A More Horrid Contrast: Mary Shelley and Her Monster

Let us begin where Mary Shelley began, with an excerpt from the novel:

IT WAS on a dreary night of November that I beheld the accomplishment of my toils. With an anxiety that almost amounted to agony, 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.

How can I describe my emotions at this catastrophe, or how delineate the wretch whom with such infinite pains and care I had endeavoured to form? His limbs were in proportion, and 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.

The different accidents of life are not so changeable as the feelings of human nature. I had worked hard for nearly two years, for the sole purpose of infusing life into an inanimate body. For this I had deprived myself of rest and health. I had desired it with an ardour that far exceeded moderation; but now that I had finished, the beauty of the dream vanished, and breathless horror and disgust filled my heart. Unable to endure the aspect of the being I had created, I rushed out of the room and continued a long time traversing my bed chamber, unable to compose my mind to sleep. At length lassitude succeeded to the tumult I had before endured; and I threw myself on the bed in my clothes, endeavouring to seek a few moments of forgetfulness. But it was in vain: I slept, indeed, but I was disturbed by the wildest dreams. I thought I saw Elizabeth, in the bloom of health, walking in the streets of Ingolstadt. 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; a shroud enveloped her form, and I saw the grave-worms crawling in the folds of the flannel. I started from my sleep with horror; a cold dew covered my forehead, my teeth chattered, and every limb became convulsed: when, by the dim and yellow light of the moon, as it forced its way through the window shutters, I beheld the wretch — the miserable monster whom I had created. He held up the curtain of the bed and his eyes, if eyes they may be called, were fixed on me. His jaws opened, and he muttered some inarticulate sounds, while a grin wrinkled his cheeks. He might have spoken, but I did not hear; one hand was stretched out, seemingly to detain me, but I escaped, and rushed down stairs. I took refuge in the courtyard belonging to the house which I inhabited; where I remained during the rest of the night, walking up and down in the greatest agitation, listening attentively, catching and fearing each sound as if it were to announce the approach of the demoniacal corpse to which I had so miserably given life.

So begins Chapter 5 of Mary Shelley’s seminal debut novel, Frankenstein, begun when Shelley was 18-years-old and first published anonymously when she was twenty in 1818. What is striking about the passage is not only the description of the monster, but the ambiguity of its actions. One can easily take Victor Frankenstein’s interpretation at his word, that the creature was acting in a threatening manner and wished to accost him, but one may also easily read desperate, confused pleading in the monster’s open mouth and outstretched hand. More on that later. The road to the novel is nearly as legendary as its subject, and its examination, I feel, helps to shed light on the story’s creation.

 

Mary Shelley was born August 30, 1797, the daughter of two highly influential thinkers – the radical political philosopher William Godwin, whose writing, among other things, criticized aristocratic privilege, and Mary Wollstonecraft, who wrote extensively of the French Revolution and most famously penned A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), where she argued for the equality of intellect between the sexes and that women should be treated as rational beings and given the same educational opportunities as men. Sadly, the placenta broke and became infected during delivery, and Wollstonecraft died less than a month after Mary came into the world. Left to raise Mary on his own, Godwin encouraged her to take part in the lively and provocative political, philosophical, and scientific discussions that occurred within the house amongst a host of radical thinkers and she was given access to a bursting library, granting young Mary an advanced, if informal, educational foundation.

 

In 1814 she met the radical poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, a devotee of her father and a regular visitor, who was then estranged from his wife. They began to meet secretly at Wollstonecraft’s grave and quickly fell deeply in love. Despite Percy being the ideal embodiment of Godwin’s expressed ideals, her father disapproved of the relationship and essentially turned his back on his daughter, to her great surprise and disappointment (Godwin was in terrible debt and knew that Percy would not be able to help him if they married). Mary and Percy left England for mainland Europe and soon found themselves penniless and she, pregnant.

When they returned to England Percy was tending to the birth of his son from his first wife while Mary was left to care for their two-month premature newborn, with frequent visits by Percy’s friend Thomas Jefferson Hogg. On 6 March, Mary wrote to Hogg:

My dearest Hogg my baby is dead—will you come to see me as soon as you can. I wish to see you—It was perfectly well when I went to bed—I awoke in the night to give it suck it appeared to be sleeping so quietly that I would not awake it. It was dead then, but we did not find that out till morning—from its appearance it evidently died of convulsions—Will you come—you are so calm a creature & Shelley is afraid of a fever from the milk—for I am no longer a mother now.

Mary suffered bouts of acute depression after and had haunting visions of her baby. Nevertheless, she conceived again and gave birth to a son, William, named after her father, in January of 1816.

That summer, often referred to as the “Haunted Summer”, Mary, Percy, their child, and Mary’s stepsister, Claire Clairmont, stayed with the libertine Romantic poet Lord Byron, whose flamboyant lifestyle, aristocratic excesses, and sexual fluidity made him notorious, on Lake Geneva in Switzerland. As evidence to his reputation, Clairmont was at the time pregnant with Byron’s child. Byron’s young physician, John Polidori, was also present. The penultimate evening is depicted with mixed success by the 1987 film Gothic.

 

In the 1831 edition of Frankenstein, Shelley wrote about that summer and of the circumstances of her novel’s germination:

In the summer of 1816, we visited Switzerland, and became the neighbours of Lord Byron. At first we spent our pleasant hours on the lake, or wandering on its shores… But it proved a wet, ungenial summer, and incessant rain often confined us for days to the house. Some volumes of ghost stories, translated from the German into French, fell into our hands…

‘We will each write a ghost story,’ said Lord Byron; and his proposition was acceded to. There were four of us… Poor Polidori had some terrible idea about a skull-headed lady, who was so punished for peeping through a key-hole — what to see I forget — something very shocking and wrong of course… he did not know what to do with her, and was obliged to despatch her to the tomb of the Capulets, the only place for which she was fitted. The illustrious poets also, annoyed by the platitude of prose, speedily relinquished the uncongenial task.

I busied myself to think of a story, — a story to rival those which had excited us to this task. One which would speak to the mysterious fears of our nature, and awaken thrilling horror — one to make the reader dread to look round, to curdle the blood, and quicken the beatings of the heart. If I did not accomplish these things, my ghost story would be unworthy of its name. I thought and pondered — vainly. I felt that blank incapability of invention which is the greatest misery of authorship, when dull Nothing replies to our anxious invocations. Have you thought of a story? I was asked each morning, and each morning I was forced to reply with a mortifying negative…

Many and long were the conversations between Lord Byron and [Percy] Shelley, to which I was a devout but nearly silent listener. During one of these, various philosophical doctrines were discussed, and among others the nature of the principle of life, and whether there was any probability of its ever being discovered and communicated. They talked of the experiments of Dr. Darwin… who preserved a piece of vermicelli in a glass case, till by some extraordinary means it began to move with voluntary motion. Not thus, after all, would life be given. Perhaps a corpse would be re-animated; galvanism had given token of such things: perhaps the component parts of a creature might be manufactured, brought together, and endued with vital warmth.

Night waned upon this talk, and even the witching hour had gone by, before we retired to rest. When I placed my head on my pillow, I did not sleep, nor could I be said to think. 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. I saw — with shut eyes, but acute mental vision, — 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. 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. His success would terrify the artist; he would rush away from his odious handy-work, horror-stricken. He would hope that, left to itself, the slight spark of life which he had 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 transient existence 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.

I opened mine in terror. The idea so possessed my mind, that a thrill of fear ran through me, and I wished to exchange the ghastly image of my fancy for the realities around. I see them still; the very room, the dark parquet, the closed shutters, with the moonlight struggling through, and the sense I had that the glassy lake and white high Alps were beyond. I could not so easily get rid of my hideous phantom; still it haunted me. I must try to think of something else. I recurred to my ghost story, — my tiresome unlucky ghost story! O! if I could only contrive one which would frighten my reader as I myself had been frightened that night!

Swift as light and as cheering was the idea that broke in upon me. ‘I have found it! What terrified me will terrify others; and I need only describe the spectre which had haunted my midnight pillow.’ On the morrow I announced that I had thought of a story.

Frankenstein proved to be one of literature’s most influential works. Shelley combined Gothic horror with Romantic sensibilities, and in the process crafted one of the earliest examples of science fiction. It should be noted that Shelley was far more conventional in 1831, when she wrote the above introduction, than the young spitfire she had been in 1816 when she began the novel. Audiences have overwhelmingly read the tale as a cautionary one about the consequences of man playing God. In a 1978 introductory essay to the novel, Stephen King even writes:

The evil in Frankenstein is suggested by its subtitle, ‘The Modern Prometheus.’ Prometheus, bringer of fire, ended chained to a stone, his eyes pecked out by ravens – punishment for stealing what belonged to the gods. Frankenstein comes to a similar end – not in fire but in ice – for his temerity in usurping the power which belongs to God alone: the power to create life. (Signet Classic Edition, viii)

With all due respect to Mr. King, I can’t entirely agree with this assessment. Even despite Shelley’s mentions of the moral horrors of mocking the “Creator of the world” and even also of her fictional portrayal in the introduction of 1935’s The Bride of Frankenstein where it is claimed that her wishes were “to write a moral lesson of the punishment that befell a moral man who dared to emulate God,” evidence suggests such concerns were likely far from Mary’s mind at the time. British literary critic Marilyn Butler writes of such moralizing that it “is not an impression easily left by the novel in its 1818 form” (303). In addition to the introduction quoted above, Mary Shelley also made major revisions to her tale for the 1831 publication, making the novel’s message quite different from its first iteration by adding long passages of Victor religiously moralizing. Thus, “our current understanding of Frankenstein is disproportionately impressed by passages introduced in what might be called a composite Frankenstein, the product of a decade and a half of religious-scientific controversy.” The artistic result is that the “urgent, unusual, brilliantly-imagined earlier book has been neutered or at best over-freighted with inessential additions” (304). Historian Mary Poovey also recognizes the contrast between young and older Mary, writing that “taken together, the two editions of Frankenstein provide a case study of the tensions inherent in the confrontation between Shelley associated, on the one hand, with her mother and Romantic originality and, on the other, with a textbook Proper Lady” (252). To help rid ourselves of this notion that Mary, in writing her novel, intended to show the folly of man trying to be God, we should consider that both of Mary’s parents, whom she strove to emulate, were nonbelievers and that Percy Shelley had been expelled from Oxford for writing the pamphlet The Necessity of Atheism, and he even lost custody of his children from his first wife in the court’s because of his atheist views.

Bringing it back to Prometheus, he is a mythological figure whom the Romantics admired. Film scholar Lester D. Friedman and historian Allison B. Kavey write in their study, Monstrous Progeny: A History of the Frankenstein Narratives, that both Byron and Percy Shelley “saw the Titan’s story as encapsulating the spirit of their turbulent age and his saga as a model for insurrection against entrenched and oppressive institutions, such as the church and monarchy” (73). In 1820 Percy Shelley would publish what many consider his masterpiece, the lyrical play Prometheus Unbound, which depicts the Titan as a hero, not a cautionary figure, and we should consider that much of Frankenstein was written via conversations between Mary and Percy. Additionally, Prometheus was not punished for creating man (which he did according to Ovid), but for stealing fire to try to care for him. Victor Frankenstein creates a new species of life, but unlike the Titan he has not the sense of responsibility to nurture and guide him. Therefore, “Victor’s reckless ambition and then refusal to take personal responsibility for his ‘offspring’ seal his fate and that of those he most loves” (Friedman and Kavey 74).

Instead of a muddled moral lesson against man striving to become God, Mary was actually more concerned with the changing structure of the contemporary scientific community, which was growing more organized and responsible, in contrast to the more haphazard and undisciplined legacy of the Renaissance natural philosophers. In the novel, Victor Frankenstein is influenced by these Renaissance thinkers, who mixed natural philosophy with solitary pursuits and occultism, and shows little patience for modern science. Like earlier natural philosophers, Victor works alone and for personal glory, away from the restraining judgments of other scientists and society at large. Herein lies his folly. During the 1810s Mary was well aware of the changes going through the scientific community, where peer review was being stressed as well as the responsible use of science to benefit society. For “if Frankenstein deserves punishment for his actions… it is not desiring to ‘know what it feels like to be God’” as quoted by Colin Clive in the 1931 film version or “to ‘penetrate into the recesses of nature, and shew how she works in her hiding places’… , but rather for ignoring his fundamental obligations to the social order, for abandoning the restorative powers of friendship and love, and refusing to engage in a relationship that puts the needs of others – even his Creature – before his own” (Friedman and Kavy 76). Victor’s sin is not that he wishes to take power from God – for within traditional natural philosophy, if such knowledge were naturally attainable by man it would only serve to understand God better, for nothing can be taken from God – it is instead that he works divorced from peer judgement and is motivated by the desire for fame.

Other influences in the story include The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (1798) and especially Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667), a verse from which Mary opens her novel’s title page:

Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay
To mould Me man? Did I solicit thee
From darkness to promote me? (X. 743–5)

In Milton’s tale, Satan is depicted as a classical hero, and Frankenstein’s creation reads the epic poem and identifies with the character. It should be noted that Percy Shelley, in his introduction to Prometheus Unbound, writes, “The only imaginary being, resembling in any degree Prometheus, is Satan.” Both embody the spirit of rebellion, and so such a view can serve to further blur the line as to which character the novel’s subtitle refers, is it the creator, or his creation?

Given Mary’s history of loss and grief, it is perhaps not surprising that Frankenstein deals so powerfully with such themes as birth, death, and immortality. The creature is motherless, just as was Mary. The creature seeks the approval of his creator just as Mary sought the approval of her father. Further tragedies would no doubt influence the novel as it was written. William Godwin had given his children happy childhoods, but as debts continued to grow he grew increasingly angrier. Mary and Claire had escaped the household, but they left behind their half-sister, Fanny, who was left to deal with the brunt of his bitterness. She committed suicide later that year, in October of 1816. On December 30 the pregnant corpse of Percy’s first wife was found floating in a lake in London. She had drowned herself. After the novel was published the cruel fates were not done with Mary. As she and Percy toured Italy both of their two children died and Mary’s severe depression alienated her from Percy, who wrote in his notebook:

My dearest Mary, wherefore hast thou gone,
And left me in this dreary world alone?
Thy form is here indeed—a lovely one—
But thou art fled, gone down a dreary road
That leads to Sorrow’s most obscure abode.
For thine own sake I cannot follow thee
Do thou return for mine.

They did succeed in having one more child 1819 who lived to old age, but Percy Shelley would not live to see his son grow. He drowned at sea three years later in 1822, at the age of 29.

Mary would continue to write novels, but Frankenstein remains the most powerful and lasting of her creations, written at a time of emotional turmoil and intellectual daring. The earliest critical receptions were largely negative, likely from the novel’s unconventional contents but also stemming in part from speculation as to the anonymous author’s identity. When Mary’s name was printed on the 1822 edition, many dismissed the novel on the pretense that it was authored by a woman. One writer in the British Critic writes: “The writer of it is, we understand, a female; this is an aggravation of that which is the prevailing fault of the novel; but if our authoress can forget the gentleness of her sex, it is no reason why we should; and we shall therefore dismiss the novel without further comment.” Still others discussed her only in terms of her not reaching the heights of her esteemed father. Nevertheless, over time the novel’s recognition as a major literary achievement, and of Mary Shelley as an artist of stature, rapidly increased, and despite what the critic’s spewed the novel was immediately popular.

In 1823 Richard Brinsley Peake’s adapted the work for the stage, entitling it Presumption; or, the Fate of Frankenstein, and it was seen by Mary Shelley and her father at the English Opera House. Another play followed in 1826. Mary Shelley’s final years were characterized by bouts of illness and paralysis. A brain tumor was suspected. She died in 1851 at the age of 53.

Nearly six decades later, the first film adaptation was produced by Edison Studios in 1910, and it stars Charles Ogle in a fright wig and padded outfit as the creature. Describing itself as “a liberal adaptation of Mrs. Shelley’s famous story”, the plot takes more inspiration from Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886). The Edison Kinetogram explains: “In making the film the Edison Co. has carefully tried to eliminate all actual repulsive situations and to concentrate its endeavors upon the mystic and psychological problems that are to be found in this weird tale. Whenever, therefore, the film differs from the original story it is purely with the idea of elimination what would be repulsive to a moving picture audience.” In this version the creature is created with fiery chemicals and is ultimately a counterpart of his creator, finally disappearing into the nether when beholding its own reflection. Two more now lost films were made in 1915 and 1920.

Frankenstein Edison 1910
Edison’s Frankenstein, 1910.

Following the immense success of Dracula in 1931, Universal Studios quickly went about adapting Frankenstein for the screen, this time helmed by James Whale. Combining the aesthetics of German Expressionism with American Romanticism, and taking obvious influence from 1920’s The Golem and 1926’s The Magician, both which starred Paul Wegener, it is considered one of the era’s greatest horror films. Nevertheless, Whale changes much from Shelley’s creation. Instead of a highly intelligent and loquacious creature, Frankenstein’s monster is childlike, mute, and lumbering. Still, however, Whale retains an understanding sympathy for it and lays at least part of the blame for its more violent behavior at the feet of its neglectful creator. The make up by Jack Pierce and performance by Boris Karloff made the character undeniably iconic, even overshadowing Shelley’s creation in the popular imagination.

Karloff Frankenstein Monster 1931
Boris Karloff as Frankenstein’s Monster, 1931

Whale followed with a sequel in 1935, The Bride of Frankenstein, giving audiences an even more artistically accomplished achievement, allowing moments of levity but also of horror, and bestowing another icon onto the world even though Elsa Lanchester, who plays the Bride, is only on screen for the final minutes. Nevertheless, her striped, towering hair, wrapped clothing, and bird-like stares are instantly recognizable. The creature would go on to appear in six more Universal horror films:

Son of Frankenstein (1939), also with Karloff.

The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942), with Lon Chaney, Jr.

Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943), with Béla Lugosi.

House of Frankenstein (1944) with Glenn Strange.

House of Dracula (1945), again with Strange.

Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948), with Strange.

Hammer Films revived the doctor and monster in 1957 with The Curse of Frankenstein, with Christopher Lee playing the creature and Peter Cushing playing the malevolent creator. Six more films would follow. The story has appeared in countless other forms, some serious and some comical, some successful and others not, including I Was a Teenage Frankenstein (1957), Young Frankenstein (1974), The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975), Frankenhooker (1990), Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1994), the Tim Burton films Edward Scissorhands (1990) and Frankenweenie (2012), and Victor Frankenstein and the simply named Frankenstein, both from 2015. This list, which is only a fraction of the adaptations or parodies which have spawn from Shelley’s nightmare at the Villa Diodati, speaks to the longevity and power of the source material.

To return once again to Stephen King, in his book Danse Macabre he identifies the Frankenstein story, along with Dracula and Wolfman, as archetypal tales which have had the greatest influence on twentieth century – and we can add twenty-first century – horror. He refers to it as “The Thing Without A Name” – horrific creations which run amok against the status quo and our innate, and no doubt highly prejudiced, sense of decency. The name Frankenstein has itself become an adjective to describe conspicuously assembled parts or a Frankenstein’s Monster as being a creation which has dangerously been loosed from the control of its creator.

But beyond this, Mary Shelley’s story, and certainly James Whale’s films, allow us the opportunity to look into ourselves at the risk of seeing a monstrous reflection. Our own hubris, irresponsibility, and indeed apathy, create and allow to persist horrors the world over, from genocides to H-Bombs to the extinction of species to the ability to all too easily change the channel when confronted with these uncomfortable truths. When we look upon Karloff’s face in the monster makeup, what do we see? The mistake of one man who dared to challenge God’s authority? I hope not. After all, people create life all the time – my wife and I have done it twice, though admittedly she did all the hard work.

I see a challenge. Can we treat that which we don’t understand, which to us fails to fit within the fragile molds of beauty to which we’ve been conditioned, with kindness? Can we resist crushing the spider which unknowingly surprises us on the bathroom tiles? Can we look upon the “other” with compassion, and recognize its outstretched hand not as a threat but as an opportunity to be more than our instinctual programming to fight or to flee? Frankenstein failed this test and the result was the hateful destruction of everything he loved. Hopefully we and our children will fare better. I hope that we grow beyond the angry mobs who swarm the structures in the Frankenstein films, and see a kindred intelligence and emotion in the eyes of those who we don’t immediately recognize as being a part of our tribe, whether political, cultural, or special. But my hope is only very loosely tethered to my knowledge of history and the monsters that mankind can become, and it threatens to unravel each day.

Friedrich Nietzsche wrote in Beyond Good and Evil (1886), “He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster. And if you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss also gazes into you.”

In The Bride of Frankenstein, Dr. Pretorius toasts, “To a new world of gods and monsters!”

From my view, gods and monsters we already are.

Selected Works Cited

Butler, Marilyn. “Frankenstein and Radical Science.” Frankenstein, edited by J. Paul Hunter, Norton Critical, 1996.

Friedman, Lester D., and Allison B. Kavey. Monstrous Progeny: A History of the Frankenstein Narratives. Rutgers University Press, 2016.

Poovey, Mary. “‘My Hideous Progeny’: The Lady and the Monster.” Frankenstein, edited by J. Paul Hunter, Norton Critical, 1996.

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