Reading Frankenstein

I’ve been enjoying re-reading Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; this is at least the sixth time I’ve read it, as I was assigned the book once in college, was assigned it at least three times in grad school, and taught the book once a few years ago, which would make this the sixth time around. I’m not in the least bored by it, though. There is so much richness in the book, and I’m continually amazed that Mary Shelley was only 18 when she began writing it. She was 20 when it was published in 1818. The introduction to my edition discusses critical reaction to her youth, including the argument, made by Muriel Spark, that

… perhaps the wonder of it exists, not despite Mary’s youth, but because of it. Frankenstein is Mary Shelley’s best novel, because at that early age she was not well acquainted with her own mind.

I don’t particularly like this argument; it sounds condescending to me, as though Shelley wrote a work of genius in spite of herself. But it does seem that, genius though she was, Shelley was lucky in the way she stumbled upon an idea that would resonate so powerfully for so long, in ways she surely had no conscious idea of. Could she have known how acutely aware of the dangers of science and technology people would become in future years? Sometimes authors are particularly in tune with the spirit of their time, or even of future times, and it’s mysterious what allows them that insight.

My introduction is good, though, at showing all the literary and philosophical influences on Shelley, and all the ideas about science and the nature of life and death that were floating around the group Shelley was living with when she got the idea for the novel, a group that includes not only Percy Shelley, but Lord Byron and John Polidori as well. This is how Byron describes the mood of the time:

I was half mad … between metaphysics, mountains, lakes, love unextinguishable, thoughts unalterable and the nightmare of my own delinquencies.

Wouldn’t you love to have been able to observe this group and listen in on all their talk?

The story of how Shelley got the inspiration to write the novel is famous; during a stretch of rainy weather, Byron proposed that everyone tell a ghost story and Mary Shelley was unable to think of one until one night she had a vision:

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 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.

Soon she realized that this vision could be the basis of the ghost story she had been seeking, and the rest is history.

I’m struck at everything she had absorbed while she was still in her teens. According to my introduction, in the years leading up to the writing of the novel, Shelley had been reading Byron, Samuel Richardson’s novels including Clarissa (whose influence we see in the epistolary structure of Frankenstein), the French writer Madame de Genlis, Ovid’s Metamorphoses, books on chemistry by Humphrey Davy, Milton’s Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained (both of these at least twice), Rousseau’s Confessions, Emile, and Nouvelle Heloise (the latter two twice), Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding, her father William Godwin’s novel Caleb Williams, Cervantes’s Don Quixote, Charles Brockden Brown’s novel Wieland, or The Transformation, and various Gothic novels including those by Ann Radcliffe, Matthew Lewis, Charles Maturin, and William Beckford.

And those are only the book the editor mentioned; there may have been plenty more. That’s quite a list, isn’t it? In this case the recipe for a masterpiece seems to have called for genius, avid reading, the right group of friends, and a little luck.

12 Comments

Filed under Books, Fiction

12 responses to “Reading Frankenstein

  1. LK

    I guess the list of books MS read just shows what a marvelous education that group of people got during that period of time. Maybe we should unplug the TV??? Sure makes you think, doesn’t it?

    I will probably reread Frankenstein for this year’s RIP. I didn’t like it much the first read; but you give it a whole new dimension. Plus, I have a bio on MS and would like to read them together.

    And, yes, I would love to have been part of the group discussions with MS, Percy Shelley et al. I would have loved to have been intellectual enough to sit with them — but I’d take being a serving girl if that’s what it took!

  2. I’ve only read the book once, but I do like it very much. I felt real sympathy for the “monster.” That is quite the reading list of Shelley’s! I would have loved to be a fly on the wall in her, Bryon, and company’s conversations.

  3. zhiv

    I feel like I’ve read it, but I’m not sure that I ever have. I know my daughter read it last year in school–I have to ask her about it.

    But I’m struck by how young she was and her reading background–which seems to be right at the heart of your 18th c. turf. I’ve been looking at Olive Schreiner lately and this background stuff reminds me of her writing Story of an African Farm, which had similar teenage beginnings and was written by a wildly precocious young reader, who felt her way to something that was larger than she was, all very zeitgeisty.

    Have to give a ton of credit to a book that is still fun and interesting the 6th time in. Is this your first reading of it as a litblogger?

  4. Yes, I absolutely would have loved to observe this group and listen in on all their talk. I used to fantasize about such things (as well as being one of the regular visitors to Wordsworth’s house and taking walks with everyone around the lakes). Six reads? Wow! Although I imagine it IS a book that never grows tiresome. I’ve only read it twice, and both times my feelings were the same: this isn’t a horror story so much as a tragedy. It’s such a sad book.

  5. I’ve never read Frankenstein. I was reading Janet Todd’s book Death and the Maidens; Fanny Wollstonecraft and the Shelley Circle which was quite interesting about the girls’ very literary upbringing (William Godwin was hot on hothouse atmospheres, if not much else) but I gave it up because I found it all a bit confusing. This was only because I didn’t know the period at all – I’m sure you would get on with it really well, Dorothy.

  6. verbivore

    I believe, but am not 100% certain, that Shelley was in Switzerland with Byron when she conceived of the idea to write Frankenstein. And that they were just down the hill from me on Lake Geneva in Montreux. The Chateau de Chillon bears Byron’s graffitti. But I may not have my details all correct on this.

    I haven’t read the introduction you mention but it strikes me there might be another way to interpret Sparks statement. Could she be intimating that by not fully understanding herself at that young age Shelley was brave enough to consider such a frightening story. Later, would she have shied away from delving into such dangerous ideas – for fear they would really influence her? I’m not familiar with Shelley at all so I might have this completely wrong.

  7. LK — we should unplug the TV definitely, but I think Litlove’s got it right, that Shelley’s father William Godwin was at least partly responsible for all the great reading she did (and she inherited good genes from him and from her mother Mary Wollstonecraft). I’ll curious what you think about Frankenstein on a second go-round.

    Stefanie — yes, I feel sympathy for the monster too, or the creature as I try to call him, as it doesn’t sound quite so bad. It’s really not his fault he’s so ugly and frightening — Shelley makes it obvious that his isolation and lack of love are responsible for the terrible things he does.

    Zhiv — it IS my first time reading it as a lit-blogger; maybe I’ll post on what my students think of it if we end up having an interesting discussion. This time around the way Shelley makes obvious use of all that reading in the novel is striking me — it seems a youthful, precocious kind of thing to do. Interesting connect with Schreiner; I read Story of an African Farm but didn’t connect with it at all. Maybe I should try again some day.

    Emily — yes, it’s tragedy rather than horror, I agree. You are led to sympathize with the creature and to try to understand what went wrong with him, not simply to be scared of him.

    Litlove — oh, thanks for mentioning that book! I’ll put it on my list right away; it sounds exactly like something I would enjoy, and I do like Janet Todd a lot.

    Verbivore — yes, Switzerland was where Shelley got the idea; my introduction says the Shelleys were staying at Campagne Chapuis on Lac Leman and that Byron was staying at the Villa Diodati. How cool that Byron lived just down the hill from you! Your interpretation of Spark sounds plausible to me; what I quoted is all the introducer included, so it’s a little hard to interpret, actually, without the larger context. I don’t know enough about Shelley to say whether the argument works, but it does sound possible.

  8. I don’t think I’ve ever read one book that many times, but there must be a nice familiarity with the story. I imagine you do still find new things when reading it. I really liked it and would love to read it again. I also read a book about Mary Shelley and the creation of this story and it must have been an amazing time. Being around such creative and knowledgeable people must have helped her inspiration. And I think people were far better read then than they are now. Though I suppose her level of education wouldn’t necessarily be the norm? She was born into an amazing family really. In that environment it’s no wonder she was such a remarkable woman and writer!

  9. This is one of those classic novels I can’t believe I have not read yet. Especially as I was all about “monster” stories when I was growing up and watched countless versions of Frankenstein and Dracula. I need to read it!

  10. Danielle — yeah, I think Shelley’s education was pretty extraordinary, given her heritage and all. I should read a biography of her; I think I’d really enjoy it. I know very little of her life, especially in the post-Frankenstein years.

    Iliana — it’s well worth a read — and it’s also not very long and is very readable — an excellent book all around!

  11. Is Shelley the youngest author of a great novel? Piece by piece, certainly sentence by sentence, I find a lot of “Frankenstein” ridiculous, but the brilliant concept and rich ideas crush my objections in the end. The book is an amazing act of creativity.

  12. I don’t know if she is or not, but it seems highly likely, doesn’t it? Yes, Frankenstein doesn’t make sense if you take it literally, but as a kind of fable, it’s brilliant.

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