Today is the 200th anniversary of not the publication (1818) but the conception by the 18 year-old Mary Godwin of Frankenstein; or the Modern Prometheus. Godwin, her lunatic sister, her deranged boyfriend, the most famous poet in Europe (also mad), and some non-entities were celebrating the holiday by reading their favorite passages of Ulysses to each other; creative types, they decided to come up with their own Greek-mythology derived episodes, two of which were published and are read to this day, even though Polidori’s Vampyre is terrible and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is also often terrible.
And at other times it is not. It has a perfect last line, for example.
It is so rich with ideas. Many books of the type – Dracula, for example – contain a concept so rich that it generates variations and retellings almost spontaneously, and Frankenstein has that kind of strength. But it also is full of ideas as such, the product, I assume, of Shelley’s extraordinary education. She would have been not just unusually well read, but would have read unusual things, and had the gifts to strap it all together.
Shelley had been reading Jean-Jacques Rousseau, certainly. Frankenstein was created in Geneva, Rousseau’s birthplace; the novel of the name is full of Rousseau. Sometimes Shelley is imitating Rousseau, as in the tedious early family scenes, which could be from Julie, or the New Heloise (1761). The novice novelist needed a model, so she picked one of the four greatest novels ever written, as is only natural.
More fun is the argument or play with Émile, or On Education (1762) and other educational theories. Victor Frankenstein, out of a weakness of character, builds and animates a corpse-monster only to immediately abandon it on aesthetic grounds. The creature is thus responsible for its own education. My favorite part of the novel has always been the Education of the Monster, the exact center of the novel, as the monster, with the help of some eavesdropping, teaches himself everything – language, philosophy, history, literature, social sciences, etc. He is Rousseau’s ultimate and ideal experiential learner.
“These wonderful narrations [from world history] inspired me with strange feelings. Was man, indeed, at once so powerful, so virtuous, and magnificent, yet so vicious and base? He appeared at one time a mere scion of the evil principle, and at another as all that can be conceived of noble and godlike. (Vol. II, Ch. 1)
When he finally acquires some books of his own, they are “Paradise Lost, a volume of Plutarch’s Lives, and the Sorrows of Werter,” which he reads again and again.
“But I thought Werter himself a more divine being than I had ever beheld or imagined; his character contained no pretension [!], but it sunk deep. The disquisitions upon death and suicide were calculated to fill me with wonder.” (II, 3)
The one thing the monster apparently does not learn is how to understand literary irony. This sincere misreading of Goethe is going to cause problems later. The use of Paradise Lost is a more ingenious and more necessary to the novel (is the monster more like Adam, or Satan?) but the self-pitying Werther monster makes me laugh more.
Dolce Bellezza put up a Frankenstein post earlier today, as did Nonsuch Frances, and she has more to come. I will have one more, too, where I pretend that Frankenstein is the E. T. A. Hoffmann story that it could have been, and almost is.