4.10.15

Mary Shelley's Frankenstein

The approach of Halloween – that time of ghosts, goblins and monsters – is the perfect time to read the classic novel, Frankenstein. So powerful is this novel that many more people know the story than have actually read the book. More than 400 film productions of the book and countless other media/format adaptations of it have been produced over the years (Lederer and Ratzan 2005, 462).

This extraordinary story was written by Mary Shelly, an adolescent at the time of writing. Daughter of celebrated authors, Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin (see his Gothic novel, Caleb Williams), Mary Shelley met the famous poet, Percy Shelley, at the age of 17. Despite the fact that he was married and had two children, Mary eloped with him within a few months of their first meeting. Such choices in the early nineteenth century guaranteed social censure and ostracism. At age 19, months after giving birth to her second child, Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein. By the time she was 25, three of her four children had died, Percy Shelley’s former wife had committed suicide, and Percy Shelley had drowned in a boating accident (Smith 1996).

Frankenstein, as Mary Shelley writes in the preface to the novel, was written when Mary and Percy were vacationing with Lord Byron in Italy. A stretch of rainy weather confined the trio indoors, so they passed the time by reading a book of ghost stories, an activity that prompted Lord Byron to suggest an idea. “We will each write a ghost story,” he proposed and thus began Frankenstein(7).

The novel has been described as a ghost story, a work of science fiction, a Gothic novel, a supernatural tale, a psychological thriller, and a horror story. Central to all these genres is the element of mystery and suspense. Mary Shelley’s intent, as she herself explained, was to write a story that “would speak to the mysterious fears of our nature, and awaken thrilling horror – one to make the reader dread to look round, to curdle the blood, and quicken the beatings of the heart” (8). Scaggs has commented upon the similarities between her stated intent and the modern crime thriller (2005, 106).

Frankenstein begins as a series of letters written by a voyaging brother to his sister back home. The brother tells the tale of Victor Frankenstein, a man he meets in the northern stretches of Russia. As a young man, Frankenstein, travelled to Ingolstadt, Germany to study at the university. Once there, he became obsessed with finding the secret to the creation of life. Eventually he produced a live creature, an experience that made him recoil in horror and run from his creation. The monster is left deserted, and once he realizes how ostracized he is from humankind, he retaliates by killing – one by one – the people closest to his creator.

As science fiction, this story initiates the “experiment-gone-wrong” type of novel (Lederer and Ratzan 2005, 464). Although Frankenstein did not intend to create a specifically monstrous type of being, he sought out the raw materials for it from charnel houses, graves, abattoirs, and live animals that he killed. Shelley’s readers would have known that the only bodies available for dissection at the time were those of convicted criminals (Lederer and Ratzan 2005, 457). Frankenstein’s thirst for forbidden knowledge had become had become a dark obsession, as indicated by the monster’s origins.

Frankenstein’s monster is a classic doppelganger or double. As Joseph observes, the interdependence of the creator and his creation
is evoked with considerable power in the last part of Frankenstein’s narrative in which Frankenstein, from being the pursued, becomes the pursuer; yet, by a sort of complicity, he is also lured on willingly by the monster across the snowbound landscape of Russia. (2006, xi)
The creature is a reflection and projection of the monstrous impulses of his creator. Forerunner of the modern psychological thriller, Frankenstein probes the dark recesses of the human mind, and resonates with readers long after it is finished.

In her preface, Mary Shelley called the novel her “hideous progeny” (10). As Baldrick points out, the book is self-referential, commenting on the act of authorial creation,
Books themselves behave monstrously towards their creators, running loose from authorial intention and turning to mock their begetters by displaying a vitality of their own. . . Like the monster it contains, the novel is assembled from dead fragments to make a living whole; and as a published work, it escapes Mary Shelley's textual frame and acquires its independent life outside it, as a myth. (1987, 31)
The supernatural story is framed within a series of concentric narratives. These frames connect the bizarre fantasy story with the outer realistic framework, a technique used to convince readers of the tale’s plausibility and to contain the horror.

Baldrick, Chris. “The Monster Speaks: Mary Shelley’s Novel.” In In Frankenstein’s Shadow: Myth, Monstrosity and Nineteenth-Century Writing, 31-63. Oxford: Clarendon, 1987.

Joseph, M. K. “Introduction.” Frankenstein Mary or The Modern Prometheus, by Mary Shelley, v-xiii. 1818. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1969.

Lederer, Susan E. and Richard M. Ratzan. “Mary Shelley: Frankenstein: Or, the Modern Prometheus.” In A Companion to Science Fiction, edited by David Seed, 455-65. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2005. Scaggs, John. Crime Fiction. London: Routledge, 2005.

Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus. 1818. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1969.

Smith, Johanna M. “Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley: A Biography.” In Mary Shelley, 1-18. New York: Twayne, 1996.