Science Fiction Studies

#23 = Volume 8, Part 1 = March 1981

Aija Ozolins

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 editions.1

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, " 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 creature--is unoriginal.6

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, 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 skeptical.

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 Shelley's self-education.

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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