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Thought for the Month

From The October 2002 St John's Eagle

"The Two Frankensteins"  by John Harcourt

Percy Bysshe Shelley's unsigned preface to the 1818 edition of Frankenstein gives a brief account of the genesis of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley's novel.

"The Season was cold and rainy, and in the evening we crowded around a blazing wood fire, and occasionally amused ourselves with some German stories of ghosts, which happened to fall into our hands. Those tales excited in us a playful desire of imitation."

The weather suddenly broke, however, and Percy Shelley and his friend, Lord Byron took off for a trip to the Alps, their ghost stories quite forgotten. Only Mary persevered. A few pages beginning with "It was on a dreary night of November, that I beheld the accomplishment of my toils" It described the animation of the Monster and Frankenstein's horror at what he had succeeded in doing. Expanded forward and backward, this brief sketch grew into a novel, completed by May 1817 and published eleven, months later.

This expansion necessitated the incorporation of much new material. Captain Robert Walton, a young explorer attempting to reach. the North Pole, writes four letters to his sister back in England, the last of these describes the arrival of an emaciated stranger as their ship is immobilized in a frozen sea. This is Victor Frankenstein pursuing his Monster over the endless stretches of ice. During his long recovery, he tells the fascinated Walton the story of his life, back to his childhood days in Geneva.

The tale within a tale focuses, on the horror of creating the Monster: All subsequent events trace the consequences of this awful act. The Monster himself is given a lengthy insert which culminates his demand that Frankenstein provide a female companion for him. At first, Frankenstein agrees, and the action moves to an almost deserted island in the Orkneys. There, second thoughts prevail, and Frankenstein destroys the half finished female. A sequence of murders follows as the Monster exacts his vengeance. A chase from Scotland and Ireland and then through the Mediterranean ends at last on Walton's ship trapped in the Arctic ice.

What does Mary Wollstonecraft Shelly make of all this? The Monster is repeatedly referred to as the daemon, the ogre, the fiend, yet these are Frankenstein's reactions to his creation; they contain more than a little self exculpation. The Monster is terrifying, to look upon. Yet Frankenstein, young, overconfident in his powers, has made him what he is.

And despite this repulsiveness, it is clear that evil is not natural to the Monster. Deprived of all human contact, without language, he stumbles upon an abandoned outhouse adjacent to a farm occupied by the DeLaney family. Observing them through a crevice, he secretly helps them, learns to speak and read, and indeed absorbs much of the high culture of, Romanticism. But upon revealing himself to this happy, family, he is repulsed by them in horror, Fleeing toward Geneva, he rescues a child from drowning and is shot for his efforts. Near Geneva, he sees a boy whom he feels he could "educate as my companion and friend." Again repulsion; and, learning that the boy is a Frankenstein, he murders him. Thrice rejected, he has "learned how to work mischief." "If I cannot inspire love,I will cause fear."

Yet despite Frankenstein's hostile epithets, despite all the horrified denunciations, the Monster continues to grow in stature. There is magnificence in his self chosen end:

"But soon," he cried with sad and solemn enthusiasm, "I shall die, and, what I now feel be no longer felt. Soon these burning miseries will be extinct. I shall ascend my funeral pile triumphantly, and exult in the agony of the torturing flames. The light of that conflagration will fade away; my body will be swept in to the sea by the winds. My spirit will sleep in peace; or if it thinks, it, will not surely think thus. Farewell."

In 1831 Frankenstein was reissued. These edition reprints that of 1818, but there are substantial, if subtle, changes. Readers would need both editions in parallel column if they were to take in these differences. But Victor Frankenstein is no longer the child of a decaying Genevan family. His early readings in the alchemists seem harmless enough, and it is a visiting stranger, not his father, who introduces him to the power of electricity. It is at Ingolstadt that the "angel of destruction" takes effective and permanent control of his life: everything thereafter would seem to follow as the inevitable consequences of his decision to create life. His intensified religious awareness is powerless to alter the course of things.

So the events of the 1818 edition are preserved in a new context. Walton is younger, more than ready to take Frankenstein as his model. Elizabeth is no longer a first cousin: the hint of incest removed. Cierval is preparing to join the British ruling class in India. Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley now distances her characters from the realities of life so effectively perceived in 1818. They have become pawns in a complex fate initiated by Frankenstein's fateful decision.

Why these changes? Mary had returned to England the year after her husband was drowned off the coast of Italy (1822). She maintained herself by strenuous novel writing; her life focused on her son Percy Florence Shelley, whom she saw through Harrow and Cambridge — a fitting education for one who would succeed his grandfather as baronet in 1844. Thus Mary’s world had become one of early Victorian respectability, far removed from the revolutionary anarchy of 1818.

Perhaps some of the changes in the 1831 text were concessions to the publishers, but they can as well be ascribed to Mary's struggles not just to survive as a woman writer but also to triumph in her new role as mother to a baronet.

The two Frankensteins thus present two quite different versions of the story. It is as though the plot is a mirror in which we can all too easily perceive our own reflected faces. Mary Shelley's improved social position gave her a new reading in 1831. The larger Reform Movement in the 1830s provided another. Did the Monster suggest, as the Tories insisted, the threat of the working classes to the traditional social values? And in our own time, the personal preoccupations of the critics Marxist, psychoanalytical, feminist — have powerfully affected our responses to this problematic novel.

Hence, as we in 2002 approach the issues presented by the two Frankensteins, what unconscious assumptions shape our reactions? Does Mary Shelley, both in 1818 and in 1831, really leave us free to make our own determination of her story's meaning?

Who is Victor Frankenstein, who has fascinated us for close to two hundred years? What does the description found on both title pages, "The Modern Prometheus" really mean?

Professor Harourt is the Charles A. Dana Professor of
English English Emeritus at Ithaca College