Richard Holmes

Franken­stein, Or, The Mod­ern Prometheus: An­no­tated for Sci­en­tists, En­gi­neers, and Cre­ators of All Kinds by Mary Shel­ley, edited by David H. Gus­ton, Ed Finn, and Ja­son Scott Robert The New An­no­tated Franken­stein by Mary Shel­ley, edited and with a fore­word

The New York Review of Books - - Contents - Richard Holmes

Franken­stein, Or,

The Mod­ern Prometheus: An­no­tated for Sci­en­tists, En­gi­neers, and Cre­ators of All Kinds by Mary Shel­ley, edited by David H. Gus­ton,

Ed Finn, and Ja­son Scott Robert.

MIT Press, 277 pp., $19.95 (paper)

The New An­no­tated Franken­stein by Mary Shel­ley, edited and with a fore­word and notes by Les­lie S. Klinger. Liveright, 352 pp. $35.00


“And now, once again,” wrote Mary Shel­ley in her in­tro­duc­tion to the 1831 edi­tion of Franken­stein, or the Mod­ern Prometheus, “I bid my hideous prog­eny go forth and pros­per.” It has cer­tainly done so, but in ways, and for rea­sons, she could never have fore­seen. Cur­rently there are more than sixty mil­lion Google re­sults for a search of the name “Franken­stein,” more than for Shake­speare’s Mac­beth. There have been more than three hun­dred edi­tions of the orig­i­nal novel; more than 650 comic books and car­toon strips in­spired by it; over 150 fic­tional spinoffs and par­o­dies; at least ninety films, in­clud­ing James Whale’s 1931 clas­sic with Boris Karloff; and some­thing like eighty stage adap­ta­tions. It is now fre­quently re­quired read­ing in schools, and pass­ing class­room ref­er­ences to “Shel­ley” may more likely mean Mary than Percy Bysshe (the ob­scure au­thor of Prometheus Unbound). In the press the term “Franken­stein” is still stan­dard short­hand for sci­ence gone wrong, warn­ing of every sup­posed sci­en­tific “men­ace” from nu­clear power to stem cell re­search and ge­netic mod­i­fi­ca­tion. In short, her mon­ster has be­come a mod­ern myth.

This mythic pros­per­ity, what­ever it sig­ni­fies to­day, was slow in com­ing. Mary Shel­ley’s orig­i­nal three-vol­ume novel was pub­lished qui­etly and anony­mously by Lack­ing­ton and Co., Fins­bury Square, London, in March 1818 and to lit­tle ac­claim. It had al­ready been re­jected by By­ron’s fa­mous pub­lisher, John Mur­ray. At the time it seemed so ut­terly strange that its few re­view­ers thought it must have been writ­ten by Mary’s fa­ther, the no­to­ri­ous an­ar­chist philoso­pher Wil­liam God­win, or pos­si­bly, ac­cord­ing to the great ro­mancer Sir Wal­ter Scott in Black­wood’s, by Mary’s hus­band, the dan­ger­ous athe­ist poet. The Quar­terly Re­view stonily ob­served: “Our taste and our judg­ment alike re­volt at this kind of writ­ing .... The au­thor leaves us in doubt whether he is not as mad as his hero.”

If they had guessed the au­thor was in re­al­ity a young woman, only eigh­teen when she be­gan her first draft, no doubt the crit­i­cal cho­rus of dis­ap­proval would have been even more thun­der­ous.

It is as­ton­ish­ing that the book ever got writ­ten at all. The night­mare birth of the ini­tial idea, dur­ing the cel­e­brated stormy ghost-story com­pe­ti­tion of June 1816 at the Villa Dio­dati, on Lake Geneva, be­tween Lord By­ron and the two Shel­leys, is well at­tested by Mary her­self and also by the con­tem­po­rary di­ary of By­ron’s volatile med­i­cal com­pan­ion, Dr. Wil­liam Poli­dori, an ex­pert on som­nam­bu­lism. (“A con­ver­sa­tion about prin­ci­ples, whether man was to be thought merely an in­stru­ment . . . . Twelve o’clock, re­ally be­gan to talk ghostly . . . . Sto­ries are be­gun by all but me.”)

But the ac­tual com­po­si­tion of the first 72,000-word draft lasted some eleven months, un­til May 1817, dur­ing which time Mary’s step­sis­ter, Claire, bore By­ron’s il­le­git­i­mate baby se­cretly in Bath; her half-sis­ter Fanny Im­lay com­mit­ted sui­cide with an opium over­dose in a Welsh ho­tel; and Percy Shel­ley’s le­gal but aban­doned wife, Har­riet Shel­ley, “be­ing far ad­vanced in preg­nancy” (ac­cord­ing to The Times), com­mit­ted sui­cide by throw­ing her­self into the Ser­pen­tine. In ad­di­tion, Mary found that she was preg­nant. The man­u­script of Franken­stein was de­liv­ered to the pub­lisher just five weeks be­fore her baby was born.


Mary per­sisted in de­vel­op­ing her story through­out these do­mes­tic dra­mas, as well as dili­gently re­search­ing such au­thors as Eras­mus Dar­win and Humphry Davy, is truly re­mark­able. But it is hardly sur­pris­ing that pain­fully adult themes of birth and death, the ter­rors and re­spon­si­bil­i­ties of par­ent­hood, and the ag­o­nies of the out­cast or the unloved suf­fused her youth­ful imag­i­na­tion like blood.

The 1818 edi­tion of the novel ran to a mere five hun­dred copies. It was the early the­atri­cal adap­ta­tions that pop­u­lar­ized the story. Pre­sump­tion: or, The Fate of Franken­stein was first staged at the English Opera House in July 1823 and opened to scan­dalous pub­lic­ity (“Do not take your wives, do not take your daugh­ters, do not take your fam­i­lies!”) and huge au­di­ences. Five sep­a­rate the­atri­cal adap­ta­tions fol­lowed be­tween 1823 and 1825, tak­ing Franken­stein to Paris, Ber­lin, and even­tu­ally New York. In London, Mary Shel­ley her­self at­tended in the stalls: “Lo and be­hold! I found my­self fa­mous! Franken­stein has had prodi­gious suc­cess as a drama . . . in the early per­for­mances all the ladies fainted and hub­bub en­sued!”

The hub­bub, so to speak, has never re­ally died down. Danny Boyle’s stage pro­duc­tion of Franken­stein (with Bene­dict Cum­ber­batch and Jonny Lee Miller al­ter­nately play­ing the Crea­ture and his Cre­ator) at the Na­tional Theatre, London, was a con­tro­ver­sial pop­u­lar hit in 2011. It was es­pe­cially mem­o­rable for its open­ing coup de théâtre, in which the ac­tor play­ing the Crea­ture dropped buck-naked onto the stage from a huge, puls­ing ar­ti­fi­cial womb and for sev­eral min­utes writhed into glis­ten­ing life in front of a stunned au­di­ence. Adap­ta­tions as well as lit­er­ary ref­er­ences in­spired by the novel, both se­ri­ous and light­hearted, never cease to bub­ble up. This au­tumn, Young Franken­stein, based on the 1974 Mel Brooks/Gene Wilder film and billed as “the new mu­si­cal com­edy,” opened at the Gar­rick Theatre in London’s West End; and an­other mu­si­cal ver­sion ap­peared off-Broad­way at St. Luke’s Theatre. The open­ing pages of Sal­man Rushdie’s lat­est novel (his four­teenth), The Golden House, in­tro­duce his mys­te­ri­ous pro­tag­o­nist, Nero Golden, with this sin­is­ter aside: “Some­times, watch­ing him, I thought of Dr. Franken­stein’s mon­ster, a sim­u­lacrum of the hu­man that en­tirely failed to ex­press any true hu­man­ity.” But that of course is a re­mark in­spired by film images rather than the novel. For the de­bat­able na­ture of “true hu­man­ity”—and whether Vic­tor Franken­stein (never Doc­tor in the novel) or his Crea­ture can best ex­press it—is pre­cisely the dilemma of Mary’s orig­i­nal fic­tion.


Af­ter two hun­dred years, how ex­actly are we to go back to the novel it­self, as dis­tinct from its pro­lif­er­at­ing, mul­ti­me­dia myth? The highly com­plex lit­er­ary struc­ture, af­ter all, con­sists of three over­lap­ping au­to­bi­ogra­phies—by the ex­plorer Robert Wal­ton, by Franken­stein, and by the Crea­ture him­self— each cun­ningly nested one in­side the other, each with a dif­fer­ent voice, a dif­fer­ent time­frame, and a dif­fer­ent view of the his­toric ex­per­i­ment and its ter­ri­ble con­se­quences. It seems to com­bine sev­eral gen­res at once: grim gothic melodrama, ex­u­ber­ant sci­ence fic­tion, satiric cau­tion­ary tale, pas­sion­ate moral para­ble, and even (es­pe­cially in its su­perb evo­ca­tion of moun­tains and po­lar re­gions) the vivid, un­reel­ing panora­mas of a Ro­man­tic ad­ven­ture story.

Franken­stein is sat­u­rated in the heroic rhetoric of Mil­ton’s Par­adise Lost, the alien­ated im­agery of Co­leridge’s “Rime of the An­cient Mariner,” and the nat­u­ral magic of Wordsworth’s “Tin­tern Abbey” (all of which are ac­tu­ally quoted). It also clearly con­tains a se­ries of philo­soph­i­cal de­bates be­tween sci­en­tific hope and hubris, be­tween friend­ship and be­trayal, be­tween love and soli­tude. The des­per­ate Crea­ture ar­gues fu­ri­ously with Franken­stein on the bleak Mer de Glace glacier in Cha­monix about the rea­sons (and moral re­spon­si­bil­ity) for mak­ing him a fe­male com­pan­ion: “Oh! my cre­ator, make me happy; let me feel grat­i­tude to­wards you for one ben­e­fit! Let me see that I ex­cite the sym­pa­thy of some ex­ist­ing thing; do not deny me my re­quest.”

The schol­arly in­ter­est in these themes, and in the shap­ing of the text, is com­par­a­tively re­cent. As Ti­mothy Mor­ton wrote in his com­pre­hen­sive an­thol­ogy, Franken­stein: A Source­book (2002)—sam­pling ev­ery­thing from Re­gency anatomy classes to con­tem­po­rary gen­der the­ory—it is a new in­dus­try “that has been burgeoning since the 1980s.” For in­stance it is now ac­cepted that there are at least three main ver­sions of the novel, which though struc­turally sim­i­lar are sig­nif­i­cantly dif­fer­ent in lan­guage and dra­matic im­pact. It seems that Mary was al­ways con­sid­er­ing how it might be im­proved. In 1823 she wrote: “If there were ever to be an­other edi­tion of this book, I should re-write these first two chap­ters. The in­ci­dents are tame and ill-ar­ranged—the lan­guage some­times child­ish.”

The first ver­sion was writ­ten at great speed in two Genevan note­books, largely dur­ing the win­ter of 1816–1817, but not pub­lished un­til 2008 in a metic­u­lous edi­tion edited by the Shel­ley scholar Charles E. Robin­son. The style is bold and di­rect. It prob­a­bly be­gan as a “short tale,” with a draft of the fa­mous open­ing: “It was on a dreary night of Novem­ber, that I be­held my man com­pleted.”

The sec­ond, be­gin­ning and end­ing with Robert Wal­ton’s Arc­tic ex­pe­di­tion, was care­fully re­vised by Mary, lightly edited by Percy, and pub­lished in 1818. The style is richer and more di­gres­sive, and there is still aca­demic con­tro­versy about the over­all ef­fect of Percy’s ad­di­tions (about five thou­sand words). A re-is­sue of this 1818 ver­sion, with some mi­nor changes, ap­peared in 1823 in two vol­umes, at the urg­ing of Mary’s fa­ther, Wil­liam God­win, and

was the first to be pub­lished un­der her own name.

The third ver­sion, of 1831, was rad­i­cally re­vised by Mary alone, and is longer and al­to­gether darker in tone. The ide­al­is­tic young Franken­stein is subtly changed into a doomed and tor­tured fig­ure. This is re­flected in the new “Au­thor’s In­tro­duc­tion,” which em­broi­ders on the ghost-story com­pe­ti­tion at the Villa Dio­dati, links the “many con­ver­sa­tions” held there at night with her later sci­en­tific read­ing (fur­ther de­tailed in the Shel­leys’ shared Jour­nal), and de­scribes the sin­gle night­mare that she claims in­spired her.

The 1831 in­tro­duc­tion gives a fur­ther glimpse into the cru­cial birthing mo­ment. This has be­come cen­tral to the pop­u­lar myth of malev­o­lent sci­ence, es­pe­cially in film, with the hys­ter­i­cal cry “It’s alive! It’s alive!” (words that Mary Shel­ley never ac­tu­ally wrote). In the novel the first ac­count is given with hor­rific clar­ity by Franken­stein in two short para­graphs, and then in a con­fused rec­ol­lec­tion by the Crea­ture him­self on the Mer de Glace. The third ac­count now be­comes that given ret­ro­spec­tively by the nov­el­ist in her own voice, and para­dox­i­cally it is the most mem­o­rable and dis­turb­ing:

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 phan­tasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the work­ings of some pow­er­ful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an un­easy, half vi­tal mo­tion . . . . His suc­cess would ter­rify the artist; he would rush away from his odi­ous handy­work, hor­ror-stricken.

The fas­ci­na­tion with this mo­ment of dan­ger­ous birthing and the sub­se­quent sta­tus of the Crea­ture as an unloved or un­par­ented child (rather than a mere mon­ster) are char­ac­ter­is­tic of much mod­ern, and not only fem­i­nist, in­ter­pre­ta­tion.* When a Franken­stein bal­let was staged at the Royal Opera House, London, in May last year (and later per­formed in San Fran­cisco), the di­rec­tor Liam Scar­lett made this acutely con­tem­po­rary ob­ser­va­tion: “Peo­ple have a very stereo­typ­i­cal view of what they pre­sume Franken­stein to be... and ac­tu­ally I don’t think many peo­ple re­ally know the heart and soul of the story. It’s es­sen­tially about love . . . . [The Crea­ture] is like an in­fant . . . . He’s des­per­ately seek­ing a par­ent or loved one to take him through the world and teach him all these things.”


So how can we best re­spond to Mary’s hideous prog­eny now, af­ter so many be­wil­der­ing trans­for­ma­tions? Two

*See for ex­am­ple the var­ied per­spec­tives pro­vided by San­dra Gil­bert and Su­san Gubar, “Mary Shel­ley’s Mon­strous Eve” (1979); Mary Poovey, “‘My Hideous Prog­eny’: The Lady and the Mon­ster” (1984); Anne K. Mel­lor, “Pos­sess­ing Na­ture: The Fe­male in Franken­stein” (1988); and Bette London, “Mary Shel­ley, Franken­stein and the Spec­ta­cle of Mas­culin­ity” (1993). All reprinted in Franken­stein: Nor­ton Crit­i­cal Edi­tion, 2012. new an­no­tated edi­tions of the novel di­rectly ad­dress the ques­tion, but in strik­ingly dif­fer­ent fash­ion and with strik­ingly dif­fer­ent re­sults. (Nei­ther should be con­fused with the clas­sic Har­vard Univer­sity Press An­no­tated Franken­stein of 2012.) The first, edited by David Gus­ton and oth­ers (which we can call the MIT edi­tion), is de­scribed as “an­no­tated for sci­en­tists, en­gi­neers, and cre­ators of all kinds.” It is in fact largely ad­dressed to STEM stu­dents and presents the plain 1818 text bar­na­cled with an al­most con­tin­u­ous se­ries of foot­notes be­neath, all se­ri­ous and some of a dis­tinctly philo­sophic turn: “Who are we re­ally? What are we made of? What is the self? What makes the cre­ation a mon­ster?” They are con­trib­uted by some forty writ­ers and aca­demics, many of whom come from sci­en­tific de­part­ments of Ari­zona State Univer­sity (the above ques­tions are from C. Athena Ak­tipis of the de­part­ment of psy­chol­ogy). It makes for a busy sym­po­sium. But the re­sults suc­cess­fully pro­duce “a far rang­ing crit­i­cal con­ver­sa­tion,” though in rather sober im­i­ta­tion of those orig­i­nal wild Dio­dati nights.

It is in­ter­est­ing to see which parts of the novel at­tract the most at­ten­tion from these sci­en­tific com­men­ta­tors. The great­est clus­ters of foot­notes seem to gather be­neath the two early chap­ters (3 and 4) de­scrib­ing Franken­stein’s sci­en­tific ed­u­ca­tion at In­gol­stadt and his “work­shop of filthy cre­ation” (no less than twenty-two foot­notes in four­teen pages).

This some­times risks be­com­ing more of a ca­coph­ony than a con­ver­sa­tion—Egyp­tian mum­mies,

René Descartes, Scot­tish graver­ob­bing, Nazi doc­tors, Craig Ven­ter and the genome project all crowd in. Yet more calmly dis­trib­uted can be found ex­cel­lent short pieces on robotics, ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence and ma­chine learn­ing, Luigi Gal­vani and the his­tory of elec­tric­ity, bioethics, re­gen­er­a­tive medicine, and of course on the whole pos­si­bil­ity of ex­tend­ing hu­man ca­pac­i­ties.

Some re­flec­tions ap­pear less re­as­sur­ing than per­haps in­tended. A char­ac­ter­is­tic one from Ed Finn, di­rec­tor of the Cen­ter for Sci­ence and the Imag­i­na­tion at ASU, be­gins: “Sci­en­tists have long as­pired to im­prove the hu­man body, or cre­ate new bod­ies, to ex­ceed our nat­u­ral bi­o­log­i­cal lim­its. The United States mil­i­tary pur­sues a range of re­search ar­eas to en­hance the per­for­mance of sol­diers, from pow­ered ex­oskele­tons grant­ing their users su­per­hu­man strength to di­rect brain in­ter­faces that would al­low pi­lots to fly air­craft by thought alone.” It con­tin­ues with ref­er­ences to con­tact lenses, pace­mak­ers, an­tibi­otics, ge­netic mod­i­fi­ca­tion, robotics, and repli­cants, and ends with The Ter­mi­na­tor and Blade Run­ner, and the provoca­tive flour­ish, “What con­se­quences would re­sult from a world in which hu­man and su­per­hu­mans co­ex­ist?”

There are also long and thought­ful med­i­ta­tions on such sub­jects as Ro­man­tic at­ti­tudes to­ward slav­ery; Na­ture and wilder­ness; iden­tity and the soul, and the spe­cial bonds of friend­ship and sym­pa­thy. The lat­ter word ap­pears more than thirty-five times in the novel, and draws at­ten­tion to the pro­found am­bi­gu­ity in Mary’s pre­sen­ta­tion of the Crea­ture. Is he in­no­cent or sav­age, hu­man or alien, driven mad or in­nately evil?

For in­stance, when he com­mits his first mur­der, it is of the beau­ti­ful lit­tle child Wil­liam Franken­stein, and it oc­curs ap­par­ently with­out pre­med­i­ta­tion and with­out in­ten­tion. Ac­cord­ing to the Crea­ture’s au­to­bi­og­ra­phy, it is part of an in­no­cent but des­per­ate search for friend­ship. (He has al­ready dis­cov­ered his own ap­palling ug­li­ness, been re­jected by the kindly De Lacey fam­ily, beaten vi­o­lently, and ac­tu­ally shot at.) “Sud­denly, as I gazed on [Wil­liam], an idea seized me, that this lit­tle crea­ture was un­prej­u­diced, and had lived too

short a time to have im­bibed a hor­ror of de­for­mity. If, there­fore, I could seize him, and ed­u­cate him as my com­pan­ion and friend, I should not be so des­o­late in this peo­pled earth.”

How far do we ac­cept this ex­pla­na­tion? This rest­less am­bi­gu­ity—soli­tary out­cast or venge­ful de­mon?—is de­vel­oped through­out the novel, pulling the reader’s sym­pa­thy first in one di­rec­tion, then the other, ex­actly like Franken­stein’s own. It is a cru­cial dy­namic, swing­ing imag­i­na­tively be­tween the two poles of re­jec­tion and com­pas­sion. “Am I to be thought the only crim­i­nal, when all hu­man kind sinned against me?” It is the pe­cu­liar abil­ity of fic­tion to do this, not just to pose tech­ni­cal is­sues.

It is here too that Shel­ley is most rhetor­i­cally am­bi­tious, draw­ing on the high lan­guage of Mil­ton’s Satan, which she uses to power the great eth­i­cal de­bate be­tween Cre­ator and Crea­ture, which reaches its dra­matic cli­max in the scenes on the Mer de Glace. Para­dox­i­cally (and un­like all film adap­ta­tions) it is the “Mon­ster” who now be­comes the most articulate and hu­man, pro­duc­ing great op­er­atic arias of speech:

Oh, Franken­stein . . . Re­mem­ber, that I am thy crea­ture: I ought to be thy Adam; but I am rather thy fallen an­gel, whom thou drivest from joy for no mis­deed. Every where I see bliss, from which I alone am ir­re­vo­ca­bly ex­cluded. I was benevolent and good; mis­ery made me a fiend. Make me happy, and I shall again be vir­tu­ous. Over­all, the MIT edi­tion is plain and pur­pose­ful, briefly in­tro­duced by Charles Robin­son, and com­pleted by “Dis­cus­sion Ques­tions” and seven spec­u­la­tive es­says (no­tably “Franken­stein, Gen­der, and Mother Na­ture” by Anne K. Mel­lor and “I’ve Cre­ated a Mon­ster!” by Cory Doc­torow). Ad­mit­tedly it does tend to treat the novel as a ma­chine to think with, rather than as an imag­i­na­tive ex­pe­ri­ence to ex­plore. Yet de­spite this ped­a­gogic crowd­ing, it re­turns res­o­lutely to the great chal­lenge sit­u­ated at the heart of the novel, which all “sci­en­tists and en­gi­neers” might use­fully con­sider. What is the true na­ture of Franken­stein’s Crea­ture, and what duty of care does Franken­stein owe to it?


By com­par­i­son, Les­lie S. Klinger’s edi­tion is a hugely flam­boy­ant pro­duc­tion, rich in var­ied re­sources, of­ten play­ful in style, and fab­u­lously il­lus­trated through­out. Klinger has pre­vi­ously pro­duced an­no­tated edi­tions of Drac­ula and Sher­lock Holmes (which might raise doubts about his grav­i­tas), but the work is im­pres­sive. First of all, while also using the pre­ferred 1818 text, he per­forms the schol­arly task of print­ing all the rewrit­ten 1831 text di­rectly along­side in the mar­gins, and also the so-called Thomas Text al­ter­na­tives of 1823. There is a long his­tor­i­cal in­tro­duc­tion, and a se­ries of es­says (an­other by Mel­lor on “Ge­netic Engi­neer­ing”). The mar­gins are also used as a con­tin­u­ous run­ning en­cy­clo­pe­dia or hy­per­text, gloss­ing most of the names, places, lit­er­ary ref­er­ences, and philo­soph­i­cal ideas that ap­pear.

Here his­tor­i­cal and so­cial back­ground are con­sid­ered prime. So the mar­gins con­tain, for ex­am­ple, ex­ten­sive back­ground notes on the Univer­sity of In­gol­stadt; lau­danum; Alpine tourism; the Vi­tal­ist con­tro­versy and the con­tend­ing physi­cians Hunter, Aber­nethy, and Lawrence; La­vater’s Phys­iog­nomy; Davy’s Lec­tures; and Mary Woll­stonecraft and her Vin­di­ca­tion of the Rights of Woman. There are rich quo­ta­tions from the con­tem­po­rary Baedeker and Mur­ray’s Hand­book to Switzer­land. Al­to­gether there are no less than a thou­sand of these notes, all il­lu­mi­nat­ing, if some­times won­der­fully ex­tra­ne­ous. One can rel­ish the bril­liantly con­cise three-page his­tory of the French mad­house at La Salpêtrière on the ba­sis that Franken­stein may have been briefly in­car­cer­ated in a lu­natic asy­lum. But it seems quite hard to jus­tify a his­tory of golf at St. An­drew’s, Scot­land; an ac­count of the burial of Poc­a­hon­tas at Gravesend, on the Thames; or the com­plete story of Cap­tain Bligh and the mutiny on the Bounty (with map). The fuller story of Satan in Mil­ton’s Par­adise Lost or the albatross in Co­leridge’s “An­cient Mariner” might have been more rel­e­vant. The il­lus­tra­tions are spec­tac­u­lar and abun­dant: por­traits, fac­sim­i­les, manuscripts, en­grav­ings, car­toons, first edi­tions, theater posters, film stills, city guides, and pe­riod land­scapes. There are many sur­prises, rang­ing from Robert Hooke’s sev­en­teen­th­cen­tury Mi­cro­graphia to Gus­tave

Doré’s nine­teenth-cen­tury en­grav­ings and Frank Hur­ley’s twen­ti­eth-cen­tury po­lar pho­to­graphs. There is also an en­gag­ing cat­a­log of forty Franken­stein films (“merely a se­lec­tion of the more note­wor­thy . . . al­though ‘note­wor­thy’ in this genre rarely in­di­cates a film of qual­ity”). These start with honor­able men­tion of Thomas Edi­son’s lit­tle­known fif­teen-minute si­lent movie of 1910. Many are ac­com­pa­nied by their mem­o­rably lurid posters. But the crit­i­cal com­men­taries are re­fresh­ingly dry. Flesh for Franken­stein (1974) is dis­patched in a sin­gle sen­tence: “Warhol’s nearly in­co­her­ent film in­volves zom­bies, dis­em­bow­el­ing, and sex.”

The dan­ger of this cor­nu­copia of sec­ondary data is dis­trac­tion from the novel it­self. It some­times be­comes a dash­ing river­boat ride with an in­ex­haustibly lo­qua­cious tour guide point­ing out the marvelous land­marks on ei­ther side. Yet the ef­fect of sup­ply­ing the 1831 text, as well as the in­ter­me­di­ary notes Mary made in 1823, is star­tling. For in­stance, Mary re­al­ized how strange it was that Franken­stein should work so pas­sion­ately and for so many months on his Crea­ture, but never grasp how re­pul­sively ugly it was un­til that cru­cial mo­ment of an­i­ma­tion. This fa­tal ug­li­ness, which will be­come its doom, is cen­tral to the Crea­ture’s en­tire des­tiny and the novel’s whole plot­line of re­jec­tion and re­venge. How could this sci­en­tific blind­ness, or this eth­i­cal fail­ure to see what was un­der his very hands, pos­si­bly be ex­plained? In the notes of 1823 (the Thomas Text, a se­ries of man­u­script ad­di­tions that Mary gave to a woman friend in Italy) she be­gins to ex­plore a more psy­cho­log­i­cal ex­pla­na­tion for this ob­ses­sive tun­nel vi­sion. To the sim­ple state­ment of the 1818 Franken­stein— “I be­came ner­vous to a most painful de­gree”—she now adds this: “My voice be­came bro­ken, my trem­bling hands al­most re­fused to ac­com­plish their task; I be­came as timid as a love-sick girl, and al­ter­nate tremor and pas­sion­ate ar­dour took the place of whole­some sen­sa­tion and reg­u­lar ambition.” This hys­ter­i­cal, trau­ma­tized, or tor­tured as­pect to Franken­stein’s per­son­al­ity, with its im­plicit psy­cho­sex­ual over­tones, will be de­vel­oped much fur­ther in the fi­nal 1831 ver­sion, and the Klinger edi­tion al­lows us to see this very well. Mary claimed that all such changes were merely stylis­tic and in­tro­duced no “new ideas or cir­cum­stances.” But we now know that she had been think­ing about these since 1823, and they are dra­mat­i­cally ev­i­dent in the early chap­ters pre­sent­ing Franken­stein’s more com­plex re­la­tion­ships with his beloved fa­ther, his bride, El­iz­a­beth, and his great friend Henry Cler­val. Above all they put deeper shad­ows around his ed­u­ca­tion in sci­ence by Pro­fes­sor Wald­man at In­gold­stat: “Such were the pro­fes­sor’s words—rather let me say such the words of the fate enounced to de­stroy me. As he went on I felt as if my soul were grap­pling with a pal­pa­ble en­emy.”

Shel­ley also trans­forms Franken­stein’s fi­nal friend­ship with the Arc­tic sea cap­tain Robert Wal­ton (which both opens and closes the novel). Wal­ton now be­comes a mir­ror im­age of a fel­low sci­en­tific ex­plorer driven to ex­trem­ity: “Do you share my mad­ness? Have you drunk also of the in­tox­i­cat­ing draft?” There are some mag­nif­i­cently rewrit­ten pas­sages of alpine de­scrip­tion, which em­pha­size the power and cru­elty of Na­ture bear­ing down on Franken­stein, its “im­mense moun­tains and precipices that over­hung me on every side,” and the fact that he too is driven by “the si­lent work­ing of im­mutable laws.”

In an in­flu­en­tial study of 1988, Anne Mel­lor ar­gued that the over­all ef­fect of the 1831 changes is to make Franken­stein weaker and more de­luded, “the pawn of forces be­yond his knowl­edge or con­trol,” at the mercy of what he now calls “the An­gel of De­struc­tion,” and that this re­flects a con­sid­er­able dark­en­ing of Mary’s early op­ti­mistic hope for sci­ence in 1818. Since she was then cut off from the Shel­ley-By­ronPoli­dori cir­cle (all long dead by 1831), this may well be true.

Mel­lor’s new es­says in both these an­no­tated edi­tions con­tinue to be thought-pro­vok­ing. Franken­stein’s sin and mis­take, she sug­gests in a strik­ing phrase, is “his fail­ure to mother his cre­ation.” Na­ture “pun­ishes Vic­tor by pre­vent­ing him from cre­at­ing a nor­mal child.” This she con­sid­ers a warn­ing to mod­ern ge­neti­cists about the “un­in­tended con­se­quences of hu­man germline engi­neer­ing.”

Yet here we are left, once more, with the en­dur­ing am­bi­gu­ity of Mary Shel­ley’s ex­tra­or­di­nary fic­tion. An al­ter­na­tive in­ter­pre­ta­tion of the 1831 text is that Franken­stein ac­tu­ally be­comes a more con­scious Faus­tian fig­ure, while the Crea­ture be­comes a more elo­quent voice for re­jected hu­man rights. The sci­en­tist is less naive, and the Crea­ture less mon­strous. Both suf­fer more from an in­creased aware­ness of what each has done and the pos­si­bil­i­ties they have lost, as the ex­plorer Wal­ton trag­i­cally wit­nesses. His “thoughts, and every feel­ing of [his] soul, have been drunk up” by the tale.

Franken­stein’s orig­i­nal sci­en­tific am­bi­tions were al­ways in­tensely ide­al­is­tic and benevolent, and this re­mains true in both the 1818 and 1831 edi­tions:

Life and death ap­peared to me ideal bounds, which I should first break through, and pour a tor­rent of light into our dark world. A new species would bless me as its cre­ator and source .... I might in process of time . . . re­new life where death had ap­par­ently de­voted the body to cor­rup­tion.

With mod­ern sci­en­tific ad­vances in every field, but es­pe­cially in medicine, surgery, and biotech­nol­ogy, we may wish to re­think the lurid myth and reread this prodi­gious, ever-youth­ful novel in a new way. As Franken­stein gasps to Wal­ton with his fi­nal breath, in both 1818 and 1831: “I have my­self been blasted in these hopes, yet an­other may succeed.”

Elsa Lanch­ester and Boris Karloff in The Bride of Franken­stein, di­rected by James Whale, 1935

The first de­pic­tion of the Crea­ture, from the 1831 edi­tion of Franken­stein; en­grav­ing by Theodore von Holst

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