ver the course of time, Frankenstein's monster has usurped the very name of his creator, Victor Frankenstein, the precocious student of natural philosophy from Geneva, where Mary Shelley was living with two gifted poets, her husband, Percy, and George Gordon, Lord Byron, when she conceived the strange Gothic tale. A period of bad weather in Switzerland bred a compact between Byron, Percy, and Mary, that while at the Villa Diodati, each should write the kind of story the trio were so enjoying reading. Numerous twentieth-century films attest to the story's durability, perhaps because of what science has become in western society over the past two centuries. The subtitle, "The Modern Prometheus," suggests the mythic dimensions of the three-fold tale. The author, incredibly not quite nineteen at the time of composition (and, moreover, a teenaged mother), draws a correspondence between young Frankenstein's hope of scientific glory prompting him to manufacture a monster and God's creating the archangel who would become the rebel Satan. God's making of man is also at issue in the epigraph that Mary Shelley takes from Milton's Christian epic of creation and original sin, Paradise Lost:
Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay
To mould Me man?
Shelley's fable thus enquires into the responsibility of the Creator for the misery and evil in His created world.
Mary Shelley was no ordinary nineteen-year-old; rather, as the daughter of radical novelist William Godwin and feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, and the wife of one of the leading second-generation Romantic poets, she was, as Gilbert and Gubar style her, "one of England's most notable literary heiresses" (221). After endlessly studying her mother's and father's works, Mary Shelley went on to read voraciously: contemporary Gothic novels; works in French and German; Milton's Paradise Lost, Paradise Regained, Comus, Areopagetica, and Lycidas; the works of the great Romantics — her husband, Byron, Coleridge, and Wordsworth; and, shortly before writing Frankenstein, Swift's Gulliver's Travels. From seventeen to twenty-one, moreover, Mary was almost continually involved in physical procreation: pregnant, confined, or nursing. "For her developing sense of herself as a literary creature and/or creator seems to have been inseparable from her emerging self-definition as daughter, mistress, wife, and mother" (Gilbert and Gubar: 224).
For Gilbert and Gubar, the Miltonic creation epic is central to the meaning of Frankenstein; indeed, they maintain that Mary Shelley's novel is a nineteenth-century, Romantic, and Feminist reading of Paradise Lost:
Like Victor Frankenstein, his author and superficially better self, the monster enacts in turn the roles of Adam and Satan, and even eventually hints at a sort of digression into the role of God. Like Adam, he recalls a time of primordial innocence, his days and nights in "the forest near Ingolstadt," where he ate berries, learned about heat and cold, and perceived "the boundaries of the radiant roof of light which canopied me" (88, ch. 11). Almost too quickly, however, he metamorphoses into an outcast and Satanic figure, hiding in a shepherd's hut which seems to him "as exquisite . . . a retreat as Pandemonium . . . after . . . the lake of fire" (90, chap. 11). . . . . Eventually, burning the cottage and murdering William in demonic rage, he seems to become entirely Satanic: "I, like the arch-fiend, bore a hell within me" (121, chap. 16) . . . . At the same time, in his assertion of power over his "author," his mental conception of another creature (a female monster), and his implicit dream of founding a new, vegetarian race somewhere in "the vast wilds of South America," (131, chap. 17), he temporarily enacts the part of a God, a creator, a master, albeit a failed one. [Gilbert and Gubar, 235-36]
Undoubtedly a part of Mary Shelley's recreation of Milton's epic in novel form is the Edenic quality of the valleys, rivers, and lakes in Frankenstein; moreover, the monster learns language from the De Laceys' reading of Paradise Lost, the syntax and diction of which become the models for his own speech throughout the novel.
Another pattern that both Anne Mellor in "The Female in Frankenstein" and William Veeder in "Frankenstein: Self-Division and Projection" discuss is that of name symbolism, which reinforces Victor Frankenstein's hubris in trying to eliminate the female as he attempts to win eternal fame as the founder of a new line of superhumans. Instead of submitting himself to the will of the community and the family, the scientist asserts his ego by challenging the laws of nature. Whereas the Russian sea-master sacrifices his hopes for marriage that his beloved may marry the man of her choice and Clerval sacrifices his plans to attend university to nurse the stricken Victor, Walton and Frankenstein make no concessions in their quest for greatness. While Walton's polar expedition (actuated by the wrong-headed notion acquired as a child that Hyperboreans lead a paradisal existence at an iceless North Pole) threatens the lives of his crew, Frankenstein acknowledges that his experiment has loosed a killer upon unsuspecting humanity. In contrast to the phallocentric Frankensteins, the De Lacey family (unlike the Frankensteins, impoverished, but like them and the Godwins after Mary's birth lacking a matriarch) shares work and responsibility equally between male and female in an atmosphere of rational companionship, mutual concern, and love. As their symbolic names suggest, Felix embodies happiness, Agatha goodness. They are then joined by Safie (sophia or wisdom). Safie, the daughter of the Turkish merchant, is appalled both by her father's betrayal of Felix and by the Islamic oppression of women he endorses; she has therefore fled from Turkey to Switzerland, seeking Felix. Having reached the De Lacey household, she promptly becomes Felix's beloved companion and is taught to read and write French. Safie, whose Christian mother instructed her "to aspire to higher powers of intellect, and an independence of spirit, forbidden to the female followers of Mahomet" (p. 119), is the incarnation of Mary Wollstonecraft in the novel. Wollstonecraft too traveled alone through Europe and Scandinavia; more important, she advocated in
A Vindication that women be educated to be the "companions" of men and be permitted to participate in the public realm by voting, working outside the home, and holding political office. [Mellor, 222-223]
Significantly, the "loners" of the tale, Walton and Frankenstein, seek limited male companionship, relegating the females in their lives to correspondents rather than companions. Moreover, it is Victor's destruction of his bride, who is to be his sole companion, that prompts the monster to murder Elizabeth on her wedding night.
Veeder notes that the female correspondents stand for the balance and judgment ('keeping') that the polar explorer and the natural philosopher, both obsessed by dreams of glory and heroic accomplishment, tend to lack. Both Victor and Walton have violated the will of a father in pursuing their vain and reckless schemes, and have left their sisters.
"Margaret" is a jewel, a "pearl" of great price. "Saville" suggests the native and communal through the French "sa ville." If Mary had not wanted this French connection, she would have used the traditional English spelling, Savile. . . . .Together "Margaret" and "Saville" give to this native jewel the imprimatur of Mary Shelley's own initials, M. S. . . . . "Walton" as "walled-town" suggests the isolation inevitable to Prometheans like Robert and Professor "Waldman." Only by leaving Robert's bachelor realm behind — without even the trace of a middle initial — can Margaret reach Saville, that native community which is the union of male with female and the ideal of Agape. [Veeder, 82-83]
Veeder adds that not only "Robert" ("bright in fame") but also the Russian cities that serve as the jumping-off points for his polar expedition have symbolic significance. "The very motion of his journey is away from the female and toward the male, away from Margaret and on to Peter (Petersburgh) and Michael (Archangel), away from sa ville and on to the ultimately phallic pole" (88).
Whereas modern critics have focussed on the eponymous character, in his review of an apparently male author's book Percy Bysshe Shelley shifts attention from Victor (perhaps recognizing in that character his own personality traits) to the monster, whom he terms a "Being."
Treat a person ill, and he will become wicked. Requite affection with scorn; — let one being be selected, for whatever cause, as the refuse of his kind — divide him, a social being, from society, and you impose upon him the irresistible obligations — malevolence and selfishness. [Rpt. in Veeder 226 from The Complete Works of Percy Bysshe Shelley 6]
Two further articles examine Frankenstein from the perspective of psychology and behavioural patterns. In "The Tempest-toss'd Summer of 1816," John Clubbe discusses how both Shelleys and Lord Byron were influenced by the notion then in vogue that individual and national character were profoundly shaped by climate, and specifically how the novel was written during one of Europe's most inclement summers. "With the onset of the rain and the cold," writes Clubbe, "the thoughts of those closeted within [Geneva's Villa Diodati] turned inward" (31). All three Romantic writers were fascinated by the Alpine thunderstorms ("bises or 'north-easters'") which brought a strange chiaroscuro to the Swiss landscape, investing it with mysterious blackness and sublime lightning. Such storms indeed constitute a pattern in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein: "For her, a storm embodied the unknowable, elemental power of against which man's being, his rational intellect especially, appeared puny and helpless" (33). That lightning should be able to reanimate a corpse was within the realm of possibility for early nineteenth-century Europeans, whose world was not yet wholly mapped and whose scientists such as Cuvier were beginning to unearth fossil evidence that huge monsters once walked the planet. Only fifty years before, Cook had discovered Australia, and the polar regions remained a mystery. "In 1816 the eerie creations imagined by Mary Shelley, both creature and novel, seemed all too possible" (37).
Paul Youngquist in another 1991 article subjects the feminism implicit in Frankenstein to a psychological rather than a New Historicist examination.
For Shelley, body is fate; all idealizings, cultural and personal, liberal and feminist, mask more profound — and irrational — imperatives. If it is ugliness that fuels the monster's social exclusion, it is beauty that drives his revenge: he destroys what he cannot possess. Hence the inadequacy of Wollstonecraft's arguments [in A Vindication of the Rights of Women] that reason is natural and beauty mere ornament. 
Through authorship, Mary Shelley slipped the mortal bonds of bodily regeneration. Youngquist argues that Shelley's Frankenstein is the author's alterego, producing a creature free from the defilement of sexual procreation and the taint of mortality.That a male without sexual contact can reproduce is a feminist fantasy, for the laboratory's replacing the womb frees woman from the constraints of the body. Justine and Elizabeth escape the defilement of sexual procreation, dying sacrificial virgins and therefore pure; they, along with Saphie and Agatha are reflections of the Ideal Woman, biologically immaculate because uncontaminated by sexual know-ledge and motherhood. The book's female characters are "such an insipid lot" (349) because they are not characters at all, but mere symbols, sacrificial virgins and dead mothers who must atone for Victor Frankenstein's usurpation of procreation.
Mothers in Frankenstein are categorically dead because their biological function is primordially defiled. . . . . Mary Shelley's own life as child and mother bore ample witness to this paradox [that life lives upon death]. It has become almost obligatory for critics of Frankenstein to cite the long list of deaths that dogged the early life of its author: her mother Mary Wollstonecraft expiring eleven days after Mary's birth; her half-sister Fanny Imlay poisoning herself and referring obliquely in her suicide note to her illegitimacy; Percy's first wife Harriet Westbrook dying pregnant by another at the time of her suicide; and finally, Mary's first daughter passing quietly two weeks after her premature birth. All of these deaths implicate the mother by exaggerating the proximity of life's origin and end. (351)
The monster, however, is not a fully formed individual, but an "abortion," a defilement of the human form, and so deeply repulsive to all (including himself) who see him. "The monster is an ugly botch because he incarnates a male fantasy of creative autonomy" (347). The fault is not the monster's but his creator's; the monster is a sympathetic consciousness trapped in a repulsive form that even Victor, his mother-and-father, detests. The creature's appearance immediately makes manifest his creator's violation of social norms, for the monster's ugliness exemplifies his impurity; his very form contradicts Wollstencraft's liberal feminism for it "demonstrates openly the implied imperatives of corporeal life: there can be no transcendence of sex, no rationalist utopia oblivious to the body" (344).
Selected List of References
Blamires, Harry. "Mary Shelley." The Age of Romantic Literature. Harlow, Essex: Longman/York Press, 1990. 115-116.
Boyd, Stephen. "Frankenstein as a Novel." Mary Shelley: Frankenstein. Harlow, Essex: Longman and York Notes, 1994. 52-55.
Clubbe, John. "The Tempest-toss'd Summer of 1816: Mary Shelley's Frankenstein." Byron Journal 19 (1991): 26-40.
Dixon, Wheeler Winston. "The Films of Frankenstein." Approaches to Teaching Shelley's Frankenstein, ed. Stephen C. Behrendt. New York: MLA, 1990. 166-179.
Gilbert, Sandra M., and Gubar, Susan. "Horror's Twin: Mary Shelley's Monstrous Eve." The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1984. 213-247.
Mellor, Anne K. "The Female in Frankenstein." Romanticism and Feminism, ed. Anne K. Mellor. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1988. Pp. 220-232.
Veeder, William. Mary Shelley and "Frankenstein": The Fate of Androgyny. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986.
Youngquist, Paul. "Frankenstein: The Mother, the Daughter, and the Monster." Philological Quarterly 70, 3 (Summer 1991): 339-359.
Wheeler Winston Dixon, "The Films of Frankenstein." Approaches to Teaching Shelley's "Frankenstein", ed. Stephen C. Behrendt (New York: MLA, 1990): 166-179.
Last modified 24 January 2003