Frankenstein is a story that has stood the test of time and a name that has endured in popular culture. It is often acclaimed as the first sci-fi novel and has given rise to countless Hollywood adaptations which apparently are nothing like the book. I am glad I read the book without having seen any of the film versions. But the story has become such a pivotal part of our culture that I, like many others, mistakenly believed that Frankenstein was the name of the monster. It is, in fact, the name of his creator but the confusion is an interesting one, albeit unintended, as one can argue that the creator himself was the monster.
First of all, I was blown away by the fact that Mary Shelley started writing this novel at the tender age of eighteen. Well, she was after all the daughter of two literary luminaries- the philosopher and writer, William Godwin, and Mary Wollstonecroft, a passionate advocate of women’s rights. The story surrounding the genesis of the novel is as fascinating as her creation. The prologue mentions how Lord Byron, John Polidori, Percy Bysshe Shelley (whom Mary married eventually) and Mary Godwin met regularly at a villa by Lake Geneva in Switzerland, in the summer of 1816. It was a season of especially inclement weather when they were mostly confined indoors. Lord Byron suggested the idea of writing ghost stories during a rainy and stormy spell. While the project was eventually abandoned by most at the fireside, only Polidori’s The Vampyre and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein saw the light of the day. Galvanism or the induction of electrical currents was a popular topic of discussion at the time and Mary was inspired by the concept to pen her story:
My imagination, unbidden, possessed and guided me, gifting the successive images that arose in my mind with a vividness far beyond the usual bounds of reverie. I saw – with shut eyes, but acute mental vision – I saw the pale student of the unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine show signs of life and stir with an uneasy, half-vital motion …
The rest is literary history.
Frankenstein is the story of the brilliant Victor Frankenstein who as a young boy was drawn to natural philosophy, the term used at the time to describe the sciences. He particularly sought out the teachings of alchemists and ancient philosophers. He became obsessed with the idea of creating new life and devoted hours to his project, neglecting in the process, his family, friends and his own health. He went to great lengths to create a human form from old body parts and animal remains and imbued it with life. Yet he ran away from his creation the very day it came to life, as he was repulsed by the gigantic and grotesque monster he had created.
His yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath; his hair was of a lustrous black, and flowing; his teeth of pearly whiteness; but these luxuriances only formed a more horrid contrast with his watery eyes, that seemed almost of the same colour as the dun-white sockets in which they were set, his shrivelled complexion and straight black lips.
He describes what happened next, to Robert Walton, a British explorer who rescues him from an ice floe near the North Pole while he was in pursuit of his monster. The explorer, in turn, describes the events in the form of letters to his sister Margaret Walton Saville in England. These letters form the outer narrative of this story within a story. And within the inner story are embedded the stories of the monster and of his neighbors.
It is interesting how Shelley weaves in the monster’s narrative as part of the novel. He discloses to Victor how he slowly became aware of who he was and lived in an abandoned hovel next to a cottage where he vicariously lived through the lives of the De Laceys, a family exiled from Paris for defending a Turkish man unfairly accused of a crime. He learned to read and write while eavesdropping on the lessons of the Arabian girl Safie, the daughter of the Turkish man and the guest at the cottage. Within his story is the story of De Lacey’s son Felix who loves Safie and reveals more about her and her mother. We have a tale within a tale within a tale like Russian matroushka dolls neatly stacked one within the other.
And like the narrative structure of nesting, the story is layered and can be interpreted in many ways. It raises many interesting ethical, philosophical and psychological questions.
First and foremost, it is a Promethean tale as indicated by the complete title: Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus. Just like the Greek titan stole fire to help humanity, Victor kindles the sacred fire of life. However he does not understand the ramifications of his project and things go awry. Frankenstein is a cautionary tale about what could go wrong if we flout the natural order of things. The story is more relevant than ever in our modern world of genetic engineering and artificial intelligence and makes us ponder over the ethical implications of scientific progress.
The novel also addresses the loneliness that results from parental abandonment. Victor’s abandonment of his creature turns the latter into a monster vowing revenge on his creator. He goes on a murderous rampage destroying the people close to Victor’s heart. The monster is basically good at heart. He wanted to be loved and to belong. His maker did not even bother to give him a name and referred to him as a devil, a fiend, a demon. He was rejected only on account of his deformity. The novel addresses the nature vs nurture debate and seems to imply that our minds begin as ‘tabula rasa’, a blank state, and our environment has a great impact on our behavior as opposed to our biological and genetic predispositions.
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. I was nourished with high thoughts of honour and devotion. But now crime has degraded me beneath the meanest animal. No guilt, no mischief, no malignity, no misery, can be found comparable to mine. When I run over the frightful catalogue of my sins, I cannot believe that I am the same creature whose thoughts were once filled with sublime transcendent visions of the beauty and the majesty of goodness.’
The novel made me ponder about our own creator and our place in the world. How could God create something and not take responsibility for it? For what purpose were we created if there is so much misery in the world? People who look different are discriminated against and the world is full of injustice. Are we abandoned by God too? The epigraph to the novel is a line from Milton’s Paradise Lost which describes the conversation Adam has with God after his creation.
Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay
To mould Me man? Did I solicit thee
From darkness to promote me?”
The monster never asked to be created. But unlike Adam he has no Eve. His fate is even worse. Not only is he shunned from society but also faces the solitude of living without a companion.
Hateful day when I received life!’ I exclaimed in agony. ‘Accursed creator! Why did you form a monster so hideous that even you turned from me in disgust? God, in pity, made man beautiful and alluring, after his own image; but my form is a filthy type of yours, more horrid even from the very resemblance. Satan had his companions, fellow-devils, to admire and encourage him; but I am solitary and abhorred.”
The unjust ostracization of the monster brings us to the question: Who is the real monster? Some critics have analyzed the novel through a Freudian lens and have proposed that Victor and the monster are the embodiment of the ego and the id, representing the conscious desires and the subconscious wishes of the same being. A careful reading will reveal how Victor could have averted the deaths of some of his near and dear ones. The monster is his doppelgänger and they are very similar in their insatiable thirst of knowledge, in their admiration of nature, in the unabashed outpouring of sentimentality and the isolation they experience whether self-imposed or by society. The main difference is that Victor grew up in a nurturing environment and should have been more sensitive to the monster’s feelings. The creature then is a reflection of Victor’s own ugliness, a mirror of his own evil character.
Equally interesting is a feminist reading of the novel. At first glance, the novel seems to be very male oriented. The female characters are all passive and submissive to their men. Victor creates the monster without the help of a woman and he also destroys the female companion he is in the process of creating for the monster:
Yet one of the first results of those sympathies for which the daemon thirsted would be children, and a race of devils would be propagated upon the earth.
She who, in all probability, was to become a thinking and reasoning animal, might refuse to comply with a compact made before her creation. They might even hate each other; the creature who already lived loathed his own deformity, and might he not conceive a greater abhorrence for it when it came before his eyes in the female form? She also might turn with disgust from him to the superior beauty of man; she might quit him, and he be again alone, exasperated by the fresh provocation by being deserted by one of his own species.
Victor is afraid that she will enjoy autonomy and think for herself. His act is a blatant expression of the patriarchal repudiation of women and the fear of their sexuality and fertility. He is afraid of the child bearing abilities of women, their power to create an entire race of such beings and one of the horrors of the novel is making us wonder if science would eliminate the biological function of women. But Shelley highlights the misogyny to show the detrimental effects of envisioning a world without women for we see the terrible fate Victor meets with when going against nature. As a nineteenth century woman writer, Mary Shelley knew this misogyny all too well. Frankenstein was initially published anonymously because of her gender and some critics believed it to be written by Percy Shelley.
The portrayal of reproductive anxiety may have emanated from Mary Shelley’s own feelings of loneliness in life dealing with a loss of a mother who died from complications of childbirth, her own difficult pregnancies, several miscarriages and the tragedy of losing her children and husband. She wrote to exorcize her own demons and it is interesting in this regard to consider that Victor is her own creation just as the monster is Victor’s.
I admit the novel is not without its flaws. The whole education of the monster seems implausible. But I was struck by the complexity of ideas presented and captivated by the marvelous lyrical prose. I will be returning to this book over and over again to delve deeper into the themes for I have only scratched its surface. To write with such maturity and finesse at such a young age is nothing short of genius. Whatever be the fate of Victor’s mortal creation, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein has lived over 200 years and has attained immortality!