Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus (1818, 1831)
Penguin Classics, 225pp
Well I thought I knew this story. I have seen the 1931 film, with Boris Karloff, innumerable times – along with its better sequel, The Bride of Frankenstein – and seen numerous comical and serious takes on Mary Shelley’s classic tale. I’m not sure any of them were like this book, in anything other than name.
When Frankenstein was published in January 1818 the British press were critical. The novel, which has been published anonymously, but dedicated to Shelley’s father, William Godwin, the philosopher, had only a small print run – 500 copies – but the public, choosing to ignore the critical commentary, adored the book. The second edition of Frankenstein, published in 1823, finally revealed the author to be Mary Shelley – and not Percy Shelley, as some had assumed – leading Blackwoods to exclaim: “For a man it was excellent, but for a woman it was wonderful.” With the novel achieving a degree of fame, Mary Shelley chose to revise her novel, making some substantial changes, and the edition published in 1831 became a subtly different novel. The Penguin Classics edition of Frankenstein contains the 1831 text, but in appendix includes the original text, detailing the changes Shelley made.
Frankenstein was conceived by Shelley when she was eighteen years old, and holidaying with her lover (and later husband), Percy Bysshe Shelley. They were visiting Lord Byron at the Villa Diodati by Lake Geneva in Switzerland. The area was still under a long cold volcanic winter caused by the eruption of Mount Tambora in 1815, and so the trio remained indoors. Conversation turned to galvanism and the feasibility of returning a corpse to life. They read
German ghost stories and Byron suggested writing their own. Shelley dreamt of this. Later, she would write:
“I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half vital motion. Frightful must it be; for SUPREMELY frightful would be the effect of any human endeavour to mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world.”
Mary Shelley assumed that Frankenstein would be only a short story, but Percy suggested she expand it into a novel. Mary later described this as moment “when I first stepped out from childhood into life.” While she worked on Frankenstein, Lord Byron worked on ‘A Fragment’, which was based on the vampire legends he had heard in the Balkans, and this short text, through John Polidori’s reworking, would give rise to the romantic vampire myth – so from this one cold evening in Switzerland, two horror tropes were conceived. Not bad for a night’s work.
Frankenstein begins in epistolary format, with Captain Robert Walton corresponding with his sister, Margaret Walton Saville, from an icebreaker far in the arctic north. His ship becomes trapped in ice, and he sees a large, inhuman figure riding a sledge in the distance. There are not meant to be people this far north. A short while later they discover the unconscious body of Victor Frankenstein. Frankenstein recovers from his trauma and tells Robert Walton of his tale, the tale of his creation. The novel then switches to a first person narration, and Frankenstein tells of the creation, of his family, and of the creature’s hunt and killing of his family. He has pursued the creation north to finally kill it. In the middle of this Frankenstein stops to listen to the creature tell his story, and so we have another first person narrative. This, for me, was the biggest shock of Frankenstein – in the films the monster is incapable of speech (or at least in the versions I have seen), but in Shelley’s novel he begins mute, but soon learns, and finally become quite erudite. This logical, intelligent brain turning to vengeance and murder is more chilling because he is logical and intelligent, and I feel Shelley was suggesting something about the nature of evil through this. Finally we return to Walton’s letters and the final attack by the monster.
Read in the twenty-first century, following a century in which science-fiction has become rather sophisticated, Frankenstein at times feels a little simple. There are flaws within it, and its plot feels a little undercooked at times. The manner through which the monster learns speech and reason is too incredible to be true, and indeed this was criticised at the time, by no less than Sir Walter Scott. Nevertheless there is much to enjoy here: Shelley’s voice is bold and striking, and I can see why some would believe Percy Shelley was the true author, and there is some wonderful poetry within, again giving the Percy Shelley as author more ammunition. I do not doubt Percy Shelley had input into the novel, but it is clearly the work of one mind – Mary Shelley. So if some of Frankenstein feels dated in the twenty-first century, the ideas at the heart of it do not – in fact, in a world where life can be created artificially, the warnings it offers should be remembered, and its advice taken.
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