Twelve Essays on Frankenstein
George Levine and U.C. Knoepflmacher, eds.
The Endurance of Frankenstein: Essays on Mary Shelley's
Novel. Berkeley & Los Angeles: University of California Press,
1979, xx + 341 p. $16.95.
This handsomely edited volume contains a Mary Shelley chronology, a preface explaining
the organization of the book and summarizing the theses of the essays, notes on the
contributors, 29 illustrations, a select annotated bibliography, a detailed index, but
only a handful of lucid and illuminating articles. Two somewhat unusual features are
internal cross-references among the authors and the use of two different editions of the
novel: the 1818 version edited by James Rieger in 1974 and the 1831 version edited by M.K.
Joseph in 1971. Both practices affected me negatively: the first seemed cliquish, the
second slightly confusing. Though the dual option is desirable, it could mislead the
unwary reader who is unfamiliar with the salient differences between the first and third
In a manner reminiscent of the story-telling contest at the Villa Diodati in 1816,
these essays grew out of a conversation at a party where several of the contributors
acknowledged their fascination with Frankenstein and undertook to analyze its
enduring popularity. Their subsequent articles were grouped into five sections, each
highlighting a particular perspective. As the co-editors explain, "Literary
tradition, Gothicism, religion, female psychology, sociology, revolution, language, the
nature of the grotesque, the metaphor of animation adopted by film narrative, these are
some of the coordinates that can help us understand the awkward instability and miraculous
power of Frankenstein" (p. xiv).
The twelve contributors are certainly respected authorities in their own fields, but
only one (Ellen Moers) is cited in W.H. Lyles's Mary Shelley: An Annotated
Bibliography (1975). Instead of cross-referencing each other, these relatively new
Mary Shelley scholars should evidence greater familiarity with her letters, journals, and post-Frankenstein
novels as well as with previous scholarship on Frankenstein itself.2 (Sparse documentation sometimes leads one to wonder if an
observation is intended to be original or commonplace.) They should also strive to be at
least as logical and articulate as the Monster, and, above all, they should resist the
temptation to use the novel chiefly as an occasion to expound their particular theories of
language, comedy, sociology, psychology, science, or religion. Repeatedly, their
interpretations seemed to be imposed upon the work rather than to emanate from it. Two
slight factual errors caught my attention: in the Preface the co-editors assert that the
essay by Ellen Moers "is the only one not specifically written for this volume"
(p. xiv), though the one by Peter Brooks was previously published in the New Literary
History (Vol. 9, 1978): and in the Bibliography Lowry Nelson, Jr. is incorrectly
listed as Nelson Lowry, Jr. The collection affords delights and disappointments. In
originality, clarity, and validity of exposition, I found the essays by Griffin, Sterrenburg, Nestrick, and (in part) Knoepflmacher to be the most satisfying; the others,
in varying degrees, are less clear, cogent, and scholarly. Within the confines of this
review, however, I can offer only cursory observations.
George Levine, Judith Wilt, and Andrew Griffin discuss "Traditions" as they
look forward and backward from Frankenstein. Levine describes seven motifs that
make the novel "a metaphor for our own cultural crises" (p. 3). Such a
compendium is useful for general discussion, but for advancing specific interpretations of
some of these motifs (the overreacher, the double, the defects of domesticity, for
example) a distinction needs to be made between the 1818 and 1831 editions; according to
Poovey, Mary Shelley's conception of Frankenstein underwent a fundamental change
in the interim.3 Levine wisely uses the 1818 edition to
advance his reading of the novel as "the perfect myth of the secular" p. 30),
yet he harps so insistently on secularism that he seems to be propagandizing rather than
analyzing. He is at his best in dealing with post-Frankenstein fiction by
Dickens, Conrad, Eliot, and Lawrence that relates to Shelley's novel by way of
"allusions," "metaphorical elaboration," or "mirror images"
(pp. 21, 25).
Wilt's reading of Frankenstein as a mystery play is a perverse excursion into
crypto- and pseudo-religiosity. She is quadruply obscure. First, she redefines
conventional theological terms with extreme subjectivity: the traditional Trinity, for
example, becomes the "atheistic trinity" of Frankenstein, his Creature, and an
Unholy Ghost of utter destruction" (p. 40). Second, the concept of kenosis, in her
imagery, becomes "the curve of God," or a series of emanations (pp. 33-35)--a
doubtful interpretation based on the Creature's twofold reference to "the series of
this being." Third, she smothers her meaning in jargon-filled metaphoric prose
("freedom is a long curve, slavery an obsessed straight line") studded with
neologisms ("doomful," "decreation," "merge" as a noun). And
she contradicts herself: the female creature that heretofore was associated with the
undesirable spirit of death suddenly becomes a desirable, even necessary,
"triangulation point" that makes a person possible (p. 47). She even contradicts
the novel in alleging that Frankenstein pursues his Creature, not out of revenge, but to
take back life for himself because only one "quantum of existence is available for
both" (p. 40).
In 1976 Martin Tropp called attention to the imagery of heat and cold, but Griffin's
exponential analysis of "Fire and Ice in Frankenstein" goes beyond
Tropp's, whose study, incidentally, is not mentioned.4 Griffin's
description of these elements is archetypal. His originality lies in his conception of
Walton, Frankenstein, and the Creature. Both questers are searching for warmth amidst
cold--Walton for paradisic warmth amid polar ice, and Frankenstein for vital warmth,
"a spark of being," amid inert matter. (Hence the aptness of his Promethean
epithet, for the ambiguous Titan was both fire-thief and fire-giver.) The Creature, viewed
as an unstable compound of "fire-in-ice" (p. 60), progresses from animation to
extinction via ambivalent encounters with fire and cold. His suicide-by-fire at the North
Pole parodies Frankenstein's "dream of fire in ice" (p. 69). Walton's decision
to return to England, "a temperate zone where, for better or for worse, human
relations flourish," indicates to Griffin a "conservative distrust of Romantic
extremes, a Victorian longing for security, society, and self-command, symbolized (as in Jane
Eyre) by the domestic hearth" (p. 51). His analysis of the warm red and cold
white realms in Jane Eyre is not fully integrated with his discussion of Frankenstein,
but he is absolutely correct about Mary Shelley's being "almost a Victorian at
heart" (p. 50).5
In Part Two, Ellen Moers and U.C. Knoepflmacher take "Biographical
Soundings." Since its first appearance in the New York Review of Books and
subsequently in her own book, Literary Women, Moers's essay, "Female
Gothic," has gained wide acclaim, but I find it disappointing. Her general
conception-- Frankenstein as "a woman's mythmaking on the subject of
birth" (p. 81 )--sounds plausible enough, but most of the parallels between Mary
Shelley's physical children and her brainchild are not clearly articulated or supported.
Moreover, she succumbs to some of the pitfalls of biographical criticism--the tendency to
offer psychological analysis in place of textual analysis and to stretch a story to fit
the author's life. The central birth metaphor leads to some forced and tenuous parallels.
After the Creature's "birth," though the agency of woman is conspicuously
absent, the fully-grown, eight-foot being suffers from "deficient infant care"
(p. 81) Why stress "the motif of revulsion against newborn life" (p. Xl) if, by
Moers's own later admission, Mary Shelley "rejoiced at becoming a mother and loved
and cherished her babies as long as they lived " (p. 82). "Death and
birth," Moers pronounces, "were...as hideously intermixed in the life of Mary
Shelley as in Frankenstein's 'workshop of filthy creation'" (p. 84). She details the
births and deaths in the Shelley circle but fails to relate them specifically to the
novel. The only solid parallel--Mary Shelley's dream in 1815 that her dead baby revived
and her dream in 1816 that "the pale student of unhallowed arts" animated his
Writing from a thorough knowledge of Mary Shelley's life and work, U. C. Knoepflmacher
presents some fresh and stimulating insights in his essay. "Thoughts on the
Aggression of Daughters." In the "raging Monster" and the "yielding
Elizabeth" (p. 94), for instance, he perceives the aggressive and passive components
of Mary Shelley's psyche. Passivity, he notes, can be a sublimated form of aggression.
True, but Mary Shelley's genuine passivity--her lifelong insecure clinging--should be
distinguished from this kind of veiled aggression. Knoepflmacher also argues that, lacking
a maternal model, Mary Shelley feared an imbalance in her personality; through the writing
of Frankenstein she sought to regain this balance. Each of the narrators,
accordingly, is examined to see how well the benevolent female principle functions in him:
Walton possesses this feminine ideal, Frankenstein wilfully denies it, and the Monster is
forced to abandon it. Just before his death, however, the Monster allegedly recovers the
softer side of this nature: "sadism becomes masochism" (p. 111) as his promise
of immolation turns anger and aggression on himself. This act, Knoepflmacher argues (not
entirely convincingly), is intended "to save humanity from its own violence,...to
exorcise sadistic masculinity and to regain the female component of [Mary Shelley's]
threatened psyche'' (pp. 105-O6, 110-11).
In Part Three, Kate Ellis, Lee Sterrenburg, and Peter Dale Scott examine wider contexts
of self and society. Ellis, in her essay "Monsters in the Garden: Mary Shelley and
the Bourgeois Family," echoes Knoepflmacher's concern about divided selves; but she
attributes this psychic imbalance to "the defects of domesticity" (p.
13)--specifically, to the family's insularity and to the rigid separation of male and
female spheres of activity (p. 140). Frankenstein has a number of veritable
ambivalences, but Mary Shelley's attitude toward the traditional family is not one of
them. Percy Shelley's 1817 Preface commends the novel for its display of "the
amiableness of domestic affection" and nothing in the work seriously undercuts that
claim: in fact, his wife's revisions confirm this emphasis. Mary Poovey has called
attention to the fact that many of the changes in chapters one, two, and five have the
primary effect of idealizing "the domestic harmony of Victor's childhood."7
Using the 1831 text, Ellis nevertheless sees mainly a subversive critique of the family.
For example, she construes Walton's expedition as an attempt "to find for himself and
all mankind a substitute for domestic affections" (p.128). She leaves him an
"exile from the home hearth [driven] deeper and deeper into isolation" (p.
125)--a misleading picture that ignores his resolve to return home. Similarly, Victor's
manifestly idyllic childhood as the idol of two doting and ever-present parents is
deprecated as a stifling, insulated bourgeois existence that fosters and perpetuates
divided selves. In contrast to these "flawed models of socialization" (p. 126),
the De Lacey household is said to exemplify a "limited Paradise Regained" (p.
25). Although the cottagers abruptly quit their home and are mentioned no more, Ellis
contends that "they are the only family that perpetuates itself into the next
generation" (p. 138). Ellis's bias in favor of spirited women like Safie causes her
to misprize the submissive ones like Caroline, Elizabeth, and Justine. Knoepflmacher
rightly declares that "in fiction as in life [Mary Shelley advocated] the
renunciatory virtues of an Elizabeth-Justine" (p. 113). Her novels are replete with
cloying but sincere idealizations--Idris and Perdita in The Last Man (1826),
Katherine in Perkin Warbeck (1830), Lady Santerre and Cornelia in Lodore (1835),
and Alithea and Elizabeth in Falkner (1837).
Sharing Knoepflmacher's and Ellis's concern about divided selves, Scott explores sexual
imbalance in self and society. Viewing Frankenstein as "essentially a
feminist critique," he interprets it in terms of "Androgyny Lost" and
"Androgyny Regained" (pp. 172,189). The novel provides ample warrant for the
former condition, though, strictly speaking, Mary Shelley's antithesis is between
Clerval's social and Frankenstein's unsocial personality. Scott strains to prove his
corollary contention that the novel holds out hope for "Androgyny Regained,"
that it is a "testimony of hope for the evolution of a new consciousness: one which
someday will be neither male, nor even feminist, but quintessentially human" (p.
202)--a fine-sounding aim, but one full of undefined terms and assumptions and one that
finds scant support in Frankenstein.8 Undeniably,
Walton, who is initially under the sway of "male exploratory reason," finally
abandons his Polar expedition to return to his sister in England--a decision that shows
him to me "more androgynously balanced" than Victor (p. 194). Scott also
presents Safie and Clerval as ideal types, but their symbolic roles seem to weigh more
heavily with him than the action of the novel warrants: Safie disappears with the De
Laceys and Clerval dies. Scott's prime support for melioration is the Monster's final
speech. Ignoring possibly Satanic guile and demonstrably diabolical murders (dismissed as
"imperfections"), Scott sentimentally claims that the Creature, now "least
menacing and most human," gains the moral awareness that Frankenstein has lost (pp.
197-99, 201). Since Scott finds little evidence for his thesis in Frankenstein,
he adduces other literary works as influences or parallels--notably, Shelley's The
Revolt of Islam, Dante's Divine Comedy, Volney's The Ruins, and
Barruel's Memoirs Illustrating the History of Jacobinism.9 Scott's
sincere desire for "free and equal reunion of the sexes" (p. 189) apparently
blinds him to the eccentricities and illogicalities in his interpretations.
Sterrenburg's essay, "Mary Shelley's Monster: Politics and Psyche in Frankenstein,"
is a model of originality, thorough scholarship, and graceful exposition. Sterrenburg
perceives Mary Shelley's ambivalence toward reform: she could "imagine a positive
side to radical hopes for reform, yet she also I saw "their degeneration into carnage
and disaster" (p. 171). To express her double vision, she drew on several antecedent
literary conventions but adapted them to her own ends. For example, anti-Godwin
propaganda, such as Walker's novel The Vagabond (1798), helped to shape her
characterization of Frankenstein, who like his revolutionary counterparts, exhumes and
revives the dead and ultimately is destroyed by a monster of his own making. Other
polemical writings on the French Revolution influenced her conception of the Monster, who
is seen as a hybrid of the Burkean tradition of evil revolutionary monsters and the
republican tradition of monsters driven to rebellion by suffering and injustice.
Typically, Mary Shelley internalizes and depoliticizes the writings that contributed to
her story. Parricidal rebellion replaces political revolution, and the allegedly
simplistic thinking of those who conceived of evil as an invasion from without (from
France, from the Illuminati, from hell) is replaced by her more subjective and complex
approach (e.g., Frankenstein's battle with his soul and the opening up of multiple
perspectives through the use of three narrators). After demonstrating how Frankenstein
borrows yet significantly modifies "the revolutionary and anti-revolutionary
political metaphors of the 1790s," Sterrenburg cites illustrations of how verbal and
pictorial propaganda from later periods of crisis and reform (1830s, 1848-49, 1860s,
1880s) harked back to Frankenstein's Monster for their political metaphors (p. 166). His
full-orbed essay on the novel's background and influences--as well as his astute analysis
of "stylistic reversal" in the speeches of Frankenstein and his Creature (pp.
160-161)--adds a new dimension to Frankenstein scholarship.
In Part Four, Peter Brooks and Philip Stevick examine the verbal texture of the novel.
There is value in discussing the "'godlike science' of language as relation" as
"doomed dialectic" involving the monstrous, culture, and nature-- but,
unfortunately, Brooks's own use of language betrays signs of "semantic aphasias"10 (p. 205). He spins a cocoon of semiotic jargon around Frankenstein,
leaving it a mummified monument to the "thematization of language," his chief
concern (pp. 208, 210). Jargon obscures the simplest thought: for instance, Frankenstein's
consent to construct a mate for the monster is rendered thus: "The Monster's use of
language has contextualized desire itself as a systematic chain of signifiers whose
rhetorical effect cannot be denied by the narrated. The symbolic order is
operational" (pp. 211-212). Brooks is also overzealous in assimilating episodes to
his linguistic perspective. He laments, for example the failure of language to enable the
Monster to establish relationship, as if mankind's failure to love were not equally great:
he explains that Frankenstein destroys the female creature because he fears
"unforeseeable monstrous messages...with unknown rules and grammar" (p. 213);
and he remarks that the monster does not strike directly at Frankenstein, "the sacred
name that is the signified of all signifiers," but he kills, "by metonymy,"
those most closely related to him (p. 213).
Stevick views the novel from the highly unusual perspective of comic theory. His
eminently readable and stimulating article is valuable not only for its discussion of how
dream materials become consciously elaborated fiction11
but also for its stylistic analyses of the Monster's and Victor's speeches as
juxtapositions of stasis and motion. He is less successful in applying Bergsonian comic
theory to a fundamentally serious tale. Conceding that the book is rarely funny in the
reading, Stevick argues that it is often comic in retrospect. To buttress his case, he
links Frankenstein with other dreamlike narratives (The Castle of Otranto,
Bartleby, The Metamorphosis), and he borrows the cardinal elements of
Bergson's comic character--rigidity, automatism, absentmindedness, and unsociability.12 In applying these traits to Frankenstein and Monster,
Stevick stretches the meaning Bergson assigns to these qualities (especially automatism),
and he ignores Bergson's proviso that "the comic does not exist outside the pale of
what is strictly human."13 Stevick slants all his
examples to suggest "nightmare inefficacy and comic failure" (p. 232). Walton,
for instance, is pictured as "little boy lost" (p. 213). Frankenstein is called
a "poor fool" for studying the wrong books (p. 231); he is also
"bumbling" and "inept" in his attempt to construct the Creature
(p.225). Stevick also finds "faint ridiculousness" in the De Lacey episode (p.
232) and "retrospective comedy" as well as "ritual frustration" in the
destruction of the companion creature (p. 233). Concerning the closing episode, "the
last bad dream, and the last ritual defeat," he asks, "'What high mimetic
horrors brought you to that frozen sea? and what low mimetic ineptitude caused you to be
adrift on an ice floe in the Atlantic Ocean?'" (p. 234) Stevick rests his case with
the reader's response. For some, "mythic seriousness, psychic authority, and
laughter" may coexist as he modestly proposes (p. 239), but I remain enlightened yet
Part Five, on the "Visual Progeny" of Frankenstein, contains two
highly informative, sensible, and well-written essays by William Nestrick and Albert La
Valley. Their contributions complement each other nicely: while the former provides a
broad survey of stage, film, and television adaptations, the latter learnedly yet
gracefully pursues one specific motif--coming to life--in a dozen film narratives ranging
from James Whale's Frankenstein to Ingmar Bergman's The Magician. 20
illustrations as well as a bibliography and filmography enhance La Valley's essay. He is
mistaken, however, in commending Donald F. Glut's The Frankenstein Legend
as "always accurate."14
The leitmotif of men and apes frames this collection and thereby lends it a tendentious
aura. Levine in his opening essay dwells at length on various motifs representing the dark
side of our nature--the double, the vampire, and the id; he associates the "implied
fiction of Frankenstein" with the theories of Freud and Darwin (p. 26).
Correspondingly, his co-editor, Knoepflmacher, reinforces this connection in an Appendix
essay, "Face to Face: Of Man-Apes, Monsters, and Readers." After discussing Frankenstein
as a literary analogue to T.H. Huxley's Man's Place in Nature, he justly
reminds us that we share a metaphoric kinship with the Monster. Then, forgetting that
evolution is still but a theory, he gratuitously pronounces that the man-ape relationship
is "based on incontrovertible [sic] fact" (p. 319).
Ten years ago there was a dearth of scholarly criticism on Mary Shelley; now she is
much in vogue, and every conceivable critical handle is being applied to her first novel.
The current collection, though attractive, thought-provoking, and useful in many ways,
falls short of being a solid and lasting contribution to the burgeoning scholarship on Frankenstein.
Perhaps some of the best essays in it could be combined with selected older studies and
published in one of the classic series such as "Norton Critical Editions" or
"Twentieth Century Views."
1. Mary Poovey. "Mary Shelley and the Feminization of
Romanticism." PMLA. 95 May 1980):340-45.
2. Among recent valuable studies are William Wallings Mary
Shelley (NY, 1972), Martin Tropp's Mary Shelleys Monster (Boston, 1976), and
Jane Dunn's Moon in Eclipse: A Life of Mary Shelley (NY, 1978). Also see July
1978 issue of SFS (No. 15) for David Ketterer's bibliographic article, "Mary Shelley
and Science Fiction: A Select Bibliography Selectively Annotated (pp. 172-78).
3. Poovey, (note 1), pp. 34O-42.
4. Tropp (note 2), pp.71-83.
5. Picking up on Muriel Spark's random observation that Mary
Shelley never became "wholly at one with the currents of the Romantic revival" (Child
of Light. pp.191, 193). I demonstrated in my dissertation (University of Maryland,
1972) how she arched backward to the Neo-Classical period, where lay her Godwinian roots,
and forward to the Victorian era, to which her temperament was attuned.
6. Aija Ozolins. "The Novels of Mary Shelley: From Frankenstein
to Faulkner" (Diss. University of Maryland. 1972) pp. 27-30: condensed in
"Dreams and Doctrines in Frankenstein," SFS, 2 (July 1975):103.
7. Poovey. (note 1). pp. 340-41.
8. Jungian psychology, in its concepts of animus and anima,
acknowledges the bisexuality of the human psyche: a German proverb limply declares,
"Every man has his own Eve within him": and Genesis I :27 (in the original
Hebrew text) reads: "God created man in His own image: male-female [not male and
female] created He them." See Katherine Bushnell's God's Word to Women: One
Hundred Bible Studies (Ray B. Munson. 1923) Lessons 3 and 5.
9. Volney's The Ruins, uncritically used by Scott in his
investigation of societal imbalance, deserves further study as an important influence on Frankenstein
and The Last Man: it forms an integral part of the Creature's and Mary
10. Melvin Maddocks. "The Limitations of Language." Time
(March 8, 1971), pp. 36-37.
11. This twofold process of composition was discussed in 1972 by
Ozolins (note 5) and in 1976 by Tropp (note 2).
12. Henri Bergson. "Laughter." in Comedy: Plays,
Theory, and Criticism. ed. Marvin Felheim (NY. 1962), p. 229.
13. Ibid., p. 214.
14. Aija Ozolins. "Recent Work on Mary Shelley." SFS 3
(July 1976l: 190-91
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