Mary Shelley’s misinterpreted Frankenstein

Frankenstein: the monster as victim

by Gwydion M Williams

My candle was nearly burnt out, when, by the glimmer of the half-extinguished light, I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open…  His limbs were in proportion, and I had selected his features as beautiful.

The novel Frankenstein was written just after the collapse of Napoleonic France, set against the apparent extinction of Republican and Radical ideas.  And written by a member of Britain’s disaffected Radical minority, one of those who kept the tradition alive.

The woman we now know as Mary Shelley was not in fact Shelley’s wife at the time she wrote her most notable work.  Had she died young, or had Shelley’s first wife lived on, she might have been known to history as Mary Wollstonecraft the Younger.

The Frankenstein myth as defined by Mary Shelley back in 1816 is a thing in itself.  It should not be confused the mad scientists, massive electrical discharges and misshapen monster that were later substituted in the interests of easy popular entertainment.  The standard image of the creature and its creation come from the 1931 film.  Boris Karloff’s very effective make-up and portrayal of the creature have defined our ideas ever since.

The similarities between 1930s science fiction and the 1930s films are unsurprising, and have strengthened the widespread but mistaken notion that Frankenstein was the first work of modern science fiction.  18th century writers like Swift and Voltaire had written literature that is normally classed as science fiction, and close in spirit to Hugo Gernsback’s classic science fiction of the 1920s to 1950s.  Whereas Frankenstein had elements of romance and psychological complexity that were no part of science fiction before the 1960s.  As George Levin says in The Endurance of Frankenstein:  “the book is larger and richer than any of its progeny.” (Levin, George and Knoepflmacher, U.C. (editors). University of California Press 1979.  Page 3.)

The artificial creature in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein has the potential to be something other than the murdering monster he in fact becomes.  He has high intelligence and human empathy, clear and articulate speech.  He is not the grunting shambling malignant creature of the film versions, he can say “Everywhere I see bliss, from which I alone an irrevocably excluded.  I was benevolent and good;  misery made me a fiend” (Chapter 10).  Also “Once 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” (Final letter).

The life and the shadow

Dull people can write interesting books, and vice versa.  But Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s life was as remarkable as her fiction.  Her father was the noted English radical William Godwin – Shelley had read his books while still at school, and was surprised and delighted to find him still alive.  Her mother was almost as famous – today we might rate Mary Wollstonecraft above William Godwin.  A pioneer of Women’s Rights and of Free Love, a friend of William Blake, a defender of the French Revolution against Edmund Burke, she was also a notably kindly and likeable person, despite the many hardships of her life.

Mary Shelley was conceived out of wedlock.  But in the face of general social intolerance, her parents married before she was born.  She was therefore initially known as Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin.  The 1823 edition gives her name as Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley – but she preferred Mary W. Shelley for the edition of 1831.  To be both brief and simple, I shall henceforth speak of her simply as Mary Shelley.  Likewise I shall speak of Percy Bysshe Shelley as Shelley, and ignore the other names that Claire Clairmont was sometimes known by.

Mary Shelley was in fact Mary Wollstonecraft’s second daughter.  The father of her first child was a man called Gilbert Imlay, who had been born in New Jersey.  (Oddly enough, Percy Shelley’s grandfather had also been born in New Jersey, although he emigrated back to England and became rich through two advantageous marriages.)  Mary and Gilbert were never married, although she was sometimes known as Mary Imlay, and her first daughter is usually referred to as Fanny Imlay.

Mary Shelley’s birth caused Mary Wollstonecraft’s death – an all-too-common tragedy in the days before modern medicine.  Godwin was left alone with three year old Fanny and new-born Mary – not an easy situation.  When Mary was four, Godwin married a women who already had two children of her own.  The two of them had yet one more child, a boy called William.  Thus Mary grew up with a stepmother, a stepbrother, a stepsister, a half-sister and a half-brother.  Her closest friendship was to be with her stepsister Claire Clairmont, whose unknown father was probably Swiss.

Mary and Shelley fell in love at a time when his first marriage was already under strain.  The rights and wrongs of the matter have been frequently argued, and I am not going to try to go into them here.  Briefly, Shelley rejected his first wife in favour of Mary, after his unorthodox suggestion that they should live as a threesome had been indignantly rejected.  Mary and Shelley eloped in 1814, taking a brief tour of France, Switzerland, Germany and Holland.  Claire Clairmont went with them, and lived with them for a time.  This was a fairly normal set-up for the time – people lived with their married relatives, or unwed brothers and sisters had a joint household.  But in this case, there was a close emotional relationship, perhaps also sexual, between Shelley and Claire.  Certainly, Mary became jealous and managed to evict her stepsister.

Claire reacted by going after another poet, one who was much more famous and admired at that time.  She offered herself to Lord Byron, whose pride would not allow him to turn her down.  But it seems he never much cared for her.  Claire was to return to the Shelley household, and thereafter the three of them got on rather more harmoniously.  And it was Claire Clairmont who ensured that Byron and Shelley met.  Because of her, they were neighbours at Lake Geneva during the ‘haunted summer’ of 1816.  And it was discussions at the Villa Diodati  that inspired Mary to write her first and best novel, Frankenstein

That Mary’s novel would touch deep questions of life and death is not surprising.  Untimely deaths had always been a part of her life.  Is it an accident that she, whose birth caused her mother’s death, was to write about a creature that destroyed its own creator?  Certainly, she felt a strong affinity with the mother she had never known.  While still a child, she would go for consolation to her mother’s grave in St Pancras cemetery. (Veeder, William.  Mary Shelley and Frankenstein.  University of Chicago Press, 1986.  Page 114)

Mary Shelley beside the grave of her mother Mary Wollstonecraft – that is how we would describe them now.  But at the time she conceived Frankenstein, she was still known as Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin.  And the name carved on her dead mother’s tombstone was also Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin!

Nor did the shadows vanish after her unexpected literary success.  Of her four children, only one survived, and he left no heirs.  In 1816, the year she began Frankenstein, her half-sister Fanny committed suicide.  Later that same year, Shelley’s first wife also committed suicide.  ‘Monk’ Lewis, who visited them at Lake Geneva, died of natural causes in 1818.  Polidori, Byron’s companion, committed suicide in 1821.  Shelley himself died in 1822, Byron two years later.  Mary herself had a moderately long life, dying in 1851, the year of the Great Exhibition.  Claire Clairmont outlived everyone else, surviving till 1879.

The story in outline

Given the number of forms the myth has taken, I feel I must give a brief sketch of the story as Mary Shelley told it.  It begins with Captain Walton writing letters to his sister about his expedition in polar waters.  In the cold ice-wastes he sees in the distance a gigantic human figure, and then later rescues a man of unusual qualities.  “Even broken in spirit as he is, no one can feel more deeply than he does the beauties of nature” (Letter 4).  This man introduces himself as Victor Frankenstein, and tells Walton his sad history.

He had had a happy and secure childhood in the city-state of Geneva.  As a teenager he had studied the work of medieval and renaissance magicians, and tried unsuccessfully to perform ritual magic.  On a whim, he gave this up and turned to mathematics instead.  Later, sent to study at the German university of Ingolstadt, he learnt modern science, especially chemistry.  He then moved on to anatomy and physiology.  Unexpectedly, “I succeeded in discovering the cause of generation and life;  nay, more, I became myself capable of bestowing animation upon lifeless mater” (Chapter 4).

Victor then resolved to “attempt the creation of a being like myself”, having considered and then rejected the notion of starting with some simpler organism.  After great labour, he had constructed the creature.  But when he had brought the result of his labours to life, he was horrified to find that the creature when animated is monstrously ugly.  He retreated, fell asleep, and then woke to find the creature beside his bed looking at him.  He fled, and then encountered his friend Clerval.  They returned to Victor’s rooms, and he found the creature gone.  Victor fell ill, recovered, and the two of them then spent some months studying Eastern languages.  Victor then decided to return to Geneva.  But as he prepared to do this, he had heard that his little brother William has been murdered.

Returning to his native city, he learnt that a servant of theirs called Justine Moritz had been accused of the murder.  But he also saw his creation lurking in the gloom, and suspected that this is the true killer.  He tried to save Justine, but failed.  He then went up into the mountain to seek the creature, which confronted Victor and spoke of how things had gone with him after his creation.

Quite unlike the destructive monster of later versions, the creature had initially been gentle and well-intentioned, confused but slowly learning about the world.  “I was delighted when I first discovered that a pleasant sound, which often saluted my ears, proceeded from the throats of the little winged animals who had often intercepted the light from my eyes (Chapter 11).  People greeted him with fear and hostility, yet at this stage he was no more than puzzled.

The creature found a regular hide-out in a hovel adjoining a cottage.  He got to hear of the unhappy history of the family called De Lacey, victims of several sorts of injustice.  Watching and listening to them, he learnt human speech and human ways.  Not daring to show himself, he secretly helped them by gathering wood, work which they attributed to a ‘good spirit’.  Finally, he introduced himself to the old man, who being blind was unaware of the artificial man’s extreme ugliness, and therefore accepted him.  But when the old man’s children returned, they reacted with fear and panic, and drove him away.  He was far stronger than they, but refused to hit back at those he had regarded as his friends.

Having learned of Frankenstein and Geneva from a journal that was in clothes he originally took from the laboratory, the creature resolved to go there and seek his creator.  By chance he encountered William.  His initial hope that the boy will be too young to be prejudiced at his ugliness proved false.  And when he learned that the child is of the Frankenstein family he grew angry and killed him.  In a fit of malice the creature then decided also to frame Justine for the deed.

The creature concluded by demanding that Victor Frankenstein make him a mate.  If this was done, he would depart peacefully.  If not, he would be avenged.  Victor reluctantly agreed.  Hearing of some useful discoveries by an English philosopher, he resolved to go there.  Clerval went with him, and they spent some time sight-seeing before Victor reluctantly went off alone to a remote island in the Orkneys to create the second creature.

When his work is almost completed, he suddenly panicked.  What if the two of them proceed to breed a “race of devils” who would compete with humans for the possession of the planet?  He therefore destroyed the female creature.  His original creation saw this, denounced him and threatened more vengeance.  “I shall be with you on your wedding-night.”  Terrified, he set off in a boat, and somehow drifted over to Ireland, where he found that his friend Clerval had been killed by the creature.  He fell ill, as well as being suspected of the deed, but was rescued and taken back to Geneva by his father.

Although he knew the creature still wanted vengeance, he resolved to go ahead with his long-planned marriage to his sweetheart Elizabeth.  He thought of the threat as being to his life – instead his creation killed her.  He went insane, recovered, told the whole story to a magistrate, and then vowed vengeance.  The creature taunted Victor to follow into the cold north, which he did, eventually meeting Walton.

The narrative resumes from Walton’s viewpoint.  His expedition is now in danger from the ice, as winter approaches.  His crew ask him to promise to turn back.  Victor Frankenstein argues that they should go on, but Walton finally agrees to give up his quest.  Victor is resolved to leave the ship and continue his vengeance.  But then Walton finds him dead, killed by the creature which then addresses Walton himself.  Victor Frankenstein’s creation bitterly regrets the evil he has done, while also protesting at the world’s injustice.  He announces his intention of committing suicide by building a funeral pile amidst the ice.  He bids Walton farewell, and with this the story ends.

A time scale for Frankenstein

Suppose we treat the novel as if it were a real historical document that needed to be dated.  Is a self-consistent chronology possible?  Or do we take the apparent dates and details as part of the fiction and not expect any logic or consistency?

Ketterer say “.. it should be observed that the events of Frankenstein maybe occurring in the 1790s, the decade of  the French Revolution”. (Ketterer, op cit, p 38.)  But he does not follow the matter up.

Mary Thornburg in The Monster in the Mirror notes the significance of the reference to the Ancient Mariner.  But she concludes that no self-consistent chronology is possible.  “The two-year period between 1798 and 1800 is obviously too short a time for Walton to have been inspired by Coleridge, tired of the writing of poetry and given it up, acquired training as a sailor, and prepared for his journey towards the North Pole;  thus, we must recognise an incongruity in Walton’s letters that is impossible to resolve.” (Thornburg, Mary K. Patterson.  UMI Research Press, Ann Arbour, Michigan.  1984.  Page 73.)

This is only true, if we assume that Walton’s reference to poets inspiring him several years before the expedition must be to Coleridge.  It need not be.  He does refer in Letter 2 to the Ancient Mariner, and says that “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.”  But he does not say for how long he has been inspired by it.  This allows a self-consistent chronology to be constructed, though it puts it under some strain.

Walton’s letters are all dated 17–.  Thus the year in which Victor Frankenstein is killed by his creation cannot be later than 1799.  Walton’s hopes of finding a Northeast Passage gives no clue – this was a continuing quest from the 16th to the late 19th century.  But in Chapter 5, Clerval mentions Goldsmith’s The Vicar of Wakefield, published in 1766.  No mention is made of war or revolution, and the misfortunes of the De Lacey family would have been typical of pre-Revolutionary France.  All of this would point to the 1770s or 1780s.  There was however an unsuccessful democratic revolt in Geneva in 1782, followed by a period of repression.  The 1770s thus seem the most likely time-frame.

Against this must be set two mentions of Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, which drag events forward into the 1790s, and make it odd that Victor Frankenstein can travel to France and England without noticing the wars and revolutions that would have been happening all around him.

The French invasion and annexation of Geneva in April 1798 puts an upper time-limit on Victor’s narrative, just as definitely as Walton’s 17– dates do.  For him to take no notice of the French Revolution is just about possible – we know that Robert Owen in England took no notice of it. (Cole, op cit, p 55.)  But he could hardly be oblivious to what the French had done in his home city.

Let’s first look at the internal chronology of Victor Frankenstein’s narrative.  He says that he completes the Artificial Man in the month of November.  Call this November of year x.  He falls ill, and while recovering gets a letter from Geneva dated March 18, 17–.  Call this March x+1.  He and Clerval then study Oriental languages.  He intends to return to Geneva that autumn, but winter and snow prevents this.

In May of the next year – May 12th x+2 – he gets a letter tells of the murder of his brother William.  This is consistent with what the artificial man says about having got hold of some books in the month of August, well before he kills William – this would have been August x+1, with the monster learning language and learning about the world even as his creator strives to master Persian, Arabic and Sanskrit.

Having failed to prevent Justine being executed for William’s murder, Victor Frankenstein sets off for England in the month of September, having agreed to make a mate for the monster.  He spends some time sightseeing in England, reaching Windsor in the month of March – presumably March x+3.  He then finds a workplace on a remote island in the Orkneys, and sets to work on his unpleasant task.  He actually refers back to his earlier work:  “Three years before, I was engaged in the same manner and had created a fiend” (Chapter 20).  So the chronology is fine so far.

Having mostly created the new artificial creature, Victor Frankenstein panics and destroys it instead.  The creature kills his friend Clerval, and Victor is suspected of the deed.  He falls ill, and is visited by his father.  They go to Paris.  There he gets a letter from his fiancée Elizabeth, dated May 18 17–.  This can hardly still be x+3, it must be at least x+4, and possibly even x+5.

Victor Frankenstein returns to Geneva, and weds Elizabeth.  His creation kills her.  Victor goes mad, and remains mad for many months.  He recovers and vows vengeance.  The artificial man leads him a long chase into the frozen north, culminating in  his encounter with Captain Walton early in the month of August 17–.  This can hardly be in the same year as Elizabeth’s murder:  it could easily be two, three or more years on.  Thus it is August x+5 at the earliest, and perhaps x+9 or more.

Walton’s second letter, dated 28th March 17–, mentions Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner, which was begun in November 1797, and completed in March 1798.  Lyrical Ballads, where it was first published along with other poems by Wordsworth and Coleridge, only appeared in September 1798.  It was published anonymously, but Walton speaks of the poem as “that production of the most imaginative of modern poets”.

The chronology gets strained, but is not quite impossible.  Coleridge was widely admired at the time as a lecturer and conversationalist.  He was in the habit of reading out his own poems, or including them in letters to friends.  Walton’s second letter could just possibly be written in 1798, if his sister had earlier told him of the poet’s unfinished work.  But March 1799 is much more likely.  His meeting with Victor Frankenstein thus occurs in August 1799, and Victor’s creation kills him in September of the same year.

Victor Frankenstein would therefore have created his Artificial Man some time in the late 1780s or early 1790s.  1794 is the last possible date, and it is unlikely, since it would have him still in Geneva during the French occupation of 1798.

1789, the year the French Revolution began, is a definite possibility.

One problem with such a date is that Victor Frankenstein quotes a chunk of  Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner in Chapter 5, which would be at least three years before the poem was even begun.  On the other hand, these are his retrospective thoughts.  He has had time, perhaps, to read Walton’s manuscript copy of the poem.  Or Walton’s sister might have sent out a copy of Lyrical Ballads.  The same applies to his reference to Wordsworth’s Tintern Abbey during his account of his trip to England – that poem was only written in June 1798.

Various references seem to treat Geneva as part of Switzerland. This excludes the period between 1798 and 1814, when it was part of France. Geneva was not formally a member of the Swiss Confederation until 1814.  But equally it was not a part of any other state or political structure before 1798.  As a traditional ally of Berne and Zurich, it could loosely be called Swiss.

Walton’s own chronology poses few problems – apart from the reference to Coleridge, which I’ve already mentioned.  There is one inconsistency.  In Letter 1 he talks about the year he tried to be a poet, and then says “Six years have passed since I resolved on my present undertaking.”  But in Letter 2 he mentions his enthusiasm for poetry at the age of 15, and then gives his age as 28.  I suppose you can posit a few years between his failure as a poet and his definite resolve upon a polar expedition.

Incidentally, six years is also the period between Victor Frankenstein’s departure for Ingolstadt and his return to Geneva.  This may well be intentional.  He, like Walton, has a change of ideas at the age of 15.  The two men are of much the same age – they might even have been born in the same year.  Victor Frankenstein seems to have not one but two doppelgangers to express the complexity of his nature.

Still, even though a chronology is possible, it is in a number of ways highly strained.  My own feeling is that Mary Shelley wanted to include Coleridge’s poem, but not the events of the French Revolution, and for this reason refused to give specific dates.

(Since making the analysis above, I have found a detailed chronology given in Anne K. Mellor’s Mary Shelley: Her Life, Her Fiction, Her Monsters, set out in Note 22 to Chapter Four.  She confidently gives exact dates for everything, having the creature created in November 1792 and having him kill his creator in 1797.  But this chronology would have Captain Walton quoting from Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner some nine months before that poem was even begun, and Victor Frankenstein anticipating Wordsworth’s Tintern Abbey by nearly a year.  Mellor (page 54) does correctly note something I should have spotted – Walton’s first and last letters are separated by exactly nine months.  Also the mention of the creature reading Volney’s Ruins is significant, since it was not published until 1791.  In the Appendix, (page 219), she mentions that Mary originally had Victor referring to a two year interval between the creation of the creature and his work on the creature’s mate:  this was one of the corrections and alterations that Shelley made.)

My own conclusions is that Mary Shelley made errors, and also never did get the chronology straight in her own mind.  The work is fiction and no ‘correct’ solution to its unspecified time-scales can ever be found.

The Artificial Man

The standard view of the creature made by Victor Frankenstein is a misshapen creature built by stitching together bits of corpses.  The 1831 introduction says:  “Perhaps a corpse would be reanimated; galvanism had given token of such things…”  And Victor does once refer to him as a “demoniacal corpse” (Chapter 5).

Yet the 1831 introduction also suggests another method:  “… perhaps the component parts of a creature might be manufactured, brought together, and endued with vital warmth.”  The creature is eight foot tall, “his limbs were in proportion” (Chapter 5) – how could such a being be assembled from parts of normal-sized corpses?  It is much more likely that this second method is what Mary Shelley originally had in mind.

Consider what is said in Chapter 4.  “I became myself capable of bestowing animation upon lifeless matter.”  He has arrived at this discovery by observing “the natural decay and corruption of the human body”.  This is a separate matter from restoring life to the dead.  “I thought that if I could bestow animation upon lifeless matter, I might in process of time (although I now found it impossible) renew life where death had apparently devoted the body to corruption.”  What he has is the means to synthesise new life, not the ancient magical idea of reanimating dead flesh.

Both human and animal tissues seem to be in some way involved in the process.  “I dabbled among the unhallowed damps of the grave or tortured the living animal to animate the lifeless clay…”  and “the dissecting room and the slaughterhouse furnished many of my materials..”.  But it is not said that he puts together bits of dead bodies to make a new creature.  “Although I possessed the capacity of bestowing animation, yet to prepare a frame for the reception of it, with all its intricacies of fibres, muscles, and veins, still remained a work of inconceivable difficulty and labour…  As the minuteness of the parts formed a great hindrance to my speed, I resolved, contrary to my first intention, to make the being of gigantic stature, that is to say, about eight feet in height, and proportionately large.”  A being eight feet tall would have organs about twice as large as one six foot tall – volume being dependent on the cube of height.

Victor Frankenstein’s creation is not a reanimated corpse, but what we would now call an android.  One writer in the 1930s even refers to Frankenstein’s creation as a robot. (Baker, Ernest A.  The History of the English Novel.  H. F & G Witherby 1934.  Volume 5, page 217.)  This term originally came from the living machines of Capek’s R.U.R. and only later came to imply a metallic humanoid device.  The strength and hardihood of Victor Frankenstein’s creation do suggest that he is not quite ordinary flesh and blood.

The 1931 film chose to emphasise the grave-robbing aspect to the exclusion of all else.  Thus the creature was transformed into zombie raised by science, rather than an android or robot.   This view is supported by the general habit of classing Frankenstein as a Gothic novel, which reinforce the ‘undead’ overtones.  But contemporary reviews do not seem to associate Mary Shelley’s work with those of Mrs Radcliffe, ‘Monk’ Lewis etc.  No strong link existed until people started defining and classifying Gothic at the start of the 20th century, and it remains a moot point.

I use the term ‘artificial man’, even though it does not occur in Mary Shelley’s work, as a deliberate rejection of the standard view of the creature.

In any case, reference books disagree on just how Frankenstein should be classified – they can even say different things in different places.  You find this in the Encyclopaedia Britannica (15th edition 1989) and the Encyclopaedia Americana (1986 edition).

Encyclopaedia Americana Encyclopaedia Britannica
Shelley, Mary W Author of horror novel Author of a “novel of terror”
Frankenstein A horror tale “which appealed to 19th century Gothic taste”, and a forerunner of modern SF A combination of Gothic Romance and Science Fiction
Gothic Cited as one example of Gothic Described as “in the Gothic tradition but without the specific Gothic trappings”.  Bram Stoker’s Dracula is put in the same category
Science Fiction Not mentioned Described as a Gothic precursor of SF

The 5thedition of the Oxford Companion to English Literature classes Frankenstein as Gothic.  But earlier editions did  not.

The Cambridge Guide to Literature in English describes the book as influenced by Gothic, along with those of the Bronte sisters.  Rather, this is the view given in the entry for Gothic Fiction – that for Frankenstein calls it a Gothic novel.

The Cambridge Guide to English Literature says little about Gothic Literature and does not connect Frankenstein to it.

The Oxford English Dictionary speaks of “Mrs Shelley’s romance” in its entry for Frankenstein.  The full multi-volume dictionary has no entry at all for Gothic in the sense of Gothic-Horror, although Horace Walpole’s Castle of Otranto is included in the definition of Gothic as Medieval-Romantic.  Smaller editions of the Oxford English Dictionary do included Gothic as Gothic-Horror

The computer and the vampire

It has often been noted that Polidori’s The Vampyre, originally presented as Byron’s work, was based on a fragment that Byron wrote as part of the ghost-story competition.  This work is widely regarded as the prototype for all subsequent vampire stories.  Vampires were well known in myth and fiction before 1816.  There was Goethe’s The Bride of Corinth (1797).  And Shelley’s first wife even said, in 1814, “the man I once loved is dead.  This is a vampire”.  (Oxford English Dictionary).  But Polidori’s short story seems to have defined the idea of vampire as wicked nobleman for later writers – most notably Bram Stoker.

There is another connection, usually overlooked in discussions of Frankenstein.  Byron’s daughter Ada Lovelace was a mathematical genius who helped Charles Babbage with his ‘Analytic Engine’, generally regarded as the first computer.  She was Byron’s only legitimate child, by the wife he had left behind in England.  (Ada’s mother was herself a gifted mathematician, whom Byron had called his ‘princess of parallelograms’ while they were still on friendly terms.)

Babbage had been thinking about ‘calculating engines’ of various sorts since 1812 – in 1822 he proposed a Difference Engine which was later successfully built by someone else.  The Analytic Engine was never actually completed.  Its mechanics were probably too complex for Victorian engineering.  In any case, a machine with moving parts must of necessity work much more slowly than the crudest electronic computer. It could not even begin to match the micro-miniaturised transistors that we have nowadays.  Gibson’s notion of 19th century cybernetics in The Difference Engine is ingenious, but no more realistic than programmable pixies.  Even so, Byron’s daughter can very reasonably be classed as the first computer programmer. There is even a computer language, Ada, named after her.  Ada Byron was on Byron’s mind in 1816 – he addresses her as “Ada! sole daughter of my house and heart” in the Third Canto of Childe Harold.  That same year he also began Manfred, which includes the chilling line “The tree of knowledge is not that of life”, and which has some interesting points in common with Mary Shelley’s novel.  Anyway, both the computer and the vampire owe something to Byron.

A genuine artificial intelligence, whether it was a robot an android or a special sort of computer program, would raise serious moral problems.  This does not apply to any existing system, even though clever programming can give the appearance of something quite human.  It would be easy to have a computer repeat the quote from Paradise Lost that occurs on the title page of Mary’s book:  “Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay / To mould me Man, did I solicit thee / From darkness to promote me?”.  But to have it say “Drinka pinta milka day” would be exactly the same, in computer terms.  And the computer no more has such sentiments than it drinks milk.

It may be possible to create an artificial with a real will and personality.  But it has not yet been done.  Nor should it be attempted unless we are willing to accept such a being as equal to a human.  We should consult Mary Shelley, who anticipated some of the problems nearly two decades before Babbage’s original computer was even thought of.

Science fiction writers up until the 1960s were usually happy with the idea of intelligent robots as docile slaves.  Even the Star Wars films seem to see no problem with such a situation.  Mary Shelley was well ahead of them;  she understood the sorrow of the lonely artificial man, with human will and feelings and yet not acceptable as human.  The various  film versions do not do justice to this aspect of Frankenstein, and it may well be that SF writers independently thought the matter out.  Certainly, the stories of Isaac Asimov show a steady progression from robots as ideal slaves bound by the ‘three laws’ to robots with a human or more-than-human dignity and standing.

‘Hideous, deformed and pale of hue’

“His limbs were in proportion, and I had selected his features as beautiful… his hair was of a lustrous black, and flowing;  his teeth of a pearly whiteness…” (Chapter 5).  Victor Frankenstein is not an idiot, he does not create a ludicrously misshapen creature with a highly visible metal bolt through its neck.  Boris Karloff’s original make-up created a powerful and memorable image, but not the one Mary Shelley intended.

Yet the creation is indeed unexpectedly horrible.  I only quoted half of the description;  the other half is:  “Beautiful!  Great God!  His yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath… 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” (Chapter 5).

The mention of muscles and arteries semi-visible beneath the skin does suggest an answer.  It is also said “when those muscles and joints were rendered capable of motion, it became a thing such as even Dante could not have conceived”.  Perfectly normal human bodes without their skin are pretty horrifying.  The artificial man has a normal human shape, allowing for his huge size.  But the skin partly reveals the inner workings of the body, which most people are quite unused to, especially in a living moving creature.

The first known illustration is to be found in the 1831 edition, which Mary Shelley played a large part in preparing.  It shows a creature that is large but in no sense misshapen.  If you look at it carefully – a lot depends on how well or how badly the original has been reproduced – bones and muscles do seem to be visible. One arm clearly shows the two bones of the forearm visible through the flesh. When I had a photocopy made from the original print, the hand came out as quite skeletal!

Most representations of the creature ignore the complexity of Mary’s vision and go for gross physical distortion.  Even Karloff’s make-up is much better than that used for the 1910 Edison film.  Yet in the first stage performance, the actor’s make-up consisted of yellow and green greasepaint with black lips, with no monstrous physical disproportion – although the monster “like Karloff’s, did not talk but only grunted” (Levin, op cit, p 249.).

However the physical form should be represented, the deformity of the artificial man is the cause of the tragedy.  Had he been a handsome fellow with a mean and greedy soul, he might have easily found a place for himself in 18th century Europe, and would not have caused his creator any further worries.  The critical point is that Victor Frankenstein has botched the creature’s physical appearance, while giving it a mind and character perhaps finer than his own.  This is what is normally left out.  The subversive aspects of Mary Shelley’s work have been contained and eliminated precisely by distancing the creature from normal humans.  “… most of the films insist on distance and dissociation.  The Monster is usually mute or semi-articulate…  Victor has no real bond with his creation and is rarely as ambivalent about him as he is in the novel”. (Levin, op cit, p 244.)

Mary Shelley was able to reject the medieval superstition, powerful in her day and still active even now, that physical ugliness is a sure sign of moral evil.  Even Coleridge was subject to this feeling – hidden physical ugliness is also an indicator of the hidden moral evil of the witch Geraldine in his poem Christabel.  This is particularly strongly expressed in the line that I quoted as title for the previous section.  It was suppressed in the printed version, but was there in the manuscript version which Byron recited to the party gathered at the Villa Diodati in 1816.

Mary Shelley was able to take the point and then think beyond it – ugliness and moral evil are not the same thing, although rejection based on physical deformity may then spark off evil thoughts and deeds.  Now that films like Elephant Man and Mask have gone some way towards showing the public that people who look ugly have human feelings, a film showing the original Mary Shelley version of the myth might be acceptable.

The artificial man’s plea;  “I have a good disposition;  my life has been hitherto harmless and in some degree beneficial;  but a fatal prejudice clouds their eyes, and where they ought to see a feeling and kind friend, they behold a detestable monster” (Chapter 15) is one that should have been listened to, but might well not be listened to even today.  The plea fails, the creature is rejected, and only then starts doing evil.

The Spark of Life

The standard idea is that Victor Frankenstein brings his creation to life using electricity.  Sometimes he has complex electrical apparatus.  Sometimes he draws down lightning – as had been done in real life by Benjamin Franklin.  Both Shelley and Mary were interested in the developing scientific knowledge of electrical phenomena.  And when Victor Frankenstein first sees his unhappy creation after the killing of his brother, he sees the creature illuminated by a flash of lightning.

If we go back to the end of Chapter 2, there is another bolt of lightning which may be an equally significant.  15 year old Victor Frankenstein has been studying the works of Cornelius Agrippa, Paracelsus and Albertus Magnus, and unsuccessfully attempting “the raising of ghosts or devils”.  But then an old and beautiful oak is struck by lightning, and reduced to a mere stump.  As it happens, “.. a man of great research in natural philosophy was with us … he entered on the subject of a theory which he had formed on the subject of electricity and galvanism, which was at once new and astonishing to me.”

Against this must be set what happens next.  Victor begins to lose interest in magic. “By one of those caprices of the mind which we are perhaps most subject to in early youth…  I betook myself to the mathematics and the branches of study appertaining to that science…”  Later on, he learns chemistry and  anatomy.  But there is no mention that he has any knowledge of electrical science, other than the theory he had heard described at the age of 15.

In the 1831 introduction, ‘galvanism’ is mentioned – but only in connection with reanimating a corpse.  It was already known that electricity could make a frog’s leg twitch – we know now that it is merely stimulating muscle tissues, tissues that remain alive for a time even after the frog itself has been killed.  But in 1816 the nature of life was much more obscure.  Electricity was a logical choice for a power that could artificially create it.  Never the less, the novel refuses to be specific.

The settings do not suggest high technology.  Victor Frankenstein originally animates his creation while relying on the light of a candle (Chapter 5).  And in Chapter 20, when he is engaged on making a mate for the creature, “the sun had set, and the moon was just rising from the sea;  I had not sufficient light for my employment.”

A failure to anticipate electric lighting does not exclude the use of electricity in other ways.  The actual description is:  “I collected the instruments of life around me, that I might infuse a spark of being into the lifeless thing that lay at my feet” (Chapter 5).  To modern ears, ‘spark of being’ implies electricity.  But in fact spark, a word of obscure origin, first meant “a small particle of fire, an ignited fleck or fragment” (Oxford English Dictionary).  By the early 19th century, its use for electrical phenomena was also well established.  But phrases like ‘the spark of life’ have a surprisingly long history, going back as far as Wyclif in the 14th century, and being used among others by Mrs Radcliffe in The Mysteries of Udolpho.  This last novel (as the ‘Castle of Udolpho‘) appears on Mary’s reading list for 1815.

Equally ambiguous is the “working of some powerful engine” mentioned in her 1831 introduction.  Electrical engines existed, and Mary Shelley would have seen some.  But there was also the steam engine, patented by Watt in 1769 and already having a major social impact by 1816.  There was  George Stephenson’s first locomotive of 1814, his famous ‘Rocket’ of 1829, and Babbage’s Difference Engine (1822).  Nor is it certain that the introduction of 1831 is a reliable a guide to what Mary was thinking or feeling back in 1816.

Ray Hammond’s The Modern Frankenstein – which on the whole I don’t agree with – does correctly note that the animating force need not be electrical. (Hammond, Ray.  The Modern Frankenstein: Fiction becomes fact.  Blandford Press, Poole, Dorset, 1986.)

Polar Waters

Victor Frankenstein’s narrative is framed within the tale of Captain Walton, which is normally ignored.  Christopher Small is right to draw attention to it.  (Small, Christopher.  Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.  Tracing the Myth. University of Pittsburgh Press 1973, Page 37.  Also published by Victor Gollancz 1972 as Ariel like a Harpy:  Shelley, Mary and Frankenstein.)

Is Walton is seeking the North Pole?  Walton merely says that his ship is “on a voyage of discovery towards the northern pole” (Letter 4), reaching the pole as such is not mentioned.  People who were seriously thinking about it at that time assumed that no ship could sail very close and that the final journey would have to be by dog-sleigh.  Walton has no dog-sleigh, although both Victor Frankenstein and his creation are so equipped.

Walton’s most serious purpose is to find a sea-route to the Pacific through the northern seas.  To understand why a passage near the pole was potentially useful, you should really look at a globe – conventional maps distort distances in the far north.  If the polar seas were free of ice, it would be very much quicker to pass from the Atlantic to the Pacific by sailing north of either Asia or North America.  Sea ice was a major hazard, yet the possibility remained that someone somehow would find an easy way through.

The search for a Northeast or Northwest passage had been going on since the 16th century.  Since Walton goes to Russia, it is the Northeast Passage he seeks and fails to find.  It was finally achieved in 1878-9, and the Northwest Passage in 1903-6.  Neither have actually proved very important, though the Northeast Passage is a Russian shipping route kept open by icebreakers.  But in 1816, it was still possible that someone would find an easy and useful route.

“You cannot contest 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 requires so many months are requisite…  I have 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” (Letter 1).

The last voyage of Captain Cook was to search for the Northwest Passage:  he hoped to find it from the North Pacific.  In the ships of his day it was impossible:  even with modern ships it is very difficult.  But never the less, what Walton was looking for might have existed, and would indeed have been of ‘inestimable benefit’.

Walton has two other ends in view.  One is “ascertaining the secret of the magnet.”  In 1816, so little was known about magnetism that it was legitimate to speculate that measurements near to the pole would be useful.  Ketterer draws parallels between Walton’s quest for the secrets of magnetism and Victor Frankenstein’s use of electricity to animate dead flesh. (Ketterer, David.  Frankenstein’s Creation:  The Book, The Monster, and the Human Reality.  English Literary Studies Monograph 16. University of Victoria, Canada.  1979.  Page 78.)  It was only in 1820 that Orsted demonstrated the link between electricity and magnetism, but the possibility of a link was suspected long before that.  On the other hand, I have already shown that Victor didn’t necessarily use electricity and probably didn’t animate dead flesh.

Walton’s other hope is the discovery of interesting new lands.  “My daydreams become more fervent and vivid.  I try in vain to be persuaded that the pole is the seat of frost and desolation;  it ever presents itself to my imagination as the region of beauty and delight.  There, Margaret, the sun is forever visible, its broad disk just skirting the horizon and diffusing a perpetual splendour…. we may be wafted to a land surpassing in wonders and in beauty every region hitherto discovered on the habitable globe…  What may not be expected in a country of eternal light?” (Letter 1).

The notion of an ice-free pole was a legitimate speculation at the time – like the notion of intelligent Martians, which has also proved false.  The reference to ‘eternal light’ seems a slightly garbled version of the reality of six-month days and nights above the Arctic Circle.  If we take his remarks literally, Walton (and thus Mary Shelley) does not understand that while the sun would never set in summer, it would equally never rise in winter.  But it’s not definite that ‘eternal light’ should be taken so literally.  Mary did in fact think of revising the passage to make the point clear, (Shelley, Mary.  Frankenstein, 1818 text, edited with introductory notes by James Reiger. Bobbs-Merrill, New York, 1974.  Page 10.), though this revision was never in fact carried out.  But in any case, she could tell the difference between romantic dreams and reasonable possibilities like a Northeast Passage.

One final point.  As I said, there is nothing to indicate that Walton has any interest in reaching the North Pole as such.  But the artificial man, who is not troubled by the cold and ice that humans find so deadly, says in his final speech to Walton:  “I shall quit your vessel on the ice raft which brought me thither and shall seek the most northerly extremity of the globe”!

Frankenstein’s lesson

Walton, it has been noted, learns from Victor Frankenstein’s example, and gives up his quest when the risk to human life grows too great.  This is perhaps the lesson that Mary tried to give in Frankenstein – that even good and unselfish ambitions should be moderated and restrained by human feeling.  Mary Shelley “wished men to reject violence and self-glorification and to behave more like women, with their ‘primary commitment to the preservation of human life'”. (Merryn Williams, Frankenstein Monsters.  New Left Review No. 174.  Page 127.)  Mary was not against science as such – rather she protests against all excessive ambition, whether the methods were radically new or highly traditional.

Victor Frankenstein puts the matter very clearly at the end of Chapter 4.  “A human being in perfection ought always to preserve a calm and peaceful mind, and never allow passion or a transitory desire to disturb his tranquillity.  I do not think that the pursuit of knowledge is an exception to this rule…  If this rule were always observed… 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.”

Victor Frankenstein recognises in himself an over-ambitious spirit that will do harm wherever it is applied.  He does not single out pioneers of science for special blame.  Nor does he ignore the politicians and generals who usually possess much more power and responsibility.  But none of this got through to the popular versions of the myth.  Victor has been turned into the prototype ‘mad scientist’, isolated disrupter of an otherwise peaceful and tranquil society.

Ever since the Atom Bomb was dropped – against the wishes of most of those who made it possible – scientists have been convenient scapegoats.  Scientists have  been much more committed to the preservation of human life than professional groups like lawyers, accountants or musicians.  A major threat to human survival comes from businessmen who demand the right to go on polluting.  Even more to blame are politicians who support them and who also give huge amounts of money to weapons research while peaceful uses of science get their budgets cut.  But when something goes wrong, science gets blamed

Science creates possibilities.  Other people make the major decisions on how to use, abuse or ignore them.  And it is usually scientists who draw the public’s attention to such abuse or wrongful non-use.  Yet the very people who should be teaming up with the scientists, hold them responsible.  And they cite Frankenstein in justification.  I doubt if Mary Shelley would have made such an error.

‘A rose by any other name would smell as sweet’.  But roses exist as objective facts;  fictional creations are generally coloured and defined by the names given to them.  Frodo and Aragorn in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings would not be as impressive had they kept their original names of Bingo and Trotter.  Thus the name Victor Frankenstein is probably not an random choice.

Victor seems easy enough.  It was a pen-name used by Shelley in his first book of poems. (Small, op cit, p 101.) Frankenstein certainly owes something to Shelley, though he is probably no straightforward copy.  Victor also suggests someone who is always striving after victories and glory, no matter what the consequences.  He argues for the continuation of Walton’s polar expedition, when everyone else realises that the risks are too great.

And Frankenstein?  There was the famous experimenter Benjamin Franklin. (Levin, op cit, p 20.)  His most famous experiment, flying a kite during a thunderstorm, has an obvious resonance with fire from heaven and a ‘modern Prometheus’, the tale’s subtitle.  (Though it is only in the 1931 film that the monster animated by a bolt of lightening.) Franklin’s first name, Benjamin, might have had a particular resonance for Mary Shelley.  The Benjamin of the Book of Genesis caused the death of his mother Rachel, just as Mary’s birth caused her own mother’s death.

Radu Florescu’s In Search of Frankenstein draws attention to the Barons Frankenstein and the alchemist Konrad Dippel, ‘the Frankensteiner’.  Mary Shelley would have known of them, may even have visited their castle.  These real-life Barons may have given rise to the persistent notion that Victor, described in the novel as the child of a rich family in republican Geneva, was himself a Baron.  He is also not Dr Frankenstein, just an ingenious student drop-out.

David Ketterer puts forward another notion.  “It is possible, as Walter Peck suggests, that the names ‘Frankheim’ and ‘Falkenstein’ which appear in Lewis’s Romantic Tales (1808) may have combined in Mary’s mind to form the name Frankenstein”. (Ketterer, op cit, p 30.)  This may be so, but other thoughts must also have been occurring.  In English, frank is included in words like Franchise, that relate to freedoms or rights.  It also the specialised meaning of open declaration of truth.  This gives an ironic twist, since Victor Frankenstein is not frank at all.  He trusts no one with his secrets.  He lets the innocent Justine be hanged, rather than try to save her by admitting what he had done.

There is also a French connection. Frank and France have the same root, a Germanic tribe who grew powerful after the breakdown of Roman power in what was then Gaul.  Frankish traditions were later absorbed by the majority Latin and Celtic culture, and Frankish rulers at times controlled a much larger area than modern France.  In what became Germany, the word was included both in personal names and in place names like Frankfurt.  Yet France kept the bulk of the traditions, and we speak of Charlemagne rather than Karl the Great.

Mary Shelley grew up during the long war between Britain and France, in the aftermath of the French Revolution. (Williams, op cit, p 125.)  Mary Shelley’s parents were among those who were enthusiastic at first, and who during the 1790s gradually came to feel that it had gone drastically and inexplicably wrong.  That is to say, something produced according to their hopes and dreams had become monstrous to their eyes.  The similarity to the work of Frankenstein is too close to be an accident.

Christopher Small mentions a parody of Mary’s work called Frank in Steam, or, The Modern Promise to Pay.  “Its precise nature unfortunately unrecorded”, but he assumes a reference to “the new steam age”. (Small, op cit, p 16.)  If Frankenstein stands for France and Steam, then Mary Shelley had a very early understanding of the interconnection of the political revolution in France and the industrial revolution in Britain.  But I can find no other indication that she or anyone close to her saw things that way.  Percy Shelley’s political essays are well worth reading, but make no such connection.

It’s easy to find analogies.  If you ignore the ‘stein’, Victor Frank means ‘victorious and free’, which is also the meaning of Siegfried.  Not that I can see any very sensible connection between Mary’s story and the legend of the ancient Germanic hero.  I could scrape up a few points of comparison between Frankenstein and Wagner’s Ring Cycle.  But the best similarities would be in the parts original to Wagner, so I assume that they were both reacting to similar 19th century developments.  The role of pure coincidence should not be underestimated.

I suspect that several elements – the French Revolution, Franklin, the Barons Frankenstein, frankness and perhaps even the two characters in Lewis – came together in Mary’s mind and influenced her choice of name.  The ‘French Connection’ is probably the critical one.


Victor Frankenstein of Geneva – is it also significant?  We think nowadays of Geneva as archetypically stable and peaceful, home of the International Red Cross, the Geneva Convention etc.  Even though all of this happened later on in the 19th century, it is in harmony with the view of Geneva we get from the tranquil account of Victor’s childhood.

Actual Genevan history is another matter.  It was an independent city-state, allied with the Swiss cantons of Berne and Zurich but not formally a member of the Confederation until 1814.  Under Calvin it was the effective capital of the unsuccessful French Reformation, and widely influential on Protestant traditions.  It was also Rousseau’s home town.  Its population was divided by birth into five groups – citizens, burghers, natives, inhabitants and subjects – with different and very unequal rights.  Rousseau’s description of himself as a Citizen of Geneva actually indicated his membership of the most privileged group, even though ‘citizen’ was later used as a term for the general social equality he advocated.  (And even though Rousseau was actually an ex-Citizen, having lost his status when he was briefly a convert to Roman Catholicism.)

During the 18th century, Geneva went through a bitter struggle for democratic rights, including a revolution in 1782 which was suppressed by foreign troops.  When the French Revolution got going, Geneva also moved.  The revolution triumphed there at the end of 1792, and there was a brief revolutionary terror which began shortly after the Paris Terror had ended.

Geneva was occupied by French troops in April 1798, as part of the general invasion of Switzerland that took place in that year.  It was then forcibly incorporated into France, along with other French-speaking territories associated with Switzerland.  At the end of 1813, it opened its gates to an Austrian army. Since it had been agreed that France was to revert to its 1792 frontiers, the Swiss were persuaded to accept Geneva etc. as cantons.

Mary Shelley knew at least part of this history.  One finds a mention of a Genevan monument to Rousseau in The History of the Six Weeks Tour, written by herself and Claire and Percy Shelley and published in 1817.  This book recognises him as a major inspirer of the French Revolution, and also speaks of the place where the Genevan revolutionaries shot the local magistrates, successors to those who had sent Rousseau into exile.

The steps to Frankenstein

Working out just what inspired Mary Shelley’s book is a complex matter.  Her 1831 introduction is unreliable.  Several matters are omitted completely, including the presence of Claire Clairmont at Lake Geneva and her own status as ‘partner’ to a man who had abandoned his own wife.  She was seeking respectability and is not at all frank about Frankenstein.

Some of the relevant documents in question have not come down to us.  “Since the new Journal begun by Mary to celebrate Claire’s departure is now lost, there is no day-to-day record of Shelley’s and Mary’s whereabouts from 13 May 1815 until 21 July 1816 when the next notebook begins.” (Feldman, Paula R. and Scott-Kilvert, Diana (editors).  The Journals of Mary Shelley. Oxford at the Clarendon Press, 1987.  Page 103.)

Thankfully, we do have the journals of Dr Polidori.  He too was probably selective in what he says;  it is widely believed that he and Byron had had a homosexual relationship.  But Polidori does mention some significant details that Mary Shelley chose to leave out.  The substance of them is summarised in a large number of subsequent books about Shelley or Byron – for instance in Dowden’s The Life of Percy Bysshe Shelley.  Kegan Paul 1866, pages 33-36 of Volume Two.  We therefore know of at least five immediate stimuli to Mary Shelley’s work:

  1. a) A discussion of contemporary scientific notions as to how life might be either created or restored to the dead.
  2. b) The reading aloud of “some German ghost stories translated into French” – actually a book called Fantasmagoriana.
  3. c) A proposal by Byron that each of those present should write their own ghost story.
  4. d) A recitation of Coleridge’s unpublished poem Christabel, which Byron had read. It included a line that was suppressed in the published version.
  5. e) A waking nightmare that it sparked off in Shelley – a woman with eyes where her breasts should be.

There is some controversy as to the exact timing – it could all have happened on the 18th June 1816, but it seems more likely that (a) occurred on the 15th, and (b) and (c) on the 16th.  These first three elements are mentioned in Mary Shelley’s Preface to the 1831 edition.  The rest she leaves out, along with much else that she must have hoped would be forgotten.

I would not place much reliance on what she says about the dream that was supposedly the book’s direct inspiration.  There may not even have been a dream at all.  We are wholly dependent on what Dr Polidori chose to record at the time and on what Mary Shelley chose to say later.  Both of them had things to hide, and made errors on other matters where we have other and more reliable sources.

I do believe that Christabel was a major inspiration.  The witch Geraldine is generally seen as a psychic double of Christabel, just as the artificial man is the double / shadow of Victor Frankenstein.  And both psychic doubles are also a real beings, able to act independently and be seen by others.  The horror of deformity probably comes from the poem.  Mary would have heard the lines “behold!  her bosom and half her side / hideous, deformed and pale of hue” – the second of these was removed from the published version.  But Mary Shelley made the deformed being a victim of circumstances, not a malignant agent of evil.

Coleridge should be seen as his contemporaries saw him.  We remember him for his poetry and (occasionally) his philosophy.  But in his own time he was chiefly noted as a brilliant conversationalists and public lecturer.  There is a story that Mary Shelley and the other children of the Godwin household listened to Coleridge reciting The Rime of the Ancient Mariner from behind a sofa.  It may have happened;  Glynn Grylls calls it a “legend”.  But we have a much more reliable record that those children imitated Coleridge’s lectures – Mary would write a speech, which her half-brother William would read from a little pulpit which they had erected for him. (Grylls, R. Glynn.  Mary Shelley, a biography. Oxford University Press 1938.  Page 17.)  This was recorded by Aaron Burr, later Vice-president of the United States, and the subject of a rather good historical novel by Gore Vidal.

The book Fantasmagoriana is probably of small importance – any book of that sort might have sparked off the competition.  It’s proper title is Fantasmagoriana, ou recueil d’histoires d’apparitions de spectres;  revenans, fantames, etc;  Traduit de l’allemand, par un Amature, published Paris 1812.  It’s a collection of supernatural tales written in French, which are stated to be a translation from the German.  I have not been able to find out anything about the German original, which may not even have existed, any more than Horace Walpole’s Castle Of Otranto was based on a real mediaeval tale as he had claimed in its introduction.

There is also an English translation  of Fantasmagoriana, a work called Tales of the Dead.  Principally translated from the French, published by White, Cochrane, and co. 1813.  I came across it thanks to the indexes of the British Library, which has copies of both works.  As far as I know, Tales of the Dead had no influence on anyone, was never noticed in connection with Frankenstein, and has never been republished.  It refers to Fantasmagoriana as “a small French work, which professes to be translated from the German.” (Ibid., Page 11).

Mary Shelley did more than just borrow.  Frankenstein includes many descriptions of the beauties of nature – not a feature often found in the SF which supposedly derives from Mary Shelley’s book, but showing the influence of Mrs Radcliffe, who was highly admired at the time.  Actually most writers of the period were influenced by Mrs Radcliffe, including Byron, Keats, Sir Walter Scott and Jane Austen.

Mary’s book was closer to the science of her day than many a modern ‘scientific’ science fiction story.  (Vasbinder, Samuel Holmes.  Scientific Attitudes in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.  UMI Research Press 1984.)  It also includes aspects of human experience that were largely excluded from ‘sci-fi’ until the 1960s.  The use of speculative science is pretty much the only thing it has in common with science fiction as Hugo Gernsback understood it.  To date, SF has paid much more attention to the later melodramatic developments of Frankenstein than to the original.

Unlike the fantastical settings of some of the works that inspired it, Frankenstein occurs in the not too distant past, and in real places.  The chronology is imperfect, but it’s better than the anomalies in Mrs Radcliffe’s books, where the Inquisition operates in Italy a century after it had been abolished, and Catholic monks and nuns cohabit in a single institution.

Frankenstein’s descendants

Frankenstein has references to Oliver Goldsmith’s The Vicar of Wakefield, Wordsworth’s Tintern Abbey, Milton’s Paradise Lost and one of Sinbad’s adventures from The Arabian Nights.  It was probably also an influence on George Elliot’s The Lifted Veil and Middlemarch. (Levin, op cit, p 23.)  And Capek’s R.U.R. might almost be a sequel, though the link is never quite explicit.

There is also the striking remark in Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations: “Frankenstein pursued by the misshapen creature he had impiously made, was not more wretched than I, pursued by the creature who had made me.”  Oddly, Great Expectations’ ingenious reversal of the creator / creature role gets ignored by those who go looking for symbolic meanings.  Still, this and other examples show that Frankenstein was influenced by the whole literary culture of its day.  It was in turn to have a general influence on many later writers, some of them far outside any possible definition of science fiction.

But was it even so the first science fiction story?  This theory is probably best known from Brian Aldiss’s Billion Year Spree.  In Trillion Year Spree, the revised and expanded version of this work, he says:  “Both the thesis that Frankenstein marked a beginning and that SF was a Gothic offshoot were so unacceptable that Billion Year Spree scarcely received any reviews in those journals in which its appearance should have been instantly greeted…  It is hard to recognise now the confusion that existed then.  Before my book appeared, there was no accepted idea of when SF began”. (Aldiss, Brian W. (with David Wingrove).  Paladin, Grafton Books, 1988.  Page 21.)

This is just not true.  The notion that Frankenstein was the root of the ‘Scientific Romance’ had been put forward by both Muriel Spark  and Glynn Grylls, in their biographies of Mary Shelley.  Aldiss, Spark and Grylls also share a similar inaccurate and incomplete account of how Frankenstein came to be written.   They do not mention the reading of Christabel or Shelley’s vision, and are unaware of the well-documented fact that the ‘ghost stories’ were Fantasmagoriana.

As far as I can tell, the idea that Frankenstein inspired Wells and the Scientific Romance originated with a man called Ernest A. Baker.  His 1907 introduction to Lewis’s  horror-romance The Monk says of Mary Shelley:

“She was not the inventor of the scientific romance, but she was the first to adapt its methods to the peculiar purposes of the novel of terror”. (Baker, E. A.  Introduction to M. G. Lewis’s The Monk.  George Routledge & Sons Ltd, 1907.  Pages xii – xiii.)

I can find no reason why he made the link.  In his ten-volume History of the English Novel, Wells is linked to writers like Shaw, Lytton, Butler and Bellamy, rather than to a woman who died fifteen years before Wells was born.

Dorothy Scarborough in 1917 makes a link from Frankenstein to Wells, it belongs in another context and I shall quote it later on.  And in Glynn Grylls’s Mary Shelley. A biography (1938), we find:

“In its erection of a superstructure of fantasy on a foundation of circumstantial ‘scientific fact’… [it] is the first of the Scientific Romances that have culminated in our day in the work of Mr H. G. Wells… Frankenstein marks an advance on the crude horror of the Radcliffe – Monk Lewis school.” (Grylls, op cit, p 320.)

No source is given, it could be that she just happened to have the same idea independently.  Then in Muriel Spark’s Child of the Light, published in 1951, we find:

“To call Frankenstein a Gothic novel, is, of course, a loose definition, and one which would defeat the claim I hope to establish, that this novel was the first of a new and hybrid fictional species…  we must recognise the primary Gothic influence on Frankenstein.  But we can see this novel both as the apex and the last of Gothic fiction – for though many other works of the Radcliffe school were to follow, their death-stroke was delivered, their mysteries solved, by Frankenstein’s rational inquisition… I except Wuthering Heights, which is sometimes regarded as Gothic novel, but which I believe to be only superficially so”. (Spark, Muriel.  Child of Light.  A reassessment of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley.  Tower Bridge Publications, 1951.  Page 128.)

The last sentence occurs in a note on the same page, and she makes it clear that she sees Frankenstein as the source of H. G. Wells and the Scientific Romance.  Glynn Grylls is not credited as the source of this idea, though her work is mentioned in other contexts.

Aldiss does correctly credit the idea to Glynn Grylls, in his 1973 book Billion Year Spree (Note 22, Chapter 1).  Most readers seemed to have overlooked this note and credited it to Aldiss.

In Trillion Year Spree, the revised edition, the quote from Glynn Grylls is gone, and she is treated as a much more minor figure.  There is no longer anything to suggest that the notion did not begin with Aldiss.

Aldiss unbound

Aldiss is an excellent novelists.  Some of his books may be among the small number of 20th century works that will continue to be read far into the future, just as we continue to read a small selection of the books of the 19th century, 18th century etc.  But as a scholar or serious critic, I can not rate him very highly.  Especially since he does not take proper account of the fact that the 18th and 19th century books that we continue to read are a small selection, not always typical of their time or influential on it.

Aldiss is  typical of the sort of English person who sees everyone else as an imperfect representation of their own understanding of the world.  He’s also damn rude about Mary Shelley.  Since the lady is in no position to defend herself, I shall be rude back on her behalf

Aldiss says:  “Before I wrote [Billion Year Spree], almost no one paid any attention to that old pre-Victorian novel of Mary Shelley’s”. (Ibid., p 20.) Yet it is to be found in the standard reference works, with about the same prominence it now has.  His 1973 book appeared just 155 years after hers, and the index of the British Library lists sixteen editions of Frankenstein between these two dates.  (1818, 1823, 1831, 1847, 1882, 1886, 1888, 1912, 1932, 1959, 1960, 1964, 1965, 1968, 1969 and 1971).

Aldiss expresses agreement with Mario Praz’s notion that Justine Moritz, unjustly hanged for murder in Frankenstein, was inspired by de Sade’s unjustly persecuted heroine of the same name.  The coincidence is less impressive if you realise that Justine, like its male counterpart Justin, means ‘the just’.  Aldiss does add one new element – he speculates that the German ghost stories that prompted the ghost-story competition might have included the Marquis de Sade’s Justine. (Aldiss, op cit, pages 56 & 576.)  This is an odd notion, since de Sade was not a German and Justine is not a ghost story.  In any case, we know from Polidori’s journal what the ‘ghost stories’ actually were.

Roz Kaveney’s review in Foundation 38 says that Billion Year Spree was “a book of its moment and for that reason a worthwhile one”, but that Trillion Year Spree is unjustified in view of the much better general surveys of the field that have since appeared.  I agree.  But I would add that Aldiss also should not have republished it with almost all of its errors uncorrected, and some new ones added.

Brian Aldiss’s novel Frankenstein Unbound is much less like the original than anyone would suppose without looking at the two books in detail.  He makes major changes, which would be acceptable if he gave some indication that he was doing so.  But he does not.  The Mary Shelley of Frankenstein Unbound is made say of her dream:

“I saw the engine powerfully at work, its wires running to the monstrous figure, about which the scientist flitted in nervous excitement…

“… he wakes up with a start to find its dreadful gaze upon him, and its hand outstretched for his throat!”

This is clearly based on her actual words in the 1831 introduction – but note the significant differences:

“I saw the pale student of the unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together…  the working of some powerful engine…  Frightful it must be, for supremely frightful would be the effect of any human endeavour to mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world…

“… he opens his eyes;  behold, the horrid thing stands at his bedside, opening his curtains and looking on him with yellow, watery, but speculative eyes.”

Aldiss has brought events into line with the later films, and eliminated the conventional religious feelings that Mary Shelley expressed in 1831.  The mechanism is unambiguously electrical, and the creature is dangerous and aggressive from the very start.  There seems to be no clear distinction in his mind between the original of 1816 and the SF-influenced films of the 1930s

Of course Mary Shelley in 1831 was reworking her own mythology.  She was in her thirties, seeking respectability.  She was no longer happy with what she had written as a teenager, experimenting with what we would now call an ‘alternative lifestyle’.  The equivalent passages in the book itself say:

“I collected the instruments of life around me, that I might infuse a spark of being into the lifeless thing that lay at my feet…

“… I beheld the wretch… his eyes, if eyes they may be called, were fixed on me… one hand was stretched out, seemingly to detain me, but I escaped and rushed downstairs.”

The remark about a hand stretched out might have inspired Aldiss’s notion of the creature’s hand being outstretched for Victor’s throat.  But it is totally against the subsequent account of the artificial man’s original character.

Aldiss in Frankenstein Unbound has his Mary Shelley repeat the story about hiding behind the sofa to listen to the Ancient Mariner, but not the much more solid matter of the speeches.  He also has her make references to Walpole and Mrs Radcliffe, fitting her into the ‘Gothic Horror’ context where he thinks she belongs.  But this is Aldiss making Mary Shelley parrot his own views – and do so in a way that might lead a reader to think he was drawing on authentic material.

Aldiss has Shelley advocating Socialism in arguments with Byron.  Nothing resembling modern socialism existed in 1816 – the very word was not coined until 1827, and did not acquire its modern meaning until the 1840s or 1850s.  Shelley did not live long enough to see the beginnings of working-class socialism in the Owenite movement, and there is no knowing what he would have felt about it.  Even Owen himself was not a socialist until maybe 1821.  In 1816, his ideas were seen as an improved system of Poor Relief, not a radical schema for a new society.  His supporters included the Duke of Kent, Queen Victoria’s father. (Cole, G. D. H.  The life of Robert Owen.  Frank Cass & Co 1965.  Page 217.)  Owen’s ideas were even put a Conference of Great Powers by Tory minister Lord Castlereagh (Ibid., p 215.).  (This is the same man who in 1819 received Shelley’s well-known rebuke:  “I met Murder on the way / He had a mask like Castlereagh” in The Masque Of Anarchy).

Mary’s half-sister Fanny Imlay mentioned Owen’s initial schemes of 1816 in a letter to Mary in Geneva.  She had mixed feelings about them.  “I hate and am sick at heart at the misery I see my fellow-beings suffering, but I own I should not like to live to see the extinction of all genius, talent and elevated generous feeling in Great Britain, which I conceive to be the natural consequences of Mr Owen’s plan.” (Dowden, op cit, p 38-39.)  Fanny resolved this and other problems by killing herself later the same year.  Castlereagh also killed himself, in 1822, the year of Shelley’s death.  This is just part of the immensely interesting social context of Frankenstein, which Aldiss etc. know nothing of.

Aldiss has the events of the book happening in 1816, in a parallel reality to the world in which Mary Shelley is writing it, even though every date in the book is given as 17–.  He also has de Sade mentioned as still alive, whereas in fact he died in 1814.  Frankenstein is referred to as a Baron, a mistake repeated in the first of Aldiss’s Sprees.  Byron called Polidori ‘Polly-Dolly’, but Frankenstein Unbound has it as Polly.  In this as in other matters he changes the original as the whim takes him, for no good reason and with few indications of how much he has changed.  Aldiss is happy to acquire the appearance of being close to the original story, without actually being constrained by what Mary Shelley thought, felt and wrote.

In both Frankenstein Unbound and the two Sprees, Aldiss refers to Claire Clairmont as Mary’s half-sister.  In fact, they were stepsisters.  The poet Southey spread the rumour that Byron and Shelley had agreed a “league of incest”, sharing the two sisters.  Byron, defending himself, declared that they were not sisters at all.  They were certainly not blood relatives, although they were close friends more often than they were rivals.  Claire, who bore Byron a child, is generally assumed to have also slept with Shelley.  There is no solid evidence that Mary herself ever slept with anyone other than Shelley.  She certainly refused to consider remarriage after his death, though at one time she had apparently been willing to share herself between Shelley and his friend Hogg.

The relationships are confusing – Mary did have a half-sister, Fanny Imlay, whose suicide I mentioned earlier.  But Aldiss and Wingrove should have spotted and corrected the mistake while revising Billion Year Spree as Trillion Year Spree, a book that takes the form of a reference work and will undoubtedly be widely used as such.

H. G. Wells and Frankenstein

In his introduction to a 1930s collection called The Scientific Romances of H. G. Wells, which included The Time Machine, The Invisible Man, The Island of Dr Moreau and The War of the Worlds, Wells says:

“These stories of mine collected here do not pretend to deal with possible things;  they are exercises of the imagination in a quite different field.  They belong to a class of writing that includes the Golden Ass of Apuleius, the True Histories of Lucien … and the story of Frankenstein… They are all fantasies, they do not aim to project a serious possibility;  they aim indeed only at the same amount of conviction as one gets in a good gripping dream.

“Frankenstein even, used some jiggery-pokery magic to animate his artificial monster.  There was trouble about the thing’s soul.  But by the end of the last century it had become difficult to squeeze even a monetary [sic] belief out of magic any longer.  It occurred to me that instead of the usual interview with the devil or magician, an ingenious use of scientific patter might be substituted.  That was no great discovery.  I simply brought the fetish stuff up to date, and made it as near actual theory as possible.” (Wells, H. G.  Victor Gollancz 1933.  Pages vii-viii.)

It’s rather as if Wells is out to debunk Hugo Gernsback’s notion that his works of fiction can be used to teach science – though no names are mentioned.  Wells was a very important populariser of science, but knew the difference between instructing and entertaining.  An ‘invisible man’ is good entertainment, but true human invisibility is most unlikely.  No known chemistry or physics will make a piece of wood as transparent as glass, so how probable is it that this could be done for the various and diverse tissues of a living human body?  Moreover, a genuinely invisible man would need to have the same refractive index as air – otherwise he would be easily spotted as a moving blob of transparent jelly.

Concerning Frankenstein, Wells is wrong about the details, but quite correct to recall overtones of magic.  He could have confused Mary Shelley’s work with Karel Capek’s R.U.R. (which may indeed have been inspired by it).  Capek’s living machines gave us the word robot, and there is indeed trouble about the robot’s souls.  Moreover, R.U.R. gives no rational explanation for humans ceasing to have babies as the number of the robots increases.  It is simply said that “you might think… that nature was offended at the manufacture of the Robots”. (Capek, Karel.  R.U.R. Oxford University Press 1923.  Page 50.)  The robots then rebel against being treated as slaves, and humans are wiped out.  But the robots themselves seem doomed, since the secret of their creation has been lost.  Then the last man alive sees a pair of robots acquire human emotions – again for no rational reason within the scientific framework.  He reads from the bible as they go forth to breed, multiply and replenish the earth.

There is a long tradition of stories using elements both of magic and of science, as it was understood in the writer’s own day.  Gernsback tried to ‘purify’ this tradition, removing all overtones of the supernatural in a new genre of ‘scientifiction’ or science fiction.  But though it was his fans who created the social structures of the new genre, and his chosen name that is still used for it, the older tradition reasserted itself.  Magic and speculative science are still not so very different.

Wells himself cited a much older exemplar than Mary Shelley:  “My early, profound and lifelong admiration for Swift, appears again and again in this collection, and it is particularly evident in a predisposition to make the stories reflect upon contemporary political and social discussion.” (Wells, op cit, p viii-ix.)  Yet Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels includes one supernatural incident, the ghosts that are raised on Glubbdubdrib, the Island of Sorcerers or Magicians.  And Wells himself wrote short stories about ghosts and other supernatural phenomena.

A search for SF ancestors really should include Smollett’s The Adventures of an Atom, published in 1769.  This work never seems to get mentioned in discussions of early science fiction, but does have an SF flavour, especially in its opening chapter.  It is one of Smollett’s least readable books, being a political satire on mid-18th century British politics disguised as an imaginary episode in Japanese history.  But the narrator is an atom, as atoms were then understood, and it deserves a place in the pre-Gernsback history of SF.  The fact that a minor work by a famous author gets left out makes me wonder what other forgotten books might be lurking in obscurity, waiting for someone to discover their relevance.

The Romance of Science

Dorothy Scarborough’s The Supernatural in Modern English Fiction contains the first detailed argument I’ve found for a link between Mary Shelley and Wells.  “The dreadful experiments by which Frankenstein’s monster is created are close akin to the revolting vivisections of Wells’s Dr Moreau.” (Scarborough, Dorothy.  G. P Putney’s Sons. New York & London.  1917.  Page 52).

Had Dorothy Scarborough ever dissected a rat?  The deep division between ‘arts’ and ‘science’ within the British educational system makes it unlikely.  But Wells was someone who came to literature from science, he did not need Mary Shelley’s work to think of the possibility of scientifically turning men into beasts, or vice versa.  Dr Moreau probably owes more to the sorceress Circe in the Odyssey than to Victor Frankenstein.  Giving a living animal the form of a human might just pass as speculative science.  But giving an animal human intelligence is pure wizardry, even if scientific jargon is used.

Scientists behaving like scientists do not form an easy basis for melodrama – though it has been done.  Magicians weaving magic spells from secret books are dramatic, but can lack credibility.  But if you put the two together, a vigorous hybrid springs up.  As Dorothy Scarborough puts it:  “Man is willing to accept the impossible, if he be but given a modern excuse for it.  He will swallow the wildest improbability if the bait be labelled science or psychical research.  No supernaturalism is incredible if it is expressed in technical terminology, and no miracle will be rejected if its setting be in a laboratory.  The transition from the sorcerer, the wizard, the warlock of older fiction to the scientist in the present has been gradual.” (Ibid. p 252.)

Frankenstein is simply an early and very fine example of this process.  Its scientific basis is sounder than many a modern science fiction story.  No one in 1816 had much idea of the basis of life, nor of the processes of death.  In 1803, there was a serious attempt to revive the body of an executed murderer, using oxygen and electricity.  (Vasbinder, op cit, p 80.)  And while creating an artificial man would involve far more problems than anyone could have then supposed, it remains a possibility.

Most of the Romantic poets had an interest in science, an interest that later generations were to define as incompatible with poetic sensibilities.  Since the quality of their work was undeniable, those poets were turned into ethereal beings with their wider social, scientific and political interests ignored or downplayed.  Aldiss follows a general trend when he reduces Shelley’s scientific studies to saying that he “had a microscope while at Oxford”. (Aldiss, op cit, p 50.)  Shelley had in fact a whole collection of scientific instruments, and was performing chemical experiments while still at Eton.  At that time the school viewed such things as improper;  it concentrated on teaching Latin and Greek, and actually forbade books about Chemistry.

Given a longer and more settled life, Shelley might have been a scientist and poet, just as Erasmus Darwin was.  Except that Shelley was a much better poet, and might have been just as good a scientist had he lived longer.  Certainly, he operated before the notion had arisen that science and serious poetry were alien activities.  The human and social perceptions that he had, that Mary Shelley also had and which she expressed in Frankenstein, was vastly superior to science fiction as Hugo Gernsback understood it. It was also vastly wider and higher than most 20th century poetry,

which tends to take

fairly ordinary ramble of words and then

call it poem because it is

arranged in lines as if it was verse.

Mary Shelley’s work arose naturally from her background.  Her father William Godwin was a rationalist, who in 1834 wrote a pot-boiler called Lives of the Necromancers, taking a fairly sceptical view of the claims made.  Yet he would willingly include supernatural in a works of fiction like St Leon.  His main concern was not what could be done but what should be done.  This applied whether the setting was realistic or speculative.  Mary Shelley followed him in this.

Frankenstein is not a book about how an artificial man could be built, nor a thrilling adventure story based on the assumption that it could be done.  It is a book that asks the question – if someone had such a power, should they use it, and what might happen if they abused it?

SF as a genre did not really start asking such questions until the 1960s.  Similar insights can to be found in some books now included in SF – but these were mostly produced separately and only later incorporated.  Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings is a good example.  It would have been exactly the same book had Gernsback fallen under a bus in 1925.

To date, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein has had only a limited impact on the SF genre.  Later versions of the myth have been preferred.  But the original is better.

As for the literature of gothic horror, which may or may not have influenced Mary Shelley – this will be the subject of a future article.  Gothic turned out to be a veritable ‘ghost in the dictionary’, resistant to simple definition.

Most books on the subject will tell you that what Hollywood did in 1931 was not at all like Mary Shelley’s work.  More recent efforts, like the 1973 film Frankenstein: The True Story have a much greater potential to mislead.  The film’s title implies that it clears away earlier distortions and gets back to the original tale.  It does pick up elements that were previously left out, and without rereading what Mary Shelley wrote anyone might fall for the pretence.  Even the normally reliable Nicholls’ Encyclopaedia of Science Fiction makes this mistake.

I will briefly summarise some major differences.  Victor’s friend Clerval is made to be the initiator of the idea – in the book he knows nothing about it.  Moreover, the film has his brain used in the construction of a creature made of corpses.  He is of normal size, is initially handsome, and Victor does not flee from him as he does in the book.  The construction of a female version of the creature is undertaken by a character who resembles Dr Praetorius from the 1935 Bride of Frankenstein, but is given the name of the real-life Dr Polidori.  The female is indeed created – not destroyed before completion as in the book – but is then killed by the original creation, by this time becoming ever more ugly.

It’s not a bad reworking of the mythology of Frankenstein.  What is bad is to call it The True Story.  The true story, the deep and disturbing Mary Shelley original, has yet to be filmed.  Done properly, sticking to an original which took inspiration from Coleridge, Byron and Shelley, it could be something quite remarkable.  But scriptwriters have a fixed belief that they can improve originals, even though they hardly ever can.  The chances of ever seeing Frankenstein: The Mary Shelley version seem remote: the 1998 version that calls itself Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is unfortunately not it.

The hand of fate

Frankenstein is usually seen as a scientific tale, free of supernatural overtones.  This is simply wrong.  Remember the case of the oak tree struck by lightning? – itself open to supernatural interpretations.  As well as what I quoted earlier, Victor Frankenstein says:  “When I look back, it seems to me as if this almost miraculous change of inclination and will was the immediate suggestion of the guardian angel of my life – the last effort made by the spirit of preservation to avert the storm that was even then hanging in the stars and ready to envelop me…  It was a strong effort of the spirit of good, but it was ineffectual.  Destiny was too potent, and her immutable laws had decreed my utter and terrible destruction.”  In Chapter 3, he speaks of “chance – or rather the evil influence, the Angel of Destruction…”.  At the end of Chapter 9, he speaks of William and Justine as “the first hapless victims of my unhallowed arts.”

These quotes are from the revised 1831 edition – in the introduction to which, she speaks of “the pale student of the unhallowed arts.”  Yet similar elements were present even in the original edition of 1818.  The following quotes occur in both.

Of his discovery of the principle of life, Victor Frankenstein says “Some miracle might have produced it, yet the stages of the discovery were distinct and probable” (Chapter 4).  In Chapter 10, Victor Frankenstein invokes “wandering spirits”, just before the creature comes to him and tells him his story.  And in Chapter 22, he says “as if possessed of magic powers, the monster had blinded me to his real intentions”.  Within the framework of the novel, Victor Frankenstein seems to believe in supernatural forces that play a part in his life.  In Chapter 24, he speaks of food he finds during his pursuit of the artificial man, “set there by the spirits I had invoked to aid me” – though on the next page, he mentions the artificial man himself leaving a dead hare for Victor to eat, along with a taunting message.  And in Walton’s final letter, he quotes Frankenstein as saying that “surely the spirits who assist my vengeance will endow me with sufficient strength”, and later “the forms of the beloved dead flit before me, and I hasten to their arms.”

We are never given any independent evidence that these ‘spirits’ actually exist – unlike the artificial man, which finally appears to Captain Walton to give his own view of the relationship between creature and creator.  Yet the references are there.  Moreover, the creature himself says of his intended suicide:  “My spirit will sleep in peace, or if it thinks, it will not surely think thus” (Final letter).

Perhaps we are to suppose that Victor Frankenstein’s juvenile attempts to raise ghosts or devils are not just childish foolishness, but a dangerous tampering with fate that later receives due punishment, through the agency of ‘fiend’ his scientific skill brings into being.  What is definite is that he not the sort of rational scientist that some people try to paint him as.

A scientist who actually discovered the ‘principle of life’ would not then go secretly to work creating an artificial creature, with no thought of the consequences.  On the contrary, the singular subculture of science puts a premium on communicating any new discovery to the world through a reputable scientific journal.  Victor Frankenstein does not act like a scientist:  he is much more like a traditional magician using modern methods.

Alchemists and magicians often had considerable scientific knowledge, and they pioneered experimental methods while university physics was confined to perpetual rereading of the works of Aristotle and other ancient sages.  But it was the free communication of ideas, the dropping of any supposed body of secret lore, that turned alchemy and magic into chemistry and other modern sciences.  Frankness, in fact – a quality that Victor Frankenstein very notably lacked.

Commercial pressures are also destroying the frankness of science.  The problem is not so much what science makes possible, but what is then done with it.

First published in Problems Of Capitalism & Socialism, No. 59, Spring 2000

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