As part of our monthly review, Katie Watson has followed on from her previous article, to discuss Frankenstein from a literary perspective. Katie is an English Studies MA student who previously graduated with a BA in English and Drama.
What’s in a name? Well, with ‘Frankenstein’ quite a lot, actually. He is often mistakenly both the man and the monster. He is also literally a man and, to some, a monster. Notice my imperative use of the indefinite and definite articles.
Mary Shelley’s (1797-1851) Frankenstein (1818) is, to my remarkably biased self, one of the most complex novels ever constructed, never mind the fact that the author was a teenage girl. I’m certain I spent my teenage years claiming I was ‘misunderstood’ at the bottom of a rather cheap bottle of cider thinking my rebellion niché and sexy. Well Mary Shelley’s rebellion was niche and sexy. Rather than drinking in parks and narrowly escaping the long arm of the law, she eloped to Europe and spent her time discussing higher topics with some of the greatest writers of the 19th century and those who now form part of the canon of Romantic poetry.
It was this elopement with Percy Shelley (1792-1822), himself a published poet, that led to her occupying a certain Swiss villa with a certain group of people on a certain stormy night in June that provoked a certain nightmare… That nightmare transformed itself into the Frankenstein that we know today.
Many people think they know the plot, when indeed they know the plot of one of the many infuriatingly incorrect adaptions of Shelley’s allegorical novel.
First things first, there is no Igor, he simply does not exist. Frankenstein is not the monster, he is the creator, Mr Victor Frankenstein. The monster is mainly referred to as ‘the creature’ and is not a grunting, moaning buffoon who trolls the world, arms extended, searching for his next random victim.
Shelley’s gothic novel tells of a scientist, interested in the essence of life. By exhuming corpses and stealing their body parts, he constructs a creature which he manages to galvanise into existence. We can almost tick off the gothic features used in this novel: the mad scientist with his transcendental experiments, horrific corporeal imagery, a murderous abhuman monster, wild mountainous landscapes, a defiled heroine (Victor’s wife) and the conflux of the scientific and the supernatural.
Horrified at the creature’s ugliness, Frankenstein flees his laboratory, leaving only his notebook behind. This notebook is how the creature learns of his abandoning father. Curious, sensitive and desperate to learn, the creature meets the De Lacey family, the father of which is blind. This man teaches the creature how to read, unaware of his monstrosity. He applies to the blind man for help but his children return to beat and cast out the creature. He faces this wherever he goes. Misunderstood and rejected, he is often seen as a metaphor for the African slave; categorised as dangerous, sexually predatorial, monstrously strong and to be controlled. The abolition of the slave trade was a topic rife in Shelley’s age and often appealed to women as they, too, understood what it felt like to be oppressed at the hand of the European white male.
The paramount thing to take away from this is that the creature is not born evil. He cares for the De Lacey family that reject him, bringing them wood and tending their garden, something they believe to be a miracle, the work of God, yet ironically to them he is demonic.
Unfortunately, the creature goes on to murder William Frankenstein, Victor’s younger brother after he, too, rejects him. It is this that provokes a killing spree in which the creature will do anything to destroy his creator.
The novel can be understood in many different ways, hence it’s complexity. It may be read as a plea for social reform. Shelley inhabited a society which would eagerly dismiss anyone that breached conventions; she herself was outcast after her elopement with Percy Shelley, something she felt strongly upon her return to England. Thus Shelley’s point is that it is not the creature that is innately monstrous, but that society makes the monster. All he seeks is love, respect and companionship. It is almost a warning to society of the dangers of rejecting those who break the norm.
It is also perhaps about the fear of scientific advancement. The age of Enlightenment marginally preceded Shelley’s tale, an age obsessed with science over religion, of rationality and progress. Galvanism was immensely popular, with scientists testing the effect of it on limbs and dead animals. It seems Shelley was wary of where these developments would lead. Frankenstein, rightly subtitled ‘The Modern Prometheus’, is a story of hubris. However, the myth of Prometheus was hailed by Romantic poets as aiding humanity against a tyrannical leader, Zeus, by giving man fire. To many, Prometheus represented a reformer and Zeus, a despotic government. To Shelley, however, the story of Prometheus seemed to mean something very different. The tale of Frankenstein and the protagonist’s poor end suggest that the author was deeply concerned with where science may lead society and the catastrophic outcomes of attaining divine power.
There is so much more to Shelley’s timeless novel than I can cover in one thousand words. It bears traces of the scars left by the French Revolution: that sometimes taking great power can lead to corruption and destruction. It challenges patriarchy in its demonstration of a failing father figure: Victor. Shelley has also, herself, been described as the creature: outcast and rejected by her father after her adolescent adulterous elopement with a then married Mr Percy Shelley.
Shelley wrote with outstanding social and historical awareness and was blessed with two academically brilliant parents. It is not by accident that Frankenstein has, two hundred years on, found itself on the curriculum of countless schools, analysed in almost every field of critical theory and, on a more elementary level, enjoyed as a fantastic piece of literature on a global scale. So please, take my advice: make a cup of tea, sit down and begin one of the greatest books ever written.