Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is one of the most influential novels of the nineteenth century and one of the most confused and confusing. Containing a maelstrom of conflicting forces, it expresses the whirlwind of warring influences within the mind and heart of its teenage author. On a purely emotional level, the young Mary Shelley was surrounded by tragedy as she wrote the novel, including the death in early infancy of her first child and the suicide of two intimate relations, the death of one of whom must have weighed heavily on her conscience.
She was also battling with the monsters of modernity and struggling with the atheistic philosophy of her father and the iconoclastic musings of her lover. In addition, within the pages of Frankenstein we see the savagery of Rousseau; the pseudo-satanic manipulation of Milton; the Romantic reaction against the “dark satanic mills” of scientism and industrialism; the conflict between the “light” Romanticism of Wordsworth and Coleridge and the “darker” Romanticism of Byron and Shelley; and, perhaps most enigmatically, the struggle between the two Shelleys themselves and the emergence of Mary from Percy’s shadow.
Mary began writing Frankenstein in June 1816, when she was still only eighteen years old, and would not finish it until the following May. Although the tragic backdrop of her private life pervades the whole work, it should not eclipse the many other elements that serve to add to the deadly cocktail of depth and delusion which makes Frankenstein such a beguilingly deceptive story.
In giving Frankenstein the alternative title of The Modern Prometheus and coupling it with the epigraph conveying Adam’s complaint from Paradise Lost, we are given tantalizing clues concerning the aesthetic and philosophical roots of Mary Shelley’s inspiration and perhaps an inkling of her purpose. Prometheus presumes to take powers that are not rightfully his in order to create man; Adam presumes to rebuke his Creator for bringing him into existence. It is clear, therefore, that Victor Frankenstein can be seen as a Prometheus figure and the Monster as a figure of Milton’s Adam.
It is important from the outset, however, to distinguish between the biblical Adam and the Adam depicted by Milton in Paradise Lost. The two Adams are very different, and it is perilous to conflate them. The biblical Adam does not rebuke his Creator for bringing him into existence. He never takes the prideful position of questioning the Creator’s wisdom in creating him; still less does he imply the nihilistic option of wishing his own oblivion. It is, therefore, a peculiar Miltonian “Christianity” that serves as a catalyst to Mary Shelley’s fevered imagination.
The impact of the monstrous imagination of Milton on the writing of Frankenstein is matched in importance by the “savage” ideas of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. The ideas in Rousseau’s Emile resonate clearly with the Monster’s “education,” leading to the Monster’s echoing Rousseau in his conclusion, from history, that man poisons everything he touches. Cast in the role of Rousseau’s noble savage, the Monster sits in judgment over the decadence of “civilized” humanity.
The connection with the noble savagery of Rousseau brands Mary Shelley as a literary luddite. Like the literal luddites who were her exact contemporaries (the luddite riots taking place from 1812-18), she distrusted science and the encroachments of industrialism. She was at one with the earlier generation of Romantics, such as Blake, Coleridge, and Wordsworth, who wrote disparagingly of the “dark satanic mills” of the newly-emergent industrial conurbations.
The final and most fascinating facet of Frankenstein is the extent of Percy Shelley’s influence on the work and the extent to which the novel can be read as Mary Shelley’s emergence from the poet’s pervasive shadow. The idealized or romanticized Romantic poet, as represented in the novel by the faithful Clerval, has much more in common with the tradition-oriented and profoundly Christian romanticism of Wordsworth and Coleridge, or even with Sir Walter Scott, than with the iconoclastic “futurism” and dark egocentrism of Percy Shelley.
Clerval’s “favourite study consisted in books of chivalry and romance” and Frankenstein recalls nostalgically that “when very young, I can remember, that we used to act plays composed by him out of these favourite books, the principal characters of which were Orlando, Robin Hood, Amadis, and St. George.” Clerval, therefore, is presented as a neo-medievalist who gains his inspiration not from “the gigantic shadows which futurity casts upon the present,” as Percy Shelley proclaimed in his “Defence of Poetry,” but from the traditional and romantic shadows of the past.
Frankenstein states that “in Clerval I saw the image of my former self,” indicating that he had once shared the blessed serenity of Clerval’s Romanticism but had slipped through pride into darkness and into a darker vision of reality. Clerval is, along with Elizabeth, the most unambiguously and sympathetically portrayed character in the whole novel and is, at the same time, the antithesis of Percy Shelley’s ideal “Poet.”
Mary Shelley’s sympathy with the Romanticism of Wordsworth and Coleridge is illustrated in Frankenstein by the repeated references to Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” At the beginning of the novel, in Captain Walton’s second letter to his sister, he quotes from Coleridge’s poem and states, reassuringly, that since he will “kill no albatross” she need not fear for his safety. In “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” a profoundly Christian allegory, the killing of the albatross is symbolic of sin and the taboo attached to the sinful act, and there is a clear connection between the crime of Coleridge’s Mariner and the crime of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. In each case, the misguided protagonist ignores the taboo, taking the Promethean or Satanic option and paying the consequences of so doing. This is made even more apparent when Coleridge’s poem is quoted again, immediately after Frankenstein has brought the Monster to life.
The Monster is described as being “demoniacal” and as “a thing such as even Dante could not have conceived.” It is evident from these intertextual references that Mary is not merely working on the level of physics but of metaphysics. The Monster is not a mere product of science but is the consequence of satanic choice. It is not only monstrous, like Godzilla or King Kong, but is demonic, like Satan and his servants, though the sympathy we feel for the hapless Monster reflects a Miltonian conception of the satanic. Mary Shelley’s work transcends the physical limitations of Percy Shelley’s gloomy and narrow atheism and enters the infinite and eternal realm of religion, making the leap from the finite to the infinite with the chosen assistance of two of the most profoundly Christian poets, Coleridge and Dante.
The traditional morality at the heart of Mary Shelley’s vision is made even more apparent through the words of the character Elizabeth. “Everyone adored Elizabeth,” we are told when she is first introduced, and she is depicted thereafter as a gentle-hearted soul. She might be seen, within the broader context of the novel, as Mary’s presentation of the idealized or perfect Woman, as her Beatrice, just as Clerval is her presentation of the idealized or perfect Poet.
With adept feminine finesse and an adroitness of touch, Elizabeth seeks to draw Frankenstein away from his pride and morbidity in order to restore him to spiritual health, much as Clerval’s love had restored him to physical health. It is evident that Elizabeth upholds conventional moral values; and the fact that she is cast in the role of a sane and saintly heroine, and later as an innocent victim, in contrast to the mad and evil actions of Frankenstein and the Monster, suggests that we are meant to sympathize with the values she espouses, such as her praise of farming, with its “healthy happy life.”
The irony of Mary Shelley’s most celebrated novel is that it appears to be animated by the author’s longing for a “healthy happy life,” which was very different from the miserable suicide-haunted life she was living when the novel was written. Percy Shelley’s iconoclastic pursuit of “freedom,” made manifest in his elopement with Mary and the suicide of his wife which was its consequence, was the dark inspirational backdrop to the novel’s underlying sense of desperation. Mary Shelley seems to have learned the hard way that iconoclastic “freedoms” do not make men into gods, or women into goddesses, but that they turn men into monsters and women into their victims. Understood in this context, Frankenstein is an expression of lost innocence, sacrificed on the altar of Promethean promiscuity, screaming to be liberated from its “liberation.”
Editor’s Note: This is the twenty-seventh in an ongoing series of articles explaining the great works of literature “in a nutshell.”