Frankenstein, in Wolf's Clothing
Leonard Wolf, ed. The Annotated "Frankenstein." Clarkson
N. Potter, Inc., 1977, xxvi/356 pp. $14.95.
There is much about Frankenstein which comes in twos and, at this point in the
history of Frankenstein scholarship, there are two issues which must be squarely
faced. (Any metaphoric suggestion here of the head of Karloff''s monster is fortuitous as
is the incongruous implication of the figure four: what may be viewed as two critical
issues actually involves, respectively, two texts and two sub-questions.) The original
version of Frankenstein was published in 1818 but it is the significantly revised
version published in 1831 which has been continuously reprinted ever since. However, in
1974, James Rieger's edition of the 1818 text appeared with an argument for considering it
the authoritative version.1 Currently at issue, therefore,
is the merit of Rieger's case. Which text of Frankenstein is to be considered the
more authoritative ?
Credit for spotlighting the second issue belongs to Brian Aldiss. His history of
science fiction, Billion Year Spree, published in 1973, claims in its lead
chapter that Frankenstein is the first genuine work of SF. 2 The general issue here, then, is the relationship between Frankenstein
and the development of SF. The subsidiary questions would be: can Frankenstein be
legitimately classified as SF and is it the first such work?
It is very much to Leonard Wolf's credit that, in confronting these issues, he provides
an argued defense for the positions taken in his Annotated "Frankenstein." And
concerning the generic matter, Wolf makes what I regard as more or less the right
decision. But in plumping for the 1818 text, he makes what I believe is a serious mistake.
To be sure, Wolf does not follow Rieger in viewing the 1818 text as the authoritative
text. Rieger believes that Percy Shelley's corrections and additions are more substantial
than cosmetic and that therefore the 1818 text best represents the intentions of what was,
in effect, a combined authorship. An examination of the evidence for Shelley's
contribution, the actual manuscript fragments which make up part of the Lord Abinger
collection of Shelley and Godwin materials in the Bodleian Library, does not bear out this
conclusion. None of the sentences or phrases which Shelley inserted can be counted as
truly substantial and most of the time he confined himself to changing a word or smoothing
a stylistic inelegance. It seems reasonable to agree with Wolf's notation that Rieger's
view of Shelley as a "minor collaborator"3 is
"an extreme judgment" (P 3).
Wolf simply takes the view, in his "Note on the Text," that, in the main, the
alterations which Mary Shelley made in preparing the 1831 text were not improvements, they
diluted the vigor of her youthful vision: "fifteen years later, she was a respectable
widow striving for more respectability. The 1831 edition reflects that change in her
life." The "most telling change," Wolf argues, concerns Victor
Frankenstein's relationship to Elizabeth, the woman he marries. In the 1818 edition, she
is his first cousin whereas, in 1831, "to avoid the slightest suggestion of
incest" (p.vi), she is not presented as a blood relation. Wolf fails to note,
however, that, while most of the references to Elizabeth as Victor's "cousin"
are routinely changed in the revised edition to "friend," "girl" or
"Elizabeth," this does not always happen. In fact, increasingly the term
"cousin" is allowed to stand with its implication of a near brother/sister
quality in the relationship that Elizabeth and Victor turn into that of husband and wife.
It seems clear in the 1831 text that the absense of incestuous undertones applies only
to the relationship which Elizabeth initially holds out to Frankenstein, a relationship
which is contrasted with the more overtly incestuous nature of Victor's feelings towards
his mother, as revealed in his dream following the monster's animation. In the course of
the book, this contrast is made to appear increasingly dubious. Mary's revision here was
not dictated by a need to make her work "more socially presentable" (p.vi) but
by the need to clarify the nature of the conflict within Frankenstein. Wolf's reason for
preferring the 1818 text must be judged ill-considered and particularly blameworthy is his
failure to provide, as Rieger does, a list of textual variants resulting from the
collation of the two editions. The annotations pointing to what is falsely designated as
"all" the "other changes correcting real or imaginary angularities in the
1818 text" are insufficient.
Wolf even fails to provide the important Introduction explaining the novel's genesis
which Mary wrote to accompany the 1831 edition, although we may assume that he had
originally intended to do so. One of the annotations contains the direction, "see
Appendix for complete text of this Introduction" (p.232). Would that one could; there
is no such Appendix. However, in fairness to Wolf, it should be observed that, in
commenting upon the Introduction in another annotation, he does correct a common
misapprehension. Mary's moment of inspiration came not as a nightmare while she was asleep
but as a waking vision.
But it is Wolf's remarks concerning the generic issue in the context of his own
Introduction which perform the most valuable corrective function. He challenges the
position that Frankenstein should be regarded primarily as SF, a position that,
pace Aldiss, has become entrenched. Rather, Wolf claims Frankenstein is a
"psychological allegory" (p.xxv). To my mind, the concerns of Frankenstein might
more broadly be described as philosophical, alchemical and transcendental, and not
psychological or scientific, but the aspect which Wolf chooses to emphasize is certainly
The interpretation which Wolf offers embroiders on a view propounded by Ellen Moers who
first connected the subject matter of Frankenstein with the likelihood of Mary's
ambivalent feelings about childbirth.4 Moers argues that
the attitude of revulsion and horror associated with the creation and animation of the
monster stems from Mary's own experience and understanding of the dangers of childbirth.
Her own mother died when she was born, and her own baby girl, born two months prematurely
on February 2nd, 1815, died within weeks on March 6th. With the exception of one son,
Percy, born in 1819, the history of Mary's subsequent pregnancies and offspring was also
unfortunate. As Wolfe puts it (prior to outlining the biographical context of Frankenstein):
"It comes down to this -- that lovers risk babies, and babies can kill"
While Mary's notion of allying the topic of artificial animation with the tones of
horror may owe much to her psychological traumas, the book itself is not addressed to such
matters. Wolf comes closest to what the novel, considered on its own terms, is about when,
towards the conclusion of his generally excellent Introduction, he makes an apposite
comparison with The Education of Henry Adams. The "science" in Frankenstein
displays a numinous quality akin to the mystical force or power which Adams
understands as directing the movement of civilization: "The rays that Langley
disowned, as well as those which he fathered, were occult, super-sensual, irrational; they
were a revelation of mysterious energy like that of the Cross; they were what, in terms of
medieval science, were called immediate modes of the divine substance" (quoted
p.xxvi). Adams identifies that force as sexual energy. What is at issue in Frankenstein
is the relationship between Victor and a similar, seemingly transcendent
energy. To say, as Wolf does, that the "energy towards fecundity" is distorted
or perverted by Victor's "life-offending egotism" (p.xxvi) is to resolve an
issue which Mary leaves open: the possibility of a necessarily perverted, solipsistic
reality in which the Other, whether transcendent or not, is simply non-existent.
But it is in focusing on the impulses towards transcendence in Frankenstein rather
than on any basis which the work might have in the facts of Mary's biography, that Wolf
most effectively counters the view that Frankenstein is best described
as SF. There is much in the book which might be described as marginally SF or as
anticipative of SF proper, including the pervasive influence of the Prometheus myth (an
influence which Wolf seriously underestimates). It is an important work in the
evolution of SF. But to identify Frankenstein as full-fledged SF and then to
claim it as the first such, misrepresents the facts.
Instances of a more specific kind of factual misrepresentation are to be found in some
of Wolf's annotations. After pointing out in a notation to his Introduction (p.x) that
Mary's Introduction omits the presence of Claire Clairmont amongst the Diodati group, a
notation to Shelley's Preface (p.5) includes Claire amongst those mentioned in Mary's
Introduction. A subsequent annotation refers to the improved "health of Victor's
father and mother" (p.85). At this point in the text Victor's mother is dead. Wolf
means Ernest, a younger brother. In another place, Gravesend, Woolwich and Greenwich are
misleadingly called "cities" (p.230). A typographical error (p.238) directs the
reader to an annotation on page 325 instead of 323.
Most of the interpretative annotations are helpful, especially when they are not
limited to supporting Wolf's psychological reading of the text. A reader's attention is
drawn to various details which indicate that the monster is Frankenstein's doppelgänger
(pp.196, 224, 264, 310). An identification between the monster and Elizabeth is hinted at
by the use of the word "insect" which, as Wolf notes, Frankenstein applies
incongruously to both on different occasions (pp.35, 139). Likewise, Wolf comments well on
the diffident courtesy of the monster's first spoken words, "Pardon this
intrusion" (p.191), and the switch from "you" to "thou" as the
monster addressing Frankenstein apes Adam addressing God.
However, a reader might balk at Wolf's claim that "the creature has fallen in love
with Agatha" simply because he describes her as "the ever-gentle Agatha"
(p.169). Similarly extravagant is Wolf's subsequent notation that for the monster
"the issue is sex" (p.251). In fact the monster displays no specifically sexual
yearnings and appears totally disinterested in the possibility of rape; his main desire,
it may be intuited, is for acceptance by Frankenstein. Elsewhere (p.267), Wolf
manufactures a specious contradiction. The Irish magistrate changes his mind concerning
whether or not Frankenstein is a murderer within the space of two pages for reasons which
are explained on the page following: the reader is given to assume that contact with
Victor's father is the causal factor. And surely the fact that in the book's penultimate
paragraph the monster's immolation is only projected, should not be ascribed to Mary
Shelley's being unable to "bring herself to murder this most unfortunate creature of
her brain" (p.332). Much of the novel's prophetic power depends upon its open ending.
Wolf's rationalization is misleadingly sentimental.
Some of Wolf's biographical speculations are tenuous at best. There is no compelling
reason to link the death of Frankenstein's mother with the death of Mary's mother and
thereby identify the adopted child Elizabeth with Mary, a theory which Wolf argues in two
annotations (pp.48, 108). In commenting on the episode where Victor and Clerval (and
presumably the unseen monster) travel down the Rhine and its "source" in the
real life journey of Mary, Percy Shelley and Claire Clairmont in 1814, Wolf attempts to
correlate the three real people with the "three" fictional ones. He suggests
that Clerval's role corresponds to the monster's. But an equally strong case could be
made, in terms of the names alone, for connecting the somewhat effeminate ClerVAL and the
aggressive ClairMONT, who once asked Byron to address letters to her as
In any annotated edition where a half of each page is reserved for annotation a certain
amount of padding is to be expected. Although Wolf's Frankenstein is illustrated
as well as annotated, several of the illustrations (those of a madhouse and a magistrate
on page 296, for example) and the annotations appear to be dictated by the need to fill up
space. Do we need an annotation for "capitulated" in the clause "the man
who thus capitulated for his safety" (p.24)? The long annotation detailing a tale by
Herodotus about an early linguistic experiment (p.161) in no way elucidates the manner in
which the monster acquires his language, nor does that quoting from Tarzan's experience
(p.169). Equally irrelevant is the comparison with the movie The Mind of Mr. Soames, the
protagonist of which gains consciousness only in adulthood (p.174).
In view of the need to fill up space, it is the omissions which are especially
surprising. The consistent association between the monster and the moon is not noted.
There is no mention of important parallels between Mary's description of the Mont Blanc
area and Shelley's poem "Mont Blanc" or of Shelley's intriguing conclusion in a
letter to Peacock (July 25. 1816) "that Mont Blanc was a living being that the frozen
blood forever circulated slowly thro' his stony veins."6 Consistent
with Wolf's blindness to the philosophical dimension of Frankenstein, he fails to
note the important influence of Locke. Mary seems to have immersed herself in the study of
Locke's Essay Concerning Human Understanding while writing Frankenstein and
his influence is particularly to be observed in the account on the monster's initial
moments of awareness.
With some justice, in his first textual annotation, Wolf rejects the argument of Radu
Florescu's In Search of Frankenstein that Shelley and Mary visited Castle
Frankenstein, near Darmstadt, in September, 1814, on their way down the Rhine.7 But the possibility that Mary knew of Castle Frankenstein
and its associated legends is an interesting one. Mention is made of castles while
Frankenstein and Clerval journey down the Rhine, thus inviting further exploration of the
Castle Frankenstein business in an annotation. Wolf, however, provides no such annotation.
Amongst his acknowledgments Wolf refers to Marc A. Rubenstein whose important
forthcoming article on Frankenstein 8 he
was allowed to read and who "then talked with me about it when I most needed to know
what he knew" (p.v). And so Wolf did. Rubenstein's article makes a convincing case
for regarding the description of someone referred to as Safie's mother as a portrait of
Mary's mother, Mary Wollstonecraft. This identification, so obvious once it has been
pointed out that one wonders why it had not been pointed out much earlier, has major
interpretive implications which Rubenstein explores both thoroughly and intelligently. But
one learns nothing of this from Wolf's annotations, in spite of the specific
acknowledgment. The omission is bewildering.
A further significant omission is to be noted in one of the five appendices to The
Annotated "Frankenstein." "A Survey of British, American, and Foreign
language Editions of Frankenstein" fails to record that editions of the 1818
text were published in 1932 and 1937 and leaves the reader to assume that all the editions
listed are of the 1831 text. Other appendices consist of maps which convey a strikingly
visual sense of the expanding geographic universe of Frankenstein, a
"Chronology of Events in Frankenstein" with the moments of illness,
madness and death colour coded, and, inevitably, a "Selected Filmography."
The final appendix, "A Note on the Illustrated Editions of Frankenstein,"
also includes examples of the work of five illustrators. Wolf's own edition is
enhanced by the surrealistic pen and ink drawings of Marcia Huyette. The other
illustrative material which is used to embellish the text is generally well chosen
although the copy of a sketch which Shelley made of his assailant in Tan-yr-alt, Wales (a
sketch which suggests a couple of episodes where the monster appears at a window), is not
included, and the Chevalier frontispiece to the 1831 edition, although included, is not
given the prominence it has in other Frankenstein books (perhaps for that
reason). Another picture included but not given the usual prominence in relation to Frankenstein
is Henry Fuseli's The Nightmare. Rather this is presented as one of a series
of Fuseli prints, all of which vividly complement the text. The congruence seems to be
more than fortuitous. As Wolf points out in his Introduction (p.xvii), Mary Wollstonecraft
fell in love with Fuseli, a fixation which lasted nearly four years. It may be relevant to
the skein of relationships that the egotistic Fuseli, like Frankenstein, was born in
There is something very appropriate about the way Wolf wordlessly connects a book,
which, via the cinematic image, exists pictorially in the minds of millions of people who
have never read the original, with an actual monstrous artist. And indeed the visual
appeal of Frankenstein is well served by Wolf's edition. Whatever reservations I
have about its contents, The Annotated "Frankenstein" is a gorgeously
produced work. Wolf's clothing looks good.
1.James Rieger, ea., Frankenstein (Indianapolis and New
York: The Bobbs Merrill Company, Inc., 1974), p.xliii.
2.Brian Aldiss, Billion Year Spree: The True History of
Science-Fiction (New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1973), p.7-39.
3.James Rieger, ea., Frankenstein, p.xix.
4.Ellen Moers, "Female Gothic: The Monster's Mother," New
York Review of Books (March 21, 1974), 24-28; reprinted in Literary
Women (New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1976), pp.91-99.
5.See R. Glynn Grylls, Mary Shelley: A Biography (London:
Oxford University Press, 1938), p.59, n.3.
6.Frederick L. Jones, ea., The Letters of Percy Bysshe Shelley (London:
Oxford University Press, 1964),1:500.
7.Radu Florescu, In Search of Frankenstein (Boston: New
York Graphic Society, 1975), pp.90-97.
8.Marc A. Rubenstein, " 'My Accursed Origin': The Search for
the Mother in Frankenstein," Studies in Romanticism, 15 (Spring 1976), pp. 1
A response by David Lake appears in SFS 21 (July 1980).]
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