Mary Shelley's Frankenstein:

Myth for Modern Man

by Patricia A. Neal, Ph.D.

How can we think of Frankenstein and ignore the film classic of 1931--who can forget the remarkable appearance of Boris Karloff as the unnamed monster?1 Yet the remarkable film (not the first, but one of many to use portions of Frankenstein) does not follow the novel started by Mary Shelley in the summer of 1816 and completed in 1817. The difference between the original novel and the numerous dramatized versions forms the focus of this paper.

Although movie audiences thrill to the scene of a futuristic laboratory with the mad Dr. Frankenstein and his faithful assistant Igor, the scene derives from twentieth century inventions and interests, not the novel first published in January of 1818.2 Before examining the differences between the two, the genesis of the novel deserves consideration. We could pose the frequently asked question Mary Shelley answered in her preface to the 1831 edition: "How I, then a young girl, came to think of, and to dilate upon, so very hideous an idea?".3

Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin (living with but unmarried to the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley); Shelley; George Gordon, Lord Byron; and Dr. John Polidori spent the summer of 1816 in Switzerland. According to a 1 June 1916 letter by Mary Shelley, "almost perpetual rain confines us principally to the house."4 Lord Byron (a friend of Shelley's) and his physician John Polidori, resided nearby at the Villa Deodati. Persistent heavy rains kept them indoors, the four finally resorted to telling familiar and recently published horror and ghost stories. For days they told tales which included gothic elements: graveyard and convent, burial vaults, mysterious trap doors and passages, wild locations, secluded spots, and pursuits by moonlight. Finally, one evening at Byron's villa, they made a pact to see who could write the most frightening ghost story. Both Percy Bysshe Shelley and George Gordon, Lord Byron, had earned widespread fame; even Mary had first published a book at the age of eleven (Mounseer Mongtongpaw).5 Each undertook the task eagerly. As Mary Shelley explained in the preface:

Night waned upon this talk, and even the witching hour had gone by, before we retired to rest....My imagination, unbidden, possessed and guided me....I saw--with shut eyes, but acute mental vision,--I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling before 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. Frightful must it be; for supremely frightful would be the effect of any human endeavor to mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world. (Bennett and Robinson, 170)

Her idea for the novel began with a student whose pursuit of "unhallowed arts" lead to a horrifying apparition. The success of his experiment would terrify, not delight, the student:

he would rush away from his odious handiwork, horror-stricken. He would hope that, left to itself, the slight spark of life which he communicated would fade; that this thing, which had received such imperfect animation, would subside into dead matter; and he might sleep in the belief that the silence of the grave would quench for ever the notion of the hideous corpse which he had looked upon as the cradle of life. He sleeps; but he is awakened; he opens his eyes; behold the horrid thing stands at his bedside, opening his curtains, and looking on him with yellow, watery, but speculative eyes. (170)

Spurred by the horror of her nightmare, Mary completed the story within two months.

The novel appeared on January 1, 1818 and in 1823 Mary Shelley viewed Presumption; or The Fate of Frankenstein, the first dramatic production based upon Frankenstein. After she attended the play written by Charles Brinsley Peake, Mary Shelley wrote Leigh Hunt: "The story is not well managed--but Cooke played __________'s* part extremely well."6 Thomas Porter Cooke portrayed the monster, a role acted by numerous other performers in later plays, satires, melodramas, and movies. Yet none of the productions adhere to the novel, few retain the author's deliberate parallel between Victor Frankenstein as creator and God as Creator. Mary Shelley's dream developed into a novel reminds us of J. A. Hadfield's observation:

What myths are to the race, dreams are to the individual, for in dreams, as in myths, there also appear those primitive emotions and feelings in the form of giants, heroes, dragons, serpents, and blood sucking vampires; representations of guilt, retribution, and fate; of lust and power, of monsters of the deep, (the unconscious) and of unknown but overwhelming beings which fill our nights with nightmarish dreams and make us fear our sleep, but which, rightly used, can be fruitfully integrated into our personality.7

Mary Shelley's monster continues to repel and appeal to a wide audience; at the present time there are twenty-six different editions of the novel in print.

Rapt audiences thrill to dramatic interpretations of the novel, Frankenstein. For many viewers, the famous sentence: "It was on a dreary night of November, that I beheld the accomplishment of my toils" opens the story (ch IV, 42). We observe a futuristic laboratory an eager assistant and onlookers. Yet film interpretations distort the novel.

For good reason, the novelist chose not to begin her story with the chilling event of the dreary night in November. Who, in 1818, would have read such an improbable story? Instead of the major event, the book opens with a series of letters from Robert Walton, a self-educated Englishman dedicated to scientific exploration. He has embarked upon the icy northern seas to view" a part of the world never before visited, and ...tread a land never before imprinted by the foot of man" (Letters, I, 116). Obsessed with training himself for his self-appointed task, Walton studied navigation, mathematics, and the science of medicine. His devotion to study separated him from others. Despite his zeal for the voyage of discovery, Walton recognized his isolation and shared his desire for a congenial equal in self-explanatory, informative letters to his sister in England, Margaret Saville.

As he travels, Walton envisions himself discovering the cause for magnetic north in the land where the sun never sets. Walton reflects the contemporary interest in scientific expeditions: well-educated men chose to explore the unknown and expand mankind's knowledge of the universe. He represents a reasonable person who properly prepared both for the hardships of the trip and the possible needs of a journey into the unknown. The rational man provides a reassuring narrator, one who enables the reader to accept the story he tells, a tale related by the second narrator. In other words, Mary Shelley provides what is known as a "framework" narrative, the same idea adopted by Chaucer for the Canterbury Tales.

Walton is intent upon his own purposes and conscious of the remoteness of his location; in fact, his ship is locked into masses of ice and cannot move. He faces the strategic problem of cutting free from the ice and attempting to sail further north on the ice-covered sea. Yet two incidents distract him: he observes "a being which had the shape of a man, but apparently of gigantic stature" guiding a dog sledge rapidly moving north until lost in the distant inequalities of ice; two hours later a fragment of ice with another dog sled with an exhausted man appeared (21). Curiously, the man adrift on the ice refused to board the ship until the captain assured him they were headed north.

The importance of a glacial location, a suitable background for a man coldly detached from society, could have formed a spectacular movie scene! Floating chunks of ice in the cold Arctic Sea, two isolated dog sleds trudging in the frozen north, and one man rescued by a ship locked in ice would make a compelling movie opening! Yet not one director recognized either the dramatic potential or the symbolic importance of an Arctic setting. The inherent drama of location is ignored. Even Walton's heroic rescue of a freezing man would pique viewer interest, increase suspense. Eagerly the reader waits to hear why a man is alone so far north.

The weakened man, Victor Frankenstein, relates his story as he slowly regains strength. Once again the reader is surprised, and perhaps puzzled, by a prolonged introduction: rather than explaining why he is adrift alone on the ice, Frankenstein relates an elaborate tale of his parents' courtship, marriage, and delight in him as an adored only child. The frustrated reader learns that "no creature could have more tender parents than mine" (p. 27). The statement, seemingly superfluous when Victor makes it, becomes more important as the tale unfolds.

There must be a reason for the casual reference to a pretty young cousin and two younger brothers; all three are almost ignored in the story. His siblings interested Frankenstein less than books by Cornelius Agrippa, Paracelsus, and Albertus Magnus. As Victor later lamented, his father had ordered him to abandon those accounts, yet failed to explain that the outdated works were useless. Drawn to the mysteries of experiments with and for the unknown, Victor read about alchemists and early natural philosophers; eventually, he enrolled at the University of Ingolstadt to study science.

Impressed with the power of electricity in lightning, he determined to pursue the secret of life.8 Although faculty members praised his brilliance, he furtively embarked on secret research in the attic of his boarding house. Even relating the story to Walton the young man remains vague and imprecise in discussing both the small hidden laboratory and the experiments. He shared his secret experiments neither with professors nor fellow students. Evidently no one else in the boarding house knew or suspected the late night research.

Unlike the familiar films, no faithful Igor helped him rob graves or assisted him in an extravagant, futuristic laboratory. No details of the laboratory enliven the novel. He told no one of his experiments and worked alone on his "filthy creation" in the "cell at the top of the house"; with his own "profane fingers" he had stealthily obtained body parts from graveyards and charnel houses (40-41). Specifics concerning the actual experiment are omitted, no account of the actual process of locating, obtaining, and transporting body parts appears in the novel. Sorry--there is no dramatic graveyard scene with him waiting to snatch a newly buried corpse. The reader learns of Victor's obsession with his experiment and of his own horrified response when the scientific experiment works!

If only part of the story sounds familiar it is because too much is omitted in the movies. Missing is the important framework, Victor's status as a student (not a doctor), the isolation of the experiment, and the eventually articulate creature who comes to life and seeks his creator.

In a number of films the mad Dr. Frankenstein (a product of film writers) wildly exults, "It's alive! It's alive!" Actually, the horror of the creature prompts Victor to swoon and remain unwell for months. The enormity of his action stuns and frightens the young student.

Transformed by drama and film into a mad scientist, the altruistic young student disappears for the sake of technical effects. Rather than the attic of a student boarding house where the student stealthily brings what he has robbed from the graveyards, the films often depict a large, elaborate laboratory with one faithful attendant. The 1931 film shows Frankenstein and his assistant waiting to rob a grave.

With the emphasis on grave robbing and technical effects, Victor's burning desire to benefit the entire human race seldom is heard in the film version. In the novel the necessity of focusing on death itself forms an important part of Victor's study--he believes that only by examining death can he re-create life. Finally, in Shelley's work he "discovered the secret of generation and life...and became capable of bestowing animation on lifeless matter" (39). Juxtaposed with his revelation is a warning to Walton as listener--and to the reader as secondary audience:

Learn from me, if not by my precepts, at least by my example, how dangerous is the acquirement of knowledge, and how much happier that man who believes his native town to be the world, than he who aspires to become greater than his nature will allow. (39)

Remove Walton from the story and no audience remains for the important lines; the wider implications of the scientific experiment fail to affect the viewer. The parallel stories, one of attempting to discover the secret of life and the other of forcing nature to open her secrets to man, disappear from the film. The events on screen remain remote from the viewer's life . The absence of Walton diffuses the warning to consider the final (not immediate) effects of scientific exploration and experiment. The reader discovers the dangers inherent in defying the natural order; the movie audience watches a horror film.

Finally, the novel, after 47 pages, reaches the familiar lines long thought the opening of the story:

It was on a dreary night of November, that I beheld the accomplishment of my toils... 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...How can I describe my emotions?...His limbs were in proportion, and I had selected his features as beautiful. Beautiful! Great God! His yellow skin...horrid contrast with watery eyes, shriveled complexion, and straight black lips. (42)

After two years of tireless devotion the scientist's pride and eager anticipation suffered a terrible blow. Frankenstein's success produced horror, not joy.

The film image of the creature as a silent, malevolent being distorts the story and its importance: a thoughtless young scientist creates a powerful object, yet provides no measures for guidance and control. Rather than accept his own responsibility as creator, Victor rushed from the laboratory and shunned the creature. Victor never made an effort to help or teach the abandoned creature. After the silent being escapes into the night, Victor keeps the dreadful secret to himself. In fact, he carefully avoids telling anyone about the creature until after a series of deaths within his family circle. Only two people besides Victor ever hear from him about the creature: the Swiss official who cannot pursue the unknown murderer, and the narrator of the framework tale, Robert Walton.

As you might have noticed, I refer either to the being or the creature--Mary Shelley never gave him a name. She deliberately left him nameless to emphasize the fact that the creature has no place in the Great Chain of Being. As Martin Tropp noted, "Knowing the name of something has traditionally conferred magical control over it, a place in an ordered universe."9 Although composed of human parts, the creature is not mortal. What is it?

Although I prefer to avoid plot summary, the Frankenstein familiar to moviegoers is not Mary Shelley's creature. At times movie versions include an important idea--but the complexity of the story and ideas does not appear. Realistically, slavish adherence to a novel often results in a turgid, boring film. Yet the director interested in technical effects could highlight key ideas. For example, the excitement of opening in the frozen north, with one figure moving across the ice and receding into the distance while another suddenly appears hundreds of miles from land, could hold the attention of the audience. The relationship between isolated figures on a vast expanse of ice could serve as a poetic leit-motif in the film and retain a significant element of the novel. The cold and sterile elements assume greater meaning than a senselessly rampaging creature engulfed by fire. Even Henry Clerval's importance as the person Victor could have become offers a second theme which deserves exploration.

Once again Victor's childhood friend, Henry Clerval, helps Victor recuperate. Clerval, an important character in the story, could be the Victor's twin. Both men hope to accomplish great and good things; however, Victor pursues science and Clerval studies languages and the humanities. If we consider the fascination with dualism, evident in Percy Bysshe Shelley's poetry, we more readily understand the significance of Clerval. Even Victor points out that "Henry is my better self." At critical points in the narrative Clerval reappears and helps Victor regain his balance.10

As Victor relates the destruction of his loved ones, from little brother William to falsely accused Justine, the reader sympathizes with him. Victor seems unfairly persecuted by the dreadful fiend he created. His initial dreams of benefitting mankind and creating a race which would be grateful to him ironically mock the young man.

Yet reader sympathy shifts once more when the creature confronts Victor with a demand for an audience. The sudden appearance of the creature striding across a glacier high in the mountains startles both Victor and reader. Even more startling is the being's extraordinary range of ideas, precise vocabulary, and concept of justice and obligations.

In fact, the creature asks Victor what it is. The articulate figure challenges his maker:

How can I move thee? Will no entreaties cause thee to turn a favourable eye upon thy creature, who implores thy goodness and compassion. (74)

Both reader and Frankenstein recognize the justice of the creature's demands. Slowly, reader sympathy shifts from antagonism toward the "fiend" to recognition of its deplorable state, abandoned and unprepared for any role in the world.

It is no surprise to hear it say,

All men hate the wretched; how then must I be hated, who am miserable beyond all living things!...How dare you sport thus with life? 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. Every where I see bliss from which I alone am irrevocably excluded. I was benevolent and good; misery made me a fiend. (74)

It is true. The creature committed no crime, yet his creator shunned him. Why did the scientist's good intentions, the two year ambitious drive to create the being, fail to reach fruition? Why must the repulsive creature (ugly through no fault of its own) be driven from the door of his creator? The reader, recalling the emphasis Victor placed on his own childhood, recognizes that the fault lies not only with creature. The being, nameless as an object with no legitimate place in creation, deserves an answer. Movie directors ignore the dramatic potential of such a scene.

Yet the very ability to articulate ideas, to express complex patterns of thought, to question the justice of his indifferent creator, sets the creature apart from the lumbering monsters who lurch, groan, and creak across the screen. Admittedly a patchwork being, assembled from assorted body parts, the stitched together being offends by his ugliness, abnormality, and un-natural existence. How did he learn to speak, to exercise his mental abilities, and to determine Victor's obligations to him?

In a series of vignettes the creature pours forth a story to arouse our sympathy and understanding. Ignorant and unable to fend for himself, he gradually learned what to eat, how to hide from people who feared him, and finally attached himself to an educated French family in exile. Unseen by them he acted as an unknown benefactor, cutting wood during the night and neatly stacking it at their door--a bit like the fairy tale of the elves and the shoemaker. Providentially, it becomes necessary for the French cottagers to teach someone else the language. The creature looks and listens through a knothole.

Eventually driven away by the French family, he resolves to cease trying to be peaceful. He will avenge himself on mankind; however, he observes a young woman drowning. Without hesitation (and with personal risk to himself because he cannot swim) the creature saves the woman's life--only to be rewarded with a shot to his shoulder. No one helps him in his need, so he hides until the shoulder heals.

As the narrative unfolds reader response shifts from the need to allow the creature to speak to a sense of pity, perhaps outrage, for the injustices he suffered. Do we ever respond this way to a Frankenstein film? Clearly, Victor Frankenstein should have given more thought to his creation and its needs prior to animating it with the gift of life. Or, once endowed with life, he should have provided some means to control, educate, and guide it. Yet is that ever possible with an independent being? Could a scientist guarantee a life of goodness in the creature assembled from dead people? Can anyone guarantee that the results of any laboratory, or scientific experiment, will automatically be benevolent and good?

Finally the creature makes clear his great need: he is lonely, one of a kind, and unloved. He has learned the importance of position, family, and property. He wonders:

What was I? Of my creation I was absolutely ignorant: but I knew that I possessed no money, no friends, no kind of property....Was I then a monster, a blot upon the earth from which all men fled, and whom all men disowned? (89).

Consider the being's language, the ideas expressed. How did he master such complex thoughts? Not one dramatized version of the novel offers the creature's story--nor any recognition of Frankenstein's monstrous treatment of his own creation. In the creature's despair he fortuitously finds a portmanteau which contains three books which he can read: Paradise Lost, The Sorrows of Young Werther, and one volume of Plutarch's Lives. Capable of speaking, receptive to new ideas, he reads the books and learns about himself and the world in which he lives.

In common with Robert Walton and Victor Frankenstein, the speaker's language, perception of significant ideas, and understanding of the world derive from self-directed reading. Each of the three develops a sense of self and personal needs based upon ideas developed in books. The educational ideas of Jean Jacques Rousseau influenced both Mary Shelley and her husband, Percy Bysshe.11 That influence is apparent both in the novel and in the program of self-education adopted by the young couple. Each considered education to essential for improvement.

Curiosity prompts the creature to return again to the important questions:

Who was I? Whence did I come? What was my destination?...Plutarch taught me high thoughts, but Paradise Lost excited deeper thoughts...I read it as a true history (95-96).

For Victor, the creature, and the reader the parallel with Paradise Lost becomes important. Victor emulated God's actions when he created the being--yet what a difference! The creature exclaimed,

Like Adam, I was created apparently with no link to any other being in existence; but....he had come forth from the hands of God a perfect creature, happy and prosperous, guarded by the special care of his Creator: but I was wretched, helpless, and alone. Many times I considered Satan as a fitter emblem of my condition. (96)

Finally the creature echoes Milton's lines, "And now, with the world before me," and explains why he has sought Frankenstein.

With a mate he will be happy, leave Europe to settle in South America, and leave mankind alone. By now reader and Victor understand the pathetic cry: "I am malicious because I am miserable; am I not hated by all mankind?" (107). Yet two people have already been killed by the creature; in fact, the smooth talking creature rouses suspicions about his long term commitment to a life of obedience and good. His demands (not mild requests) include terrible threats to be enacted if his request is not met.

The reality of the dilemma could be debated at length. To what extent is the creature dependable? How much can he be trusted? Is there an alternative for Victor? Vacillating between agreement or refusal, Victor weighs the problems and determines that justice demands his return to the laboratory to create a mate. Yet conscience, which prevents him from relating any of the story to his father, betrothed, or Henry Clerval, suggests his awareness of the potential harm. By this time two people, Victor's little brother William and the innocent family servant Justine, have died through the creature's fault. Unlike the movie monster, the creature does not go on a murderous rampage. Only people related to Victor suffer injury or molestation. The being seeks vengeance against his maker and threatens the Frankenstein family, not others.

Briefly, Victor collects necessary parts, embarks for the Orkneys (an appropriate isolated, rocky location off the coast of Scotland and Ireland) and attempts to fulfill his promise. The first time he engaged in frenzied activity to create life he failed to reflect upon the possible consequences; now he cannot ignore the potential damage to be feared from two such beings. What effect or impact will his selfish hours in the laboratory, dedicated to the pursuit of a personal goal and a desire to spare his immediate family, have on other innocent people? He had isolated himself from other people when he first ascended to the attic for his experiments--and he knew the terrible consequences of that creation. Convinced of the hopelessness of his own position, but cognizant of the damage already inflicted by his creature, he finally tore apart the almost completed mate. The malevolent face of the creature, infuriated by Frankenstein's failure to complete a mate, threatened "to be with him on his wedding night."

The ensuing disposal of the second being, Clerval's murder at the hands of the creature, and Victor's imprisonment and release all precede the ill-fated wedding night. Determined to protect his bride from the creature Victor leaves the room to encounter the being--as he paces the halls Elizabeth's piercing scream reaches him and Victor recognizes his own inability to reason to a sound conclusion. His bride has been murdered.

Now the tale narrows to creator and creature, pursuer and pursued. Relentlessly Victor tracks the creature--in fact, the chase injects new meaning into his life now his family has been destroyed. The roles are reversed as the creature leaves his trail for Frankenstein to follow. Now the creator follows a path established by his creation. Even nature sympathizes with Victor--in a clear sky a small rain cloud appears to provide rain for him to drink--food appears when needed. Does even nature abhor the unnatural creature?

And of course, Victor, creature, and Robert Walton all head north across the glaciers. The dying Victor--the only living person who has ever seen the creature, warns Walton "Trust not the creature." And the reader is reminded that the devil is the father of lies.

Who learns or benefits from Frankenstein's story? First of all, the ship's crew survives the perilous trip when the captain, Robert Walton, turns around and returns to port. Rather than risk lives in the dangerous north, Walton suppresses his own ambitious goals and turns south. Of the two men obsessed with achieving what no man has ever achieved, Walton sets aside personal ambition for the sake of others. The deliberate use of dualism enables Mary Shelley to offer an alternate for Victor's obsession for over-achieving.

The power of the myth of an unattended scientific creation, left to destroy innocent lives, assumes importance in the final decade of the twentieth century. The book questions the morality of Frankenstein's actions. Did he have a right to create and abandon the creature? In her novel, Mary Shelley anticipated the problem of a destructive force created by man, a force with no genuine means of control. Although her story served as a springboard to a host of horror movies, both the numerous movies and dramatic presentations omit the basic intelligence of the creature, its initial benevolent impulse, and its ability to recognize good or evil. Even the altered movie endings--with a mob scene presenting the monster's death in a great conflagration, violates the intent of the author. Ice must be the final lifeless element for the creature.

One exception could be the Mel Brooks film, Young Frankenstein. Although a parody of the numerous earlier films, the creature does become articulate and does appeal to Frankenstein's sympathetic nature.

The novel itself continues to intrigue the modern audience. The nineteen year old Mary Shelley successfully combined three separate stories. Reader sympathy shifts with each narrator, thereby making it more difficult to remain detached from the events. Until the creature narrates his own history he receives no sympathy, yet after his narration the reader recognizes the injustice of Victor Frankenstein's actions, his thoughtless focus on personal achievement. Most terribly, he completes an experiment which can, and does, threaten mankind. The absence of conscience, or awareness of implicit obligation to provide safeguards in a scientific creations, alarmed Mary Shelley the author. She consistently pushed stories beyond the normal conclusion, the expected ending.

Her modern Prometheus, based upon Prometheus the creator, not the thief of fire, provides a myth for modern man. How can a scientist anticipate the results of his continued experiments? Can the beneficial effects of each new scientific discovery be guaranteed? Thoughtless Victor built in no safety controls, no device to assure that only good actions would be performed. Yet, would such a safeguard be possible?

The story, first published in 1818 before the author's 21st birthday, proved an immediate hit--although the audience believed the work was written by her husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley. In 1823 the first dramatic production, Presumption, appeared on the London stage. Within a few months a second version appeared and two years later the first of many parodies, Frank and Steam, entertained English audiences.



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