Mary Shelley, Frankenstein – final post

I started assembling examples of the florid, over-written style Mary Shelley adopts in Frankenstein, but that way led to madness, so I’ll start afresh. Here’s just one random example; the Creature’s threat to Victor if he refuses to comply with its request that he make it a female companion is intended to be blood-curdling; instead it’s just…curdled prose:

‘I will glut the maw of death, until it is satiated with the blood of your remaining friends.’

The symmetries in the novel are one of its more pleasing aspects; there’s the doppleganger effect of Walton being another potential Frankenstein (and a strong homoerotic tone to his passionate outbursts about his new friend); this is mirrored in Victor’s relationship with Clerval. Even the Creature and Victor share many traits, some violent and vengeful, some noble and grand.

But these are far too heavily laboured and repeated in the text. A quick search for the word ‘miserable’ in the online text yields well over 50 results. There are too many shouty encounters between these two antogonists where they simply try to outdo each other as to which is either suffering more or more entitled to feel wronged.

Why did Mary Shelley subtitle the novel ‘the Modern Prometheus’? First, this classical mythological character was often equated in literary texts with Adam in Genesis; just as Prometheus breathed life (or fire) into inanimate clay to make human beings, so Adam was given life by God in the biblical text. Mary Shelley, as I have shown in previous posts on this novel, frequently alludes to Milton’s account of the Eden story in Paradise Lost; its epigraph is from that poem –

Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay

To mould Me man? Did I solicit thee

From darkness to promote me? (X.743-45)

This provides the novel with its central theme, which is dramatized by the tension and conflict between the scientist-creator, who offends the laws of nature with ‘the spark which [he] so negligently bestowed’ on inanimate tissue, and his innocent, potentially loving and good, creature.

In the Romantic period Prometheus, who stole fire from the gods, was a popular subject for literary and artistic treatment, for he symbolised for artists of the time the spirit of rebellion against tyrannical, cruel power (Percy Shelley was working on his lyrical drama ‘Prometheus Unbound’ around the time of the publication of Frankenstein; it was published in 1820.) He was associated with the spirit of the French Revolution, with Christ and (Milton’s) Adam and Satan – we saw in my previous post how the Creature identified with both Adam and the ‘fallen angel’ – and with the divinely inspired artist or writer. Mary Shelley’s novel indicates that Victor explored the ‘bold question’ of the ‘principle of life’ at his own and his family’s peril; it was all very well for him to warn Walton ‘how dangerous is the acquirement of knowledge’, but he didn’t heed it himself, with dire consequences for all concerned. Like Prometheus, he is tortured for the rest of his life – but so is his creature.

For modern readers this resonates particularly because of recent and current debates about GM crops and other scientific developments in biology, genetics and related fields, as well as in AI. The issues of sentient beings created by humans and of bioethics are raised and problematized in the novel in ways that Mary Shelley couldn’t have dreamed would resound as they do in later years.

Victor is shown to become ‘the slave of [his] creature’, and urged by it when they meet in the Alps to honour his ‘duties’ to it. ‘You are my creator, but I am your master. Obey!’ it commands him (with typical rhetorical bombast).The creature wanted Victor to make it a female companion (as mentioned above), with which it promised to go into voluntary exile and become a harmless recluse, away from civilization. Victor fails to do so, and terrible retribution follows. His reason: he finally realised that he was in danger of creating a ‘demoniacal enemy’ of humankind, the ‘hideous progeny’ as Mary Shelley described it in her preface to the revised 1831 edition of the novel. That was also why he refused to divulge the exact nature of his secret of creation: as he says to Walton, who had importuned him to reveal it:

‘Are you mad, my friend?’ said he, or whither does your senseless curiosity lead you?…to what do your questions tend?’

Punch cartoon 1882

Punch cartoon from 1882 representing the ‘Irish Question’ as another manifestation of Victor’s monstrous creation: public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Be careful what you strive for, seems to be the moral for scientists and artists alike. The word ‘Frankenstein’ has become a modern cliché adjective for any questionable, potentially lethal scientific clone or product of genetic engineering – or even cultural-political development, as the cartoon indicates.

Later the Creature itself describes Victor as ‘my tyrant and tormentor’. So there develop some interesting and challenging shifts in the concept of Prometheus as the narrative proceeds and becomes more complex. Whether Mary Shelley is fully conscious of or in control of all of these mirror-images, doublings and shifts is as unclear as her often turgid prose.

Despite the tiresome repetitiveness and Gothic melodrama in the narrative, then, and the waywardness of the plotting and characterisation (and too many intrusive, tedious and laboured digressions, like the Justine and Safie episodes), there remain elements in the novel that explain why it still has such significance for us today.

Frankenstein OWC cover

My Oxford World’s Classics edition, which has an excellent introduction by Marilyn Butler

I’ll end this sequence of rather rambling posts with a couple of links.

Richard Holmes recently reviewed in NYRB a couple of new scholarly versions of the texts – well worth reading.

So is the excellent Wordsworth Trust blog, which has this fascinating essay on Claire Clairmont, Mary Shelley’s stepsister, described as ‘the archetypal Romantic woman’ by its author, Lesley McDowell.



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6 thoughts on “Mary Shelley, Frankenstein – final post

  1. Hi Simon,

    I think the lasting impact of Frankenstein is its strange, seer-like quality. It is as if Mary Shelley was sensing what was to come, and, in her own, florid way, giving her readers a glimpse. Reminds me a bit of the fecund notes of Leonardo Da Vinci. A mind capable of making rapid jumps into a possible future, often getting things off, but occasionally amazing in its ability to forecast.

    Per note, you have inspired me to return to my own musings on the area in a creative non-fiction way, including a summation of some of the more interesting patent issues that can come into play. A field of law that shifts and changes quickly, barely able to keep up with the reality of our knowledge as a human race.

    Cheers, Happy Holidays! Maureen

  2. Thanks for the recommendation about which edition to read. I have an old hardback, but I think that if I am to survive the florid prose, especially since – like everyone else – I already know the story, I need some encouragement from a good introduction!

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