In the summer of 1816, a group of young intellectuals, all fleeing debt and scandal, gathered together at a villa on the shores of Lake Geneva. Mary Godwin (daughter of William Godwin and radical feminist Mary Wollstonecraft) had already eloped with her future husband Percy Bysshe Shelley once before, who, in turn, had abandoned his pregnant wife in order to be with Mary. While making their second trip to Switzerland, they travelled with Mary’s half-sister Claire Clairmont, until Shelley met and befriended the celebrated poet George Gordon Lord Byron, who, attended by Dr John William Polidori, invited them all to stay at the Villa Diodati.
There, idling away their days discussing philosophy and literature, they would gather around a fire in the evenings and read aloud German ghost stories. Eventually, they tasked themselves to write their own, one of which was Polidori’s The Vampyre, and the most famous of them all, Frankenstein.
‘Frankenstein’s Creature’, 1831 Frontispiece to the novel. Victor carefully selected each component of the Creature’s body – his powerful limbs, white teeth, and lustrous hair – intending to create something beautiful. The watery eyes, black lips, and wan skin barely covering the gigantic frame speak to the contrary.
Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus, is a novel of both the Gothic and Romantic traditions. Prior to the conception of the literature of terror (the term ‘Gothic’ being a twentieth-century addendum), novels and stories we would identify as the same ilk were referred to as ‘romances’. Academics consider The Castle of Otranto the first Gothic novel (originally claimed to be a lost Italian novel written during the Crusades), in which Horace Walpole attempted to blend two kinds of romance, the ancient and the modern, by juxtaposing otherworldly occurrences with naturalistic characterisation and dialogue. His intention was to create a realistic portrait of human beings confronted with fantastic situations.
Shelley takes this even further by making Victor Frankenstein’s ‘Creature’ a product of the union between science and, one may assume, occult practices. Furthermore, Victor’s dimly lit laboratory, the dark alleys, graveyards and mansions he frequents, and the moors and woods are all Gothic tropes which appear again and again in similar texts. (See Dracula, Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre.) Throughout Shelley’s novel, the protagonist, a student of medicine, makes numerous references to alchemists Magnus, Paracelsus and Cornelius Agrippa. In contrast to the mad scientist trope ingrained within popular culture (see James Whale’s 1931 film adaptation), none of this familiar iconography is present in the original novel. Lightning and thunderstorms appear, yes, but they are not explicitly linked to the genesis of the Creature.
Furthermore, Frankenstein was also progenitor to the scientific romance, an early iteration of the science fiction genre, and both facets of the novel are embodied in Shelley’s 1831 preface to the novel, where she describes a nightmarish vision from the time of the novel’s earliest conception:
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.
Interestingly, this description is altogether vague, giving little clue as to the nature of the “unhallowed arts” or the “powerful engine” through which the student animates his creation. Moreover, this same vagueness carries over into the final text, while the setting mirrors the tempest that blew over Lake Geneva at the time of Shelley’s residence:
It was on a dreary night of November, that I beheld the accomplishment of my toils. […] I collected the instruments of life around me, that I might infuse a spark of being into the lifeless thing that lay at my feet. It was already one in the morning […] when, by the glimmer of the half-extinguished light, I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open; it breathed hard, and a convulsive motion agitated its limbs.
Following the Enlightenment, but preceding evolutionary theory and the death of God (see Nietzsche), the influence of religion had begun to wane as Western society gradually adopted more secular attitudes. As such, the “instruments of life” and “spark of being” suggest a scientific means of animating the creature, though the figure of the scientist was still regarded with mistrust and unease in the 19th Century. Who were these men playing god, so impertinent as to dare to unravel the mysteries of nature? (Galvanism was a popular scientific pursuit back then, a detail that Hollywood, naturally, latched onto when bringing the story to the silver screen.) Hence, literature began to turn away from heavenly concerns, focusing more on the earthly, natural world.
Not only is Frankenstein a Gothic novel, but also a Romantic one. While novels like Radcliffe’s Mysteries of Udolpho were extremely fashionable among the bourgeois class, critics shunned sensationalist fare such as The Monk (a novel in the same vein as Sade’s Justine), and instead turned towards the more meretricious realist genre. Romanticism was, arguably, a compromise between the two. Embodying the pastoral while verging on the Gothic, Romanticism concerned itself with the psychology and emotions of its characters in the face of the nature’s awesome power. Shelley’s writing is replete with descriptions of sublime nature. Gothic landscapes abound: mountains, forests, caves and frozen tundra, wherein man challenges nature, but is ultimately put in his place. This feeling of ‘sublimity’ is essential to understanding Romantic texts, which seek to evoke man’s terror upon confronting the majesty of the natural world, to whom he is infinitesimal in stature.
Moreover, the title’s allusion to the Greek myth of Prometheus is typical of Romantic texts. Writers like Percy Shelley and Lord Byron (perhaps anticipating Nietzsche’s Ubermensch), strove to achieve a higher state of grace, to become enlightened beings, through the practice of poetry. Romanticism was not only about nature, but also about the self, the arbitrary individual within a grand and incomprehensible cosmos (perhaps also anticipating existentialism). It is only natural then that some of Shelley and Byron’s philosophy should have rubbed off onto Mary.
Shelley employs a Russian doll structure of embedded narratives, beginning with a series of letters from Captain Robert Walton to his sister in England, as he journeys towards the North Pole. From there, we descend inwards, from the outer framing device to the next level of the story as Walton meets Victor, who then relates his own story. At the midpoint of the novel, the Creature recounts its own story to Frankenstein, after which we return to Victor, and finally to Walton. The effect of such a narrative device is to dissolve the boundaries between each story, and between the text and the reader. The further into the story you descend, the less obvious the point at which you entered becomes. This also raises the question of ownership. To whom does the story belong? All the narrators, or none at all? Much like the creature itself, the parts are all connected, but the lines are blurred. It is also easy to forget that the entire novel is epistolary (in the form of letters) to Walton’s sister, since Victor’s narration and the Creature’s are both hearsay related to Walton and to Frankenstein himself.
Frankenstein is ripe for analysis, particularly when it comes to Freudianism and the uncanny. Victor’s mother, much like Mary Shelley’s, died in childbirth, and it is arguably his repressed oedipal desire, unresolved in infancy, that drives him to study medicine and animate the Creature, all so he can reverse her death. This desire to possess the mother is indicative of Freud’s Oedipus Complex, although, for Victor, the mother is altogether absent. Similarly, the Creature both loves and despises its creator, Victor being both mother and father to it.
The Creature is an uncanny contradiction and a Gothic double. Dead returned to life, humanoid yet animalistic, one being composed of many, imbued with unnatural strength, but also a profound intellect. Can such a creature have a soul? What separates us from it? Victor shuns society, and his lover Elizabeth, while the Creature longs for both. Can we sympathise with either of them? One a man who desecrates graves in his conquest for knowledge yet yearns to save himself and his loved ones from death. The other a being who murders on a whim, but who is shunned by all those around him (the Creature is never given a name, referred to only as ‘Creature’, ‘Devil’, ‘Daemon’, ‘Monster’, ‘Fiend’, etc.), and is capable of rational thinking:
‘I expected this reception’, said the daemon. ‘All men hate the wretched; how then I must be hated, who am miserable beyond all living things! Yet you, my creator, detest and spurn me […] How dare you sport thus with life? Do your duty towards me, and I will […] leave you at peace; but if you refuse, I will glut the maw of death, until it be satiated with the blood of your remaining friends.’
Frankenstein evokes the uncanny through the transgressive actions of its protagonist, while the Creature blurs the line between human and inhuman. The uncanny is, after all, something secretive and unsettling, something that should not have come to light, which frightens us on a primal level. This is part of its enduring appeal. The story continues to captivate readers’ imaginations, even 200 years after its publication. We see ourselves in the creature. We empathise with him yet recoil from him in terror. We share his desire for acceptance, understanding and love. But we also share the Creature’s malevolent streak, which we try to keep buried as best we can, out of fear that we ourselves might devolve into something grotesque. Something less than human.
Faurholt, Gry, ‘Self as Other: The Doppelgänger’
Freud, Sigmund, ‘The Uncanny’, in The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, 2nd edn, ed. by Vincent B. Leitch et al (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2010).
Royle, Nicholas, The Uncanny (Manchester: MUP, 2003).
Shelley, Mary, Frankenstein, 2nd edn (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, A Norton Critical Edition, 2012).
Written by Michael Conroy
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