It’s Shelley – and ideas – that scare us…
Since I’ve been skylarking, having left the original 2013 reading list in the dust long ago (except for the Christmas selections) and now having left the extended reading list behind, too, it seemed like a good idea, given that Halloween was approaching, to choose a book that fit the holiday. So I pulled my copy of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein from the book shelf. Couldn’t go wrong with the antecedent of all mad scientist stories as a choice for the spooky holiday, right?
As is the case with some other books on this list (Twain’s Innocents Abroad, the Austen novels Mansfield Park and Emma), I have read Frankenstein before – at least twice that I remember – and I think more times. I read the novel while in undergraduate school just because I wanted to and then read it in graduate school as part of a course on the Romantics. I believe I even taught it once in a freshman intro to lit sort of class – pretty sure I did, in fact. So there’s another time….
So I came to this reading with rather a healthy fund of knowledge about both the book and about its critical interpretations. To paraphrase my beloved Twain, however, I didn’t let my education get in the way of my learning this reading. So, on to the book…
The edition I read (pictured above) has both forewords and afterwords by prominent scholars (Walter James Miller and Harold Bloom) who certainly gloss the novel well. (And, yes, I’m one of those guys who reads forewords and afterwords – they might be on the exam, you know.) But what struck me as I read the novel this time (credit to Professors Miller and Bloom for reminding me about these) was the following: 1) how much Percy Shelley figures in the novel (both in the character of Victor Frankenstein and as Mary’s amanuensis/editor); 2) what a novel full of ideas Frankenstein is and how scary some of those ideas are; 3) how sentimental (I mean that both in the general sense and in the more specialized Romantic sense) the novel is.
The “Author’s Preface” at the beginning of the book was written by Percy Shelley. He also edited (some would claim “co-wrote”) the work (his “improvements” are mostly for ill, since he took Mary Shelley’s clean, spare prose and made it more “literary,” often changing and complicating meanings unnecessarily). And Shelley’s poem “Mutability” (a treatise on the impermanence and constant change that is life) is quoted in Chapter 10 as Victor Frankenstein broods on his (and his creation’s) deeds while climbing to the Montanvert Glacier. The given name of the protagonist, “Victor,” is one of P. B. Shelley’s pen names. To discuss how much of Shelley’s character belongs to Victor or to his monster would take a dissertation – or a book. One might conclude that Frankenstein: or The Modern Prometheus is, in its way, a love/hate letter from Mary to Percy.
Frankenstein is nothing if not a novel full of ideas. From its reconsideration of Milton’s Paradise Lost (which serves as a kind of Bible for the monster; whether he ultimately identifies with Adam or Satan is one of the novel’s great ambiguities) to its treatment of the Prometheus myth (again the influence of Shelley: his verse drama Prometheus Unbound deals with similar ideas concerning the defiant seeker of knowledge who goes too far and is horribly punished) to its presentations of the societal roles of men and women (Mary Shelley’s depictions of women vacillate between assertions of her mother’s arguments about women’s treatment and commentary on her own relationship with Percy) to its portrayal of the doppelganger (the novel is antecedent not simply to obviously similar works like “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde”; Frankenstein anticipates, especially in the conversations between Victor and his creation, such complex psychological studies as Conrad’s “The Secret Sharer” and Dostoyevsky’s “The Double”) the novel fairly crackles with philosophical, theological, scientific, sociological, and legal discussions. Like the equally famous Dracula, one can talk about the book’s themes/ideas extensively without needing to discuss horror at all – and yet become terrified by the implications of those themes/ideas.
Finally, though this may seem strange to those not familiar with Romantic literature’s occasional (some would argue regular) excesses, Frankenstein is really quite the sentimental book. Victor does a lot of weeping, wailing, and gnashing his teeth. He rhapsodizes (as does his monster – and his friend Clerval – and his doomed beloved Elizabeth – and, oh, pretty much anyone who talks about nature) about the beauties of nature. Both men and women faint with amusing regularity. In sum, there’s enough sturm und drang in Frankenstein to make sorrowful about a half dozen Werthers. And while I’m not sure Mary Shelley intended it, there’s possibly, in the novel’s ending, an unconscious nod to that pinnacle of Romantic sentimental super emoting, Mackenzie’s The Man of Feeling (that’s the one where the hero is so happy that his long desired beloved accepts him that he drops dead from joy). Certainly Victor Frankenstein dies from sadness as much as from any biological cause. That’s the other side of that excess of feeling coin.
It’s a magnificent, somewhat flawed, engrossing, occasionally frustrating book. It is so famous as to have become part of the language we use to talk about human aspiration and frailty.
To quote the most famous movie line associated with the story, “It’s alive! Alive!”