FRANKENSTEIN 200: Embracing the loneliness of monsters

A tale born out of a ghost-story competition between Mary Shelley, her husband Percy Bysshe Shelley and English poet Lord Byron, Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus has exceeded 300 editions and inspired more than 90 films – in addition to hundreds of academic texts and comic books, even – over the past two centuries. The book was first published anonymously in January 1818 and continues to be cited today in conversations concerning scientific progress, ethics and sometimes, the vanity of humankind.

In this issue, Western News celebrates the 200th anniversary of Frankenstein with insights from faculty across disciplines.

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In the 200 years since its publication, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein: or, the Modern Prometheus has engendered endless debate among readers and scholars.

Marxist critics have seen, in the nameless wretch that Victor stitches together from stolen corpses, an image of the emergent working class seeking justice from its factory-owning makers. Feminist critics have seen the novel as exemplifying the anxieties experienced by women writers who occupy the public sphere of letters, or as a critique of the male desire to reproduce without recourse to women’s bodies. More recently, one prominent scholar has used the Creature’s plight as a way to explore the condition of transgender people and the rage they experience at being placed both inside and outside of normative sexual codes.

The novel’s seemingly miraculous ability to speak to every critical school of thought has undoubtedly been a large part of its enduring success.

But, when I have taught the novel, as I do nearly every year in my first-year literature courses, my students almost always remark on something not much noticed by scholars: the profound loneliness of the Creature.

The circumstances of the novel’s composition are as famous as the book itself.

In the long, wet summer of 1816, Mary Godwin (she would not become Mary Shelley until the following autumn) was staying with her partner, the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, and his friend, Lord Byron, at a rented villa on the shore of Lake Geneva, Switzerland. Mary was 18, but had endured more than most young women of her age: her father had vehemently objected to her relationship with Percy (he was married with a child and another on the way when they met); creditors had endlessly harangued the couple about Percy’s unpaid debts; the press had made hay of their scandalous relationship; and, perhaps most devastatingly, her first child had been still-born.

The summer in Switzerland was meant to be something of a respite, but the endless rain (a volcano eruption in the South Pacific had sent a plume of ash across Europe, making this “the year without sun”) cast a pall over the proceedings. To raise their spirits, Byron proposed each member of the group compose and share a ghost story ­– the genre having been made popular by a best-selling anthology of German horror tales. Mary was, indeed, anxious about authorship. Percy and Byron were amongst the greatest writers in the world. What could she, a young woman without much in the way of formal education, contribute to such company?

One night, while worrying about the ghost story game, she overheard Byron and Percy discussing the experiments of Luigi Galvani. There was nothing unusual in this. Byron and Percy would often talk about the latest developments in science and the arts, while Mary would sit listening, excluded from the give-and-take of their conversation.

Galvani was an Italian anatomist who had been dissecting a frog when its leg, upon being touched with a scalpel, suddenly twitched as if brought back to life. The retelling prompted Byron and Percy to speculate about the material basis of life. Perhaps life was not some inscrutable mystery known only to God? Perhaps it was an entirely natural process, knowable to the human intellect?

Mary went to sleep that night with their words still whirling in her mind. And she had a dream, a dream that would change everything for her. As she later recounted in the 1831 edition of the novel:

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.

Mary took note of the dream in her diary and over the course of the next year she completed Frankenstein. This tale of its origin, however, is not incidental to understanding the novel. It’s a scene the book returns to repeatedly.

After being rejected by his creator, the Creature wanders through the forest until coming upon a family. The Delacys are political exiles, trying to survive the long winter but with little success. The Creature gathers wood and food for them at night. And during the day, he spies on them, eavesdropping through a hole in the cottage wall as the son teaches a young Arab woman the rudiments of the French language and introduces her to the great books of European culture.

Just as Mary sat on the outside listening into a male-dominated conversation she was unable to share, so too, the Creature learns from his place of exclusion. It’s an experience that will come to define him.

When Felix comes home to find the Creature making his first, tentative attempts to communicate with his blind father, he is outraged. Fearing for the old man’s life, Felix throws the Creature from the cottage and the whole family picks up and leaves. Dejected, the Creature returns again to the forest where he happens across a little girl drowning in a river. The Creature, still full of sympathy for all living things, wades into the water to save her, only to be shot at by villagers.

Rejected by his creator and his adopted family and seemingly by every member of the human race, the Creature begs Victor to make him a mate, a female monster with whom he might share the experience of what it means to be on the outside of human sympathy. Victor initially accedes, but when he comes to give it the spark of life, he revolts at the thought of a female monster giving birth to a “race of devils.” In one of the most disturbing passages of the book, he destroys the body. The Creature will have no ‘other’, no companion to share his life. After Victor’s death, he seems to walk out of the text altogether, disappearing into the relentless whiteness of the Arctic.

Perhaps, then, it is this that still draws us to a novel written by an 18-year-old woman, 200 years ago. It is this sense that ­– even in our age of permanent, insistent connection on Twitter, Snapchat or Tinder – we are, like Victor’s Creature, somehow still profoundly alone.

Today, two centuries after Mary Shelley wrote of the Creature’s need for human connection, the British government has appointed its first Minister of Loneliness. Her name is Tracey Crouch and while her appointment has brought some derision and even scorn, I think she has a big job ahead of her – she might begin by reading Frankenstein.

Christopher Keep is a professor of English & Writing Studies.

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Read more from the Western News celebration of the 200th anniversary of Frankenstein with insights from faculty across disciplines.

Frankenstein cannot help but remain a text for our time by Wendy Pearson

Bequeathals create ‘life,’ enable research and learning by Tim Wilson

Mary Shelley warned me there’d be days like this by Tim Blackmore

Embracing the loneliness of monsters by Christopher Keep

Of Frankenstein and the White House by Steven Bruhm