Frankenstein

by Mary Shelley
Reviewed by Ted Gioia
When I was ten years old, my knowledge of the world was
meager.  I'd never been on an airplane, never been out of my
home state, never seen snow falling from the sky or been up in
the mountains.  But I took great pride in my expertise on at
least one subject…Frankenstein.

If you had taken a peek in my
bedroom, you would have
found copies of some of my
favorite periodicals:  
Creepy,
Eerie, Monster World,
Fantastic and—the gold
standard for horror movie fans
—Forrest J. Ackerman’s
Famous Monsters of Filmland.  
On my shelf, you would have
discovered a well-thumbed
copy of Carlos Clarens'
An
Illustrated History of the
Horror Film, and in my desk
drawer a stack of index cards
with information on the cast
and crew of numerous monster movies.   I could have told you
the pros and cons of each of the Frankenstein movies made
by Universal, and reeled off the names of all the actors who
had played the monster.

A few of my friends shared this interest, but all of them were
boys about my age.  I didn't know a single girl who could have
told you Boris Karloff's real name (William Henry Pratt) or
identify the make-up man who had created the "classic"
Frankenstein look (Jack Pierce, also responsible for the Wolf
Man and Mummy).  Thus my shock and awe when, a few
years later during my college days, I encountered a stunning
surprise…the existence of young ladies who liked
Frankenstein.  Or, to be more specific, liked Mary Shelley’s
novel
Frankenstein.  

These were the early days
of women’s studies on
campus, and one of its
more unexpected mani-
festations came in the form
of an expanded readership
for this  1818 novel. One of
my college professors even
wrote an influential essay
entitled "The Female in
Frankenstein.”  In her in-
terpretation, the novel was "about what happens when a man
tries to have a baby without a woman."  

I envisioned a remake of the original
Frankenstein film,
drawing on this new perspective:

Dr. Frankenstein:   "Ygor, you are a loyal servant but only a
passable midwife…."

Ygor:  "Dat is one ugly baby, Dr. Frankenstein…"

(Of course, all this leads to the even more fascinating issue of
female readers' more recent obsession with novels about
vampires—which nowadays far exceeds even their passion for
Frankenstein.  Just go to your local bookstore and you will find
a whole section devoted to vampire fiction, displacing shelf
space formerly devoted to poetry and drama.  First
Frankenstein and then vampires:  how will the ladies surprise
me next?  By hankering after Godzilla?  Freddy Krueger?  The
Creature from the Black Lagoon?  My head spins…)

Okay, back to
Frankenstein….when I first read the novel, I was
in for another shock.   The book bore little resemblance to the
horror films of my childhood—indeed, Shelley's book has
stronger ties to other genres. The book begins as an epistolary
novel recounting the Arctic explorations of Captain Robert
Walton—very much in the vein of adventure stories and travel
literature of the period.  As it develops, Shelley’s story takes
on many of the trappings of the Gothic novel.  But
Franken-
stein
most reminded me of a contemporaneous literary work:  
Goethe's
Faust.   

Goethe published part one of
Faust in 1806 and part two in
1832—and Shelley's
Frankenstein dates from almost the
exact midpoint in this chronology.  The bad karma of over-
reaching human ambitions is the main theme that connects
these two works.  From this perspective, the Frankenstein
monster has more in common with the tiny
Homunculus from
Faust than with Dracula (Bram Stoker's novel would not
appear until 1897),
The Invisible Man (also published in
1897),
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (from 1886) and other later
works that are often considered in tandem with Shelley's
classic.

The difference here is a profound one.  In a later day, the
element of horror in such novels would emanate from the
unnatural and inhuman monster.  And, in fact, when
Frankenstein was turned into a movie attraction, this was
exactly its appeal.   But Shelley places the horror elsewhere in
her story—in the anguish of Victor Frankenstein, the scientist
who reflects with despair on what he has wrought.  This is a
hard concept for the modern mind to grasp—raised as we are
in a complaisant, positivistic age, one in which half of the ads
on TV tout the latest breakthrough in technology, pharma-
cology, communications, consumer entertainment or some
other field of unrelenting, manufactured progress.  The idea of
the patent holder, the creator of the "intellectual property,"
turning away in disgust from the "breakthrough" innovation is
strange to us.  

"I had worked hard for nearly two years, for the sole purpose
of infusing life into an inanimate body," Shelley’s scientist
relates.  "For this I had deprived myself of rest and health.  I
had desired it with an ardour that far exceeded moderation;
but now that I had finished, the beauty of the dream vanished,
and breathless horror and disgust filled my heart."

The monster itself is presented here in sympathetic terms.   
When he confronts his maker, his speech is more likely to
elicit pity than fear. "All men hate the wretched; how, then,
must I be hated, who am miserable beyond all living things!  
Yet you, my creator, detest and spurn me….Have I not
suffered enough that you seek to increase my misery?"

Here is a flip-flop of the cinematic scenario.  And at this very
point, the aficionado of horror literature may well lose interest
—unwilling to accept a monster as victim and the scientist as
victimizer.  Yet this very reversal of expected roles is the most
powerful element in Shelley’s gripping tale.   To this day, most
people assume that the very title of Shelley’s book refers to
the monster, but it actually describes the scientist—Dr.
Frankenstein—as is made explicit in the title’s tagline:
The
Modern Prometheus
. Buried beneath the gruesome account
of a new man stitched together from parts of corpses is a
different, far more trenchant critique of the hubris that led to
the monster’s creation.  

We might do well to recover a sense of the potential horror
inherent in human over-reaching.  Most of the real life horror
stories of the last hundred years came from that very direction,
and not from vampires, werewolves, goblins, mummies or
lurching Karloffian figures in the night.  And from this
perspective, the monster  in this story is the character whose
fate is most closely aligned with that of the modern reader.   
We too are the marginalized victim of forces that predate our
own existence—the 'wretched' and 'miserable' in Shelley’s
words…..No bizarre make-up or Halloween décor required.  
And in that regard, Mary Shelley may well have given us not
only one of the oldest or most famous horror stories, but
perhaps the most up-to-date as well.  
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