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August 23, 2006

Here's One I Made Earlier: Mary Shelley's Frankenstein

Posted by Lincoln Allison

Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus
by Mary Shelley
first published 1818
Pp. 175. Wordsworth Classics, 1999

You are Adolphe Frankenstein, head of a long-established bourgeois Genevan family in the late eighteenth century. Your son Victor is keen on the latest ideas in natural philosophy and so you pack him off to the university at Ingolstadt in Bavaria where you hope he will learn about another culture as well as having the opportunity to study under the distinguished professors there.

After a few months, communications cease and you discover that he has fallen seriously ill. Your younger son, William, is mysteriously strangled shortly before Victor can return home; your servant, Justine Moritz, is tried and executed for the murder, the culmination of a hard and tragic life. Victor mutters about being responsible and leaves on a mysterious mission to Great Britain with his friend Henry Clerval. While they are there, Clerval is murdered.

Attempting to rebuild his life Victor proposes marriage to Elizabeth Lavenza, the impoverished and adopted aristocratic girl with whom he has grown up. She accepts, but she, too, is murdered on her wedding night. Victor, mentally disturbed and physically aged, wanders away across the Eurasian landmass. You never see him again and, in fact, he dies in the frozen deserts which approach the North Pole. What on earth - or what the Hell - have you or he done to deserve all this?

In the twenty first century, after more than fifty movies and the creation of a mountain of metaphor using your family name, most people could tell you the answer. Victor has created a monster, a fiend, a demon. He didn't really mean to because he was only trying to create a person. The creature now haunts him and they are bent on each other's destruction. He has chosen the tradition of Adam, Prometheus, Faust, the Sorcerer's Apprentice et. al. in pushing his scientific capacity beyond the proper limits. Among the million things for which he is destined to serve as metaphor are the nuclear scientists and genetic engineers of our own day.

The creature, although apparently cobbled together from normal parts, is eight feet tall, itself a considerable handicap in social relations or hotel bedrooms. In sharp contrast to the cinematic versions, we are offered a rather perfunctory account of his creation (p. 43):

In a solitary chamber, or rather cell, at the top of the house, and separated from all the other apartments by a gallery and a staircase, I kept my workshop of filthy creation: my eye-balls were starting from my sockets in attending to the details of my employment. The dissecting room and the slaughterhouse furnished many of my materials; and often did my human nature turn with loathing from my occupation, whilst, still urged on by an eagerness which perpetually increased, I brought my work near to a conclusion.
This begs the question, if "dissecting room and the slaughterhouse furnished many of my materials", where did the rest come from?

Mary Shelley moved in circles which knew of "galvanisation" and of experiments which used electricity to induce muscle-twitch in dead frogs, but here she avoids anything very specific, twice justifying the absence on don't-try-this-at-home grounds. But the narrative is generally marked by a girlish lack of interest in detail. When Victor returns from Ingolstadt to Geneva he appears to leave his creature-making equipment behind, but it mysteriously turns up and travels to the Orkneys where he begins his project of providing a female companion for the creature before abandoning the attempt in moral disgust. It is not at all clear how the creature can follow Victor to Britain: given the extreme hostility and abhorrence with which human beings respond to him, the cross-channel ferry is hardly an option.

But if the story is short on detail it is long on atmosphere. Partly from her imagination and partly from her travels with her poetical chums Mary Shelley gives us landscapes which are vast, wild and fraught with menace. They include German forests, wind-blasted Scottish islands, Swiss Alps in varying shades and moods and Arctic wastes. Most of the "classic" movies ignore this dimension in favour of a more claustrophobic atmosphere. This is true of James Whale's definitive 1931 version though not at all of Kenneth Branagh's 1994 film Mary Shelley's Frankenstein which embraces fully the variety of landscapes.

In short, it is difficult to avoid the vague cliché-words "Gothic" and "Romantic" when describing the style of the book. The form is that of tales within tales. We begin with letters from one Robert Walton to his married sister. Walton has abandoned a writing career for the role of master mariner. His comments on his year as a writer have obvious autobiographical relevance and can also be considered to be about the idea of creation (p. 14):

I also became a poet, and for one year lived in a Paradise of my own creation; I imagined that I might also obtain a niche in the temple where the names of Homer and Shakespeare are consecrated. You are well acquainted with my failure, and how heavily I bore the disappointment.
Somewhere on the Northern margins of navigability Walton sees the monster fleeing across the ice in a dog sled and shortly after that picks up Victor. Most of the story is Victor's tale as told to Walton, but we also have the monster's tale as told to Victor - he is here highly articulate and rather eloquent, unlike Boris Karloff - and the tale of the cottagers whom the monster tries to befriend. They are also fallen aristocrats and the monster might have succeeded with the blind grandfather - except that before he can make progress he is seen by the young couple who react with the usual revulsion. This is a final rejection which sets him on the twin missions of vengeance and coercing Victor into creating a mate for him; he becomes evil in his intentions and tragic in his effects.

What exactly has Victor done wrong? Most of us create life, albeit by a familiar and all-too-easy method. This method requires two people, though it may not necessarily require two in the moral sense if sperm were somehow purloined, for example. Is it something in the method of creation which has taken Victor across an ultimate ethical line? This seems to be the case when he reflects on the innocence of his early Geneva days (p. 31):

I feel exquisite pleasure in dwelling on the recollections of childhood, before misfortune had tainted my mind, and changed its bright visions of extensive usefulness into gloomy and narrow reflections upon self. Besides, in drawing the picture of my early days, I also record those events which led, by insensible steps, to my after tale of misery: for when I would account to myself for the birth of that passion, which afterwards ruled my destiny, I find it arise, like a mountain river, from ignoble and almost forgotten sources; but, swelling as it proceeded, it became the torrent which, in its course, has swept away all my hopes and joys.

Natural philosophy is the genius that has regulated my fate . . . .
This is capable of a very orthodox religious interpretation: the creation of life except by the prescribed method is contrary to a primary rule made by God because it consists of arrogating his role and rights to ourselves. This interpretation seems to have been favoured by Mary Shelley in later years (she lived to be 54) in writings composed long after the death of her atheistical husband.

But it is hardly the sense of the story. The monster wants to live, but he is desperately lonely and expresses his loneliness with great eloquence. He craves love or, if not love, then at least companionship. He can't find it because he is eight foot tall and plug ugly. Had he been six foot tall and looked like Gregory Peck and proved well capable of pulling a nice barmaid called Heidi in one of Ingolstadt's many inns, then there wouldn't have been a problem on his own account: he might have popped round to see Victor from time to time to share a glass of schnapps and report on how he and Heidi were getting along.

The alternative version of Victor's sin is his failure to take responsibility for his creation. A coherent ethical account of obligation must say that we incur heavy obligations to any conscious creature we create (though none to a creator - whether God, Dad or Mum - since it is their choice and responsibility to create us, not ours). On the other hand, if your creation is evil, you have a wider responsibility (p. 165):

During these last days I have been occupied in examining my past conduct; nor do I find it blamable. In a fit of enthusiastic madness I created a rational creature, and was bound towards him, to assure, as far as was in my power, his happiness and well-being. This was my duty; but there was another still paramount to that. My duties towards beings of my own species had greater claims to my attention, because they included a greater proportion of happiness or misery. Urged by this view, I refused, and I did right in refusing, to create a companion for the first creature.
I submit that Victor has reached a very high level of ethical incoherence at this point. He is, surely, "blamable" (sic) because the creature's "evil" is caused by his rejection. Though it cannot be said that Victor rejected him personally because what happened immediately at his creation is that the monster ran off and Victor fell ill. A more interesting version might have described Victor trying to exercise the responsibility of a creator rather than being haunted later by a monster who has already turned bad.

In many respects, of course, it is ridiculous to carp at the ethical coherence of Frankenstein. It was a novel started by an 18-year-old girl, which was published when she was 21. There may have been some contribution from her brilliant husband (who spoke of it as if it were at least jointly authored), but if your 18-year-old daughter or mine had written a work so visionary, imaginative, eloquent and informed we would not be so much proud as incredulous.

In the age of mass media and compulsory education it is absolutely inconceivable that a girl could be as educated as Mary Shelley was. It was, after all, a high period of intellectual life and she was its crème de la crème, the daughter of William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft, the wife of Percy Shelley, the friend of Byron etc. You would probably have been less impressed that she had become pregnant at 15, and run off to marry a notorious poet, possibly bigamously and allegedly in a threesome.

Like many people I have much sympathy for the poor old monster. It's the metaphor which I would like to see dismembered and frozen in the arctic wastes. The monster is religion, he is science, he is the working class, nationalism, robots, computers, nuclear bombs, clones, drug enhanced athletes, international institutions . . . . Anything we might be said to "create", either individually or collectively, which carries the risk of harm to ourselves and others, the poor old monster can be said to represent.

In other words, pretty well anything for which we have any responsibility. Thus the ocean of monster-babble. He's a good insight into psychopaths and for feminists he can demonstrate the futility of an all-male creation or the crassness of (male) science. In other words you can employ the monster-metaphor in pretty well any field and for any purpose, but he's too vague and too incoherent to carry you very far.

Lincoln Allison has recently retired as Reader in Politics, University of Warwick. His previous Retrospective Reviews can be read here.

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