"To me, the greatest pleasure of writing is not what it's about, but the inner music that words make," said Truman Capote, and I agree!
A Monstrous Metaphor for Past and Present
Begun as a short story in answer to a competition suggested by Lord Byron in 1816, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s Frankenstein has reached from the Romantic era into our own 21st century and remains as relevant today as when originally written. The sparks of the story are taken from Shelley’s dream where she “ . . . saw the hideous phantom . . . show signs of life and stir with an uneasy, half vital motion” ( Shelley Appendix A). From her subconscious reflections, Frankenstein’s monster is fleshed into a real force steeped in symbolism.
Beyond the obvious human manipulation of the natural world, the monster illustrates many other complexities of modern civilization. With the French Revolution still fresh in the minds of the Romantic poets, Shelley’s creature represents that era. Without the proper guidance of a responsible ‘parent,’ both the revolution and the creature exemplify the consequences of abandonment. The symbolism of the monster continues and can lead the attentive reader through everything from the idea of the noble savage down to a unique view of the feminine through the mind of his imaginative author. However Frankenstein’s creation is labelled, it embodies a variety of thoughts that continue to elicit contemplation.
The French Revolution
The mistakes of the French Revolution are mirrored in the Monster’s treatment and his resultant behaviour. The creature states, “I was benevolent and good; misery made me a fiend (Shelley).” Both the French Revolution and the creature begin as good intentions, yet the follow-up required of a good parent in guiding and nurturing (Mellor 81) new minds or ideas is absent in both cases.
The French Revolution grew from the realization that the long tradition of feudalism could be challenged. Through the new Protestant religion, people began to question the Catholic Church, and its feudal roots were undermined by the awareness that if all were equal according to God, then this should extend to society as a whole. This and an emerging middle class led to what Robert Southey later described the 1789 revolution as a "mania of man-mending." Yet, by 1792 the hope and optimism for an ideal society died with the Terror. The revolutionaries were unable "to accommodate their historical resentments toward the aristocracy and the clergy . . . ," and the fledgeling revolution “abandoned by its rightful guardians […] abused by its King and Church” degenerated into “the blood-thirsty leadership of the Montagnards (Mellor 81-82).”
The creature was not only abandoned but rejected by its creator. In the monster’s words, “No father had watched my infant days, no mother had blessed me with smiles and caresses” (Shelley 133), and he was left on his own to develop, eventually following a path of destruction. Influenced by his reading of Paradise Lost, which he “read as a true history,” he came to the conclusion that “Satan [was] the fitter emblem of my condition” and “the bitter gall of envy rose within me (Shelley 144).” His search for completion through companionship led him, like the revolution, on a path of terror. Had Victor Frankenstein nurtured his creation, “he might have created a race of immortal beings that would . . . have blessed him” (Mellor 85). In the same vein, if the nobility and clergy had merged with the fledgeling republic, and if the republic were able “to control the suspicion . . . and fears of the people” (Mellor 86), the new democracy may have flowered into an ideal. Yet neither of the creators had the vision to bring their creations to a benevolent conclusion leading to a beneficial continuation.
However brief the appearance of the noble savage symbol in the novel, it does indeed appear, and for a time Frankenstein’s creature embodies the idea of “that gentle lay-figure of late eighteenth-century social criticism, the ‘natural man’” (Millhauser). Millhauser believes the presence of noble savage is overlooked, and possibly the “real flaw in the story,” as it is unnecessary to the horror plot. Instead of using the noble savage, he suggests Shelley could have bypassed this use and endowed the creature with “an original moral flaw . . . paralleling the physical one” (Millhauser). Yet this is a strength of the story. It draws the reader in and captures sympathy for the misused creation. Mary Shelley’s sympathies are with the disenfranchised of society, and contrasting the natural man's innocence with the creature’s later violence shows her reader the dangers of excluding those on the fringes of society.
- Frankenstein - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
- Literature.org - The Online Literature Library
The full novel.
Included in the fringe membership of nineteenth-century society were women. While women's voices were heard before Mary Shelley (most notably her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft), Shelley added a unique sound. While other creation myths were dependent upon “female participation […] The idea of an entirely man-made monster is Mary Shelley’s own” (Mellor 38). That a male was responsible for the monster’s creation points to the novel’s concern “with natural as opposed to unnatural modes of production and reproduction” (Mellor 40). It also allows the reader to consider the importance of nurturing when dealing with the development of any being, and that, perhaps, nature knows best.
As well as being a voice for the importance of the feminine, Mary also voiced “for the first time in Western Literature, the most powerfully felt anxieties of pregnancy” (Mellor 41). Until this point in history, discussing, let alone publishing, “the experiences of pregnancy and childbirth … [were considered] … improper” (Mellor 41). With her “focus on the birth process” (Mellor 41), Shelley reassures other women that all women share anxieties.
Because of her own anxieties and experiences, namely her mother’s death and the responsibility Mary felt for it and the death of her first child, the monster is often interpreted as a birth myth. The dream, which incited her imagination to create Frankenstein, can be joined with a previous dream less than a month after the death of her first child. This dream where ”my little baby came back to life again—that is had only been cold and that we rubbed it by the fire and it lived “ (Shelley, Journals 70) expresses a desperate longing for a time when senseless deaths could be avoided by human intervention” (Rauch 12). The story of Frankenstein illustrates such a desire, and the monster embodies that wish of reanimation. Further to the expression of pregnancy, birth, and death within the constraints of Mary’s experiences is the notion that the novel is about “a motherless orphan” (Griffith). Besides the physical want of a female mother figure, the creature is ultimately rejected by one and all because of his physical appearance.
The ‘otherness’ of his appearance prompts all who come in contact with him to judge the creature as evil because he looks different. According to Mellor, “they endorse the contemporary theories of Johann Caspar Lavater and Franz Gall” (Mellor 128), who believed that one’s soul or nature could be ascertained through the science of phrenology. Only two characters do not immediately judge him; father DeLacy, who is blind, and Walton, who is more prepared for the sight of the creature because of Frankenstein’s narrative. Percy Bysshe Shelley, in his review of Frankenstein, called the monster “an abortion and an anomaly,” yet also made it clear that when divided from society, “those who are best qualified to be its benefactors and its ornaments are branded by some accident with scorn, and changed, by neglect and solitude of heart, into a scourge and a curse” (Shelley, P.B.).
The long-term popularity of Frankenstein suggests we are aware of the story’s symbolism and its importance. It reaches from the nineteenth century and plays a crucial role in our conscience in so many ways.
- Griffith, George V. "An Overview of Frankenstein", in Exploring Novels. Gale, Literature resource Centre, 1998.
- Mellor, Anne K. Mary Shelley: Her Life Her Freedom Her Monsters. New York: Methven Inc. 1988.
- Millhauser, Milton. The Noble Savage in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein in Notes and Queries, Vol. 190, No. 12. Saint Mary’s Website: Literature Resource Centre.
- Rauch, Alan. The Monstrous Body of Knowledge in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Studies in Romanticism Vol. 34, No. 2, Summer 1995.
- Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft. Appendix A in Frankenstein or the Modern Prometheus; The 1818 Text edited by James Rieger. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press. 1982.
- Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft. Frankenstein. New York: dilithium Press, 1988.
- Shelley, Percy Bysshe. "On Frankenstein". The Athenaeum, No. 263. November 10, 1832, p. 730. Reprinted in Nineteenth-Century Literature Criticism, Vol. 14.
Aliseen from Scotland on May 07, 2012:
This was a very interesting interpretation of Mary Shelley's work. May I offer another thought regarding the man-made monster? I studied this 20 years ago and my initial response to the tale was one of the inconsistencies of man and their impact on the earth. I was thinking of genetic engineering (an obvious one), nuclear energy (the waste!), the Industrial Revolution, which had barely begun in Shelley's time and so on... Twenty years ago the by-word of environmentalism was nuclear waste, and where is it all supposed to go. Then genetic engineering was still in its journalistic infancy. These topics raised much conjecture amongst seminar groups.
JTyler's Articles on April 15, 2012:
Very interesting, especially the Fringe section.
Panaetius on January 08, 2011:
Thank you E Nicholson for a very succinct and helpful summation of some of the cruxes evident in this marvellous pastiche/parody of a novel with its confronting critiques of both rationalism and romanticism. Your citing of some major critiques is also very helpful for further reading. A query: Are not Victor and Walton philanthropically motivated in part by a belief that their projects will bestow great benefits on humanity, making them not entirely selfish in their personal ambitions? (Rauch) Of course the altruism may be no more than the mask of thinly rationalised egoism and repressed drives (Freudian perspective); but that cannot be taken for granted, which means Shelley's critique of science in its guise of romantic Promethean idealism goes very deep indeed - and she was only 19 when she did this!! Thanks again for your stimulating exposition.
E. Nicolson (author) on May 03, 2010:
Thanks again, missmaudie. It's one of my favourites too.
missmaudie from Brittany, France on May 03, 2010:
This is a great hub about one of my favourite books.I've never read much around it, apart from how it came to be written in the first place, so thanks for all the extra info!
E. Nicolson (author) on January 23, 2010:
Thank you, Rose. I hope you enjoy the book. The copy I have is well worn and annotated, yet still gives back in many ways.
E. Nicolson (author) on January 23, 2010:
Thank you, Kendall. I am continually amazed with Shelley's story, especially in its continued significance.
Rose West from Michigan on January 22, 2010:
This was a very fascinating article! I have yet to read Frankenstein, and this nudged me to read it. Thanks for all the great info! I can tell you've thought a lot about it.
Kendall H. from Northern CA on January 21, 2010:
It's amazing to me the power of the human mind to create wonderous stories such as Frankenstein. I had never read anything beyond how Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein so learning the connections to the French Revolution was fascinating! Thanks again and keep writing the great hubs!
E. Nicolson (author) on January 21, 2010:
Thank you, Immartin. I have wondered the same thing. I'm sure Shelley was probably working on a subconscious level when writing the first story -- especially when you consider influences by way of her parents. Whether she came to a more conscious realization later in life I am unsure (will have to reread her biographies). I think we have read more into the story over the years, yet at the same time one can't ignore the almost prophetic quality that seems to encourage this.
I was unaware of the movie "The Bride" -- will have to look it up. I certainly do remember those words "It's alive! It's alive!" As a child they sent chills up my spine :)
lmmartin from Alberta and Florida on January 20, 2010:
A profoundly interesting read. Do you wonder if the author sat down with all these themes and metaphors in her head? Or are they inserted by other minds after the fact?
Will anyone ever forget the early black and white production, with Dr. Frankenstein hysterically shrilling, "It's alive! It's alive!"
Another interesting film take on this theme is "The Bride." A now perfect creation, female of course, is planned as the mate to the first, but Dr. Frankenstein falls in love with his own creation, and battles the monster for her hand. An equally dark tale.
How fascinating, these themes that follow us, handed through generations that still challenge and entertain today.
Thanks once again for this well researched and thought provoking article.