Science Fiction Studies

# 18 = Volume 6, Part 2 = July 1979

David Ketterer

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" (, 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" ( 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 important.

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" (p.xv).

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 "Clairville."5

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 Switzerland.

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 65-94

[Nota bene: A response by David Lake appears in SFS 21 (July 1980).]

moonbut.gif (4466 bytes)  Back to Home