Mary Shelley, Frankenstein
Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay
To mould me man ? Did I solicit thee
From darkness to promote me ?
John Milton, Paradise Lost, Book X
Remember that I am thy creature ; I ought to be thy Adam, but I am rather the fallen angel, whom thou drivest from joy for no misdeed. Everywhere I see bliss, from which I alone am irrevocably excluded. I was benevolent and good ; misery made me a fiend. Make me happy, and I shall again be virtuous.
Mary Shelley, Frankenstein
It is stating the obvious to call Frankenstein universally famous. Even those who have not read the book know the name of Frankenstein and in association, the sutured face of Boris Karloff immediately comes to mind. Famous for its horror component, Frankenstein is also one of the profoundest and most complex gothic story ever written. The common mistake is to think that Frankenstein is the creature when it is in fact the scientist : Dr Victor Frankenstein. The creature is nameless, it is the unnameable, the unspeakable, the inconceivable (hence the problem derived from its conception), the representation of absolute horror…
When Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein, she was asked " how she, then a young girl (she was 19 when she wrote Frankenstein), came to think of and to dilate upon so very hideous an idea". How indeed, Mary Shelley, daughter of feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, author of A Vindication of the Rights of Women could write about such "hideous" things ? Or was the story precisely hideous, because it has been written by a woman, a woman who should have known better : if pregnancy and giving birth is the task of women, then writing and creativity belong to men (this was the nineteenth century…).What happens when roles are exchanged, when men « give » birth and when women write fiction is precisely what we are dealing with in Frankenstein.
Obviously women writing fiction have been more successful so far than men trying to create life. The fantasy of creating a being has been a lengthily explored theme, going back to the Jewish golem, Prometheus and the making of Adam. Revisiting the old tradition, Mary Shelley gave her own account of a story of transgression and sin, responsibility and the very essence of human nature.
The context in which the story was written is peculiar in itself. On a vacation in Switzerland, after visiting the castle of Chillon, near Montreux, in Switzerland, Mary Shelley, her husband Percy Blythe Shelley, Lord Byron and Polidori, inspired by the landscape and persuaded by Byron, decided to each write a gothic story. Except, to a lesser extent, Polidori’s vampire story, none of the other stories survived except Mary Shelley’s. Switzerland and the alps have provided the gothic quality of the landscape in Frankenstein.
Mary Shelley has chosen to tell the story from three different perspectives, fitted into each other like Russian dolls: the three narrators are Robert Walton, Victor Frankenstein, and the creature. Walton is an explorer, who, ignoring the desire of his crew to turn back and renounce, is adamant that he will go farther into the North Pole than his predecessors. He is the one who rescues Dr Frankenstein, agonizing after restlessly pursuing his creature. Walton’s narration encompasses Frankenstein’s, which in turn contains the heart of the novel, the creature’s account of its own existence. We discover that the three characters are alike, they share the same curiosity in the perusal of a deadly knowledge. All three fallen angels, they want to go beyond the authorized field of experience, and thus transcend their conditions.
Having achieved without guidance an impressive degree of education, the creature read Paradise Lost, Plutarch’s Lives and the Sorrows of Werther, quotes Milton and interprets life and people in miltonian terms, comparing itself in turns to Adam or Satan: feeling he should have been treated like Adam before the fall, he finds himself unjustly cast away like Milton’s Satan.
The whole story is strongly influenced by the themes that Milton developed in Paradise Lost : responsibility, sin, guilt, transgression and the impossibility of redemption. Like Satan, Victor Frankenstein bears a « hell within », being punished for having transgressed God’s law.
Another issue of Shelley’s Frankenstein is womanhood : though women are, as narrators or characters, absent or silent and reduced to passive victims, womanhood is omnipresent in Frankenstein. The creature uses to describe its difference words very similar to Milton’s Eve discourse as she discovers her own image in a pool of water, and Frankenstein describes his physical and psychological strain in the process of creating a being in terms similar to those used to describe an actual pregnancy. The woman, like the creature, is the other, the alienated being who has been banished from the world of creation ever since the fall (or was it prior to that? in Paradise Lost, Adam is in charge of naming his environment, therefore re-enacting God’s creation, while Eve is only allowed to take care of the garden of Eden), and who re-enters it at her own expenses, the expense of her soul. "The woman writes as if the Devil was in her, and that is the only condition under which a woman writes anything worth reading" said Nathaniel Hawthorne. If men have always been revered for their literary creation, one must bear in mind that it has not been long since women had their share of recognition as authors; one can read Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own to convince oneself of that…
An entertaining gothic tale as well as a meaningful text that derives most of its profound sense from intertextuality, Frankenstein is Shelley’s successful rewriting of Paradise Lost, and her statement that her "hideous progeny" deserved its place among the most appreciated classics.