# 9 = Volume 3, Part 2 = July 1976
Recent Work on Mary Shelley and Frankenstein
During the past four years Mary Shelley and her Frankenstein
have become a fertile field for scholarship and/or commercial exploitation.
Although a number of stimulating essays have appeared in these years, this
review will confine itself to those works that have appeared in book form.
1. James Rieger, ed. Frankenstein: or The Modern Prometheus
(The 1818 Text) by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley. Bobbs-Merrill, 1974,
xlv+287, $7.50. Also Pocket Books pb, 1976, different pagination, $1.95.
2. Margaret Leighton. Shelley’s Mary: A Life of Mary
Godwin Shelley. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1973, 234p, $5.95.
3. Noel B. Gerson. Daughter of Earth and Water: A Biography
of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley. William Morrow, 1973, 280p, $6.95.
4. William A. Walling. Mary Shelley. Twayne, 1972,
5. Brian W. Aldiss. "The Origins of the Species: Mary
Shelley." Pp 7-39 of his Billion Year Spree: The True History of Science
Fiction, Doubleday, 1973, (xii)+339, $7.95.
6. Robert Kiely. "Frankenstein." Pp 155-73 of his The
Romantic Novel in England, Harvard, 1972, viii+275, $11.00.
7. Donald F. Glut. The Frankenstein Legend: A Tribute to
Mary Shelley and Boris Karloff. Scarecrow Press, 1973, xxv+372, $11.00.
8. Radu Florescu. In Search of Frankenstein. New York
Graphic Society, 1975, xii+244, $9.95. There is also a book-club edn with
9. Christopher Small. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein:
Tracing the Myth. University of Pittsburgh, 1973, 352p, $9.95. In UK
published in 1972 by Victor Gollancz with same pagination as Ariel like a
Harpy: Shelley, Mary and Frankenstein.
10. Brian W. Aldiss. Frankenstein Unbound. Random
House, 1973, 212p, $5.95. There is also a Fawcett pb edn as well as UK edns.
11. Robert J. Myers. The Cross of Frankenstein.
Lippincott, 1975, x+208, $6.95.
12. Martin Tropp. Mary Shelley’s Monster: The Story of
Frankenstein. Houghton Mifflin, 1976, xi+192, $7.95.
1. Two editions of Frankenstein are
now competing for recognition as the Standard Edition: the one edited by M.K.
Joseph and published in 1969 by the Oxford University Press, and the Rieger
edition under review here. Both have editorial introductions and notes on the
composition and textual history of the novel. Joseph also has a note on
Shaftesbury’s interpretation of Prometheus and some excerpts from Mary’s
journal and Shelley’s letters on Chamonix in July 1816, while Rieger appends
the contributions of Byron and Polidori to the famous ghost-story contest. Most
important, Joseph gives us the 1831 text, the Dedication and Preface of 1818,
and textual or explanatory notes on some—but only some—of the ways in which
the author changed her text, first in the copy presented to Mrs Thomas in 1823,
and then in the 1831 edition, whereas Rieger gives us the 1818 text, the
deletions and additions made for Mrs Thomas, and a collation of the 1818 and
Aware that he is departing from the editorial convention which
holds that "an author’s final emendations have final authority,"
Rieger offers the argument that the novel actually had dual authorship in that
"Shelley worked on Frankenstein at every stage, from the earliest
draft through the printer’s proofs, with Mary’s final ‘carte blanche to
make what alterations you please’" and that Mary’s revisions of 1831 do
not preserve the integrity of the original vision of this dual authorship (pages
In the respect that it does present a full collation of the
two texts, Rieger’s edition approaches the ideal of the Standard Edition more
closely than Joseph’s, but the question remains as to whether he is correct in
taking the 1818 version as his copy-text. I think he was wrong, if only on the
basis of style—in 1971, comparing the Joseph edition with a microfilm of the
Mrs Thomas copy, I noted changes from 1818 through 1823 to 1831 toward greater
specificity, more use of subordination, and a more economical diction—but my
arguments to this effect will have to be presented at some later time.
2-3-4. Three Biographies. Shelley’s
Mary is intended for an adolescent audience. In a light, novelistic style
Margaret Leighton conveys the basic facts of Mary Shelley’s life and writings.
There is an extended, albeit superficial, discussion of Frankenstein, but
only scattered references, and in some cases none at all, to the other novels.
Of the twelve principal sources listed in the bibliography, only two deal
specifically with Mary Shelley: Mrs Julian Marshall’s Life and Letters of
Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (1889) and Eileen Bigland’s (misspelled
Biglund) Mary Shelley (1959). Important studies by R. Glynn Grylls,
Elizabeth Nitchie, and Muriel Spark in the intervening years could have been
drawn on—to say nothing of studies more recent than 1959.
Noel B. Gerson’s biography, published in the same year as
Leighton’s, is more thorough; still, its approach is more popular than
scholarly. Gerson delves into the backgrounds of Mary’s and Shelley’s works,
analyzing characters and motives. The six pages on Frankenstein, for
instance, go well beyond a superficial plot summary. One questions, however, her
judgment that "the scholar does not classify it as literature" because
of its "convoluted form, graceless language, and simple
characterizations" (p 83). Mary Shelley’s other novels are treated more
cursorily. The extent of discussion seems to depend on the novel’s
contemporary success. Successful novels such as Frankenstein, Valperga,
and The Last Man receive more attention than the less popular Perkin
Warbeck, Lodore, and Falkner. Gerson’s bibliography contains thirty-six
items, but only three of them are previous biographies of Mary Shelley: Rossetti
(1890), Church (1928), and Grylls (1938). In fact, the most recent item is
Frederick L. Jones’s 1947 edition of Mary Shelley’s Journal. On the
whole, Gerson succeeds in projecting a coherent and credible portrait of Mary as
an intelligent, mature woman in her own right, not simply as "Shelley’s
The most outstanding—and most neglected—recent critical
biography is William A. Walling’s Mary Shelley. Seldom have I admired
and enjoyed a work so completely. Walling’s depth and breadth of learning
flowers into sensible, balanced judgments and frequent original insights, which
are expressed in a lucid, graceful style. I marvel at how much he is able to say
about all of Mary Shelley’s writings in only 143 pages. Clear, tight
organization and a talent for succinctness are part of the secret. Walling’s
aim is to ascertain Mary’s own significance as a writer. For too long she has
been regarded chiefly as the author of Frankenstein or as Shelley’s
appendage. Only with her full corpus in view—novels, short stories,
biographies, travelogues, letters, journals, verse, and notes to Shelley’s
poems—can one form a just estimate of her merits and deficiencies as a writer.
A brief but pithy introductory chapter of biography is
followed by a long chapter on Frankenstein. Its pattern of organization
is a paradigm for the subsequent chapters on Valperga and The Last Man.
Walling begins with a summary of critical opinion on the novel; then he details
the stages of the novel’s composition, publication, and initial reception;
finally he examines the structure, characterization, and themes of the novel.
His analysis of Frankenstein focuses on the contradictory aims of
Frankenstein and the ambivalent meaning of Prometheus.
In discussing The Last Man, Walling recognizes the
personal basis for her uniquely lonely central figure, but he goes beyond that
to point out the prophetic connection between the death of civilization and the
isolated sensibility (p 87). He also proposes a novel, but convincing,
interpretation of the plague: symbolically it is liberty and its egalitarian
consequences (pp 91-94).1 This conservative idea is an extension of
the same spirit which was present in Frankenstein. Of course, on a
conscious level Mary Shelley cherished many liberal hopes till her death, but
instinctively she was committed to the greater stability and order of the
eighteenth century (p 98). There was, moreover, an unacknowledged split in her
attitude toward Shelley that marred the integrity of her art. She must have
intuited, Walling suggests, that the "celestial spirit" she wished to
commemorate in all her works was hopelessly incompatible with the actual man she
knew (pp 79, 98, 99). This conflict strengthens The Last Man and Valperga
by infusing these works with subtle criticism of Shelley’s and Godwin’s
social theories; that same conflict vitiates her later fiction because her need
to idealize overcame her clear-sightedness. Walling finds her last three novels
contrived to the point of unreality: "Their unreality is announced on
almost every page...by their repetitive sentimentality and by their constant
refusal to deal with the larger issues of the earlier novels" (p 99).
Comparing Mary Shelley’s three early novels with her three later ones, Walling
concludes that she deserves her status as a minor figure in English literature.
Nevertheless, in Frankenstein, The Last Man, and Valperga she
surpasses her contemporaries (except for Austen and Scott) in "seriousness
of conception...originality and variety of technique, and... relevance to their
time and to our own" (pp 142-143).
5. Brian W. Aldiss’ history of
science fiction seems an appropriate starting point for discussing critical
studies. Not being qualified to judge the entire field of science fiction, I can
only say that I found his Billion Year Spree highly entertaining and
informative. His survey begins with Mary Shelley because he regards her as the
originator of the genre. Frankenstein is termed "a science fiction
morality" (p 30), "the first great myth of the industrial age" (p
23), and "the first real novel of science fiction" and the prototype
of "the modern theme" (p 29), i.e. how the equivocal
developments of science reflect the duality in the nature of man.
After sketching Mary Shelley’s life and commenting on the
structure and narrative technique of Frankenstein (as well as its
Godwinian influence), he demonstrates how the novel is
"precariously...balanced between the old and the new" in science and
in religion (pp 24-27). This balance between the inwardness of personal
experience and the outwardness of science and society gives the novel
psychological depth and a prophetic quality that "foreshadows many of our
anxieties about the two-faced triumphs of scientific progress" (p 26).
The Last Man, according to Aldiss, continues and
magnifies the pessimism of Frankenstein: "it is the race, rather
than the individual, which is hunted down to exile and extinction" (p 34).
He wishes that Mary Shelley had been "a great writer instead of merely a
good one" in order to do justice to this somber theme. Then he touches on
her story "The Transformation," which shares with Frankenstein
a remarkable treatment of the Doppelganger motif.
6. Although it is becoming increasingly difficult to
say anything new about Frankenstein, Robert Kiely makes some perceptive
and seldom heard observations. For example, he views Frankenstein as a character
of potentiality rather than pride. The grotesqueness of the monster "is not
proof of its creator’s folly, but an inverse indication of his potential
greatness" (p 157) and the result of lofty ambition misapplied. Similarly,
the fact that Frankenstein achieves superiority over other men by the intensity
of his suffering (a common Romantic theme), is another indication of unfulfilled
potential. At the end the scientist regrets the consequences of his experiment,
not the undertaking itself. Kiely attributes the monstrous results to "an
accident of circumstance, the result of insufficient knowledge, or an
imperfection in nature itself" (p 160). This does not mean that Mary fully
shared the idealism of Frankenstein or his Shelleyan prototype. In fact, Kiely
sagaciously comments, "her novel, like almost everything else about her
life, is an instance of genius observed and admired but not shared" (p
161). On the conceptual plane Mary’s hero is "above reproach," but
on the human plane he is guilty of presuming "to usurp the power of
women" as he seeks "to eliminate the need for woman in the creative
act" (p 164). The height of Frankenstein’s egotism is his turning away
from "family, friends; and fiancée to perform his ‘creative’ act in
isolation." Kiely points out how the main theme of the novel—the fatal
consequences of egotism—is reinforced by a counter-theme on the virtue of
friendship (pp 165-166). In this context the monster is seen as a reflection of
Frankenstein’s immaturity in interpersonal relationships. "Having removed
himself from human companionship and the sexual means of procreation,"
Kiely explains, "Frankenstein brings into being a creature who...is a
torment to himself and to others precisely because he is without companionship
and a sexual counterpart.... [Thus] the monster may well be taken as
Frankenstein’s alter-ego, his strange and destructive self, which finds no
adequate means of communication with others..." (p 170).
7. Donald F. Glut’s study, The Frankenstein
Legend: A Tribute to Mary Shelley and Boris Karloff, exudes zest for his
subject and zeal in documenting virtually every manifestation of the
Frankenstein story or characters in nearly every medium—literature, theater,
movies, radio, television, illustrations, and comic books. His enthusiasm for
film versions of Frankenstein is reflected in the 59-page Chapter 4,
"Karloff Sets the Standard." Subsequent adaptations in film are
likewise exhaustively catalogued; in addition to the American, British,
Canadian, Spanish, Mexican, Argentinian, German, Japanese, and Egyptian versions
discussed in Chapters 5, 6, and 7, Glut appends in the Afterward a dozen more
entries that appeared shortly before his book went to press. He is equally
thorough in covering theatrical adaptations. For the most part, he simply
catalogues them, but in this chapter, "Frankenstein Haunts the
Theatre," he goes into greater detail. His four-page discussion of the
Living Theatre’s avant garde production is especially good (pp 49-52).2
One is dazzled by his endless citations of the Frankenstein theme on television
in comic, dramatic, information, variety, musical, and cartoon shows. Then
follows an even longer list of commercial products that capitalize on the
legend. Yet, impressive as these epic catalogues are, one longs for a greater
depth of treatment; even a few more transitions would help. Samuel Scudder,
speaking of an invaluable lesson learned from Professor Louis Agassiz, rightly
declared: "Facts are stupid things until brought into connection with some
general law." Precisely this sense of relatedness—of perspective—is
missing in Glut’s book. Perhaps, in Isaiah Berlin’s terms, he is a fox (who
knows many things) rather than a hedgehog (who knows one big thing).
At any rate, the defect of superficiality is particularly
apparent in Chapter 10, "The Literary Monster Returns." In citing the
various English and foreign adaptations (often without publication dates), Glut
is usually content to offer brief plot summaries. Only on the Golem stories and
the homunculus theme is his treatment more thorough. Incidentally, about his own
two Frankenstein novels published in Spain in 1971, he is curiously reticent.
Furthermore, one expects to find some mention of Ambrose Bierce’s "Moxon’s
Master" and H.G. Wells’s "The Island of Dr. Moreau." Instead
one notices a plethora of stories drawn from such sources as Horror Stories,
Terror Tales, Wonder Stories, Real Story, Thriller,
Glut’s first—and most embarrassing—chapter, "Mary
Shelley and her Eternal Classic," I have saved for last. Incurably
colloquial in style, derivative and careless in content, it is the weakest in
the entire book. When this enthusiast of popular culture is confronted with
something more complex and demanding, he is unequal to the task. To supply the
deficiency, he totally and uncritically relies on someone whose critical acumen
is no better than his own. Glut acknowledges that this opening chapter
incorporates "much of the information in [Samuel Rosenberg’s] excellent
article."3 Far from being excellent, the Rosenberg article is
execrable; it is the source of most of Glut’s errors. Glut presents an error-filled
biography of Mary Shelley and an unsound interpretation of Frankenstein
as a "family allegory." His carelessness of grammar and style is
matched by his carelessness in checking facts.
Glut’s incidental allusion to the Castle of the
Frankensteins in Darmstadt, Germany (so meaningful to Florescu) reveals his
uncritical use of sources. Shortly after Rosenberg’s article was published,
David T. Russell wrote to the editors of Life, recounting an old legend
associated with this castle and suggesting it as another impetus to Mary Shelley’s
story. Mr. Rosenberg replied (April 5, 1968) that "The Shelleys never
visited Germany," and Glut echoed his pronouncement: "it is possible
that Mary Shelley had encountered the legend in her readings. But neither she
not her husband had ever visited Germany" (Footnote 6, p 27). From the
bibliography of any scholarly biography Glut could have learned that Mary
Shelley had published two accounts of her travels in Germany: History of a
Six Weeks’ Tour Through a Part of France, Switzerland, Germany, and Holland
(1817) and Rambles in Germany and Italy (1844).
8. Let us now examine the work of an
apparently more estimable scholar (B.A., M.A., Oxford; Ph.D., Indiana) who
assiduously pursued Glut’s casual hint about Mary Shelley’s possible visit
to Castle Frankenstein. Having achieved recognition as co-author of In Search
of Dracula, Radu Florescu has applied his talents as a "literary
sleuth" to seek the origin of the name Frankenstein. The resulting book, In
Search of Frankenstein, is intriguing but ultimately disappointing. Using
Mary’s letters, journals, and travel books, he has carefully retraced Mary’s
and Shelley’s steps. Maps of Lake Leman and the Rhine River, along with 100
black and white illustrations (some of them reproduced for the first time)
enable the reader to participate in this journey and give him a more vivid
perception of the people and places associated with the novel. All this
"visual wealth" is supplemented by other useful features such as
genealogies, a Frankenstein filmography, and an annotated bibliography that
claims to be most "complete and up-to-date." However, the absence of
William Walling’s critical biography and of a number of significant articles
vitiates that claim. Chapter 9, "The Frankenstein Films" by Alan G.
Barbour, presents a comprehensive and sensible account; however, his colloquial,
cliche-ridden diction jars noticeably with Florescu’s urbane style. With so
much critical apparatus, the absence of an index is surprising.
Part of Florescu’s study covers familiar ground—the lives
and writings of Mary Shelley’s famous parents, her elopement with Shelley,
their sojourn in Geneva, where Frankenstein originated, the personal and
literary background of the novel as well as its subsequent transformations in
print, on stage, and in film. Florescu’s survey of the "Literary Impact
of the Frankenstein Theme" in Chapter 8 is useful—though not as extensive
as Glut’s—but one wishes that he had gone beyond brief plot summaries.
Where Florescu’s book breaks new ground is in its thesis
that Mary Shelley had visited—or at least heard about—Castle Frankenstein in
Darmstadt, Germany, where local legend had kept alive tales of the dragon-slaying
knight and of Konrad Dippel, the alchemist. If Mary’s familiarity with these
could be proved, we would have a source for her protagonist’s name and career.
Florescu claims to have established this link, and, as a corollary, he argues
that Mary Shelley lied about her story’s hypnogogic origin (pp 156-57, 176).
Regrettably, his foregone conclusion that Mary did become
acquainted with the castle causes him to use dubious methods of proof. Because
no entries exist in Mary’s and Claire’s journals for the "crucial
summer months of 1816," during which the novel was being composed, Florescu
charges the half-sisters with a "conspiracy of silence" (pp 19, 58-59).
"Could it be," he asks Iago-like, "that Mary deliberately
destroyed all traces of her sources for this particular story to establish a
reputation for the kind of creativity she really lacked—and that Claire
abetted the plot?" (p 19). Why—unless a "literary sleuth" must
postulate a literary crime—need he imply a sinister explanation for an
unanswerable question? I find it disturbing that sometimes he gives the
impression of dwelling on a plane that is beyond the conventional rules of
scholarship. He claims the right to use circumstantial evidence and
"historical insight" as proof when written documents are lacking (pp
58-59). Moreover, he speaks eerily about feeling close to Mary Shelley’s
spirit in the ruins of Chapuis and of "a certain ill-defined psychic
quality about a place...which a privileged few can sense" (p 21).
The thoroughness of Florescu’s local research is truly
admirable—Swiss names and Swiss geography have undeniably left their imprint
on Frankenstein (pp 10-13, 21)—but he cannot demonstrate that Darmstadt’s
history and folklore were known to Mary Shelley. To convince the reader, he
repeatedly uses ex post facto arguments. The Shelleys must have visited
the castle of the Frankensteins on their Rhine journey homeward because they had
ample time to go ashore, their boat being at anchor during the night of
September 2, 1814 (p 59). From their three German traveling companions (students
at the University of Strasbourg) they may have heard "the story of Dippel,
the alchemist, necromancer, and theologian who thought he had discovered ‘the
principle of life’" (p 60). Because Johann Konrad Dippel was born at
Castle Frankenstein in 1673, he signed himself as a "Frankensteiner"
when he registered at the University of Giessen. "If they could see Castle
Frankenstein from Gernsheim [the town nearest to where their boat was
anchored]," Florescu insists, "Mary and Shelley had every incentive to
visit the castle" (pp 59-60). Yet instead of offering evidence, he
asks us to share his reverie: "it was not too difficult to envisage a boat,
anchored on a Rhine island several miles to the west, carrying the Shelley
party; we could even pretend to hear the distant sound of horses galloping up
the dusty mountain road to the castle, 160 years earlier" (p 67). "A
visit to the castle," he continues, "would have been a ‘must’ to
any knowledgeable European literati [sic]" (p 91). According to local
legend, a young English lady and man visited the castle at the beginning of the
nineteenth century, but there is no way to ascertain that these two were Mary
and Percy, as Florescu implies. O’erleaping the chasm between possibility and
actuality, he has the audacity to state that in 1814 "the impact of the
castle, with its strange legend and mysterious alchemist, were brooding in Mary’s
receptive mind" and that in 1840, on a tour through Germany with her son
and his friends, Mary was returning to the site of her initial inspiration"
(p 63). For all this he has only one bit of quite dubious evidence, the entry in
Mary’s journal4 for September 2, 1814:
We arrive at Manheim early in the morning; breakfast there;
the town is clean and good. We proceeded towards Mayence [Mainz] with an
unfavorable wind; towards evening the batelier rests just as the wind changes
in our favor. Mary and Shelley walk for three hours; they are alone. At 11 we
depart. We sleep in the boat.
This walk at an unspecified location might possibly have been
from Gernsheim to Castle Frankenstein and back, though three hours is scarcely
time enough for that journey.
An examination of the records leaves me skeptical of the
Shelleys having visited Castle Frankenstein. First, the precipitancy of their
departure from Lucerne should be considered. Having engaged a house for six
months on August 24, they decided the very next day to return to England because
of insufficient funds. With only £28 remaining (plus a loan of £60), it was
imperative to travel as quickly and cheaply as possible. Journeying down the
Rhine from Switzerland to Holland was the obvious choice.5 Journal
entries for this period indicate that they usually did not leave the boat except
to buy provisions: "[September 1, 1814.] Pursue our voyage, and, six
leagues from the place where we slept, change our canoe for a larger boat. We
remain in the boat all night." There is also this entry in Claire’s
journal, September 4, 1814: "I think we passed no less than twenty castles
& about 5 towns..."6
Furthermore, as one studies Mary’s own account of this
journey in her History of a Six Weeks’ Tour (1817), the dominant
impression is one of boat-bound vistas:
We were carried down by a dangerously rapid current, and saw
on either side of us hills covered with vines and trees, craggy cliffs crowned
by desolate towers, and wooded islands, where picturesque ruins peeped from
behind the foliage, and cast the shadows of their forms on the troubled
waters.... We heard the songs of the vintagers...memory, taking all the dark
shades from the picture, presents this part of the Rhine to my remembrance as
the loveliest paradise on earth.
We had sufficient leisure for the enjoyment of these scenes,
for the boat-man,neither rowing nor steering, suffered us to be carried down by
the stream, and the boat turned round and round as it descended.7
Mary Shelley’s account of her 1840 trip down the Rhine with
her son Percy is similarly confined to her vantage point on the boat: "The
inferior beauty of the banks of the Moselle enhanced still more the prouder and
more romantic glories of the Rhine.... Each tower-crowned hill—each
picturesque ruin—each shadowy ravine and beetling precipice—was passed, and
gazed upon with eager curiosity and delight." The statement most damaging
to Florescu’s bland assertion that "Mary was returning to the site of her
initial inspiration" is this wish: "Someday I should like much to
establish myself for a summer on the banks of this river [Rhine], and explore
its recesses. As we glide by, we obtain but a cursory and unsatisfactory survey.
One longs to make a familiar friend of such sublime scenery...."8
The inescapable conclusion is that "a cursory and unsatisfactory
survey" is all she ever obtained in 1814 and 1840.
The evidence we have makes it far less likely that Mary
Shelley in 1814 had any ideas of writing a novel than that she had the intention
of making her journal into a travelogue, much as her mother had published her
travel notes as Letters Written during a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway,
and Denmark (1796). When she did this in 1817 in the History of a Six
Weeks’ Tour, she would surely have mentioned Castle Frankenstein if she
had actually visited it.
Even if Florescu offered incontrovertible proof of Mary’s
visit, I do not see how that would materially affect our understanding of her
story. To try to establish a source for the titular hero is commendable, but
almost any German-sounding name would have harmonized with the setting. With
respect to a source for Frankenstein’s character, the parallels that Florescu
adduces are so general that they could apply to almost any necromancer:
Both [Dippel and Frankenstein] were exceptional minds, far
ahead of their times, little understood by their
superiors and peers; both scientific "Hamlets" were condemned to
wander from country to country, even to suffer imprisonment because of their
Both firmly believed in the ability of man to conquer death,
and to create life by artificial means, and both worked in secrecy. (pp 92-93)
Shelley, with his chemical experiments and occult interests,
was all the prototype she needed, and her father, who was to write a volume on
the Lives of the Necromancers (of which more below) could have supplied
her with additional information. As for the legend reprinted from the Brothers
Grimm in the Appendix—a fire-breathing dragon who had his resting place near
the spring or well from which the inhabitants of Castle Frankenstein and the
near-by village obtained their water, who could be pacified only by a daily
offering of sheep, cattle, or maidens, and who was finally beheaded by Knight
Hans (or Georg) of Frankenstein, himself being mortally wounded in the struggle—it
has not the slightest resemblance to any event in Mary Shelley’s novel.
In his last chapter Florescu discusses prominent alchemists
and examines the "impact of ...man-machines on Mary’s conception of
Frankenstein’s monster" (p 234). First, he claims, unjustifiably, that
"no author has placed the novel Frankenstein...within the general
framework of the alchemist’s attempt to create life...." In addition to
Mario Praz, whom he names, he could have cited the studies of John Cohen,
Hermann Ebeling, and Helmut Swoboda,9 not to mention my own article
in Science-Fiction Studies for July 1975, which was perhaps too late for
his consideration. Second, he concludes with Rieger—mistakenly, I think—that
the novel is not a "pioneer work of science fiction" because
Frankenstein’s chemistry is merely "switched-on magic, souped-up alchemy,
the electrification of Agrippa and Paracelsus" (p 234). Third, he indulges
his penchant for supplying sources by fiat as he exclaims: "Mary must have
been aware of these remarkable androids; in fact she may even have seen them
perform!...it is likely that Mary was acquainted with nineteenth-century works
popularizing the automaton, such as E.T.A. Hoffman..." (p 233). Mary,
remarkably scrupulous about keeping a record of her reading, makes no reference
to Hoffman. To be sure, she does mention, in her Rambles in Germany and
Italy, seeing a "self-acting" musical instrument at Lenzkirch, but
that was long after Frankenstein was published.10
The most objectionable part of this chapter is Florescu’s
slanted discussion of Godwin’s Lives of the Necromancers (1834). He
leads us to think that Godwin approved of the exploits of these occultists and
even introduced them to his daughter:
Godwin probably cultivated and shared his interest in the
occult with Mary from her childhood, and the topics covered in the various
chapters of Godwin’s book: Albertus Magnus, Paracelsus, Cornelius Agrippa,
the Rosicrucians, Faustus, and Raymond Lully were frequently discussed at
Skinner Street, and later at the Strand. In fact, Godwin’s heroes [italics
mine] are those fallen angels that Victor Frankenstein eventually abandons. (p
Would it not be an anomaly if the leading rationalist of the
age were so superstitious? Yet Floreseu presents Cornelius Agrippa as a
"favorite of Godwin"; the use of the mandrake root to create
artificial man is said to have "fascinated Godwin"; and the
Rosicrucians are represented as another of Godwin’s interests.
Godwin’s Preface and the biographies themselves convey a
totally opposite impression. It turns out, for example, that he does not believe
any of the tales regarding the magical practices of his so-called
"favorite" Agrippa. This accords perfectly with the aim stated in the
The main purpose of this book is to exhibit a fair delineation
of the credulity of the human mind.... But the work I have written is not a
treatise of natural magic. It rather proposes to display the immense wealth of
the faculty of imagination, and to shew the extravagances of which man may be
guilty who surrenders to its guidance.... The wildest extravagances of human
fancy, the most deplorable perversions of human faculties, and the most horrible
distortions of jurisprudence [witchcraft trials] may occasionally afford us a
salutary lesson. I love in the foremost place to contemplate man in all his
honors and in all the exaltation of wisdom and virtue; but it will also be
occasionally of service to us to look into his obliquities, and distinctly to
remark how great and portentous have been his absurdities and follies.11
Why does Florescu present as heroes those whom Godwin
considered exemplars of credulity, folly, absurdity, and "the wildest
extravagances of human fancy"? He is certainly familiar with Godwin’s
work because he uses it as the basis for his own brief biographies of alchemists
in Chapter 10. In fact, the paragraph on Albertus Magnus follows Godwin’s
account word for word. Florescu gives a footnote citation, but, needless to say,
he should also use quotation marks for an extended direct quote.
Sometimes scholars err because they approach their subjects
with certain preconceptions. For instance, if Florescu had not assumed that Mary
shared Shelley’s fascination with the occult, he might have perceived the
tough-mindedness of Godwin’s daughter. The whole tenor of her life and
writings confirms Fullerton’s assessment: "Mary’s intellect was of a
more critical kind, more classical and less romantic; speculative thinking did
not attract her, nor the occult."12
Another preconception that Florescu brings to his readings of
Mary’s works is that the dominant influence on her life was her mother. He
would have us believe that "in her lifestyle and attitudes" Mary was
like Mary Wollstonecraft and that as an act of atonement Mary "had vowed to
follow in the footsteps of her mother’s distinguished career" (pp 38,
61). Since both parents had distinguished careers as writers, it is not clear
why the mother, who died in childbirth, should have had a stronger influence
than the father, who survived until Mary’s thirty-eighth year. In support of
his contention Florescu quotes Godwin’s statement, "I am afraid you are a
Wollstonecraft" (p 176), but the context shows that Godwin intended only to
contrast his cheerfulness with his daughter’s melancholy.13 As Mary
herself admitted, "I am obliged to guard against low spirits as my worst
The extent of Mary’s guilt over her mother’s death is
questionable; even her desire to become a famous authoress is debatable. A dread
of exposing herself publicly inhibited her natural aptitude for study. Two
revealing self-images—a dormouse and a stray bird—express her dependence and
timidity. To Byron she once wrote, "It is a painful thing for me to put
forward my own opinion.... I would, like a dormouse, roll myself in cotton at
the bottom of my cage & never peep out."15 And while
undertaking the Spanish and Portuguese Lives for Lardner’s Cyclopedia,
she confided to Mrs Gisborne her phobia about reading in a museum or library:
"I would not even if I could—I do not like finding myself a stray bird
alone among men even if I know them—Nothing could make me voluntarily go among
strange men in a character assimilating to their own."16 Her
need for money and her desire to glorify Shelley forced her to overcome this
Mary’s alleged radicalism does not withstand scrutiny
either. The apparent boldness of her elopement and her first novel are only
striking exceptions to an otherwise conservative nature. Consider her journal
entry for October 21, 1838 (or 1831—the dating is disputed): "Some have a
passion for reforming the world. Others do not cling to particular opinions.
That my parents and Shelley were of the former class makes me respect it,"
but she herself, it is implied, belonged to the latter class. Witnessing how
"her mother, father, and Shelley were martyrs to their opinions, and [how]
their great abilities resulted in failure and unhappiness," Mary may well
have reached the conclusion that Trelawny attributed to her: "Fighting with
the world was ‘Quixotic.’"17 What could be plainer than her
blast against the Radicals in the same journal entry: "I have no wish to
ally myself to the Radicals—they are full of repulsion to me—violent without
any sense of justice—selfish in the extreme—talking without knowledge—rude,
envious and insolent—I wish to have nothing to do with them."
Finally, Florescu and I differ in our estimates of Mary
Shelley’s best work: I admire Frankenstein and her Lives for
Lardner’s Cyclopedia while he considers Rambles in Germany and Italy
"perhaps her greatest literary achievement" (p 163; cf p 62). Perhaps
his predilection for retracing her steps leads him to overestimate her mediocre
9. Despite Christopher Small’s modest
disclaimer that Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein: Tracing the Myth is not a
work of scholarship based on original research, it is nevertheless a notable
contribution to the mounting studies on the Shelleys. The subtitle forecasts the
history-of-ideas approach whereby he traces in Chapters 1-8 the personal and
literary background in Frankenstein and then shows in Chapters 9-14 how
"an individual work can merge into general
consciousness" (p 14). Such a broad aim invites far-ranging excursions into
the writings of Milton, C.B. Brown, Godwin, Shelley, Byron, Butler, Wells,
Forster, and Čapek, to name a few.
The British title, Ariel Like a Harpy, is more
accurately descriptive of his intent than the American one, for it announces
Small’s paramount interest in Shelley’s paradoxical nature and its
expression in his poetry. For example, by Small’s own admission, Mary’s Frankenstein
and Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound are vastly different in form and
content; even though they complement each other, "they cannot consciously
comment on each other" (p 224). Why, then, devote a whole chapter to
Shelley’s drama? Because his play and her novel are "alternative life-histories
of the same metaphor" (p 240).
Small’s book begins with the by now familiar account of the
genesis of Frankenstein. Indirect influences (social and historical
forces), direct influences (Mary’s character, her reading, her family and
friends), and the actual circumstances of composition are detailed. Particular
attention is devoted to Prometheanism and Godwinism. In analyzing the personal
plane of the novel, Small sees the pitiful loneliness of the Monster as a
projection of Mary, whose deepest fear since childhood was to be rejected and
unloved (p 160). Frankenstein, Small propounds, is the Shelleyan idea; that
includes both what Shelley thought of himself and what others, including Mary,
thought about him (pp 121, 196). The title of Chapter 6, "Ariel and Caliban,"
sums up the antithetical parts of Shelley’s nature: Ariel is his idealized
self-image—ever self-righteously innocent and benevolent, ever in flight
toward the light of goodness and truth, ever in flight from the monsters of
guilt and disaster (pp 128-129, 170, 175, 179). On this psychological level, the
Monster is that part of Frankenstein’s nature that he abjures (p 194); it is
his shadow (p 168). These three chapters show a profound understanding of
Shelley’s character and poetry.
Whereas Shelley had a compelling need always to think well of
himself, Mary had the courage and honesty to confront the "dark labyrinth
of thought." Small emphasizes the following passage from Mary’s Journal
(February 25, 1822): "let me fearlessly descend into the remotest caverns
of my own mind, [and] carry the torch of self-knowledge into its remotest
recesses" (p 159). In Frankenstein this laudable aim is carried out,
but in her five subsequent novels the "torch of self-knowledge" has
been snuffed out by conventionality and superficiality. Notice that on January
27, 1837, she rebuked Trelawny for forcing painful self-examination upon her:
Why then do you awaken me to thought and suffering by
forcing me to explain the motives of my conduct?... Pray let the stream flow
quietly by as glittering on the surface as it may. Do not awaken the deep
waters which are full of briny bitterness—I never wish anyone to dive into
the secret depths...[I am] content if I can render the surface safe sailing.18
If Small credits Mary with the ability to accept guilt19
rather than to depersonalize it as Shelley did (surely a major difference), I
fail to understand how he can regard the attraction of Shelley and Mary as
"like to like." Repeatedly he insists that because of their allegedly
similar temperaments and attitudes Mary completely entered into Shelley’s
feelings and ideas (pp 121, 196-97, 253). "Such identification," Small
asserts, "can be traced in everything she wrote" (p 199)—a dubious
Their temperaments and intellects were entirely disparate.
Shelley dwelled in the realm of the ideal; Mary was more mundane. His bent was
creative; hers analytical. He had "a passion for reforming the world";
she did not "cling to particular opinions." He craved solitude; she
longed for society. He wished to be remembered for his purely imaginative poems
like Prometheus Unbound and The Triumph of Life, whereas she urged
him to write in a less visionary, more popular vein. She preferred his Rosalind
and Helen and The Cenci, which sprang from the emotions of the heart.20
At first Shelley rejoiced that in Mary he had found someone of comparable
intellect who understood him, but gradually (especially after the deaths of
their children) he became disillusioned. On June 18, 1822, he confessed to John
Gisborne "the want of those who can feel, and understand me. Whether from
proximity and the continuity of domestic intercourse, Mary does not."21
Trelawny, who also became intimately acquainted with the
Shelleys during the last six months of the poet’s life, declared that "it
would be difficult to find minds more opposite than Shelley’s and his wife’s."22
Once when reminded of Mary’s need for companionship, Shelley exclaimed,
"Poor Mary! hers is a sad fate.... She can’t bear solitude, nor I society—
the quick coupled with the dead."23
When Small turns to the implications of Mary’s invention in
literature and life, he is on more solid ground. "What is important is that
the Monster is simultaneously an example of the way the scientific drive
operates and a symbol of it in operation" (p 215). At this point the
personal is transformed into the general, or mythic. When men construct a new
mechanical device which goes beyond their control, they are expressing what was
implicit in the metaphor of the Monster (p 215). No sooner are machines invented
than individuals and social institutions begin to be perceived in mechanistic
terms. Just as geographical discoveries were often accompanied by exploitation
or extermination of native inhabitants, so discovery of the secrets of Nature
leads to denaturation (pp 255-259). According to Small, "increasing
external power [brings] simultaneous loss of contact with internal
sources...." (p 326). Back in 1947 C.S. Lewis made the same point: "We
reduce things to mere Nature in order that we may ‘conquer’ them. We
are always conquering Nature, because ‘Nature’ is the name for what we have,
to some extent, conquered." Hence the boomerang effect: "Man’s
conquest of Nature turns out, in the moment of its consummation, to be Nature’s
conquest of Man"—or worse, "What we call Man’s power over Nature
turns out to be a power exercised by some men over other men with Nature as its
Since the prophetic value of Mary Shelley’s projection is so
great, one expects more specific examples, not just passing references to
"the monster of industrialism, of oppressive institutions, of mechanized
violence" (p 315). Small dismisses the topic by stating, "There is no
need to elaborate upon the monsters of men’s making" (p 253).
His chief concern—earnestly expounded in the last two
chapters of his book—is the challenge that the Monster continually presents to
us. When are we going to see him as he truly is, a part of ourselves? When are
we going to begin the task of reconciliation? (p 293). The fact that the Monster
is still alive at the end of the novel contains two opposite implications:
first, the Monster as "the external creation of Promethean man continues to
exist and to extend his power over human life with the fatal marvels of
technology"; second, as "the projection of Frankenstein’s (and
Shelley’s) own shadow," who is perpetually extended a stay of execution,
he gives us the chance to meet him and thus to come to ourselves (p 293).
Martin Tropp, in the book reviewed in section 12 below,
clearly perceives the dichotomy: "If the Monster is fully human, then
mankind’s treatment of it is criminal"; in that case, it ought to he
loved. On the other hand, if the Monster is a "self-projection,
Doppelganger, or infernal machine, it is clear that [it] has the superhuman
power and destructiveness of a creature of myth"; as such, it deserves not
love but rejection (Tropp, p 67). Small does not choose either of these
alternatives, perhaps because Mary Shelley’s novel lends support to both.
Rather he sophistically argues that though the monster is man-made, it is "not
yet a robot; it is just the intermediate stage of Mary Shelley’s vision in the
evolution of the myth that makes it so potent" (p 311).
Accordingly, the Monster and its descendants ought to be
loved. Yet if love should be voluntary, how can we be brought to love the
unlovable? Frankenstein states the question, but gives no answer. A sense
of hopelessness about the magnitude of the task pervades Small’s concluding
chapter on "The Deep Truth" of love. Love "is the right and only
answer, as we know: why is it not effective? Why with every repetition does its
content seem to be more diluted?" (p 315). Somewhat simplistically, he
urges that if the Make Love, not War motto were heeded, "the world might
indeed be transformed." In my view, the answer lies on the spiritual plane:
only the triune God dwelling in the heart of the believer can enable man to be
truly loving. I think of Mother Theresa ministering to lepers in India and of
the last stanza of Sister Maura’s poem, "Footnote for a Book of
One more thing—let this relevant detail
be added to the mystic’s book:
the lay sister doling food to
and finding Christ in every look.
I also think that Small oversimplifies when he maintains that
men cannot love what they manipulate or control (p 311). Consider the typist,
driver, pilot, conductor, or recording engineer who has formed a bond of
affection with the machine that has given him years of dependable service.
Small’s dichotomy between the external "kingdom of
robots" and the internal "kingdom of metaphor" (p 216) causes him
to misprize the contributions of science fiction:
If the story of Frankenstein is to be taken further,
and if fiction, which in this area is notoriously only the forerunner of fact,
can help to tame the Monster, surely it will he science fiction? But in truth
we see the opposite: when SF tries to tackle the anxieties engendered by the
situation, it only makes them worse, since its means are those which produced
the anxiety in the first place. If SF is indeed to be reckoned a separate
category of imaginative writing, it is because it concerns itself not with man
as such but with ‘scientific man’; and it is the very idea of man in those
terms that has become monstrous. SF may try to tackle the monstrosity, but
while it remains true to its frame of reference, it is inescapably trapped in
seeking to cast Satan out with Satan. (p 294)
Though no generalization can do justice to the volume and
variety of science fiction, and though there may be some basis for Small’s
charge, nevertheless his analysis slights the most significant products of this
10. One such product is Brian W.
Aldiss’ Frankenstein Unbound. Its futurist-surrealist plot is the
vehicle for several thought-provoking themes. Once he said of his fiction:
"Time is the spectre haunting the stage of most of my books: Time in its
own right and in one of its nastier disguises as Change"—an apt
characterization of this novel. The world of 2020 is subject to "timeslips,"
occasioned by nuclear activity, which have ruptured the infrastructure of space
and thereby disrupted normal temporal progression: "tomorrow may prove to
be last week, or the last century, or the Age of the Pharaohs" (§2:2).
After one such timeslip, Joe Bodentand writes to his wife: "Reality is
going to pot. One thing’s for sure—we never had as secure a grasp on reality
as we imagine" (§1:3). Being fluid, protean, non-homogeneous, Time and
Reality defy the neat conceptualizations of our limited consciousness. Bodenland
concludes that "there was no future, no past. Only the cloud-sky of
infinite present states" (§2:24).
A timeslip takes Bodenland from New Houston in the year 2020
to the Switzerland of 1816, where he meets the Shelleys and Lord Byron. Their
witty, spirited conversation on man and nature at the Villa Diodati is
especially well done; the subsequent romantic interlude between Joe and Mary
shows Aldiss’ poetic side. He evidently considers the affair in character
because later he has Joe write to Mary, "You are an early example of Women’s
Lib, baby, just like your Mom" (§2:12). Because I take exception to that
view—see section 8 above—I find this episode gratuitous.
As in Six Characters in Search of an Author, several
planes of reality merge when Joe encounters Frankenstein and his creature.
Finding himself in the presence of myth, Bodenland accepts himself as mythical
and undertakes to influence the outcome of Mary’s partially completed novel.
His attempts to dissuade Frankenstein from making a female companion and to
persuade him to destroy the already existing Monster cast him in the role of
Frankenstein’s persistent, albeit ineffectual, conscience. Their conversations
are markedly didactic: "Victor Frankenstein, Shelley’s future wife, Mary
Godwin, will publish a novel about you, using you as a dire example of the way
man becomes isolated from Nature when he seeks to control Nature. Be warned—desist
from your experiments!" (§2:17). Frankenstein counters by insisting that
his efforts on behalf of truth and the advancement of knowledge exempt him from
considering the moral implications of his work.
Bodenland does not take a simple anti-science stand. His
letter to Mary contains a balanced discussion of applied science as boon and
bane. The benefits of technology in our daily lives are legion. More
significant, however, is the change in man’s nature from indifference toward
suffering to greater compassion. (I respect but do not share this sentimental
view.) Since her time, he asserts, "people have been educated to care more,
upon the whole." The growing scientific spirit has caused a corresponding
growth of social conscience as evidenced by more humane
treatment of the young, the old, the poor, the insane, and the criminal. He goes
so far as to declare that "social change...always and only comes from
technological innovation..." (§2:12). (What about the impact on society
from non-technological innovations such as Christianity and courtly love?)
This tribute to technology, nevertheless, is subordinate to
Bodenland’s indictment of it: "The Intellect has made our planet unsafe
for intellect. We are suffering from the curse that was Baron Frankenstein’s,
by seeking to control too much, we have lost control of ourselves" (§1:2).
Aldiss reiterates, but does not fully dramatize his thesis (strongly implicit in
Mary Shelley’s novel and echoed by C.S. Lewis): "The Conquest of Nature—the
loss of man’s inner self!" In Mary’s day, Aldiss believes, the head and
the heart had a chance to function as co-equals, but within two hundred years
"the head had triumphed over the heart"—a victory for the
Frankenstein mentality. Analogically, the technological society of the twenty-first
century strikes Bodenland "as a Frankenstein body from which the spirit
[is] missing" (§2:19). Once an advocate of progress, he now realizes that
organized religion has been superseded by a more grievous oppressor—soulless
organized science. Bodenland’s "meditations" may be somewhat
belabored and his weeping for "the mess of the world" a bit
histrionic, but his recognition of a spiritual dimension is commendable.
The last chapters of the novel, where Aldiss writes his own
version of the myth, are suspenseful and memorable. Bodenland’s pursuit of the
Monster and his mate ends in a city of giants far into the icefields of the
North—perhaps thousands of centuries in futurity. The Monster’s last cryptic
words to him are: "though you seek to bury me, yet will you continuously
resurrect me! Once I am unbound, I am unbounded!" (§2:27).
11. The demons of violence, lust,
and blasphemy preside over Robert J. Myers’s The Cross of Frankenstein.
Cardboard characters, speaking in a pseudo-archaic style, are manipulated
through an improbable plot to enact the age-old conflict between reason and
passion. Victor Saville, brought up in England by his Aunt Margaret (Walton’s
sister), learns on his eighteenth birthday, in 1816, that his true father is
Frankenstein. His father’s letters, as well as his own medical training, tempt
him to repeat Frankenstein’s experiment, but before he can resolve his
misgivings, he is abducted together with his betrothed, Felicia. They are taken
to western Virginia to minister to Frankenstein’s creature, who is ruling over
a group of mountain folk and planning to raise, with Victor’s help, an army of
composite beings for a revolution leading to a new social order. After a series
of sensational events, including first the ritual rape and then the brutal
murder of Felicia, the novel ends with the monster and Victor pursuing each
other. I wish we could be spared the sequel that has been announced for spring
1976 publication, unless the author has significantly improved his
characterization, plotting, and style.
12. The most recently published study,
Martin Tropp’s Mary Shelley’s Monster, shares Small’s aim of
tracing the myth of Frankenstein from its origins to its implications. My
initial impression is that Tropp’s book is more readable, more circumstantial,
and more persuasive than Small’s, but already a suspicion is forming that
perhaps his explanations are too pat.
His purpose is plainly stated: "By exploring the unusual
past and personality of the author as reflected in her novel, we can understand
how she used the latest discoveries of science, characters from legend, and the
pattern of the epic to transform her private vision into a collective
nightmare.... The intent is to understand how the dream of a nineteen-year-old
woman could become the myth of technology" (p 9).
The key to his interpretation lies in Frankenstein’s strange
dream immediately after he fashioned the Monster:
I thought I saw Elizabeth in the bloom of health, walking in
the streets Ingolstadt. Delighted and surprised, I embraced her; but as I
imprinted the first kiss on her lips,
they became livid
with the hue of death; her features appeared to change, and I thought
I held the corpse of my dead mother in my arms; a shroud enveloped her form,
and I saw the graveworms crawling in the folds of the flannel. I started from
my sleep in horror...when, by the dim and yellow light
of the moon...I beheld the wretch—the miserable monster whom I had created.
Though much had been written about the dream origin of Mary
Shelley’s novel, no one, to my knowledge, had before seen the psychological
meaning of this nightmare and its relationship to the author. Mary’s account
of Frankenstein’s childhood must be scrutinized. At first he enjoys his
parents’ undivided affection, but when his mother adopts Elizabeth Lavenza and
when his brother William is born, he resents having to share his mother’s
love. His mother contracts scarlet fever from Elizabeth and dies. Her dying wish
is that he marry Elizabeth. Consciously he adores his "cousin," but
subconsciously he hates her for usurping part of his mother’s affection and
for indirectly causing her death. Using this case history, Tropp gives
Frankenstein’s nightmare a Freudian interpretation:
The fatal kiss in the dream represents his professed love
for Elizabeth and his promise of marriage; her subsequent decomposition
suggests his hidden feelings toward her....
‘argues’ that Elizabeth is the one who ought to be rotting in the grave.
His desire to exchange life for death, and the hypocrisy
of his love, revealed in the dream, help explain his research into life and
death and the reason he creates his monster.
wakes from this nightmare to see his creation smiling at him in what
be termed a conspiratorial grin, for through the Monster, Frankenstein will
achieve all of his dream wishes. (p 23)
The Monster successively destroys all of Frankenstein’s
rivals—William, Justine, and Elizabeth. Clerval’s death, however, does not
fit this pattern. His murder is explained as the elimination of Frankenstein’s
moral side (pp 27-28). Significantly, each of the Monster’s attacks coincides
with Frankenstein’s delirium and loss of volition—a clear indication that
the subconscious has taken over (pp 23, 29). The rest of the novel traces
Frankenstein’s increasing realization that "he is living in his own
nightmare" and that the feelings which compelled him to lash out at others
inevitably recoil to destroy himself (pp 24, 30).
Tropp discusses the typical pattern of the Doppelganger tale
to illuminate the theme of narcissism and the motifs of creation, pursuit, and
self-destruction in Mary’s novel (p 40). I doubt that all tales of the double
can be reduced to a formula; neither are all doubles necessarily evil.
Nonetheless, his analysis of water, boat, ice, and fire imagery is original and
illuminating. Water, an archetypal symbol for the depths of the mind, is
consistently associated with Frankenstein’s mental state, and "the image
of a boat ‘pursuing its own course’" suggests surrender to the
unconscious self (pp 41-42). When Tropp connects the Doppelganger theme to
contemporary models of the human psyche, he sensibly refrains from attempting to
press Frankenstein and the Monster into a neat Freudian system (p 48). Still,
the material he presents on physiological studies of the brain and on the
phenomenon of seeing one’s double is fascinating and richly suggestive.
Normally, I mistrust Freudian interpretations as reductive,
but Tropp’s moderation (his citing of case histories and his habit of
qualifying generalizations) inspires a degree of confidence in his judgment. He
admits, for example, that "it would be presumptuous to go too far in
psychoanalyzing the author through her novel" (p 31). These are the
parallels he adduces: like Victor, Mary Shelley was a first-born child; like
him, she probably felt guilt at being the indirect agent of her mother’s death
in childbirth; like him, she may have felt resentment at having to share her
father’s love with two adopted children and a natural younger brother. Feeling
jealous, lonely, unloved, and unlovely, she prompted her psyche to create the
Monster (pp 32-33).
Tropp next forges a link between Mary’s private fantasies
and her larger fears about the dangerous implications of new scientific
discoveries. Doubles can be created not just in dreams, but also by the new
"science of mechanics," which was attempting to copy the processes of
Nature (pp 36, 50-56). Like Aldiss and Small before him, Tropp connects the
Monster with technology, which "can never be any more than a magnified
image of the self" (p 55). How is a percolator or a traffic light "a
magnified image of the self"? Here, unfortunately, Tropp loses some of his
customary moderation. To be sure, potential dangers attend scientific
discoveries, but he exaggerates Mary’s fear of them. Given the obviously
ambiguous—even contradictory—nature of Frankenstein and his creature, one
could just as well find support for new technology. Frankenstein vacillates
between rejecting and advocating Prometheanism in science. His creature is even
more protean as he acts out his various roles as horrific monster, evil alter
ego, and pitiful Noble Savage or modern Polyphemus. These ambiguities derive, in
part, from the shifting narrative viewpoints—first Walton’s, then
Frankenstein’s and finally the Monster’s. Thus it is unwise to impose a
unitary interpretation on either character.
Tropp minimizes these ambiguities, and he simplifies the
deeply ambiguous nature of Prometheus when he calls Frankenstein an overreacher,
a Promethean scientist who plays God (p 57). In outlining the Faustian pattern
that most overreachers follow—"momentary control of superhuman
forces...followed by...eternal punishment"—he forgets that the Fausts of
Lessing and Goethe were saved, not punished.
Allusions to Paradise Lost abound in Frankenstein.
Tropp’s assumption that "the products of an unnatural technology can
never fit into the natural order and...must inevitably oppose it" (p 78)
prompts him to equate Frankenstein with rebellious Lucifer and the Monster with
the deceitful destroyer Satan (pp 69-81). Though he is well aware of
interpretations (like Small’s) which stress the human needs of the Monster,
Tropp prefers to regard his pathetic speeches as expressions of "Satanic
guile." He concedes, at the same time, that the Miltonic references are
occasionally contradictory. The Monster identifies himself most often with Satan
but also with Adam. Sometimes Frankenstein, who should be God the Father in the
analogy, compares himself to Satan.
Milton’s Christian allusions notwithstanding, I doubt that
Mary Shelley intended her novel to be read strictly from a theological frame of
reference. She had studied Godwin’s Political Justice, which tried to
found morality on the psychology of human nature. For him—as for Shelley—sin
was an infraction of social, not divine order.25 Lack of sympathy,
not prideful rebellion against God, was the cardinal vice. Furthermore, Mary
Shelley’s rationalistic upbringing and reading had acquainted her with the
naturalistic view of life. Mechanistic references in Frankenstein—and
especially in The Last Man—betray her Deistic orientation. For
instance, Frankenstein refers to the "mechanism of [his] being" and to
man as an animal. He boasts that he was brought up without fear of the
supernatural and that he regards life and death as "ideal bounds"
(i.e., merely human conceptual distinctions). Finally, Mary herself terms the
Creator’s work "a stupendous mechanism."
Tropp’s interpretation of the novel’s ending is original
but oversimplified. He views Walton’s polar expedition as a "classic
journey of initiation...Learning from Frankenstein’s failure, and passing the
trial of the Monster’s nearly persuasive arguments, Walton chooses the path
that will lead back to society" (pp 8-9). Indeed, he credits both travelers
with journeying "past suffering to a greater understanding of themselves
and the universe" (pp 82-83). That is claiming too much for the
accommodating Walton and vacillating Frankenstein.
Tropp’s remaining four chapters are devoted to cinematic re-creations
of Frankenstein. He shows, with greater penetration than Glut, "how
the basic elements of the story repeat almost ritually, while details change to
suit a changing culture" (p 9).
The entire book is well worth reading for its literate style
and original insights. The numerous illustrations, select chronology of Frankenstein
films, and, above all, his "Guide to Further Reading" greatly enhance
the value of the book. Although Tropp does not claim completeness for his
bibliography, it is the most extensive one I have seen on Mary Shelley.
1. Katherine Powers identifies the plague with injustice in
her dissertation, "The Influence of William Godwin on the Novels of Mary
Shelley" (University of Tennessee, 1972), pp 79-81, 100.
2. See also Pierre Biner, The Living Theatre (Horizon
Press, 1972), pp 111-41. This dramatization advocates that "a new man must
evolve, and all human suffering must be eliminated" (p 111). Another
dramatic adaptation is by Tim Kelly, Frankenstein: A Play in Two Acts
(Samuel French, 1974). This version, which borrows many speeches from the
original, is more faithful to the spirit of Mary Shelley’s classic.
3. Samuel Rosenberg, "Happy Sesquicentennial, Dear
Monster," Life, 15 March 1968, pp 74-84.
4. Frederick L. Jones, ed., Mary Shelley’s Journal
(US 1947). The chronological nature of the Journal makes page references
5. Frederick L. Jones, ed., The Letters of Mary Shelley
(US 1944), 1:192.
6. Marion K. Stocking, ed., The Journals of Claire
Claremont (US 1968), pp 501-17.
7. Mary Shelley, History of a Six Weeks’ Tour through a
Part of France, Switzerland, Germany, and Holland (UK 1817), pp 68-70.
8. Mary Shelley, Rambles through Germany and Italy in
1840,1842, and 1843 (UK 1844), 1:27-28.
9. Mario Praz, "Introductory Essay" in Three
Gothic Novels, ed. Peter Fairclough (Penguin Books, 1968), p 30; John Cohen,
Human Robots in Myth and Science (US 1961), pp 61, 68-88; Hermann Ebeling,
"Nachwort" in Frankenstein: oder der neue Prometheus (WG 1970),
pp 325-26; Helmut Swoboda, Der künstliche Mensch (WG 1967). pp 12, 87-98,
220-22; Aija Ozolins, "The Novels of Mary Shelley: from Frankenstein
to Falkner" (Diss. University of Maryland, 1972). pp 129-41.
10. Rambles (Note 8), 1:49.
11. William Godwin. Lives of the Necromancers: or, An
Account of the Most Eminent Persons in Successive Ages, Who Have Claimed for
Themselves, or to Whom Has Been Imputed by Others, the Exercise of Magical Power
(UK 1834). pp v, xii-xiii.
12. Jean Overton Fuller, Shelley: A Biography (UK
1968), p 171.
13. Ford K. Brown. The Life of William Godwin (US
1926), p 366.
14. Letters (Note 5), 2:121.
15. Ibid., 1:202.
16. Ibid., 1:108.
17. Edward John Trelawny, Records of Shelley, Byron, and
the Author (1878; rpt US 1968). 2:231.
18. Letters (Note 5), 2:121.
19. See Journal (Note 4) for February 12, 1839, p 207.
20. See P.D. Fleck. "Mary Shelley’s Notes to Shelley’s
Poems and Frankenstein," Studies in Romanticism 6(1967):226-54.
21. Newman Ivey White, Shelley (US 1940). 2:362.
22. Trelawny (Note 17). 2:230.
23. Ibid., 1:105.
24. C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man (1943; US 1947,
rpt 1965), pp 69, 80, 83.
25. See M.A. Goldberg, "Moral and Myth in Mrs. Shelley’s
Frankenstein," Keats-Shelley Journal 8(1959):27-38.
In the last four years, Mary Shelley and Frankenstein
have become a fertile field for scholarship and/or commercial exploitation.
Although a number of stimulating essays have appeared during those years, this
review confines itself to books and chapters in books: James Reiger, ed., Frankenstein
(The 1818 Text) (1974), Margaret Leighton, Shelley’s Mary: A Life of Mary
Godwin Shelley (1973), Noel B. Gerson, Daughter of Earth and Water: A
Biography of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (1973), William A. Walling, Mary
Shelley (1972), Brian W. Aldiss, the chapter on Shelley in Billion Year
Spree (1973), Robert Kiely, the chapter on Shelley in The Romantic Novel
in England (1972), Donald F. Glut, The Frankenstein Legend (1973),
Radu Florescu, In Search of Frankenstein (1975), Christopher Small Mary
Shelley’s Frankenstein, Tracing the Myth (1973), Brian W. Aldiss, Frankenstein
Unbound (1973), Robert J. Myers, The Cross of Frankenstein (1975),
and Martin Tropp, Mary Shelley’s Monster: The Story of Frankenstein