Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

Heart of Horror: Frankenstein by Mary Shelley (1818)

Part of Frankenstein Almost-A-Week


…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; the rain pattered dismally against the panes, and my candle was nearly burnt out, 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…

…I had selected his features as beautiful. Beautiful!–Great God! His yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath; his hair was of a lustrous black, and flowing; his teeth of a pearly whiteness; but these luxuriances only formed a more horrid contrast with his watery eyes, that seemed almost of the same colour as the dun white sockets in which they were set, his shrivelled complexion and straight black lips. (from Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley)

I was forced to read Frankenstein as part of my 19th century literature strand at university. I say this, because there is no way in hell I would have read it otherwise. The maniac scientist and the stitched-together monster with the flat head never really appealed. Neither did 19th century literature, truth be told. I loathed this part of my degree, far preferring the 20th. As far as I was concerned, the 19th was full of long, tedious novels with plodding characters and paint-by-numbers morality.

It was therefore quite a surprise when I finally did open up Shelley’s book and found, at last, something from the 19th century – if only just – that I actually enjoyed.

Reading through summaries of the plot to refresh my mind for this piece, I have to admit that the synopsis of Frankenstein sounds like the biggest load of melodramatic bilge you ever heard.  In short: obsessive genius discovers secret of life. He creates a man – who turns out to look not quite as he expected (see above). Obsessive genius spurns “creature” and runs away. Creature gets a bit sad. Learns English from great texts like Paradise Lost. Gets fed up about being rejected. Kills friends and family of Obsessive Genius. Obsessive Genius and Monster pursue each other across the frozen wastes of the Arctic. Everyone dies.

(For a full and rather more detailed summary you can’t beat good old Wikipedia.)

In fact, the book feels less histrionic that much of the following films and literature, which remove much that is ambiguous – and moving – about Shelley’s original.

Frankenstein, of course, is not “the creature” or “monster”, but the creature’s creator – Victor Frankenstein. Unlike the disturbing take of the 1930s film, the monster has not been given a criminal’s mind to explain away his personality. Neither does he grunt and ugh, like Boris Karloff’s famous incarnation. Rather, he is a sensitive soul, and intelligent too, teaching himself language, he expresses himself in poetic and erudite fashion. He also feels a great deal of empathy and pity towards man – far more so than his self-centred creator. The monster watches a family of cottage-dwellers with a great deal of empathy:

“A considerable period elapsed before I discovered one of the causes of the uneasiness of this amiable family: it was poverty; and they suffered that evil in a very distressing degree. Their nourishment consisted entirely of the vegetables of their garden, and the milk of one cow, which gave very little during the winter, when its masters could scarcely procure food to support it. They often, I believe, suffered the pangs of hunger very poignantly, especially the two younger cottagers; for several times they placed food before the old man when they reserved none for themselves.

“This trait of kindness moved me sensibly. I had been accustomed, during the night, to steal a part of their store for my own consumption; but when I found that in doing this I inflicted pain on the cottagers, I abstained, and satisfied myself with berries, nuts, and roots, which I gathered from a neighbouring wood.

But this empathy and love is also what triggers the painful dawning of realisation of his outcast state:

“The words induced me to turn towards myself. I learned that the possessions most esteemed by your fellow-creatures were high and unsullied descent united with riches. A man might be respected with only one of these advantages; but, without either, he was considered, except in very rare instances, as a vagabond and a slave, doomed to waste his powers for the profits of the chosen few! And what was I? Of my creation and creator I was absolutely ignorant; but I knew that I possessed no money, no friends, no kind of property. I was, besides, endued with a figure hideously deformed and loathsome; I was not even of the same nature as man. I was more agile than they, and could subsist upon coarser diet; I bore the extremes of heat and cold with less injury to my frame; my stature far exceeded theirs. When I looked around, I saw and heard of none like me. Was I then a monster, a blot upon the earth, from which all men fled, and whom all men disowned?

This is an interesting passage also about what it might reveal of Shelley’s sympathies. She seems to be critiquing this society where position is everything. The monster of course, is the ultimate symbol of parentless, descent-less, classless, property-less humanity. Is he therefore worth nothing?

One of the standard readings of Frankenstein is that it is exploring the themes of hubris. Man overreaching himself. Playing god. It could even be presented as a rather reactionary novel, lecturing about the dangers of modernity, the evils of the industrial revolution. Full of a fear of science.

There are parallels to other literature of the time such as Robert Louis Stevenson’s Jekyll and Hyde. Does the monster partially represent the hideous soul of our hidden selves?

But, unlike Stevenson’s Hyde, Shelley’s creature is depicted with understanding, with sympathy even. The havoc wreaked is as much a result of Victor’s rejection of him, as from any sense of inherent evil in the monster – indeed the monster is deliberately shown to have ability and potential. Victor Frankenstein is not an attractive character, caring little about those around him and less so about his own creation. He is individualistic, ambitious (some would argue rather like the stereotypical individualistic Romantic*). Are our sympathies supposed to be engaged by Victor, or the monster himself?

A clue might lie in the book’s subtitle (sometimes missed from modern editions): “The Modern Prometheus”.

There are two main myths about Prometheus the Titan: that he crafted mankind from clay – an obvious analogy with the Frankenstein story – and that he steals fire from the gods to give to man for which he is cruelly punished by being chained to a rock with an eagle picking out his liver. This all seems to tie in with the hubris reading: the challenger to the gods overreaching himself and punished for his arrogance.

But Prometheus is also a Titan – a giant, like the monster. He is like, but not, human – like the monster. Yet he takes pity on mankind – like the monster.

And it seems to me that Shelley’s book is all about sympathy, pity. Or a lack thereof.

Victor shows no pity. The monster is a creature, needing care and contact. Victor creates the monster and rejects him – as you might reject a child – and the monster, full of potential for love, turns to hate instead.  Victor is a “modern Prometheus” with no care or feeling for his creation.

So is the Modern Prometheus referring to Victor, or the monster? Perhaps it refers to both.

No matter how you interpret the creator/creation relationship in Frankenstein – whether in terms of the personal (children, relationships/ nature, nurture), the abstract (creativity and responsibility), or the societal (the industrial revolution, science and modernity) – the message is the same, that we should care about our “creations” and feel sympathy with others.

Shelley wrote a horror story – but a horror story with heart. I don’t believe this book is a fainting fit about science (indeed Shelley was extremely interested in science). Rather, my interpretation is that she is saying we need both sides of Prometheus – his cleverness, inventiveness, knowledge but also his love and his sympathy for mankind. And, of course, his pity.


*Interesting to note that Prometheus was also a favourite subject of both Percy Shelley and Byron.

9 comments on “Heart of Horror: Frankenstein by Mary Shelley (1818)

  1. Trilby
    December 3, 2008

    “The monster of course, is the ultimate symbol of parentless, descent-less, classless, property-less humanity.”

    This is interesting. I wonder to what extent each era reinvents Frankenstein in its own image?

  2. Anne Brooke
    December 3, 2008

    It’s such a gripping book too – I remember reading it for the first time and being struck with the overwhelming humanity of it all. Fabulous. And lovely to see it here!


  3. RosyB
    December 3, 2008

    Thanks for the comments, both. I found it strangely powerful too, Anne. Full of “sublime” landscapes straight out of a Caspar David Friedrich painting and peculiar grandious language. Yet still brilliant.

    Trilby, it’s mind-boggling how many interpretations there seems to be of F, including the monster as the monster of the nation itself and the whole thing as a political allegory. I’m not sure I totally buy that or think that it is all so neatly worked out. But i do think there is a lot of her politics and ideas in there, so to speak. It was interesting – have a quick flick through again how the kind of wider debate suggested by the passages above seemed to jump out.

    I think it is a real archetypal story that seems to get to the very roots of so many human dilemmas and questions. The idea of the creator/creation. The nature/nuture argument. The nature of wrong-doing and civilisation. The idea of the outcast. This can all be taken at an individual or a wider level (monster as dispossessed, as artistic creation, as scientific experiment, as offspring/child…as “woman” – it goes on and on.)

    I think it is this fundamental archetypal quality coupled with the kind of open symbolism that makes this story so able to be interpreted and reinterpreted over and over again in so many ways and makes it say what we need about our times – whenever those times happen to be.

  4. Moira
    December 3, 2008

    I hated Frankenstein the first time I read it in my teens, but when I returned to it again in my late 30s I was astonished.

    It was as if it was a completely different book.

    As a teenager I found it pedestrian and boring. As an adult I found it compelling, horrific and heartbreaking in equal measure.

    I think Mary Shelley originally intended it simply as a horror story … but given her extraordinary parents and upbringing, her own intelligence, and what was happening in the word around her at the time, it was almost inevitable that it was going to end up as anything but.

  5. Nik
    December 3, 2008

    Intersting article, Rosy, and enjoyable. And it’s reminded me that Frankenstein’s probably my favourite book. So, thank you!


  6. JoeInVegas
    December 3, 2008

    Thank you for the interesting evaluation. I had not looked upon the book as a comment from Shelley upon society, but then I’m not a literature major.

  7. rosyb
    December 5, 2008

    Thanks for commenting Nik and Joe. I don’t suppose you have to view the book as a comment on society but it all adds to the fun (?) or maybe not. 😉

    Moira, that’s funny about the pedestrian versus rivetting evaluation at different ages. I think as a teenager I wanted grand and sweeping and although Frankenstein has the sublime landscapes, I’m not sure the characters are as grand and sweeping as – say – Wuthering Heights. But actually reading through bits and pieces of it again for this piece I wanted to read it again. I think perhaps there is so much in it that I might take very different things from it now than I did the first time round – maybe it’s a book that contains so much that different things are reflected at different times in your life. Might be interesting to see.

  8. Frank
    January 15, 2013

    Have just read Frankenstein as it’s a set text for my daughter’s finals. It’s a book that’s hard to take seriously as a straight narrative, However it is explicitly framed by Walton’s letters to accentuate its verisimilitude. Though the monster is credited with no supernatural powers, his ability to dog Frankenstein requires these. He just steals a boat and can sail, he knows where Frankenstein is heading (on his honeymoon, for example) without following him on an open lake, did he swim to the Orkneys? etc. These are just the foibles of an inexperienced author – Shelley was only 21. In any case, plausible plots were not a strength of 19th century literature, which is full of howlers – see the work of John Sutherland.

    At one point, I wondered whether the monster was a figment of Frankenstein’s imagination – he does after all fall into a delirium or coma lasting months several times after crucial episodes. He also became a laudanum user and reported strange dreams. Of note is the similarity in the characters and behaviour of Frankenstein and the monster. They are both prone to sentimental musings about family (in the monster’s case, the De Lacey’s), they both oscillate wildly between joy and delusions of grandeur and despair and self-pity. They become vicious and homicidal when their doppelgänger thwarts them, and accuse each other of monstrous crimes. Yet they have times of sympathy for one another. I wonder if the book was an underhanded portrait of the author’s husband, an immoral, egocentric, histrionic tosser by some accounts but also perhaps a genius, and both the characters were modelled on him.

    Though various themes have been proposed, they reflect perhaps some of the pre-occupations of a time in which anyone could be, if not a scientist, then an experimenter. Hubris does still apply in science but it is not an unvarying accompaniment of genius, therefore a grand theme and a warning is irrelevant. Many brilliant scientists are extremely humble.

    More to follow.

  9. Big Frank
    January 15, 2013

    Went back to the computer from the iPad.

    I see the story as a tragedy chiefly brought about by Frankenstein’s failings. Inexplicably, he flips from monomania to disgust as soon as the monster opens its yellow eye. Then he persistently refuses to acknowledge to the wider world what he has done, through cowardice mixed with extreme fastidiousness for his reputation, despite the obvious consequences to those he purports to care for. Most heinously, this cowardice leads to the execution of the servant, Justine. That he would be thought mad if he told the world about the monster has some merit but his real reason was that he was ashamed, without good reason, for doing what exactly – what man had dreamed of for centuries.

    The problem is that neither main character elicits much sympathy, they are catastrophisers, sociopathic, possibly with borderline personality disorders, sickenly sentimental, self-pitying, cowardly and weak: such a confection of nastiness, redeemed only by an awe of natural phenomena, which is no virtue at all. They are Percy Bysshe Shelley.

    Interesting that it is now claimed by some that PB Shelley wrote most of the book himself and feared that he had a doppelgänger and would soon die.

    I realise people rarely go back to old comments but comments about this would be most useful.

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