Frankenstein and the Spark of Being

By James, Frank A. J. L.; Field, J. V. | History Today, September 1994 | Go to article overview

Frankenstein and the Spark of Being


James, Frank A. J. L., Field, J. V., History Today


The story of Frankenstein has now become a myth. That is, it has taken on a life of its own independent of Mary Shelley's text, and indeed even independent of certain parts of her narrative. Modern versions of the myth, from the film starring Boris Karloff (1931) to the television advertisements for the denationalisation of National Power (1990), show electricity being used to bring the monster to life.

The electricity comes from generators of a kind unknown at the time of the novel's first publication, in 1818. It is interesting to note that at the time of the Karloff film, as at that of the television advertisement, the question of electricity supply was an important matter of public debate. Thus in both cases the images from the myth were expressive of elements embedded in the general culture of the time.

The amazing plasticity of the Frankenstein story is no doubt partly to be explained by its author's youth. At the time she wrote the novel, Mary Shelley (1797-1851) was only nineteen. It is hardly to be expected that one so young would impose on the story a rigorously personal interpretation of the scientific and social theories which it retails. Moreover, a marked degree of distancing is provided by the story's being told by means of letters, and in the form of three narratives one inside the other - the outermost narrator, Walton, being a sea captain who picks up Frankenstein as a passenger, and passes on Frankenstein's account of his adventures, which includes the Being's account of his own.

This distancing increases the malleability of the story by admitting a multiplicity of viewpoints and allowing doubts about the character and veracity of each narrator. The result is that Frankenstein provides an outstandingly good example of the phenomenon much noted by modern critics whereby meaning is ascribed by the reader rather than by the author. The most obvious adaptation has been the use of the loaded term 'Monster' where the original refers to Frankenstein's creation by the neutral term 'Being'. One way and another, Mary Shelley ensured that, working from our own experience and historical position, we can read into her text meanings that belong to us.

Indeed, to judge by much of the critical literature on the book, it is ferociously difficult to avoid doing so. Naturally enough, most critical attention has been concentrated on literary issues, including the anachronistic question as to whether Frankenstein should be regarded as an example of science fiction (the answer tends to be yes). Moreover, since the author of the novel was female, and indeed the daughter of a famous feminist, Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797), there is a strong tendency to look to her novel for a feminist critique of science.

This seems to lay far too much intellectual responsibility upon so young and inexperienced an author, and moreover to distract attention from the very interesting intellectual context provided by the two most likely influences on her thought, namely the opinions of her father, the political philosopher and novelist William Godwin (1756-1826), and those of her lover (whom she married in December 1816) Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822). In particular, no attention seems to have been paid to the fact that shortly after Frankenstein was written, Shelley began a poetic drama whose title, Prometheus Unbound, echoes the subtitle of Frankenstein, which is The Modern Prometheus.

Some of the contextualisation that historians of literature seem inclined to shun provides us with insights that make Frankenstein a significant document for the history of science. Mary Shelley uses many elements of the natural philosophy and chemistry of her time in her story. Her novel accordingly makes interesting reading as non-expert testimony to the philosophical and scientific ideas of its time. It is notoriously difficult to come by such testimony in any period much before our own, so it is curious that this aspect of Frankenstein has received so little attention. …

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