In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle revisits Mary Shelley’s misunderstood parable and founding text of science fiction
Frankenstein is one of a handful of nineteenth-century fictional creations that went truly global and became ingrained in the popular consciousness. Along with Sherlock Holmes and Dracula, Mary Shelley’s character has flown free of the text which spawned it: Frankenstein has become synonymous with biological experimentation, the creation of hybrid ‘monsters’, and the perils of playing God. The Oxford English Dictionary includes the prefix ‘Franken-’, used to denote nouns implying genetic modification, most famously ‘Frankenfoods’. The OED also records ‘Frankenstein’ itself, in extended use, as both a noun and a verb.
2018 marks the bicentenary of Mary Shelley’s first and most successful novel, written when she was just a teenager and published when Shelley was 20 years old. This fact is often repeated, but it’s worth stopping to reflect on the astounding precocity of the novel’s author. Dickens was 24 when his first novel appeared, and he was touted as a prodigy. Try naming another novel written by a teenager which has attained the status of a classic. Now try naming one that, arguably, spawned a whole new genre in English literature. There was, and in some ways is, nothing else quite like it. Frankenstein is not just a founding text but a foundling text.
This is not to say that Shelley’s relative youth and inexperience doesn’t occasionally show. I remember, when studying Frankenstein for A Levels, counting up with a friend how many times phrases like ‘benevolent countenance’ and words like ‘ardour’ appeared, like stock units or printer’s stereotypes the young Shelley lazily reached for in her rush to get her extraordinary vision down on paper. And this is the point: the novel is so overflowing with creativity and imagination that such stylistic tics and weaknesses hardly matter. What made Frankenstein breathe, what gave the novel life and sustains it two centuries on, is the remarkably original and arresting premise on which its action is based. Like H. G. Wells’s The Time Machine from the other end of the century, another first novel by a precocious talent written when the author was still very young, Frankenstein is a book that took a new scientific idea and used it to explore age-old moral problems.
And the science-fiction aspect of the book is important. Frankenstein came at the end of the Golden Age of the Gothic novel, begun over half a century earlier with the sensation that was Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto. When Frankenstein appeared in 1818, it did so shortly after the posthumous publication of Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey, a novel satirising the by-then well-worn (some would say worn-out) conventions of the Gothic genre. But Frankenstein stands at the beginning of a new genre in English literature: science fiction. Although the scientific aspects of the book can be overemphasised (reading the moral of the novel as being about the dangers of playing God rather than the perils of being an irresponsible ‘parent’), the novel explores the moral questions which arise from Victor Frankenstein’s experiments (which don’t involve electricity or galvanisation in the book), and this moral angle is a key element of many of Wells’s early scientific romances.
In his Introduction to the wonderful new Oxford World’s Classics edition of the novel, Frankenstein: or `The Modern Prometheus’: The 1818 Text (Oxford World’s Classics Hardback Collection), which restores Shelley’s original 1818 text and is pictured above right in all its hardcover glory, Nick Groom points out that the word used to denote the nameless creation of Victor Frankenstein has shifted over the years: originally, he was called the ‘Monster’, but now we are more likely to speak of him as the ‘Creature’. But even ‘Creature’, Groom observes, denies the character any real humanity, and suggests instead that ‘Being’ should be used to describe him. He points out that this is the word Shelley’s husband, Percy Shelley, used of him, presumably with Mary’s approval. The recent article in The Sun in which students were mocked as ‘snowflakes’ for responding sympathetically to the character (with The Sun itself, as a result, being widely mocked) suggests that such a response to the Creature – sorry, Being – is a twenty-first-century, millennial imposition on the novel, but as Percy Shelley’s choice of word demonstrates, he and Mary both viewed Frankenstein’s creation in such a way. The novel is less about the dangers of playing God than about the dangers of failing to play the role of a good parent, not about offending the Father but about being remiss in playing mother. T’Pau’s ‘China in Your Hand’, distilling the former aspect of the book’s moral message into a 4-minute pop song, alludes also to the novel’s other moral, that of looking after that which you bring forth into the world.
One of the timeless moral questions which Frankenstein throws out, as Nick Groom’s Introduction also highlights, is whether moral decency is innate or socially conditioned. Ultimately, it’s both: humanity would undoubtedly not have made it this far without an in-built sense of right and wrong, as the very existence of our conscience proves, but our exercising of this innate knowledge requires practice to become more finely tuned. Here, I think the reading of the novel which sees Frankenstein as solely to blame for the Being’s behaviour risks going too far the other way: the Being is a murderer with whom we can sympathise, but he is nevertheless a murderer who behaves in full knowledge of the evil he commits, and does so out of spite, having been rejected by not only his creator (or ‘parent’) but society at large. As with more recent real-life murderers, school shooters, and serial killers, the impulse is to understand the motive, but understanding and justification are not the same thing, nor can they be allowed to be. There are some things we do not need to be taught to know they’re wrong.
As my parallel above suggests, one reason that Frankenstein remains such a relevant novel 200 years after its publication is that it encourages us to think about where ‘monsters’ come from. And, like Mary Shelley’s creation, such people are still people, or ‘Beings’. This is the unpalatable but unavoidable truth of Frankenstein as it is of the works of Dostoevsky: as with the best and subtlest Gothic fiction we are forced to confront the ‘monster’ not as some mysterious other but as a force lying latent within us, too.
Oliver Tearle is the author of The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History, available now from Michael O’Mara Books.