“I will not reason and compare, My business is to create.”
– William Blake, Jerusalem.
The Gothic novel Frankenstein was originally conceived in the imagination of its author during the summer of 1816 when the young Mary Godwin decided to “try her hand at writing a ghost story.” (Jones, 1994: xiii). Writing some fifteen years later, Mary spoke of how the story developed in her mind: ” My imagination, unbidden, possessed and guided me, gifting the successive images that arose in my mind with a vividness far beyond the usual bounds of reverie.” (Shelley, 1831: 1).
Encouraged by her lover and future husband, Percy Shelley, she developed the story into a full-length novel. It was clear from those first imagined thoughts as to the story’s shape that she was mindful of the significance of creation to the story, and the audacity of what she would allow Doctor Frankenstein to achieve:
“Frightful must it be; for supremely frightful would be the effect of any human endeavour to mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world.” (Shelley, 1831: 2).
Frankenstein’s endeavour – to create, to give life to the lifeless, to animate the inanimate – was not simply mockery of God, but stemmed from a genuine and lifelong desire to acquire knowledge. Doctor Frankenstein had often asked himself the philosophical question: “how did the principle of life proceed?” (Shelley, 1994: 33). From an early age Frankenstein became engulfed in a passion to discover the secrets of “heaven and earth” – the “physical secrets of the world.” (Shelley, 1994: 22-23).
The thirst for understanding of what could be seen as God’s domain – to understand the fundamentals of life and death, to question the sacred and inviolable laws of God and nature – can be read as transgressive. By seeking to “unfold to the world the deepest mysteries of creation,” Frankenstein is making the assumption that creation is not, and cannot be wholly explained by religion or the teachings of the Church. (Shelley, 1994: 30).
As Harold Bloom suggests, Frankenstein was attempting to break through the barrier that separates man from God. His act of creation gives life in the form of his creature, but the gift of life soon turns into a catalogue of death. (Bloom, 1985: 8). Frankenstein had taken on the role of “Creator”, daring to challenge God, and the result is the destruction of those people he loves – but this could all be seen as his own fault:
“Throughout his experiment, Frankenstein never considers the possibility that the creature might not wish the existence he is about to receive … he blithely assumes that the creature will bless him and be filled with gratitude.” (Mellor, 1988: 42)
Leaving God and the Church aside, Frankenstein’s act of asexual creation is contrary to all perceived rules of human nature, and one in particular – that only women can give birth. Mark Jancovich argues that Frankenstein’s scientific creation, without recourse to natural creation, is associated with “the male fantasy of producing life without recourse to women, and it is this fantasy which is defined as monstrous specifically because it is founded on a male fear of female sexuality in particular, and sexuality in general.” (Jancovich, 1996: 29).
This contempt for nature and the natural process of reproduction could be seen as arrogant and potentially dangerous. Doctor Frankenstein believed that if only he could find the right process he could solve all the fundamental problems of understanding nature. In only seeing his creation as a scientific process, Frankenstein succeeded in creating a monster that is neither part of nature as well as something which nature could never have created. This is a sombre reminder that man cannot be separated from nature, or that “there is no possible existence of one without the other.” (Damyanov, 1996: 4).
In effect, Frankenstein was overcome, intoxicated with the goal of creating life. In pursuit of this goal he did not consider the morality or consequences of his actions. The novel could therefore be seen as a “warning against the use of scientific intelligence, divorced from moral principle.” (Damyanov, 1996: 3). As in natural reproduction, giving birth is only the beginning and always needs to be followed by nurturing of the child, who learns its social skills from its parents. Frankenstein’s child was no exception to this. Like Adam, Frankenstein’s creature was born an innocent – “untouched by human corruption” – and as such was not inherently evil. (Damyanov, 1996: 5).
Frankenstein’s creation received no nurturing, nor the love and guidance it needed. Indeed, upon giving life to his experiment, Frankenstein was deeply repulsed by “the wretch whom with such infiinte pains and cares” he had endeavoured to form. (Shelley, 1994: 37). At that moment of long-anticipated achievement, Frankenstein’s overwhelming feelings were of “horror and disgust on seeing his hideously disproportionate creation come to life.” (Botting, 1995: 3). Years of toil and effort seemed misspent when he beheld with horror his creation’s features:
“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 pretty 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.” (Shelley, 1994: 37).
Despite its hideousness, Frankenstein had in essence created a child who relied on the only person he knew – Frankenstein – for guidance. Instead it was shunned and violently repelled. Doctor Frankenstein would later say of his creation: “I had turned loose into the world a depraved wretch, whose delight was in carnage and misery.” (Shelley, 1994: 52). Frankenstein had the opportunity, as Anne Mellor puts it, to clasp the “newborn child to his breast in a nurturing maternal gesture.” Instead he flees, repulsed by the abnormality of his creation. (Mellor, 1988: 41). Is it any wonder that the child becomes such a monster after being so heartlessly rejected and abandoned to a life of misery and loneliness.
Frankenstein’s repulsion towards his creation rsesulted from his awful realisation that what he saw before him was reflection of himself. He expressed this when he said: “nearly in the light of my own vampire, my own spirit let loose from the grave.” (Damyanov, 1996: 4). Orlin Damyanov suggests that “creator and creature are in reality one self,” reflecting differing sides of Frankenstein’s personality. (Damyanov, 1996: 5). It is interesting to note that the words creator and creature derive from a single word – the Latin creatus.
In despair at what he had created, Frankenstein was unable to endure being in the creature’s presence. Thus he abandoned his creation and left it for dead. His dreams and hopes of two year’s past were now gone: “the beauty of the dream vanished, and breathless horror and digust filled my heart.” (Shelley, 1994: 37). He struggled with his emotions, deeply disturbed by events. He could not sleep and when he did he was disturbed by the wildest dreams. In one vivid dream he thought he saw Elizabeth:
“Delighted and surprised, I embraced her; but as I imprinted the first kiss on her lips, they became livid with the hue of death; her features appeared to change, and I thought that I held the corpse of my dead mother in my arms.” (Shelley, 1994: 38).
Frankenstein had dreams of bestowing life and of overcoming the mysteries of death. He had achieved his ultimate goal – creating life – but could find no comfort, only the spectre of death. He acknowledged that “to examine the causes of life, we must have recourse to death.” (Shelley, 1994: 33). By delving into the mysteries of creation, the Doctor was setting himself on the road to discovering just what that “recourse to death” would entail.
For the next two years Frankenstein sought to recover from the horrors of what he had done, attempting to put out of mind his horrible creation. He sought comfort and solace in the company of his friend Henry Clerval – whose very presence gave Victor some peace and a link back to his father, Elizabeth, “and all those scenes of home” so dear to his recollection. (Shelley, 1994: 39).
He began to regain his health and spirits and began to understand how detrimental his solitary pursuits had been: “Study had before secluded me from the intercourse of my fellow creatures, and rendered me unsocial.” (Shelley, 1994: 47). Through his friend he again found the means of enjoying life, his senses and nature around him. It seemed that Victor was well on the road to recovery when his creation returned into his life.
Eventually – and with the inevitability you would expect in a horror story – creator and creation meet up again. When the creature does reappear he apeears to be … well, not a monster. He has educated himself – an excellent education which is “implicitly contrasted to the faulty education received by Victor Frankenstein.” (Mellor, 1988: 49). The creature is eloquent and reminds Frankenstein of his obligations as his creator:
“Remember, that I am thy creature; I ought to be thy Adam; but I am rather the fallen angel, whom thou driven from joy for no misdeed.” (Shelley, 1994: 69-70).
The monster wants as a human wants and asks his creator for a companion, the Eve “he needs to achieve some sort of a normal life.” (Mellor, 1988: 42). He is attempting to make sense of the world he has been thrust into. The creature’s pleas echo the cry of an “unfairly punished child who never asked to be born!” (Mellor, 1988: 43). Mellor relates these cries to a passage in Paradise Lost by Milton:
“Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay
To mold me man? Did I solicit thee
From darkness to promote me.”
– Paradise Lost, X, 743-745. (Mellor, 1988: 43).
Frankenstein wholely fails to see that hios creation is alone in the world and needs to be loved and feel wanted. Frankenstein rejects the creature’s need for companionship, denying the creature his mate. Rejected again by his father, the creature turns his mind to revenge against his creator. He seeks out and destroy’s Frankenstein’s brother, friend, bride and, eventually, Frankenstein himself. Even as he is dying, Dr Frankenstein can still not accept any blame for the creature’s actions – only seeing the evil within him:
“He showed unparralled malignity and selfishness, in evil: he destroyed my friends; he devoted to destruction beings who possessed exquisite sensations, happiness, and wisdom.” (Shelley, 1994: 157).
Frankenstein never once considers “whether the creature’s ‘malignity’ may have been prevented, as the creature himself repeatedly insists.” (Mellor, 1988: 43). As the creature says: “I was benevolent and misery made me a fiend.” (Shelley, 1994: 70).
Having been brought into the world with haste – abandoned to a life of loneliness, despair, and consumed by the desire for revenge – and having destroyed everything that was dear to his creator, the creature’s only ultimate escape is death:
“I shall die. I shall no longer feel the agonies which now consume me… He is dead who called me into being, and when I shall be no more the very remembrance of us both will speedily vanish… I should have wept to die; now it is my only consolation. Polluted by crimes, and torn by the bitterest remorse, where can I find rest but in death?” (Shelley, 1994: 162).
The Introduction to the Wordsworth Edition of Frankenstein used in this essay, like Mary Shelley herself did, questions how a woman of “her tender age could have so successfully crafted this epic Gothic tale.” (Shelley, 1994: i). It seems certain that Mary Shelley’s own life and her experiences must have played a significant part in the formation of the novel, and in particular in its central theme of creation. Her tragic experiences of childbirth and how they can cause such heartache must have given rise to many conscious and subconscious influences.
Mary’s own mother, the feminist writer Mary Wollstonecraft, died only days after giving birth to Mary – in a sense abandoning her to a life without a loving and nurturing mother. Mary herself was pregnant by the age of sixteen and lost her first child soon after its birth. The effect this tragedy must have had on her developing literary mind can only be guessed, but evidence that it deeply affected her can be seen in one of her journal entries:
“Dreams that my little baby came to life again – that it had only been cold, and that we rubbed it before the fire, and it lived. Awake and find no baby. Not in good spirits.” (Godwin, 1815).
This dream, according to Anne Mellor: “unleashed her deepest subconscious anxieties, the natural but no less powerful anxieties of a very young, frequently pregnant woman.” (Mellor, 1988: 40). Sadly this was not the only child Mary lost and she also suffered trauma and guilt over the suicide of her husband’s first wife and her own father, William Godwin, disowning her for eloping with Percy Shelley.
Essentially, says Ellen Moers, “Frankenstein is a birth myth, and one that is lodged in the novelist’s imagination … by the fact that she herself was a mother.” (Moers: 79). Birth was rarely represented in fiction and, if it was, it was from the male perspective. Moers argues that Shelley brought new life to representation of birth in literature, “not as realism, but as Gothic fantasy.” (Moers: 79-80). It is significant because it does not place its emphasis on “what precedes birth, not upon birth itself, but upon what follows birth: the trauma of the afterbirth,” which can only have been inspired by Mary’s tragic experiences. (Moers: 81).
Frankenstein, if it is seen as a birth myth, is unnusual in that all other creation myths – as Anne Mellor suggests – “depend on female participation or some form of divine intervention.” (Mellor, 1988: 38). Mellor argues that the Mary’s novel is a “penetrating literary analysis of the psychology of modern scientific man, of the dangers inherent in scientific research, and of the exploitation of nature and of the female…” (Mellor, 1988: 38).
Anne Mellor further argues that “Shelley’s focus on the birth-process illuminates for a male readership hitherto unpublished female anxieties, fears and concerns about the birth process and its consequences.” (Mellor, 1988: 41).
Since its first publication in 1818, Frankenstein has taken on a life of its own – if you will excuse the pun. Through endless new editions and translations into other languages, the book has remained in print ever since. Its pervasive influence can be seen in the “novels and stories which have utilised its ideas, and the films and television adaptations which have brought the story to the screen.” (Haining, 1994: 3). It is, with good reason, now generally regarded as the single greatest horror story novel ever written and most widely influential in the genre.
Bloom, H. (1985) (ed.), The Gothic Novel/Mary Shelley: Modern Critical Views , Chelsea House Publishing, London.
Botting, F. (1995) (ed.), Frankenstein: Contemporary Critical Essays , Macmillan, London.
Damyanov, O. (1996), Technology and its dangerous effects on nature and human life as perceived in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and William Gibson’s
Godwin, M. (1815), Journal extract, March.
Haining, P. (1994) (ed.), The Frankenstein Omnibus , Chartwell Books Inc., Edison, New Jersey.
Jancovich, M. (1996), Rational Fears: American Horror in the 1950s , Manchester, University Press, Manchester.
Jones, S. (1994) (ed.), The Mammoth Book of Frankenstein , Robinson Publishing, London.
Mellor, A. (1988), Mary Shelley: her life, fiction and monster , Routledge, London.
Shelley, M. (1831), “Introduction to 1831 Edition of Frankenstein,” cited in Jones. S (1994) (ed.), The Mammoth Book of Frankenstein , Robinson Publishing, London.
Shelley, M. (1994), Frankenstein , Wordsworth Editions Limited, Ware, Hertfordshire.