Frankenstein or the Modern Prometheus: 1818 Text by Mary Shelley, edited by Marilyn Butler (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008; originally published in 1818. 276 pp)

Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley was born in 1797 to authors William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft. Poet Bysshe Shelly courted Mary and the pair eloped in 1814, during which that summer Mary began writing Frankenstein. She died in 1851.

Marilyn Butler is a former Rector of Exeter College, Oxford, and previously King Edward VII Professor of English Literature at Cambridge University.

Questions in the Western Cultural Canon

The western cultural canon offers an intriguing case study on how the roots of a story take hold before blending into whatever a culture requires of it.

What starts as one thing transforms to another. Over and over like a game of telephone decades long.

Case in point: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

A bedrock of American culture. The dumb-witted dolt with a golden heart situates next to many a Halloween nightmare. Take a walk down a random American neighborhood and next to the skeletons, jack o’ lanterns, witches, and black cats rests the greenish anthropomorphized figure with bolts in his neck.

The Frankenstein of the American canon encompasses many differences from its source material.

The Story We Tend to Tell

The narrative, told as early as elementary school and reinforced countless times since, suggests a brilliant scientist, testing the limits of natural laws and breaking them. Erroneously labeled Frankenstein, the beast comes to life and operates with a surprising level of compassion despite its grisly appearance.

Dr. Frankenstein runs into trouble when the local community refuses to understand the heart beyond the monster’s frightening appearance, and the lynch mob forms.

The source material? Far different.

While a handful of elements translate, many more surprised me.

Of course, Victor Frankenstein manufactures his creature through the use of natural philosophy.

“With 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” (38-39).

Even more, the monster appears to begin with an innocent heart.

“This trait of kindness moved me sensibly. I had been accustomed, during the night, to steal a part of their store for my own consumption; but when I found that in doing this I inflicted pain on the cottagers, I abstained, and satisfied myself with berries, nuts, and roots, which I gathered from a neighbouring wood” (88).

But those elements represent the main overlap between source material and cultural canon.

For starters, the monster is quite the athlete, far different from the lumbering sloth of American culture.

“As I said this, I suddenly beheld the figure of a man, at some distance, advancing towards me with superhuman speed. He bounded over the crevices in the ice, among which I had walked with caution; his stature also, as he approached, seemed to exceed that of man. I was troubled: a mist came over my eyes, and I felt a faintness seize me; but I was quickly restored by the cold gale of the mountains. I perceived, as the shape came nearer, (sight tremendous and abhorred!) that it was the wretch whom I had created” (76).

Secondly, the monster becomes well learned quite quickly. No sloshing mess of consonants and vowels here. Consider the moment the monster discovers his countenance:

“I had admired the perfect forms of my cottagers—their grace, beauty, and delicate complexions: but how was I terrified, when I viewed myself in a transparent pool! At first I started back, unable to believe that it was indeed I who was reflected in the mirror; and when I became fully convinced that I was in reality the monster that I am, I was filled with the bitterest sensations of despondence and mortification. Alas! I did not yet entirely know the fatal effects of this miserable deformity” (90).

Third, the monster and Frankenstein, his creator operate at odds from each other from the moment of divine alchemy. In no way does Victor Frankenstein act in a manner beneficial to his creature.

“For this purpose I will preserve my life: to execute this dear revenge, will I again behold the sun, and tread the green herbage of earth, which otherwise should vanish from my eyes for ever. And I call on you, spirits of the dead; and on you, wandering ministers of vengeance, to aid and conduct me in my work. Let the cursed and hellish monster drink deep of agony; let him feel the despair that now torments me” (171-172).

Weights and Balances

To me, Shelley’s original outweighs the caricature we know today. In its origins, Frankenstein exhibits a horror story with calamitous stakes. The monster, coming to terms with its abominable exterior aims to exact revenge on Victor Frankenstein and his extended family. This source of conflict creates excellent pacing—for a novel written 200 years ago—and a body count.

For this reason, Frankenstein represents the timeless horror story. One best consumed in its original format rather than on an embroidered table runner at Michaels.

Verdict: 5 out of 5

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