Musings on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein

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I have just finished reading Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. At first, I was transfixed by an impossible level of utter boredom.  I must say that Mary did not reach any point hastily. Then I reminded myself that I am also a product of my Western pop culture.  Often, if it is not condensed into the 120 minutes of film, then it is simply too much effort.  Who has the time to spend lazing upon an extensive and complicated text? Well, the folks of Georgian era England certainly did.  Novels were their movies, television, internet, radio, CD player, you name it. Novels were, well, novel.  They were purely superfluous, indulgent entertainment in a time when everyone who could read did read.  When it is considered that, before electricity, and by oil lamp or candlelight, people read for maybe an hour or two each evening at the end of their day, then a long detailed novel was welcome.  The more detailed, the better.  People got lost in their novels—swept away—and Frankenstein is most definitely sweeping. And tragic. And of a brand new up and coming genre invented by its author and her companions during a stormy weekend on the shores of Lake Geneva. The Gothic Horror novel is born with Shelley’s Frankenstein and Polidori’s grim tale The Vampyre. I don’t know what the Georgians thought of Mary’s nightmarish invention yet, but I’ll wager a guess that they were horrified, terrified, thrilled, offended, unnerved, and thoroughly entertained.

As for me…I think the book is absolutely extraordinary in that Mary was only 21 when she wrote it. The first edition was published 1818, but with the help of her husband, poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, she made changes to the novel, and even accredited him at one point with the writing of it. What is also extraordinary about the book is that it is original and bears a multi-layered complexity that is shocking because it is produced by a 21 year old girl. I don’t know if Mary was a genius. Her husband probably was, as was his buddy Byron.  Mary was a political radical though. A feminist like her mother Mary Wollstonecraft. A believer in free love—kind of a Georgian era hippie. She also saw three of her four babies die, and survived the accidental death of her beloved Percy.  I knew that Mary was an essayist and worked with her hubby on his poetry, but I wasn’t aware of her list of novels—other novels.  In fact, Mary Shelley was quite a prolific writer: 6 novels, 1 novella, 2 travel books, 3 children’s books, a good number of biographies, and numerous short stories, poems, and other articles.  Until I looked more closely, whenever I heard Mary’s name, I thought Frankenstein. Clearly, my bad.

As for Frankenstein itself….

Here, there are two: there is the brilliant young Victor Frankenstein and his re-animated, equally brilliant creature who was and was not Adam.

There are many themes happening at once.  There is the broken father/son relationship.  The reader sees the very best of this relationship in Victor and his father, and the very worst in Victor and his creature.

The story raises a question about what good and evil “look like.”  The old notion that “what is beautiful must also be good” is challenged by the wickedness and despicable cowardice of beautiful Victor Frankenstein, and his persistent refusal to take responsibility, his initial cruelty toward his creation, his foolish presumptuousness, and his abandonment of his obligations. He is a very unlikeable, spoiled whiner who makes feeble attempts after great torrents of self-pitying diatribes, but really accomplishes nothing.  He wants only to escape what he has done, no matter what, without looking like the scaredy-cat he is. In many ways, Frankenstein got what was coming to him.  Unfortunately, everyone else died too.

There is the political story.  The creature represents the poor, destitute, and diseased in an era that supposed that poverty was the fault of the poor.  This was the age of Debtor’s prisons, Workhouses, Bedlam, and child labor.  It was a bad time for poverty in England, where the poor were often criminalized just for being poor. Just as orphans were blamed for being orphans.  Thus, the creature, no matter his kind intentions, good deeds, or words of reason, is driven out by Felix based solely on his appearance.  The creature rescues a young girl from drowning only to be shot by her young man who is terrified by the creature’s face.  The message is that poverty and deformity are inescapable bottomless pits in Georgian society.

Of course, Frankenstein is the definitive “Zombie” story.  The creature is a reanimated corpse—or patchwork of corpses.  While zombies have evolved from Mary’s erudite, sensitive, and vengeful monster, he is still the first and best of them all.  This is because the creature offers the reader a glimpse at one who thinks from a clean slate and can articulate his innocence.  Who am I?  What am I?  Why am I cursed this way?  Who is responsible for me and to whom am I responsible?  If my Creator is imperfect and aloof toward me, what is my recourse?  The more the creature seeks answers, the more he realizes that the only one who can give him answers will not answer him, and he falls into despair, rage, and violence.

I am still sorting my thoughts on Frankenstein. Feedback is welcome.  Is the creature evil? To what extent is he responsible? I have a lot of side-reading to do on this novel that will hopefully lead me to answers for my questions.

Next up…Werewolves.

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8 thoughts on “Musings on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein

  1. academicalism

    Great post, and timely given that Frankenstein was published on thus day in 1818. Some notes: most of Georgian England did not actually read it. The first edition consisted of 500 copies, so only the elite and literary reviewers read it then. It only became popular with a wider English audience when stage versions like RB Peake’s Presumption started popping up in the 1820s. But that first edition sold out and on its own made for Mary more money than all Percy Shelley’s poetry ever made
    for him.
    I don’t think Mary – who was in fact eighteen when she started writing the book – ever gave Percy full credit for the book but she did acknowledge his substantial editorial help. But I know it’s a tough read – the style is ponderous and many wordings longer than necessary. Nit sure her 1826 novel The Last Man is better for style but it’s almost as important for the future history of science fiction that she precociously helped to found.

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    • Thank you Mark for your feedback! I understand that “Frankenstein” is a novel you have studied in depth. You are someone I will want to comment on the “Frankenstein” blogs I post. 🙂 So, just to clarify my comment about Mary giving Percy credit for writing some of her novel… From your response, I should have rethought the wording a bit. Haha. What I meant to say is that Percy helped her negotiate her way around, urged her, and supported her. And yes, helped her write. While I know (and the world knows too) that Mary is the one and only author of “Frankenstein”, she had this to say of her husband:

      “At first I thought but a few pages–of a short tale; but Shelley urged me to develope [sic] the idea at greater length. I certainly did not owe the suggestion of one incident, nor scarcely of one train of feeling, to my husband, and yet but for his incitement it would never have taken the form in which it was presented to the world” (Shelley ix).

      Thanks again for your post, Mark! Much appreciated, as always.

      ____________________________________________________________

      Shelley, Mary. FRANKENSTEIN. New York: Dover Publications, 1994.

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  2. academicalism

    I should add a couple of details (along with an apology for the typos in my prior comment): first, the novel as a novel (not as a greatly simplified stage play) only began to reach a wide audience once the book came out of copyright in the later 19th century. (Since then, cheap editions have proliferated.) And second, I’m not making all this up. William St Clair’s 2004 book The Reading Nation in the Romantic Period is a doorstopper of a study of the book trade and copyright circa 1780-1830 – but it’s got one chapter devoted entirely to the publishing and adaptation history of Frankenstein in the 19th century, and that’s where I’m getting my information from.
    If you are at all interested, the AU library has it: http://aupacstaff.athabascau.ca/record=b1150398

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    • Thanks Mark! I actually want to know how “Frankenstein” was received in its day. Yes, the 1818 edition had a limited readership, but the following editions in 1822 and 1831 fared much better. And so, I will be looking at the way it was perceived in the pop culture of the day. What especially interests me is that “Frankenstein” was among the first of its kind in a burgeoning genre dreamed up by some young writers after they read a bunch of ghost stories. That week end at Villa Diodati was a landmark in literature. And Mary published this book when she was not quite 21 years old! That is amazing to me. Please allow that I have only just finished the book today, and haven’t looked much further as yet.

      I made mention in my blog about how readers read in that era. I sat in a lecture a few years ago about how readers then compared to readers today. Basically, people back then read more, read more complex texts at earlier ages, had better memory retention, and better vocabularies. In other words, they were more literate then when compared with today. The reason being, supposedly, is that we have other media today. So often, people would rather see a two hour movie to get the gist (recollections of “Fahrenheit 451”), rather than spend 8-10 hours reading the book. Can you imagine “Frankenstein” reduced to a pamphlet? Lol.

      Thanks again, Mark!! 🙂

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      • It’s been a few years since I read FRANKENSTEIN, but I do remember having a quite opposite reaction to yours: I was surprised at how short it was, and therefore relatively un-boring. But then, I think I read it in a course on 18th/19th-century novels, and compared to some of the other stuff I read there Frankie is a downright race-paced thriller (have you ever read Richardson – PAMELA or CLARISSA? Yaaaawn…). On the other hand, I was surprised at how relatively un-scary the book is compared to what we consider scary today – it’s reputation made me expect something much more gruesome. It has a lot more depth and a lot fewer shudders than the media would lead one to believe.

        With regards to reading in the Regency, it may well be true that “readers” then read differently than “readers” now, but as Dr. Frankenstein – um, sorry, Dr. McCutcheon (sorry, Mark, couldn’t resist) already pointed out, it was pretty much only the elite who got at books then. I just did some quick googling: according to one site (http://www.mcsweeneys.net/articles/literacy-rates), the literacy rate in England in 1800 was 62% of the population, which is a far cry from the 98% of today. And even for most of those 62%, the cost of books would have been prohibitive. Again, according to some random website (http://hibiscus-sinensis.com/regency/stores.htm), the average price of a three-volume novel was around £1.11s, in today’s American money about $180. Lending libraries cost a subscription fee; the same website cites a figure of £4, or $400, in yearly fees for the Minerva Lending Library. Apparently a farm labourer made around £25 year if he was lucky. (None of that info is real research, like I said, it was quick googling.)

        In other words, it’s only a small portion of the society of the day which counted as “readers” (i.e. would have been the people that lecture referred to) and would have actually read FRANKENSTEIN when it first came out; definitely not the working classes, and possibly not even the lower middle class. So in looking at how the book was received in the “popular culture” of its day that’s something you definitely want to keep in mind.

        Incidentally, just for the heck of it, here’s that castle I was talking about: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frankenstein_Castle

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  3. Thanks for your post!! Always appreciated. 🙂

    So let’s see. I will compare Shelley to Stoker. Both Gothic Horror Novels. I would have to say that “Frankenstein” is just a tad more boring than “Dracula.” And no comparison to anything by Poe. To me, Poe is consistently just plain creepy from start to finish. But that’s just my taste. One of my favorite horrors is The Fall of the House of Usher. And a close second is his “Cask of Amontillado.” It’s creepy and horrible and wicked and funny… “ha ha ha ha yeesh.” The poor guy spent his night looking for one more drink…and will continue looking…forever. Lol. I guess it’s just a matter of personal likes/dislikes. I liked Dracula better because it featured, well, Dracula. Lol. But I hear what you’re saying, and I think that the novels then differ from the novels now in pace simply because our era demands speed.

    But Frankenstein was, as you said, not scary. Neither was Dracula, in point of fact. Yet, they were both terrifying. How is that possible? To my mind, I explain it like this: I don’t watch slasher films. No, they don’t scare me. I find them offensive and gross. But, can a real horror movie offer me a scare? Yes. But only if they appeal to my mind and my sense of what is up and what is down. Turn that around, and I am frightened. But that’s just me. Everyone else has their own fear button, I suppose. I am still investigating why the folks in Shelley’s era were scared by Frankenstein. I’ll get back to you. 🙂

    As for readership. Yes, I see what both you and Mark are talking about here. I suppose I should clarify further. When I said that those “who could read did read”, that is what I meant. There were many more of lower classes who could not afford to read, even though they were sometimes capable of reading. I suppose I am speaking to the burgeoning middle class of the time who took hold of the “novel” as a form of entertainment and made it what it is today.

    As for those who could read… By average comparison and all things being equal, they read longer, more, and earlier. They read more complex texts at younger ages. Their memory retention was superior. They had better vocabularies. At least, this is true of the educated classes in England in the 18th and 19th centuries. Certainly not a majority if counted in with the entire population of Britain. But, when looking at only those who could and did read, this is who I am talking about. However, when speaking to popular culture, that means everybody. So thanks again for your information.

    You know, I have a book that just gives all the reviews and news articles about the critical reception of Stoker’s “Dracula.” I wonder if they have something of the same for Frankenstein. I think I will poke around some more in Barnes and Noble. 🙂

    Thanks again for your post!! So informative! Thanks for taking the time to do some snooping about. 🙂

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    • I’d be surprised if there isn’t a book like that out there about Frankenstein, if there’s one about Dracula – Frankenstein is a far more studied book.

      As for reader capabilities, I wonder if they’re comparing apples and oranges. It sounds to me like they’re comparing the reading behaviour of the upper/upper-middle classes of earlier times with that of *everybody* today. If you look at today’s uppers/upper-middles (the top 62%), would their capability of engaging with Story perhaps not be all that different from their predecessors in 1800? And I bet that today’s less-educated/working-class story audiences are actually quite a bit *more* sophisticated in their understanding of and requirements on the fiction they consume than those of 1800.

      However, that’s really quite off topic from the point of your post. Or is it? Perhaps Frankenstein and Dracula were scary *to the upper classes*, to a society that was invested in keeping their layers (classes) firmly intact, keeping everyone and everything “in its place”. And all of a sudden here you’ve got the rise of a monster, a sub-human, that is trying to take power… They’d just come off the horrors of the French Revolution – in fact, here they are, the Shelleys and Baron (!) Byron, in Switzerland, which had until very recently been inaccessible to English people (this was just a year after Waterloo). The revolution must have been on their minds in those surroundings. The English class system more or less considered the upper class to be more human than the lower classes, and thought that that was an unalterable, inborn thing. Hence the fear of the sub-human? If the rise of the lowest class can generate the horror of the Revolution, just think what the rise of a sub-human could do… or a whole army of them…

      Anyway, that’s just some off-the-cuff stuff I just thought of…

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      • Hi there. Yup. I’m now on a book hunt through the on-line bookstores. I’m sure they must have something like Dracula’s critical reception, except for Frankenstein. I’ll let you know. 🙂

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