by Patrick McGrath

Centipede Press, 2006

The circumstances in which Frankenstein was first conceived are well known, largely through Mary Shelley’s own account. But it is still in its own right a fascinating and rather romantic story. In 1814 the poet Shelley, then aged nineteen, first appeared in the London home of William Godwin, a man whose radical political ideas had scandalized England, and whose late wife was Mary Wollstonecraft, pioneer feminist and author of A Vindication of the Rights of Women. The couple’s daughter, named for her mother, was then aged sixteen. She and Shelley fell in love and eloped to Switzerland, much to Godwin’s displeasure. They returned to London in the fall, and after a somewhat rackety period of liaisons and affairs on both sides Mary became pregnant by Shelley and in January 1816 gave birth to a son.

Later that year they returned to Switzerland, renting a house near Lake Geneva called Campagne Chapuis. It was close to a much grander house, the Villa Diodati. There the notorious Lord Byron was in residence, having left England for good, dogged by the scandal of his affair with his half-sister.

Members of the two households spent much time together, often sailing on the lake in the warm evenings. The party at one point included Matthew Lewis, author of the best of the first wave of English gothic novels, The Monk. Also present was Lord Byron’s then mistress, Claire Clairmont, and his personal physician, John Polidori. Mary was blissfully happy with the life they led on the shores of the lake. Then the weather changed. It started to rain and it didn’t let up. The company was forced to spend long days and nights indoors. It was Byron’s idea that they should amuse themselves by each writing a ghost story. His own effort, a tale he quickly abandoned, was later completed by Polidori and titled The Vampyre. It is regarded as the first vampire story in English literature. It features a very louche nobleman called Lord Ruthven (pronounced “riven”), thought to be modeled on Byron himself.

This then was the atmosphere in which the young Mary Shelley tried to think of a story that would entertain her friends. She had been listening to conversations between the two poets on the subject of galvanism and electricity; the possibility that a corpse might be reanimated by these means was discussed. She would also have been familiar with the history of Castle Frankenstein, a real castle built high over the Rhine in Germany whose most notorious resident was an alchemist called Konrad Dippel, who had apparently tried to create a living creature from the bones and organs of animals and men. Inspiration came suddenly. In her introduction to the 1831 edition of the novel she wrote: “I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside 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...”

So the Creature was born, at least in Mary Shelley’s imagination.

The novel begins, curiously, in the frozen wastes of the Arctic: this is a book that will be characterized throughout by the restlessness of its narrative. Frankenstein and the Creature travel all over Europe--Germany, Switzerland, the British Isles, France and Russia, before setting off into the far north. This aspect of the novel, the rich variety of its locales, in combination with its vivid descriptions of landscape and weather, mountains during thunderstorms in particular, may have formed a large part of its appeal to a contemporary readership which was learning through the poets and artists of the Romantic movement to find beauty and spiritual meaning in untrammeled Nature, the wilder the better.

The story begins with a ship’s captain on a voyage of exploration, a man called Walton. He encounters Victor Frankenstein adrift, frozen and emaciated on a large piece of ice with his sledge, and only one dog left alive. He is brought on board and having been revived with brandy he begins to tell Walton his story, which Walton will then relate in letters to his sister in England. This one-sided correspondence comprises the full text of the novel, an epistolary technique which Mary Shelley in all probability learned from Samuel Richardson.

The first movement builds to the climactic moment of the Creature’s “birth.” Several of the novel’s themes have by this time been articulated, Victor Frankenstein’s renunciation of scientific ambition for one. We find in these pages a sustained characterization of science as a laying bare, a probing, an intrusion-—there are recurring images suggestive of a female Nature subjected to the rapacity of a masculine science. Frankenstein speaks, for example, of “men who had penetrated deeper and knew more.” [41] Such metaphors contribute heftily to the book’s implicit indictment of science.

An associated concern is the transgressive aspect of this unnatural bringing forth of life, and it is developed in two distinct strands. The first argues that the creation of life is the prerogative of God; the second, that it is the prerogative of woman. It is in relation to this latter idea that an extraordinary sequence of events occurs immediately after Frankenstein succeeds in animating the body he has assembled. Mary Shelley is brief to the point of off-handedness in her description of this momentous event, certainly compared to what movie adaptations have made of the actual moment of transformation of inert biological matter to living being. It is done in two short paragraphs and then Frankenstein, exhausted, takes to his bed.

It is what happens next that is so astonishing. For having usurped the role of woman by bringing forth life, he dreams, first, that he is kissing Elizabeth, the woman he intends to marry, and who will presumably be the mother of the children he conceives in the normal manner. But even as he plants his lips on hers she turns into the corpse of his dead mother. This is no mere gothic effect, this is an inspired understanding of the workings of the unconscious: it bespeaks a mind raddled with guilt.

Frankenstein is overcome with horror. He awakens; and in a ghastly travesty of that tender moment when a mother looks in on her sleeping child, he discovers that the curtain of his bed has been lifted, and that the Creature is gazing down at him, grinning. He is convulsed with disgust. “A mummy again endued with animation could not be so hideous as that wretch,” he cries. [68] Mummy indeed.

Notice that every permutation of the maternal relationship has occurred in these few short scenes. First Frankenstein plays the mother in creating life. Then in his nightmare he plays the adult child to his own mother, having first turned her into a barren, rotten corpse. He then plays the child to the “child” to which he himself has given birth, with the Creature now apparently cast in the mother’s role of solicitous guardian. We shall see these two, Frankenstein and the Creature, trade places in a number of distinct relations: parent and child, master and slave, pursuer and pursued. We will be forced eventually to accept that they are two halves of a single whole. This is the doppelganger motif, a sustained central feature of the thematic design of the novel, and it is here in the very dawn of the Creature’s life that we first encounter it.

It is also here that we glimpse the full effect of Victor Frankenstein’s bad faith toward the Creature. We will later come to understand that a gentle soul resides within that monstrous body, and realize that the hideous grin to which Frankenstein awakens must surely have been a smile, and no ordinary smile at that: it was the smile of a being as it looked upon its parent in the first moments of life. But Frankenstein fails to understand this, and responds instead with horror, and flees.

It will be many months before they meet again, and when they do we will hear a clear admission on Frankenstein’s part of his identification with the Creature. But immediately after this first brief encounter he falls ill with a “nervous fever.” He is nursed by his devoted friend, Henry Clerval; time passes, almost two years, and there is no sight of the Creature, nor even any mention of him. Frankenstein is restored to health. Then comes tragic news from Geneva, the first in what will become a catalogue of violent deaths of Frankenstein’s various hostages to fortune. William Frankenstein, his little brother, has been brutally murdered.

Frankenstein must return home, and it is as he nears Geneva that Mary Shelley produces a magnificent scene, one that will mark a major turning point in the story, and with it a momentous development in Frankenstein’s relationship with the Creature. He has decided that before he comes to his grieving father he will visit the scene of his brother’s death. It is dark; he is in the mountains; a storm is raging. There is a flash of lightning, and he sees it: “the wretch, the filthy daemon, to whom I had given life.” [94] It is then that he all at once realizes it must have been the Creature who killed his brother, as the Creature meanwhile disappears into the mountains.

Frankenstein’s response to this sighting is complicated. His first reaction is to admit his own responsibility: “Alas! I had turned loose into the world a depraved wretch, whose delight was in carnage and misery...” [95] (Although note that he does not take responsibility for being the first to reject the Creature, so initiating the damage that according to the Creature himself will provoke the very malice and violence which Frankenstein deplores. There is a powerful liberal agenda at work in this novel, about which more below.)

The second idea is a more peculiarly gothic notion. It will further confirm Frankenstein’s identification with the Creature, and suggest that on some level they are one. It comes a few lines after his admission of responsibility for unleashing evil into the world in the form of the Creature, which he now recognizes “nearly in the light of my own vampire, my own spirit let loose from the grave, and forced to destroy all that was dear to me.” [95]

Again Mary Shelley shines a brilliant light into the recesses of the unconscious mind. It is almost as though she shares the same impulse as Frankenstein himself, who early in the novel had insisted that “to examine the causes of life, we must first have recourse to death... I was led to examine the cause and progress of this [bodily] decay, and forced to spend days and nights in vaults and charnel-houses.” [58] Mary Shelley here descends into the charnel-house of Victor Frankenstein’s soul, and discovers there a destructive spirit which she associates with death. It is surely the death-instinct she has identified, first named as such by Freud, many years later, and which in his theory of the unconscious he opposed to the pleasure principle. It can be argued that psychoanalysis is merely the continuation by other means of the work of the 19th-century gothicists, and no better illustration can be found than Mary Shelley’s inspired exploration of Frankenstein’s turbulent and conflicted psyche. In fact Mary Shelley herself proclaimed, in a journal entry from 1822, her ambition as a psychologist of the unconscious, writing that she would “fearlessly descend into the remotest caverns of my own mind, carry the torch of self-knowledge into its dimmest recesses...”

In similar vein Frankenstein speaks of his own dark researches. “I beheld the corruption of death succeed to the blooming cheek of life; I saw how the worm inherited the wonders of the eye and brain...”[59] And a little later: “Life and death appeared to me ideal bounds, which I should first break through, and pour a torrent of light into our dark world.” [61] The coexistence of death within life: to harness these forces is perhaps what the identification, or fusion, even, of Frankenstein and his Creature represents, the union of death instinct and pleasure principle, of eros and thanatos, life and death.

The evil repercussions of the child’s murder are not yet played out. A Frankenstein family retainer, a good woman called Justine, is accused of the crime. There is circumstantial evidence which points to her guilt. Frankenstein, impotent and despairing, watches her go to the gallows. He calls her “my unhappy victim,” [106] and says this: “But I, the true murderer, felt the never-dying worm alive in my bosom, which allowed of no hope or consolation.” [111] In his impotence he is capable only of self-pity. “But I, the true murderer”--what clearer illustration that Frankenstein and the Creature are becoming ever more entwined as their identites merge?

“I wandered like an evil spirit, for I had committed deeds of mischief beyond description horrible,” he confesses. [113] And a little later: “I had been the author of unalterable evils; and I lived in daily fear, lest the monster whom I had created should perpetrate some new wickedness.” [115-116] We are deep in the territory of the doppleganger here. This is Frankenstein speaking, of course, not the Creature. It could as well have been Dr. Jekyll, reviewing the nightly depradations of Mr. Hyde, or even Dorian Gray, pondering another innocent life corrupted and destroyed. Meanwhile all is gloom and suffering in the House of Frankenstein. The man himself is steeped in the knowledge of his guilt, but cannot confess. Seeking the consolation of Nature he goes into the Alps and does find comfort in those wild mountains. There follow descriptive passages extolling the therapeutic spiritual power of Nature which are in the best spirit of Romanticism. “My heart, which was before sorrowful, now swelled with something like joy...” [125]

His joy is short-lived however: a climactic encounter with the Creature occurs. The two trade insults, and then the Creature demands that Frankenstein hear him out. The next several chapters represent an extraordinary development in the novel. The Creature, whom we have come to know solely through the eyes of Frankenstein, and have heard called a brute, a fiend, a daemon, a devil, an abhorred monster, and many other foul epithets, is now allowed to tell his side of the story. This is one of the peculiar glories of gothic literature: that which is abject, monstrous, alien, inferior, and above all dispossessed and unvoiced-—the Other, in other words--is permitted to speak. And speak he does, this nameless Creature, for more than sixty pages. His account is didactic in places, at times implausible and often absurdly contrived, but it is a powerful expression of a social philosophy which underpins much liberal thinking to this day. It says in effect that a creature shunned, a creature treated with contempt and disgust will behave with violence and malice toward others. Conversely, a creature reared on love must necessarily be benign. There is no inherent evil or goodness in humanity: we are formed by our experience.

We need look no further for the roots of such ideas in Mary Shelley than her father, William Godwin. He argued that only by removing oppressive social institutions--religion, government, marriage, the law of inheritance--could humanity create enlightened societies, because only then would the reason and free will inherent in human nature be liberated to work benevolently for the good of all. Godwin believed that man is selfish only because society makes him so, an idea first formulated by Rousseau and later taken up with fierce enthusiasm by Percy Shelley and expressed in much of his greatest poetry. As regards his knowledge of the world, Mary Shelley has the Creature describe how he came to learn the attributes of the physical world through sensation, and how his knowledge developed through reflection. By eavesdropping on the conversation of a family to whom he has attached himself as a mysterious benefactor, he acquires language, also a grounding in history, economics and moral philosophy. His education thus follows faithfully the precepts of John Locke, a powerful influence on Godwin and his followers.

The Creature’s experience tends, then, to reflect the radical ideas of the Godwin circle. Arousing horror in those he encounters, his essentially benign character goes to the bad and he becomes more and more vindictive. He saves a child from drowning and is rewarded for his troubles with a bullet in the shoulder. He grows embittered and is aware of it: “I am malicious because I am miserable. Am I not shunned and hated by all mankind?” [192] Finally he snaps. He comes upon little William Frankenstein and thinks to make a friend of him, assuming “that this little creature was unprejudiced, and had lived too short a time to have imbibed a horror of deformity.” [188] He could not be more wrong. The child struggles and screams and then, when he reveals who he is, a Frankenstein, his fate is sealed. It is the work of a moment to wring his little neck. Only then does the Creature know the dark ecstasy of revenge. For he realizes what pain the death of the child will cause his enemy.

In this way the Creature explains why he came to kill the boy. And now he makes Victor a proposition: “My vices are the children of a forced solitude,” he says--an idea which also derives from Godwin’s social philosophy, that it is through an individual’s exclusion from society that evil takes root in him--“... and my virtues will necessarily arise when I live in communion with an equal.” [195] Frankenstein is moved by the plea, and agrees to create a mate for the Creature, on condition that the couple exile themselves from humanity. The Creature promptly disappears. Frankenstein goes to work.

There follows an extended journey which takes him and his friend Clerval down the Rhine and eventually to London, then to Scotland and finally the Orkneys. There he works with “obscure forebodings of evil,” toiling away at the “filthy process... my heart often sickened at the work of my hands.” Statements like this provide support for a reading of the novel which suggests that, in combination with the fact of its protagonist bringing forth life completely by himself, Frankenstein is basically a masturbatory fantasy driven by womb-envy. Be that as it may, Frankenstein’s nerve is failing him. His resolve falters. He terrifies himself with the idea that once he has created a female the pair will have children, “and a race of devils would be propagated upon the earth...” [222]

At this climactic moment the Creature appears at the window in the moonlight. He has what Frankenstein believes to be a ghastly grin on his lips. Frankenstein cracks, and in full view of the Creature he destroys his own work: the mate for which the Creature has been yearning. We may imagine the anguish this arouses; and the stage is now set for the last movements of the story, the Creature’s revenge, and the final pursuit.

What does it mean, the relationship of Frankenstein to the Creature, which at this point is at its lowest ebb? The enduring appeal of the novel must reside to a great extent in the multiplicity of readings it offers, for it is impossible to pin down a single, exclusive interpretation of what the Creature represents, what Frankenstein’s act of creation represents, and what finally their relationship represents. Several of the themes already suggested come to mind. The arrogance of a masculine science which tampers with Nature at its peril--this idea certainly strikes a chord in an era in which the immense destructive potential of nuclear energy remains a source of fraught anxiety; and Frankenstein will in the end be destroyed by what he has unleashed. Associated with his arrogance is his cruelty, his disgusted rejection, that is, of the being to whom he has given life, and the consequences of that rejection in arousing the Creature’s violence. In this regard there is not only a humanitarian moral, there is also a persuasive Marxist reading which sees the Creature as the emergent proletariat in the early period of European industrialization, a social force which the bourgeoisie cannot recognize, and for which as a result it feels only contempt. Certainly Mary Shelley’s upbringing in William Godwin’s house, and her education in the political thought of her time, would support this interpretation. There is also a way of seeing the novel as a response to Milton’s Paradise Lost, from which the book’s epigraph is taken-—“Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay/To mould me man, Did I solicit thee/From darkness to promote me?”-—with the Creature a sort of Adam who must find his way in a fallen world in which his creator, God, presumably, has forsaken him. Then again one could read the novel as a plea for tolerance and understanding of those who because of their physical features or material conditions are seen to be monstrous.

This last possibility is persuasive when one considers the question of race, and in particular of slavery, in the early 19th century, this an idea recently advanced by the British scholar Alan Lloyd Smith. After much agitation Britain abolished the slave trade in 1807, and we may be sure the issue was heatedly discussed in the Godwin household. It is not hard to unearth allusions to slavery in the text of the novel, not of course in any direct literal sense but metaphorically rather. The response to the Creature’s physical aspect, so disturbing to so many of those he encounters, not least his creator, would suggest the sort of unthinking antagonism to which Africans were subjected in their first confrontations with Europeans. They were perceived as primitive savages, closer to apes than men, and the Creature’s reception is no different. He is gigantic in stature, grotesque of feature, more agile than ordinary men, capable of subsisting on a coarser diet, and able to withstand extremes of heat and cold. There is also the fact that like many slaves, the Creature has learned to speak and read through the clandestine observation of a literate family in relation to which he has functioned like a slave, an invisible helper who supplies some at least of their basic needs. Then, as a result of the books he reads, he comes to understand his own position in the society in which he finds himself; and having done so, asserts himself robustly. Far too robustly, of course, for Victor Frankenstein’s stomach-—and here we may, again thanks to Alan Lloyd Smith, recognize the deep unease felt in even the most progressive quarters of European society towards the recent excesses of the French Revolution and the subsequent slave revolts, particularly the successful uprising in Haiti.

It is perhaps in his relationship with Frankenstein that the idea of the Creature as slave works best; and while in the early stages of the novel it is clear that Frankenstein is the master, as he becomes increasingly aware of his responsibility for the Creature’s crimes so does the power shift, and the Creature is more and more in control. The idea is made explcit in one angry exchange between the two when the Creature actually addresses Frankenstein as “slave,” then says: “You are my creator, but I am your master;--obey!” [224] And in their final pursuit the Creature will actually help Frankenstein to keep up with him by providing clues, messages and even provisions. In this way the complexities and inversions of the master/slave relationship, the interdependence of the two, the contradictory dynamics of submission and control, will play out in the final contest.

But before that occurs the Creature will wreak a terrible revenge upon the man who has denied him a mate, that denial being of course another instance of the despotic control common to the experience of slaves, who routinely saw their families torn apart, the men separated from their wives, the children sold off to the owners of distant plantations. Mary Shelley is masterful in her handling of the revenge. Not only is it perfect in its ghastly symmetry with the act that provoked it, and yokes the fates of the two protagonists still more closely together, it is ominously foreshadowed, but in mildly enigmatic form such that Frankenstein will be taken by surprise when he realizes, too late, just what the Creature intends. The dreadful warning will echo down the pages of the novel, its meaning clear to all but him: “I go; but remember, I shall be with you on your wedding night.” [225]

We move now towards the final, fatal confrontation of these two protagonists whom we sense must destroy each other. But Mary Shelley has not yet exhausted her ingenuity in drawing out every exquisitely savage irony in this hellish partnership. The death of Henry Clerval does not surprise us, for it is clear that Frankenstein has left unprotected a host of hostages to fortune, every one of whom the Creature will fall upon and destroy. What we do not expect, and this is surely a masterstroke of imaginative perversity, is that Frankenstein will be convicted of the murder: having previously accepted a sort of symbolic guilt for the Creature’s crimes, he is now being literally held responsible in law. In the eyes of the law the two are now one.

The Creature dogs Frankenstein’s steps. From Ireland we move to Paris, and then to Geneva. More deaths occur, and the pursuer becomes the pursued. There is a glorious gothic moment in a deserted graveyard when Frankenstein swears a terrible oath of revenge upon the Creature; but the solemnity of the declaration is undermined: “I was answered through the stillness of the night by a loud and fiendish laugh.” [275]

The chase takes them to “the wilds of Tartary and Russia,” [276] then they turn northwards until they reach “the Frozen Ocean.” [281] And now a lovely touch, as Mary Shelley describes a moment of what can only be viewed as erotic passion when Frankenstein glimpses his hated antagonist in the distance and “uttered a wild cry of ecstasy when I distinguished a sledge and the distorted proportions of a well-known form within. Oh! with what a burning gush did hope revisit my heart!... still my sight was dimmed by the burning drops...” [281-282] The end is near, and the long-hoped for fusion of the two close to consummation, a final coming together which arouses the “burning gush” of the pursuing lover on sighting the beloved and sensing the imminence of death: again the convergence of eros and thanatos. And so the book comes full circle, in the Frozen Ocean, and the appearance, with Frankenstein in extremis, of Robert Walton’s ship; and so to the last encounter.

London, July 2006