelley, the loyalist Sir Richard Musgrave explains that "[i]t was a peculiar favour from heaven to send a civilized people," that is, the English, among the Irish to govern them and thus save them from their "savage," "ignorant and bigoted" ways.50 A recent historian sums up Musgrave's epithets characterizing the uprising: "Musgrave's aim was … to paint the rebels in the most unflattering light possible. Terms like ‘rabble’, ‘barbarous’, ‘ignorant’, ‘fanatic’, ‘horrid’, ‘cruel’, and ‘vulgar’ pepper his descriptions of the United Irishmen and especially their Catholic manifestations."51 Mary Shelley, however, keeps speaking of a quite different Ireland, evident on closer examination. Victor's initial hostile reception and the witnesses' testimony supporting his arrest turn out to be reasonable human responses to the available information. The Irish magistrate's persistent quest for the facts and his concern for Victor's well-being lead the latter to revise his first impressions of the inhabitants: "These were my first reflections; but I soon learned that Mr. Kirwin had shewn me extreme kindness" (202; vol. 3, chap. 4). It is significant that the magistrate's surname is neither English nor Scottish, but unambiguously Irish.52 Mary Shelley temporarily posits, then decisively discredits, the stereotypes about the Irish that supported England's colonial dominance. The novel's treatment of Ireland, like its treatment of other places and the monster himself, suggests that violent revolution can best be averted by recognizing the humanity of stereotyped groups, hearing their complaints, and genuinely addressing their grievances.

V. Evian

The last of the direct homicides in the novel is the monster's strangulation of Elizabeth Lavenza Frankenstein at Evian, on the night of her wedding to Victor (214-18; vol. 3, chap. 5, 6). The place is a short boat trip from the wedding site at Geneva, but so are other lakeside retreats. Why the murder occurs at Evian, rather than elsewhere, is a function of political geography. Percy Shelley provides the essential gloss in one of his sections of History of a Six Weeks' Tour, the collaborative project with Mary published just before Frankenstein : "The appearance of the inhabitants of Evian is more wretched, diseased and poor, than I ever recollect to have seen. The contrast indeed between the subjects of the King of Sardinia and the citizens of the independent republics of Switzerland, affords a powerful illustration of the blighting mischiefs of despotism, within the space of a few miles."53

The King of Sardinia was the title held since 1720 by the ruling member of the House of Savoy, and, as a result, Savoy itself had come to be called Sardinia. By introducing Sardinian or Savoyard Evian into the narrative, Mary Shelley is establishing an implicit contrast with one of the "independent republics of Switzerland," namely Geneva. The latter had won its independence from the duke and bishop of the House of Savoy in the 1530s and declared itself Protestant in reaction against Catholic Savoy in the same decade. In 1602 Geneva had victoriously repulsed a sneak attack by the Duke of Savoy's forces, who had placed their scaling ladders against the city walls. This event, called the "Escalade," is a much commemorated defining episode in the history of the republic. Geneva was admitted to the Swiss Confederation in 1814, just before Percy and Mary Shelley made literary and political use of a contrast between free Swiss Geneva and absolutist, Sardinian Evian.54

When Frankenstein was written and first published, the Sardinian regime was especially obnoxious to European liberals: King Victor Amadeus III had led a coalition of Italian rulers against the French Revolution in the 1790s, and after 1802, Victor Emmanuel I became a symbol of conservative resistance to Napoleon by holding out against the Emperor of the French on the island of Sardinia, where he was protected by the British fleet. He was a big winner at the Congress of Vienna, regaining Piedmont, Nice, and Savoy, including most of the south shore of Lake Geneva, and acquiring Genoa at the same time. He would rule autocratically, until a popular revolution forced him to abdicate in favor of his brother in 1821. For the Shelleys in 1816-1818 the Kingdom of Sardinia was a distillation of the most reactionary politics of the European Restoration.

Unlike the earlier murders in the novel, the killing of Elizabeth does not represent some past political execution or revolution. It is an image of an impending future. Revolution, from this point of view, looms within the most conservative European states: not only the Kingdom of Sardinia, but also Austria, Britain, Prussia, and Russia. Although the rulers do their best to keep their populations uninformed about or hostile to the ideas of Rousseau and other protorevolutionary thinkers, the novel suggests that a monster has been let loose which can never again be confined within any set spatial boundary. Although this vision is expressed through fictions of horror, it is not necessarily pessimistic. Frankenstein, like the novel incompletely named in Mary Shelley's dedication page to her father—Things as They Are; or, The Adventures of Caleb Williams (46)—traces the disastrous consequences of faulty political assumptions held by society as a whole. If those assumptions, "things as they are," can be peaceably changed and the pleas of the stereotyped and downtrodden can begin to be heard, revolutionary violence, according to Mary Shelley's novel, can be averted. As Percy Shelley would write, in his "Philosophical View of Reform," there are only two options for society in the post- Waterloo period: "Despotism" inevitably followed by "Revolution"; or else "Reform."55

By the time the second edition of Frankenstein is published in 1831, the rightist political meaning of "Evian" has been blurred by the 1821 uprising in Sardinia, and the resignation of an especially reactionary monarch. Yet the kingdom would not become even a constitutional monarchy until 1848. Mary Shelley now has seen first-hand the rising popular tide of Italian nationalism, which is directed not against Sardinia but against a more reactionary and unwanted regime—Austria. Accordingly, she supplies a new political emphasis surrounding Elizabeth's life and death, while leaving the murder itself at Evian. She cannot credibly transport the newlyweds to Austrian territory in the time required by the monster's threat—"I shall be with you on your wedding-night" (193; vol. 3, chap. 3)—granted that the wedding itself has to take place in Geneva, the home of Victor's father and the bride. In 1831, therefore, Mary gives Elizabeth origins in Austrian-controlled Lombardy and a honeymoon destination in the same area. Her father becomes an Italian nobleman from Milan who "exerted himself to obtain the liberty of his country." His fate points an accusatory finger towards the Hapsburg empire: "Whether he had died, or still lingered in the dungeons of Austria, was not known." Victor's mother finds the young child living with Italian peasants near Lake Como in Lombardy. As the wedding approaches, Victor's father persuades the Austrian government to restore to her a "part" of her confiscated "inheritance," a small villa on Lake Como, where the couple will go "immediately after our union," though "sleeping that night at Evian," in order to "spend our first days of happiness beside the beautiful lake near which it [the villa] stood."56 The narrative and the lovers strain toward the idyllic Italian lake but find themselves trapped in a reality—Evian—that falls fatally short of such a recovery. The restoration of Italian liberty is the political prize that hovers just out of reach. In this seemingly temporary state of deprivation, murder, signifying revolution, erupts. The cautionary lesson is much the same as in 1818, but the narrative means have become more complex, as Mary Shelley attempts to adjust her story to altering political realities. Alphonse Frankenstein's successful negotiation with the Austrians suggests a potential for nonviolent progress, but the novel implies that if change does not come very quickly, it will be too late to prevent catastrophe.

Frankenstein 's selection and sequence of places represent the international and destabilizing phenomenon of spreading Enlightenment ideas and revolutionary impulses in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. In contrast to Moretti's model of the solidification of the boundaries and structures of existing nation-states in the nineteenth-century European novel, Mary Shelley's book depicts forces that cannot be confined by the political control or geographic space of French or British power.57 From initial plotting, at least in reactionary eyes, in Ingolstadt, Bavaria, and by a son of the independent city-state of Geneva, through early outbreaks in French-speaking Europe, with special emphasis on the Genevese manifestations, to abortive British attempts to develop the revolutionary tradition further, followed by a bloody and portentous uprising in the overseas colony of Ireland, to a threatening cataclysm within the homeland of the bulwarks of European reaction, the author systematically places her Gothic horrors within the geographical and political particularities of European and world history. Like Percy Shelley, she views revolutionary thinking and practice as an informed, critical observer and liberal sympathizer who wishes to prevent both continued injustice and revolutionary violence, by motivating readers to overcome their prejudices sufficiently to accept fundamental reform.


1. Some important contributions to the large scholarly literature are: Lee Sterrenburg, "Mary Shelley's Monster: Politics and Psyche in Frankenstein," in The Endurance of Frankenstein, ed. George Levine and U. C. Knoepflamacher (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1979), 143-71; Ronald Paulson, Representations of Revolution (1789-1820) (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1983), 239-47; Paul O'Flinn, "Production and Reproduction: The Case of Frankenstein," Literature and History 9 (1983): 194-213; Mary Poovey, The Proper Lady and the Woman Writer (1984; reprint, Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1985), 114-42; Anne K. Mellor, Mary Shelley: Her Life, Her Fiction, Her Monsters (1988; reprint, New York: Routledge, 1989); Joseph W. Lew, "The Deceptive Other: Mary Shelley's Critique of Orientalism in Frankenstein," Studies in Romanticism 30 (1991): 255-83; H. L. Malchow, Gothic Images of Race in Nineteenth-Century Britain (Stanford: Stanford Univ. Press, 1996), 9-40; and Marilyn Butler's introduction to Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley's Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus: The 1818 Text (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1994), ix-li.

2. Franco Moretti, Atlas of the European Novel 1800-1900 (London: Verso, 1998), 70.

3. See Chris Baldick's introduction to The Oxford Book of Gothic Tales (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1992), xi-xxiii. See also Robert Mighall's introduction to A Geography of Victorian Gothic Fiction: Mapping History's Nightmares (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1999), xiv-xix, 1-26.

4. Mighall, 26, xx.

5. Paulson proposed that Frankenstein "was to some extent a retrospect on the whole process of maturation [of the revolutionary scenario] through Waterloo, with the Enlightenment-created monster leaving behind its wake of terror and destruction across France and Europe" (239), but he did not develop the implications of this insight for the novel's specific settings.

6. Sterrenburg, 155-57.

7. Abbé [Augustin] Barruel, Memoirs Illustrating the History of Jacobinism, trans. Robert Clifford, 2nd ed., 4 vols. (London, 1798), 3:2, 9-10, 15-16. Percy Bysshe Shelley used Clifford's translation of Barruel: his copy of the second volume is in the Berg Collection of the New York Public Library, as pointed out in the annotation to The Journals of Mary Shelley 1814-1844, ed. Paula R. Feldman and Diana Scott-Kilvert (1987; reprint, Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1995), 18-19, where Mary's reading of Barruel is also recorded. M. W. Shelley, Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, ed. D. L. Macdonald and Kathleen Scherf, 2nd ed. (Peterborough, Ontario: Broadview Press, 1999), 81-82; vol. 1, ch. 3. Unless otherwise noted, all further citations will be of this edition of the 1818 version, and will hereafter be cited parenthetically by page number, followed by the volume and chapter numbers.

8. Barruel, 4:30 ("code"), 3:414 ("disastrous monster"; "days"), 4:2 ("The monster"). For an elaboration on the concept of "code of law," see Barruel 4:30-4:32. On Weishaupt's double life, see Barruel, 4:22-23.

9.Annual Register, or a View of the History, Politics, and Literature, For the Year 1812 (London, 1813), 173. I am indebted to Ray Garcia for his insight into the relevance of Napoleon's Russian Campaign to the ending of Frankenstein.

10. Paulson, 245.

11.Annual Register, 1812, 178 ("Russian winter"), 180 ("single sledge").

12. Philippe-Paul, Comte de Ségur, La Campagne de Russie, 2 vols. (Paris: Hachette, 1960), 2:116; Count Phillipe-Paul de Ségur, Napoleon's Russian Campaign, trans. J. David Townsend (Cambridge, Mass.: Houghton Mifflin, 1958), 178-79.

13. Mellor suggests that "the creature's funeral pyre" refers to "the final coup de grâce of the French Revolution, Bonaparte's coup of 18-19 Brumaire (November 9-10, 1799)" (238). But Frankenstein's detailed chronological focus on the personal and political events of the 1790s, which has been demonstrated by Mellor and Charles E. Robinson, is supplemented by its political geography, which extends the novel's time frame to, for example, events in Ingolstadt in 1776 and Russia in 1812. Incidents in this novel can have more than one chronological referent. Compare with Mellor, 54-55, 233, 237-38, and Charles E. Robinson's introduction to M. Shelley's The Frankenstein Notebooks, ed. Robinson, 2 parts comprising vol. 9 of The Manuscripts of the Younger Romantics: Shelley (New York: Garland, 1996), 9.1:lxv-lxvi.

14. M. W. Shelley and P. B. Shelley, History of a Six Weeks' Tour (1817; reprint, Oxford: Woodstock, 1989), 101-2. The quoted passage is from M. Shelley's letter, dated 1 June 1816, and included within the History. The parallel with Frankenstein is noted by Jeanne Moskal in her edition of M. W. Shelley's Travel Writing, vol. 8 of The Novels and Selected Works of Mary Shelley (London: Pickering, 1996), 46. The editor documents incorporations of sentences by P. B. Shelley but finds no evidence that the passage about Rousseau and revolution was the work of anyone but M. W. Shelley. Six Weeks' Tour was published less than two months before Frankenstein. For the chronology of publication, see Robinson's introduction to The Frankenstein Notebooks, xc-xci. The location of Plainpalais is shown on a 1770 map of Geneva, inside the front cover of Histoire de Genève, ed. Paul Guichonnet (Toulouse: Privat, 1974).

15. Francis d'Ivernois, A Short Account of the Late Revolution in Geneva; and of the Conduct of France Towards That Republic, From October 1792, to October 1794, in a Series of Letters to an American, 2nd ed. (London, 1795).

16. R. R. Palmer, The Age of the Democratic Revolution, 2 vols. (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1959-1964), 1:111-39, 2:398-402. Ivernois, 22-36, 24, 29.

17. Poovey, 114-42; Mellor, 70-88, 137; William Veeder, Mary Shelley and Frankenstein: The Fate of Androgyny (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1986).

18. David Marshall, The Surprising Effects of Sympathy: Marivaux, Diderot, Rousseau, and Mary Shelley (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1988), 135-233; James O'Rourke, "‘Nothing More Unnatural’: Mary Shelley's Revision of Rousseau," ELH 56 (1989): 543-69.

19. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, A Discourse on Inequality, trans. Maurice Cranston (Harmondsworth, Eng.: Penguin, 1984), 98-102.

20. Palmer, Age of Democratic Revolution, 1:111-39, 2:398-99; Rousseau, Politics and the Arts: Letter to M. d'Alembert on the Theatre, trans. Allan Bloom (Glencoe, IL: Free Press, 1960), 113-37.

21. In M. W. Shelley's novel, however, the De Lacey cottage is in "Germany," not Geneva (150, 158; vol. 2, chap. 6, 7). It is, on one level, an idealization of the honeymoon cottage on Lake Uri, in German-speaking Switzerland, that Mary and Percy had sought in 1814: see M. W. and P. B. Shelley, History [History of a Six Weeks' Tour], 45.

22. Ivernois, 46-50; Palmer, 2:401-2.

23. Ivernois, 25-26, 42.

24. Rousseau, The Confessions, trans. J. M. Cohen (Harmondsworth, Eng.: Penguin, 1953), 86-88; O'Rourke, "Mary Shelley's Revision of Rousseau," 559-62.

25. Veeder identifies the pattern of reverse alphabetization, but explains it psychoanalytically as M. W. Shelley's device to critique Victor's (and P. B. Shelley's) negative Oedipus complex (152-53).

26. Rousseau, Confessions, 17-19, 320-22, 332-34.

27. Voltaire, Letters on England, trans. Leonard Tancock (Harmondsworth, Eng.: Penguin, 1980).

28. Jean Guéhenno, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, trans. John and Doreen Weightman, 2 vols. (London: Routledge, 1966), 2:160-203.

29. See Rousseau's Confessions, 587-602; and Rousseau, Reveries of the Solitary Walker, trans. Peter France (Harmondsworth, Eng.: Penguin, 1979), 81-91. M. W. Shelley read both works between 1815 to 1817 (see her Journals, 89, 94, 101, 670).

30. "Among others," she wrote, "we regarded with curiosity the press [Clarendon Press] instituted by the author of the history of the troubles" (M. W. Shelley's The Frankenstein Notebooks, in Manuscripts of 9.2:459-61). Edward Hyde, Earl of Clarendon, The History of the Rebellion and Civil Wars in England Begun in the Year 1641, ed. W. Dunn Macray, 6 vols. (1888; reprint, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1958), 3:178-190, 2:294, 2:314-15, 3:400, 3:402-04, 3:444-45, 4:23-27, 4:34-37, 4:49-103. Mary read Clarendon's history between late September and late October 1816 (see her Journals, 93, 96, 654).

31. Clarendon, 3:63, 3:64.

32. William Godwin, History of the Commonwealth of England, 4 vols. (London, 1824-1828), 1:11.

33. P. B. Shelley, Political Writings, ed. Roland A. Duerksen (New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1970), 140.

34. Godwin, History of the Commonwealth, 1:14-15.

35. Clarendon, 1:85-86, 3:61.

36. M. W. Shelley, Journals, 181-82; M. W. Shelley, Frankenstein Notebooks, xc.

37. E. P. Thompson, The Making of the English working Class (1963; reprint, New York: Random House, 1966), 84, 191, 607-19, 631-49.

38. P. B. Shelley, Political Writings, 147. On the cultural politics of mountains in this novel, see Fred V. Randel, "Frankenstein, Feminism, and the Intertextuality of Mountains," Studies in Romanticism 24 (1985): 515-32.

39. Rousseau, Confessions, 594; book 12.

40. Godwin, Memoirs of the Author of "A Vindication of the Rights of Woman" (1798; reprint, New York: Garland, 1974), 176.

41. Exodus 2.3, 2.1-10.

42. Kevin Whelan, The Tree of Liberty: Radicalism, Catholicism and the Construction of Irish Identity 1760-1830 (Notre Dame, IN: Univ. of Notre Dame Press, 1996), 63, 59-96.

43. Malchow, 11-12.

44. Richard Musgrave, Memoirs of the Different Rebellions in Ireland, From the Arrival of the English: Also, A Particular Detail of That Which Broke Out the 23d of May, 1798; with the History of the Conspiracy Which PrecededIt (1801), ed. Steven W. Myers and Delores E. McKnight, 4th ed. (Fort Wayne, IN.: Round Tower Books, 1995), 526-93.

45. See Lew, 255-83, and Malchow, Gothic Images of Race, 9-40, both of whom demonstrate the presence in Frankenstein of systematic allusions to European imperialistic involvements in Asia, Africa, and the West Indies, but they do not relate Clerval's murder to these themes.

46. Sterrenburg, 168-69; Malchow, 34-35.

47. Jonathan Swift, Gulliver's Travels, ed. Paul Turner (1986; reprint, Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1998), 216.

48. See Swift, 216, 217, 219, 274.

49. See Swift, 351n.

50. Musgrave, 4-5.

51. Whelan, 138.

52. Patrick Hanks and Flavia Hodges, A Dictionary of Surnames (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1988), 298.

53. P. B. and M. Shelley, History of a Six Weeks' Tour, 116.

54. See the 9th ed. of the Encyclopaedia Britannica under "Geneva," "Savoy"; see also the 15th ed. of The New Encyclopaedia Britannica: Macropaedia under "Geneva"; and the 15th ed. of The New Encyclopaedia Britannica: Micropaedia under "Savoy, House of." Also, see R. R. Palmer and Joel Colton, A History of the Modern World, 2nd ed. (New York: Knopf, 1962), 170-71, 413-17, 480.

55. P. B. Shelley, 132 ("Despotism"; "Revolution"; "Reform"). See also 113-14.

56. M. W. Shelley, Frankenstein (1831), 35, chap. 1 ("exerted"; "Whether"), 191, chap. 22 ("part"; "inheritance"), 192, chap. 22 ("immediately"; "sleeping"; "spend"). For the Lake Como episode, see 34-35, chap. 1, from this edition.

57. Moretti, Atlas of the European Novel, 11-73.

Lee Zimmerman (essay date summer 2003)

SOURCE: Zimmerman, Lee. "Frankenstein, Invisibility, and Nameless Dread." American Imago 60, no. 2 (summer 2003): 135-58.

[In the following essay, Zimmerman investigates Victor Frankenstein's childhood experiences in Frankenstein from a psychoanalytical perspective, suggesting that the monster represents the rage and confusion of early trauma.]

Early in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1831), Victor Frankenstein tells Captain Walton: "No human being could have passed a happier childhood than myself. My parents were possessed by the very spirit of kindness and indulgence" (43). But is what he says true? Is Victor's claim borne out by the details of his narrative? I would like to propose that it is not, that it is idealized and defensive, and that just as the monster suffers from parentlessness, so too does Victor, who is his double. The monster's story of emotional abandonment is Victor's story.

One might suppose this would hardly be worth taking the trouble to argue, given the common view that, as George Levine puts it, "the hero and his antagonist are one" (1973, 209) and "the monster can be taken as an expression of an aspect of Frankenstein's self … re-enacting in mildly disguised ways, his creator's feelings and experiences" (209-10). But this insight has not informed most readings of Victor's early life. Indeed, a chorus of responses—all notable enough to be collected in the Norton Critical Edition (Hunter 1996) of the novel—despite their differences, unites in taking Victor's glowing report at face value. Strikingly, Levine himself writes that "Frankenstein's father … in caring for him, behaves to his son as the monster would have Frankenstein behave" (211). Christopher Small sees in Victor's upbringing an "atmosphere of perfect love, harmony, and parental indulgence" (1972, 102), and he calls Victor's father "benevolent … wise … altogether unauthoritarian" (103). For Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar, Victor's "Edenic childhood is an interlude of prelapsarian innocence in which, like Adam, he is sheltered by his benevolent father" (1979, 231); while for Mary Poovey he is "the son of loving, protective parents" who provide the "harmony of his childhood" (1984, 122); and for Ellen Moers he experiences "doting parents" (1976, 98). Typifying the way that Victor is often contrasted with his double in this respect, Barbara Johnson sees the novel as "the story of two antithetical modes of parenting that give rise to two increasingly parallel lives—the life of Victor Frankenstein, who is the beloved child of two doting parents, and the life of the monster … who is immediately spurned and abandoned by his creator" (1982, 242).

In counterpoint to this apparent consensus, Anne K. Mellor draws attention to "the many ways in which Frankenstein portrays the consequences of the failure of family, the damage wrought when the mother—or a nurturant parental love—is absent" (1988, 39). Like the above chorus, however, Mellor focuses on the consequences of Victor's absenting himself from the monster. Indeed, she echoes Johnson's opposition between Victor and the monster's experiences of their parents: "Throughout the novel, Frankenstein's callous disregard of his responsibility as the sole parent of his only child is contrasted to the examples of two loving fathers" (43-44), one of whom is Alphonse Frankenstein (the other being the father of the De Lacey family).1

Everyone agrees, at least, that the monster suffers a horrible abandonment, and Mellor reads his murderousness as a measure of it, seeing in Victor "a classic case of a battering parent who produces a battered child who in turn becomes a battering parent: the creature's first murder victim … is a small child whom he wishes to adopt" (43). But why start the chain with Victor?2 Doesn't this "battering parent" have parents of his own? Does he not himself suffer the absence of "nurturant parental love"?

My approach to the monster's story of deprivation as a double of Victor's own is inflected by a particular psychoanalytic way of thinking. Going against the grain of Freudian and Lacanian readings, I invoke an object relations perspective that explores the centrality of an infant's early experiences with primary caretakers and of the intense feelings of love and hate that, even on the surface, are the main concern of Frankenstein. 3 Although Melanie Klein pioneered the notion that the self is constituted by intense early relationships, it was D. W. Winnicott, following the lead of W. R. D. Fairbairn, who stressed how the particular "facilitating environment" shapes these relationships. By, at the outset, supporting the infant's feeling of omnipotence without prematurely abrogating it, and by presenting the external world with a flexibility that accommodates the infant's creativity rather than too rigidly or hastily imposing "reality"—by acknowledging, in short, the authenticity of the infant's being—the parents help to constitute a mediating "potential space between the individual and the environment" (Winnicott 1967a, 100). This transitional realm helps "the individual engaged in the perpetual human task of keeping inner and outer reality separate yet interrelated" (Winnicott 1953, 2). The infant's disposition is important, but for Winnicott much depends upon the child's earliest relations with others who may respond either in a "good-enough" way that allows his or her "true self" to emerge or by imposing rigid structures that leave the child in a "false" position, caught between an endangered inner world that can't be made known and an unresponsive external world that refuses to know it.

The latter condition haunts Frankenstein. Victor himself stresses the perdurability of early relationships, telling Walton that "the companions of our childhood always possess a certain power over our minds, which hardly any later friend can obtain. They know our infantine dispositions, which, however they may be afterwards modified, are never eradicated" (Shelley 1831, 176). But there is more—or less—to his early years than benevolent "companions" and "friends." Just as the monster is abandoned by Victor, so too Victor is abandoned—psychically and emotionally—by his ostensibly "doting" parents, who never acknowledge or strive to accommodate his inner world, and instead inflict their own version of reality on him.4

This parental world suppresses imagination, desire, troubling emotions, and spontaneity—everything that eludes reason and instrumentality. Victor introduces his father exclusively as a public man, without a private self, and defined utterly by his position in the social order. He had passively "filled several public situations with honor and reputation" (38); he was "respected" for "indefatigable attention to public business"; and his imagination and emotions were prematurely supplanted as "he passed his younger days perpetually occupied by the affairs of his country." When, late in life, he finally marries, it hardly signals a delayed eruption of passion. His "love" for his wife Caroline is a pale derivative of "a sense of justice" and of an accountant's concern with "recompensing her for the sorrows she had endured" due to her father's loss of fortune, illness, and death (39). Alphonse's conviction that all emotions can be trumped by rational appeals to duty and instrumentality is typified in his response to Victor's looming despair after his brother William's murder and the family servant Justine's death:

My father observed with pain the alteration perceptible in my disposition and habits, and endeavored by arguments deduced from the feelings of his serene conscience and guiltless life, to inspire me with fortitude, and awaken in me the courage to dispel the dark cloud which brooded over me. "Do you think, Victor," said he, "that I do not suffer also? No one could love a child more than I loved your brother;" (tears came into his eyes …) "but is it not a duty to the survivors, that we should refrain from augmenting their unhappiness by an appearance of immoderate grief? It is also a duty owed to yourself; for excessive sorrow prevents improvement or enjoyment, or even the discharge of daily usefulness, without which no man is fit for society."


Such a dismissing not only of the claims of grief, but of all aspects of the nonrational, structures Victor's childhood. "In my education, my father had taken the greatest precautions," he tells Walton, "that my mind should be impressed with no supernatural horrors. I do not ever remember to have trembled at a tale of superstition" (53). The child's primitive fears aren't recognized and negotiated—aren't contained by a narrative—but are, rather, systematically disallowed.5 Indeed, in describing his "ideal" infancy, Victor inadvertently suggests that this premature dismissal—a kind of emotional abandonment akin to what the monster suffers—marks his experience from the start. I have cautioned against taking him at his word as he generalizes about his childhood, but here Victor thinks he's praising his parents:

My mother's tender caresses, and my father's smile of benevolent pleasure while regarding me, are my first recollections. I was their plaything and their idol, and something better—their child, the innocent and helpless creature bestowed on them by Heaven, whom to bring up to good and whose future lot it was in their hands to direct to happiness or misery, according as they fulfilled their duties towards me. With this deep conviction 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.


His father's "smile of benevolent pleasure" and mother's "tender caresses" might ordinarily suggest recognition and love, but that doesn't square with Victor's being objectified as a "plaything" or the sense of "duty" and "owing" that defines his relationship to his parents (and their world-view in general). One might object that this "duty" is merely "added to" a "spirit of tenderness," but look again at how the sentence continues: "every hour of my infant life I received a lesson of patience, of charity, and of self-control."

Is this an ideal "infant life"? "Lessons," passively received every hour, preempt any sense of authentic being. The lesson of "patience" entails the imposition of an alienating structure of time, a premature violation of the sense of early omnipotence; the lesson of "charity" precludes the infant from spontaneously having something to give, so that the claims of otherness disallow those of selfhood; the lesson of "self-control" thwarts playfulness and passion.6 What kind of self can develop in the face of such an onslaught? Even—or especially—the murderous rage (and guilt) that such self-obliteration is likely to fuel has no standing, cannot be spoken, must be split off and disowned (as the monster); and so Victor defensively idealizes his first hours as an uninterrupted "train of enjoyment."

William Veeder's reading of the passage suggests the way that those who share Victor's idealization of his childhood disregard the undertone of tyranny. Actually, Veeder wants to defend Alphonse from what he sees as Victor's self-justifying attribution of his fate to his father's failures. But while Victor provides copious evidence from which inferences about his father's failures can be drawn, he himself only rarely and mildly broaches those conclusions, insisting, as I have suggested, mostly on his father's goodness and blaming mainly himself. By minimizing Victor's few "complaints" as "convenient pretexts" (1986, 138), Veeder detaches them from the context that would allow us to see them as tips of the iceberg. Despite his important caution that "we must … remain alive to distinctions between … Victor's assertion and our experience of it," he takes Victor's word for the overall happiness of his childhood and clings to the prevailing idealization of Alphonse. (Perhaps he does so in part because he assumes a Freudian framework, seeing early conflicts as oedipal and relatively invariant, rather than a relational one that stresses preoedipal experience and its variability.7) He does register Victor's discontent in the "lessons" passage, but immediately discredits it:

"Seemed" and "cord" indicate Victor's sense of insecurity and constraint. But since every child doubts parental love occasionally and since every child is bound to parental will indubitably, the question is whether "seemed" and "cord" justify a sense of estrangement as enormous as Victor's becomes. Is Mary [Shelley] not insisting upon the facts of life—that even this virtually ideal home cannot be perfect, that tension will exist in any human relationship?


Veeder can see Victor as having a "virtually ideal home" only by reducing his "complaint" to the nuances of "seemed" and "cord," while making no mention of the tyrannical "lessons" of patience, charity, and self-control, repeated every hour. Indeed, he defines these oppressive conditions as incontestable "facts of life," as if any such "facts" were not social constructions and all forms of "parental will" were one and the same.

If we turn from Victor's generalizing about his parents to the scenes he actually describes, we see the lessons enacted. The first time we encounter Alphonse in action as a father—and the first time he speaks in the novel—he dismisses young Victor's "enthusiasm" for an alchemical volume by Cornelius Agrippa (Shelley 1831, 44). Veeder predictably counts this "a minor mistake," and normalizes it by asking, "What parent has not missed by at least this much the proper tone in a random moment?" (1986, 139). For Poovey, Alphonse "neglects to explain Agrippa's obsolescence," and the episode is simply an "accident" (1984, 253), while for Mellor he merely "failed to monitor sufficiently closely" Victor's reading (1988, 50). But what is at stake in this exchange isn't so much what Victor has read, but how what he has read has affected his entire state of mind. The book fires his passion and imagination, and he immediately wants to validate his intense experience by making it shareable: "A new light seemed to dawn upon my mind; and, bounding with joy"—and thus defying the infantile lessons of patience and self-control—"I communicated my discovery to my father" (Shelley 1831, 44).

Alphonse doesn't get the point of his son's enthusiasm: "My father looked carelessly at the titlepage of my book, and said, ‘Ah! Cornelius Agrippa! My dear Victor, do not waste your time upon this; it is sad trash’" (44). By failing to receive his son's eagerly proffered communication, Alphonse cannot present the external world in a way that recognizes and affirms the inner one; what might have become a "potential space" between subject and object instead remains a vacuum. Belatedly, Victor's benevolent professor, M. Waldman, does recognize some value in Cornelius Agrippa and modulates Victor's enthusiastic understanding by adding to it his own, more experienced, perspective. Alphonse, however, flatly denies Victor's passion and seeks to foist on him his own rigid and narrowly rationalistic world-view.

That this is the first detailed exchange between Victor and his father in the novel might in itself qualify it as something more than a "minor mistake" or an "accident." But its significance is crucially reinforced by Victor's emphasis on the inadequacy of his father's looking: "My father looked carelessly at the titlepage of my book…. [T]he cursory glance my father had taken of my volume by no means assured me that he was acquainted with its contents" (Shelley 1831, 44). Indeed, Frankenstein is pervaded by an anxious preoccupation with glances of recognition. When Captain Walton suffers the absence of someone to "participate [in] my joy" or to "sustain me in dejection," he expresses this absence in terms of not being properly seen: "I desire the company of a man who could sympathize with me; whose eyes would reply to mine" (28). The first thing the just-made monster seeks is just such sympathetic eye contact: "his eyes," Victor relates, "were fixed on me. His jaws opened … while a grin wrinkled his cheeks" (58). And according to Shelley's introduction, her inspiration for the novel derived from her vision of the pale student's creation "looking on him with yellow, watery, but speculative eyes" (23).

But the monster's predicament, which literalizes Victor's, is precisely that his sympathetic looks cannot be returned. After his abandonment and troubled early wandering, he can join the loving De Lacey family only invisibly, as, from his hiding place, he regards their "interchanging each day looks of affection and kindness" (99). He reveals himself solely to the blind father, and when the others return, instead of requiting his kind look, they evince "horror and consternation on beholding" him (117). In some sense, Frankenstein takes as its central subject the longing to be truly seen, as well as the despair about whether such recognition is possible; and Alphonse's "cursory glance" epitomizes the self-denying "lessons" that structure Victor's early experience.

The intensity of the novel's preoccupation with sympathetic looking anticipates Winnicott's emphasis on the importance, for the emerging self, of the mother's face. As he describes it, a sense of meaningful selfhood is in large measure constructed from the infant's earliest experiences of being seen and recognized. "What does the baby see," Winnicott asks, "when he or she looks at the mother's face?" (1967b, 112). Optimally, "what the baby sees is himself or herself. In other words the mother is looking at the baby and what she looks like is related to what she sees there." Although he calls the mother's face a "mirror," it is responsive to what it reflects, so that the baby gets back not merely itself but also the mother. These early moments of the coming together of internal and external worlds make both seem real.8 The consequences for babies who "have a long experience of not getting back what they are giving," who "look and … do not see themselves," are that "perception takes the place of apperception, perception takes the place of that which might have been the beginning of a significant exchange with the world, a two-way process in which self-enrichment alternates with the discovery of meaning in the world of seen things" (112-13).

Thus, while looking is an excruciatingly literal concern in Frankenstein, it is also a figure for recognition of all sorts. In this sense, Victor's early "lessons" are lessons in invisibility, and the novel centers on a creature defined by the impossibility of being sympathetically seen. On her deathbed, with the incontrovertible authority of last words, Victor's mother Caroline poses his relationship with his adopted sister Elizabeth entirely in terms of their parents' needs: "‘My children,’ she said, ‘my firmest hopes of future happiness were placed on the prospect of your union. This expectation will now be the consolation of your father’" (Shelley 1831, 47). Victor's own desire doesn't enter into the equation, nor, for that matter, does Elizabeth's: she is scripted to be not only a wife but also a mother, who, Caroline orders, "‘must supply my place to my younger children.’"

That this union would entail not a fulfillment of his own desire but a capitulation to his mother's is confirmed by Victor's "wild dream" after the monster's birth, where "Elizabeth" is merely a screen for Caroline. No wonder Victor seems not only not drawn to Elizabeth, but consistently drawn away from her. Victor says he loves her, but, again, it's useful to attend to the difference between what he says and what he does: if he were so eager for Elizabeth, there would be no reason to keep on stalling. He finally, reluctantly, goes through with the marriage, but what gets consummated isn't his desire, but rather his unacknowledged rage at seeming to have no other choice.

Victor's procrastination doesn't escape Elizabeth's notice, of course, and she has more than an inkling of its meaning. She writes to him:

You well know, Victor, that our union had been the favorite plan of your parents ever since our infancy. We were told this when young, and taught to look forward to it as an event that would certainly take place…. You have traveled; you have spent several years of your life at Ingolstadt; and I confess to you, my friend, that when I saw you last autumn so unhappy, flying to solitude, from the society of every creature, I could not help supposing that you might regret our connection, and believe yourself bound in honor to fulfil the wishes of your parents, though they opposed themselves to your inclinations.


In response, Victor recommits himself to the marriage in terms that evince his early lessons in self-obliteration: "I resolved … that if my immediate union with my cousin would conduce either to hers or my father's happiness, my adversary's designs against my life should not retard it a single hour" (159).

The infantile lessons, indeed, are repeated virtually "every hour" of his adult life. Forgetting them for a moment, Victor finally attempts to give voice to the disavowed intensities of his inner world and the history of its invisibility. In despair that his father "did not know the origin of my sufferings" and that he "sought erroneous methods to remedy the incurable ill" by lamely advising Victor "to seek amusement in society," Victor blurts out, "‘Alas! my father … how little do you know me’" (155). And he voices the consequences of his rage at being so little known: "‘I am the cause of this—I murdered [Justine]. William, Justine, and Henry [Clerval, his only friend]—they all died by my hands’" (155-56).9 Alphonse fails to acknowledge even this overt expression of his son's inner world, dismissing it as madness and, once again, telling him in the most affectionate terms to shut up: "‘My dearest Victor, what infatuation is this? My dear son, I entreat you never to make such an assertion again’" (156). When Victor remonstrates, Alphonse "instantly changed the subject of our conversation and endeavored to alter the course of my thoughts. He … never alluded to [the scenes in Ireland], or suffered me to speak of my misfortune." When, a short time later, Victor lets slip a melancholic word, Alphonse repeats, "‘My dear Victor, do not speak thus’" (160). "Such were the lessons of my father," the son remarks, thereby inviting us to read these later episodes as haunted by the infantile lessons.

Another telling instance of how Victor's infantile dilemma haunts his later years involves his awakening from delirium in an Irish jail, imprisoned under suspicion of killing Clerval. His condition here approximates an infant's not only in his helplessness, but also in his having to contend with intense anxiety and guilt and in his difficulty in establishing the external world as external: "The whole series of my life appeared to me as a dream; I sometimes doubted if indeed it were all true, for it never presented itself to my mind with the force of reality" (150).10 While Winnicott stresses the parents' role in helping the child to establish an intermediate realm indispensable to the "perpetual human task of keeping inner and outer reality separate yet interrelated" (1953, 2), the nurse and physician in the jail, like Caroline and Alphonse, do their material "duty" (as the nurse puts it, echoing one of Alphonse's guiding words) by Victor, but staunchly decline to engage with, and thus con- tain, his emotional state. Indeed, at the center of this breakdown is once again the failure to be genuinely seen, and Victor's disappointment centers on cold looks and cursory glances: "The lines on [the nurse's] face were hard and rude, like that of persons accustomed to see without sympathizing in sights of misery…. The physician came and prescribed medicines, and the old woman prepared them for me; but utter carelessness was visible in the first, and the expression of brutality was strongly marked in the visage of the second" (Shelley 1831, 150; italics added).

Victor's reproaches echo those of the monster. "No one was near me who soothed me with the gentle voice of love; no dear hand supported me" (150), he protests, just as the monster bemoans that "No father had watched my infant days, no mother had blessed me with smiles and caresses" (107). When, imprisoned in invisibility, the monster watches the De Laceys from his "very bare" room (97), he avers that "my heart yearned to be known and loved by these amiable creatures: to see their sweet looks directed towards me with affection…. I asked … for greater treasures than a little food or rest: I required kindness and sympathy" (115). Indeed, if we take the monster's tale as the autobiography of the unseen Victor, Victor's traumatic reenactment of his infantile experience in the Irish jail is perhaps as close as he comes to acknowledging the identity of maker and monster—an identity ironically ratified by the pervasive, popular "mis"-naming of the monster as "Frankenstein."

That Victor clings to the idealized version of his early years, which were in reality structured by lessons in invisibility, is evident in the elaboration of the consequences (one could say symptoms) of those lessons in Frankenstein. As a child, Victor declares, his "temper was sometimes violent" and his "vehement" passions "by some law in my temperature … were turned, not to childish pursuits, but to an eager desire to learn, and not to learn all things indiscriminately…. It was the secrets of heaven and earth that I desired to learn" (43). This thirst for knowledge reveals a premature instrumentality modeled on his father's, a "temperature" forced by a rigid "law" to forego the playing that, Winnicott holds, constitutes a precondition for authentic living.11 The consequent feeling of unreality marks his jailhouse breakdown, but, in less acute form, it pervades his experience in general. Victor experiences the self he presents to others as largely fraudulent; his real need for the world to meet him half way, and his rage at its duty-bound refusal to do so, remains hidden and inexpressible, and is ultimately disowned by being projected into the monster.

Indeed, much of Victor's story seems to foreshadow Winnicott's "Ego Distortion in Terms of True and False Self" (1960). Contrast Victor's infantile lessons in self-control with Winnicott's description of the conditions that allow the "true self" to develop:

Periodically the infant's gesture gives expression to a spontaneous impulse; the source of the gesture is the True Self, and the gesture indicates the existence of a potential True Self. We need to examine the way the mother meets this infantile omnipotence revealed in a gesture…. The good enough mother meets the omnipotence of the infant and to some extent makes sense of it. She does this repeatedly. A True Self begins to have life, through the strength given to the infant's weak ego by the mother's implementation of the infant's omnipotent expressions.

          (1960, 145)

The "false self," conversely, emerges from just the sort of "compliance" demanded by Victor's early (and later) lessons: "The mother who is not good enough … repeatedly fails to meet the infant gesture; instead she substitutes her own gesture which is to be given sense by the compliance of the infant. This compliance is the earliest stage of the False Self." Eventually, Winnicott continues, in the most extreme instances, "the False Self sets up as real and it is this that observers tend to think is the real person," especially since its "function is to hide and protect the True Self" (142).

One especially notable moment in this regard occurs when Alphonse strives to talk Victor out of his melancholy, appealing (as always) to his "duty" to "refrain from … an appearance of immoderate grief," and Victor despairs about any acknowledgement of his true "gesture": "Now I could only … endeavor to hide myself from his view" (Shelley 1831, 83). Indeed, throughout his history Victor is deeply invested in hiding, whether during his long physical "confinement" (55) in his workroom (which parallels the monster's confinement in his sealed-off room), or in his keeping the monster's existence concealed (sometimes even from himself), or in his response to his imminent wedding to Elizabeth, when the functioning of the false self seems most explicit: "As the period fixed for our marriage grew near … I felt my heart sink within me. But I concealed my feelings by an appearance of hilarity…. Preparations were made for the event; congratulatory visits were re- ceived; and all wore a smiling appearance. I shut up, as well as I could, in my own heart the anxiety that preyed there, and entered with seeming earnestness into the plans of my father" (160-61).12

Victor's concealing his extreme "anxiety" under an "appearance of hilarity" also conforms to what Melanie Klein (1935) calls the "manic defense" against the depressive position.13 Klein stresses that such anxiety pertains above all to one's own destructiveness. But beyond Kleinian guilt or Winnicottian falseness, the most pervasive consequence of Victor's early lessons is his despair about the possibility of meaning. Especially after the killing starts, he suffers the failure of external representations to seem connected to his internal states, that is, from a failure of the potential space that would make existence seem meaningful. Since this is a failure of language, melancholia is by definition a condition, as Victor insists, "such as no language can describe," though this doesn't keep him from trying: "The blood flowed freely in my veins, but a weight of despair and remorse pressed on my heart, which nothing could remove" (Shelley 1831, 83), he tells us, and elaborates: "Not the tenderness of friendship, nor the beauty of earth, nor of heaven, could redeem my soul from woe: the very accents of love were ineffectual. I was encompassed by a cloud which no beneficial influence could penetrate" (86).

Victor tries to respond to such depression in the manner of Wordsworth. Like Wordsworth, he seeks a restoration of meaning in the evocative landscape of his youth, wandering through the Alps as a way of dealing with his dejection after the deaths of William and Justine: "A tingling long-lost sense of pleasure often came across me during this journey. Some turn in the road, some new object suddenly perceived and recognized, reminded me of days gone by, and were associated with the light-hearted gaiety of boyhood. The very winds whispered in soothing accents, and maternal nature bade me weep no more" (87). But such relief is momentary: "the kindly influence ceased to act—I found myself fettered again to grief, indulging in all the misery of reflection."

Why can't Victor, finally, follow Wordsworth? The crucial difference involves Wordsworth's own early lessons. His capacity (at least as he poses it in his poetry), during depressed periods, to conjure what in "Tintern Abbey" (1798) he calls the emotionally and spiritually nourishing "beauteous forms" (l. 23) of a remembered landscape reflects his earliest experience of the external world.14 This is the case, for instance, in the "Intimations Ode" (1807), where what finally restores the poet to meaning is what remains in the "embers" of the self, the infantile "obstinate questionings / Of sense and outward things" (ll. 129, 141-42). Wordsworth's creative self-assertion is here enabled by the "outward" world's willingness to be questioned; being is shaped not by lessons of self-control, but by "primal sympathy" (l. 181). This is true, too, in the second part of the two-part Prelude (1799), where, as Peter Rudnytsky elaborates, "Winnicott's vision of the mother-child bond finds consummate expression in Wordsworth's meditation on the ‘infant Babe’" (1991, 80), and where the experience of that "infant Babe" seems even more starkly at odds with Victor's:

     Blessed the infant babe—
For with my best conjectures I would trace
The progress of our being—blest the babe
Nursed in his mother's arms, the babe who sleeps
Upon his mother's breast, who when his soul
Claims manifest kindred with an earthly soul
Doth gather passion from his Mother's eye.
        . . . . .
From this beloved presence—there exists
A virtue which irradiates and exalts
All objects through all intercourse of sense.
No outcast he, bewildered and depressed:
Along his infant veins are interfused
The gravitation and the filial bond
Of Nature that connect him with the world.
        . . . . .
     From early days,
Beginning not long after that first time
In which, a babe, by intercourse of touch
I held mute dialogues with my mother's heart,
I have endeavored to display the means
Whereby this infant sensibility,
Great birthright of our being, was in me
Augmented and sustained.
          (ll. 267-73, 288-94, 310-17)

Among the many ways this infancy contrasts with Victor's, perhaps the most salient concerns the quality of parental looking. A far cry from Alphonse's alienating "cursory glance," the "Mother's eye" bestows upon Wordsworth's babe a "passion" that ultimately "connect[s] him with the world."15 When the poet is later afflicted by inevitable, depressing losses, such connections make possible the recovery of meaning:

For now a trouble came into my mind
From obscure causes. I was left alone
Seeking this visible world, nor knowing why:
The props of my affection were removed
And yet the building stood as if sustained
By its own spirit.
          (ll. 321-26)

In contrast to the poet who "by intercourse of touch / … held mute dialogues with my mother's heart," Victor as a baby is forced into the rigid terms of his parents' rationalized world, leaving him with no internal "props," so that in times of trouble his emotional house falls down. There is no "beloved presence" that "irradiates and exalts / All objects"—nothing to underwrite the sort of restorative looking at the world that would bespeak his having once been sympathetically seen. Victor might long for a Wordsworthian recourse to nature, but his early lessons in invisibility doom him to failure.16

Victor cannot reconstruct the house of the self, cannot recover the possibility of meaning, and eventually any inclination to do so is eclipsed by his obsession with killing the monster. It isn't until his deathbed that, "examining [his] past conduct" (Shelley 1831, 180), he tries to re-compose meaning—and the meaning he does arrive at is perhaps the most chilling consequence of all his early lessons. When it comes to understanding his relationship to his monster-child, Victor has become his father. Earlier, anticipating the birth of the new creatures he intends to create, he imagines them as emotional beings: they will be "happy," feel intense "gratitude," and lovingly "bless" him (55). But, by the end, Victor reconfigures the monster in terms that abolish his inner world. Although the monster has told Victor about his intense—essentially infantile—longing and frustration, and has pleaded only for a mate, Victor defines him here as a "rational creature" from the moment of his creation. In his final construction of the story of maker and monster, Victor resorts utterly to the terms of Alphonse, according to whom relationships can be calculated, enthusiasm is dismissed as "madness," and love, like everything else, is a derivative of "duty": "In a fit of enthusiastic madness I created a rational creature, and was bound toward him, to assure, as far as was in my power, his happiness and well-being. That was my duty; but there was another still paramount to that. My duties towards the beings of my own species had greater claims to my attention, because they included a greater proportion of happiness or misery" (180). In his revisionist account of the monster's history, Victor elides the main point, the monster's poignantly frustrated longing to be seen: "He showed unparalleled malignity and selfishness, in evil: he destroyed my friends; he devoted to destruction beings who possessed exquisite sensations" (180). Despite all he has heard, Victor presents the monster finally as incapable of the same "exquisite sensations" as members of his own species.

Just as Alphonse, from the first, misreads Victor, Victor initially misreads his creature by, for example, seeing his new creation's outstretched hand as seeking not to embrace but to "detain" him (58); and, at the end of the novel, he codifies that misreading by adopting his father's terms. The new-made "eyes … were fixed" on his maker, but just as Victor doesn't return that first look, his last words render the monster's invisibility complete. The final glance isn't even cursory.

Again, the monster's complete invisibility at the close suggests the degree to which Victor's own inner world remains unspeakable. I have posed this dilemma as a consequence of Victor's early lessons, but what is at stake in the monster's experience of not being seen (and hence, implicitly, also in Victor's struggles) can be understood in terms of what W. R. Bion calls "containment." For Bion, an infant's overwhelmingly intense internal states, especially those of anxiety, fear, and rage, need to be made tolerable by the primary caretaker's taking them in and returning them in a more bearable form. This process, by helping to establish a distinction and relationship between inside and outside, forms the basis for constructing a self that can experience and think about difficult emotions without being dissolved into them. Containment, that is, gives rise to the possibility of meaning. "An understanding mother," Bion writes, "is able to experience the feeling of dread that [a] baby [is] striving to deal with by projective identification, and yet retain a balanced outlook" (1959, 104). So-called "normal development follows" if

the relationship between the infant and the breast permits the infant to project a feeling, say, that it is dying into the mother and to reintroject it after its sojourn in the breast has made it tolerable to the infant psyche. If projection is not accepted by the mother the infant feels that its feeling that it is dying is stripped of such meaning as it has. It therefore reintrojects, not a fear of dying made tolerable, but a nameless dread.

          (1962, 116)

Although containment first occurs preverbally, eventually it becomes a matter of language. Bion writes of a patient who was "trying to ‘contain’ his emotions within a form of words…. The words that should have represented the meaning the man wanted to express were fragmented by the emotional forces to which he wished to give only verbal expression: the verbal formulation could not ‘contain’ his emotions" (1970, 94).

If, as I have argued, the monster can be understood as Victor's infantile self, Shelley constructs the fail- ure to be seen as a failure of containment, and she elaborates the consequent "nameless dread." Victor consistently links the dissolution of the self—when it is overwhelmed by its intensities, rather than metabolizing them—with its unspeakability. After Justine's death, he is "seized by remorse and the sense of guilt, which hurried [him] away to a hell of intense tortures, such as no language can describe" (Shelley 1831, 83; italics added). In a doomed attempt to enlist the law against the monster after Elizabeth's death, he tells the magistrate, "My revenge … is the devouring and only passion of my soul. My rage is unspeakable" (167; italics added). The magistrate, Victor recounts, "endeavored to sooth me as a nurse does a child" (168), but this scene of potential containment proves catastrophic; rather than taking in or even seeing Victor's anxiety, the magistrate, like Alphonse, dismisses it as "madness" and "the effects of delirium." Thus, the magistrate's failure "to soothe me as a nurse does a child" replicates the primal origins of Victor's rage, and he decries being once again rendered invisible: "‘Man, … how ignorant art thou in thy pride of wisdom! Cease; you know not what it is you say’"—a protest that reflects his initial unhousing, as he "broke from the [magistrate's] house angry and disturbed" (168).

Just as Victor finds that "all voluntary thought was swallowed up and lost" so that he is "hurried away by fury" (168), so too in the final pages of the novel the monster tells us he is "torn by the bitterest remorse" (185), and has become "the slave, not the master, of an impulse, which I detested" (182). And just as the monster has become his "uncontrollable passion," he is defined by his invisibility and unspeakability. As Walton's initial response reminds us, the creature is "a form which I cannot find words to describe…. I shut my eyes involuntarily" (181). As such, he is a split-off representative of the "nameless dread" that marks the failure of containment.

Even before he is rejected by the De Laceys, the monster's intense feelings go uncontained: "When I first sought [sympathy], it was the … feeling of happiness and affection with which my whole being overflowed" (183). The prospect of their sympathy, though, offers a shape for the superabundant self; mere hope sustains the possibility of meaning. But when the De Laceys finally scorn him, the "hell within" (118) breaks loose, and he is "borne away by the stream" of "revenge and hatred" (119) as "a kind of insanity in [his] spirits … burst all bounds of reason and reflection" (120). The monster's world is thus, in Bion's phrase, "stripped of … meaning," and though he is free to wander anywhere and wants to flee the scene of his devastating disappointment, "every country must be equally horrible." All places are rendered indistinguishable, flooded as he is by the intensity of his rage.

Under optimal conditions, as Hanna Segal explains, the infant introjects "an anxiety modified by having been contained," but also "introjects an object capable of containing … anxiety" (1975, 135). Insofar as containment depends on sympathetic looking, we can read the presence of such an internalized object as what allows Wordsworth to survive the loss of the "props of [his] affection": "the building" of the self "stood as if sustained / By its own spirit," and he can then experience nature as restorative. Without such an internalized, containing object, as we have seen, Victor cannot experience nature in the way that Wordsworth does. And it is just such an internalized object—or, more precisely, a set of internalized relationships—that the monster tries to locate when his own props are lost. When he is deserted by the De Laceys, he is first despondent ("in a state of utter and stupid despair" [Shelley 1831, 119]), then confronted with a rage ("revenge and hatred filled my bosom") that he struggles to contain by evoking an internalized responsive presence: "When I thought of my friends, of the mild voice of De Lacey, the gentle eyes of Agatha, and the exquisite beauty of the Arabian, these thoughts vanished, and a gush of tears somewhat soothed me" (119). Given his invisibility, of course, this attempt—like Victor's endeavor to respond to the "soothing accents" of "maternal nature" in his journey through the Alps—is doomed to fail.

Importantly, the monster's returned rage is turned toward the De Laceys' now-empty cottage. The house is a figure for containment, defining an inside and an outside, and it thus represents the possibility of mental stability. But when the monster's "props of affection" are removed, this house of the self falls down—or rather, the monster burns it down. This incendiary act defines the moment in which containment fails, as Walton's summary in the last scene suggests: "‘Wretch! … You throw a torch into a pile of buildings; and, when they are consumed, you sit among the ruins, and lament the fall’" (183).

If the monster's dilemma illustrates Victor's hidden inner world, Victor's final identification with the terms of his father's world implies a complementary dilemma. Which is worse, the novel seems to wonder, a self shattered by its own intensities or one suffocated by the rigid terms imposed upon it? The mon- ster's nameless dread, or the dreadfulness of being named as Victor is named? It is tempting to read Walton as having access to a potential space between these extremes, to a language both internal and communal. He is "led by the sympathy" Victor evinces "to use the language of [his] heart, to give utterance to the burning ardor of [his] soul" (35), but he also "felt the greatest eagerness to hear [Victor's] promised narrative" (37). And it is tempting to see Frankenstein itself as Shelley's attempt not only to parse the conditions that construct these dreadful extremes, but also to write her way between them.

But whatever intermediate realm the novel manages to evoke, its deepest investment is in elaborating the quandary itself. Nameless dread or the dread of being named? In Frankenstein, this is less a choice than a double bind. Victor dies pledging loyalty to the paternal world that rendered him unseen and uncontained, concluding that he "created a rational creature," while the unhousable monster is "lost in darkness" (185), beyond the reach of even a cursory glance.


1. Johanna M. Smith does question Victor's claim about his good childhood; but, as she sees it, the problem is that "Alphonse does contribute to Victor's ruin … because he is a good father" (1992, 278). She usefully evokes John Dussinger's observation that Victor's family is "a paradigm of the social contract based on economic terms" (1976, 52) where affection is subsumed by obligation, but she contrasts the care Victor receives with the monster's abandonment: "while the monster becomes monstrous in part because he has been denied parental care, Victor becomes monstrous in part because he has been given care and made subject to the attendant obligations" (Smith 1992, 280; italics in original). My argument is that neither the one nor the other is genuinely cared for: the monster is Victor.

2. Given the well-known facts of Mary Shelley's life—the death of her mother Mary Wollstonecraft shortly after childbirth, the emotional unavailability of her father William Godwin, and the way that the writings of both parents reflect the Enlightenment thinking personified by Alphonse—one might be tempted to wonder: if the monster's story is Victor's story, is Victor's story also Mary Shelley's? To pursue that question would require another essay, and it would require our relying on the various kinds of texts by which we know Shelley's life as adequate representations of her for that purpose, a highly debatable assumption. Indeed, I am inclined to think that it is hard enough to speak with confidence about the inner worlds even of people we know well (or ourselves), much less about historical figures. Literary characters are another matter. Since they have no inner world except ones we can imagine from the texts that constitute them, we can't be right or wrong in our speculations. We can only discuss whether—or to what extent—a particular construction seems to accord with the literary evidence.

3. Broadly speaking, Freudian and Lacanian readings assume a fixed view of human nature. For Freud, this is attributed to the inescapable nature of the drives, while for Lacan it is due to the symbolic order. Object relations approaches see both our internal and external worlds as more malleable and potentially more responsive to one another. See Flax 1990, chs. 3 and 4.

4. My object relations reading dovetails with Jeffrey Berman's (1990) approach to Frankenstein, which is grounded in the theories of narcissism articulated by Otto Kernberg and Heinz Kohut. Unlike critics who take Victor's characterization of his childhood at face value, Berman recognizes that it entails "a massive falsification of reality…. Victor sentimentalizes his childhood in order to deny past disappointments" (65). But Berman's emphasis falls less on the dynamics of Victor's early experience than on his "pathological narcissism" as an adult. "The real monster in Frankenstein," he begins, "is the scientist whose monstrous empathetic failure comes back to haunt him" (56). Thus, though Berman does see in the novel "the disastrous consequences of not good enough parenting" (55), his primary concern is with Victor as the perpetrator rather than as the sufferer from the consequences of such parenting.

5. I elaborate W. R. Bion's notion of "containment" later in the essay.

6. Winnicott writes: "The mother, at the beginning, by an almost 100 percent adaptation affords the infant the opportunity for the illusion that her breast is part of the infant…. The same can be said in terms of infant care in general…. Omnipotence is nearly a fact of existence. The mother's eventual task is gradually to disillusion the infant, but she has no hope of success unless at first she has been able to give sufficient opportunity for illusion" (1953, 11). He adds that a "good-enough mother meets the omnipotence of the infant and to some extent makes sense of it … by [her] implementation of the infant's omnipotent expressions" (1960, 145).

7. Dean Franco's Lacanian reading, which also assumes an oedipal paradigm, likewise does not see Alphonse as unduly authoritarian; indeed, he sees him as not authoritarian enough (1998, 95).

8. In articulating his conception of the mirror-role of the mother, Winnicott acknowledges that Lacan's "‘Le Stade du Miroir’ (1949) has certainly influenced me"; but he adds—with characteristic understatement—that "Lacan does not think of the mirror in terms of the mother's face in the way that I wish to do here" (1967b, 111). Winnicott stresses the variability of the mother's responsiveness, while for Lacan the mirror is inanimate and therefore unchanging.

9. In trying to express his unseen self to his father, Victor—who elsewhere disavows his creation—here for once openly acknowledges his identity with the monster.

10. In "The Use of an Object" (1969), Winnicott suggests that the world becomes external for the infant only if the parent remains psychically available in the face of the infant's fantasied attacks. Hovering behind Winnicott's view is Klein's description of the destructiveness that pervades the earliest months of life.

11. Playing, for Winnicott, partakes both of the child's inner world and of external reality. Its "precariousness belongs to the fact that it is always on the theoretical line between the subjective and that which is objectively perceived" (1971a, 50). Thus, it is crucial to the child's coming to a sense of the aliveness—and meaningfulness—of the outside world. By being prematurely required to accept externality, Victor is placed in a "false position"; and Winnicott observes that the "protest against being forced into a false existence can be detected from the earliest stages," while its consequences "reappear in serious form at a later stage" (1960, 146).

12. The construction of Victor's false self takes place along lines laid down by Winnicott: "A particular danger arises out of the not infrequent tie-up between the intellectual approach and the False Self. When a False Self becomes organized in an individual who has a high intellectual potential there is a very strong tendency for the mind to become the location of the False Self…. The world may observe academic success of a high degree and may find it hard to believe in the very real distress of the individual concerned, who feels ‘phoney’" (1960, 144). If the mind is the "location" of such phoniness, we can read Victor's obsession with creating a body as a desperate attempt to reconstitute a true self, especially in light of Winnicott's claim that the "True Self comes from the aliveness of the body tissues and the working of body-functions" (148). Victor's sister is similarly driven to a false position. At Victor's departure for Ingolstadt, "she indeed veiled her grief, and strove to act the comforter to us all…. She forgot her own regret in her endeavors to make us forget" (Shelley 1831, 48).

13. Indeed, the first time Victor thinks he is free of the monster he has just created, he suffers what sounds like a manic episode in the clinical sense:

I was unable to contain myself. It was not joy only that possessed me; I felt my flesh tingle with excess of sensitiveness, and my pulse beat rapidly; I was unable to remain for a single instant in the same place; I jumped over the chairs, clapped my hands, and laughed aloud. Clerval at first attributed my unusual spirits to joy on his arrival; but when he observed me more attentively, he saw a wildness in my eyes for which he could not account; and my loud, unrestrained, heartless laughter, frightened and astonished him.

          (Shelley 1831, 61)

This is followed by a long, confining "nervous fever," the first of what one might call Victor's depressions. The depression seems more deeply rooted to me than the mania, though, as I shall argue below, Victor's inability to "contain himself" underlies both these states.

14. All quotations from Wordsworth's poetry are to the edition (1988) of Heaney, with line numbers given parenthetically in the text.

15. As John Turner writes, Wordsworth is able "to lay firm hands on the inner representation of that lost good object that was his own childhood" (1988, 168-69).

16. It is Clerval, of course, who is directly equated with the Wordsworth of "Tintern Abbey" (Shelley 1831, 133). Clerval's father differs significantly from Alphonse; he acknowledges what he cannot understand in his son, and allows him to pursue his inclinations. "‘His affection for me,’" relates Clerval, "‘at length overcame his dislike of learning, and he has permitted me to undertake a voyage of discovery to the land of knowledge’" (60).


Berman, Jeffrey. 1990. Narcissism and the Novel. New York: New York University Press.

Bion, W. R. 1959. "Attacks on Linking." In Bion 1967, pp. 93-109.

———. 1962. "A Theory of Thinking." In Bion 1967, pp. 110-19.

———. 1967. Second Thoughts. London: William Heinemann.

———. 1970. Attention and Interpretation. In Seven Servants. New York: Jason Aronson, 1977.

Dussinger, John A. 1976. "Kinship and Guilt in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein." Studies in the Novel, 8:38-55.

Flax, Jane. 1990. Thinking Fragments: Psychoanalysis, Feminism and Postmodernism in the Contemporary West. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Franco, Dean. 1998. "Mirror Images and Otherness in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein." Literature and Psychology, 44:80-95.

Gilbert, Sandra, and Susan Gubar. 1979. The Madwoman in the Attic. New Haven: Yale University Press. In Hunter 1996, pp. 225-40.

Hunter, J. Paul, ed. 1996. Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. New York: Norton.

Johnson, Barbara. 1982. "My Monster/My Self." Diacritics, 12: 2-10. In Hunter 1996, pp. 241-51.

Klein, Melanie. 1935. "A Contribution to the Psychogenesis of Manic-Depressive States." In The Writings of Melanie Klein. 4 vols. Ed. Roger Money-Kyrle, Betty Joseph, Edna O'Shaughnessy, and Hanna Segal. New York: Free Press, 1984. 1:282-311.

Levine, George. 1973. "Frankenstein and the Tradition of Realism." Novel, 7:7-23. In Hunter 1996, pp. 208-14.

Mellor, Anne K. 1988. Mary Shelley: Her Life, Her Fiction, Her Monsters. New York: Methuen.

Moers, Ellen. 1976. Literary Women. Garden City, NY: Doubleday.

Poovey, Mary. 1984. The Proper Lady and the Woman Writer. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Rudnytsky, Peter L. 1991. The Psychoanalytic Vocation: Rank, Winnicott, and the Legacy of Freud. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Segal, Hanna. 1975. "A Psychoanalytic Approach to the Treatment of Schizophrenia." In The Work of Hanna Segal. New York: Jason Aronson, 1981.

Shelley, Mary. 1831. Frankenstein. Ed. Johanna M. Smith. Boston: Bedford Books, 1992.

Small, Christopher. 1972. Ariel Like a Harpy: Shelley, Mary, and "Frankenstein." London: Victor Gollancz.

Smith, Johanna M. 1992. "‘Cooped Up’: Feminine Domesticity in Frankenstein." In Shelley 1831, pp. 270-285.

Turner, John. 1988. "Wordsworth and Winnicott in the Area of Play." In Peter L. Rudnytsky, ed., Transitional Objects and Potential Spaces: Literary Uses of D. W. Winnicott, New York: Columbia University Press, 1993, pp. 161-88.

Veeder, William. 1986. Mary Shelley and "Frankenstein": The Fate of Androgyny. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Winnicott, D. W. 1953. "Transitional Objects and Transitional Phenomena." In Winnicott 1971b, pp. 1-25.

———. 1960. "Ego Distortion in Terms of True and False Self." In The Maturational Process and the Facilitating Environment. New York: International Universities Press, 1965, pp. 140-52.

———. 1967a. "The Location of Cultural Experience." In Winnicott 1971b, pp. 95-103.

———. 1967b. "Mirror-role of Mother and Family in Child Development." In Winnicott 1971b, pp. 111-18.

———. 1969. "The Use of an Object and Relating through Identifications." In Winnicott 1971b, pp. 86-94.

———. 1971a. "Playing: A Theoretical Statement." In Winnicott 1971b, pp. 38-52.

———. 1971b. Playing and Reality. London: Routledge.

Wordsworth, William. 1988. The Essential Wordsworth. Ed. Seamus Heaney. Hopewell: Ecco.

Harriet Hustis (essay date autumn 2003)

SOURCE: Hustis, Harriet. "Responsible Creativity and the ‘Modernity’ of Mary Shelley's Prometheus." Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 43, no. 4 (autumn 2003): 845-58.

[In the following essay, Hustis studies Shelley's deconstruction and modernization of the Prometheus myth in Frankenstein, underscoring the function of the novel's 1831 preface.]

Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley is responsible for a creative transformation worthy of her prototypical mad scientist, Victor Frankenstein: she reconfigures, recontextualizes, and thus modernizes the myth of Prometheus by means of a "tiresome, unlucky ghost story."1 By focusing on the issues of paternal negligence and the need for responsible creativity implicit in what is perhaps the paradigmatic myth of the romantic movement, Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus deconstructs the story of Prometheus as a masculinist narrative of patriarchal authority and (in)justice. Shelley's novel focuses on an aspect of the Prometheus myth typically overlooked in the more traditional version of the Titan's defiant martyrdom, namely, an offspring's need for sustained guidance, influence, pity, and support from its creator. Ultimately, an examination of the "modernity" of Shelley's Prometheus myth, its emphasis on the issue of responsible creativity, has an impact not only on interpretations of Frankenstein itself, but also on the function of the novel's 1831 preface, traditionally a site of much critical controversy regarding Shelley's own authorial status and intentions.

Shelley's decision to entitle her novel Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus suggests a far more complex literary operation than simple appropriation or modified replication of an ancient Greek myth; it simultaneously invokes a literary paradigm and establishes a point of comparison or, more accurately, a point of departure, for her own creative endeavor. As Christopher Small has observed, Mary Shelley's Prometheus figure is strikingly different from the creations of her romantic contemporaries: "Frankenstein, her Prometheus, while sharing the impious and agonised qualities that exerted such fascination on the Romantics, is Promethean first and foremost as a maker of man, an aspect of the legend that has tended to be obscured in emphasis on the primary Promethean act of stealing fire from heaven."2 In his introduction to Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein," Harold Bloom suggests that this difference is indicative of the inferiority of Mary Shelley's creative conception; he thus regards Frankenstein as a kind of primer to the more sophisticated and imaginatively complex texts of Lord Byron, William Blake, and Percy Shelley.3 In Revision and Romantic Authorship, however, Zachary Leader argues that "Frankenstein is anti-Romantic in its rejection of what might be called the ‘Promethean’ vision of the artist (as Godlike, autonomous, transgressive), and of the goal of perfection."4 Thus, Leader claims that Shelley advances a "critique of ‘Promethean’ Romanticism" by means of her "modern Prometheus," Victor Frankenstein.5

And yet, in assessing the purpose and evaluating the success of Mary Shelley's divergence from the original Prometheus legend, neither Leader nor Bloom looks closely enough at precisely what her "modernization" does with (and to) this myth. A juxtaposition of the Greek variants that appear in Hesiod's The Works and Days and Aeschylus's Prometheus Bound with the text of Frankenstein itself suggests that Shelley reconfigures the significance of the Prometheus myth in order to foreground the issue of responsible creativity. Thus, her novel explores the ethics of a male creator's relationship to his progeny by questioning the extent to which he incurs an obligation for the well-being and happiness of that creation by virtue of the creative act itself.

Shelley's configuration of the Prometheus legend appears particularly "modern" when its concern with the issue of responsible creativity is read in the context of Carol Gilligan's analysis of the moral and psychological development of women. The insights of Gilligan's In A Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women's Development are strikingly applicable to Frankenstein : like the subjects of Gilligan's abortion study, Victor Frankenstein also struggles with the ethical consequences of an "unwanted pregnancy" of sorts, particularly when he undertakes and then abandons the creation of a female mate for his monster.6 In the figure of Victor Frankenstein, Shelley innovatively problematizes the moral conflict between Zeus and Prometheus established in the ancient Greek texts; by focusing on the way in which their power struggle involves the issue of paternal negligence and the abuse of creative power, she effectively reconfigures the significance of an ancient myth in decidedly feminist terms. As Ellen Moers persuasively argues in her landmark essay, "Female Gothic," Shelley "brought birth to fiction not as realism but as gothic fantasy, and thus contributed to Romanticism a myth of genuine originality."7 The result, Moers argues, is "a phantas- magoria of the nursery."8 Thus, it is not the case that Mary Shelley failed to comprehend the complexities of the Prometheus myth and miraculously created a fictional masterpiece that is simultaneously a naive reading of it. Rather, Shelley's rewriting of the Prometheus legend reconceives its social and cultural significance in terms no less revolutionary than those of her romantic contemporaries.

Significantly, although numerous studies of romantic literature have discussed the hubristic defiance of the martyred Prometheus, it is only in Hesiod's account that Prometheus's actions are motivated by self-interest; in The Works and Days, Prometheus steals fire, which Zeus has hidden, gives it to mortals, and then hides it from Zeus himself.9 His apparent motivation is an innate mischievousness coupled with a desire to outwit Zeus; Hesiod's Prometheus is essentially a trickster figure.

Aeschylus's Prometheus Bound, however, develops a more nuanced characterization of Prometheus. Aeschylus's Prometheus defies Zeus; he does not simply trick him. Furthermore, Prometheus's rebellion is overtly inspired by pity, an especially human emotion. Pity causes Prometheus to undertake an act of daring responsibility: he steals fire for mortals in a gesture of compassion for their neglected and benighted state:

As soon as [Zeus] ascended to the throne
that was his father's, straightway he assigned
to the several Gods their several privileges
and portioned out the power, but to the unhappy
breed of mankind he gave no heed, intending
to blot the race out and create a new.
Against these plans none stood save I: I dared.
I rescued men from shattering destruction
that would have carried them to Hades' house;
and therefore I am tortured on this rock,
a bitterness to suffer, and a pain
to pitiful eyes. I gave to mortal man
a precedence over myself in pity: I
can win no pity: pitiless is he
that thus chastises me, a spectacle
bringing dishonor on the name of Zeus.10

Prometheus's audacity manifests itself not only in a solitary gesture of defiant compassion, but also in the willing assumption of a creator's responsibility for his helpless progeny: he subsequently nurtures human community by instructing Zeus's abandoned creatures in the arts necessary for their survival, long-term happiness, and cultural evolution as a species.11 Unlike Victor Frankenstein, who flees his creation in "breathless horror and disgust," apparently because it does not overtly embody the sublimity of his creative intentions, Prometheus understands that revulsion in the face of hideousness can only be overcome by an indulgence in benevolent pity, and he accepts the fact that such "daring" may come at a considerable price (p. 318).

It is precisely such pity that Frankenstein's monster cannot obtain; Frankenstein openly acknowledges that the most he can feel toward his creation is a fleeting sense of "compassion" and a temporary urge to "console" him, impulses which are quickly overwhelmed by disgust, "horror," and "hatred": "‘I compassionated him and sometimes felt a wish to console him, but when I looked upon him, when I saw the filthy mass that moved and talked, my heart sickened and my feelings were altered to those of horror and hatred. I tried to stifle these sensations; I thought that as I could not sympathize with him, I had no right to withhold from him the small portion of happiness which was yet in my power to bestow’" (p. 414). As David Marshall persuasively argues in The Surprising Effects of Sympathy: Marivaux, Diderot, Rousseau, and Mary Shelley,Frankenstein dramatizes the failure of the eighteenth-century conception of "sympathy," which "suggests putting oneself in the place of someone else, taking someone else's part—a general condition or act, related to the modern word ‘empathy,’ of which pity, compassion, and commiseration are only specific examples."12 Frankenstein's pity and compassion are purely intellectual responses to his creature's helplessness and misery and thus cannot withstand the physical reality of the monster as a "filthy mass that move[s] and talk[s]."

In effect, this failure of true sympathy mirrors the fundamental error of the monster's creation: Frankenstein's decision to work on a large scale in order to avoid becoming bogged down by (in his opinion) an unnecessary attention to detail. He thus acknowledges his unwillingness to allow seemingly insignificant minutiae to impede the progress of his creative impulse; he is interested in the principle of "life" only as an abstraction: "‘Nor could I consider the magnitude and complexity of my plan as any argument of its impracticability. It was with these feelings that I began the creation of a human being. As the minuteness of the parts formed a great hindrance to my speed, I resolved … to make the being of a gigantic stature’" (p. 314). Unwilling to acknowledge the "magnitude and complexity" of his task and thereby practice responsible creativity, Frankenstein oversizes the "minuteness of the parts" in an attempt to make the reality of his endeavor match the grandeur of his intentions. This willingness to sacrifice creative precision for "speed" suggests that the cre- ation of life is of purely theoretical interest to Frankenstein: he thus conceives of life with blatant disregard for its ("filthy," "hideous") specifics. Ultimately, this attitude will enable him to avoid grappling with the moral complexities and physical impracticalities of life in its concrete manifestations.13 Thus, for example, his narrative consistently extols the pleasures and sanctity of familial duty, even as it narrates the systematic, if inadvertent, destruction of both his family and friends: those who pay dearly for Frankenstein's actions are ironically those he claims to hold most dear. Significantly, Frankenstein retrospectively transfers responsibility for the disasters he helps to propagate onto poetic abstractions such as "Chance" or an "Angel of Destruction."14

Interestingly, Carol Gilligan's In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women's Development addresses the consequences of this tendency to conceive of moral dilemmas in purely hypothetical terms with respect to the crucial relationship explored in Frankenstein, namely, the connection between responsibility and creativity. Such philosophical abstractions, she argues, become "useful for the distillation and refinement of objective principles of justice and for measuring the formal logic of equality and reciprocity."15 However, not all moral conflicts can be resolved by appeals to an ethics of justice: Gilligan thus observes how the application of a "formal logic of equality and reciprocity" to a moral dilemma may ultimately impede an "understanding of cause and consequence which engages … compassion and tolerance" (p. 100).

It is precisely this kind of "understanding of cause and consequence" which eludes Victor Frankenstein, as testified to by his insistent claims that an "Angel of Destruction" is responsible for his misfortunes. Even more poignantly, however, Shelley's modernization of the Prometheus legend suggests that what is lost when responsible creativity is conceived of solely in terms of justice and a purportedly objective ethic of fairness is precisely what is the most crucial element of this myth, namely, Promethean pity. Pity and the willingness to give another precedence over oneself (regardless of whether s/he "deserves" it) are incompatible with a "formal logic of equality and reciprocity." And yet, the myth of Prometheus suggests, the human race owes its survival and evolution as a species to such seemingly illogical (unjust? unfair?) impulses.

The insufficiency of "objective principles of justice," no matter how "refined," is memorably dramatized by the ongoing conflict between Frankenstein and his monster. Frankenstein's response, when he cannot "sympathize" with his creature, is to seek to "measure the formal logic of equality and reciprocity" by determining whether his own "rights" outweigh the "small portion of happiness" he can offer him ("I had no right to withhold from him the small portion of happiness which was yet in my power to bestow"). Although an ethic of justice ideally assumes that all competing claims can be resolved objectively and perfect equity achieved, the inability of Frankenstein and his monster to arrive at such moral reciprocity suggests that an ethic of fairness often assumes the benevolent exercise of power and a fundamental willingness to forgo one's own needs in favor of communal compromise. Thus, even as Frankenstein weighs the "justice" of his monster's claims, he implicitly recognizes the influence his own "power" will have on this supposedly objective measurement of equity. As Gilligan recognizes, in such a dilemma, "morality, though seen as arising from the interplay between self and others, is reduced to an opposition between self and other." Under such circumstances, "[t]he moral ideal is not cooperation or interdependence but rather the fulfillment of an obligation, the re-payment of a debt, by giving to others without taking anything for oneself" (p. 139).

That Frankenstein and his monster seek to resolve their conflict with reference to this kind of moral ideal is apparent in the terms with which they attempt to negotiate reciprocity: disputing their mutual obligations, they adopt opposing ethical "positions" from which to debate what each "owes" the other. The language of Frankenstein's monster exposes this association of "justice" with debt and obligation when he sues for "clemency and affection" on Mont Blanc: "‘I am thy creature, and I will be even mild and docile to my natural lord and king if thou wilt also perform thy part, the which thou owest me. Oh, Frankenstein, be not equitable to every other and trample upon me alone, to whom thy justice, and even thy clemency and affection, is most due’" (p. 364, my emphasis). Clearly, the monster makes his cooperation contingent upon Frankenstein's willingness to give him his "due." Similarly, from the very outset of his creative endeavor, Frankenstein dreams of creating a species from which he can "claim" an unprecedented measure of "gratitude": "A new species would bless me as its creator and source; many happy and excellent natures would owe their being to me. No father could claim the gratitude of his child so completely as I should deserve theirs" (p. 314, my emphasis). Frankenstein similarly remembers that the "fulfill[ment]" of his own parents' "duties" was car- ried out "[w]ith [a] deep consciousness of what they owed towards the being to which they had given life" (pp. 291-2, my emphasis).

Thus, the moral conflict between Frankenstein and his monster exposes a fundamental shortcoming of objective principles of justice: they cannot adequately (i.e., "sympathetically") assess the responsibilities of a creator for the life he creates. The morality of Prometheus's actions stems, not from his abstract assessment of what is "right" or "due" to human beings, but from an overtly sympathetic response to their abandoned and helpless condition. In effect, Shelley's modernization of the Prometheus legend suggests that (male) participants in a moral conflict may invoke "justice" and insist on theoretical objectivity simply to avoid acknowledging responsibility for the dilemmas they have created, conflicts which, when neglected, take on a life of their own. The modernity of Shelley's Prometheus figure is illustrative of how, when Promethean pity is overlooked in favor of appeals to justice, "fairness" can become little more than a means of denying involvement in the problems of others, even when those "others" are a creator's own progeny.16

Not surprisingly, therefore, Frankenstein's "measurements" of reciprocity, his determination of what is "right" and what he "owes" his monster, are exposed as inherently equivocal, subject to the whims of his ever changing perception of the creature's dilemma. Frankenstein initially admits the "justice" of the monster's demand for a mate and eventually concludes that "the justice due both to him and my fellow creatures demanded of me that I should comply with his request" (p. 415, my emphasis). After reconsidering his creature's demands, however, Frankenstein ultimately refuses to create a companion for the monster: "‘Had I right, for my own benefit, to inflict this curse upon everlasting generations? I had before been moved by the sophisms of the being I had created; I had been struck senseless by his fiendish threats; but now, for the first time, the wickedness of my promise burst upon me; I shuddered to think that future ages might curse me as their pest, whose selfishness had not hesitated to buy its own peace at the price, perhaps, of the existence of the whole human race’" (p. 436). When claims of "justice" are perceived as little more than "fiendish threats" and empty "sophisms," Frankenstein believes the violation of his initial promise is justified. As Gilligan observes in her study of one woman's struggle with the dilemma of an unwanted pregnancy, the assessment of an abortion decision as a "conflict of rights" effectively leads to an ethical impasse: "The attempt to set up the dilemma as a conflict of rights turned it into a contest of selfishnesses, precluding the possibility of a moral decision, since either resolution could be construed as selfish from one or the other perspective" (p. 142). Thus, what previously appeared to constitute "justice" (his obligation to create a mate for the monster), now appears "selfish." Frankenstein's continued reluctance and indecision demonstrates how "either resolution could be construed as selfish from one or the other perspective."

Interestingly, Victor Frankenstein's moral reasoning at this point in the novel proceeds through developmental stages very similar to those observed by Gilligan in her abortion study. Thus, she notices how "[i]n separating the voice of the self from the voices of others, the woman asks if it is possible to be responsible to herself as well as to others and thus to reconcile the disparity between hurt and care" (p. 82). Victor Frankenstein effectively attempts a similar reconciliation of the "disparity between hurt and care" when he wonders, "Had I right, for my own benefit, to inflict this curse upon everlasting generations?" However, according to Gilligan, failure to obtain this reconciliation leads to the recognition that "[t]he exercise of such responsibility requires a new kind of judgment, whose first demand is for honesty. To be responsible for oneself, it is first necessary to acknowledge what one is doing. The criterion for judgment thus shifts from goodness to truth when the morality of action is assessed not on the basis of its appearance in the eyes of others, but in terms of the realities of its intention and consequence" (pp. 82-3). Significantly, as his tendency to retrospectively blame "Chance" and "the Angel of Destruction" indicates, Victor Frankenstein never attains this stage of moral "recognition" and thus never acquires its contingent capacity for responsible action. Instead, he continues to assess the morality of his actions "on the basis of its appearance in the eyes of others": "I shuddered to think that future ages might curse me as their pest." Even when he rages against the immorality of his creature's behavior, Frankenstein avoids acknowledging the extent of his own responsibility for his creature's murderous rampage.

The "modernity" of Shelley's Prometheus figure can thus be traced to Victor Frankenstein's dramatization of Gilligan's claim that "[t]he willingness to express and to take responsibility for judgment stems from a recognition of the psychological costs of indirect action, to self and to others and thus to relationships. Responsibility for care then includes both self and other, and the injunction not to hurt, freed from conventional constraints, sustains the ideal of care while focusing the reality of choice" (p. 95). It is this failure to recognize "the psychological costs of indirect action, to self and to others and thus to relationships" which leaves Frankenstein helpless in the face of the execution of Justine Moritz and the murders of William, Elizabeth, and Clerval: he can only retrospectively curse the injustice of his fate, a gesture which tragically suggests that such moral recognition ultimately eludes him.

The myth of Prometheus thus serves as a particularly resonant example of the necessity of assuming "responsibility for judgment," particularly when it involves the creative act. Whereas Prometheus dares to pity an abandoned creation (the human race) at great personal cost, and despite the fact that he is not its physical creator, his "modernized" counterpart, Frankenstein, fails to exercise such moral responsibility for the single life he creates because he regards creativity as an abstraction. Mary Shelley's reconfiguration of the legend of Prometheus emphasizes the fact that the responsibilities of a creator for his progeny cannot be conceived of as a debt to be paid or an obligation (or "duty") to be fulfilled; to do so is to misunderstand the creative act in a potentially disastrous manner. Ultimately, this mistake is one which Mary Shelley herself will carefully avoid when she accounts for the creation of her own "hideous progeny" in the 1831 preface to Frankenstein.

The explanatory preface that Mary Shelley added to her novel in 1831 has remained a site of extensive critical discord; perhaps no other preface in literary history has been so frequently employed to detract from the significance of the text that it precedes or to diminish the genius and self-conscious artistry of its author. For example, George Levine and U. C. Knoepflmacher introduce their anthology of critical essays on Frankenstein by questioning the purposiveness of the novel's textual "energies": "How much of the book's complexity is actually the result of Mary Shelley's self-conscious art and how much is merely the product of the happy circumstances of subject, moment, milieu? The novel intimates that it knows little about its implications (although it seems clear enough about its literary sources in Milton, Gothic fiction, and Romantic poetry). Are not its energies, therefore, un-self-conscious and accidental?"17 Likewise, although Levine argues in "The Ambiguous Heritage of Frankenstein" that "[i]n writers as central and various as Feuerbach, Comte, Darwin, Marx, Frazer, and Freud, we can find Victor Frankenstein's activity," he nevertheless concludes that "[t]his argument puts Mary Shelley in some rather remarkable company, but, of course, the point is not to equate the achievement of her little ‘ghost story’ with that of the great thinkers named."18 Implicit in Levine's unwillingness to "equate" Shelley with other "great [male] thinkers" of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries is the suggestion that such a gesture would be profoundly destabilizing; hence, it must be beside "the point."

However, the reasons why critics have been nervously but adamantly opposed to placing Mary Shelley and her novel in the company of other mythmakers of the early modern era have little to do with the quality of her work. Although the clumsiness and purple prose of Frankenstein were initially cited as conclusive evidence of the novel's flawed execution, Anne Mellor's detailed analysis of early drafts of the novel has proven that the awkwardness is in fact all Percy Shelley's: "He is … in large part responsible for the stilted, ornate, putatively Ciceronian prose style about which many readers have complained."19 Interestingly, this information has in no way discredited the talent and genius of Shelley's husband; instead, it has once again been cited as proof of her own shortcomings, even by Mellor herself: "Mary Shelley's willingness to accept virtually all of these revisions strikingly reveals her own authorial insecurity, her deference to what she saw as Percy's more legitimate literary voice."20 Clearly, what is seen as particularly troubling about Shelley's authorship is the fact that she allowed other literary "voices" to merge with, and thus potentially overpower, her own (witness, for example, the original "author's preface" to the 1818 edition, written entirely by Percy).21 Mary Shelley's rampant contextualization of the creation of Frankenstein is thus interpreted as proof of literary inferiority or, at best, of a near-crippling authorial anxiety.

However, in light of the above reading of Shelley's "modernization" of the Prometheus myth, it is not surprising that she would eschew a language of individualism in favor of an "insistent contextual relativism" (in the form of personal "digressions") when she accounts for her own creative impulses in the 1831 preface to Frankenstein. In particular, her propensity for crediting the men around her (particularly her husband and Byron) for their respective roles in the creation of her novel becomes less an indication of literary or personal insecurities than of another facet of her articulation of an ethics of responsible authorship. Her conception of "invention" as "con- sist[ing] in the capacity of seizing on the capabilities of a subject; and in the power of moulding and fashioning ideas suggested to it" (p. 262) suggests that creativity can never be conceived of as a singular train of thought or a solitary impulse. Instead, creation is always an associative or nurturing act: a creator recognizes the inherent capabilities of his/her progeny (whether that progeny takes the form of a child, an idea, or a monster) and moulds and fashions it in the context most suitable for its development and success.22

Consequently, as Leader argues, Mary Shelley never harbors "illusions of authorial autonomy" because she conceives of "her writings as ‘progeny.’"23 This approach keeps her from repeating the mistakes of her protagonist: as Paul A. Cantor argues in Creature and Creator: Myth-making and English Romanticism, Mary Shelley realizes that "[t]o be the sole creator of one's world seems like a glorious prospect, until one realizes the consequences of seeing one's self mirrored everywhere one turns."24 To fail to credit her upbringing, her parentage, the ghost story contest, the pressures of intellectual association with Byron, Percy Shelley, and John Polidori, the encouragement of her husband, and her own "waking dream" (p. 264) with their respective roles in the creation of Frankenstein is to transform the creative impulse into a depersonalized, solipsistic (and thus, paradoxically, sterile) "spark" of genius. Both the 1831 preface and Frankenstein itself suggest that true authorship lies in the postpartum assumption of responsibility for one's creation, not in the assertion of singular reproductive power. It is thus not surprising that Shelley will insist, "I certainly did not owe the suggestion of one incident, nor scarcely of one train of feeling, to my husband, and yet but for his incitement it would never have taken the form in which it was presented to the world" (p. 264). In this strikingly assertive declaration, Shelley overtly repudiates the language of debt and obligation ("I certainly did not owe") so disastrously employed by Frankenstein and his monster, in favor of an alternative image of reciprocity ("yet but for his incitement it would never have taken … form") that her preface itself personally contextualizes.

Shelley's 1831 preface to Frankenstein, consistently read as a testimony to one writer's inadequacies, should perhaps be reconsidered as an enactment of that writer's differing conception of what it means to create, a performance premised on her refashioning, or "modernizing," of the legend of Prometheus. When the "modernity" of Frankenstein 's recasting of the Prometheus myth is viewed as a meditation on the responsibility that accompanies the creative act, Shelley's own authorial intentions no longer appear "inconclusive" and "diffuse," the mark of an anxious and insecure woman writer. Instead, her repeated contextualization of the circumstances under which her "hideous progeny" was conceived becomes yet another expression of an ethics of creative responsibility, born of Frankenstein 's own exploration of irresponsible creativity.


1. Mary Shelley, Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus (1818), in Three Gothic Novels, comp. Peter Fairclough (Harmondsworth UK: Penguin, 1968), pp. 257-497, 284. Subsequent references, will appear parenthetically in the text.

2. Christopher Small, Ariel like a Harpy: Shelley, Mary, and "Frankenstein" (London: Victor Gollancz, 1972), p. 48. In Creature and Creator: Myth-Making and English Romanticism (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1984), Paul A. Cantor argues that Shelley incorporates the inherent ambiguity of the Prometheus figure by bifurcating her representation of it; thus, "both Frankenstein and the monster have their Promethean aspects" (p. 104).

3. Harold Bloom remarks: "what makes Frankenstein an important book, though it is only a strong, flawed novel … is that it contains one of the most vivid versions we have of the Romantic mythology of the self, one that resembles Blake's Book of Urizen, Shelley's Prometheus Unbound, and Byron's Manfred, among other works. Because it lacks the sophistication and imaginative complexity of such works, Frankenstein affords a unique introduction to the archetypal world of the Romantics" (Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein" [New York and New Haven: Chelsea House Publishers, 1987], p. 4).

4. Zachary Leader, Revision and Romantic Authorship (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996), p. 172.

5. Leader, p. 175.

6. Interestingly, as Anne K. Mellor observes in Mary Shelley: Her Life, Her Fiction, Her Monsters, Percy Shelley "introduced the oft-quoted description of the monster as ‘an abortion’" in his revision of Mary Shelley's early draft of the novel. Mellor argues that Mary Shelley "saw the creature as potentially monstrous, but [unlike Percy] she never suggested that he was other than fully human" ([New York and London: Methuen, 1988; rprt. Routledge, 1989], pp. 62-3; subsequent references will be given parenthetically in the text). The fact that she nevertheless incorporated her husband's suggestion into the final version of the novel may be less a mark of deference to his literary authority than of an awareness that the term "abortion" invokes precisely those issues of responsibility and creativity that her novel examines.

7. Ellen Moers, "Female Gothic," in The Endurance of "Frankenstein": Essays on Mary Shelley's Novel, ed. George Levine and U. C. Knoepflmacher (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1979), pp. 77-87, 80.

8. Moers, p. 87.

9. Hesiod, The Works and Days, in Hesiod, trans. Richmond Lattimore (Ann Arbor: Univ. of Michigan Press, 1959), pp. 19-117, 23-5, lines 50-9.

10. Aeschylus, Prometheus Bound, trans. David Greene (Complete Greek Tragedies, ed. Greene and Richmond Lattimore, 2d edn., 4 vols. [Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1991]), 1:311-52, 320, lines 230-45.

11. Aeschylus, 1:327-9, lines 442-505.

12. David Marshall, The Surprising Effects of Sympathy: Marivaux, Diderot, Rousseau, and Mary Shelley (Chicago and London: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1988), p. 3.

13. Many critics have observed the fact that Frankenstein avoids physical reproduction through sexual intimacy in favor of his asexual reproduction of a monster: thus, as Cantor points out, "Frankenstein rejects a natural means of creativity, fatherhood, which would prevent him from calling his creation wholly his own, in favor of an artificial means of creativity, which allows him to regard his creation as solely a projection of his self" (p. 111).

14. Frankenstein claims that "Chance—or rather the evil influence, the Angel of Destruction … asserted omnipotent sway over me from the moment I turned my reluctant steps from my father's door" (p. 305).

15. Carol Gilligan, In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women's Development (Cambridge MA and London: Harvard Univ. Press, 1982), p. 100. Subsequent references will appear parenthetically in the text.

16. As Leader notes, "[T]here is the example of [Mary Shelley's] father, William Godwin, to whom the novel is dedicated. Godwin's idealism was no mere matter of theory; in his private life, too, the personal or familial was sacrificed to the public, parental responsibility was neglected" (p. 173).

17. Levine and Knoepflmacher, introduction to The Endurance of "Frankenstein," pp. xi-xvi, xiixiii.

18. Levine, "The Ambiguous Heritage of Frankenstein," in Levine and Knoepflmacher, The Endurance of "Frankenstein," pp. 3-30, 7-8.

19. Mellor, p. 60.

20. Mellor, p. 59. Leader seeks to reverse this assessment by arguing that Mary Shelley's acceptance of Percy's revisions is in fact evidence of her "authorial ambition": she believed "he would improve her novel" (p. 171). Nevertheless, even relatively recent feminist criticism has revealed a somewhat disheartening tendency to emphasize Mary Shelley's authorial "anxieties" and insecurities: thus, in The Proper Lady and the Woman Writer: Ideology as Style in the Works of Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary Shelley, and Jane Austen (Chicago and London: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1984), Mary Poovey argues that "in 1831, the mature Mary Shelley is able to countenance the creation of Frankenstein—and, in effect, the creation of her entire artistic role—only because she can interpret these creations as primarily the work of other people and of external circumstances" (p. 104). She thus concludes that Shelley's career is founded on the myth of "feminine helplessness": "[p]aradoxically, this wholehearted acceptance of an essentially subordinate and passive role … affords Mary Shelley precisely the grounds she needed to sanction her artistic career" (p. 105). Likewise, Mellor suggests that "despite [a] tradition of female authorship, Mary Shelley doubted the legitimacy of her own literary voice" (p. 53), that "[t]he intensity of her apology [in the 1831 preface] goes well beyond the conventional topoi of either literary or female modesty … In giving birth to her self-as-author, Mary Shelley is here able to conceive only a monster" (p. 55).

21. Mary Shelley's tolerance of others' influence on her novel is not only cited as proof of the "accidental" and "un-self-conscious" nature of its literary energies, but also serves as a source of much awkward praise of Frankenstein's coherence and structural integrity. Thus, Levine and Knoepflmacher marvel at the novel's very existence, since, based on its 1831 preface, they perceive Mary Shelley as "[w]orking from a parlor game ghost story contest, out of a mind cluttered with an extraordinary profusion of serious reading, with the political philosophy she derived from her father and from her dead mother's writings, the science she learned from Shelley, [and] the moral ideas she adopted from all three" (Levine and Knoepflmacher, preface to The Endurance of "Frankenstein," p. xiii).

22. As a modernized myth of Prometheus and an examination of the ethical implications of responsible creativity, Frankenstein articulates a "different voice," one strikingly similar to that which Gilligan associates predominantly with the moral development of women. Interestingly, Gilligan herself acknowledges that this "different voice" and its attendant ethics of responsibility are often unsettling to those trained to conceive of moral development in terms of an ever increasing awareness of and respect for the rights and independence of the individual. As she points out, misunderstanding can often arise: "a morality of rights and noninterference may appear frightening … in its potential justification of indifference and unconcern. At the same time … a morality of responsibility appears inconclusive and diffuse, given its insistent contextual relativism" (p. 22).

23. Leader, p. 186.

24. Cantor, p. 124.

Christopher Rovee (essay date summer 2004)

SOURCE: Rovee, Christopher. "Monsters, Marbles, and Miniatures: Mary Shelley's Reform Aesthetic." Studies in the Novel 36, no. 2 (summer 2004): 147-69.

[In the following essay, Rovee discusses the significance of painting and portraiture to social status in Frankenstein, arguing that the novel's creature is reminiscent of the Elgin Marbles, popular nineteenth-century Greek sculptures.]

I turn without shrinking from cloud-borne angels, from prophets, sibyls, and heroic warriors, to an old woman bending over her flower-pot….

"Foh!" says my idealistic friend, "what vulgar details! What good is there in taking all these pains to give an exact likeness of old women and clowns? What a low phase of life!—what clumsy, ugly people!"

But, bless us, things may be lovable that are not altogether handsome, I hope? I am not at all sure that the majority of the human race have not been ugly, and even among those "lords of their kind," the British, squat figures, ill-shapen nostrils, and dingy complexions are not startling exceptions … yet to my certain knowledge tender hearts have beaten for them, and their miniatures—flattering, but still not lovely—are kissed in secret by motherly lips.

          —George Eliot, Adam Bede (166-67)

"How broken they are, a'ant they?"

"Yes, but how like life."

          —Popular anecdote (c. 1817) about seeing the Elgin Marbles (qtd. in Scott 190)

George Eliot's famous aside in Adam Bede (1859) cherishes realism in the trope of exact portraits. Embracing true-to-life images in all their "squat," "ill-shapen," and "dingy" actuality, Eliot posits realism as an aesthetic of affection and sympathy. The turn away from the idealizing portraiture of the Royal Academy and its first president, Sir Joshua Reynolds, is a turn toward a private sphere of emotion demarcated by a miniature: in private, one's likeness need not be "lovely" to be loved.1 But how about in public? Forty years earlier, writing at a moment when monstrosity held radical connotations, Mary Shelley anticipated Eliot's embrace of realism within a distinctly political context. In Frankenstein (1818), Shelley allegorizes the opposition between a populist aesthetic of "exact likeness" and the "cloud-borne angels" of more prestigious modes of portraiture. The various portraits represented in her novel, including full-lengths, miniatures, and most famously the gigantic Creature, figure in both romance and realism. They show the romance of bourgeois identity to depend on the naturalization of new class hierarchies, which themselves collapse beneath the weight of an all-too-real social instability.2 Shelley observes a mode of class-definition that still prevails in Eliot's time: if the British, as "lords of their kind," find sovereignty an accessible (if diminished) ideal, the cachet of high art both contributes to this lordly aura and yet is powerless to guard against its potential loss.

The nuances of class-definition in the portraits of Frankenstein register attitudes prevalent in the voluminous writings, contemporaneous with Shelley's novel, about the Elgin Marbles (c. 1816-1818). Discussions of the marbles' anatomical precision mark a key moment in the pre-history of "realism." Embodying an anti-establishment aesthetic of particularity even as they figure forth an ideal of liberty, the marbles appeal to commentators who see in their internal effects an aesthetic revolution: the return of a material repressed from beneath a surface of culture and artifice. Their aesthetic, in turn, informs Shelley's most famous "portrait": the gigantic Creature, a body overloaded, like the marbles, with "vulgar details."3 In the Creature, Shelley allegorizes a populist aesthetic, a body politic inclusive of the "low" and the "ugly," thus revealing her sensitivity to the ways in which aesthetic form reflects and propels social reconfiguration.

Framing Justine: Frankenstein and the Art of Emulation

On 5 December 1816, in a letter to her husband, Mary Shelley writes:

Sweet Elf

I was awakened this morning by my pretty babe and was dressed time enough to take my lesson from Mr West and (Thank God) finished that tedious ugly picture I have been so long about—I have also finished the 4 Chap. of Frankenstein which is a very long one & I think you would like it.


Shelley's drawing lessons from the miniature painter John West coincide with the birth of one of literature's most persevering giants. This "4 chap" includes an "ugly picture" of its own: the verbal portrait of the Creature, with yellow skin, lustrous black hair, pearly white teeth, watery eyes, shrivelled complexion, and straight black lips.4 Throughout Frankenstein, the meanings of scale are elaborated through portraits, which turn class into a function of performance and equipage, rather than of birth. Yet paradoxically, even as the portraits disclose social hierarchy as unstable, they also naturalize it. The sociopolitical meanings of artistic scale are first invoked in the novel when Victor, returning home after William's death, enters the family library and views two paintings hanging on the wall:

I gazed on the picture of my mother, which stood over the mantle-piece. It was an historical subject, painted at my father's desire, and represented Caroline Beaufort in an agony of despair, kneeling by the coffin of her dead father. Her garb was rustic, and her cheek pale; but there was an air of dignity and beauty, that hardly permitted the sentiment of pity. Below this was a miniature of William; and my tears flowed when I looked at it.


The hanging of these two pictures in the Frankensteins' library brings the late-Georgian exhibition hall into the domestic sphere. The side-by-side display of miniatures and history paintings was customary in exhibition galleries, where the influence of consumerism on art made itself felt in a competition that transformed both genres.5 History paintings—too large and expensive for most consumers—were physically and thematically downsized into portraits invested with an antique air, which presented family history in classical, literary, or historical guise. By contrast, the tiny, ornamental miniature, in order to compete with the larger paintings, grew from an average diameter of one-and-a-half inches in 1760, to three inches in 1800, to six inches in 1820.6 In accordance with the miniature's expansion, the site for its display changed as well. Concealable lockets worn on the wrist were replaced, first, by oval frames hung from the neck, and then by larger, rectangular miniatures that were hung on the wall. By the 1830s, the form was suffering from "elephantiasis," as Graham Reynolds puts it; it was even common to see "works of monster size" produced by suturing together "several separate pieces of ivory" (172).

Shelley records these shifts. The two portraits hanging on the Frankensteins' wall represent evolved forms: one is a diminished history painting, the other an oversized memento. In each case, aesthetic production conforms to consumer desire. The movement is toward a middle-ground, as the portraits come to encapsulate both an erasure and a re-mapping of generic difference. The larger portrait rises to the status of history painting, fostering a contemplative distance in its "air of dignity." The smaller portrait gets associated with the body and with emotions. It requires a physical nearness that eliminates distance and translates the air of dignity into a flood of tears. Despite the fact that these are generically related—as portraits—they are separated by an arbitrary boundary: one is prestigious, the other is ordinary. The picture of Caroline Beaufort is made to seem more like a history painting than like a miniature. The relation between these portraits gets lost beneath the illusion that the historical one, which is the family's centerpiece, is of a higher order.7

In a culture where the consumption of art was increasingly the province of the middle-classes, portraiture helped affirm the naturalness of upward social mobility. The historical style wove a spell of prestige around portraiture, and history painting, made smaller, more private, more sentimental, invited consumers into the genre's air of elitism. This helps explain Victor's programmatic response to the picture of his mother, with its "air of dignity and beauty," as opposed to the strange fit of passion evoked by the miniature of William. As Colin Campbell notes, the aristocratic sensibility is an ethic of restraint that rejects "excess of emotion" as "unseemly and ungentlemanly" (50). Yet this discrimination notwithstanding, the upward mobility promoted by the historical portrait is threatened by the representational reality of the miniature. Mobility can go either way; artistic genres, and the people they represent, can fall just as easily as they can rise. Ironically, the "historical subject," the genre of prestige, denotes such a fall in the form of Caroline's ruined, and now dead, father: "a merchant, who, from a flourishing state, fell, through numerous mischances, into poverty" (63). Caroline's portrait restages a scene of mourning: the pose is heroic and dignified, but the content recalls the tenuousness of her life of privilege. As summarized by this picture, the elevation of the consumer entailed the collapse of an ideal of natural rank, a collapse as threatening to those born into status as to those who have achieved it.8

The indeterminate boundary between natural and achieved status, between an aristocratic and a consumerist sensibility, characterizes the narrative dimension of this particular portrait, which depicts a pivotal moment in the Frankenstein family history: Alphonse Frankenstein's abandonment of civic life for private life. The origins of the painting are rehearsed by Victor, who begins by describing his father's life of public service:

my father had filled several public situations with honour and reputation. He was respected by all who knew him for his integrity and indefatigable attention to public business. He passed his younger days perpetually occupied by the affairs of his country; and it was not until the decline of life that he thought of marrying, and bestowing on the state sons who might carry his virtues and his name down to posterity.


Even family, in this description, is conceived within the parameters of civic virtue—the pursuit of self-perpetuation figured as a gift to the state.9 But it is not until he encounters the mourning daughter of his good friend—the encounter which supplies the impetus for the painting—that Alphonse retires into private life:

her father died in her arms, leaving her an orphan and a beggar. This last blow overcame her; and she knelt by Beaufort's coffin, weeping bitterly, when my father entered the chamber. He came like a protecting spirit to the poor girl, who committed herself to his care, and after the interment of his friend he conducted her to Geneva, and placed her under the protection of a relation. Two years after this event Caroline became his wife.

When my father became a husband and a parent, he found his time so occupied by the duties of his new situation, that he relinquished many of his public employments….


By idealizing the moment that leads to Alphonse's relinquishment of "public employments" for life as "a husband and a parent," the portrait commemorates the retirement to private life of the Frankenstein family. But hanging in the drawing room, the most public of rooms within the private home, this portrayal of Alphone's altruism also becomes a kind of public performance. Caroline's mourning is staged for the portrait-sitting; and the picture itself perpetuates Alphonse's original performance of benevolence, when he "rescues her from the painful fate of working-class womanhood" (Ellis 129). Caroline is thus preserved as an image of feminine vulnerability, and the viewer becomes a latter-day "protecting spirit." (One suspects that Alphonse is not painted in the background gazing upon his future wife, but rather that the viewer is meant simply to "become" him.) Private virtue emerges as a reproducible performance, enabled by the fact that culture gives patterns for pathos. This is reaffirmed by the repetition of Caroline's pose—kneeling by her dead father "in an agony of despair"—by various characters throughout the novel. Its iconic origin may be the scientist hanging over his yet-unliving Creature, but it re-appears when Victor discovers the murdered Elizabeth (he "hung over her in the agony of despair" [220]), and yet again at the end of the novel, when Walton encounters the Creature, "hung over the coffin" of the dead Victor (242). The repetition of this pose narrows the gap between the material portrait (which is hung) and the living individual (who "hangs" over). Private virtue becomes a mere pose that can be emulated by practically anybody. There is nothing natural about its practice, and the social distinction that accrues to it is neither preordained nor permanent.

If historical portraiture lifts the consumer into the elite sphere of history painting while mystifying the influence of consumerism, the story of miniature painting lays that influence bare. To the extent that larger portraits can help to naturalize class position, this naturalization depends on concealing the fact that, in Deidre Lynch's words, "Faces made money—the overloaded faces of the popular print market and the minutely detailed portraits that Reynolds relegated to the bottom of the artistic barrel especially so" (61). Miniature painting foregrounded this fact. It was a profit-driven field whose practitioners refused any claim to "original genius." Studio work was rushed; it was not uncommon to paint over ten portraits a day. Neoclassical principles served lucrative ends, as the ideal of "generality" enabled artists to save on labor by letting ivory show through in the face (Noon 173). Generalization increased production, which in turn made miniatures yet more affordable. Writes the oil painter Martin Archer Shee in his Rhymes on Art: "Blockheads pursu'd through every nobler shape, / In miniature take refuge, and escape." A note to these lines explains:

From the prompt means of subsistence which miniature-painting affords to every manufacturer of a face, it will always be the refuge of imbecility; a receptacle for the poor and disappointed in art, [for] all who want vigour that impels to higher game, or the means to support a larger pursuit…. [I]f their fame be more confined, their profit is less precarious.


As Shee indicates, miniatures were associated with an erasure of class distinctions, their popularity viewed as a sign of flagging national potency in the arts. His class snobbery is only in part a defensive reaction to the incursion of miniature painting on his own portrait-profits; it also responds to the way the practice of miniature painting threatened to unmask all portrait-practice as the kind of mercenary service-industry Hazlitt would later describe:

The "numbers without number" who pay thirty, forty, fifty, a hundred guineas for their pictures in large, expect their faces to come out of the Painter's hands smooth, rosy, round, smiling; just as they expect their hair to come out of the barber's curled and powdered. It would be a breach of contract to proceed in any other way. A fashionable Artist and a fashionable hair-dresser have the same common principles of theory and practice; the one fits his customers to appear with éclat in a ball-room, the other in the Great Room of the Royal Academy.


The portrait painter and the hairdresser, according to Hazlitt, are essentially similar: while both create mass-produced images that mime individuality, they actually fit customers into a culturally scripted formula for prestige. It is this unsettling possibility—that portraits are mere commodities that assist the effort "to appear with éclat"—that emerges in the Frankensteins' drawing room. There, the juxtaposition of historical portrait and miniature reveals a latent similarity that upsets not just the aristocratic air of historical portraiture, but the natural appearance of middle-class achievement.

This similarity, and the Frankensteins' compulsion to conceal it, gets rehearsed in the saga of Justine Moritz, who is accused of coveting a miniature portrait of Caroline Beaufort. This is the tiny picture that the Creature rips from William's neck. Its discovery in Justine's pocket is the main reason that she is accused of William's murder; at her trial, this miniature alone seems to testify against her. "I know … how heavily and fatally this one circumstance weighs against me, but I have no power of explaining it," Justine says; "I am only left to conjecture concerning the probabilities by which it might have been placed in my pocket" (111). The miniature achieves its highest value as forensic evidence. Yet it, too, operates within a network of class-definition. For while the miniature found in Justine's pocket is evidence of her guilt, it also provides the Frankensteins with evidence of their own social status. Justine, in effect, is accused of coveting not just the portrait, but Caroline's standing. Her personal history is particularly threatening to the bourgeois ideology of upward mobility: Justine was not born to servitude, but rather, after the death of her father, was adopted by the Frankensteins and in time "learned the duties of a servant." In other words, she falls into servitude by learning the role. But the theatricality of her class position hits a telling contradiction in her near-perfect imitation of Caroline Beaufort's "phraseology and manners"—mimicry so skilled that "her mien and expressions continually remind" Elizabeth of her "dear aunt" (94). While learning how to be a servant, then, Justine also learns how to emulate her mistress. In Shelley's time, the emulative, aspiring servant, argues Andrea Henderson, exposed social mobility as an inherently unstable process (201). Justine, who epitomizes the fluidity of status, can therefore be seen to enact its ambiguous mobilities.10

A servant's imitation of her employer didn't necessarily imply emulative desires. Amanda Vickery notes that maids regularly accepted trinkets and clothes as gifts—but rather than desiring "legitimacy" they were often more attracted by the gifts' resale value: "Clothing was seen as an important part of their earnings, rather than merely the coveted equipment of social emulation" (284). If the Frankensteins view Justine as emulative, their suspicion might be seen as a response to the disconcerting fact that class signifiers (Justine's as well as their own) are mobile and not class-bound. They provide a case in point for the paradoxical way that social mobility encourages the reassertion of artificial distinctions and fosters a bias against possible upstarts. When William is discovered, the Frankensteins, quite remarkably, are unable to see beyond the miniature in their search for motives.11 Alphonse reports that on the evening of William's murder the boy "had teazed [Elizabeth] to let him wear a very valuable miniature that she possessed of [Caroline]," adding: "This picture is gone, and was doubtless the temptation which urged the murderer to the deed" (100). Elizabeth, too, as Kate Ellis notes, "immediately blames herself for having given [William] the miniature to wear" rather than thinking "to find little William's true murderer" (133). The portrait loses its function within a cult of remembrance for the dead mother. It is "teazed away" by William; Elizabeth refers to it as a "bauble" (112); and Justine, wondering how it wound up in her pocket, calls it a "jewel" (111). Value seeps outward, from the picture itself to the jeweled frame that encases it, until Elizabeth finally dismisses it as "a few jewels" (122). With commodity value (its jeweled case) that supersedes its symbolic value, the miniature is, in Alphonse's eyes, only desirable to a female servant. Social mobility requires the production of a new "other," and Justine becomes that figure. An unattached female "sleeping around" (in the barn), whose sexuality the Creature discerns when he places the miniature "securely in one of the folds of her dress" (170), Justine undermines patriarchal privilege in two registers: as an independent female sexuality who can unsettle patrilinear lines of inheritance, and as a servant capable of "acting" the part of privilege. Having so skilfully imitated her benefactress, Justine effectively stands in for the Creature who declares desire for her, becoming in Alphonse's words a repository of "depravity and ingratitude" (108).

Like the miniature style of portraiture with which she is linked, Justine reveals the unnerving truth about mobility—namely, that it moves in multiple directions. Even the well-intentioned Elizabeth, who comes to believe that Justine is innocent of murder, never quite absolves her of the robbery. Despite her impassioned defense of her "more than sister" (115), to the end Elizabeth assumes that Justine did, indeed, covet the miniature, all the while emphasizing her own solicitude and freedom from such material wants. Elizabeth "would have willingly given [the miniature] to her," she says—if only she'd known the "poor girl" so "earnestly desired" it (112, 108). Just as William's miniature portrait is cordoned off as "common" to foster an artificial distinction, Justine has to be characterized as different, as somebody with a penchant for debased, material objects.

Instead of establishing lineage, the portraits in Frankenstein register genealogical ruptures. The historical portrait of Caroline Beaufort figures Alphonse not as a husband, but as a surrogate father. Meanwhile, the purloined miniature bearing Caroline's likeness emphasizes that, for Elizabeth as for Justine, "belonging" is less a matter of resemblance than of possession.12 Both women are products of benevolent paternalism, and Justine's death seems to magnify Elizabeth's own insecurity. "She had become grave," Victor recalls, "and often conversed of the inconstancy of fortune, and the instability of human life" (121). For all her rhetoric of distinction, Elizabeth is not so far-removed from Justine. Or, as it happens, from the Creature.

U. C. Knoepflmacher has argued that "the beautiful and passive Elizabeth and the repulsive, aggressive Monster who will be her murderer" are doubles, a claim that might seem surprising given the contrast between their verbal portraits (109). The Creature's portrait parodies idealized beauty:

His limbs were in proportion, and I had selected his features as beautiful. Beautiful!—Great God! His yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath; his hair was of a lustrous black, and flowing; his teeth of a pearly whiteness; but these luxuriances only formed a more horrid contrast with his watery eyes, that seemed almost of the same colour as the dun white sockets in which they were set, his shrivelled complexion, and straight black lips.


Conversely, the angelic portrait of the "uncommonly lovely" Elizabeth that soon follows presents an "open and capacious forehead [that] gave indications of a good understanding, joined to great frankness of disposition. Her eyes were hazel, and expressive of mildness…. Her hair was of a rich dark auburn, her complexion fair, and her figure slight and graceful" (108). Unlike the Creature's portrait, with its numerous but disharmonic parts, the absence of particularity in Elizabeth's portrait makes clear the moral evaluations that attend aesthetic description: loveliness, understanding, and frankness are allied with the supposedly "beautiful" qualities of mildness, slightness, and grace. In the 1831 version, Elizabeth is even said to wear "a crown of distinction" that marks her out as naturally elite (323).

Notwithstanding the stark aesthetic contrast, Elizabeth and the Creature share affinities with an aesthetic of the miniature. Stuck in a diminutive domestic sphere, Elizabeth laments her lack of "opportunities of enlarging her experience" (180). Victor reinforces the miniature association by describing her as "gay and playful as a summer insect" (65)—an epithet he also directs, with a difference, at the Creature, whom he calls a "vile insect" (127). As with the portraits on the drawing-room wall, the adjectival distinction is less significant than the common identity: as "insects," Elizabeth and the Creature are both miniatures of a kind. No wonder that the Elizabeth of idealizing portraiture can be re-framed by the murderous Creature as a Gothic portrait;13 or that, in the prevailing artistic discourse of 1818, the Creature would be a "monstrous miniature."

"Overloaded" Marbles

Victor Frankenstein describes himself as "an artist occupied by his favourite employment" (85), and in constructing the novel's most famous "likeness," he faces the artist's dilemma of how to balance the objective of a beautiful representation with the practical matters of time, labor, and media. Because, in his words, "the minuteness of the parts formed a great hindrance to my speed," he resolves "to make the being of a gigantic stature; that is to say, about eight feet in height, and proportionably large" (82). Gigantism offers a practical solution to the expenditures of labor: it is faster and easier to work with larger parts.

But the ultimate cost is aesthetic, as Hazlitt claims in his Examiner article on the Elgin Marbles. He contends that large paintings are better than small ones, not because of their size alone, but because they provide more room for the artist to furnish details and particulars. Size does not "substitute for grandeur," he says, but rather "assists" it by providing more space for the artist "to finish, fill up, and enrich every part as much as possible"—that is, to load every rift with ore. Hazlitt extends his consideration of the "colossal height" of the marbles to the question of portraiture, vis-à-vis epic art:

A miniature is inferior to a full-sized picture, not because it does not give the large and general outline, but because it does not give the smaller varieties and finer elements of nature…. [T]he copy of a good portrait will always make a highly-finished miniature, but the copy of a good miniature, if enlarged to the size of life, will make but a very vapid portrait. Some of our own Artists, who are fond of painting large figures, either misunderstand or misapply this principle. They make the whole figure gigantic, not that they may have room for nature, but for the motion of their brush, regarding the quantity of canvas they have to cover as an excuse for the slovenly and hasty manner in which they cover it; and thus in fact leave their pictures nothing at last but monstrous miniatures.

          (444 [30 June 1816]: 411)

The irony is that the gigantic Creature shares the qualities of Hazlitt's "monstrous miniatures."14 Notwithstanding Victor's effort to "select … his features as beautiful," the Creature is at once made on a grand scale, but also lacking "the smaller varieties and finer elements of nature." James Whale's Frankenstein films of the 1930s, which depict the monster with smooth, powder-white skin set off against distinct sutures, had the visual aesthetics right after all. His surface mass is largely blank, void of details, which enables the hideous "work of muscles and arteries beneath" the skin to obtrude upon the sight. This is different from the effect of Swift's Brobdignagian women, who horrify because of their magnified particularity: "so coarse and uneven, so variously coloured when I saw them near, with a Mole here and there as broad as a Trencher, and Hairs hanging from it thicker than Pack-threads …" (95). The viscera of Shelley's Creature stand out because there is nothing to distract from them: the aesthetic surface (the "yellow skin" that "scarcely covered" him) is too thin. He is autonomously deconstructing. In Swift, details are disgusting; in Shelley, the inadequacy of details allows more disgusting ones to emerge.

As Hazlitt indicates, the debate over the Elgin Marbles, which took place while Shelley was generating her novel, was a focal point for the opposition between particularity and generality.15 Indeed, contemporaneous discussions of the marbles constitute a major expression of the late-romantic reform aesthetic on display in Frankenstein. Like Shelley's Creature, the marbles embodied an incipient "realism" that was said to be rude and unmannered, or in the words of a popular anecdote (quoted as an epigraph), "Broken" and "like life." Byron parodied their aesthetics, calling them "Phidian freaks, / Misshapen monuments and maim'd antiques," and Sir George Beaumont wished them restored to Greece, not because of cultural politics but because "they excite rather disgust than pleasure in the minds of people in general, to see parts of limbs, & bodys, stumps of arms, & c.—"16 Their advocates, however, praised them for these very same reasons. As witnesses testifying to their value before the Select Committee of the House of Commons, the portrait painter Thomas Lawrence cited their "great truth and imitation of nature," and the Italian sculptor Canova referred to their "perfect flesh," adding: "Every thing here breathes life" (Report 38, 68). Those who championed the marbles saw them as combining mimetic naturalness with a stylistic grandeur that incorporated details, rather than leaving them out.

As such, the collection was an affront to the prevailing Reynoldsian aesthetic. The Elgin Marbles, Hazlitt writes, "repudiate [the] doctrine" according to which "grandeur of style consists in giving only the masses, and leaving out the details" (16:354). Such disapprobation was implicitly political; as Paul Magnuson observes, to call Reynolds's ideal into question was "to challenge the Royal Academy that had supported it and the system of patronage that in turn supported the Royal Academy" (184). Hazlitt's complaint about how Reynolds's "principle of conformity" at once excludes a "principle of contrast, of discrimination and identity" (8:137) and the corporeal intensity of these "living men turned to stone" (18:81) registers a preference that is also a protest against academic authority.

The protest is sharpened by its appeal to natural philosophy. Arguing that each statue, "instead of being a block of marble," has an "internal machinery of nerves and muscles" (16:353), Hazlitt emphasizes a fluidity between marble and nerves, man and stone. The anatomist's encounter with "the coats of the stomach laid bare" or "the transverse section of the brain" furnishes a model for artistic creation: "Art is the microscope of the mind," Hazlitt writes, situating Percy Shelley's claims for the power of poetry in a scientific context; it "may be said to draw aside the veil from nature" (4:74). If Reynoldsian portraiture removed an individual's deformities, this alternative aesthetic brought them into the open. Art is said to comprise a surgical penetration through layers of idealization and custom—Burke's decent drapery, or Reynolds's general air—to an elemental nature that exists prior to such superadded strata.17 To such connoisseurs as Richard Payne Knight, testifying before the select parliamentary committee (and not inclined to endorse the greatest treasure of a bourgeois exhibition culture), the value of the marbles is uncertain because "their surface is gone mostly" (Report 93). But this is precisely the appeal for such advocates as Hazlitt: the marbles are beautiful because their veins and muscles, bones, bowels, and intestines, are visible to the eye. They turn the body inside-out, demystifying depth by making it visible. By reading in the marbles the underlying equality of human bodies, Hazlitt defines a progressive aesthetic that promotes the exposure and synthesis of anatomical details (their active "enlightenment"), rather than the naked authority of the central form.18

Yet even this is figured as a distinctively masculine impression of "power." The machismo underpinning Hazlitt's rhetoric is evident in his dismissal of the Apollo Belvedere as "a modern fine gentleman" (10:28) and "a theatrical coxcomb" (10:222). Preferring instead the marbles' "negligent grandeur and manly strength" (12:329), Hazlitt expresses a preference for the particular, not so much as a brand of realism but as an effect of imaginative force. His meticulous descriptions that laud the marbles' scientific exactness, their "loose folds in the skin" and "veins under the belly," reveal a paradox (18:81). The turn toward mimetic precision is inclusive of aesthetic details, and yet it is exclusive in its representation not just of men, but also for men:

Let any one, for instance, look at the leg of the Ilissus or River-God, which is bent under him—let him observe the swell and undulation of the calf, the intertexture of the muscles, the distinction and union of all the parts, and the effect of action every where impressed on the external form, as if the very marble were a flexible substance, and contained the various springs of life and motion within itself, and he will own that art and nature are here the same thing.


Hazlitt corroborates Magnuson's argument that to "both liberals and conservatives, [the marbles] embodied all forms of liberty, including sensuality" (182). But even the sensuality that the marbles seem to license signifies a very limited ideal of liberty, one that can be seen to reaffirm the status quo. By fixating on a "principle of fusion, of motion, so that the marble flows like a wave [with] all the flexibility, all the malleableness of flesh" (16:353), Hazlitt delineates a gendered anatomical aesthetic, a male gaze enamored of male particulars.

This masculine erotics of viewing is even more pronounced in some of the marbles' other advocates, where it could assume an explicitly populist dimension. Take Benjamin Haydon, whose first sight of the marbles provoked an impassioned response—initially, to the representation of female figures:

The first thing I fixed my eyes on was the wrist of a figure … in which were visible, though in a feminine form, the radius and the ulna. I was astonished, for I had never seen them hinted at in any female wrist in the antique. I darted my eye to the elbow, and saw the outer condyle visibly affecting the shape as in nature. I saw that the arm was in repose and the soft parts in relaxation. That combination of nature and idea which I had felt was so much wanting for high art was here displayed to midday conviction. My heart beat!


Haydon's response is conditioned by his trade: he reads the statues with an artist's eye. Yet, his tone shifts palpably in the face of masculine figures:

If I had seen nothing else I had beheld sufficient to keep me to nature for the rest of my life. But when I turned to the Theseus and saw that every form was altered by action or repose,—when I saw that the two sides of his back varied, one side stretched from the shoulder-blade being pulled forward, and the other side compressed from the shoulder-blade being pushed close to the spine as he rested on his elbow, with the belly flat because the bowels fell into the pelvis as he sat,—and when, turning to the Ilissus, I saw the belly protruded, from the figure lying on its side,—and again, when in the figure of the fighting metope I saw the muscle shown under the one arm-pit in that instantaneous action of darting out, and left out in the other arm-pits because not wanted—when I saw, in fact, the most heroic style of art combined with all the essential detail of actual life, the thing was done at once and for ever.

Here were principles which the common sense of the English people would understand …19

British "common sense," which prefers a realism whose "actual life" is represented in "the most heroic style of art," is activated in a trained male gaze on male anatomy. Though the female forms are "sufficient" for Haydon, he sees more—and more detail—in the male. The marbles focus an aesthetic of particularity that brings depth to the surface—an "aesthetics," to quote Ronald Paulson on Hogarth, "of seeing under or into" (xliii), that emphasizes an underlying human "nature" that is good, innocent, and replete with rights. Haydon hints at the practical extension of such an aesthetic: "The Elgin Marbles will as completely overthrow the old antique, as ever one system of philosophy overthrew another more enlightened" (Autobiography 1:235). The marbles' "realism" serves national self-definition; it is, in Haydon's estimation, peculiarly English.20

For all his passion, though, Haydon's preference for details suggests also another destination for anatomical extravagance, one that verges on monstrosity. Of the Hercules, Hazlitt complains that its "ostentatious and over-laboured display of anatomy … is so overloaded with sinews, that … if life could be put into it, it would be able to move" (18:115). If such criticism barely conceals his enthusiasm for an art that extols details over an idealized central form, it also reveals misgivings. Whereas Haydon recalls how, when studying the marbles at night, "a transcendant limb, here and there a shattered head … instinct with life, have trembled into light, and seemed ready to move, so evident was their life and circulation" (Lectures 2:219-20), and the poet William Haygarth extols the way "the metopés / Start into ambient air, and breathe with life" (qtd. in Larrabee 273), Hazlitt shrinks at the thought that representation might take on an uncontrollable life of its own. He seems disturbed not just by the visibility of all this effort—which seems to reveal the achievability of "high art" to the detriment of a romantic ideal of the natural genius—but also by the ease with which an aesthetic that accents the bodily detail can slip into caricature.21 In contrast to Hazlitt's romantic emphasis on the synthesis of details, caricature magnifies the part at the expense of the whole. Its truth claim, as Lynch relates, depends on the rejection of synthesis in favor of representational surplus (58). As the grotesquerie of the surface, caricature brings to light a significant repression within the glorification of the marbles, namely, that even the internality and depth they posit is an external effect. The "ostentatious," "overlaboured," and "overloaded" Hercules reveals an unstable boundary between the high-art "realism" of the Elgin Marbles and the low-art likenesses of caricature.

Yet this instability was an integral, if often unspoken, aspect of the anti-establishment aesthetic embodied by the marbles. For although the controversy that surrounded the marbles focused on British cultural imperialism, there was also the sense that, latent in their aesthetics, were the seeds of a populist aesthetic—if not exactly radical, then certainly volatile, nonetheless. Keats's sonnet "Addressed to Haydon" lauds their purchase as, in John Kandl's words, "a national plebeian victory" (14), praising Haydon as a "stout unbending champion" (11) for whom "Unnumbered souls breathe out a still applause" (13). Haydon is said to exalt the "Highmindedness" of "people of no name, / In noisome alley, and in pathless wood" (3-4). The marbles, Keats implies, are not "freaks" (as Byron would have it), whose mutilated bodies can only bear value in their original Athenian context; they are, rather, "relics of former grandeur bear- ing the aura of ancient Greek liberty" (Kandl 14).

Barry Cornwall's poem, "On the Statue of Theseus in the Elgin Collection of Marbles" (1818), ironically figures the statue of the famously tyrannical Athenian king first as a revolutionary (against a Roman god), and then as a victim of monarchical discipline:

—Aye, this is he—
A proud and mighty spirit:—how fine his form
Gigantic!—moulded like the race that strove
To take Jove's heaven by storm, and drive him from
His mighty Sire, in anger when he saw
How dark his course and impious, must have stay'd
(So carv'd to nature is that Phidian stone)
The flow of life, and with his trident-touch
Have struck him into marble.
          (1-5; 16-20)

While developing the motif of the marbles' naturalism by staying the flow of life, Cornwall's antiestablishment figurations emphasize that the marbles' visual realism generates political meanings.22 Haydon similarly argues that embedded within their sublimity is a "fire" and "rashness of violence" that Phidias manages to contain, but that poor imitators might carry "to a vicious excess" (Autobiography 1:231-32). After Waterloo, when popular attention returned with a fury to the shortcomings of the home government, such terms as "violence" and "excess" were fraught with insurgent connotations. It is this same charged vocabulary that Shelley brings to life in her 1818 novel, by allegorizing what I call a reform aesthetic in the body of her most famous character.23

Monstrous Realism

Through the trope of portraiture, Shelley develops the anatomical aesthetic associated with the marbles into a theory of the novel. Reviewing Godwin's Cloudesly in 1829, she turns portraiture and anatomy into twin metaphors for novel-writing. Godwin's "portraiture is endowed with the very essence and spirit of our nature," she writes; "he conceives, in its entireness, the living picture of an event with all its adjuncts; he sets it down in its vivid reality: no part is dim, no part is tame."24 Like the Elgin Marbles, whose anatomical realism brings them to the brink of life—and like Shelley's own Creature, himself a "living picture"—Godwin's "portraiture" represents the "machinery of nerves" beneath the skin of his subject. Reading him, Shelley writes, "we felt … that we wandered among giants' rocks, ‘the naked bones of the world waiting to be clothed’" (713).

Shelley, however, does not promote "realism" as a passive form of mimesis, but instead praises what she calls Godwin's "master art" for following "rules of grouping or colouring." Though lauding Sir Walter Scott's "individual portraiture," she adds that his "wholes want keeping."25 Godwin, on the other hand, "sketches in his own mind, with a comprehensive and bold imagination, the plan of his work; he digs at the foundations … examines his materials, and sees exactly to what purpose each is best fitted." Unlike Victor, who carelessly speeds to the larger, more general parts, Godwin is meticulously detailed:

he transfuses himself into the very souls of his personages; he dives into their secret hearts, and lays bare, even to their anatomy, their workings; not a pulsation escapes him,—while yet all is blended into one whole, which forms the pervading impulse of the individual he brings before us.


Again, portraiture—bringing an "individual … before us"—is presented as the novelist's filthy task. The overhasty Victor, for his part, lacks the requisite imaginative sensitivity; he fails to blend his materials "into one whole," to "transfuse himself into the very soul" of his Creature. Shelley's discussion of Cloudesly promotes the going-out of the self as the basis for a radical realism that entails an aesthetic of sympathy and affection rather than of power.26 Godwin is said to evoke an inclusive ideal through a broad scope of imaginatively realized detail. Unlike Reynoldsian portraiture, which works to conceal distasteful particulars in the service of promoting an elite vision of the body politic, Godwin's "living picture" brings the diverse elements of society to life as a unified whole.

Characterizing the novelist as both portraitist and resurrectionist, Shelley resuscitates a key context for Frankenstein that bears directly on her reform aesthetic: the phenomenon of bodysnatching, which as Tim Marshall has established, contributes to that novel's representation of anatomical science. A notorious problem in Shelley's time, bodysnatching was encouraged by medical schools and the emerging discipline of anatomy. Its prominence led to heated parliamentary debates and, ultimately, the Anatomy Act of 1832, which provided for the legal sale of state-institutionalized bodies to British medical schools.27 "The distribution of political power in the reformed electorate," Ruth Richardson argues, "closely resembled the redistribution of risk decreed by the Anatomy Act"; for if Reform married the upper-gentry with the aristocracy in order to guard the rights of property against the claims of the working class, the Anatomy Act, by "demarcating and isolating the propertyless as its victims," effectively "bought off the allegiance of the propertied classes with legal ap- paratus to protect their defunct remains" (262-63). Despite the fact that, prior to the Anatomy Act, all social classes were potential victims of grave-robbers, the poor were by far the most vulnerable. This was due to the development of sturdy coffins that allowed those with means to purchase a sense of funerary security. Such inventions were all the rage; in the year of Frankenstein 's initial publication, for instance, Edward Bridgman's "Patent Coffin" made a sensational debut, and broadsheet poems celebrated Bridgman as a "prince of coffin makers" for an intricate, wrought-iron design, with "concealed spring catches on the inner side of the lid" to "prevent levering," and which were "joined in such a way as to thwart any attempt to force the sides of the coffin apart" (Richardson 81). But since such inventions were beyond the means of the working classes, when Victor "dabbled among" the "damps of the grave," he mostly came away with a particular class of corpse. Contrary to Lee Sterrenburg's claim that Shelley's novel "serves to depoliticize the monster tradition" (157), the Creature animates the "realism" of the Elgin Marbles in/as a political body. Transforming physiological aesthetics into a "reform aesthetic," the novel engages debates over the right to vote of the working class that had raged since the 1790s.

The several cartoons that labeled the Reform Bill a "Political Frankenstein," then, while rightly sensing the rise of the politically repressed, can also be understood to be inexact.28 The framers of the Bill were careful to exclude the bodies with which Frankenstein made his Creature. These base materials are only "landed" in the material sense, having been exhumed from the property that defines their absence from the body politic. Despite Victor's effort to reintegrate them so as to keep distasteful, defective, or deformed particularities out of sight, the Creature's thin, translucent skin opens up to view an inner space of muscles, organs, and veins that recedes toward the microscopic. This anatomical realism, verging on sublimity, usurps the neoclassical order. Like Lord Elgin's "Phidian freaks," the Creature brings to light the particularities that Reynolds's drapery had sought to conceal. Portraiture summons the specter of the missing original even as it eradicates that original. But the Creature doesn't embody the absence of any one person; rather, he evokes a plurality of absences. He literalizes the dictum that portraiture invokes the absence of its subject, by the fact that the subject in this case is already an absence, politically speaking. Sutured together with negative presences, this heteroglossic body discloses the pleasing illusions of an idealizing portraiture. Even though he is outwardly denied class identity, the Creature, as an assemblage of exposed viscera, figures the "ugly" potential for working-class political visibility. His vivified body gives life to an aesthetic of particularity, thus presenting the ultimate threat to middle-class stability.29

Read alongside this culture of bodysnatching, Shelley's reanimation of portraiture as a charged and flexible metaphor in her review of Cloudesly suggests how "realism" as a novelistic mode could, at its best, facilitate a democratic aesthetics based on sympathy. More than a decade before, in Frankenstein, she had anticipated this vision, by affirming and even amplifying the liberal attack on Reynoldsian portraiture as an establishment aesthetic. The appearance of Shelley's Creature is characterized neither by the idealized generality of neoclassicism nor by the synthesized particularity of Hazlitt's naturalism, but rather by a radical accessibility that resists containment and synthesis, as it invites overflow and spillage. Burke had mystified the British polity as "a permanent body composed of transitory parts" (33). Shelley responds by anatomizing that body politic, laying it bare in all its ugly and uncontrollable detail. Realism is a "consensually oriented" discourse, as Katherine Kearns puts it, that assumes a "congeniality among addressor and addressee" (116). Seen in this light, the Creature, as he faces the commonplace gaze of spectators, is all too real. His is a monstrous realism which, if it would ultimately assist the commonplace representation of a status quo (as many today argue), is shown here to carry an equally explosive potential to unveil a minutely detailed body politic that, once pieced together from the fragments of humanness the novel has to offer, would be difficult to suppress.30

Shelley activates this metaphor for the radical inclusiveness that Bakhtin would come to associate with the novel almost in spite of her own ambivalence regarding parliamentary reform. Her later delight at the passage of "a Reform Bill that excluded the working classes from the vote," Johanna Smith argues, "demonstrates both her reformist enthusiasm for an extended franchise and her conservative relief that the more revolutionary bill was defeated" (47). Such ambivalence might be understood as an effect of Shelley's own economic uncertainty and dependence on the middle-class gift-book market. But, if her personal situation left her exposed to the fluctuations of social mobility, it also made her a sensitive observer of middle-class anxiety, finely attuned to the radical possibilities of realistic representation. This sensitivity is perhaps best summarized by the encounter between the Creature and the miniature portrait of Caro- line Beaufort. Unlike the rest of the Frankensteins, who refer to this miniature as a material quantity, the Creature is transfixed by its aesthetic realism: "As I fixed my eyes on the child, I saw something glittering on his breast. I took it; it was a portrait of a most lovely woman. In spite of my malignity, it softened and attracted me. For a few moments I gazed with delight on her dark eyes, fringed by deep lashes, and her lovely lips" (170). Like the Creature, Caroline's portrait is rhetorically transparent. She is a collection of visible parts: "dark eyes," "deep lashes," and "lovely lips." But the mirroring of the lovely miniature and the monstrous miniature is only momentary, for the picture soon becomes a revelatory portrait, its beauty giving way to the Creature's recognition of his own ugliness: "in regarding me," he realizes, she would "have changed that air of divine benignity to one expressive of disgust and affright" (170). The scene allegorizes the Creature's situation as the disjecta membra of society.31 Comprehended only as the negative reflection of another's portrait, his visceral actuality forces itself on the sight of a social order effectively constituted by his exclusion. Seeing beauty for what it is, he simultaneously sees his own aesthetic—or counter-aesthetic—power, which necessitates his alienation. For the Creature, the miniature holds out a pleasing illusion of social acceptance, a romance of "fitting" into a consensual economy of realism. But this illusion quickly fades, succumbing to the reality of a class- and a genre-system that guards against the disruptive potentiality represented in extremis by his own body, the frighteningly mobile product of Frankenstein's unhallowed arts.


I wish to express my gratitude to the many people whose input helped me write this essay: John Bender, Marshall Brown, Jay Fliegelman, Diana Fuss, Denise Gigante, Erik Gray, Martin Harries, Daniel Novak, Hollis Robbins, Starry Schor, Abe Stoll, and Susan Wolfson.

1. For Austen, too, the humility of "exact likeness" is a miniature trait, as in her self-effacing description of "the little bit (two Inches wide) of Ivory on which I work with so fine a Brush, as produces little effect after much labour" (Letters 323). See, too, the preface to the short-lived periodical, The Miniature (1804), by "Solomon Grildig": "My attempts will follow the style of a MINIATURE, and while the touches are less daring, while less force, and richness of imagination may be found in the following sketches, they may perhaps derive some merit in a humbler scale, from correctness of design, and accuracy of representation" (3-4; qtd. in Stewart 45).

2. This is not to argue that Frankenstein is a "realist" novel, a possibility addressed by Levine and by Kearns. See Levine's conclusion, for instance, that Shelley's novel is "the myth of realism" ("Ambiguous" 30); or Kearns's claim that it offers a "space in which to examine realism's necessary complicity with and resistance to" canonical male language (122-23). Because I describe Shelley's theorization of realism, rather than her actual deployment of it, my use of this admittedly unwieldy term comes closest to what Williams calls an unidealizing and potentially radical aesthetic of "actual existence" (259). To explain the bourgeois response to aesthetic ugliness, however, I also keep in view what Levine considers its "middling" aspects (Realistic 5). In addition, my understanding of the term is indebted to Belsey (67-84), Ermarth, and the readings in McKeon, with an entire section devoted to the theory of realism.

3. Such an argument makes only the most attenuated of claims about Shelley's personal politics. Smith points out the "fluctuation in [Shelley's] views—between fear of the revolutionary working class and sympathy for the laboring poor" (17). Less tentative readings include, for example, those of Bennett, whose comparison of Elizabeth Lavenza with Elizabeth Raby (the heroine of Falkner) is premised on a confident claim about "the author's remarkably consistent reformist sociopolitical ethos" (1); Sterrenburg, who just as confidently observes her "gravitation toward conservatism" (143); or the Marxian allegories of O'Flinn and Montag, who view the Creature as a figure for an emergent working class, and of Marshall, who reads Frankenstein as "a proleptic allegory of the 1832 political marriage between the aristocracy and the upper ranks of the middle class" (15). Shelley herself, without necessarily contradicting any of these readings, hints that she is not ready to accept an inclusiveness like that embodied in her Creature. In 1832, she writes to her friend Fanny Wright that "The people will be redressed" (2:124), yet a day earlier she had lamented that "Progressiveness" can only be achieved by the "sick destructiveness" of radical activism (2:122). Sterrenburg, despite declaring Shelley's "growing detachment from radicalism" (143), begins to get at her ambiva- lence by arguing that Frankenstein "goes beyond both the radical and conservative traditions it appropriates" (144)—that it "internalizes political debates" by drawing on "revolutionary symbolism … in a postrevolutionary era when collective political movements no longer appear viable" (145). Refreshing though this complicated reading is, Sterrenburg's certainty that Shelley's monster metaphor contains no "reference to collective movements" (157) seems odd given the political volatility of the years following Waterloo.

4. The quote appears on page 86 of the 1818 text reproduced by Macdonald and Scherf which, unless otherwise noted, provides the source for all subsequent page references.

5. For the following account of Georgian miniatures I am indebted to Foskett, Noon, and G. Reynolds.

6. See Noon (177-80) and G. Reynolds (133-42).

7. Huet offers a provocative reading of the portraits in Frankenstein. But, whereas her interest is "the dark desire to reproduce without the other," which she reads in the portraits as an effort "to erase the paternal image, to dispel the disquieting presence of a silent father" (126), I read these portraits not in terms of the "monstrous births" of the female imagination, but in terms of the theatricality of class.

8. Guillory summarizes the anxieties generated by social mobility in terms suited to Shelley's novel: "The fact of increased upward mobility is at once the premise of ‘bourgeois ideology’—that anyone can succeed—and its prime source of social anxiety. Hence the continuous appropriation by the bourgeoisie of aristocratic caste traits, precisely in order to reinforce and stabilize a class structure founded upon a necessary degree of instability or fluidity" (95).

9. Ellis argues that Victor is shaped as "a self-denying, bourgeois male" by an upbringing that strictly separated the public from the domestic sphere. Pointing to this scene, she notes: "Alphonse Frankenstein retired from public life entirely in order to pursue this self-perpetuation" (128-29). On the shifting boundaries of civic and private virtue, see Barrell.

10. Campbell observes that emulative behavior isn't always imitative: "commentators at the time … were quick to presume that imitative conduct [on the part of servants] revealed the presence of emulative motives," biased in part by a "jealous regard for their own privileges, combined with an intense anxiety about the stability of the social order" (41).

11. Ellis also observes the strange rush to judgment displayed by the Frankensteins, who are "uninterested in pursuing the truth: that the ‘evidence’ that convicts Justine has been planted," an "oversight" she deems "truly incredible." Ellis finds equally incredible the unquestioning response to the servants who discover the picture in Justine's pocket: "This act on the part of two servants is certainly one that might reasonably arouse suspicion on the part of their employers, but the Frankensteins appear to view their inability to suspect anyone as one of their greatest virtues."

12. Or "being a possession": in the 1818 edition, as Betty T. Bennett argues, Elizabeth Lavenza is like a commodity "in a business negotiation" between Alphonse and his brother (Elizabeth's father), her adoption into the Frankenstein family finalized by "a guarantee that the child will retain her mother's fortune" (2). And in the 1831 edition, "Caroline Frankenstein … gives the four-year-old Lavenza to the five-year-old Victor Frankenstein ‘as a pretty present’" (3).

13. Joseph (109) and Mellor (225) see here a tacit reference to Fuseli's The Nightmare.

14. See Ruskin's later comment on aesthetic scale, which similarly cites the Elgin Marbles:

a colossal statue is not necessarily any more an exaggeration of what it represents, than a miniature is a diminution; it need not be a representation of a giant, but a representation, on a large scale, of a man: only it is to be observed, that as any plane intersecting the cone of rays between us and the object must receive an image smaller than the object, a small image is rationally and completely expressive of a larger one; but not a large of a small one. Hence I think that all statues above the Elgin standard … are, in a measure, taken by the eye for representations of giants, and I think them always disagreeable.


15. Brought to Britain by Lord Elgin in 1803-04, the marbles immediately became a focus for stylistic debate. And when, in 1816, the government debated whether, and for how much, to purchase them from Elgin, their aesthetics became a matter of public interest. The House of Commons executed a lengthy investigation into their value. Witnesses—the leading artists and connoisseurs of the day—were called, and their testimony was published. These grandest of portraits were finally purchased for £35,000 (about half of Elgin's outlay) and displayed in the British Museum, where they were to aid in a seemingly interminable task: "to improve our national taste for the Fine Arts" (Report 6). On their pivotal importance in aesthetic debates of the day, see Rothenberg: "They served as a focal point around which the most significant aesthetic and critical issues of the day were fought out" (5).

16. Byron, English Bards and Scotch Reviewers 1029-30; Farington 9:3290. Byron critiques the British removal of the marbles in The Curse of Minerva and, more famously, in Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, where he bemoans that the British have "snatch'd [Greece's] shrinking Gods to northern climes abhorr'd" (2:135)—the scalar adjective suggesting not just their fragmentation (and hence physical diminishment) but also their depleted value outside of their original context.

17. While "those who admired the ideal art of the Apollo Belvedere praise the smoothly finished surfaces of sculpture," Magnuson writes, "advocates of the Elgin Marbles tended to ignore the surface corrosion for the truth of the interior body motions, the bones, the muscles, and veins" (186).

18. Heringman observes, however, that in a practical (not aesthetic) register, the cost of purchasing the marbles was often compared with the "rude wasting" of a hungry underclass—though even this rhetorical seizure of a superior morality was contested by the opposing sides of the debate over their value.

19.Autobiography 1:66-7. Haydon was among the first and most avid supporters of the marbles. He had read Charles Bell's Anatomy and Philosophy of Expression as connected with the Fine Arts (1806) and attended his London lectures, and when he bought John Bell's The Anatomy of the Bones, Muscles & Joints (1793) in 1805, he "took the book home, hugging it" (1:18).

20. The "Englishness" of the marbles, Heringman argues, extended to a national "economy depleted by the Napoleonic Wars, presenting an appearance of ruin that links the physical state of the Marbles suggestively with the state of the nation" (59). Haydon's response to the marbles was conditioned in part by the circumstances of his viewings. He wandered among them and experienced them physically: they were, he recalls, "within sight and reach" (1:66), and once, a "Marble fell down and cut my leg" (1:70). His close proximity to the gigantic statues may have forced an attention to parts rather than wholes; in Stewart's words, "we know the miniature as a spatial whole or as temporal parts, [but] we know the gigantic only partially" (71). Poor lighting (Haydon often stole by night into Burlington House to view them by candlelight: 1:108) may also have contributed. The flickering light suggests an explanation for the marbles' apparent lifelikeness; the literally giant shadows they cast are perhaps registered by Keats (who undoubtedly had heard a great deal about the marbles from Haydon before he saw them in March 1817) in the last line of "On Seeing the Elgin Marbles."

21. Lynch observes a similar concern about the "overlaboured display" of low-art forms: "High art set about defining itself in contradistinction to popular and amateur art by identifying itself with an ideal of ‘pictorial abstemiousness’ and identifying others with excess" (59). "There were ways to redeem this excess," however: "Physiological unrulines could be construed as evidence of English ‘liberty’ and … like Britons' eccentricity or failure to exhibit the social graces … it could be made into a cause for celebration" (60).

22. On Cornwall's poem, see Larrabee (274-75, 279) and Scott (61-64).

23. Excess functions as a trope for forms of public representation that were emerging in the literary and political cultures of post-Napoleonic romanticism, both through the more inclusive canvas of the novel and through the activism for parliamentary reform. As affordable commodities read by the masses, novels were often considered agents of literary democratization. By animating the Elgin Marble aesthetic in Frankenstein, however, Shelley explores the democratic potential not of novel-reading, but of novelistic representation. I use "reform aesthetic" to designate an aesthetics (as opposed to a cultural phenomenon) that embodies developing ideas about political reform.

24.Gentleman's Magazine 27 (1830): 711. Compare Croker's association of a "low" realism with Dutch painting in his review of Waverley (Quarterly Review 11 [1814]: 355). Shelley's review provides a stepping-stone between Croker and Eliot.

25. Thus, echoing Walton in Frankenstein, whose "extended and magnificent dreams" are said to "want (as the painters call it) keeping" (53). "Keeping" connotes the "maintenance of the proper relation between the representations of nearer and more distant objects in a picture" (OED).

26. Compare Percy Shelley's Defence of Poetry ("The great secret of morals is Love; or a going out of our own nature …" [Poetry and Prose 487], and "On Love" (whose 1829 publication in The Keepsake Mary Shelley oversees). In the latter essay, the elucidation of sympathy involves a miniature, whose aesthetic of particularity splits the difference between the material and the ideal: "We dimly see within our intellectual nature a miniature as it were of our entire self, yet deprived of all that we condemn or despise, the ideal prototype of every thing excellent or lovely…. Not only the portrait of our external being, but an assemblage of the minutest particulars of which our nature is composed: a mirror whose surface reflects only the forms of purity and brightness…." (473-74).

27. Since anatomical study was the province of artists as well as surgeons—a fact that became widely recognized during the Elgin Marble affair—both groups benefited from bodysnatching. On bodysnatching and the Anatomy Act of 1832, see Richardson, who remarks that her research began when Shelley's novel prompted her to seek a relation with bodysnatching (xiii). Richardson can be credited with inspiring at least three readings of Frankenstein: Marshall's full-length work, along with the essays by Tuite and Liggins.

28. St. Clair notes "at least three cartoons titled ‘The Political Frankenstein' were printed in 1832" ("Impact" 61). Sterrenburg reproduces and briefly discusses one of these, a cartoon by the portrait painter and engraver James Parry entitled "Reform BILL's First Step Amongst His Political Frankensteins" (167).

29. My argument here registers Moretti's claim that "Whoever dares to fight the monster automatically becomes the representative of the species, of the whole of society" (84).

30. In addition, the erotic dimension of this reading—the fact that the Creature places the picture in the folds of Justine's dress while announcing his desire for her—offers a possible destination for realism: it works on the reader's body.

31. Gigante reads this exclusion in aesthetic terms: in his ugliness, she argues, the Creature "symbolizes nothing but the unsymbolized: the repressed ugliness at the heart of an elaborate symbolic network that is threatened the moment he bursts on the scene, exposing to view his radically uninscribed existence" (567).

Works Cited

Austen, Jane. Jane Austen's Letters. Ed. Deirdre Le Faye. New York: Oxford UP, 1995.

Bakhtin, M. M. The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays. Ed. Michael Holquist. Trans. Caryl Emerson and Holquist. Austin: U of Texas P, 1981.

Barrell, John. The Political Theory of Painting from Reynolds to Hazlitt: "The Body of the Public." New Haven: Yale UP, 1986.

Belsey, Catherine. Critical Practice. London: Routledge, 1980.

Bennett, Betty T. "‘Not This Time, Victor!’: Mary Shelley's Reversioning of Elizabeth, from Frankenstein to Falkner." Bennett and Curran 1-17.

Bennett, Betty T., and Stuart Curran, eds. Mary Shelley in Her Times. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 2000.

Brewer, John, and Roy Porter, eds. Consumption and the World of Goods. London: Routledge, 1993.

Burke, Edmund. Reflections on the Revolution in France. Ed. L. G. Mitchell. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1993.

Byron, George Gordon, Lord. The Complete Poetical Works. Ed. Jerome J. McGann. 7 vols. Oxford: Clarendon P, 1980-91.

Campbell, Colin. "Understanding Traditional and Modern Patterns of Consumption in Eighteenth-Century England: A Character-Action Approach." Brewer and Porter 40-57.

Cornwall, Barry. "On the Statue of Theseus in the Elgin Collection of Marbles." Gentleman's Magazine 88 (1818): 157.

Eliot, George. Adam Bede. Ed. Carol A. Martin. Oxford: Clarendon P, 2001.

Ellis, Kate. "Monsters in the Garden: Mary Shelley and the Bourgeois Family." Levine and Knoepflmacher 123-42.

Ermarth, Elizabeth Deeds. Realism and Consensus in the English Novel. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1983.

Farington, Joseph. The Diary of Joseph Farington. Ed. Kenneth Garlick and Angus Macintyre. 16 vols. New Haven: Yale UP, 1978-1998.

Foskett, Daphne. Miniatures Dictionary and Guide. Woodbridge (UK): Antique Collectors' Club, 1987.

Guillory, John. Cultural Capital: The Problem of Literary Canon Formation. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1993.

Haydon, Benjamin Robert. Autobiography and Memoirs of Benjamin Robert Haydon. Ed. Tom Taylor. Intro. Aldous Huxley. 2 vols. London: P. Davies, 1926.

———. Lectures on Painting and Design. 2 vols. London: Longman, Brown, Green, and Longmans, 1846.

Hazlitt, William. The Complete Works of William Hazlitt. Ed. P. P. Howe. 21 vols. London: J. M. Dent, 1930-34.

Henderson, Andrea. "Passion and Fashion in Joanna Baillie's ‘Introductory Discourse.’" PMLA 112 (1997): 198-213.

Heringman, Noah. "Stones So Wonderous Cheap." Studies in Romanticism 37 (1998): 43-62.

Huet, Marie-Hélène. Monstrous Imagination. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1993.

Joseph, Gerhard. "The Child Is Father of the Monster." Hartford Studies in Literature 7 (1975): 97-115.

Kandl, John. "The Politics of Keats's Early Poetry." The Cambridge Companion to Keats. Ed. Susan J. Wolfson. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2001.

Kearns, Katherine. Nineteenth-Century Literary Realism: Through the Looking Glass. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1996.

Keats, John. The Poems of John Keats. Ed. Jack Stillinger. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1978.

Knoepflmacher, U. C. "Thoughts on the Aggression of Daughters." Levine and Knoepflmacher 88-122.

Larrabee, Stephen. English Bards and Grecian Marbles. New York: Columbia UP, 1943.

Levine, George. "The Ambiguous Heritage of Frankenstein." Levine and Knoepflmacher 3-30.

———. The Realistic Imagination. English Fiction from Frankenstein to Lady Chatterley. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1981.

———, and U. C. Knoepflmacher, eds. The Endurance of Frankenstein: Essays on Mary Shelley's Novel. Berkeley: U of California P, 1979.

Liggins, Emma. "The Medical Gaze and the Female Corpse: Looking at Bodies in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein." Studies in the Novel 32 (2000): 129-46.

Lynch, Deidre Shauna. The Economy of Character: Novels, Market Culture, and the Business of Inner Meaning. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1998.

Magnuson, Paul. Reading Public Romanticism. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1998.

Marshall, Tim. Murdering to Dissect: Grave-robbing, "Frankenstein" and the Anatomy Literature. Manchester: Manchester UP, 1995.

McKeon, Michael, ed. Theory of the Novel: A Historical Approach. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 2000.

Mellor, Anne K. "Possessing Nature: The Female in Frankenstein." Romanticism and Feminism. Ed. Anne Mellor. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1988. 220-32.

Montag, Warren. "‘The Workshop of Filthy Creation’: A Marxist Reading of Frankenstein." Frankenstein. Ed. Johanna Smith. New York: Bedford-St. Martin's P, 1995. 384-95.

Moretti, Franco. "Dialectic of Fear." Trans. David Forgacs. Signs Taken for Wonders: Essays in the Sociology of Literary Forms. New York: Verso, 1988. 83-108.

Murdoch, John, Jim Murrell, Patrick J. Noon, and Roy Strong. The English Miniature. New Haven: Yale UP, 1981.

Noon, Patrick J. "Miniatures on the Market." Murdoch et al. 163-209.

O'Flinn, Paul. "Production and Reproduction: The Case of Frankenstein." Literature and History 9 (1983): 194-213.

Paulson, Ronald, ed. The Analysis of Beauty. New Haven: Yale UP, 1997.

Report from the Select Committee on the Earl of Elgin's Collection of Sculptured Marbles & c. London, 1816.

Reynolds, Graham. English Portrait Miniatures. New York: Cambridge UP, 1988.

Reynolds, Joshua. Discourses on Art. Ed. Robert R. Wark. New Haven: Yale UP, 1997.

Richardson, Ruth. Death, Dissection, and the Destitute. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2000.

Rothenberg, Jacob. "Descensus ad terram": The Acquisition and Reception of the Elgin Marbles. New York: Garland, 1977.

Scott, Grant F. The Sculpted Word: Keats, Ekphrasis, and the Visual Arts. Hanover, NH: UP of New England, 1994.

Shee, Martin Archer. Rhymes on Art; or, The Remonstrance of a Painter. London, 1805.

Shelley, Mary. Review of Cloudesley; A Tale. Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine 27 (May 1830): 711-16.

———. Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus. 1818. Ed. D. L. Macdonald and Kathleen Scherf. Peterborough, Ontario: Broadview P, 1994.

———. The Letters of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley. Ed. Betty T. Bennett. 3 vols. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1980.

Smith, Johanna. Mary Shelley. New York: Twayne, 1996.

St. Clair, William. "The Impact of Frankenstein." Bennett and Curran 38-63.

Sterrenburg, Lee. "Mary Shelley's Monster: Politics and Psyche in Frankenstein." Levine and Knoepflmacher 143-71.

Stewart, Susan. On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, and the Collection. Durham: Duke UP, 1984.

Swift, Jonathan. Gulliver's Travels. Ed. Robert A. Greenberg. New York: W. W. Norton, 1970.

Tuite, Clara. "Frankenstein's Monster and Malthus' ‘Jaundiced Eye’: Population, Body Politics, and the Monstrous Sublime." Eighteenth-Century Life 22 (1998): 141-55.

Vickery, Amanda. "Women and the World of Goods." Brewer and Porter 274-301.

Williams, Raymond. Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society. New York: Oxford UP, 1983.

Terry W. Thompson (essay date summer 2004)

SOURCE: Thompson, Terry W. "‘A Majestic Figure of August Dignity’: Herculean Echoes in Frankenstein." ANQ 17, no. 3 (summer 2004): 36-41.

[In the following essay, Thompson traces the influence of the Hercules stories in Ovid's Metamorphoses on Shelley's composition of Frankenstein.]

At the end of her journal entries for 1815, Mary Shelley lists the titles of seventy-five works that she read during the year, among them Gibbon's twelve-volume Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Pope's superb translation of The Iliad, and Plutarch's prodigious Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans (Journal 47-49). Many of the books are mentioned only once or twice in the daily entries in her journal, while others are not mentioned at all, or at least not in the pages that have survived. However, one title is mentioned repeatedly, sometimes twice or even three times in a single day's entry: The Metamorphoses, Ovid's exhaustive first century AD compilation of classical myths (Journal 43-47). Shelley read, in the original Latin, all of the book during 1815, so the next year, when she commenced the daunting task of expanding her brief, dream-inspired horror tale into a full-length novel, The Metamorphoses—as well as her other wide-ranging classical readings—served as prime sources for the young author's frequent allusions to mythical Greek figures, Prometheus and Pygmalion among the most obvious instances (Lowe-Evans 74).

However, there is an intriguing mythological parallel in Frankenstein that has received practically no critical comment, one that enhances an already multilayered and meaning-rich narrative. In many ways, Victor's forlorn and unnatural creature offers poignant echoes of Hercules, the greatest and most fearsome of all the heroes in Greek mythology, yet also one of the loneliest and most tragic figures in the Western canon.

In her journal entries from 8 April to 13 May 1815, Shelley meticulously records her daily readings from The Metamorphoses, often listing the very number of lines completed. During this period, the only breaks in her daily doses of Ovid come from lost pages of her journal.1 This is not to posit that Mary Shelley—as she began blocking out her first novel in 1816—utilized the Herculean tales she had read in Ovid and elsewhere as a template for her basic plot any more than she followed to the very letter the myths of Prometheus or Pygmalion. But rather, given Mary Shelley's admitted fascination with figures who were outcasts and vagabonds, misfits and anomalies, it seems clear that, gleaned from Ovid and elsewhere, the touching stories of Hercules—a giant created in an unnatural way and left to fend for himself in a cruel world—would find a place in her quiver of allusions and thus add an even deeper layer to her masterpiece about a powerful creature set loose in the world by a cavalier and uncaring creator-father.

The most obvious similarity between Hercules and the creature is, of course, their imposing physiques. Both are gigantic, superhuman in size and strength. However, of more crucial parallel, both hulking misfits are born illegitimate and suffer horribly for it. Hercules, for example, was born a half-caste. According to Plutarch, this ill-gotten son of Zeus was formed "of half-blood amongst the gods, having had a mortal woman for his mother" (93). In a world of normal humans, this huge Greek hybrid—although not deformed or physically ugly—ultimately proved to be a monstrous and destructive misfit. Because the tales of Hercules accrued over many centuries and often were reinterpreted by succeeding generations to fit new tastes and preferences, there are, of course, differing versions of some of the important events in the heroic demigod's life. Most classical sources do, however, agree on one particular aspect concerning the origins of Hercules: he was delivered in the midst of a thunderstorm just as a blinding flash of lightning—the sacred calling card of Zeus—illuminated the earth and sky with supernatural fire, signaling the arrival of something—and someone—far from the ordinary (Feder 31).

Likewise, Victor Frankenstein's giant creature is neither god nor man, but something from the purgatory in between. He is a bastard son of science, an unnatural being brought to sentient life completely formed. In a most telling creation echo, when Victor is fifteen years old, during "a most violent and terrible thunderstorm," he sees a magnificent tree shattered by a bolt of lightning: "and so soon as the dazzling light vanished the oak had disappeared, and nothing remained but a blasted stump" (Shelley, Frankenstein 33). This lightning strike proves a pivotal event in the young scholar's life: it is what inspires him to seek the very origins of creation in the white heat of electricity. Therefore, Victor's monster—or at least the idea of him—is born in a flash of lightning exactly like Hercules. (That the mighty oak is the sacred tree of Zeus provides an additional subtle layer of meaning.)

Despite their many permutations down the centuries, there are several constants in the Herculean myths. Classical sources agree, for instance, that during his short life, this giant demigod was governed by passion, consumed by guilt, and frequently bereft of self-discipline. In The Metamorphoses, Hercules had great difficulty "controlling his flaring rage," often destroying life and property in puerile fits of anger that he later deeply regretted (204). In short, Hercules frequently seemed little more than a temperamental man-child who just happened to have the strength of a Titan. According to G. Karl Galinsky in The Herakles Theme: Adaptations of the Hero in Literature from Homer to the Twentieth Century, the brief and mostly unhappy life of Hercules symbolized "[m]an choosing between good and bad, man struggling for a decent fate in a hostile universe" (185). Such epic themes apply equally well to Victor Frankenstein's misbegotten creature, whose abbreviated life span—only about four years—is a constant struggle to find his place in a cold and callous world inhabited by creatures a fraction of his size and strength.

Zeus, the absent creator-father, did not help raise Hercules, did not teach him right from wrong or instruct him in the complicated ways of human existence. In fact, the supreme ruler of all Olympus cruelly abandoned his son immediately after birth, refusing to accept the consequences of his violation of a mortal woman as well as the manifold responsibilities of fatherhood. To protect his Olympian pride, Zeus even tried—albeit unsuccessfully—to keep the birth of his problematical offspring secret from Hera and the other divines. Likewise, Victor—behind his fiancée's back—violates nature, sires a son, and then tries desperately to hide him from family and friends, because, as Chris Baldick observes, "his monster is a very private enterprise, conducted in the shadow of guilt and concealment" (51). In effect, Zeus and Victor both "cheat" on their women, then try without success to avoid the unpleasant consequences of their self-aggrandizing actions. Plus, in perfect keeping with Greek morality, their sins are visited on their sons. In her 1996 biography of Mary Shelley, Johanna Smith argues that Victor, after giving the spark of life to his grotesque creation, "violates a cultural norm—that parental care is owed to an offspring," regardless of the child's appearance or legitimacy (43). In short, neither Hercules nor the monster has a nurturing father or a normal childhood. Both nonsocialized misfits are cast adrift without the compass of family structure or moral precepts to guide them. They are the part-human children of shame and are treated as such. As a result, they must struggle through life on their own, groping awkwardly for personal identities as they go.

In The Metamorphoses, Ovid describes Hercules as a fearless hero who faced all challenges head-on with "customary courage" (207). According to Crowell's Handbook of Classical Literature, Hercules, especially in the earliest versions of the myths, was "best known for his courage and his amazing physical strength" (Feder 161). The Oxford Companion toClassical Literature appends "endurance, good nature, and compassion" to the list of admirable Herculean traits that have been celebrated down the centuries (Howatson 269). However, this neglected son of Zeus was forced to "endure the burden of great toil and danger and agonizing personal sorrow" throughout his entire existence (Feder 161). Such powerful descriptions of woe are matched by the monster's short and lonely life as an outcast, a wanderer, a homeless and hated Caliban. After a violent fit of madness, Hercules was forced to perform the infamous Twelve Labors as penance for murdering "Megara [his first wife] and his children under the delusion that they were his enemies" (Howatson 270). In parallel, Victor's creature loses a wife and kills a wife—the former his own, the latter his creator's. The monster then imposes his own painful penance as he wanders across the whole of Europe and then into the barren Arctic, enduring great loneliness and abuse as he goes because—like Hercules—the creature "is not only conscious of the wrongs done him but also aware of his own guilt" (Thornburg 119).

Despite his mercurial temperament and childlike naivete, Hercules was, when given the opportunity, incredibly kind and generous. For example, Galinsky describes how "the predominant part of the tradition emphasized Herakles's use of his strength for […] the common good" (4). In much the same fashion, the monster prefers to do charitable deeds, becoming violent only after chronic maltreatment: "‘I was benevolent and good; misery made me a fiend’" (Shelley, Frankenstein 103). In fact, so tender is his character that he cannot bring himself to slaughter animals for food. Thus, during his four-year life span, he is a strict vegetarian: "‘I do not destroy the lamb and the kid to glut my appetite; acorns and berries afford me sufficient nourishment’" (157). Because he does not know his own strength, the creature's first killing—the strangulation of young William Frankenstein—is a tragic accident, not willful murder. As he tries to kidnap the little boy, he gently explains, "‘I do not intend to hurt you’" (152). This unintentional killing is analogous to the many accidental deaths caused by Hercules, the archetypal "bull in the china shop." In one often-cited example, an adolescent Hercules, reproached for striking a sour note on his lyre, smashed the instrument over the head of his music teacher, killing the poor man instantly. In another instance, while attending a banquet in his honor, the hungry giant, reaching for a platter of food, crushed the unfortunate guest next to him with an errant elbow.

Despite their desperate efforts to fit in, Hercules and the monster never find a niche in human society. Mammoth square pegs set loose in a round world, their huge bodies and unpredictable tempers intimidate all who encounter them. According to Ovid, toward the end of his life, after years of pain and penance, loneliness and loss, Hercules begged the Olympian gods for mercy, for release: "‘I am so wretched an object. […] take away this cruelly tortured, hateful soul, that was born for toil!’" (208). Indeed, the final—and by far the most obvious—parallel between Zeus's son and Victor's monster is the manner in which they die. Although both Hercules and the creature can be wounded, sometimes gravely, neither can be killed outright, at least not by any human foe. As a result, when they finally grow weary of life and decide to end it, they are the only ones who can strike themselves down, can extinguish with elemental fire the glowing spark of an unnatural life. According to Ovid's moving account, at the end of his days, haunted by his many murders and suffering from agonizing wounds,

Hercules, the renowned son of [Zeus], cut down the trees which grew on lofty Oeta and built them into a pyre. […] he kindled the pyre and, while the greedy flames were taking hold on the pile, laid the skin of the Nemean lion on top of the heap of tree-trunks and lay down, his neck resting on his club, and on his face an expression no different from that of a guest, reclining among the winecups, with garlands on his head.


Moments later, continues The Metamorphoses, as the great but tragic soul of Hercules rose from the all-consuming flames, Zeus, the long-absent father, flew down from high Olympus and swept his son's spirit "up through the hollow clouds in his four-horse chariot and set him among the glittering stars" (210). Wrought at the end of so short and painful a life, this honorable suicide transfigured the Greek demigod from a lonely and destructive outcast into what Ovid heralds as "a majestic figure of august dignity" (210).

Such a tranquil embracing of death as a release, as a return to peaceful oblivion, is closely echoed when Victor's creature describes his own plans for self-immolation to Captain Robert Walton, the Arctic amanuensis for both the monster and his maker: "‘My work is nearly complete. Neither yours nor any man's death is needed to consummate the series of my being, and accomplish that which must be done; but it requires my own. Do not think that I shall be slow to perform this sacrifice. […] I shall collect my fu- neral pile and consume to ashes this miserable frame’" (Shelley, Frankenstein 245). The creature then declares that in suicide "‘must I find my happiness. […] it is my only consolation. […] Polluted by crimes, and torn by the bitterest remorse, where can I find rest but in death?’" (245)

On the last page of the novel, as he stands over the wasted corpse of his creator-father, racked with guilt and finally cognizant of the tremendous harm he has inflicted upon so many innocents, the monster describes how he will atone for his lengthy catalog of sins: "‘I shall ascend my funeral pile triumphantly, and exult in the agony of the torturing flames. The light of that conflagration will fade away; my ashes will be swept into the sea by the winds. My spirit will sleep in peace; or if it thinks, it will not surely think thus. Farewell’" (246). With those memorable last words, the friendless creature leaps through the cabin window and onto a nearby ice floe. According to Captain Walton, the tragic giant is "soon borne away by the waves, and lost in darkness and distance" (246). As he goes to meet his fiery doom, the poignant image of the lonely creature on his ice raft being swallowed up by the Arctic fog still echoes hauntingly down the many generations since the novel's first publication in 1818—just as the moving image of a lonely Hercules being enveloped by clouds of white smoke still resonates across more than three millennia of accrued Western myth. In the end, the creature's self-cremation should be interpreted as precisely what Mary Shelley intended it to be: a very Ovidian, very Herculean suicide, not at the summit of Mount Oeta, but at the North Pole—the very summit of the world. Like a good and honorable Greek, the monster will mount his great funeral pyre and, in death, gain his own form of "august dignity." After a short life of pain, loneliness, and despair, the outcast and illegitimate son of Victor Frankenstein will find, in the annihilating flames, the eternal peace he craves, just as did his giant Greek avatar: Hercules, the illegitimate son of Zeus.


1. Mary Shelley's journal entries detailing her readings from The Metamorphoses begin on 8 April: "Read fifteen lines of Ovid's ‘Metamorphosis’ [sic] with Hogg"; 9 April: "Read some lines of Ovid before breakfast"; 10 April: "Mary reads 3rd Fable of Ovid"; 11 April: "Read 4th and 5th Fables of Ovid." Except for the missing journal pages for 12-14 April, Shelley's daily readings from her Latin Ovid continue until the final reference appears on Saturday, 13 May: "Read Ovid (60 lines)." Unfortunately, all her journal entries from 14 May through the remainder of 1815 are lost.

Works Cited

Baldick, Chris. In Frankenstein's Shadow: Myth, Monstrosity, and Nineteenth-Century Writing. New York: Oxford UP, 1987.

Feder, Lillian. Crowell's Handbook of Classical Literature. New York: Harper, 1964.

Galinsky, G. Karl. The Herakles Theme: Adaptations of the Hero in Literature from Homer to the Twentieth Century. Totowa, NJ: Rowman, 1972.

Howatson, M. C., ed. The Oxford Companion to Classical Literature. 2nd ed. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1989.

Lowe-Evans, Mary. Frankenstein: Mary Shelley's Wedding Guest. New York: Twayne, 1993.

Ovid. The Metamorphoses. Trans. Mary M. Innes. London: Penguin, 1955.

Plutarch. Plutarch's Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans. Trans. John Dryden. Ed. Edmund Fuller. Garden City: International Collectors Lib., 1959.

Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein. 1831. New York: Modern Lib., 1984.

———. Mary Shelley's Journal. Ed. Frederick L. Jones. Norman: U of Oklahoma P, 1947.

Smith, Johanna. Mary Shelley. New York: Twayne, 1996.

Thornburg, Mary K. Patterson. The Monster in the Mirror: Gender and the Sentimental/Gothic Myth in Frankenstein. Ann Arbor: UMI Research, 1987.

Andrew Lustig (essay date 13 August 2004)

SOURCE: Lustig, Andrew. "The Lessons of Frankenstein: Nature, Nurture, and What Lies Between." Commonweal 131, no. 14 (13 August 2004): 8-9.

[In the following essay, Lustig stresses the relevance of Frankenstein to modern issues of biotechnology and religion.]

How far should we go in our efforts to alter nature, including human nature? As stewards of God's good creation, what are our responsibilities? What are the implications of recent theological emphases on human beings as "created co-creators" with God, especially on efforts to improve or transform "natural" conditions that were once seen as providential (or fated) "givens"? (For an egregious example of the latter perspective, consider Leo XII's opinion in 1829: "Whoever allows himself to be vaccinated ceases to be a child of God. Smallpox is a judgment of God, [and] vaccination is a challenge toward heaven.")

These are the sort of questions being asked in a multiyear study funded by the Ford Foundation called, "Altering Nature: How Religious Traditions Assess the New Biotechnologies." The project, which I'm directing, involves more than forty scholars from various disciplines, and addresses questions about the ways religious values shape, and are shaped by, new biotechnical developments. Two features of recent religious engagement with developments in biotechnology have emerged as particularly noteworthy. First, the supposed "warfare" between science and religion is overblown. Second, the matters under discussion are quite complex. To start with, we've learned that religious views on biotechnology vary widely. People of faith clearly have a stake in repairing and improving the world, in responding to and eradicating disease, and in curing as well as in giving care. Similarly, scientists are not just cheerleaders for "progress," and their judgments can differ significantly about the application of various technologies. Thoughtful observers of scientific progress, it turns out, are often chastened believers: they acknowledge the mixed blessings of many technological "advances."

Most of the issues the "Altering Nature" project is researching have provided little evidence of a general conflict between science and religion. Instead, as noted, we grapple with subtler questions. In light of tangible or plausible benefits, for example, how do we fairly assess concerns about future risks—individually or collectively—that may be more difficult to quantify? The current consensus against reproductive cloning is a case in point. It is based on the likelihood that there will be physical harms to the cloned child. But there are other concerns as well. What about possible ill effects that not only harm children physically but could disadvantage them in other ways? For example, would the parents of cloned children tend to view their progeny as "products" rather than unique persons in their own right? Where should the burden of proof lie in making judgments in the face of such uncertainty?

A second interesting discovery of our study has involved the appropriation of religious or quasi-religious categories by science. Mapping the human genome, for example, was often described in the popular press as "searching for the grail" or decoding the "book of life." Such mythopoeic ambitions are also echoed in ongoing cultural debates about the acceptability of genetically modified (GM) foods. In May, the European Union ended a six-year moratorium on the introduction of GM foods, although stricter standards for the labeling of such products will now be required. That policy shift, though, is unlikely to end the debate. German "Greens" have labeled GM products "Frankenfood," an obvious reference to Mary Shelley's nineteenth-century classic, Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus. Proponents of GM foods see such worries as irrational, the reaction of Luddites. They argue that recombinant techniques merely "accelerate" selective breeding practices that have been around for centuries. Still, critics who wonder whether splicing genes from different species—say, from salmon into tomatoes—presents a "qualitative" alteration that differs from earlier genetic mixing within species or across closely related species are hardly Luddites. Terms such as "Frankenfood" may be hyperbole, but they do point to deeper concerns. If the long-term consequences of "tampering" across species are unclear, should we take the risk?

I admit that recent data showing the safety of GMs are encouraging, and I am open to proceeding cautiously. But the particulars of the ongoing GM food debate did send me back to Shelley's novel. It was an enjoyable reunion, although I was struck by the differences between Shelley's "monster" and the bolt-necked ogre Boris Karloff immortalized on screen. Shelley's monster, save for physical ugliness, was quite refined in his other initial capacities; he was emotionally sensitive and had a quick mind. As the "noble savage," he turned to murderous rage only after Viktor Frankenstein, his creator, rejected him because of his physical flaws.

Technophobes readily embrace the cautionary tale about Dr. Frankenstein while scientists too easily dismiss it. I think we should resist both extremes. One side seemingly asks us to preserve nature against human tampering—as if nature "red in tooth and claw" could provide an unambiguous norm. Scientific enthusiasts, on the other hand, embrace claims of unproblematic progress, thereby denying the mixed blessings of many technologies.

Neither approach survives deeper scrutiny, and Shelley's novel can provide us with several "morals." For one, we need to temper the Promethean impulse ref- erenced in Shelley's subtitle. Hubris is always a danger in pursuing scientific mastery. Second, we must understand that our efforts to alter nature require not only humility, but openness and compassion. We need humility in making judgments amid uncertainty, especially when competing values prove difficult to compare. And if we do proceed, we need to be open toward the always "imperfect" results of our own best intentions. Victor Frankenstein's greatest failure may not have been his ambitious desire for knowledge or his self-absorbed quest for creating life, serious as these sins might have been. His worst crime was his refusal to show compassion and humanity to his flawed creation. A perfectionism that rejects or abandons what we cannot fully control (or what thwarts our expectations) is a flaw far deeper than a monster's ugliness.

Michelle Levy (essay date autumn 2004)

SOURCE: Levy, Michelle. "Discovery and the Domestic Affections in Coleridge and Shelley." Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 44, no. 4 (autumn 2004): 693-713.

[In the following essay, Levy addresses ideas of exploration, the unknown, and domestic affections in Frankenstein and Samuel Taylor Coleridge's poem "The Rime of the Ancyent Marinere."]

In the fall of 1797, as Samuel Taylor Coleridge was writing "The Rime of the Ancyent Marinere,"1 he found himself reflecting on the influence of his childhood reading, recalling how, from the age of three, he "read incessantly," and, by the age of six, had become obsessed with stories of the unknown, from Robinson Crusoe to the Arabian Nights' Entertainments.2 This childhood reading was not, however, without its ill effects. By reading the Arabian Nights' Entertainments, he became "haunted by spectres, whenever I was in the dark," causing such "anxious & fearful" behavior that his father, when he "found out the effect, which these books had produced," seized "and burnt them."3 "The Ancyent Marinere" records the powerful force that tales of the unknown exerted on Coleridge's imagination; he even bestowed his own compulsive habits on his fictional creation, claiming that the Mariner "had told this story ten thousand times since the voyage which was in early youth and fifty years before."4 In August 1806, Coleridge himself recited the Mariner's tale as another child, eight-year-old Mary Godwin, hid behind a sofa and listened enraptured.5 The profound influence of Coleridge's poem on Mary Shelley could be seen ten years later, in August 1816, when she, while reading Coleridge's companion piece to "The Ancyent Marinere," "Christabel," began to write her own story of the unknown, Frankenstein. 6 In writing Frankenstein, a novel that replicates "The Ancyent Marinere"'s intricate narrative structure of stories told within stories and incorporates the poem as a formative influence on her characters, Shelley participates in a conversation with Coleridge about the pleasures and the dangers of tales of the unknown.

Coleridge's and Shelley's fascination with the unknown reflects a larger cultural obsession of the Romantic period. Across generations and genders, writers of Coleridge's and Shelley's time produced unprecedented quantities of gothic fiction and exotic tales, with stories set in the Middle Ages, the Orient, or, as in "Kubla Khan, or, a Vision in a Dream," both. But while Coleridge and Shelley, like many, were captivated by printed narratives of the unknown, they were vociferously opposed to unregulated and irresponsible venturing into the unknown in the real world. As more than ever before was being learned and written about previously unknown worlds, whether they were found with a telescope or a microscope, on the seven seas or in a laboratory, Coleridge and Shelley, among others, could not help but observe that many of these discoveries inevitably led to conquest and exploitation. By creating a composite voyage alluding to the originary moments in European maritime exploration in "The Ancyent Marinere"—from Ferdinand Magellan's first circumnavigation of the globe in the sixteenth century to Captain James Cook's explorations of the South Pacific and Antarctic regions in the later part of the eighteenth century—Coleridge laid bare the economic motivations for and ethical implications of the Mariner's having been "the first that ever burst / Into that silent Sea" of the Pacific (lines 105-6).7 Indeed, readers of the poem have long argued that the Mariner's sufferings and guilt cannot be divorced from the expansionist project that culminated, by the end of the eighteenth century, in the slave trade, the plantation system, and imperial culture.8 Readers of Frankenstein have also observed that Mary Shelley, by reflecting darkly on contemporary maritime exploration and scientific experimentation, lodged a powerful complaint against the twin dangers of imperialism and science.9 Less attention, however, has been devoted to the ways in which Coleridge and Shelley sought to eradicate, or at least to mitigate, the damage caused by reckless discovery.

In this essay, I will argue that both Coleridge and Shelley saw the domestic affections as the primary tool for restraining these excesses. The commonality between "The Ancyent Marinere" and Frankenstein extends beyond their recommendation of the domestic affections to their recognition that the desire for discovery and conquest was profoundly inflamed by printed accounts of discovery and conquest. By liberating the imagination from the constraints of prudence and suffering, narratives of discovery tended to promise excitement and glory without consequences. Both "The Ancyent Marinere" and Frankenstein self-consciously reflect on the power of tales of the unknown, paying particular attention to the way such stories inspire imitation, both in the physical world and on the page. Thus they manifest their awareness that print culture enabled and encouraged British imperialism. Coleridge's poem and Shelley's novel exhibit a tension between their attraction to stories of the unknown and their repulsion by the effects of unbridled exploration. By investing considerable faith in the restraining powers of the domestic affections, Coleridge and Shelley sought, perhaps without complete success, to exploit the enthralling nature of the unknown without encouraging actual projects of discovery.


In a series of lectures given and published in 1795, Coleridge launched a severe attack on the slave trade and British imperialism, arguing that these practices were responsible for not only atrocities abroad but also corruption at home. Likewise, Shelley, between 1810 and 1830, joined a growing chorus of women writers who bitterly lamented both the global and domestic consequences of the expanding British Empire; she would, of course, extend this critique to the realm of experimental science. In Frankenstein, the creature and even Victor lament the destruction of civilizations through discovery and conquest. Shelley argues that destruction will be avoided "if no man allowed any pursuit whatsoever to interfere with the tranquillity of his domestic affections" (p. 38). In one of his lectures of 1795, Conciones ad Populum. Or Addresses to the People, Coleridge insists that the cultivation of "every home-born feeling" is necessary to "discipline the Heart and prepare it for the love of all Mankind."10 Shelley would have agreed with Coleridge that without love of family and friends one could not learn regard for the welfare of strangers, especially those—of different features and habits—who were likely to be encountered through the pursuit of discovery.

In espousing this view, Shelley would have been contradicting her father's, William Godwin's, writing of the early 1790s. For Coleridge, arguing that domestic feelings are the origin of all social feelings, that "[t]he most expansive Benevolence is that effected and rendered permanent by social and domestic affections," offers a direct rebuke of Godwin.11 According to Coleridge, Godwin's Enquiry Concerning Political Justice (1792) is "a book which builds without a foundation" insofar as it famously (or infamously) argued that general benevolence has no basis in, and is superior to, private attachments.12 "I ought to prefer no human being to another," wrote Godwin, "because that being is my father, my wife or my son, but because, for reasons which equally appeal to all understandings, that being is entitled to preference."13 Coleridge believed that love of family was not only natural and inevitable but also necessary for general benevolence: we could not come to care for others without first loving our parents, spouse, and children. The pivotal act of "The Ancyent Marinere," the slaying of the albatross, reflects the Mariner's failure to achieve universal benevolence. Here Coleridge may be suggesting that the Mariner, by having cut himself off from all domestic ties, seems to be incapable of acting kindly toward a "sweet Bird," "a Christian Soul," that "every day for food or play / Came to the Marinere's hollo!" (lines 88, 65, 73-4).

In addition to asserting the foundational importance of the domestic affections as a means of mitigating the devastation wrought by exploration, Coleridge was also aware of the great threat to family and home posed by imperial expansion and slavery. In his 1795 lectures, Coleridge bitterly laments that both Englishman and slave alike have been cruelly "torn from the bleeding breast of domestic affection."14 The corrosive effects of imperial policies on the home preoccupied Coleridge through the 1790s, pervading his lectures of 1795 and poems such as "Fears in Solitude," which was written in April 1798, the month after he completed "The Ancyent Marinere." In "The Ancyent Marinere," Coleridge presents the essential incompatibility of discovery and the domestic affections. The Mariner's only blood relative in the poem is a nephew who dies with the other two hundred men; when the "ghastly crew" is reanimated (line 340), his alienation from his only kinsman is complete:

The body of my brother's son
  Stood by me knee to knee:
The body and I pull'd at one rope,
  But he said nought to me—
          (lines 341-4)

The Mariner, it seems, has no other domestic attachments, nor does he have any connection to a home, choosing instead to "pass, like night, from land to land" (line 586). And he continues to prefer the less social and more solitary activity of prayer in church as "sweeter than the Marriage-feast, / 'Tis sweeter far to me" (lines 601-2).

The Mariner's participation in discovery not only forecloses his own ability to form domestic bonds but also threatens the wedding guest's ability to do so as well. Though not comparable to the violence done to an African man kidnapped and sold into slavery, or even to an Englishman forcibly impressed, the Mariner does use force—"He holds him with his skinny hand"—and enchantment—"He holds him with his glittering eye" (lines 9, 13). In telling his tale, he also draws the wedding guest, who is the "next of kin" to the bridegroom (line 6), away from "[t]he merry Minstralsy" (line 36). The Mariner may be hoping to do the wedding guest a good turn—

The moment that his face I see
I know the man that must hear me;
To him my tale I teach.
          (lines 588-90)

Yet the intrusion disrupts the wedding guest's sociability, perhaps permanently. By relating the "ghastly aventure" that has caused him perpetual "woeful agony" (lines 582.1.3, 579), the Mariner renders the wedding guest incapable of re-joining the party, despite the enticements of the "loud uproar" and "the Bride / And Bride-maids singing" (lines 591, 593-4).

Coleridge was concerned not only with the weakening of domestic affections at home but also with their perversion abroad. Life-in-Death, the central female figure in the poem and the only woman other than the bride and bridesmaids "and Maidens gay" (line 609), need not be understood solely as proof that Coleridge saw women as inherently corrupt.15 Rather, Life-in-Death may in part reflect his awareness that women could be diseased through the agency of wandering men. The geographical precision in the poem suggests that Life-in-Death may at one level allude to a native islander, a woman the Mariner would have likely encountered in the middle of the Pacific.16 Life-in-Death appears to the Mariner as a diseased and debauched version of the bride; instead of the bride's virginal rosiness, Life-in-Death's skin is "white as leprosy" and her lips are somewhat too red (line 192). Alan Bewell, who observes that leprosy was thought at the time to be a tropical form of syphilis, has clarified Coleridge's odd usage of the word to refer to a venereal disease.17 As was no doubt known to Coleridge, many of the women whom Captain Cook's men encountered on the South Pacific Islands were, like Life-in-Death, often hideously diseased, having been infected with venereal disease by prior encounters with European sailors. Cook's published journals are replete with anxiety about the contraction and transmission of venereal disease by and to his crew. His habitual calm is punctuated by disgust, having "the Mortification to find that all the care I took when I first Visited these islands to prevent this dreadfull desease from being communicated to them, prove enefectual."18 He is particularly appalled by the "ulcers upon different parts of their bodies, some of which had a very virulent appearence."19 Life-in-Death emerges, therefore, as an example of what Bewell has called "the staggering epidemiological cost of empire,"20 and Coleridge's poem serves as a reminder of the extreme devastation caused by the suspension of domestic affections through the pursuit of discovery.

Shelley's Frankenstein is even more explicit in viewing discovery as a threat to the domestic affections. In her novel, she dramatizes the voyage of another antipodal explorer, Robert Walton, whose Arctic expedition takes over where Coleridge's poem (and Cook's explorations) left off—searching for the elusive Northern Passage. Like the Mariner, both Walton and Victor Frankenstein are aspiring discoverers: Walton hopes to be the first to find an Arctic continent and a Northwest Passage from the Atlantic to the Pacific, and Frankenstein hopes to be the first to bring dead matter to life. Joseph W. Lew has identified Walton's imperialist ambitions and argues that Shelley, through her characterizations of Walton, Henry Clerval, and the creature, criticizes the growth of the British Empire in the Orient.21 However, Walton seeks not only a quicker trade route from Europe to the Orient, imagining "the inestimable benefit which I shall confer on all mankind to the last generation, by discovering a passage near the pole to those countries, to reach which at present so many months are requisite," but also an Arctic continent of "beauty and delight," where "snow and frost are banished" and whose "productions and features may be without example" (p. 10). Shelley may be posing questions about Walton's search for a fertile Arctic continent, after similar beliefs about an Antarctic continent were firmly laid to rest by Cook several decades before. In A Voyage towards the South Pole, and Round the World (1777), Cook had this to say about the long sought-for Antarctic continent:

Lands doomed by Nature to perpetual frigidness; never to feel the warmth of the sun's rays; whose horrible and savage aspect I have not words to describe. Such are the lands we have discovered; what then may we expect those to be, which lie still farther to the South? For we may reasonably suppose that we have seen the best, as lying most to the North. If any one should have resolution and perseverance to clear up this point by proceeding farther than I have done, I shall not envy him the honour of the discovery; but I will be bold to say, that the world will not be benefited by it.22

Shelley will use Cook's equanimity in the face of his nondiscovery as a foil for her own explorers.

Shelley's fictional explorers, Walton and Frankenstein, seek "the honour of the discovery" at almost any cost. Walton's crew threatens mutiny because they fear their captain will sacrifice more lives—we are told that many have already died—in the vain hope of discovery (p. 163). Frankenstein also participates in this project of discovery, exhorting the men to persevere by telling them that if they proceed, they will "be hailed as the benefactors of [their] species; [their] name[s] adored, as belonging to brave men who encountered death for honour and the benefit of mankind" (p. 163). He goes so far as to tell them that death is preferable to the shame of returning home without having risked every danger in the pursuit of their "glorious expedition": "Do not return to your families with the stigma of disgrace marked on your brows" (p. 164). Yet Walton, though bitterly disappointed, will turn back, after his sailors make "a demand, which, in justice, [he] could not refuse" (p. 163). Walton's retrenchment may be attributed, at least in part, to the strength of his affection for his sister Margaret. At the outset of his journey, she serves as his moral compass, as he asks her to have faith in him: "you know me sufficiently to confide in my prudence and considerateness whenever the safety of others is committed to my care" (p. 14). When debating whether to return home should the ship be freed from the surrounding ice, he imagines her feelings: "Yet what, Margaret, will be the state of your mind? You will not hear of my destruction, and you will anxiously await my return. Years will pass, and you will have visitings of despair, and yet be tortured by hope. Oh! my beloved sister, the sickening failings of your heart-felt expectations are, in prospect, more terrible to me than my own death" (p. 162). Walton's willingness to imagine his sister's sufferings and to let it influence his actions is what ultimately separates him from Frankenstein, who refuses to recognize the claims of others and consequently entertains no concept of retreat.

Shelley's denunciation of the project of discovery, therefore, concentrates on and culminates in Frankenstein, the first of a new generation of scientific discoverers who refuses to acknowledge any ethical constraints. Indeed, Frankenstein is attracted to science because it seems to be without limits: "in a scientific pursuit there is continual food for discovery and wonder" (p. 34). With the old projects of discovery having been exhausted—there being no new trade routes or land masses to discover and no more peoples to colonize and enslave—Frankenstein seeks to create what can no longer be merely discovered: a new race of men. "[I]n discovering the cause of generation and life," Frankenstein hopes to create "[a] new species [that] would bless me as its creator and source" (pp. 36-7). "No father," he believes, "could claim the gratitude of his child so completely as I should deserve theirs" (p. 37). Readers have observed Frankenstein's desire to usurp women's reproductive capacity, but he wishes to eradicate both mother and father by becoming the creator of all.23 Mary Shelley demonstrates not only the folly and impossibility of Frankenstein's desire—he quickly realizes that females will be necessary to propagate the new race and so quickly loses interest in the project—but also its utter destructiveness. According to Shelley, the paradoxical solution to this attack on the family is to strengthen its affective claims.

Percy Shelley, in his preface to the 1818 Frankenstein, explains that one of Mary Shelley's chief concerns in the novel is "the exhibition of the amiableness of domestic affection" (p. 8). She achieves this by negative example, as the novel documents the dire consequences that follow when domestic affections are disavowed. Frankenstein, in his "do as I say not as I do" advice to Walton, is well aware that pursuits undermining domestic values pose global dangers:

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 had not been destroyed.

          (p. 38)

Here Shelley, through the unlikely voice of Frankenstein, attributes some of the worst atrocities of empire building to pursuits that weaken domestic affections. She believes that stronger domestic affections, while they would not necessarily have pre- vented discoveries of new worlds, would have mitigated suffering by making such exploration more gradual and less exploitive. Margaret Saville, who shares Mary Shelley's initials, performs just this restraining function in the novel, as her absent presence reminds her brother to avoid being the agent of suffering. Another sister figure in Frankenstein, Elizabeth Lavenza, will likewise recommend only those occupations that strengthen domestic ties. In a letter to Victor, she advances just such an ideal, that of a farmer, for Ernest Frankenstein, who, by staying with his family and in his native land "to cultivate the earth for the sustenance of man," engages in "the least hurtful, or rather the most beneficial profession of any" (p. 45). Rather than pursuing a vocation that could bring honor and fame, as Frankenstein does, one should think about what can be done to help and avoid harm to others. For Shelley, the potential for harm is minimized and the capacity for good enhanced if one remains at home, or, at the very least, respects the claims of domestic ties when abroad.

In this way, Shelley situates herself among other women writers who, between 1810 and 1830, blame imperialism, war, and slavery for eroding the domestic affections. Anna Letitia Barbauld, in Eighteen Hundred and Eleven (1812), laments that imperialism and the wars fought in support of the British Empire have left old women widowed and childless ("No son returns to press her widow'd hand") and young women husbandless ("the rose withers on its virgin thorns").24 Women's "discovery" consists of anxiously exploring a map to find "the spot that wrecked her bliss"25—the place where her loved one died—and she "learns its name but to detest the sound."26 Jane Austen's Mansfield Park (1814) attributes the moral degeneration of the Bertram family at least in part to Sir Thomas's participation in slavery, which necessitates his departure from England for the West Indies and encourages Lady Bertram's excessive indolence.27 And Felicia Hemans, in a number of her works, including The Siege of Valencia: A Dramatic Poem (1823), "Graves of a Household" (1826), and "The Traveller at the Source of the Nile" (1826), dramatically represents how empire disperses and so destroys the family.28 These writers insist that the values of discovery are necessarily antithetical to the domestic affections, an argument that Coleridge had anticipated much earlier in "The Ancyent Marinere" and that Shelley develops more fully in Frankenstein.


In Frankenstein, Shelley traces the source of imperial ambitions to childhood reading. As young boys, Walton and Frankenstein, like Coleridge, are spellbound by tales of exploration. "[A] history of all the voyages made for purposes of discovery composed the whole of our good uncle Thomas's library," says Walton, and were "my study day and night" "for the first fourteen years of my life" (pp. 11, 13). Walton, "passionately fond of reading," "read with ardour the accounts of the various voyages which have been made in the prospect of arriving at the North Pacific Ocean through the seas which surround the pole," and eventually organizes an expedition, "the favourite dream of my early years" (p. 11). Frankenstein, likewise, attempts to reenact his own reading of natural philosophers: "[t]he raising of ghosts or devils was a promise liberally accorded by my favourite authors, the fulfilment of which I most eagerly sought" (p. 26). Shelley seems to be in agreement with Maria and Richard Lovell Edgeworth who, in Practical Education (1798), had warned parents to avoid giving travel writing to "boys of an enterprising temper, unless they are intended for a seafaring life, or for the army" because such boys "are prone to admire, and to imitate, every thing like enterprise and heroism."29 The Edgeworths predict what Shelley dramatizes in her novel, that boys are led by imitation into the service of imperialism: "A boy, who at seven years old longs to be Robinson Crusoe, or Sindbad the sailor, may at seventeen retain the same taste for adventure and enterprize, though mixed so as to be less discernible, with the incipient passions of avarice and ambition; he has the same dispositions modified by a slight knowledge of real life … he will now admire the soldier of fortune, the commercial adventurer, or the nabob, who has discovered in the east the secret of Aladdin's wonderful lamp; and who has realised the treasures of Aboulcasem."30

Yet neither Coleridge nor Shelley was willing to accede to the remedy resorted to by Coleridge's father and advocated by the Edgeworths, who argued that literature for children should be drawn from real life to avoid inflaming the imagination and that any offensive stories should be censored with a pair of sharp scissors. Coleridge, though aware of "all that has been said against it," considered that children should "be permitted to read Romances, & Relations of Giants & Magicians, & Genii," for he knew of "no other way of giving the mind a love of ‘the Great’, & ‘the Whole.’" He believed that his own "mind had been habituated to the Vast" by such childhood reading.31 Shelley likewise, in her verse dramas for children, Proserpine and Midas, written in 1820, eschews realistic narratives for classical mythology.32 And in their writing for older audiences, both Coleridge and Shelley return again and again to the unknown. In Biographia Literaria, or Biographical Sketches of My Literary Life and Opinions (1817), Coleridge explains that in the Lyrical Ballads (1798) it was determined that "my endeavours should be directed to persons and characters supernatural, or at least romantic."33 Shelley, likewise, was unwilling to abandon nonrealistic narratives, employing, to spectacular effect, the supernatural and the fantastical in her novels. Rather than advocating censorship, her solution is to dramatize precisely the dangers described by the Edgeworths, transforming Walton, Frankenstein, and even Clerval from wide-eyed boys into enterprising men.

Like the Edgeworths, Shelley was aware that fictional stories of discovery inspired imitation in much the same way as true accounts. Frankenstein at one point compares himself to Sinbad (p. 36), and both he and Walton claim to have been inspired by none other than Coleridge's "The Ancyent Marinere." And just as they refuse to heed the warnings issued in the books they read as boys, so too they choose to repeat rather than avoid the dangers represented in Coleridge's poem. Frankenstein, immediately after he has abandoned the creature, invokes the poem, feeling

Like one who, on a lonely road,
     Doth walk in fear and dread,
And, having once turn'd round, walks on,
     And turns no more his head;
Because he knows a frightful fiend
     Doth close behind him tread.
          (p. 41)

Yet Frankenstein cannot see how, like the Mariner, he has brought "fear and dread" upon himself by his cruel neglect. Walton similarly misreads the poem, writing to his sister: "I am going to unexplored regions, to ‘the land of mist and / snow;’ but I shall kill no albatross, therefore do not be alarmed for my safety" (p. 14). Walton follows the letter but contradicts the spirit of the poem, for though he kills no albatross, he endangers himself and his crew by his reckless pursuit of discovery. He nearly relives the Mariner's experience, becoming trapped in floes of ice from which he only miraculously escapes. In the 1831 edition of Frankenstein, Shelley sharpens the identification between Walton and the Mariner, with Walton warning his sister that he may return to her "as worn and woful as the ‘Ancient Mariner’" (p. 184n6).34 He further "disclose[s] a secret" to his sister: "I have often attributed my attachment to, my passionate enthusiasm for, the dangerous mysteries of ocean, to that production of the most imaginative of modern poets. There is something at work in my soul, which I do not understand … there is a love for the marvellous, a belief in the marvellous, intertwined in all my projects, which hurries me out of the common pathways of men, even to the wild sea and unvisited regions I am about to explore" (p. 184). That of all possible literary role models Walton should invoke the Mariner seems a perverse choice, unless we recall the overwhelming force of tales of discovery. For the Mariner's rhyme attests to the magnetism of stories of the marvelous, with the Mariner not only captivating the wedding guest such that he becomes "like a three year's child" who "cannot chuse but hear" but also the countless others to whom, we are to believe, the Mariner has told his tale (lines 15, 18).

And it is by telling their tales that the Mariner, Frankenstein, and Walton further participate in projects of discovery. By taking pains to ensure that their narratives will be widely dispersed, Coleridge and Shelley articulate the close ties between actual and textual discovery. The Mariner, by telling his tale "ten thousand times," ensures not only that he will have a broad audience but also that his oral tale will be fashioned into poetic form, here a ballad, which will be more easily remembered and eventually transcribed. Frankenstein, we learn from the creature, keeps a meticulous account of the four months prior to the creature's birth, "a journal" in which he "minutely described … every step [he] took in the progress of [his] work" (p. 97). The creature, when he finds this journal, "began to study [it] with diligence," thus being the first in a long line of readers of Frankenstein's story. Walton transforms Frankenstein's oral tale into written notes, "to record, as nearly as possible in his own words, what he has related during the day" (p. 20). He prepares his transcription to give pleasure to his sister, but he also imagines "with what interest and sympathy" he, and perhaps others, will "read it in some future day!" (p. 20). Frankenstein then "corrected and augmented [the notes] in many places" to give "life and spirit" to the narration and therefore ensure its dissemination (p. 160). He is confident that the story will circulate, telling Walton: "‘Since you have preserved my narration … I would not that a mutilated one should go down to posterity’" (p. 160). Here Frankenstein takes the trouble to produce an unmutilated text, something that he neglects to do when creating an actual living creature. His true object, it seems, has always been the claims of posterity, which he now hopes to satisfy through literary rather than human creation.

Similarly, Walton is a failed poet seeking the linguistic mastery over the globe that he could not achieve in the physical realm. Like Frankenstein, he takes enormous risks with the welfare of others so that he has a good story to tell. That Walton is an aspiring travel writer becomes clear once we recognize that the vast majority of the letters he writes to his sister are never sent. Walton is able to post only his first three letters (which comprise the first five pages of the novel); in his fourth letter he writes that "it is very probable that you will see me before these papers can come into your possession" (p. 16); and, at the end of the novel, he concludes that it is "highly probable that these papers may never reach you" (p. 162). The letters are variously described as a "journal"—the form, of course, of many published travel narratives—as "papers," and even as a "manuscript" (pp. 18, 16, 20). He is highly conscious of the proper conventions of travel writing, refusing to document trivial incidents that "experienced navigators scarcely remember to record" (p. 15). Walton eagerly adopts the duties of an author, authenticating Frankenstein's narrative by perusing the letters of Felix and Safie and satisfying himself as to its veracity by his encounter with the creature. He finally agrees to return to England, in part because his crew has left him with little choice, in part because of his continued affection for his sister, and also because, by then, he has acquired an even better story to tell—Victor Frankenstein's.35

If in Frankenstein Shelley demonstrates the dangers of children reading stories of the unknown, she also details the salutary effects of other kinds of stories on young minds. The creature's early reading, rather than encouraging him to seek conquest, makes him long, above all, for a family. Instead of reading about discovery, invention, and the expansion of empires, as do Walton and Frankenstein, the first book the creature hears read, Volney's Ruins of Empire, documents the high cost and inevitable decline of empire building. He learns not only that man can be virtuous and honorable but also that he can "be base and vicious … a condition more abject than that of the blind mole or harmless worm." Hearing of the discovery of America, the creature is not impressed by the glory of the "discoverer" Christopher Columbus but, rather, "wept with Safie over the hapless fate of its original inhabitants" (p. 89). The first books the creature reads to himself—Paradise Lost, Plutarch's Lives, and The Sorrows of Young Werther—likewise insist upon the limits of human goodness and achievement. In Plutarch, for example, the creature "read of men concerned in public affairs governing or massacring their species," and, repulsed by their violence, comes to prefer, with Plutarch, "peaceable law-givers" (p. 96). When the creature observes that "if my first introduction to humanity had been made by a young soldier, burning for glory and slaughter, I should have been imbued with different sensations," Shelley articulates her belief in the enormous power of imaginative literature to shape developing minds and proposes texts that teach the dangers of ambition and the need for restraint (p. 97).

The creature's early reading also cultivates respect for the domestic affections. The creature explains how, in Werter [The Sorrows of Young Werther], the "gentle and domestic manners it described, combined with lofty sentiments and feelings … had for their object something out of self" (p. 95). This capacity for fellow feeling, whether for the Native Americans or the De Lacey family, is cultivated through narrative. The creature will, in turn, attempt to inspire sympathy by telling his own story to others, albeit with limited success. In the shadow of Mont Blanc, Frankenstein, "partly urged by curiosity" and by "compassion confirmed," consents to hear the creature's story (p. 76). Covering Frankenstein's eyes, the creature says that even if he is too hideous to be looked at "[s]till thou canst listen to me, and grant me thy compassion" (p. 75). Victor, then, "[f]or the first time … felt what the duties of a creator towards his creature were" (p. 76). So long as he only hears the creature's tale of suffering, Frankenstein "compassionated him, and sometimes felt a wish to console him" (pp. 109-10). Though Frankenstein's sympathy is short lived—as soon as he opens his eyes, his "feelings were altered to those of horror and hatred" (p. 110)—Walton's greater schooling in the domestic affections makes him a more compassionate listener. The novel ends with Walton's "first impulses" to fulfill Frankenstein's dying request that he kill the creature "suspended by a mixture of curiosity and compassion." The creature explains how his "heart was fashioned to be susceptible of love and sympathy" and that he turned to evil only because, despite his essential goodness, he was reviled rather than loved (p. 167). By having the creature tell his story yet again, and through Walton's decision to hear the creature's tale rather than kill him, Shelley further intimates the tremendous power that inheres in tales of suffering, which bind people together through sympathetic imagination and offer the potential to overcome "horror and hatred" (p. 110).

The imagination, then, enables what the creature describes as "something out of self," later elaborated by Percy Shelley in "A Defence of Poetry" as "a going out of our own nature, and an identification of ourselves with the beautiful which exists in thought, action, or person, not our own. A man, to be greatly good, must imagine intensely and comprehensively; he must put himself in the place of another and of many others; the pains and pleasures of his species must become his own. The great instrument of moral good is the imagination."36 Two decades earlier, in his preface to Poems on Various Subjects (1797), Coleridge had similarly argued that the essential function of the imagination is sympathetic identification, for it is "a law of our Nature, [that] he, who labours under a strong feeling, is impelled to seek for sympathy."37 The poet, by expressing his feelings, and the reader, by seeking out the feelings of others, enlarge their sympathies and hence their moral sense. By enabling us to imagine the suffering of others, poetry has the potential, says Coleridge, to "domesticate with the heart."38 For Coleridge and Mary Shelley, then, the imagination was a force for both good and evil. To curtail the dangers posed by their own fictional explorations of the unknown, Coleridge and Shelley propose the cultivation of sympathetic identification both within and beyond the domestic sphere, urging the love of family, home, and even a gentle bird and deformed monster. Thus, they make the claim that the harm caused by the pursuit of discovery can be mitigated by the exercise of sympathy and kindness.39

Yet I want to conclude by suggesting that neither Shelley nor Coleridge was entirely satisfied by this resolution. In her 1831 preface, Shelley draws a telling analogy between herself and Columbus in a novel that has alluded, on a number of occasions, to the suffering caused by his discovery: "In all matters of discovery and invention," she writes, "even of those that appertain to the imagination, we are continually reminded of the story of Columbus and his egg. Invention consists in the capacity of seizing on the capabilities of a subject, and in the power of moulding and fashioning ideas suggested to it" (pp. 178-9). The source for this anecdote was likely the following passage from Washington Irving's The Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus; To Which Are Added Those of His Companions (1828), describing a discussion that occurred after Columbus's successful voyage of 1492:

A shallow courtier present, impatient of the honors paid to Columbus, and meanly jealous of him as a foreigner, abruptly asked him whether he thought that, in case he had not discovered the Indies, there were not other men in Spain, who would have been capable of the enterprise? To this Columbus made no immediate reply, but, taking an egg, invited the company to make it stand on one end. Every one attempted it, but in vain; whereupon he struck it upon the table so as to break the end, and left it standing on the broken part; illustrating in this simple manner, that when he had once shown the way to the New World, nothing was easier than to follow it.40

Here Shelley recognizes not only the identity between her own fictional creation of a new world and Columbus's actual discovery and conquest of the New World but also the way in which, once she has "shown the way" to these new worlds, "nothing was easier than to follow it." In bidding her "hideous progeny [to] go forth and prosper," Shelley acknowledges not only that her novel will spawn textual imitations but also that it will inevitably fail as a cautionary tale (p. 180).

By incorporating into her novel fictional discoverers who are more encouraged than horrified by "The Ancyent Marinere," Shelley makes it plain that tales of the unknown will give birth to more ill-advised ventures into the unknown, both in print and in life.41 Shelley and Coleridge even admit their limited ability to control their own imaginations; Shelley, for example, in her preface, describes the "acute mental vision" that gave rise to Frankenstein (p. 179), whereas Coleridge, in the note preceding "Kubla Khan"—which Shelley had read as she wrote Frankenstein —explains that "images rose up before him as things … without any sensation or consciousness of effort."42 But just as they seem, by attributing their literary creations to visions, to be abdicating conscious command over their work, they implicate themselves in the very practices of discovery and imperial conquest that they condemn. Shelley compares herself to Columbus, much in the same way that Coleridge, in "Kubla Khan," acknowledges that the poet's construction of "a sunny pleasure-dome" is complicit in the dictator's imperial decree for the erection of "a stately-pleasure dome."43 Many years later, in December 1834, Shelley would compare her imagination to Kubla Khan's empire: "My imagination … is my treasure—my Kubla Khan—my Stately pleasure ground through which a mighty river ran down to a sunless sea."44 For both Coleridge and Shelley, life without the imagination was unthinkable, it being their balm and often their only companion. Not wishing to censor their own imaginations, they offer models of compassionate readers in the wedding guest, the creature, and Robert Walton, who emerge sadder and wiser for the tales they heard.


1. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, "The Rime of the Ancyent Marinere" (1798) and "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" (1834), in Poetical Works, ed. J. C. C. Mays, vol. 16 of The Collected Works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, ed. Kathleen Coburn, 16 vols. (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1971-2001), bk. 1, part 1, pp. 365-419. Subsequent references to the poem are to the 1798 edition in this volume and will appear parenthetically in the text by line number. The Collected Works will hereafter be referred to as CW.

2. Coleridge to Thomas Poole, 9 October 1797, in Collected Letters of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, ed. Earl Leslie Griggs, 6 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1956-71), 1:347. In this letter, Coleridge explains how he had the run of his aunt's "every-thing Shop at Credition," where he "read thro’ all the gilt-cover little books that could be had at the time" (1:347). In addition to reading, at six years old, Robinson Crusoe and The Arabian Nights' Entertainments, he also read "Belisarius" and "Philip Quarle" (1:347). Coleridge likely read a version of Jean François Marmontel's Belisarius, a history of the Byzantine general under Justinian I (ca. AD 505-65), who was largely responsible for the great expansion of the Eastern Empire. "Philip Quarle" was probably an edition of The Hermit: Or, the Unparalleled Sufferings and Surprising Adventures of Mr. Philip Quarll, an Englishman, first published in 1727. Similar to Robinson Crusoe, it describes Quarll's fifty years of solitude and suffering on a South Sea island. It went through many editions and was adapted in many children's stories.

3. Coleridge to Poole, Collected Letters, 1:347.

4. Coleridge, Table Talk, ed. Carl Woodring, vol. 14 of CW, bk. 1, pp. 273-4.

5. For the anecdote about the young Mary Godwin, see Anne K. Mellor, Mary Shelley: Her Life, Her Fiction, Her Monsters (New York and London: Methuen, 1988), p. 11; and William St. Clair, The Godwins and the Shelleys: The Biography of a Family (London and Boston: Faber and Faber, 1989), p. 295.

6. Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus, ed. Nora Crook, vol. 1 of The Novels and Selected Works of Mary Shelley, ed. Crook and Pamela Clemit, 8 vols. (London: William Pickering, 1996). Subsequent references will appear parenthetically in the text. For an account of Shelley's reading of Coleridge's "Christabel," first published in Christabel. Kubla Khan, a Vision. The Pains of Sleep (1816), see The Journals of Mary Shelley, 1814-1844, ed. Paula R. Feldman and Diana Scott-Kilvert, 2 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1987), 1:131.

7. John Livingston Lowes, in The Road to Xanadu: A Study in the Ways of the Imagination (1927; rprt. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1955), famously documents many of Coleridge's sources. The following works also consider Coleridge's use of travel narratives: Bernard Smith, European Vision and the South Pacific, 1768-1850: A Study in the History of Art and Ideas (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1960); Arnd Bohm, "Georg Forster's A Voyage Round the World as a Source for The Rime of the Ancient Mariner: A Reconsideration," ELH 50, 2 (Summer 1983): 363-77; and James C. McKusick, "‘That Silent Sea’: Coleridge, Lee Boo, and the Exploration of the South Pacific," WC 24, 2 (Spring 1993): 102-6.

8. Bernard Martin was the first to detect similarities between Coleridge's poem and the Authentic Narrative by John Newton, a slave trader turned Evangelical clergyman (The Ancient Mariner and the Authentic Narrative [Melbourne and London: William Heinemann, 1949]). Thereafter, William Empson ("The Ancient Mariner," CritQ 6, 4 [Winter 1964]: 298-319); J. R. Ebbatson ("Coleridge's Mariner and the Rights of Man," SIR 11, 3 [Summer 1972]: 171-206); Patrick J. Keane (Coleridge's Submerged Politics: "The Ancient Mariner" and "Robinson Crusoe" [Columbia and London: Univ. of Missouri Press, 1994]); and Debbie Lee ("Yellow Fever and the Slave Trade: Coleridge's The Rime of the Ancient Mariner," ELH 65, 3 [Fall 1998]: 675-700) have traced the poem's rich allusions to the slave trade. Also of importance are recent collections of essays that have reconsidered colonialism as a shaping force in Romantic writing. See, for instance, Romanticism, Race, and Imperial Culture, 1780-1834, ed. Alan Richardson and Sonia Hofkosh (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana Univ. Press, 1996) and Romanticism and Colonialism: Writing and Empire, 1780-1830, ed. Tim Fulford and Peter J. Kitson (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1998).

9. See Joseph W. Lew's "The Deceptive Other: Mary Shelley's Critique of Orientalism in Frankenstein," SIR 30, 2 (Summer 1991): 255-83; and his "The Plague of Imperial Desire: Montesquieu, Gibbon, Brougham, and Mary Shelley's The Last Man," in Romanticism and Colonialism, pp. 261-78. Nigel Leask, in British Romantic Writers and the East: Anxieties of Empire (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1992), also considers the East in Romantic literature, concentrating mostly on Lord Byron, Percy Shelley, and Thomas De Quincey. On Mary Shelley's use of contemporary science, see Mellor, Mary Shelley, pp. 89-114; and Marilyn Butler, "Frankenstein and Radical Science," in "Frankenstein": The 1818 Text, Contexts, Nineteenth-Century Responses, Modern Criticism, ed. J. Paul Hunter (New York and London: Norton, 1996), pp. 302-13. For a compelling analysis of Shelley's critique of polar exploration, see Jessica Richard, "‘A Paradise of My Own Creation’: Frankenstein and the Improbable Romance of Polar Exploration," Nineteenth-Century Contexts 25,4 (December 2003): 295-314.

10. Coleridge, Conciones ad Populum. Or Addresses to the People, in Lectures 1795 on Politics and Religion, ed. Lewis Patton and Peter Mann, vol. 1 of CW, pp. 21-74, 46.

11. Coleridge, Lectures on Revealed Religion, Its Corruptions and Political Views, in Lectures 1795, pp. 75-229, 162.

12. Coleridge, Lectures on Revealed Religion, p. 164.

13. William Godwin, An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice, vol. 3 of Political and Philosophical Writings of William Godwin, ed. Mark Philp, 7 vols. (London: William Pickering, 1993), p. 455.

14. Coleridge, Conciones ad Populum, in Lectures 1795, p. 62; Coleridge, Lectures on the Slave-Trade, in Lectures 1795, pp. 231-51, 247.

15. Psychoanalytic readings by Sarah Webster Goodwin, Diane Long Hoeveler, and Anne Williams see Life-in-Death as a vengeful abjected or castrating mother. See Goodwin, "Domesticity and Uncanny Kitsch in ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ and Frankenstein," TSWL 10, 1 (Spring 1991): 93-108; Hoeveler, "Glossing the Feminine in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner," ERR 2, 2 (Winter 1992): 145-62; and Williams, Art of Darkness: A Poetics of Gothic (Chicago and London: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1995), pp. 182-99. Unlike these authors, I argue for a more historicized reading of Life-in-Death. For a thorough review and persuasive reading of Coleridge's poetic depictions of women, see Mellor, "Coleridge and the Question of Female Talents," Romanticism 8, 2 (2002): 115-30. She finds that Coleridge was neither a misogynist nor a feminist and that though he could imagine and hope for intellectual equality with women, he never achieved this ideal in life or in his poetry.

16. Scholars have tended more recently to see Life-in-Death and the spectre-bark as allusions to the slave trade. (See my note 8 above.) While William Bligh's The Bounty did travel to Tahiti to secure the bread fruit plant intended as a food source for slaves in the West Indies (Kitson, "Romanticism and Colonialism: Races, Places, Peoples, 1785-1800," in Romanticism and Colonialism, pp. 13-34, 30), slave ships carrying slave cargo, for the most part, would have little reason to be in the Pacific, where the Mariner's ship is located when it encounters Life-in-Death.

17. Alan Bewell, Romanticism and Colonial Disease (Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1999), p. 108.

18. James Cook, The Explorations of Captain James Cook in the Pacific as Told by Selections of His Own Journals, 1768-1779, ed. A. Grenfell Price (New York: Heritage Press, 1958), p. 211.

19. Ibid.

20. Bewell, p. 98.

21. See Lew.

22. Cook, A Voyage towards the South Pole, and Round the World. Performed in His Majesty's Ships the Resolution and Adventure, in the Years 1772, 1773, 1774, and 1775, 2 vols. (Adelaide: Libraries Board of South Australia, 1970), 2:243.

23. For a concise and influential account of this reading, see Mellor's "Possessing Nature: The Female in Frankenstein," in "Frankenstein": The 1818 Text, pp. 274-86.

24. Anna Letitia Barbauld, Eighteen Hundred and Eleven (1812), in Anna Letitia Barbauld: Se-lected Poetry and Prose, ed. William McCarthy and Elizabeth Kraft (Peterborough ON: Broadview, 2002), pp. 160-73, p. 162, lines 25 and 30.

25. Barbauld, p. 162, line 37.

26. Barbauld, p. 162, line 38.

27. Jane Austen, Mansfield Park, vol. 3 of The Novels of Jane Austen, ed. R. W. Chapman, 3d edn., 6 vols. (Oxford and New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1988).

28. Felicia Hemans, The Siege of Valencia: A Dramatic Poem, "Graves of a Household," and "The Traveller at the Source of the Nile," in Selected Poems, Letters, Reception Materials, ed. Susan J. Wolfson (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton Univ. Press, 2002), pp. 176-256; 422-3; 426-8.

29. Maria Edgeworth and Richard Lovell Edgeworth, Practical Education, 2 vols. (London: J. Johnson, 1798), 1:336. Coleridge had enthusiastically responded to Practical Education, writing to his wife, Sara, on 18 September 1798: "I pray you, my Love! read Edgeworth's Essay on Education—read it heart & soul—& if you approve of the mode, teach Hartley his Letters." However, he did acknowledge that "there are very good things in the work—& some nonsense!" (Collected Letters, 1:418). Perhaps the "nonsense" Coleridge referred to was, in part, the Edgeworths' argument against giving imaginative literature to children. Although there is no record of Shelley's having read Practical Education, her dramatization of the effects of tales of discovery on boys is so similar to those described by the Edgeworths that it seems probable she was familiar with the book. Strengthening this claim is the Edgeworths' strong endorsement of Plutarch's Lives as suitable reading material for children.

30. Maria Edgeworth and Richard Lovell Edgeworth, Practical Education, 1:338.

31. Coleridge, to Thomas Poole, 16 October 1797, in Collected Letters, 1:354. See also Maria Edgeworth and Richard Lovell Edgeworth, Practical Education, 1:336-8; and Maria Edgeworth's preface to The Parent's Assistant, or, Stories for Children, 3 vols. (London: J. Johnson, 1796), 1:xi-xii.

32. See Mary Shelley's Proserpine, in Matilda, Dramas, Reviews and Essays, Prefaces and Notes, ed. Clemit, vol. 2 of Shelley, Novels and Selected Works, pp. 72-91, and her Midas, in the same volume, pp. 92-111. Proserpine was first published in The Winter's Wreath in 1832; Midas remained unpublished until 1922.

33. Coleridge, Biographia Literaria, or Biographical Sketches of My Literary Life and Opinions, ed. James Engell and W. Jackson Bate, vol. 7 of CW, bk. 2, p. 6.

34. Shelley also identified with the Mariner. Her journal entry of 16 April 1841 contains a slightly incorrect recollection of a verse from "The Ancyent Marinere":

"Alone—alone—all—all alone
Upon the wide, wide sea—
And God will not take pity on
My soul in agony!"
          (Shelley, Journals, 2:573)

35. Walton's notes are not, of course, the only text to have been "corrected and augmented" (p. 160). Both "The Ancyent Marinere" and Frankenstein were considerably revised, with the second editions adding substantially to the original versions. That Coleridge and Shelley felt compelled to retell their own stories testifies, once again, to the powerfully reproductive nature of such tales.

36. Percy Shelley, "A Defence of Poetry," in Essays, Letters from Abroad, Translations, and Fragments, ed. Mary Shelley, 2 vols. (London: Edward Moxon, 1840), 1:1-57, 17.

37. Coleridge, "Preface to the First Edition," in Poetical Works, bk. 1, part 2, pp. 1230-2, 1231.

38. Coleridge, Poetical Works, bk. 1, part 2, p. 1206.

39. In arguing that Shelley supports the extension of domestic affections, I disagree with Adam Komisaruk's recent argument that in Frankenstein Shelley regards domesticity and the domestic affections with suspicion. While noticing that a number of characters show hostility to their own family and that these characters are those who most strongly embrace capitalism, the conclusion Komisaruk draws from this—that Shelley believes the same impulses toward selfishness and oppression underlie both institutions—is not a necessary one. In fact, what Shelley shows is not, as Komisaruk argues, "that the construct of the domestic affections owes itself to political oppression" ("‘So Guided by a Silken Cord’: Frankenstein's Family Values," SIR 38, 3 [Fall 1999]: 409-41, 423), but, rather, that dire consequences follow when domestic affections are overwhelmed by selfish private and public pursuits. I am in agreement with Kate Ellis, who argues that "[i]t is not domestic affection but the context in which it manifests itself"—the context being the insistence on separate spheres for men and women—"that brings death into the world" ("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 and Los Angeles: Univ. of California Press, 1979], pp. 123-42, 124).

40. Washington Irving, The Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus; To Which Are Added Those of His Companions, vols. 3-5 of The Works of Washington Irving, 15 vols. (New York: George P. Putnam, 1851), 3:275. Irving and Shelley became acquainted in the summer of 1824 and continued to see each other socially into the 1830s. Indeed, an effort was made by John Howard Payne to encourage a match between them after Shelley expressed some interest in Irving. See The Letters of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, ed. Betty T. Bennett, 3 vols. (Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1980), 1:423n1. While there is no record of Shelley's having read Irving's Life and Voyages, she read many of his other works and made inquiries about the publication of this work. Moreover, in a strange example of life (or biography) imitating art, the similarities between Columbus's and Walton's situations are such that it seems highly likely that Irving drew upon Shelley's fictional explorer Walton for his biography of Columbus.

41. In her (fictional) preface to The Last Man (1826; ed. Anne McWhir [Peterborough ON: Broadview, 1996], pp. 1-5), Shelley and her companion (Percy Shelley) proceed, over the protests of their guides, to explore a hidden passage in an attempt to find the true cave of Sibyl. They do, in fact, encounter danger, but they also discover the cave and with it the Sibylline leaves. It is from these Sibylline leaves, an allusion to Coleridge's 1817 collection of poetry, that the author—according to the conceit of the preface—creates her novel. Thus, again Shelley suggests the inefficacy of cautionary tales, as the author and her companion ignore the warnings of their guides: "they told us that there were spectres, that the roof would fall in, that it was too narrow to admit us, that there was a deep hole within, filled with water, and we might be drowned" (p. 2). The preface, as an allegory of the imaginative process, also suggests just how fruitful such flights into the unknown can be, and the novel itself celebrates the domestic affections, even though they are incapable of preventing almost complete human annihilation.

42. Coleridge, qtd. in Jonathan Wordsworth, introduction to Shelley's Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus, 1823 (Oxford and New York: Woodstock, 1993) [pp. i-ii].

43. Coleridge, "Kubla Khan, or, a Vision in a Dream," in Poetical Works, bk. 1, part 1, pp. 509-14, lines 36, 2.

44. Shelley, Journals, 2:543.

Noel Chevalier (essay date September 2005)

SOURCE: Chevalier, Noel. "The Liberty Tree and the Whomping Willow: Political Justice, Magical Science, and Harry Potter." Lion and the Unicorn 29, no. 3 (September 2005): 397-415.

[In the following excerpt, Chevalier concentrates on themes of social justice and human limitation in Frankenstein and J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter series.]

Frankenstein, Harry Potter, and the Limits of Science

Rowling's [J. K.] delineation of the limits of magic parallels Mary Shelley's indictment of science in what is probably the most famous piece of Godwinian literature, Frankenstein (1818). Shelley, William Godwin's daughter, draws directly on Political Justice in forming the political theme of her novel. Frankenstein marks the point where science begins to locate the focal point of reality onto the human body, and considers the effect of modern technology on the natural body. Frankenstein's Creature is not quite an android; he is a purely biological creation. Yet, the artificiality of his body marks the beginning of an irrevocable trend to locating artifice in technology, and of a move away from artificiality as a sign of the triumph of culture over nature, such as in the Baroque.

Like Rowling, Shelley uses an impenetrable science as her chief concern: the effects of science on human justice. Frankenstein's methods are vaguely described, and never explained; they appear to be a combination of alchemy and modern chemistry and physics.1 The creation of the Creature occupies just a few pages of the novel.2 In contrast, the Creature's narrative of his miserable existence occupies most of what comprised volume 2 in the original 1818 text (128-178, Broadview ed; chapters XIV-XVII in the one-volume 1831 edition), framed by his repeated assertions that his misery would be relieved by just and fair treatment. He charges Frankenstein to carry them out, as he believes it is Frankenstein's duty. Frankenstein's failure to do so unleashes the Creature's spree of murders in volume 3. The connection between justice and virtue is clearly made; Shelley emphasizes that only through Frankenstein's science can the Creature be granted justice, although Frankenstein argues that it was the same science that unleashed the misery in the first place.

Frankenstein offers numerous indictments of society's codified rejection of disenfranchised outsiders, a theme in the Potter novels. The Creature repeatedly complains to his creator that part of his misery is because he is sui generis, and therefore, alone. He has no place in the human world because it is unclear that he even is human. This problem finds its counterpart in Hermione's discovery of the wretchedness of house-elves. Her concern for the rights of these enslaved and traditionally despised creatures leads her to organize a fledgling lobby group, the Society for the Protection of Elvish Welfare, whose acronym satirically spells SPEW. Despite this joke (which Ron plays to death in book 4), Hermione is serious. Her platform is that house-elves are exploited labor, and deserve, in effect, a trade union that would guarantee them decent wages, fixed working hours, holidays, and, most important, freedom from servitude. Although her arguments resemble those of many contemporary trade unions, SPEW itself serves as a reminder that, as E. P. Thompson has argued, the most lasting effect of Jacobinism in Britain was the introduction of organized labor and the creation of a working-class consciousness.3

Marilyn Butler noted Frankenstein's Creature embodies the growth of working-class movements that seemed capable of overthrowing the middle-class masters, yet did not in part because of lack of organization or infiltration by government spies. Steven Forry has shown that Frankenstein, in its nineteenth-century stage incarnations, was sometimes read as an allegory of the effects of the industrial revolution. In book 5, Hermione tries to argue on behalf of the vile house-elf, Kreacher, who has served Sirius Black's family for years, but who, unlike the "good elf" Dobby, has unquestioningly adopted the Black family's racism and Dark Wizard tendencies. Although abusive to his master, insulting to Hermione, and committed to thwarting house cleaning operation, Hermione suggests to Black, "If you could just set him free, then maybe—" (103).

Maybe what? The house-elf's name supplies the clue to the completion of Hermione's thoughts: "Kreacher" echoes the name of Frankenstein's unnamed Creature, who, like the house-elf, is ugly, malevolent, and reviled by humanity. Yet, he intreats his creator, with an argument straight out of Political Justice, "I was benevolent and good; misery made me a fiend. Make me happy, and I shall again be virtuous" (Shelley 126). Hermione believes that if the lives of house-elves were improved even hardened malcontents like Kreacher could be redeemed. Linking Kreacher with Frankenstein's Creature not only expands the Potter-Godwinian associations, it points to analyzing how Rowling depicts magic, as a particular kind of science.

In her consideration of science and justice, Shelley critiques her father's groundbreaking radical work in its understanding of the place of science in politics. Godwin was unquestioningly enthusiastic about how science could take part in his ideal society. For Shelley, reading her father's work twenty-five years later allowed her to read it somewhat skeptically. By 1818, the radical tradition, as embodied by Godwin and Thomas Paine, had largely failed to effect change in working class conditions. In fact, by 1818, the working class had begun to organize along principles that applied the 1790s radicals' theories in profoundly different ways. More importantly, Shelley perceived that Godwin's assertion that "the value of truth will be … illustrated if we … enquire into its effects … abstractedly, under which form it bears the appellation of science and knowledge" (Political Justice I, 307-8) was of little value if scientists were not willing to use science to promote human justice. This penetrating insight squares off against Godwin's naively optimistic view that truth and knowledge, being self-evident virtues, will eventually be adopted by humanity as the only rational choice. If science is to be the means by which this great transformation will occur, Shelley reveals how science has not only failed in its duty, but has even assisted in increasing human misery.

Ultimately, Frankenstein is a novel about the disappointment of the promise of revolutionary principles to remake the world. Frankenstein's Creature becomes a monster not, as Hollywood has told us, be- cause of his defective brain. Rather, to use anachronistic terminology, the problem is one of software, not hardware: specifically, the paradigm of science encoded in Frankenstein. Science without social responsibility is mad science. For Shelley, science that commodifies its body of knowledge to the point where the fact of possession—what we might understand as "intellectual property"—impedes the scientist's primary responsibility to improve humanity, is mad science. Frankenstein, on the other hand, attempts to control nature without any sense of his wider social responsibilities. By the novel's end he has learned nothing from his experience, and still prefers to see his Creature as an external malevolent force, a project gone wrong, without seeing his own part in the outcome.

Frankenstein is not an anti-science book. Rather, it is a novel that characterizes the dominant paradigm of the modern world as scientific and explores the implications of imposing that paradigm. Similarly, the Potter novels use magical science not to lead children away from science, as Dr. Ivar Ekeland feared in a National Post article (Sokoloff A2), but to underline that when the dominant discourse of any society is power, control, and an ignorance of justice, neither science nor magic can do anything to prevent evil from penetrating and ultimately overwhelming it.

The Harry Potter series, and its metanarrative, are as yet unfinished. We do not know how Rowling will play out the ideas she has carefully introduced over the course of the novels published so far; Rowling herself offers few hints, except in the form of teasers such as "Keep your eye on Snape" and "Why do you assume Harry will survive book 7?" Most important for my purposes, it remains to be seen whether Rowling will create a Godwinian space for her characters to enact their final conflict: Frankenstein's Creature ultimately gains his revenge over his morally bankrupt creator, but immediately departs Walton's ship to presumed suicide, since, as he declares to his dead enemy, "Blasted as thou wert, my agony was still superior to thine; for the bitter sting of remorse may not cease to rankle in my wounds until death shall close them for ever" (244). The narrative ends on a note of moral ambiguity, not on a triumph that good has somehow ultimately defeated evil. Whether the Potter novels will end on the same ambiguous note, or whether Rowling can still opt for a paradigm of moral absolutes, in spite of the ambiguities she has already introduced, should be, more than plot spoilers, sufficient reason to await publication of the final two installments.


1. Alchemy makes only a very brief appearance in Rowling's work, in the figures of the Philosopher's Stone and its creator, the alchemist Nicholas Flamel. Rowling seems to have little time for magic that depends on the profoundly arcane, as is demonstrated in her satirical treatment of divination. Some critics, such as John Granger, have seen extensive alchemical symbolism in the Potter novels; some members of the "Harry Potter for Grown-Ups" discussion list see the seven novels as representing the seven stages by which one becomes an alchemical adept. While I cannot here assess the validity of these claims, I do think it worth noting that alchemy was seriously studied until the early eighteenth century; even scientists such as Sir Isaac Newton found it interesting.

2. The focus on the creation itself is a product of the stage tradition of Frankenstein, which was enshrined in the 1931 film version and has been retained in all film versions, even those that claim a great deal of fidelity to the original novel.

3. See especially Making of the English Working Class, 781-915, although the premise of the entire book is to draw a connection between the Jacobinism of the 1790s and the working-class consciousness that Thompson argues emerged in the 1820s and 1830s.

Works Cited

Godwin, William. An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice. 1793. Ed. F. E. L. Priestley. 3 vols. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1947.

Granger, John. The Hidden Key to Harry Potter. Port Hadlock, WA: Zossima, 2002.

Rowling, J. K. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. London: Bloomsbury, 2000.

———. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. London: Bloomsbury, 2003.

Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus. 1818. Ed. D. L. Macdonald and Kathleen Scherf. 2nd. ed. Peterborough, ON: Broadview, 1999.

Thompson, E. P. The Making of the English Working Class. London: Penguin, 1968.



Brown, Marshall. "Frankenstein: A Child's Tale." Novel 36, no. 2 (spring 2003): 145-75.

Interprets Frankenstein as an indirect meditation on the mentality of childhood.

Jones, Jonathan. "Hidden Voices: Language and Ideology in Philosophy of Language of the Long Eighteenth Century and Mary Shelley's Frankenstein." Textual Practice 19, no. 3 (September 2005): 265-87.

Relates concepts of alienation and language in Frankenstein.

Nesvet, Rebecca. "‘Have You Thought of a Story?’: Galland's Scheherazade and Mary Shelley's 1831 Frankenstein." Women's Writing 12, no. 3 (October 2005): 369-80.

Assesses the influence of Antoine Galland's translation of The Arabian Nights on Frankenstein, specifically focusing on Galland's characterization of Scheherazade.

Ruekberg, Ben. "A Possible Copernicus-Frankenstein Connection." Notes and Queries 52, no. 1 (March 2005): 39.

Investigates the writing of Nicolaus Copernicus as a possible source for Frankenstein, highlighting astronomical imagery in Shelley's novel.

Additional coverage of Shelley's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Gale: Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Vol. 20; Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction: Biography & Resources, Vol. 3; Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults, Vol. 5; British Writers, Vol. 3; British Writers: The Classics, Vol. 2; British Writers Supplement, Vol. 3; Concise Dictionary of British Literary Biography, 1789-1832 ; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 110, 116, 159, 178; DISCovering Authors; DISCovering Authors: British Edition; DISCovering Authors: Canadian Edition; DISCovering Authors Modules: Most-studied Authors and Novelists; DISCovering Authors 3.0; Exploring Novels; Feminism in Literature: A Gale Critical Companion, Ed. 1:3; Gothic Literature: A Gale Critical Companion, Ed. 3; Literary Movements for Students, Vols. 1, 2; Literature and Its Times, Vol. 1; Literature Resource Center; Nineteenth-Century Literature Criticism, Vols. 14, 59, 103, 170; Novels for Students, Vol. 1; Reference Guide to English Literature, Ed. 2; St. James Guide to Horror, Ghost & Gothic Writers; St. James Guide to Science Fiction Writers, Ed. 4; Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror Writers; Science Fiction Writers Eds. 1, 2; Something about the Author, Vol. 29; Twayne's English Authors; World Literature and Its Times, Ed. 3; and World Literature Criticism, Vol. 5.


views updated May 23 2018


Mary Shelley

Author Biography
Plot Summary
Historical Context
Critical Overview
For Further Study

Mary Shelley


Mary Shelley made an anonymous but powerful debut into the world of literature when Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus was published in March, 1818. She was only nineteen when she began writing her story. She and her husband, poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, were visiting poet Lord Byron at Lake Geneva in Switzerland when Byron challenged each of his guests to write a ghost story. Settled around Byron's fireplace in June 1816, the intimate group of intellectuals had their imaginations and the stormy weather as the stimulus and inspiration for ghoulish visions. A few nights later, Mary Shelley imagined the "hideous phantasm of man" who became the confused yet deeply sensitive creature in Frankenstein. She once said, "My dreams were at once more fantastic and agreeable than my writings." While many stage, television, and film adaptations of Frankenstein have simplified the complexity of the intellectual and emotional responses of Victor Frankenstein and his creature to their world, the novel still endures. Its lasting power can be seen in the range of reactions explored by various literary critics and over ninety dramatizations.

Although early critics greeted the novel with a combination of praise and disdain, readers were fascinated with and a bit horrified by the macabre aspects of the novel. Interestingly, the macabre has transformed into the possible as the world approaches the twenty-first century: the ethical implications of genetic engineering, and, more recently, the cloning of livestock in Scotland, find echoes in Shelley's work. In addition to scientific interest, literary commentators have noted the influence of both Percy Shelley and William Godwin (Mary's father) in the novel. Many contemporary critics have focused their attention on the novel's biographical elements, tracing Shelley's maternal and authorial insecurities to her very unique creation myth. Ultimately, the novel resonates with philosophical and moral ramifications: themes of nurture versus nature, good versus evil, and ambition versus social responsibility dominate readers' attention and provoke thoughtful consideration of the most sensitive issues of our time.

Author Biography

Surrounded by some of the most famous authors in history, Mary Shelley struggled to find her own authorial voice in Frankenstein. She was born in August, 1797 to William Godwin, a revolutionary thinker who wrote An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice, and Mary Wollstonecraft, author of A Vindication of the Rights of Women. Shelley's freethinking parents married when Wollstonecraft was five months pregnant with Shelley. Even though both Godwin and Wollstonecraft philosophically opposed the institution of marriage, they wanted to give Mary social respectability. Unfortunately, Shelley would never witness her parents' marital relationship because Wollstonecraft died ten days after Mary's birth. A doctor (summoned by the midwife, who could not remove the placenta after Mary's delivery) infected Wollstonecraft's uterus with his unwashed hands.

Shelley turned to Wollstonecraft's books to learn about a mother she never knew. Self-taught, she also engaged herself with the books that graced her father's library shelves. The new Mrs. Godwin, Mary lane Clairmont, affirmed Godwin's decision not to give Shelley any formal schooling, even though they both recognized Shelley's curious mind. Clairmont played a major role with other decisions in Mary's life, which gradually heightened Mary's unhappiness with her home life. In fact, Mary's upbringing mirrored certain elements of the childhood story Cinderella because Clairmont favored her own children above Godwin's. Clairmont harbored jealous feelings towards the offspring of two of the most progressive thinkers of the time. In addition, Clairmont resented Shelley's strong devotion to Godwin, so she limited Shelley's interaction with her father. Mary eventually transferred her affections to Percy Shelley, another prominent literary figure of the day.

Percy Shelley and his wife, Harriet, dined with Mary's family after Percy wrote a letter of admiration to Godwin. Mary Shelley met Percy for a second time, two years later, and the pair began spending almost every day with each other. Percy was twenty-two and his wife was pregnant with their second child when Mary declared her love for him. Initially, Mary agreed not to see Percy when Godwin condemned their relationship. But Percy's dramatic threat to commit suicide convinced Mary to flee with him to France in July 1814.

The year 1816 revealed both tragedy and creativity for Shelley. Most of Mary Shelley's biographies trace 1816 as a happy year for the Shelley marriage; a son, William, was born, and the couple did extensive traveling. Mary and Percy met poet Lord Byron at his home in Lake Geneva, the infamous site where Mary gave birth to the Frankenstein myth. But this year also brought much grief to the couple's happiness, as both Fanny Imlay (Mary's older half-sister) and Harriet Shelley committed suicide only weeks apart from each other. Their deaths lead to a series of other deaths and produced the beginnings of Mary's depression. Both William and Clara Shelley, Percy and Mary's son and daughter, died a year apart from each other, and Percy drowned in a boating accident in 1822. Mary spent the remainder of her years in England with her only surviving son, Percy, writing five other novels and other critical and biographical writings. She died of complications from a brain tumor in 1851.

Plot Summary

Opening Letters

Frankenstein opens with Robert Walton's letter from St. Petersburgh, Russia, to his sister in England. He encourages her to share his enthusiasm about his journey to the North Pole to discover both the secret of magnetism and a passage through the pole. In additional letters he wavers between his solitude and alienation on the one hand, and his determined heart and resolved will on the other. His last letter tells the startling story of his having seen a being of gigantic stature shaped like a man, fleeing across the ice which is threatening to enclose the ship. The next day another sled appears, carrying the wasted and maddened Victor Frankenstein, who is pursuing the giant. Walton takes Frankenstein aboard. When he tells Frankenstein his purpose, how he hopes to make great discoveries, Frankenstein cautions him to leave off his mad pursuit. He asks him to listen to his story of how once he began in earnest to know all that could be known.

Victor's Story, Part I

Born in Naples, Italy, to a wealthy Swiss family, Victor Frankenstein is the only child of doting parents. When he is five, his mother brings home an orphaned girl named Elizabeth to be Victor's "sister." In Victor's happy childhood in Geneva, he and Elizabeth grow in their parents' love, and they are joined by more siblings. Victor develops a deep friendship with Henry Clerval, a fellow student. Where Clerval studies "the moral relations of things," Victor conceives a passion to discover the physical secrets of the world.

At seventeen, as he is to leave for the University at Ingolstadt, Elizabeth contracts scarlet fever. Nursed by Victor's mother, she recovers, but his mother dies. On her deathbed, she begs Elizabeth and Victor to wed. After some delay, Victor departs for Ingolstadt, where his chemistry professor so encourages him in the study of science that Victor determines to discover the secret of life, perhaps even how to create life itself. He pursues his studies in the chemistry lab and in dissecting rooms and morgues, gathering the material for his experiment to make a creature from discarded corpses, perhaps one "like himself." Cut off from contact with all others, ignoring letters from friends and family, he exhausts himself. Finally, on a dreary November night, Victor succeeds in animating a creature. Drained of all strength, he falls asleep, only to awaken from a nightmare to find the creature staring at him. He flees in horror at what he has done.

The next day Clerval arrives and Victor's appearance and condition shock him. Victor can not tell Clerval what he has done. He believes he can keep his secret, for, on his return to his room, he discovers that the creature has fled. The nervous exhaustion into which Victor then falls lasts for several months, during which Clerval nurses him by taking him away from the lab and into the mountains on long walks.

Victor receives from his father a letter relating the death of Victor's younger brother William, strangled by someone while out walking. A necklace with a miniature likeness of Victor's mother was missing when the corpse was found. On his frantic return journey, in an electrical storm in the mountains near Geneva, Victor sees the monster and thinks that the monster might have killed William. At home Victor learns that everyone believes Justine, a family servant, to be guilty, for the necklace missing from the corpse was found on her. Victor exclaims that she is innocent, that he knows who the killer is, but does not speak up at her trial. Justine gives a forced confession and is convicted and hung. Overcome with remorse at the deaths of William and Justine, convinced of his own guilt, Victor seeks solitude. Elizabeth and his father attribute his behavior to his grief at his brother's death. He leaves the house to walk the Swiss Alps, journeying to the village of Chamounix. In a painful retreat amid the "solitary grandeur" of the mountains, he meets the monster crossing an ice field. To Victor's shocked expressions of outrage the monster replies calmly, asking Frankenstein to listen with compassion to his tale.

The Monster's Story

After fleeing from the laboratory on the night of his "birth," the monster discovers himself cold, unfed, and unbefriended in the mountains outside Ingolstadt, "a poor, helpless, miserable wretch." He searches for food and shelter, which he finally finds in a hovel adjoined to a cottage. He observes the cottage's inhabitants: an old man, a young man and woman. When he learns that the cottagers are not so happy as he believes they should be, he gathers firewood at night to replenish their woodpile and lessen their labors. Meanwhile, in the course of several seasons, he studies them, learns their names (Felix and Agatha and their father), and begins to study their language.

One day another woman arrives on horseback. Felix seems especially happy in her presence. The monster listens as Felix instructs her from a history book. He learns of human law and government, of rank and wealth, of human greatness and vileness. "Of what a strange nature is knowledge!" he exclaims. Above all, he learns of his own lonely deformity.

He later tells Frankenstein the story of this De Lacey family, a wealthy French family who suffered a reversal of fortunes, were imprisoned, and exiled to the poverty in which the monster finds them. From such books as John Milton's epic poem Paradise Lost the monster learns more of human virtues and vices and of his own misery.

And what was I? Of my creation and creator I was absolutely ignorant, but I knew that I possessed no money, no friends, no kind of property. I was, besides, endowed with a figure hideously deformed and loathsome; I was not even of the same nature as man. I was more agile than they and could subsist on a coarser diet; I bore the extremes of heat and cold with less injury to my frame; my stature far exceeded theirs. When I looked around I saw and heard of none like me. Was I, then, a monster, a blot upon the earth, from which all men fled and whom all men disowned?

One day when only the old man is in the cottage, the monster enters, introducing himself as a weary traveler. He discovers that because the old man is blind, he is not repulsed by him. The monster then tells his tale of misery and loneliness; the old man responds sympathetically. When the others return, horrified at his monstrous appearance, they chase him. From seclusion in the forest, the next night he emerges to burn down the cottage. He then flees toward Ingolstadt, determined on vengeance. He comes upon young William Frankenstein out walking. When the boy repulses the monster's friendly overtures, the monster kills him. He takes from the boy a locket with the likeness of a woman and when he later meets another young woman asleep in a barn, he places the locket on her, certain that he can implicate her in the boy's murder. He concludes his tale by proposing to Victor that only Victor's creation of a female of similar deformity will grant him the happiness he cannot find among humans.

Victor's Story, Part II

The monster pleads with Victor to make him a mate, threatening him and his family if he does not. Frankenstein agrees, but only on condition that the creatures flee to uninhabitable parts of the earth where they will do no harm to humans. Victor returns to his family, more downhearted than ever. His father proposes that the long-hoped-for marriage of Victor and Elizabeth might restore Victor to happiness. Victor wishes instead to travel to England to discover from philosophers there something he believes might complete his work. He promises to marry Elizabeth on his return. His father arranges to have Clerval meet him along the way in Strasbourg, France. They walk in the mountains, then travel by boat down the Rhine River and to England. In Edinburgh, Scotland, Victor asks Clerval to permit him to travel on alone for a time. Frankenstein, convinced that the monster has been following him, seeks solitude for his work on a remote island in the Scottish Orkneys. On a moonlit night his fears are realized when he looks up from his work on the new creature to discover the monster peering at him through the window. Victor then vows to destroy his new, half-finished creation. The monster threatens him: "I will be with you on your wedding night."

Frankenstein takes the remains of the new creature and dumps them into the sea from a boat he takes offshore. When he awakens hours later, he has drifted to Ireland. Several people on shore take him to a magistrate to answer for the death of a man found murdered the previous evening. The man, to Victor's horror, is Clerval. Imprisoned for several months, Frankenstein is freed after the magistrate discovers Victor's innocence. The magistrate sends for Victor's father in Geneva to bring him home. On his return he marries Elizabeth, worried all the while about the monster's threat, "I shall be with you on your wedding night." He interprets this to mean that the monster will kill him. On the wedding night, however, the monster breaks into their room and kills Elizabeth. After he sees the monster staring through the window, grinning, Victor vows to seek revenge. He pursues the monster across the Alps, across Europe, into Russia and north to the pole, where he finds himself stranded on an ice flow before he is taken aboard Walton's ship.

Closing Letters

One week after his last letter to his sister, during which Frankenstein relates his story, Walton writes again to say that Frankenstein still intends to pursue the creature until he dies. Walton, too, is still determined to pursue his quest, although mountains of ice surround the ship and threaten to lock it in place. When his sailors ask to turn back, Walton consents to turn south. His final letter to his sister recounts Frankenstein's death and his dying advice to Walton to forego ambition and seek tranquility instead. Walton's grief over his new friend's death is interrupted by the appearance of the monster in Frankenstein's cabin, grieving over the death of his creator. The monster tells Walton how his vengeance had never been joyful to him, how he was unjustly treated by the humanity which had created him. Thus, though born in innocence and goodness, he became malignant evil. He now lives in remorse, alone. After having said all this, he springs from the cabin window and disappears across the ice.


Henry Clerval

Victor's closest friend and companion, who balances his emotional and rational pursuits. He studies Oriental languages but passionately loves nature and life. Victor acknowledges that "[H]is wild and enthusiastic imagination was chastened by the sensibility of his heart." And unlike Victor, who wishes to learn "the secrets of heaven and earth," Clerval aspires "to become one among those whose names are recorded in story as the gallant and adventurous benefactors of our species."

After Victor runs from the creature when the creature comes to life, Clerval nurses Victor back to health, playing the role of protector and comforter—a role Victor fails to assume for his own "child," the creature. The creature eventually strangles and kills Clerval because Victor destroys his half-created mate. Victor then vows revenge upon the creature.

Media Adaptations

There have been so many plays, movies, and recordings of Frankenstein that it would be difficult to list all of the productions. Therefore, the list below represents the most popular, most controversial, and most influential recordings and dramatizations:

  • Recordings: Frankenstein phonodisc dramatization with sound effects and music, directed by Christopher Casson, Spoken Arts, 1970; Frankenstein, taken from a broadcast of the CBS program Suspense, starring Herbert Marshall, American Forces Radio and Television Service, 1976; Frankenstein read by James Mason, Caedmon Records, 1977; Weird Circle, containing Edgar Allan Poe's The Tell-Tale Heart and Shelley's Frankenstein, recorded from original radio broadcasts, Golden Age, 1978.
  • Films: Frankenstein starred Colin Clive and Boris Karloff; it was released by Universal in 1931. The Bride of Frankenstein, the sequel to the 1931 film, starred Boris Karloff and Elsa Lanchester; it was released in 1935 by Universal. Son of Frankenstein, also a sequel to the above mentioned productions, starred Basil Rathbone, Karloff, and Bela Lugosi and was released in 1939 by Universal. All three are available from MCA/Universal Home Video.
  • The Curse of Frankenstein, a 1957 horror film produced by Warner Brothers, included Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee as cast members; the first in a series of films inspired by Shelley's novel, it is available from Warner Home Video. Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed! was released in 1969 by Warner Brothers; Peter Cushing and Veronica Carlson star as the central characters. Young Frankenstein was released in 1974 by Fox; available from CBS-Fox Video, this comedy-horror film received Academy Award nominations for Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Sound; cast includes Gene Wilder, Peter Boyle, and director-star Mel Brooks.
  • More recent films include 1985's The Bride, starring Sting and Jennifer Beals, available from CBS/Fox Video; famed horror director Roger Corman's 1990 work Frankenstein Unbound, which includes Mary Shelley as a character and stars John Hurt, Raul Julia, and Bridget Fonda, available from CBS/Fox Video; the 1993 cable production Frankenstein, starring Patrick Bergin and Randy Quaid, available from Turner Home Entertainment; and Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, released in 1994 by American Zoetrope and available from Columbia Tristar Home Video, featuring Robert De Niro and director-star Kenneth Branagh.
  • Plays: Frankenstein: A Gothic Thriller by David Campton, published by Garnet Miller in 1973; Frankenstein by Tim Kelley, published by Samuel French in 1974.

The creature

Like a newborn baby reaching out to his mother, the creature reaches out to Victor when he is transformed from an inanimate to an animate being. Victor labored for two years in order to give the creature life, but he is so appalled by the creature's hideous appearance that he flees, leaving the creature to fend for himself. Shelley initially leaves her readers in suspense as to the creature's whereabouts. We do not hear his story until after he finds Victor and requests a mate for himself. He describes his life to Victor after he "awoke," explaining the difficulties he had learning basic survival techniques. The creature then describes his happiest moments watching the De Lacey family together. Living in a shack attached to the De Lacey cottage, the creature viewed the family without their knowledge. He discovered a family relationship rooted in mutual respect and benevolent love, he learned how to speak and to read as the result of Safie's efforts to learn English, and he "looked upon crime as a distant evil."

John Locke, a famous eighteenth-century philosopher, invented the concept of the "Tabula Rasa," the idea that the mind is a "blank slate" when we are born. Most critics agree that Locke strongly influenced Shelley's characterization of the creature. She wanted her readers to understand how important the creature's social conditioning was to his development as a conscious being. The creature's environment, therefore, plays a critical role in shaping his reaction to and interaction with Victor during their first meeting. While the creature uses both rational and emotional appeals to convince Victor that he deserves and needs another being like himself to share his life with, he tries to emphasize Victor's duties as a creator. The creature eventually realizes that not only has Victor rejected him, the entire race of humankind abhors his image—an image resembling no one else in existence.

The creature vows revenge against his creator and takes Victor's youngest brother, William, as his first victim. After this incident, he discovers Justine asleep in a barn, and purposely puts William's locket in her hand so that she will be accused of the murder. Clerval and Elizabeth's murders follow this incident after Victor goes back on his promise to create a mate for the creature. The creature finally appears at Victor's death bed and confesses his crimes to Walton. He assures Walton that he will fade from existence when a funeral pile consumes his body with flames and sweeps him into the dark sea.

Agatha De Lacey

Daughter of Mr. De Lacey, Agatha shows tenderness and kindness towards her family and Safie. She too, however, is horrified by the creature and faints upon seeing him.

Felix De Lacey

A hard-working son who cares for his family and his beloved Safie. He appears sad and unhappy until Safie, his fiancee, arrives at his home. His involvement with Safie's father gets him, his father, and his sister Agatha exiled from their homeland, France. Nevertheless, his unasked-for kindness to Safie's father, a foreign convict, stands in contrast to his cruel dismissal and beating of the creature, who is doing nothing but sitting at the feet of Felix's father.

Mr. De Lacey

As the blind father of Felix and Agatha, Mr. De Lacey serves as a surrogate father to the creature. The creature notes his benevolence towards his family, and notes that "he would talk in a cheerful accent, with an expression of goodness that bestowed pleasure even upon me." De Lacey and his children are in their current exile because of the aid they rendered, unasked, to a Turkish merchant who was wrongly sentenced to death; the merchant later betrayed them. Because Mr. De Lacey is blind, the creature approaches him to try to gain his sympathy and friendship. Even though Felix and Agatha return home and run the creature off, Mr. De Lacey is the only one in the book who does not judge or fear the creature.

Alphonse Frankenstein

Victor's father is described by his son as "respected by all who knew him for his integrity and indefatigable attention to public business." Alphonse met Victor's mother because of his persistence in pursuing a friend who had fallen on hard times in order to give him assistance. Alphonse is also a nurturing, loving parent, and tries many times to remind Victor that family and happiness are just as important as books and learning. It is his letters to Victor that serve as occasional reminders of the outside world while he is occupied with his experiments.

Caroline Frankenstein

Victor Frankenstein's mother, Caroline was the orphaned daughter of an impoverished merchant who was one of Alphonse Frankenstein's merchant friends. She married the much-older Alphonse two years after he completed his long search for the family. A devoted mother, she contracts the scarlet fever while caring for Elizabeth, Victor's adopted sister. She dies just before Victor leaves to attend the University.

Victor Frankenstein

Born to an affluent, loving family, Victor Frankenstein hopes to leave a lasting impression on his fellow humanity. He leaves home to attend the University of Ingolstadt, where he studies natural sciences. His professor M. Waldman inspires him to push his experiments beyond the realm of "acceptable" science, so he begins to determine the limits of human mortality. Collecting cadaver parts from graveyards, he slowly pieces together the form of a human being. It takes him two years to complete his experiment, but when he finally gives his creature the spark of life, Victor can only run in fear. The creature's hideous appearance appalls Victor, upsetting him so much that he becomes very ill. He knows nothing about the creature's whereabouts until the creature finally approaches him.

Although Victor listens to his creature's tale with a mixture of loathing and dread, he reluctantly acknowledges that he owes the creature "a small portion of happiness"'; so he promises to create a mate for the creature. After much consideration, however, Victor fears the consequences of his decision and destroys what little of the female he had created. Although he honestly believes the creature despises humanity and would therefore inflict harm upon anyone and everyone, Victor is more concerned about the creature and his mate creating other "monsters" to wreak havoc upon society. Although he feels guilt for the monster's actions, realizing that by making the creature he is the cause of them, he never accepts responsibility for how he has driven the creature to vengeance.

Ironically, he continues to worry about the creature's treatment of others even when both of them slip deeper into the Arctic iceland, far away from any form of civilization, and even after he hears of the creature's benevolent efforts to help the De Lacey family survive. The ending of the novel only reaffirms Victor's truly selfish motivations, as he fails to consider the needs of Walton's crew by asking them to continue their journey in order to kill the creature. He even calls the crew members cowards for wanting to return home without completing their mission. What Victor does not realize is that his quest to conquer the unknown has left him without family or friends; he dies on Walton's ship as lonely and bitter as his unfortunate creature.

Throughout the novel, Victor's self-centered actions are shown in stark contrast to those of his family, friends, and even strangers. Whereas his parents have taken in two orphaned children and treated them as their own, Victor relinquishes responsibility for the only creature he has actually created. Unlike Elizabeth, who testifies on Justine's behalf despite the other townspeople's disapproval, Victor remains silent because he fears to be disbelieved or thought insane. Even the behavior of minor characters such as Mr. Kirwin, who exerts himself to nurse and defend a stranger who to all outward appearances is a murderer, serves to show how Victor is unnaturally selfish and as a result has performed an unnatural act.

William Frankenstein

Victor's youngest brother, who runs from the creature's presence in fear. The creature kills him, but Justine Moritz, a family friend, gets blamed for the death. Victor knows from the first that the creature is the murderer, but arrives home too late to prevent Justine from accepting blame for William's death.

Frankenstein's monster

See The creature

Mr. Kirwin

An Irish magistrate who believes Victor is responsible for Clerval's murder, for Victor is agitated on hearing the manner of the man's death. After Victor becomes bedridden upon viewing Clerval's corpse, Kirwin cares for Victor's needs and helps him recover his health. Kirwin is sympathetic to the suffering young man, even though his feverish ravings seem to indicate his guilt in the murder. He also arranges for the collection of evidence in Victor's behalf, sparing him a trial.

Elizabeth Lavenza

The Frankensteins adopt Elizabeth when she is only a girl. She and Victor share more than the typical sibling affections for each other; they love each other and correspond while Victor attends the University. In her letters to him, Elizabeth keeps Victor abreast of family and other social matters, such as town gossip. She also describes Justine's welfare, reminding Victor that orphans can blossom physically as well as mentally, given the proper love and attention. Her unselfish behavior serves as a contrast to Victor's: Elizabeth gives testimony on Justine's behalf during her trial while Victor remains silent even though he knows Justine did not murder William. Elizabeth and Victor are reunited and get married, despite the creature's threats to be with Victor on his wedding night. Elizabeth is kept ignorant of the creature's existence and his threats, and when Victor leaves the room on their wedding night, the creature kills Elizabeth.

Justine Moritz

The Frankenstein family adopts Justine because she had been abandoned by her mother. She is a favorite of Caroline Frankenstein, but returns for a time to her own mother after Caroline's death. Justine later returns to the Frankensteins, and continually reminds Elizabeth "of my dear aunt." She is found with young William's locket after his death and put on trial for his murder. Although Victor knows the creature is responsible for William's death, he says nothing at Justine's trial, reasoning that "I was absent when it was committed, and such a declaration would have been considered as the ravings of a madman and would not have exculpated her who suffered through me." Despite Elizabeth's testimony regarding Justine's good character, she is sentenced to death and then executed.


Safie becomes known to Felix through the letters of thanks she writes to him. Although her father is Turkish, her mother was a Christian Arab who had been enslaved by the Turks before marrying one of them. Safie cherishes the memory of her mother, who instructed her daughter in Christianity and fostered "an independence of spirit forbidden to the female followers of Muhammed." Against her father's wishes, Safie flees Turkey and joins Felix De Lacey and his family. Her broken English becomes a learning opportunity for the creature, because he receives the same language lessons as she does. Shelley's stereotypical treatment of Turkish Muslims in her portrayal of Sadie's situation was most likely a way to bring up the issues of women's rights that were articulated by her mother, writer Mary Wollstonecraft.

Margaret Saville

Robert Walton's sister, with whom Walton corresponds at the beginning and end of the novel.

M. Waldman

Victor's kind professor inspires him to "unfold to the world the deepest mysteries of creation." Victor hears M. Waldman's lecture on the progress of science and determines "more, far more, will I achieve." The behavior of this man of science stands in stark contrast to Victor's, for M. Waldman takes time away from his research to teach Victor and introduce him to the laboratory, whereas Victor pursues his experiments to the exclusion of all else.

Robert Walton

Walton's letters begin and end the novel, framing Victor's and the creature's narratives in such a way that Walton embodies the most important qualities found in both Victor and his creature. Walton, in other words, balances the inquisitive yet presumptuously arrogant nature of Victor with the sympathetic, sensitive side of the creature. As an Arctic explorer, Walton, much like Victor, wishes to conquer the unknown. Nevertheless, when he discovers Victor near death on the icy, vast expanse of water, he listens to Victor's bitter and tormented tale of the creature. This makes him reconsider continuing his own mission to the possible peril of his crew. When the creature appears at Victor's deathbed, Walton fails to fulfill Victor's dying wish to destroy the creature. Instead, he does what Victor continually failed to do throughout the novel: he listens to the creature's anguished tale with compassion and empathy.


Alienation and Loneliness

Mary Shelley's emphasis on the Faust legend, or the quest to conquer the unknown at the cost of one's humanity, forms a central theme of the novel. The reader continually sees Victor favor his ambition above his friendships and family. Created by a German writer named Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, the Faust myth suggested that the superior individual could throw off the shackles of traditional conventions and alienate himself from society. English Romantic poets, who assumed the status of poet-prophets, believed that only in solitude could they produce great poetry. In Frankenstein, however, isolation only leads to despair. Readers get the distinct feeling that Victor's inquisitive nature causes his emotional and physical peril because he cannot balance his intellectual and social interactions. For instance, when he leaves home to attend the University of Ingolstadt, he immerses himself in his experiment and forgets about the family who lovingly supported him throughout his childhood. Victor actually does not see his family or correspond with them for six years, even when his father and Elizabeth try to keep in touch with him by letters. Shelley's lengthy description of Victor's model parents contrasts with his obsessive drive to create the creature.

Margaret's correspondence with Walton at the beginning of the novel also compares with Shelley's description of Victor's home life; both men were surrounded by caring, nurturing individuals who considered the welfare of their loved ones at all times. Not surprisingly, Walton's ambition to conquer the unknown moves him, like it does Victor, further away from civilization and closer to feelings of isolation and depression. The creature, too, begins reading novels such as Goethe's The Sorrows of Werter and John Milton's Paradise Lost, claiming that an "increase of knowledge only [showed] what a wretched outcast I was." For the creature, an increase in knowledge only brings sorrow and discontent. Victor and Walton ultimately arrive at these two states because of their inquisitive natures.

Nature vs. Nurture

The theme of nurturing, or how environment contributes to a person's character, truly fills the novel. With every turn of the page, another nurturing example contrasts with Victor's lack of a parental role with his "child," the creature. Caroline nurtures Elizabeth back to health and loses her own life as a result. Clerval nurtures Victor through his illness when he is in desperate need of a care-taker after the creature is brought to life. The De Lacey's nurturing home becomes a model for the creature, as he begins to return their love in ways the family cannot even comprehend. For instance, the creature stopped stealing the De Lacey's food after realizing their poverty. In sympathy, he left firewood for the family to reduce Felix's chores. Each nurturing act contrasts strongly with Victor's gross neglect of the creature's needs. And by showing the affection between Caroline Frankenstein and her adopted daughters Elizabeth and Justine, Shelley suggests that a child need not have biological ties to a parent to deserve an abundance of love and attention.

Appearances and Reality

Victor's inquisitive probing causes him to delve beneath the appearances of "acceptable" science and create an animate being from inanimate materials. Nevertheless, he forgets to extend this inquiring sensibility toward his creature. The creature's physical appearance prompts Victor to flee from his creation; Victor never takes the time to search beneath the creature's ugliness to discover the very human qualities that the creature possesses. While Victor easily manipulates nature and natural laws to suit his own intellectual interests, he lacks an understanding of human nature, as proven throughout the novel.

Topics for Further Study

  • Compare and contrast Robert Walton's and Victor Frankenstein's personalities. You might draw parallels between their quest to conquer the unknown, their emotional ties to other individuals, or their loneliness.
  • Research some of the prominent issues in your society that Shelley addresses in her novel, such as genetic engineering, or the effects of abandonment on children whose fathers have disappeared from their lives. Make a comparison between the novel and your discoveries and discuss observations about how your society is coping with or addressing these sensitive issues.
  • Analyze the theme of justice in the novel. What does Justine's trial have to do with Victor's treatment of his creature or the creature's treatment of Victor's family and friends? How does the theme of revenge relate to issues of justice?
  • Research some of the characteristics of the Romantic movement, such as isolation, an emphasis on nature, or the notion that humans are inherently good, and argue how and why Shelley's novel is an embodiment of the English Romantic movement. Or, argue why her novel is not an embodiment of the English Romantic movement.

In addition to the importance of the creature's appearance, Shelley emphasizes the magnificent landscape throughout the novel. This demonstrates her loyalty to the Romantic movement of her time, which often glorified nature. Although Victor often turns to nature to relieve his despondent thoughts, Clerval notices the intimate interaction between nature and humans in Switzerland. He says to Victor, "Look at that … group of labourers coming from among their vines; and that village halfhid in the recess of the mountain." Clerval looks beyond nature's surface appearance, drawing Victor's attention to the harmonious interaction between nature and a productive society. Victor praises his friend as having a "wild and enthusiastic imagination [which] was chastened by the sensibility of his heart," a sensibility Victor ironically lacks. In the isolated Arctic, when Walton's ship is trapped by mountains of ice, he respects nature's resistance to his exploration and eventually leaves the untamed region. Like Clerval, Walton experiences life by interacting harmoniously with nature and people, as he proves when he honors his crew members' request to return home.

Duty and Responsibility

Victor's inability to know his creature relates directly to his lack of responsibility for the creature's welfare or the creature's actions. The role of responsibility or duty takes many shapes throughout the story, but familial obligations represent one of the novel's central themes. Whether Caroline nurses Elizabeth or Felix blames himself for his family's impoverished condition, Victor's dismissal of his parental duties makes readers empathize with the creature. Victor only feels a sense of duty after the creature says the famous line, "How dare you sport thus with life? Do your duty towards me, and I will do mine towards you and the rest of mankind." The creature compares himself to Adam—thus comparing Victor to God—and claims that Victor owes him a certain amount of happiness. Even though the creature temporarily convinces Victor to grant him his rights, Victor never really learns the virtues of parental or ethical responsibility.

Justice vs. Injustice

By showing how Victor ignores his responsibilities while those around him do not, Shelley invites the reader to judge his character. Themes of justice and injustice play a large role in the novel, as the author develops issues of fairness and blame. Usually those characters who take responsibility for others and for their own actions are considered fair and just. For example, Elizabeth pleads Justine's case in court after Justine is accused of William's murder. Victor knows the creature committed the crime, yet he does not—or cannot—reveal the creature's wrongdoing.

However, the most important aspect of the trial is Justine's confession. Elizabeth claims, "I believed you guiltless … until I heard that you had yourself declared your guilt." When Justine explains that she confessed after being found guilty because that was the only way to receive absolution from the church, Elizabeth accepts her at her word and tells her, "I will proclaim, I will prove your innocence." Making confessions, listening to others, and offering verbal promises all signal the highest truths in this novel. Elizabeth accepts Justine's guilt only if Justine says she is guilty; never mind the facts or evidence, never mind intuition— words reveal true belief. Except for Victor, every character listens to others: Mr. Kirwin listens to Victor's story, the creature listens to the De Lacey family, Felix listens to Safie's father, Margaret listens to Walton, and Walton listens to Victor and to his crew. Listening helps all of these characters distinguish fair from unfair. Victor's refusal to listen impartially to his creature says much about his character. Shelley suggests that Victor not only played God when he created the creature; he also unfairly played the role of judge and accuser.



Instead of beginning with Victor's point of view, Shelley introduces us to Walton first. Using a frame device, in which the tale is told to us by someone who reads it or hears it from someone else, Shelley invites readers to believe Victor's story through an objective person. Shelley also uses an important literary device known as the epistolary form—where letters tell the story—using letters between Walton and his sister to frame both Victor's and the creature's narrative. Before the novel's first chapter, Walton writes to his sister about the "wretched man" he meets, building suspense about the "demon" Victor mentions at the beginning of his narrative. Once Victor begins telling his story, we slowly learn about his childhood and the eventful moments leading up to his studies at the University. Then, the creature interrupts Victor, and we get to hear all the significant moments leading up to his request for a partner. Since the theme of listening is so central to this novel, Shelley makes sure, by incorporating three different narratives, that readers get to hear all sides of the story. Walton's letters introduce and conclude the novel, reinforcing the theme of nurturing.


The majority of the novel takes place in the Swiss Alps and concludes in the Arctic, although Victor and Clerval travel to other places, such as London, England, the Rhine River which flows from Switzerland north to the Netherlands, and Scotland. All of these locations, except for the Arctic, were among the favorite landscapes for Romantic writers, and Shelley spends great care describing the sublime shapes of the majestic, snow-clad mountains. However, aside from the dark Arctic Ocean, Shelley's setting is unusual; most Gothic novels produce gloomy, haggard settings adorned with decaying mansions and ghostly, supernatural spirits. It is possible the author intended the beautiful Alps to serve as a contrast to the creature's unsightly physical appearance. In addition to the atypical Gothic setting, Shelley also sets her story in contemporary times, another diversion from Gothic novels which usually venture to the Middle Ages and other far away time periods. By using the time period of her day, Shelley makes the creature and the story's events much more realistic and lifelike.


Spanning the years between 1785 and 1830, the Romantic period was marked by the French Revolution and the beginnings of modern industrialism. Most of the early Romantic writers favored the revolution and the changes in lifestyle and sensibility which accompanied it. After shaking off old traditions and customs, writers experienced the newfound freedom of turning inward, rather than outward to the external world, to reflect on issues of the heart and the imagination. In addition, writers like English poet William Wordsworth suddenly challenged his predecessors by writing about natural scenes and rustic, commonplace lifestyles. English poet Samuel Coleridge explored elements of the supernatural in his poetry.

Mary Shelley combined the ethical concerns of her parents with the Romantic sensibilities of Percy Shelley's poetic inclinations. Her father's concern for the underprivileged influenced her description of the poverty-stricken De Lacey family. Her appeals to the imagination, isolation, and nature represented typical scenes and themes explored in some of Percy Shelley's poetry. But Mary's choice of a Gothic novel made her unique in her family and secured her authorial place in the Romantic period.


Horace Walpole introduced the first Gothic novel in 1764 with The Castle of Otranto: A Gothic Story. Gothic novels were usually mysteries in which sinister and sometimes supernatural events occurred and were ultimately caused by some evil human action. The language was frequently overly dramatic and inflated. Following this movement was the Romantic movement's fascination with the macabre and the superstitious aspects of life, allowing them the freedom to explore the darkest depths of the human mind. Most critics agree that Mary Shelley's Frankenstein reflected her deepest psychological fears and insecurities, such as her inability to prevent her children's deaths, her distressed marriage to a man who showed no remorse for his daughters' deaths, and her feelings of inadequacy as a writer. The Gothic novel usually expresses, often in subtle and indirect ways, our repressed anxieties. The settings usually take place far away from reality or realistic portrayals of everyday life. Shelley's setting, of course, is the exception to most Gothic novels. The fact that the creature wanders the breathtaking Alps instead of a dark, craggy mansion in the middle of nowhere either compounds the reader's fear or makes the creature more human.


Many literary critics have noted the Doppelganger effect—the idea that a living person has a ghostly double haunting him—between Victor and his creature. Presenting Victor and the creature as doubles allows Shelley to dramatize two aspects of a character, usually the "good" and "bad" selves. Victor's desire to ignore his creature parallels his desire to disregard the darkest part of his self. The famous psychologist Sigmund Freud characterizes this "dark" side as the Id, while Carl Jung, another famous psychologist, refers to our "dark" side as the Jungian shadow. Jung claims that we all have characteristics we don't like about ourselves, yet these unsavory attributes stay with us like a shadow tailgating its leader. The creature represents Victor's "evil" shadow, just as Victor represents the creature's. When presented this way, it makes sense that so many readers confuse the creature and Victor by assuming that the creature is named Frankenstein. Both of these characters "alternately pursue and flee from one another … [L]ike fragments of a mind in conflict with itself," as Eleanor Ty observes in the Concise Dictionary of British Literary Biography. But taken together as one person, Victor and his creature combine to represent the full spectrum of what it means to be human—to be joyful, compassionate, empathetic, and hateful, and also love humanity, desire knowledge, honor justice, fear the unknown, dread abandonment, and fear mortality. No other character in the novel assumes this range of human complexity.

Historical Context

The French Revolution and the Rise of Industrialism

Most of the early Romantic writers strongly advocated the French Revolution, which began in 1789 with the storming of the Bastille, a prison where the French royalty kept political prisoners. The revolution signaled a throwing off of old traditions and customs of the wealthy classes, as the balance of economic power shifted toward the middle class with the rise of industrialism. As textile factories and iron mills increased production with advanced machinery and technology, the working classes grew restive and increasingly alarmed by jobs that seemed insecure because a worker could be replaced by machines. Most of England's literary thinkers welcomed revolution because it represented an opportunity to establish a harmonious social structure. Shelley's father William Godwin, in fact, strongly influenced Romantic writers when he wrote Inquiry Concerning Political Justice because he envisioned a society in which property would be equally distributed. Shelley's mother Mary Wollstonecraft, also an ardent supporter of the revolution, wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Men in response to Edmund Burke's attack on the revolution. She followed two years later with A Vindication of the Rights of Women, supporting equality between the sexes.

Compare & Contrast

  • Early 1800s: After the French Revolution ended, England turned its attention to domestic and economic concerns—particularly to problems resulting from a rapidly growing industrial nation.

    Today: Domestic and economic concerns about employment and education also stem from rapid change, as the business world moves from emphasizing industrial production to a service and information economy.

  • Early 1800s: Scientific advancements, especially Erasmus Darwin's studies in biological evolution, caused individuals to question God's authority and inquire into matters regarding the generation of human life.

    Today: Animal scientists in Scotland successfully tweak the DNA from an adult sheep to clone another individual sheep. The U.S. government bans federal funding of experiments with cloning using human DNA.

  • Early 1800s: Romantic writers experience a literary Renaissance as critical theory affirms the achievements of the great poets of the age. Writers enjoy literary freedom, experimenting with a bold new language and new genres like Gothicism.

    Today: Appreciation of the arts seems to be on the decrease, as most individuals spend their time with television rather than with various art mediums. Funding has been greatly reduced for the National Endowment of the Arts, and even high school music and art classes have had to be cut at many public schools.

  • Early 1800s: Nautical explorations establish trading routes and open up communication to other cultures. Robert Walton's quest to find the North Pole mirrors the adventures of nineteenth-century scientists and explorers alike.

    Today: The continuing exploration of space that seemed so likely after the lunar landing in 1969 has slowed down, as governments can no longer afford to fund large space programs. Projects involving a space station around Earth and a manned mission to Mars are more likely to come from cooperative efforts involving several nations.

The bloody "September Massacres" in which French revolutionaries executed nearly 1200 priests, royalists, aristocrats, and common criminals, occurred in 1792. This event and the "Reign of Terror," during which the revolutionary government imprisoned over 300,000 "suspects," made English sympathizers lose their fervor. With the rise of Napoleon, who was crowned emperor in 1804, England itself was drawn into war against France during this time. After the war ended in 1815, the English turned their attention to economic and social problems plaguing their own country. Much of the reason why England did not regulate the economic shift from a farming-based society to an industrialized society stemmed from a hands-off philosophy of non-governmental interference with private business. This philosophy had profound effects, leading to extremely low wages and terrible working conditions for employees who were prevented by law from unionizing.

Science and Technology

Eventually, the working class protested their conditions with violent measures. Around 1811, a period of unemployment, low wages, and high prices led to the Luddite Movement. This movement encouraged people to sabotage the technology and machinery that took jobs away from workers. Because the new machines produced an unparalleled production rate, competition for jobs was fierce, and employers used the low employment rate against their workers by not providing decent wages or working conditions. In addition to technological advances and new machines such as the steam engine, scientific advancements influenced the Romantic period. The most significant scientist was Erasmus Darwin, a noted physician, poet, and scholar whose ideas concerning biological evolution prefigured those of his more famous grandson, Charles Darwin. Both Mary and Percy were very familiar with his description of biological evolution, which became one of the central topics at the poet Lord Byron's home when Shelley conceived her idea for Frankenstein. Percy and Mary also attended a lecture by Andrew Crosse, a British scientist whose experiments with electricity bore some resemblance to Frankenstein's fascinations. Crosse discussed galvanism, or the study of electricity and its applications. This lecture no doubt fueled Shelley's imagination enough for her to suggest Victor Frankenstein's step-by-step invention of the creature in her novel.

Arctic Exploration

The late 1700s also marked the beginnings of a new era of ocean exploration. England's Royal Academy, which promoted the first voyage to the South seas, appealed to scientists and travelers alike. Explorers eventually wanted to find a trade route through the Arctic that would connect the Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans. In 1818, the year that Shelley published Frankenstein, a Scottish explorer named John Ross went searching for the Northwest passage and discovered an eight mile expanse of red-colored snow cliffs overlooking Baffin Bay, between Greenland and Canada. His journey reflected Walton's quest to the North pole and the era of discovery in which Shelley lived.

Critical Overview

When Mary finished her novel in May 1817, Percy Shelley sent her manuscript, under an anonymous name, to two different publishers, both of whom rejected it. Lakington, Allen, and Co. finally accepted it. Early reviews of the work were generally mixed. As quoted in Diane Johnson's introduction to the novel, a critic for The Edinburgh Review found that "taste and judgement [sic] alike revolted at this kind of writing," and "it inculcates no lesson of conduct, manner of morality; it cannot mend, and will not even amuse its readers unless their tastes have been deplorably vitiated." A writer from the Monthly Review, as quoted by Montague Summers in The Gothic Quest, claimed that the setting was so improbable—the story so unbelievable—that it was "an uncouth story … leading to no conclusion either moral or philosophical." Even though this conclusion regarding the novel's lack of moral implications seems absurd to readers today, most of the earliest unfavorable reviews related to the story's grotesque or sensationalist elements. On the other hand, some early reviewers enjoyed the novel's uniqueness and praised the author's genius. As Johnson related, Sir Walter Scott stated in Blackwood's Edinburgh magazine that he was impressed with "the high idea of the author's original genius and happy power of expression." The rest of England seemed to agree with Scott's opinion, since so many readers enjoyed Frankenstein. The novel resembled many works of the popular gothic genre, but it also became one of the triumphs of the Romantic movement. People identified with its themes of alienation and isolation and its warning about the destructive power that can result when human creativity is unfettered by moral and social concerns. Even if readers did not identify the Romantic themes present in Shelley's novel, the sensationalist elements piqued interest in other forms of dramatization

In 1823, the English Opera House performed Presumption; or, The Fate of Frankenstein, and fourteen other dramatizations were staged within three years of the play's premiere. The Opera House, in fact, used the protests against this play to further its own interests. As Steven Forry notes in his book Hideous Progenies: Dramatizations of Frankenstein from the Nineteenth Century to the Present, public outrage regarding the "immoral tendency" heightened the appeal of both the play and the book. Eventually, the various dramatizations shaped Shelley's characters to fit whatever popular appeal would draw audiences to the play-houses. Even today, numerous film adaptations distort the novel's original story, especially concerning the creature's very complex response to his world.

Since the 1800s, Frankenstein has continued to appeal to a wide audience. Criticism of the novel represents a diverse range of approaches. These include feminist interpretations, which describe the novel as reflecting Shelley's deepest fears of motherhood. Marxist analyses explore the effects of the poor versus the bourgeois families (the De Lacey's versus the Frankenstein's). In addition, some critics have focused on psychoanalysis, interpreting Dr. Frankenstein and the monster as embodying Sigmund Freud's theory of id and ego. Today, much critical focus seems to rest on the autobiographical elements of Frankenstein, as critics wish to rightfully consider Shelley as one of the leading Romantic writers of her day.


George V. Griffith

Griffith is a professor of English and philosophy at Chadron State College in Chadron, Nebraska. In the following essay, he considers Frankenstein as a novel that both represents and goes beyond the ideas of the Romantic era.

Perhaps no book is more of its age than Frankenstein. Written and published in 1816–1818, Frankenstein typifies the most important ideas of the Romantic era, among them the primacy of feelings, the dangers of intellect, dismay over the human capacity to corrupt our natural goodness, the agony of the questing, solitary hero, and the awesome power of the sublime. Its Gothic fascination with the dual nature of humans and with the figurative power of dreams anticipates the end of the nineteenth century and the discovery of the unconscious and the dream life. The story of its creation, which the author herself tells in a "Preface" to the third edition to the book (1831), is equally illuminating about its age. At nineteen, Mary Godwin was living in the summer of 1816 with the poet Percy Shelley, visiting another famous Romantic poet, Lord Byron, and his doctor at Byron's Swiss villa when cold, wet weather drove them all indoors. Byron proposed that they entertain themselves by writing, each of them, a ghost story. On an evening when Byron and Shelley had been talking about galvanism and human life, whether an electric current could be passed through tissue to animate it, Mary Shelley went to bed and in a half-dream state thought of the idea for Frankenstein. She awoke from the nightmarish vision of a "pale student of unhallowed arts" terrified by the "yellow, watery … eyes" of his creation staring at him to stare herself at the moon outside rising over the Alps. The next morning she wrote the first sentence of chapter five: "It was on a dreary night of November that I beheld the accomplishment of my toils." With Percy Shelley's encouragement and in spite of a failed childbirth and the suicide of a half-sister, over the next several months she worked on the story. It was completed in 1817 and published the following year, the only successful "ghost" story of that evening, perhaps the most widely known ever written.

Shelley's was an age in which heart triumphed over head. Frankenstein's moral failure is his heedless pursuit to know all that he might about life without taking any responsibility for his acts. His "sin" is not solely in creating the monster, but in abandoning him to orphanhood at his birth. The monster's unnatural birth is the product of what the Romantic poet Wordsworth called humankind's "meddling intellect." Childlike in his innocence, the monster wants only to be loved, but he gets love from neither his "father" nor from any other in the human community.

Behind the novel's indictment of the intellect stand three important myths to which Shelley alludes. She subtitles her book "A Modern Prometheus," linking Victor Frankenstein to the heroic but ultimately tragic figure of Greek myth who contended with the gods, stole fire from them to give to humans, and was punished by Zeus by being chained on Mount Caucasus to have vultures eat his liver. Her husband Percy Shelley wrote a closet drama, Prometheus Unbound, and fellow Romantic poets Byron and Coleridge were also attracted to and wrote about a figure of defiant ambition. The story of Faust, like the Prometheus myth, also involves one who would trade everything to satisfy an aggressive and acquisitive intellect. Finally, Adam's fall from grace came of his eating of the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. All are unhappy with the limits life places on them; all challenge those limits; all suffer great loss. Such is Victor Frankenstein's story, one which Walton appears about to replicate on his journey to the Pole. Walton tells Frankenstein,

"I would sacrifice my fortune, my existence, my every hope, to the furtherance of my enterprise. One man's life or death were but a small price to pay for the acquirement of the knowledge which I sought, for the dominion I should acquire and transmit over the elemental foes of our race."

Frankenstein, to whom "life and death appeared … ideal bounds" to be broken through, succeeds in his intellectual pursuit but at great cost. He loses friend, brother, and wife. He loses all contact and sympathy with the human community. At both the beginning and end of the novel, he is the most alienated figure, alone, in mad pursuit in a desolate spot on the earth.

The novel's structure enhances these ideas. It is a framed narrative with a story within a story within a story. At the outer layer the novel is framed by the letters which Walton writes to his sister while he is voyaging to the Pole, a Frankenstein-like figure consumed by an intellectual ambition, heedless of feeling, alienated and unbefriended. His drama is internal, his isolation all the more clear in the one-way communication the letters afford. The next layer is Frankenstein's story, told because he has the opportunity before his death to deter one like himself from the same tragic consequences. Finally, although the novel is titled Frankenstein, the monster is at its structural center, his voice the most compelling because the most felt. Perhaps not coincidentally, in the popular imagination, the word "Frankenstein" conjures in most minds not Victor but the monster, although popular treatments of the story on stage and film have half-misconstrued Shelley's purpose by focusing only on the monster as a terrible being.

What Do I Read Next?

  • Dracula by Bram Stoker was published in 1897 and horrified audiences with its tale of a blood-sucking vampire who appears at nightfall to pursue vulnerable women.
  • Written by Mary Shelley in 1826, The Last Man is a work of science fiction that chronicles the extermination of the human race by plague.
  • A work by Mary Shelley's father, William Godwin's Caleb Williams (1794) is the story of a man bound to and haunted by another man through his knowledge of a secret crime.
  • Prometheus Unbound, by Percy Shelley, is a dramatized philosophical essay about the origin of evil and the moral responsibility of individuals to restore order in their world. It was published in 1820.
  • Lois McMaster Bujold' s Hugo-winning science-fiction novel Mirror Dance (1994) explores issues surrounding clones and an individual's responsibility to his clone.
  • In Genetic Engineering: Dreams and Nightmares (1996), authors V. E. A. Russo, David Cove, and Enzo Russo present a discussion of the ethical issues surrounding modern scientific advances in genetics. The book is targeted toward the average lay reader.

That the monster begs for our pity, that he descends from his native-born goodness to become a "malignant devil," illustrates another notion familiar to Shelley generally in her age and particularly in her family. Her father, William Godwin, had written Political Justice (1793) and her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, had written A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), both works on social injustices. These leading philosophical radicals of the day believed that, as Rousseau put it, "Man is born free and is everywhere in chains," that in our civilizations we corrupt what is by nature innocent. The monster is not evil; he is transformed into evil by a human injustice, an Adam made into a Satan. "I was benevolent and good," he says; "misery made me a fiend." The DeLaceys, unjustly expelled from society, represent the possibility of our restoration to native goodness in retreat from society amid the sublime splendors of the Alps. Old Mr. DeLacey tells the Monster that "the hearts of men, when unprejudiced by any obvious self-interest, are full of brotherly love and charity." The monster sees in the DeLaceys the loving family he has never known and their simple cottage life is a model of the happily primitive which the Romantics idealized.

If Frankenstein is a book of its age, it also looks ahead to its century's end when interest in the human psyche uncovered the unconscious mind. The idea of the Doppleganger, the double who shadows us, had been around since the origins of the Gothic novel in the 1760s. By the end of the nineteenth century, works such as Stevenson's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde made the idea that we had more than one self common. Capable of both great good and evil, we had, it seemed, a "monster" always potentially within us and not always under our control. Freud's splitting of the psyche put the monster-like id at the core of our persons. Freudian readings of Frankenstein see the monster as the outward expression of Victor's id or his demoniacal passions. In other words, Victor and the monster are the same person. Hence, Victor must keep the monster secret. His hope to create a being "like myself is fulfilled in the monster whose murders we must see as expressions of Victor's own desires. Victor calls himself "the true murderer" of Justine, who, along with his brother William, he labels "the first hapless victims to my unhallowed arts." Driven by remorse, he wanders "like an evil spirit," his own wandering a mirror image of the monster's. When we see both in the outer frame of the book, Victor pursues the monster, but it is the monster who has pursued Victor, whom he calls "my last victim." Since Victor's story is a story of creation, murder, investigation, and pursuit, Frankenstein is ultimately a book about our pursuit of self-discovery, about the knowledge of the monster within us.

Devices conventional in both gothic novels and novels of more modern psychological interest appear in Frankenstein. Victor's passions frequently induce lapses in consciousness; his nightmares beg for interpretation. The most powerful occurs at one in the morning on the evening he succeeds in animating the corpse. He dreams that he sees Elizabeth walking the streets of Ingolstadt "in the bloom of health," but when he kisses her, she appears deathlike and is transformed into the corpse of his dead mother. When he awakens from the horror of his sleep, his monstrous creation looms over him. Frankenstein flees. Victor creates a monster and the nightmare hints that the monster of his desire is to take Elizabeth's life, perhaps because, as some suggest, unconsciously he holds her responsible for his mother's death.

The implications of the perverse in the sexual relationships of the characters also seem well served by a Freudian reading. Frankenstein is the monster's "father," yet were he to agree to the monster's demand to create for him a bride, would his next offspring be a "sister"? That hint of the incestuous is echoed in Victor's marriage to Elizabeth. An orphan brought home by Mrs. Frankenstein, she seems to the young Victor his possession, and though they "called each other familiarly by the name of cousin," Victor acknowledges that the ambiguity of their relationship defied naming: "No word, no expression could body forth the kind of relation in which she stood to me—my more than sister, since till death she was to be mine only." The monster's threat—"I shall be with you on your wedding night"—puts the monster in the nuptial bed with his "father" and his father's "sister/bride." That the novel closes with the monster's killing of the "father" pleads for an Oedipal reading which Freud's arguments regarding infantile sexuality and the competition within the birth family for the love of the mother made possible.

Numerous psychological readings of the novel have focused on Mary Shelley's life. Ellen Moers proposed that in Frankenstein Shelley wrestled with the pain of birth. Her own mother died only days after she was born, and Mary's firstborn died the year before she began the novel. Later, she referred to the book as "my hideous progeny." More recent feminist interpretations, such as that by Gilbert and Gubar noting that the novel is about a motherless orphan, similarly point to Mary's youth and remind us that books and children and birth and death are so mixed in both Shelley's life and in the novel that one cannot be understood without the other.

Frankenstein shocked readers in 1818 for its monstrous impiety, but its fame seemed fixed at birth. Initial reviews, politically oriented, denounced the book as a bit of radical Godwinism, since the book was dedicated to William Godwin and many presumed that its anonymous author was Percy Shelley. A stage adaptation called Presumption, or, The Fate of Frankenstein appeared as early as 1823. Mary Shelley attended a performance. In Shelley's life two additional editions were published; numerous editions since then have appeared. Burlesques on stage began in the late 1840s and continued to the end of the century. Thomas Edison created a film version as early as 1910, followed by the most famous film version, in 1931, starring Boris Karloff. It fixed for several generations an idea of "the monster Frankenstein," which gave birth to numerous other films and parodies of the story which continue to the present. In film, in translation into many of the world's languages, in its presence in school curricula, and in an unending body of criticism, Frankenstein lives well beyond its young author's modest intentions to write an entertaining Gothic tale to pass some time indoors on a cold Swiss summer evening.

Source: George V. Griffith, in an essay for Novels for Students, Gale, 1997.

Joyce Carol Oates

In the following excerpt, noted American novelist, educator, and critic Oates explores literary influences on Shelley's Frankenstein and comments on various stylistic and thematic aspects of the work.

[Text Not Available]

[Text Not Available]

[Text Not Available]

Source: Joyce Carol Oates, "Frankenstein's Fallen Angel," in Critical Inquiry, Vol. 10, No. 3, March, 1984, pp. 543–54.

Milton Millhauser

In the following essay, Millhauser considers Frankenstein's monster in relation to the tradition of the "noble savage" in literature.

[Text Not Available]

[Text Not Available]

Source: Milton Millhauser, "The Noble Savage in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein," in Notes and Queries, Vol. 190, No. 12, June 15, 1946, pp. 248–50.


Steven Earl Forry, Hideous Progenies: Dramatizations of 'Frankenstein' from the Nineteenth Century to the Present, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1990.

Mary Shelley, Frankenstein, introduction by Diane Johnson, Bantam Books, 1991.

Montague Summers, The Gothic Quest, Russell & Russell, 1964.

Eleanor Ty, "Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley," in Concise Dictionary of British Literary Biography, Volume 3: Writers of the Romantic Period, 1789–1832, Gale, 1991, pp. 338–52.

For Further Study

Chris Baldick, In Frankenstein's Shadow: Myth, Monstrosity, and Nineteenth-Century Writing, Oxford University Press, 1987.

Treats Frankenstein as a modern myth and examines the effects of the book on later nineteenth-and twentieth-century writers.

Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination, Yale University Press, 1979.

A feminist and psycho-biographical reading which emphasizes the place of books in the novel.

M. A. Goldberg, "Moral and Myth in Mrs. Shelley's Frankenstein, in Keats-Shelley Journal, Vol. 8, 1959, pp. 27–38.

Provides the most conventional reading of Frankenstein's tale as a moral lesson to Walton.

George Levine, "Frankenstein and the Tradition of Realism," in Novel, Vol. 7, Fall, 1973, pp. 14–30.

Discusses the place of Frankenstein in the tradition of realism in the novel.

George Levine and U. C. Knoepflmacher, The Endurance of 'Frankenstein,' University of California Press, 1979.

A wide-ranging collection of essays about the novel.

Anne K. Mellor, Mary Shelley: Her Life, Her Fiction, Her Monsters, Methuen, Inc., 1988.

As one of the most well-known Shelley critics, Mellor draws from unpublished archival material, studying the relationships between Mary and the central personalities in her life. Her biography contains a powerful warning to parents who do not care for their children and to scientists who refuse to take responsibility for their discoveries.

Masao Miyoshi, The Divided Self: A Perspective on the Literature of the Victorians, New York University Press, 1969, pp. 79–89.

Discusses the Doppelganger, or double, in Frankenstein.

Ellen Moers, Literary Women, Doubleday, 1976, pp. 91–99.

Examines the pain of maternity in Frankenstein, relating the birth of the monster to Shelley's birth and her experiences as a mother.

Christopher Small, Mary Shelley's 'Frankenstein,' University of Pittsburgh Press, 1973.

A wide-ranging examination of Shelley, her father and husband, the novel, and her era.

Emily W. Sunstein, Mary Shelley: Romance and Reality Little, Brown, and Co., 1989.

A comprehensive biography which assigns Shelley her proper place among English Romantic writers. She dispels many of the myths and ill-founded prejudices against Shelley.

Martin Tropp, Mary Shelley's Monster, Houghton Mifflin, 1976.

A more popular treatment of the novel which emphasizes the "Mad Scientist" theme and treats film adaptations. Includes a filmography.

William Veeder, Mary Shelley and Frankenstein: The Fate of Androgyny, University of Chicago Press, 1986.

Includes in an appendix Percy Shelley's unpublished review of the novel.


views updated Jun 11 2018


by Mary Shelley


A novel set in Switzerland, Germany, Russia, and Britain in the late eighteenth century; first published in England in 1818.


Determined to creàte human life, a scientist named Frankenstein produces a monstrous man and then abandons him. Desperate for love and guidance, the rejected creature turns violent, killing those closest to Frankenstein and haunting his creator until his death.

Events in History at the Time of the Novel

The Novel in Focus

For More Information

Born in London in 1797, Mary Shelley was the daughter of William Godwin and Mary Wollestonecraft, both of them writers and revolutionaries famous for their radical ideas. Godwin was primarily a political philosopher, and Wollstonecraft was an early feminist who died 11 days after Mary Shelley’s birth (see A Vindication of the Rights of Woman , also in WLAIT 3: British and Irish Literature and Its Times). Raised by Godwin and his new wife, Mary grew up in an intellectual, open environment, where ideas and the arts flourished and idealistic admirers crowded around the family table. One of her father’s admirers, the Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, fell in love with the beautiful young intellectual, and the two eloped in 1814, when Mary was 16, despite the fact that Shelley was already married. The next decade of Mary’s life was marked by tragedy: her first child was born in 1815 and died shortly after; Mary’s half-sister, Fanny Imlay, and Percy’s wife, Harriet, both committed suicide the following year; Mary and Percy’s second child, William, died as a young boy. Mary lost her third child as well, and, after giving birth to the one child who would survive, Percy Florence, went on to suffer a dangerous miscarriage. Then, in 1822, Percy Shelley, whom Mary had married in 1816, drowned in the Gulf of Spezia. Mary, who was not yet 25 at the time, would spend her 30 remaining years living modestly. Indeed, Mary’s greatest success would be Frankenstein, written when she was only 19 and conceived after a night of telling ghost stories in the Alps with Percy, the poet Lord Byron, and Byron’s doctor, John Polidori. The resulting tale of an overly ambitious scientist and his monstrous creation has come to be known as one of the greatest horror stories ever written and continues to be relevant today because of the questions it raises about science’s dangerous potential.

Events in History at the Time of the Novel

The French Revolution

Part of the enduring importance of Frankenstein can be seen in the way it tapped into the concerns of its age, combining the central dualities of a culture in which reason and science were “displacing religion as centers of value” (Levine and Knoepflmacher in Crook, p. 59). The late eighteenth century (when the novel is set) and early nineteenth century (when it was written) were times of momentous change and upheaval in Europe; between 1770 and 1830 Europe’s link to its feudal past was severed, and the continent moved decisively into the modern age. The French Revolution was only the most dramatic of these changes, inspiring people around the world with its rhetoric of freedom and liberty—of overthrowing the old guard in order to create a new, more just world. In the first few years of the Revolution, between 1789 and 1791, everything seemed to have changed in France, and much of Europe celebrated. As described in 1824 by the English poet Robert Southey “Nothing was dreamt of but the regeneration of the human race” (Southey in Travers, p. 1).

In retrospect, the French Revolution was the first major political event in what historians call the modern period. Ancient structures of power were torn down, feudal rights diminished, the relationship between the church and state was renegotiated, and groups long denied any political representation became empowered. The implications of the Revolution were even more farreaching; the revolutionary concepts of “the people” and their rights set off a vigorous optimism outside France, and the replacement of traditional state-sanctioned religious power established the tone for an age that would increasingly find its main source of moral values in patriotism and democracy rather than in religion. More than anything, however, the French Revolution provided the example of a society completely undone and then refashioned in a newer, brighter hue. Though the Revolution ultimately ended violently, disintegrating into the infamous Reign of Terror and the continual upheavals of the Napoleonic Wars, its possibilities colored the imagination of an entire age—for better or for worse.

The Industrial Revolution

The Industrial Revolution was as utterly transforming as the French Revolution, restructuring society in ways irreversible and profound. Industrialization in general has altered how people live, where they live, what they value, and how they define their lives; indeed, it was “the most fundamental force in world history in both the nineteenth and the twentieth centuries” (Stearns, p. 1). The Industrial Revolution began, more or less, in the eighteenth century in western Europe, and in Britain in particular. Before 1700 Western technology was firmly anchored in agricultural modes of production, despite advancements in such fields as metallurgy, textile manufacturing, and the harnessing of energy. During the eighteenth century, those developments began to take a shape that would eventually lead to a complete overhaul of society.

In Britain, agricultural advances took place at the same time that huge strides in science allowed for a variety of new technologies. By the 1730s a string of inventions had begun to shift the cotton industry towards a more efficient factory system. More inventions followed, including the perfection of the steam engine by James Watt in the 1760s. By the end of the century the production of cotton was rapidly increasing. The new machines required workers to cluster in factories rather than work in their homes, contributing to the larger trend of urbanization that was changing the face of Britain in the late eighteenth century. Britain’s cotton capital, Manchester, grew from a town of roughly 25,000 in 1772 to a city of 367,232 in 1851. Cities all over Britain exploded as people became less reliant on large farms and estates, and more dependent on industry. Families were forced into the cities in increasing numbers, but the lives they found there were not always pleasant. The early revolution was fueled by the labor of men, women, and children who were often severely underpaid and mistreated. Tremendous hardships seemed inevitable given the massive restructuring of society along lines so untested and uncharted. Never before had so much seemed possible; yet never before had the future of mankind seemed so bleak and unsure.

Science at the turn of the nineteenth century

The dual sense of possibility and dread that characterizes Frankenstein and the age in which it was written owed much to the scientific advances of the time. Though the so-called Scientific Revolution had begun in the late seventeenth century, it was only in the later eighteenth that science began to take on the prestige and value in popular culture that made it an important part of people’s lives. Indeed, public awareness of developments in science increased steadily in this period. The Frenchman Bernard de Fontenelle helped to popularize scientific progress with a series of publications, while in England a wide market opened up for scientific textbooks and scientific books geared towards the general reader. Museums specializing in scientific apparatus or natural history appeared, and lectures devoted to scientific topics became increasingly popular. Though science became fashionable and lent a sense of optimism and excitement to the age, only rarely was the layman’s knowledge profound. With the increasing specialization of subject areas, and the growing use of mathematics in scientific study, advanced knowledge was becoming more difficult to acquire. Instead, phenomena—in areas such as stargazing, mesmerism, and electricity—attracted the public’s attention more than the actual scientific processes behind them.

Especially captivating were the advances made in the study of electricity, a topic that would greatly influence the writing of Frankenstein. The eighteenth century saw a number of developments in this field of study, from the construction of the first machine to generate electricity in 1706 to the invention of the dry pile and battery of cells in 1800. A multitude of theories, many of them wrong, were put forward to explain electrical phenomena; in 1791, for instance, Luigi Galvani came out with the results of his long study of “animal electricity,” or “galvanism,” the orizing that electricity is intrinsic to animal tissues. Galvani made headlines when, in 1802, one of his disciples applied a Voltaic pile connected by metallic wires to the head of a recently killed ox. At the same moment the ox’s “eyes were seen to open, the ears to shake, the tongue to be agitated, and the nostrils to swell, in the same manner as those of the living animal” (Aldani in Mellor, p. 105). In 1803 a more lurid demonstration took place, in which galvanic electricity was applied to the corpse of a recently hanged criminal, whose “jaw began to quiver … adjoining muscles … horribly contorted, and … left eye actually opened” (Aldani in Mellor, p. 105). Events like these were widely reported and discussed throughout Europe in the early nineteenth century.

The most popular science of the early nineteenth century, however, appears to have been that of Erasmus Darwin (1731-1802), Charles’s grandfather, who wrote two encyclopedic technical works—Zoonomia; or The Laws of Organic Life and Phytologia—as well as the two long poems The Botanic Garden and The Temple of Nature. While most scientists had viewed the universe as perfect, fixed, and divinely ordered well into the eighteenth century, Erasmus Darwin and others began weakening this view by the beginning of the nineteenth. By 1803 Darwin accepted that the earth must once have been covered by water, and that all life must therefore have evolved from the sea. One of the earliest theorists of evolution, Erasmus Darwin believed that life was spontaneously being generated at every moment, and that sexual reproduction was the most advanced method of creation; as he wrote in The Temple of Nature, “the most perfect orders of animals are propagated by sexual intercourse only” (Darwin in Mellor, p. 98). This idea has a great resonance in Frankenstein; Victor Frankenstein substitutes paternal, solitary propagation for sexual reproduction, thus “[reversing] the evolutionary ladder described by Darwin” (Mellor, p. 100).

Another scientist who heavily influenced the writing of Shelley’s novel was Sir Humphry Davy, who, like Darwin, was a poet as well as a scientist. In 1802 Davy gave a famous introductory lecture to a chemistry course at the newly founded Royal Institution. This lecture was published almost immediately afterwards and titled A Discourse, Introductory to a Course of Lectures on Chemistry, from which many of the reasons for Victor Frankenstein’s fascination with chemistry seem to have been derived. In a celebratory tone, Davy argues that chemistry is the basis for most of the other sciences; “the phenomena of combustion, of the solution of different substances in water, of the agencies of fire; the production of rain, hail, and snow, and the conversion of dead matter into living matter by vegetable organs, all belong to chemistry” (Davy in Mellor, p. 92). Chemistry, Davy goes on to say, has acquainted the scientist with the different ways in which the external world relates, thus endowing him with the power to change and modify nature, “not simply as a scholar, passive and seeking only to understand her operations, but rather as a master, active with his own instruments” (Davy in Mellor, p. 93). It is this optimism that characterizes many of the general attitudes toward science and industry in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries; and, as Anne Mellor argues, it is this optimism that Mary Shelley, in Frankenstein, sees as profoundly dangerous (Mellor, p. 93).

Science and religion

The scientific changes that began taking place during the latter part of the eighteenth century had serious implications for religious thought and practice. Typically, the modern period is seen as, among other things, a process of increasing secularization, greatly promoted by the scientific discoveries that so in flamed the population during the Romantic period. Indeed, during this period any comfortable alignment between science and religion was undermined by the proliferation of new fields and specialties, as well as by discoveries that displaced Isaac Newton’s conception of the universe as perfectly mirroring God’s order.

By the time of Newton’s death in 1727, an easy alliance between science (called “natural philosophy” until the early nineteenth century) and the Anglican Church had been well established. Newton’s natural philosophy had supported the design argument of natural theology, delineating the order and laws of nature, God’s “second book,” and so had been sanctioned by the Church (Yeo, p. 320). This vision was of a world made up of inert corpuscles of matter that moved only as a result of divine forces. The advances in science during the Romantic period—often called a second scientific revolution, one to rival the revolution associated with Newton and other seventeenth-century scientists—created a variety of fields and disciplines that could no longer support, in total, this unified Newtonian vision. Furthermore, attitudes were shifting steadily. The influential theologian and scientist Joseph Priestley, for instance, did not regard matter as passive and inert, but, rather, as containing its own inherent force. This was a view the Newtonians had always feared, for it either equated God with nature, or excluded God from it entirely.

Despite the fact that the alliance between natural philosophy, the Church, and the Royal Society, which had dominated scientific study in Newton’s day, was weakened by the scientific advancements of the Romantic period, religion and science remained intricately linked throughout this period. Religious orthodoxy declined some what, and the advancements made less sure the grounds for belief, but actual atheism was very uncommon during this time. Even those most critical of the Newtonian universe were by no means atheists. Priestley’s books on science and theology were shelved side by side at the Bristol library.


Romanticism is typically seen as a movement that started roughly at the time of the French Revolution. While somewhat difficult to define, the movement was inextricably linked to the political changes and revolutionary fervor of its age. Romantic thinkers objected to traditional ideas and artistic practices, rejecting the Enlightenment philosophies that had characterized most of the eighteenth century with their unshakable faith in human reason and the ability of men to grasp the reality of the world. To those attempting to define the world in the wake of this extreme optimism and rationalism, such reliance on human reason seemed too reductive, too uninterested in the transcendent and the otherworldly. Romanticism instead emphasized emotion and sensation over abstract reason, the subjective and personal over the objective, and the irrational over the rational. In relation to Shelley’s novel, Romanticism can be seen as a rejection of the kind of eighteenth-century rationalism and materialism that characterize Victor Frankenstein’s science. Indeed, Victor Frankenstein can be viewed as an example of eighteenth-century optimism carried too far. Romanticism, on the other hand, took issue with this commitment to science and materialism; at odds with this vision of the world, the Romantic protagonist both raged against the confines of his society and transcended them.

Part of the Romantic project was to point to the limitations of science, and to illuminate those aspects of experience that an overly reasoned science tended to neglect. Intuition and imagination were just as important as reason, the Romantics argued, and yet were excluded from scientific analysis—as were inner experiences like the appreciation of nature or beauty. Indeed, the misery accompanying the Industrial Revolution demonstrated to many Romantic writers the limitations of science as a means to salvation and happiness.

The Novel in Focus

Plot summary

Frankenstein opens with a frame story, told in a series of letters written by Robert Walton, an ambitious young explorer aboard a polar expedition sailing Arctic waters in the hope of finding either a passage to the North Pole or the secret of the magnet. Walton’s ambition for glory and his faith in humanity’s potential for discovery are unchecked; he is the scientist filled with his own power, asking “what can stop the determined heart and resolved will of man?” (Frankenstein, p. 8). His enthusiasm for the great venture is marred only by his lack of a friend. He finds that friend in Victor Frankenstein.

One day the sailors, making their way through the waters north of Russia, are forced to wait for the ice surrounding them to break. In the distance they catch sight of a shape being pulled across the ice in a dogsled. The shape disappears, but the next morning Robert Walton goes on deck to find his sailors convincing a bedraggled, paranoid man to leave another sled and come aboard the ship. Walton is surprised to see that the man is a fellow European. Once the stranger, Victor Frankenstein, is nursed back to health, he agrees to tell Walton how he ended up in his near-death state; this story makes up the rest of the novel.


Since the late 1500s, when explorers set out to find a trade route across the North Pole, until April 6, 1909, when Robert Peary, his assistant Matthew Henson, and four Inuit completed a final sprint across the ice, the North Pole eluded explorers and adventurers. An obsession that cost many their ties to family and even their lives, the search for a passage to the North Pole occupied men of all kinds. In 1607 Henry Hudson of Britain’s Muscovy Company sought passage over the North Pole to Asia, only to be stopped by a wall of ice. In 1773 the Phipps expedition, mounted by Britain’s Royal Society and Admiralty, and also stopped by ice, determined that no simple sea route existed. Around the time Frankenstein was written, Britain’s secretary of the Admiralty, John Barrow, began a series of naval expeditions to find a route to China that would pass between the islands of Arctic Canada—a search that continued until Sir John Franklin, leading an expedition in 1845, disappeared without a trace. Robert Walton’s passion in the novel, then, is reflected in countless tales of real men who sacrificed everything in search of the same passage.

Victor Frankenstein begins his narration with the story of his childhood: how his family was distinguished and loving, and how they lived in Geneva, where they formed a stable part of established society. Victor’s closest companions were Elizabeth—his adopted sister, whom, it was understood, he would one day marry—and his best friend, Henry Clerval. While Elizabeth fills her days with the “aerial creations of the poets,” and Henry immerses himself in tales of chivalry and romance, Victor delights in investigating the causes of things; “the world was to me a secret which I desired to divine” (Frankenstein, p. 22). At age 13 Victor discovers the work of the medieval alchemists, which opens an entire new world to him. Though his father disparages this study, carefully explaining to Victor that modern science possesses far greater powers than the medieval, Victor’s enthusiasm is not dampened. He proceeds to become a passionate disciple of the alchemists and occultists of old. Then, at age 15, Victor witnesses a violent thunderstorm, during which the oak in front of his house is utterly destroyed by lightning. It happens that a natural philosopher is visiting the family, and he explains to them his ideas on electricity and galvanism. These ideas throw Victor into a fresh passion and course of study that eventually leads him to a German university, where he immerses himself in this new science that can “penetrate into the recesses of nature and show how she works in her hiding-places” (Frankenstein, p. 33).

In Ingolstadt, Germany, Victor does little but read, with passion, books on natural philosophy and chemistry. For the first two years Victor does not even visit Geneva—being too “engaged, heart and soul, in the pursuit of discoveries which I hoped to make” (Frankenstein, p. 35). More and more the question haunts him: “Whence, I often asked myself, did the principle of life proceed?” (Frankenstein, p. 36). As his studies turn more in this direction, he begins spending nights in the churchyard examining dead bodies. Then, suddenly, in the middle of all this darkness “a sudden light” breaks in on him and he discovers the secret of “bestowing animation on lifeless matter” (Frankenstein, p. 37). From dissecting rooms and slaughterhouses Victor gathers up his materials, then locks himself into his solitary chamber to create a living man. It is on a dreary night in November that, with a jolt of electricity, Victor finally infuses life into the painstakingly formed man lying at his feet. After all his work, by the “glimmer of the half-extinguished light,” Victor beholds the “yellow eye of the creature open” (Frankenstein, p. 42).

The scientist’s reaction is one of horror as he sees that his beautiful creation, now filled with life, is wretched and monstrous to behold—the yellow skin barely covering veins and muscle, the eyes watery, the lips straight and black. “Now that I had finished,” Victor narrates, “the beauty of the dream vanished, and breathless horror and disgust filled my heart” (Frankenstein, p. 42). Victor flees the room, and in his feverish wanderings runs into his old friend Henry Clerval, who has come to Ingolstadt to study Oriental literature and languages. Clerval notes how thin and wasted Victor has become, but Victor does not reveal the reason for his sickness. When he returns to his chamber, Victor finds, to his intense relief, that the creature has vanished. A nervousfever possesses Victor for many months, during which time Clerval nurses him back to health.

During his recovery, Victor once again enters into contact with Elizabeth and his family, and makes plans to return to Geneva. What finally draws him there is grim news indeed. A letter from his father arrives detailing the murder of Victor’s young brother, William. There is a suspect—Justine Moritz, a kind young woman who has been adopted by the Frankenstein family. She appears to be the murderer because a possession of William’s has been found in her pocket. In the midst of his grieving, Victor catches sight of a horrible figure running through the trees and realizes instantly that the creature is the one responsible for the murder of William and the framing of Justine. Fearing that no one will believe his wild tale, and convincing himself that Justine could not possibly be convicted anyway, Victor does not speak up. He remains silent even as the evidence points more and more towards Justine’s guilt, and even when she is convicted of William’s murder and executed. In anguish, Victor blames himself for both deaths.

It does not take long for the creature to approach Victor, revealing himself one day at the base of Mount Blanc. Victor reacts with rage and hatred at the sight of the “vile insect” and “abhorred monster,” but the monster implores Victor to hear his story. Finally, Victor agrees, and the creature begins to speak (Frankenstein, p. 83). His tale is a sad one.

The monster speaks of waking in Victor’s apartment with no language or knowledge of the world, then retreating into the woods to wander helplessly, searching for food and warmth, and finally taking shelter in a shack alongside a little cottage. Realizing that his appearance provokes only hatred and fear wherever he goes, he hides in his shelter, observing the family who lives in the cottage, learning their language and reading from a stack of books he comes upon. The monster waits one year before revealing himself to this family, whom he has grown to love, hoping that he can appeal to the blind father’s sympathy. But once again he is reviled and rejected. When the children walk in upon their father conversing with such a monstrous figure, the son attacks the creature and the entire family flees. Full of despair, the creature longs desperately for someone to love. Realizing he will never find such a person in normal society, he determines to hunt down his creator and request that a female companion be made in the same mold as he. The creature finds some of Victor’s papers in his clothing, which help lead him to Victor’s family. In his travels he is again unfairly rebuffed by those he encounters. The creature begins to grow bitter and to seek “a deep and deadly revenge” that would “compensate for the outrages and anguish I had endured” (Frankenstein, p. 126). It is in this mood that he comes across beautiful little William, who shrieks at the sight of the creature and threatens that his father will punish the “hideous monster” (Frankenstein, p. 127). Thus begins the creature’s murderous hatred of mankind and of his creator, leading him to kill William and then frame the innocent Justine for his murder.

Now, says the creature, all he wants is what is due him: a companion with whom he can flee society forever. Feeling he has no other choice, Victor agrees, and the creature leaves. Victor does not begin on this venture immediately, however. He journeys to England, then takes a long tour of the country with Henry Clerval before setting up a laboratory in Scotland to begin his project. Finally, having almost completed the creature’s female companion, Victor looks up to catch sight of the creature grinning at the window. In horror, and vowing not to repeat his first mistake, Victor destroys his own work as the creature looks on in rage and grief. The creature promises revenge: “Your hours,” he tells Victor, “will pass in dread and misery”; also he warns his creator, “I shall be with you on your wedding-night” (Frankenstein, pp. 152-53). Victor leaves the is land and learns that the creature has murdered Clerval, but still the scientist does not take his creature’s words seriously enough to delay getting married to Elizabeth. Victor returns to Geneva and makes the arrangements. Despite his precautions, Elizabeth is murdered on the night of their wedding.

In grief and frenzy, Victor now vows his own revenge, and thus begins a cat-and-mouse game between the creator and his creation in which Victor pursues the creature and the creature enables his pursuit, leading Victor towards the North Pole. It is here that Victor, near death, is rescued by Robert Walton. Having finished his strange, long story, Victor finally dies. Walton hears a noise, then leaves; when he returns to his cabin, he finds the creature standing over the body of Frankenstein, heartbroken and filled with remorse. “Once,” the creature says, “I falsely hoped to meet with beings who, pardoning my outward form, would love me for the excellent qualities which I was capable of unfolding.… But now crime has degraded me beneath the meanest animal.… It is even so; the fallen angel becomes a malignant devil. Yet even that enemy of God and man had friends and associates in his desolation; I am alone” (Frankenstein, p. 204). The creature tells Walton that he will travel north and ascend a funeral pile, exulting “in the agony of the torturing flames”; with these words he jumps from the ship and onto an ice raft lying close by, soon to be “borne away by the waves and lost in darkness and distance” (Frankenstein, pp. 205-206).

Gravediggers, corpses, and anatomists

Victor Frankenstein’s midnight prowlings in “unhallowed damps of the grave,” where he “disturbed, with profane fingers, the tremendous secrets of the human frame,” might seem merely the product of a Gothic imagination or classic horror novel (Frankenstein, p. 39). The truth is, however, that bodysnatching was widespread in Mary Shelley’s time, and, what is more, the graveyard in which Shelley’s mother was buried, the St. Pancras parish churchyard, was a “well-known haunt of bodysnatchers” (Richardson, p. xiii). The bodysnatching era, as it has come to be known, can be seen as a dark underside to the wild scientific discoveries and expansion of the Romantic age. Before this time, the scientist’s legal access to corpses had been limited to the gallows, from which the bodies of executed murderers would be turned over to science as an extension of the criminal’s punishment. Because execution was a fairly common punishment for an assortment of crimes, this promise of bodily mutilation and dissection made the murderer’s punishment that much more severe.

In the eighteenth century, rising interests in human anatomy, physiology, and medicine increased the demand for corpses. This demand led almost inevitably to a thriving black market in corpses and the widespread practice of grave robbing. Around the time of the novel, all medical education was private, and surgeons and anatomists had to take it upon themselves to procure the corpses needed for instruction. These scientists often paid good money for stolen corpses and, after dismembering them, even sold them to their students for a profit. Historically, it seems likely that the first bodysnatchers were anatomists or surgeons and their students. In the late seventeenth century, for instance, an observer commented that the disappearance of an executed gypsy’s body was probably due to some surgeon “to make anatomical dissection on” (Richardson, p. 54). In the early eighteenth century a clause for surgeon trainees at the Edinburgh College of Surgeons forbade students’ involvement in grave exhumation, and later students were known to accompany professional bodysnatchers to the graveyards. By the early nineteenth century, it appears that bodysnatching was almost solely performed by professionals—those doing it only for purposes of money—rather than by the scientists themselves, mostly because of public outrage over body and corpse stealing.

In Mary Shelley’s time, no buried corpse in the country was secure from the bodysnatcher. These bodysnatchers—or, as they were also known, “resurrectionists”—almost always worked in small gangs, with one person standing lookout while the rest dug open the graves. Freshly filled graves made digging easy, and the bodysnatchers’ tools were usually simple: shovels, a sack, perhaps a hook. The most accessible graves were the mass graves that held the urban poor. As one bodysnatcher explained in 1828 before the Select Committee on Anatomy, “I like to get those [bodies] of poor people buried from the workhouses, because, instead of working for one subject, you may get three or four” (Richardson, p. 60). These paupers’ graves were often left open, the corpses in them exposed, until they were completely filled, thus making the bodysnatcher’s job relatively simple.

Bodysnatchers bore the brunt of public scorn and punishment for these acts, but, eventually, anatomists too would be convicted for their participation. In 1831 a new bill, known as the Anatomy Act, was introduced to Parliament, recommending that the government itself procure the bodies of paupers and criminals for scientific use. This new bill, which remains the basis of modern law on the subject, effectively ended the bodysnatching era.

Sources and literary context

The story of Frankenstein’s origin is famous: during an 1816 vacation to the Alps and after a night of reading ghost stories aloud, the Shelleys and their friends, Lord Byron and his doctor, Polidori, each agreed to write a story of his or her own. While the three men promptly began their tales, all of which were quickly abandoned, Mary struggled to think of a story that would “rival those which had excited us to this task” and “make the reader dread to look round, … curdle the blood, and quicken the beatings of the heart” (Frankenstein, pp. xxiii-xxiv). Day after day passed with no result. Then one night, after listening to Byron and Shelley discuss the work of Erasmus Darwin and the possibility of animating corpses, Mary could not sleep. Instead, as she writes in her introduction to Frankenstein,

My imagination unbidden, possessed and guided me.… I saw—with shut eyes, but acute mental vision—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 easy, half-vital motion. Frightful must it be, for supremely frightful would be the effect of any human endeavour to mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world.… The idea so possessed my mind that a thrill of fear ran through me.… On the morrow I announced that I had thought of a story. I began that day with the words “It was a dreary night of November.”

(Frankenstein, p. xxv)

Percy Shelley encouraged Mary to develop the story into a longer tale, on which she worked steadily throughout the summer and following fall. Her work was disrupted that winter by the suicides of both Fanny Imlay, Mary’s half-sister, and Percy’s wife Harriet. Taking up the work again in early 1817, Mary finished the book by April.

Frankenstein had many literary and intellectual influences. Its original title, Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus, shows the influence of Greek myths about the god Prometheus, who supposedly shaped human beings from clay and brought them fire. Various Romantic writers invoked the Prometheus image, Shelley uniquely by tying it to the scientist-creator. Also influential on Frankenstein were the works of individuals such as William Godwin, John Milton, Jean Jacques Rousseau, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge and the other Romantic poets. The novel was most heavily situated within the Gothic tradition said to have begun with Horace Walpole’s 1765 novel, Castle of Otranto. This influence is not surprising: In the two years before writing Frankenstein, Mary Shelley read Anne Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho (also in WLAIT 3: British and Irish Literature and Its Times) and The Italian, in addition to numerous other Gothic novels. Their influence is clear, even though the “mouldering abbey is transformed into Victor’s laboratory,” the ghost into Victor’s creature, and the villain’s pursuit of the heroine into the creature’s pursuit of Victor (Crook, p. 58). Traditional Gothic conventions include creaking castles, evil aristocratic villains, and images of death and decay, including rotting chains, corpses, graveyards, and suggestions of the supernatural. Despite its lack of ghosts and haunted mansions, Frankenstein shares the spookiness and thrilling darkness definitive of the genre. It shares also the sense of crossing lines or boundaries and of otherworldliness. The enormous popularity of the Gothic novel had actually passed by 1816, but the genre, with its emphasis on darkness, madness, the supernatural, and strange passions, has never been fully dead.


The first edition of Frankenstein was published anonymously, though it included a dedication to William Godwin that provided a clue to the author’s identity. This first edition received a mixed reception. Out of the nine journals to evaluate the novel in 1818, four gave it overwhelmingly negative reviews. The Quarterly Review, for instance, announced that “taste and judgment alike revolt at this kind of writing … the greater the ability with which it is executed the worse it is—it inculcates no lesson of conduct, manner or morality; it cannot mend, and will not even amuse its readers, unless their tastes have been deplorably vitiated” (The Quarterly Review in Baldick, p. 57). Despite the severity of such criticism, the book was almost immediately a popular success. It also received some critical acclaim from the eminent novelist Walter Scott, who complimented the author’s “uncommon powers of poetic imagination” (Scott in MacDonald and Scherf, p. 35). The novel inspired its first stage adaptation only five years later with the production of Richard Brinsley Peake’s Presumption; or The Fate of Frankenstein. By 1826, 14 more dramatizations had been based on Shelley’s story. Subsequent generations would continue to receive the novel enthusiastically. In 1931 Universal Studios’ film version of Frankenstein, starring Boris Karloff, cemented the image of the mad scientist and his hideous progeny. Along with numerous other retellings, the film has ensured Frankenstein’s enduring fame.

—Carolyn Turgeon

For More Information

Baldick, Chris. In Frankenstein’s Shadow: Myth, Monstrosity and Nineteenth-Century Writing. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1987.

Barbour, Ian G. Religion and Science. San Francisco: Harper SanFrancisco, 1997.

Black, Jeremy. Eighteenth-Century Europe. 2nd ed. New York: St. Martin’s, 1999.

Capelotti, P. J. By Airship to the North Pole. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1999.

Crook, Nora. “Mary Shelley, Author of Frankenstein.” In A Companion to the Gothic. Ed. David Punter. Oxford: Blackwell, 2000.

MacDonald, D. L., and Kathleen Scherf. “Introduction.” Frankenstein; or The Modern Prometheus, by Mary Shelley. Orchard Park, N.Y.: Broadview Press, 1994.

Mellor, Anne K. Mary Shelley: Her Life, Her Fictions, Her Monsters. New York: Routledge, 1988.

Richardson, Ruth. Death, Dissection and the Destitute. New York: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1987.

Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein. New York: Bantam, 1991.

Stearns, Peter N. The Industrial Revolution in World History. Second edition. Boulder, Colo.: Westview, 1998.

Travers, Martin. An Introduction to Modern European Literature. New York: St. Martin’s, 1998.

Yeo, Richard. “Natural Philosophy (Science).” In The Romantic Age: British Culture 1776-1832. Ed. Iain McCalman. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.


views updated May 21 2018


by Mary Shelley


A novel set in Europe in the 1790s; published in 1817.


Victor Frankenstein, a young Swiss gentleman, uses his knowledge of the sciences to create a living creature, but is horrified at the result. Cursed by his maker, the monster sets out to avenge himself on mankind. It is pursued by Frankenstein, who seeks to redeem himself by destroying his creation.

Events in History at the Time the Novel Takes Place

The Novel in Focus

Events in History at the Time the Novel Was Written

For More Information

Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley was the daughter of two of England’s most nonconformist thinkers, William Godwin, the radical philosopher, and Mary Wollstonecraft, the author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (also covered in Literature and Its Times). At age seventeen, Mary fell in love with renowned English poet Percy Bysshe Shelley and fled with him to Europe. Under the influence of her husband and Lord Byron, Mary’s literary talents began to flourish. After Byron issued a challenge for each of the three writers to create a ghost story, Mary began her most famous novel, Frankenstein. It is a product of the Romantic era and deals with several of the Romantic movement’s most crucial ideas, including isolation, alienation, and the destruction that can result from man’s selfish desires.

Events in History at the Time the Novel Takes Place

The Industrial Revolution in England

In the mid-1700s, Great Britain experienced a surge in population that helped initiate the Industrial Revolution. The population of England in 1700 was 6 million; by 1800 it had climbed to more than 9 million people. Advances in agriculture—which played the most significant role in the increase in population—provided a greater supply of food and better overall health for the nation’s inhabitants.

Population also soared because of developments in medicine and hygiene. Beginning in 1760, inoculations for smallpox became available; the number of deaths from the terrible disease greatly decreased as a result. Another sickness that had decimated the population for centuries was typhus. Originating among rats, the disease was transmitted by fleas and lice, which thrived in the warm woolen clothing of preindustrial times. The rise of the cotton industry provided inexpensive clothing and bedding that could be washed and boiled, a process that killed the typhus louse.

Several of her factors—such as growth in real incomes, a subsequent increase in demand for goods, and technological advances—also stimulated the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. This, in turn, played a significant role in the development of the Romantic movement, of which Mary Shelley and her circle were a part. The Romantics, who focused on the individual, the emotional, and the imaginative in life, considered many of the effects of industrialism as a threat to their system of beliefs. Members of the Romantic movement generally viewed many aspects of the fast-developing industrial society with alarm. They harshly criticized less desirable social developments such as the exploitation of labor, which was commonplace in the new industries in England.

The emerging textile factories, iron mills, and coal mines exacted a heavy toll on their workers. In some cities, almost 20 percent of the labor force was made up of children nine years old or younger. Furthermore, the demands for a stable labor force created a system of bonding that forced workers to remain with a company for a set period of time; in some cases cotton mills forced workers to sign five-year bonds. To the Romantics, who believed in individual liberty for the human spirit, this exploitation of the labor force was intolerable. Even the smoking chimneys of industrial plants stood in opposition to Romantic ideals. The Romantics valued natural beauty, an appreciation that is present throughout Frankenstein in Shelley’s scenes amid the mountains and lakes of Switzerland and on the frozen seas of Siberia.

Science and technology in the Romantic period

The late 1700s were rife with new scientific theories and technological advances. Less than one hundred patents were issued in 1750, but by 1780 the number had jumped to more than four hundred. One of the greatest inventions of this period was the steam engine. There was also a growth in scientific discoveries during this period. One scientist who embodied both the technological and scientific advancements of the time was Erasmus Darwin. Considered the finest doctor of his time in England, Darwin produced numerous inventions, including a speaking machine and a horizontal windmill. His major scientific achievements included his recognition and description of biological evolution, his analysis of plant nutrition and photosynthesis, and his explanation of cloud formation processes.

Not limited to scientific subjects, Darwin was also influential in literary circles. He became immediately famous for a poem entitled “The Botanic Garden.” Darwin’s writings had a profound effect on the Romantics, influencing Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s famous poems “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” and “Kubla Khan.” Mary Shelley’s husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley, was one of Darwin’s keenest disciples, and he took from the scientist his ideas of infusing science into nature poetry. He also admired Darwin for his radical political beliefs and skepticism about religion. Percy Shelley’s admiration for Darwin has led many scholars to credit him as an influence on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. The specific idea for the story arose from a discussion between Byron and Shelley about Darwin’s notions on the generation of life. This connection is confirmed by the first sentence of Mary Shelley’s introduction to Frankenstein, “The event on which this fiction is founded has been supposed, by Dr. Darwin and some of the physiological writers of Germany, as not of impossible occurrence” (Shelley, p. xiii).

Echoes of the French Revolution in Frankenstein

The French Revolution of 1789 greatly influenced the early Romantic writers. Mary Shelley’s mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, was a fervent supporter of the Revolution even after its excesses of murder and oppression began to disenchant many of its first backers. Wollstonecraft died eleven days after giving birth to Mary, but the Revolution continued to exert a strong influence on writers into her daughter’s adult years. It instilled in young Romantic poets such as Lord Byron and Percy Shelley the idea that they lived in an age of new beginnings, and that everything was possible if inherited customs and procedures were discarded.

Since Shelley’s mother, whom she had never known but strongly idealized, and her intimate companions were so strongly influenced by the French Revolution, it seems probable that Mary Shelley incorporated aspects and thoughts on the Revolution into her first novel. The most evident parallel between the French Revolution and the novel appears in the guise of the monster itself. The monster is an incredible, unprecedented achievement; but because it is not given careful attention and direction by its creator, Doctor Frankenstein, it becomes a monstrous murderer who torments the doctor.

This idea ties in smoothly with the prevalent thinking of English radicals during the period. Most of these revolutionary thinkers, Lord Byron and Percy Shelley among them, believed that the French Revolution offered great hope but felt that the excessive and bloody reprisals it inspired were major faults. For this reason, the conception of the French Revolution as a “monster” became a common idea at the time. Another aspect of Frankenstein that links the novel with the revolution is one of its crucial settings. Ingolstadt, Germany, the city in which Victor Frankenstein is educated, was also the birthplace of the Illuminati, a secret society that introduced revolutionary ideas believed by many to have helped foment the revolution in France.

The Novel in Focus

The plot

The novel begins aboard the ship of Captain Robert Walton. Walton is searching the Arctic seas for the North Pole and for a passage to the Pacific Ocean. He discovers Dr. Victor Frankenstein, a Swiss gentleman, floating on a piece of ice amid the frigid waters. Frankenstein tells Walton his story.

Frankenstein had spent his childhood in Geneva. Interested in the sciences, he travels to Ingolstadt in Germany to pursue a university education. Through his study of the natural sciences, Frankenstein becomes interested in the mysteries of life. He spends several years in study and ultimately discovers how to create a living creature. After months of exhausting labor, the experiment succeeds and the monstrous creature made from a collection of corpses comes to life. Frankenstein shrieks in horror at his creation, which prompts the monster to flee. At this point, Henry Clerval, Frankenstein’s childhood friend, arrives in Ingolstadt to pursue his own studies. Frankenstein receives a letter from his father with the news that his young brother, William, has been murdered. Frankenstein rushes home to Geneva and finds that Justine, a servant and friend of his family, has been apprehended as the boy’s murderer. From the details of the murder, Frankenstein realizes that his monster is responsible for the crime. The doctor watches helplessly as Justine is condemned and executed for a murder she did not commit. Disconsolate, Frankenstein wanders in the nearby mountains and is confronted by the creature.

The creature explains to Frankenstein that he has tried to live among men but that his good intentions were rewarded with hatred and abuse. Due to these experiences, he has vowed to wreak vengeance on his creator and the human species. The monster tells Frankenstein that he will cease his crime spree if Frankenstein will create a mate for him. Frankenstein finally agrees and plans a trip to England with Henry Clerval to begin the project. Before they leave, Frankenstein becomes engaged to his cousin and childhood companion, Elizabeth. He promises to return in a year.


The end of the 1700s saw the dawn of a new epoch in nautical exploration. Explorers pursued two major enterprises: the first was the quest to find the North Pole; the second was the pursuit of a trade route through the Arctic that would connect the Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans.

In 1811 the founding of an organization called the Hydrographic Branch created further interest in these two endeavors. The goal of the Hydrographic Branch was to chart and survey, with magnetic observations, as much of the globe as possible. The lack of knowledge about the North, as well as the incredible profit to be made from the discovery of a Northeast Passage, stimulated interest in and countless expeditions to the region.

Robert Walton, one of the chief narrators in Frankenstein. is the captain of an expedition that attempts to find the North Pole and also hopes to discover a Northeast Passage. Beyond this, the concept of exploration, so popular during Mary Shelley’s lifetime, serves as the framework in which the narratives of Frankenstein and the monster are embedded. Walton’s search for the North Pole and Frankenstein’s desire to create life reflect the era of discovery in which Mary Shelley lived.

In England, Frankenstein constructs a female counterpart for the creature. He reconsiders, though, realizing that he has been wrong in attempting to control life and death, and destroys the figure before giving it life. The monster, who has followed Frankenstein to England, witnesses the destruction and threatens to visit Frankenstein on his wedding night. The next day Clerval’s body is found strangled, and Frankenstein is accused of the crime. He is eventually acquitted.

Frankenstein returns to Switzerland to marry Elizabeth, even though he believes the monster plans to kill him on his wedding night. After the wedding, Frankenstein stays away from Elizabeth in the hope of protecting her, only to belatedly realize that the monster has targeted her as his victim. Frankenstein finds her strangled body and vows revenge on the monster. He pursues the monster across Europe and finally into the frozen wastes, where the explorer Walton finds him. After completing his narration, Frankenstein dies of exhaustion. Shortly afterward, Walton finds the monster standing over the corpse. The creature tells Walton that he has realized his wrongs and that he now intends to destroy himself at the North Pole; after this declaration the creature flees the ship and disappears into the surrounding snow and ice.

Responsibility and blame in Frankenstein

In her novel, Mary Shelley spends a great deal of time tracing the paths of blame and responsibility. According to the beliefs of the story’s characters, one does not need to be directly responsible for an incident to receive the blame for its occurrence. An example of this indirect blame manifests itself in Frankenstein’s fiancée, Elizabeth, shortly after the death of his brother William. William had asked Elizabeth to let him wear a valuable necklace for a while, and this necklace is believed to be the temptation that occasioned his murder. Because Elizabeth allowed him to wear the necklace, she feels entirely responsible for his death, wailing “Oh God! I have murdered my darling child!” (Shelley, Frankenstein, p. 70). Her reaction seems to be excessive. Instead of recognizing her small role in the alleged events that led to the boy’s death or fastening blame on the murderer, Elizabeth views herself as the “murderer.”

This concept of indirect blame also appears throughout the novel in the relationship between Frankenstein and the monster he has created. When Frankenstein visits the falsely accused Justine as she awaits execution, he realizes that she has peacefully resigned herself to her fate because she knows she is innocent. Of himself, Frankenstein says, “But I, the true murderer, felt the never-dying worm alive in my bosom, which allowed of no hope or consolation” (Frankenstein, p. 84). Although Frankenstein had created the monster, he did not commit the crime. Yet he, like Elizabeth, believes himself to be a “murderer” as a result of indirect blame and responsibility.

In its treatment of responsibility and blame, the novel focuses on the feelings of its characters, which was a typical concern in Romantic stories. This concern was a reaction, in part, to the preoccupation with reason and intellect that characterized the era before the Romantic movement. The novel builds on the focus of this previous era. Both of the characters who blame themselves, Elizabeth and Frankenstein, use their intellect to deduce that they bear responsibility for a crime. The emphasis, though, is on their emotional reaction, the feeling of guilt that accompanies their deductions.


Mary Shelley wrote the novel Frankenstein by tapping into countless literary, personal, scientific, and psychological sources. A voracious reader, Shelley found many of the central themes for her novel in works such as Goethe’s Sorrows of Werther, which the monster reads in the novel, and Milton’s Paradise Lost. Two literary works written by Mary’s father, William Godwin, also seem probable sources. The first, Caleb Williams, is the story of a man bound to and haunted by another man through his knowledge of a secret crime. The second, St. Leon, is the story of a restless seeker of knowledge who receives the secrets of immortality, wealth, and knowledge from a mysterious stranger. This gift becomes a curse that dooms him to perpetual solitude and wandering. Both of these novels have obvious connections to Shelley’s Frankenstein.

Percy Shelley and Lord Byron also served as inspirations for the novel. Without Byron’s story-writing challenge and information gleaned from the discussions of the two men, Mary Shelley might never have created her most famous novel. Many of its characters are believed to have their origins in Percy Shelley’s descriptions of actual people, and Frankenstein’s professors are allegedly based on Percy Shelley’s professors at Eton College. Henry Clerval is believed to be modeled after Percy’s good friend Thomas Jefferson Hogg, with some hints of Byron also synthesized into the character.

Some scholars suggest that a psychological source for the monster can be found in Mary’s own loneliness and in the bitterness she felt toward William Godwin, who had created her and then denied her love when she was unable to take the place of his prestigious lost love, her mother. Scholars have also speculated that Mary’s stepsister, Jane Clairmont, may have been the model for the monster. “Claire” followed Mary and Percy Shelley to mainland Europe and constantly lived with them. Like the monster, she was present on the Shelleys’ wedding night. Finally, the scientific discoveries of the period probably had an impact on the novel, as seen in the influence exerted by Erasmus Darwin’s writings. While their connection to the story cannot be verified, it seems likely that such discoveries played some role in the conception of the novel.


Mary Shelley may have based the character of Doctor Frankenstein on Andrew Crosse, a British scientist whose experiments bear some resemblance to Frankenstein’s fascinations. On December 28, 1814, the still-unmarried Mary Godwin and Percy Shelley attended Crosse’s lecture on “Electricity and the Elements” at a lecture hall in London. Crosse discussed his attempts to harness and control electricity, which was a subject that greatly fascinated Percy Shelley. Galvanism, the belief in the possibility of reanimating life through electricity, was another subject of significant interest to Percy Shelley. He undoubtedly shared this fascination with Mary, as evidenced by her presence at Crosse’s lecture.

Mary Shelley alluded to this new field of study in a passage in the novel. At one point Frankenstein witnesses the destruction of a tree by lightning. A “man of research” who is with him proceeds to describe the phenomenon in scientific terms: “He entered on the explanation of a theory which he had formed on the subject of electricity and galvanism, which was at once new and astonishing to me” (Frankenstein, p. 40).

Events in History at the Time the Novel Was Written

The Luddite Movement

The industrial growth experienced in England in the early nineteenth century was not without opposition. The Luddite movement came into being between 1811 and 1816, a period of unemployment, low wages, and high prices. The movement began in northern England, sparked by increases in the price of grain and potatoes without an equivalent rise in wages. In March 1811, in Nottinghamshire, the Luddites took action against an underpaying textile manufacturer by smashing weaving frames and other factory machines. Machinery was the object of Luddite violence because it was employed in areas of manufacturing that workmen wanted to ban or because it was owned by employers who did not pay fair wages or provide decent working conditions.

The machines of the industrial age, while increasing output, drastically reduced the number of workers needed, with some machines reportedly doing the work of twenty men. This lessened the need for workers and gave employers their choice of job-seekers. Operating from this position of strength, employers often paid lower wages and demanded more labor from their employees. The new machines were also frightening for reasons other than their unparalleled production rate; they threatened the way of life of thousands of craftsmen, such as handloom weavers, who were forced to shift from a comparatively independent mode of living into an anonymous position in a crowded factory.

As conditions worsened for these craftsmen and workers, the targets of their frustrations expanded beyond machines. In April 1812, William Horsfall was assassinated by Luddites, allegedly because of the great improvements he made in shearing frames. Peter Marsland, a factory owner who had made improvements on steam-weaving machines, had his life threatened and his factory burned to the ground by Luddites. As time passed, the Luddites increasingly turned to attacks against people in recognition of the impossibility of destroying the large establishments of the industrial movement. As incidents of violence spread and fears of a large-scale uprising grew, the government increasingly used the military against Luddite unrest. The Luddite movement declined after 1813, when seventeen Luddite rioters were convicted and hanged for the murder of William Horsfall, the attack on the Rawfolds woolen mill, and the theft of arms and money for the Luddite cause.

There are some possible connections from the Luddite movement to Mary Shelley and her novel, for the members of the Romantic movement shared some of the same concerns expressed by the Luddites. Lord Byron even spoke to the House of Lords in defense of the Luddites, telling of men “sacrificed to improvements in mechanism” (Byron in Thomis, p. 50). In Shelley’s case, her beliefs concerning the dangers of man’s technological advancements were presented through her depiction of the murderous rage of Frankenstein’s monster. During the years preceding the writing of Frankenstein, the Luddite movement was growing. The novel’s warning about the dangers of man’s experimentation with technology may well have been inspired by the Luddites’ fear of new industrial technology and its effects on their lives.

The resurrection men

The advancement of the sciences in England, particularly in the areas of anatomy, medicine, and biology, began a horrifying period in British social history: the age of the resurrection men. In the beginning of the nineteenth century, London surgeons and students bought and mutilated thousands of dead bodies that had been stolen by the lowliest members of society. During this period, the midnight quiet of graveyards could suddenly erupt in gun-fire and confrontation between the “resurrection men” (as these grave robbers were called) and authorities.

The strange career of the resurrection men came about as a result of the severe lack of cadavers available for study and dissection. In France bodies for dissection were provided from those that went unclaimed in public hospitals. In Germany, the bodies of prostitutes and suicides were taken. In Britain, the only legal supply of cadavers came from the bodies of murderers executed within the country. After being cut down from the gallows, corpses were hauled to the College of Surgeons, where they would be dissected and given to lecturers at teaching hospitals. Because this practice provided very few bodies, resurrection men were enlisted to acquire corpses for teaching hospitals, whose students would take their tuition elsewhere unless there were enough bodies to examine. Although more stringent laws were passed as incidents of body-snatching increased, punishments were generally not enforced. This lack of enforcement was attributed to English authorities’ desire to have surgeons and physicians that were as well trained as those on the European mainland.

Despite the outrage of families of the stolen dead, the resurrection men continued their morbid trade, acquiring a reputation that was known to Mary Shelley and most people in England during the period. Her acquaintance with the resurrection men and their nocturnal diggings may have been heightened by Percy Shelley’s interests in anatomy and biology. In addition, she may have read about the resurrection men in the poetry of a fellow Romantic, Robert Southey, who wrote “The Surgeon’s Warning,” a poem that describes a dying doctor’s plans to safeguard his body against the resurrection men with whom he was so well acquainted. Mary Shelley’s familiarity with this practice may have been an influence on her conception of a monster made from a collection of corpses.

Critical response to Frankenstein

The critics greeted Mary Shelley’s novel with a combination of praise and disdain. First published anonymously, the book had critics wondering at the identity of the deranged genius who had created such a tale. “Our readers will guess … what a tissue of horrible and disgusting absurdity [Frankenstein] presents,” wrote John Wilson Croker, a principal contributor for the Quarterly Review. “It cannot be denied that [it] is nonsense—but it is nonsense decked out with circumstances and clothed in language highly terrific” (Croker in Abbey, p. 249). Another attack on the story, this time without praise for the language, was published in the Monthly Review: “An uncouth story... setting probability at defiance and leading to no conclusion either moral or philosophical. A serious examination is scarcely necessary for so eccentric a vagary of the imagination as this tale presents” (Summers, p. 94).

Despite the critical attacks, Frankenstein caused a literary sensation in London. The novel fit smoothly into the popular gothic genre, the style of fiction known for its aspects of horror and macabre details. The work was also considered innovative because of its introduction of a synthetic human character. Less obviously, the novel became one of the triumphs of the Romantic movement due to its themes of alienation and isolation and its warning about the destructive power that can result when human creativity is unfettered by moral and social concerns.

For More Information

Abbey, Cherie D., ed. Nineteenth-Century Literature Criticism. Vol. 14. Detroit: Gale Research, 1987.

Cole, Hubert. Things for the Surgeon: A History of the Resurrection Men. London: William Heinemann, 1964.

Coleman, D. C. Myth, History, and the Industrial Revolution. London: Hambledon, 1992.

Haining, Peter. The Man Who Was Frankenstein. London: Frederick Muller, 1979.

King-Hele, Desmond. Doctor of Revolution: The Life and Genius of Erasmus Darwin. London: Faber and Faber, 1977.

Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein. New York: Penguin, 1983.

Spark, Muriel. Mary Shelley. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1987.

Summers, Montague. The Gothic Quest. New York: Russell and Russell, 1964.

Thomis, Malcolm I. The Luddites: Machine Breaking in Regency England. Newton Abbot, England: David & Charles, 1970.


views updated May 17 2018


USA, 1931

Director: James Whale

Production: Universal Pictures; black and white, 35mm; running time: 71 minutes. Released 1931. Filmed in Universal studios. Cost: $250,000.

Producer: Carl Laemmle Jr.; screenplay: Garrett Fort, Francis Faragoh, and John L. Balderston, uncredited first draft by Robert Florey, from John Balderston's adaptation of Mary Shelley's novel adapted from the play by Peggy Webling; photography: Arthur Edeson; editor: Clarence Kolster; sound recording supervisor: C. Roy Hunter; art director: Charles Hall; music: David Broekman; makeup: Jack Pierce; laboratory equipment: Ken Strickfadden.

Cast: Colin Clive (Dr. Henry Frankenstein); Boris Karloff (The Monster); Mae Clarke (Elizabeth); John Boles (Victor); Edward Van Sloan (Dr. Waldman); Dwight Frye (Fritz); Frederick Kerr.



Fort, Garrett, Francis Faragoh, and John L. Balderston, James Whale'sFrankenstein, edited by Richard Anobile, New York, 1974.


Laclos, Michel, Le Fantastique au Cinéma, Paris, 1958.

Clarens, Carlos, An Illustrated History of the Horror Film, New York, 1968.

Gifford, Denis, Movie Monsters, New York, 1969.

Baxter, John, Science Fiction in the Cinema, New York, 1970.

Butler, Ivan, Horror in the Cinema, revised edition, New York, 1970.

Huss, Roy, and T. J. Ross, editors, Focus on the Horror Film, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, 1972.

Underwood, Peter, Karloff: The Life of Boris Karloff, New York, 1972.

Gifford, Denis, Karloff: The Man, The Monster, The Movies, New York, 1973.

Glut, Donald, The Frankenstein Legend: A Tribute to Mary Shelleyand Boris Karloff, Metuchen, New Jersey, 1973.

Bojarski, Richard, and Kenneth Beale, The Films of Boris Karloff, Secaucus, New Jersey, 1974.

Everson, William, Classics of the Horror Film, Secaucus, New Jersey, 1974.

Jensen, Paul, Boris Karloff and His Films, New York, 1974.

Barsacq, Leon, Caligari's Cabinet and Other Grand Illusions: A History of Film Design, revised and edited by Elliott Stein, Boston, 1976.

Tropp, Martin, Mary Shelley's Monster: The Story of Frankenstein, Boston, 1976.

Derry, Charles, Dark Dreams: A Psychological History of the Modern Horror Film, New York, 1977.

Ellis, Reed, Journey Into Darkness: The Art of James Whale's HorrorFilms, New York, 1980.

Klein, Michael, and Gillian Parker, editors, The English Novel and theMovies, New York, 1981.

Curtis, James, James Whale, Metuchen, New Jersey, 1982.


New York Times, 5 December 1931.

Variety (New York), 8 December 1931.

New York Times, 20 December 1931.

Edwards, Roy, "Movie Gothic: A Tribute to James Whale," in Sightand Sound, Autumn 1957.

Karloff, Boris, "My Life as a Monster," in Films and Filming (London), November 1957.

Fink, Robert, and William Thomaier, "James Whale," in Films inReview (New York), May 1962.

"Memories of a Monster," in Saturday Evening Post (New York), 3 November 1962.

Bloom, Harold, in Partisan Review (New Brunswick, New Jersey), Fall 1965.

Roman, Robert C., "Boris Karloff," in Films in Review (New York), August-September 1969.

Gerard, Lillian, "Boris Karloff: The Man Behind the Myth," in FilmComment (New York), Spring 1970.

Hitchens, Gordon, "Some Historical Notes on Dr. Frankenstein and his Monster," in Film Comment (New York), Spring 1970.

Jensen, Paul, in Film Comment (New York), Fall 1970.

Jensen, Paul, "James Whale," in Film Comment (New York), Spring 1971.

Verstappen, H., "Schept vreugde met mij, horror freaks," in Skoop (Amsterdam), no. 2, 1972.

Dillard, R. H. W., "Drawing the Circle: A Devolution of Values in 3 Horror Films," in Film Journal (Hollins College, Virginia), January-March 1973.

Schepelern, P., in Kosmorama (Copenhagen), March 1973.

Evans, Walter, "Monster Movies: A Sexual Theory," in Journal ofPopular Film (Washington, D.C.), Fall 1973.

Evans, Walter, "Monster Movies and Rites of Initiation," in Journalof Popular Film (Washington, D.C.), Spring 1975.

Huskins, D. Gail, in Magill's Survey of Cinema 1, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, 1980.

Starburst (London), no. 32, 1981.

Viviani, C., "Fauses pistes," in Positif (Paris), June 1983.

American Cinematographer (Los Angeles), April 1987.

Mank, G., "Robert Florey, James Whale, and Universal's Frankenstein," in Midnight Marquee (Baltimore), Fall 1988.

Mank, Gregory, "Frankenstein Restored," in Films in Review (New York), vol. 40, no. 6–7, June-July 1989.

Mank, Gregory, "Little Maria Remembers," in Films in Review (New York), vol. 43, no. 9–10, September-October 1992.

Holt, Wesley G., in Filmfax (Evanston), no. 35, October-November 1992.

Thompson, David, "Really a Part of Me," in Film Comment (New York), vol. 31, no. 1, January-February 1995.

Senn, B., "The Monster, Bride, and Sonp" in Monsterscene (Lombard), no. 4, March 1995.

Pizzato, M., "The Real Edges of the Screen: Cinema's Theatrical and Communal Ghosts," in Spectator (Los Angeles), vol. 16, no. 2, 1996.

Sarver, Stephanie, "Homer Simpson Meets Frankenstein: Cinematic Influence in Nathanael West's The Day of the Locust," in Literature/Film Quarterly (Salisbury), vol. 24, no. 2, April 1996.

Mitchell, C.P., "Marilyn and the Monster," in Films of the GoldenAge (Muscatine), no. 11, Winter 1997–1998.

Mitchell, C.P., "The Unkindest Cut," in Films of the Golden Age (Muscatine), no. 11, Winter 1997–1998.

* * *

James Whale's 1931 version of Frankenstein remains a cinema miracle that defies time. Some 50 years since its premiere, its sensitive craftsmanship and relentlessly macabre tone still set horror movie standards, even after decades of noisome parodies and splatterfilm overkill.

Whale treats his protagonist's obsession with galvanizing life from sewn corpses as a stark and shadowy moral tale, more in keeping with the German Expressionist influence of Robert Wiene's Caligari than Mary Shelley's Gothic overtones. Though heavy on dialogue in the beginning, Frankenstein unfolds as an intensely visual nightmare, a sleepwalker's journey along hideous graveyards, gibbets, and gnarly corridors—leading up to the meticulous penultimate climax when Dr. Frankenstein's creation slowly turns his face towards the camera.

Ironically, Frankenstein profits from the very qualities other critics have claimed drag it down. Its leaden mood, stagey acting and lack of a musical score make it all the more somber and bleak. Whale's camera is quite active throughout these funereal settings and suffers very little from the manacles inherent in other early talkies. In fact, practically all of the cinematic innovations credited to Whale's sequel Bride of Frankenstein are already here: the tracking camera, the sudden jumps from long-shot to close-up, the extreme high and low angles during the creation sequence, and the lurid sets with their demented religious icons.

At the same time, Whale flaunts his theatrical origins with a reverence for the stage. The very first frames when Edward Van Sloan (who plays Frankenstein's mentor, Dr. Waldman) confronts the footlights for his teasing introduction, and the later tracking shots along the opulent rooms of Baron Frankenstein's castle, remind us that this is, after all, nothing but artifice, a world where scenery is a trompe l'oeil projection of Dr. Frankenstein's subconscious fears.

Frankenstein still scares viewers because it works as both a horror film and a psychological study. As Frankenstein, Colin Clive, with his harsh enunciations and jittery motions, is perfect in his portrayal of a man beleaguered by twisted dreams and ambiguous morals. Is this really, as Shelley claimed, a story about the perils of hubris, or is it more concerned with a man apprehensive about falling into a connubial quagmire? By suggesting more of the latter, Whale may have directly borrowed from Thomas Edison's long lost silent version, which reportedly ends with a dissolve between the mirrored faces of Dr. Frankenstein and his Monster just before Elizabeth is about to be murdered. Edison allowed the creature to die so that the doctor could face up to marital obligations, but Whale suggests that Frankenstein's darker passions surpass the tedium Elizabeth (an appropriately bland role for Mae Clarke) has to offer him. In this regard, the Monster is less a sub-human fiend and more like the third party in a lover's triangle or quadrangle when we consider that Frankenstein's friend Victor Moritz (John Boles) has eyes on the future bride.

Whale's delight in lampooning "normal" sexual mores (a penchant culminating in his 1938 film Wives under Suspicion) is buttressed by Garrett Fort and Francis E. Farragoh's ambivalent script which questions how the characters really feel about one another. Elizabeth has countless anxieties about her nuptial partner and even seems coy when Victor vies for her affections. On the wedding day, when news hits that the Monster is loose, Whale inserts a curious close-up of Frankenstein's hands locking Elizabeth in her bridal chamber, suggesting perhaps that the doctor is unconsciously making her more vulnerable since the would-be killer will soon enter her room through the window. Off to reunite with his nemesis in a vigilante search, Frankenstein looks firmly into Victor's eyes while surrendering Elizabeth into his care. The scene ends with Victor creeping towards Elizabeth's room.

As a homewrecker, Frankenstein's Monster merits the humanity and dignity of Boris Karloff's performance, despite the grease paint, wire clamps, wax eyelids, and a 48-pound steel spine designed by Jack Pierce. Karloff's empathy is unfortunately diminished by the subplot in which Frankenstein's hunchback assistant Fritz (Dwight Frye as comic relief) unwittingly acquires a "criminal" brain from his boss, thereby ruining the notion that the Monster's brutality is a learned response.

Whale's film leaves us with the unsettling conclusion that the real monsters are the diurnal world's dim-witted denizens, a fact made more apparent when Baron Frankenstein (Frederick Kerr) predicts that the townspeople revelling over his son's wedding will soon be fighting again. Hours later, the news of little Maria's murder turns the jocular crowd into a bloodthirsty mob. The recently restored footage (missing since its screen debut) of the Monster throwing Maria (Marilyn Harris) into a lake transpires so quickly and nonchalantly that the pedophile scenarios left to our imaginations all these years are debunked. Now we have proof that the child murder was an innocent error. Not content simply to cast his Monster as a pariah, Whale promotes him to a Christ figure in the final scene when the creation throws his creator from the abandoned windmill into the vengeful crowd. An extreme long-shot of the burning mill resembles the cross on Calvary. Though he disapproved of the tacked-on happy ending when Frankenstein survives his fall, Whale still achieved that supreme inversion of "good" and "evil" that makes the best horror films survive.

—Joseph Lanza


views updated May 14 2018


On the shores of Lake Geneva in the summer of 1816, nineteen-year-old Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (1797-1851), her future husband, Percy Shelley, and their charismatic friend Lord Byron engaged in a ghost-story contest. After seeing a vision of what she called "the hideous phantasm of a man," Mary Shelley began writing Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus, the gothic novel that would bring her lasting fame. Even before Shelley's name was widely known, theatrical versions of her novel—the tale of Victor Frankenstein and his monster—frightened and appalled audiences all over Europe. The popularity of stage adaptations in the nineteenth century foreshad-owed the emergence of the Frankenstein monster as an icon of film, television, and other forms of popular culture in the twentieth century, including everything from comic books to Halloween costumes. Indeed, the creature's deformity and pathos have earned it such an indelible position in the popular imagination that the name "Frankenstein" has come to denote not the scientist who bears the name or even the novel which gave it life, but rather the image of a scarred and lumbering monster in angry revolt against its creator and society. On one level, the creature exists simply as a horror-movie staple, like Dracula or the Wolf Man. But it is the monster's value as a powerful symbol of our fears regarding the dangers of science, technology, and industrialization, as well as the perils of man's hubristic attempts to control nature, that has given Shelley's "hideous progeny" such an enduring and ubiquitous afterlife.

No other medium exploited, influenced, and perpetuated the Frankenstein myth like film. One of the first movies ever made, Thomas A. Edison's sixteen-minute silent film Frankenstein (1910), began the transformation of Shelley's literary creation into its numerous cinematic offspring. But it was the 1931 Universal Studio release of director James Whale's Frankenstein that exerted the greatest impact on Frankenstein mythmaking. In his career-making performance as the monster, Boris Karloff reduced Shelley's articulate, intelligent, and agile creature to a silent brute that was nevertheless endearing in its child-like innocence. Ironically, Karloff's monster—furnished with a protruding and stitched forehead, eyes devoid of intelligence, and electrodes in his neck—all but replaced Shelley's original creation in the popular imagination. As well as cementing Karloff's creature as a cinematic icon, the film also gave rise to enduring "Frankenstein movie" conventions such as the elaborate creation scene, the mad doctor's laboratory, his demented hunchback assistant, Fritz, his infamous ecstatic cry at the moment of creation ("It's alive!"), and the angry torch-carrying rabble who pushed the monster to its fiery death. For two decades, Universal profited immensely from the Frankenstein series with the much-praised Bride of Frankenstein (1935) and several lesser but popular sequels, such as Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943). The film series also yielded several spin-off characters, including Elsa Lanchester's Bride of Frankenstein, whose teased-up hair with white "lightning streaks" made her a comparable, though lesser known, pop icon.

Embodying the postwar optimism and prosperity of the late 1940s, the Frankenstein monster shifted into the comic genre when Universal released Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein in 1948. This "horror-comedy" approach to the Frankenstein myth, complete with slapstick gags, marked a departure from Whale's more serious pictures of the 1930s. But the title's explicit focus on the Frankenstein monster—and the film's positive reception with audiences and critics—evinced the creature's ongoing mass-market appeal and presaged the onslaught of low budget films such as I Was a Teenage Frankenstein (1957) in the following decades.

After Abbot and Costello's satire of "classic" monster movies proved that the more serious Frankenstein formula had grown tired, Frankenstein films suffered a hiatus until the British studio Hammer Films released The Curse of Frankenstein in 1957. The movie marked the beginning of a more serious and gory approach to big-screen versions of the Frankenstein story. Peter Cushing, who played Baron Frankenstein in numerous films for the Hammer series, captured the psychological struggle of the "mad" scientist so memorably that his character soon overshadowed the monster in much the same way that Karloff's creature had usurped the fame of his creator in the Whale films.

This focus on the psychology of the mad scientist, however, was short-lived. Capitalizing on the prevailing counter-cultural climate and the renewed popularity of classic horror characters in the 1960s and 1970s, the Frankenstein monster made a comeback as a popular symbol of nonconformity. Exemplary of this new trend, interpretations of Frankenstein in the 1970s subverted and even perverted more traditional representations. In 1974, cult artist Andy Warhol produced Flesh for Frankenstein (or Andy Warhol's Frankenstein), an ultra-gory retelling in which Baron Frankenstein and his "zombies" display overtly homoerotic, sensual, and necrophilic behavior. In the same year, Mel Brooks's Young Frankenstein cleverly parodied the Frankenstein myth and answered the long-unspoken question about the monster's sexual girth. The cult film The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) even featured a transvestite named Frank-n-Furter and his creation Rocky Horror.

The Frankenstein monster also infiltrated America's rising TV culture in two very similar shows about eccentric nuclear families. Both The Munsters (CBS, 1964-66) and The Addams Family (ABC, 1964-66) featured a Frankenstein-like character that was essentially a nostalgic reproduction of Karloff's famous creature. In telling the weekly stories of these suburban families who were, besides their monster-movie appearance, normal in every respect, these shows satirized the quaint, white, middle-class family sitcoms of an earlier decade and capitalized on the comic implications of a "domesticated" Frankenstein's monster. (In The Addams Family, for instance, the creature named Lurch served as the terse family butler.) The popularity of such series in TV reruns and feature films suggested that the Frankenstein monster, and its attending creature culture, had become a cuddly household commodity now endlessly recycled for comic effect and commercial gain. It was not until the 1990s, in fact, that any significant attempt was made to reestablish a more serious approach to this material. Kenneth Branagh's 1994 film Mary Shelley's Frankenstein returned to Shelley's original novel and captured much of its gothic terror but also added popular movie formulas such as the creation of the monster's bride.

Despite the endless dilutions, distortions, and recyclings, the force of the Frankenstein myth remains undiminished as contemporary society continues to incorporate technological advances—in fields such as genetic engineering—into everyday life while growing increasingly apprehensive about their potential dangers. Each version of Frankenstein's monster acts not only as a potent reminder of the dark side of man's creative idealism—the dangers of trying to play God—but also as a powerful representation of the collective fears and desires of the particular era in which it was conceived. The Frankenstein legend continues to endure as a deformed mirror held up to human nature, re -formed from parts of the dead past—with our imagination providing the electrical spark.

—Kristine Ha

Further Reading:

Glut, Donald. The Frankenstein Catalog. Jefferson, North Carolina, McFarland & Company, 1984.

——. The Frankenstein Legend: A Tribute to Mary Shelley and Boris Karloff. Metuchen, New Jersey, Scarecrow Press, 1973.

Haining, Peter, ed. The Frankenstein File. London, New English Library, 1977.

Levine, George, ed. The Endurance of Frankenstein: Essays on Mary Shelley's Novel. Berkeley, University of California Press, 1979.

Mellor, Anne Kostelanetz. Mary Shelley, Her Life, Her Fiction, Her Monsters. New York, Methuen, 1988.

Shelley, Mary W. Frankenstein or the Modern Prometheus. New York, Penguin Books, 1992.


views updated Jun 08 2018


Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus (1818) by Mary Shelley provides the most potent, characteristic, and uniquely modern myth of science gone fatally awry. The common association of the name Frankenstein, thanks to many popular movies, is with the ugly, lumbering, murderous monster whom the book never names. In his many film versions, this lurching omen reflects the eras of his creation, from the dazed, scorned and feared working-class creature played by Boris Karloff in James Whale's depression-era Frankenstein (1931) to the slyly silent and sexually potent creature played by Peter Boyle in the me decade's Young Frankenstein (1974). But while movies have spread the image of Doctor Frankenstein and associated his name with the manlike monster he created, the novel carefully never names his creation which is, in fact, a doppelganger, a dramatic double of the obsessive undergraduate who made him.

The Modern Prometheus

The ancient myth of Prometheus took two forms: Prometheus pyrphoros (fire-bringer) and Prometheus plasticator (shaper). In the first the god steals divine fire, emblematic of the combined good and bad potentials of all technologies, for humans; in the second he shapes humans from clay and breathes life into them. In both Zeus makes Prometheus suffer endlessly for his disobedience. In the modern myth, Frankenstein shapes his creation from charnel matter and reanimates it (rather than creating life) with electricity, an occurrence, as Shelley writes in her preface, "supposed by Dr. [Erasmus] Darwin, and some of the physiological writers of Germany, as not of impossible occurrence." The bounds that Frankenstein transgresses are those of obedience to community. He makes himself a monster in two senses. The price is death not only for himself but for his family and potentially all humanity.

As Gothic novels of the supernatural became stale, authors added a twist, revealing at the end some realistic explanation for the fantastic occurrences. By moving that explanation to the beginning of Frankenstein, Shelley created the genre that has explored human fears of science ever since: science fiction.

Structure and Narrative of the Novel

This early science fiction is composed of letters from an explorer, Robert Walton, to his sister back in England. He cannot send the letters because his ship is mired in the arctic where he seeks to confirm the ancient Hyperborea myth of a land of warmth beyond the far north, but he writes nonetheless. On a passing floe he discovers the debilitated Victor Frankenstein whom he rescues. During Victor's recuperation, Robert remarks that "I begin to love him as a brother" (1969, p. 27). In some sense, Robert and Victor, too, are doppelgangers.

The book is a series of nested narratives. The outermost, Robert's own, contains Victor's story that tells of his pursuit of greatness and withdrawal into feverish, isolated work. He finally succeeds, but one look at his stirring creation shows him instantly that the creature is evil. He would kill it, but it flees. The reader comes to learn that the creature is the strongest, smartest, most articulate character in the book, a fit embodiment of science. He confronts Victor on a glacier (the ice imagery mirroring the situation of Robert and Victor, all three males surrounded by frozen fertility) and pleads for paternal help, requesting a bride so that he, universally shunned for his ugly exterior, can find community. Victor reports the creature's narrative which includes his plea and his reported story of Felix (happiness) and Safie (wisdom), Christian-Muslim lovers who are promised help against prejudice and the opportunity to marry by Safie's father, but are betrayed by him. The creature learns the lovers' tale overhearing them in a cottage through a knothole in the wall of the outer shed he has been occupying while altruistically providing firewood for the blind old man who lives there. With the couple on the scene, the creature learns to read just by watching their sharing aloud three books: Milton's Paradise Lost, which concerns disobedience and provides Frankenstein's epigraph, fallen Adam's plea to God ("Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay / To mould Me man? Did I solicit thee / From darkness to promote me?) (Book X, lines 743–745); Plutarch's Lives, a classic collection of exemplary biographies; and The Sorrows of Young Werther, Goethe's famous tale of unrequited love ending in death. The creature, initially the most virtuous character in the book, is driven away when the blind cottager's guests see him. Readers believe him when he says to Victor that "My vices are the children of a forced solitude that I abhor; and my virtues will necessarily arise when I live in communion with an equal" (line 1470). At the heart of Frankenstein's nested narratives is the betrayal by Safie's father. The rupture of community echoes throughout the book.

When Victor first absents himself to work, his father sends a letter that says, quite rightly, "I regard any interruption in your correspondence as a proof that your other duties are equally neglected" (p. 55). Victor destroys his creature's unfinished bride in sight of the monster, who then begins murdering Victor's family to force him to start again. Instead they chase each other north. While Victor never writes, Robert always writes. Robert heeds his frightened crew and turns back from his quest, saving all their lives. Victor dies, and the monster (from the Latin for warning) carries him further north for a funeral pyre, knowing that with his father dead, his hopes for any family have died, too.

Science Unbound

At the heart of Frankenstein is the tension between the power science confers on individuals and the just restraints of community. Frankenstein, both creator and creature, stands not for science in general but for the acquisition of scientific power foolishly pursued without the wisdom of the world. As such, Frankenstein has represented, in the films of the Great Depression, the isolation of the privileged from the suffering of the common person. When the educated Doctor or Baron in his hilltop castle, his title varying from film to film, disdained the peasants swirling up toward him with their angry torches, his doppelganger monster was inarticulate because, the movies imply, the overly powerful never heed the consequences of their power.

That image has entered the very language of the early 2000s. Genetically modified farm crops are bashed as Frankenfoods and contemplated human cloning for spare parts is called a Frankenstein nightmare. Shelley has a character say early on, "One man's life or death were but a small price to pay for the acquirement of the knowledge which I sought" (1969, p. 28). That sounds like Victor, but it is Robert, the seeker who learns the limits of seeking. Frankenstein is the early twenty-first century's greatest cautionary tale.


SEE ALSO Autonomous Technology;Brave New World;Playing God;Science Fiction;Science, Technology, and Literature;Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft.


Schoene-Harwood, Berthold, ed. (2000). Mary Shelley, Frankenstein. Columbia University Press Critical Guides. New York: Columbia University Press.

Shelley, Mary. (1969 [1818; 1831]). Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus, ed. M. K. Joseph. The World's Classics series. New York: Oxford University Press.

Shelley, Mary. (2000). Frankenstein: Complete, Authoritative Text with Biographical, Historical, and Cultural Contexts, Critical History, and Essays from Contemporary Critical Perspectives, ed. Johanna M. Smith. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's.


views updated May 23 2018

Frankenstein The clanking, bolted Boris Karloff, whose latest incarnation is the parodic Herman Munster, has become the popular image of the Frankenstein monster — in defiance of the illustration — accompanying the 1831 edition of Mary Shelley's novel, Frankenstein, which depicts the creature as a far more human and personable-looking being. The monstrous brood of her creation is a hideous progeny that has found its way into cinema, popular fiction, and critical theory by taking literally the injunction in her introduction to the 1831 edition to ‘go forth and prosper’. The proliferation of the monstrous body is the anxiety that afflicts the mad scientist hero, Victor Frankenstein. His experimentation allegorizes not only the way in which science is not always in control of its metaphors, but also how men can lose control of the monsters they themselves create.

In preparation for his monstrous experiment Victor scours charnel houses, places for vivisection, and graveyards, for parts from which to assemble his New Adam or Modern Prometheus, which is the novel's subtitle. Body snatching was rendered obsolete a year after the third revised edition of Frankenstein by the 1832 Anatomy Act, which made available for dissection the bodies of unclaimed paupers. For this reason, the blasphemy of Victor's nefarious activities has impacted less on the modern reader than on Shelley's contemporaries. The monstrosity of his creation is predicated upon the dilemma that, despite his having selected the most beautiful parts, only God can harmonize the whole. The product of Victor's labours is a creature that is eight foot tall with yellow skin and straight black lips, from which he recoils in horror. Victor's reaction, in regard to skin colour, is replete with racist overtones. His creation is a mirror-image of colonization since, in wanting to reshape the world anew, he plunders the old. His aversion to his ‘hideous progeny’ can also be seen as a post-natal rejection of a newly-born infant by its mother. Some feminist critics have interpreted Frankenstein as an allegory of childbirth which, in this case, is the product of solitary male propagation, being the proverbial scientist's brain child.

Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary Shelley's mother, wrote about the importance of a maternal and nurturing presence in the upbringing of a child. Despite having mastered language and the range of human emotions, abandonment and the withdrawal of affection has warped Frankenstein's creation into the actuality of a monstrous self. Taking revenge on Victor, the creature murders his young brother William and pins the blame on a young family servant, Justine, who is eventually wrongly executed for the crime. Later he kills Victor's best friend Henry Clerval and his fiancé Elizabeth Lavenza. At the end of the novel, we are left to assume that he takes his own life in the Arctic wastes following the final confrontation between creator and created — which is foreshadowed by John Milton's Paradise Lost (1667) from which the epigraph of the novel is taken. The trail of destruction and waste has been interpreted as a warning of the potential dangers of modern science. Had Victor not abandoned his original mentors, necromancers like Paracelsus, Cornelius Agrippa, and Albertus Magnus, he might have created a harmless homunculus instead of the creature, who exacts revenge upon him.

The monster has been seen by Marxist critics as representing the new social order of the industrial proletariat, the destruction of the body politic by the mob in the Reign of Terror during the French Revolution, and a Malthusian dystopia born of a monstrous growth in population (see Thomas Malthus, An Essay on the Principle of Population, 1798). The fear of breeding a race of monsters leads Victor to destroy the female mate he has created for his creature by dismembering ‘the thing’ he had put together. The perception of both creature and mate as subalterns, who are subhuman, is integral to the process of colonization and the concept of ‘thingification’ whereby the colonizer assumes a position of power and superiority over the colonized. Once it was known that the author was a woman, the novel become a trope for the monstrosities produced by the female imagination as a source of patriarchal anxiety. For this reason, Mary Shelley may have felt it to be incumbent upon herself to explain in her later introduction, ‘How I, then a young girl, came to think of, and to dilate upon, so very hideous an idea?’ (1831).

The impetus for completing the novel is thought by critics such as Marilyn Butler to have arisen from the interest of Mary and her husband Percy Bysshe Shelley in current debates between the schools of vitalism and materialism as to the creation of life, experiments in galvanism on executed criminals, and a general vogue for automata. The genesis of the novel, which was first published in 1818, is explained in the preface to the revised 1831 edition, where Mary Shelley describes her participation in the ghost-story competition at the Villa Diodati in 1816. After a nocturnal conversation about Erasmus Darwin's apparent animation of a piece of vermicelli, she has a terrifying waking dream that gives her the idea for the creature.

The real nightmare described in the book, however, is the predicament of a being trapped in a monstrous body, who is sickened by his own image and shunned by human society. The text encourages the modern reader to reconsider the responsibilities of science, particularly in relation to such controversial areas as genetic engineering, cloning, and reproductive technologies. Victor's teratological experiment may even be read as a parable for the dangers of male science, which have escalated subsequently into the nuclear arms race. By questioning our received notions of aesthetics, particularly the way in which the creature is rejected by society on account of his appearance, the novel invites us to consider afresh the relationship we have with our own body and its interaction with the outside world.

Marie Mulvey-Roberts

See also monsters.


views updated May 29 2018


The name of the creator of the archetypal zombielike artificial man, as well as the moniker given his creation. Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus, by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (1797-1851), a classic of English occult fiction, was first published in London in 1818 in three volumes. It tells the story of how Dr. Victor Frankenstein creates an artificial man out of fragments of bodies from churchyards and dissecting roomsa human form without a soul. The monster longs for love and sympathy but inspires only horror and loathing and becomes a powerful force for evil. It seeks revenge against its creator, murdering his friend, brother, and bride and ultimately bringing death to Frankenstein himself.

The book owes much to discussions of the time regarding the scientific work of Erasmus Darwin and to theories of spontaneous generation and the power of electricity, and is thus also an early science-fiction story. In her introduction Mary Shelley writes of the possibility that a corpse might be reanimated.

The book also contains powerful writing with an overall theme of the moral limits of science and technology. The subtitle refers to the question of whether science has the right to usurp the divine function of creation. (Prometheus was a mythological Greek who stole fire from heaven and thereafter suffered a horrible punishment from the god Zeus.) The book was also popular as a modern myth of the dangers of the industrial era and the many unplanned horrors created by human inventions manufactured to be a boon to the race.

Mary Wollstonecraft wrote a first draft of the story of Fran-kenstein in the company of Percy Shelley, Lord Byron, John Polidori, and Claire Clairmont when the group spent a week taking opium while vacationing at the Villa Diodati, Geneva, in the summer of 1816. Polidori's The Vampyre, came from a suggestion by Byron that weekend and generated interest in another monster theme, culminating in such later thrillers as Bram Stoker 's Dracula (1897).


Baldrick, Chris. In Frankenstein's Shadow: Myth, Monstrosity, and Nineteenth-Century Writing. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987.

Florescu, Radu. In Search of Frankenstein. New York: New York Graphic Society, 1975.

Forry, Steven Earl. Hideous Progenies: Dramatizations of Fran-kenstein from Mary Shelley to the Present. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1990.

Glut, Donald F. The Frankenstein Catalog. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 1984.

Troop, Martin. Mary Shelley's Monster. Houghton Mifflin, 1977.


views updated Jun 08 2018


Frankenstein's monster first hit movie screens as a sixteen-minute silent film by Thomas Edison (1847–1931) in 1910. The 1931 sound feature put out by Universal Studios truly made the character's reputation, however. The shambling man-made fiend, based on a creature in Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus (1818), by British novelist Mary Shelley (1797–1851), so terrified audiences that he became a fixture of the horror movies (see entry under 1960s—Film and Theater in volume 4) genre (category) for decades to come. Over the years, Frankenstein has been remade, spoofed, and spun off as a television (see entry under 1940s—TV and Radio in volume 3) sitcom (see entry under 1950s—TV and Radio in volume 3) and a Halloween costume. But the terrifying original feature has never been equaled.

Boris Karloff (1887–1969) was an obscure British stage actor when he was tapped by director James Whale (1893–1957) to play Frankenstein's monster in 1931. His interpretation of the character differed sharply from the creature as portrayed in Shelley's novel. Where Shelley's monster was intelligent and physically agile, Karloff played the creature as a hulking brute incapable of speech. The film's makeup, applied by Hollywood legend Jack Pierce (1889–1968), also stressed the ghoulish aspects of the character. Enormous bolts protruded from Karloff's neck, while his head was rendered flat and his forehead stitched as if a botched operation had taken place. The frightening image of this Frankenstein's monster was so powerful that it has replaced Shelley's original conception.

Many scenes in Frankenstein have become classic moments in movie horror. In the elaborate laboratory sequence, Dr. Frankenstein brings his creation to life using electricity from lightning. In a touching scene, the monster encounters a little girl playing with flowers by a stream. In the exciting climax of the movie, villagers with torches chase the monster into an abandoned mill and burn it down. These scenes have become so recognizable that they have been spoofed numerous times in films like Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948) and Young Frankenstein (1974), a Mel Brooks (1926–) movie.

Boris Karloff returned to play the monster two more times, in The Bride of Frankenstein (1935) and in Son of Frankenstein (1939). He then grew tired of the series. The monster lived on, however, in a string of popular Universal features and later movies from other studios. Television honored Frankenstein's monster in the character Herman Munster (played by Fred Gwynne, 1926–1993), patriarch of the sitcom family The Munsters (1964–66). Director Kenneth Branagh (1960–) tried reviving Mary Shelley's original version of the creature in a gruesome 1994 feature. Like the creature itself, it seems the Frankenstein movie cannot be destroyed.

—Robert E. Schnakenberg

For More Information

Haining, Peter, ed. The Frankenstein File. London: New English Library, 1977.

Jameson, Robert. The Essential Frankenstein. New York: Crescent Books, 1992.

Kudalis, Eric. Frankenstein and Other Stories of Man-Made Monsters. Minneapolis: Capstone Press, 1994.

About this article


All Sources -
Updated Aug 13 2018 About content Print Topic