Leslie Klinger, editor of the New Annotated Frankenstein, discusses When Literature Becomes Myth: Celebrating 200 Years of Frankenstein at CPCC’s Sensoria Festival. Monday April 9 at 10:30 am, Central Campus, Tate Hall. Free.
Two centuries after Frankenstein first appeared, we need to remember how eloquently the creature speaks. Not the monster who debuted on stage in 1823’s Presumption, or the Fate of Frankenstein, the one whose film history began with the 1910 one-reel Frankenstein from Thomas Edison. Hundreds of films, TV shows, stage plays, even musicals have followed them, from James Whale’s 1931 classic through Universal Studios’ upcoming remake of The Bride of Frankenstein. Granted, they have given us some of our most enduring cultural tropes: the mad scientist, the grunting monster, the torch-wielding mob. But they have drowned out a remarkable voice, one we need to hear now more than ever.
That voice belongs to the creature of Mary Shelley’s novel, published anonymously on January 1, 1818, and never out of print since. It is the voice of an articulate autodidact conceived by a girl a few months shy of her nineteenth birthday, motherless herself, displaced from family and proper society because of her elopement with a married rakish flake, creating what she later called her “hideous progeny” while holed up under rainy skies darkened by the global ash-cloud from Mt. Tambora’s eruption.
It is the outcast who faces Victor Frankenstein on the sea of ice and speaks the most moving words in the novel, the one who has by then found an abandoned book satchel containing the essential Romantic Era reading list and uses Paradise Lost to plead a case that convicts us all to this day. Speaking to his creation for the first time, Victor greets him as “Devil,” but the creature is far ahead of him: “I expected this reception. All men hate the wretched.” He proceeds to tell his wretched tale, beginning with the night Victor brought him to life and promptly abandoned him.
“I ought to be thy Adam, but I am rather the fallen angel,” he says, and Paradise Lost informs his tale and underscores the novel’s indictment of society. Steeped as she was from childhood in the great intellectual tradition, Mary Shelley knew very well the key scenes in Paradise Lost: Adam coming to life in the sun-drenched Garden of Eden, able to open his mouth and name every creature which presented itself to him, Eve so enchanted with her beautiful reflection that she almost refused to leave it. By contrast, the creature describes waking to darkness and cold. When he tries to imitate the sounds of night birds, the “uncouth and inarticulate” sounds he makes frighten him into silence. In contrast to Eve, the creature sees his reflection only after he has been admiring the De Lacey family from his hiding place. He has come to appreciate beauty, and with that understanding has come the recognition of how hideously he has been made.
Even Satan had his fellow devils, but the creature has no one; worse than that, he has read the great Miltonic explanation of the chain of being and found himself utterly excluded. When the creature makes his attempt to be included, when he approaches blind father De Lacey, his first words to another human being are “Pardon this intrusion.” Of course, at this point De Lacey’s children return, immediately assume a monster is attacking their father, and chaos typical of the movies ensues.
From that moment until the creature meets Victor, the series of mishaps and misdeeds that follow lead him to confront Victor and make the argument that he should have his own Eve. “I am malicious because I am miserable,” he says. He lays the blame for that misery at the feet of Victor, who created him and fled; that blame also lies on the man who shot him after the creature had saved his daughter from drowning (a scene turned around horribly in the Whale film), on the villagers who drove him away with stones and sticks, even on Felix De Lacey for assuming instinctively that because he was hideous he was evil. Give me a mate, he asks, and we will go to the wilds of South America. There, as he has learned from his reading, he and his mate will find the better Eden in each other’s arms. Victor is moved by the argument, at least until the moment when he aborts his second creation and puts the novel’s tragic conclusion into motion.
Jill Lepore’s recent New Yorker article points out how the creature’s story resembles a slave narrative, connecting it to Mary Shelley’s reading about slave rebellions in Haiti and the West Indies and also to the life of Frederick Douglass. The comparison is apt with regard to both the extraordinary way Douglass obtained his education and to his struggle to assert the full humanity of people of color to a society which considered them savage children. Lepore points out that in James Whale’s 1931 Frankenstein, the monster is lynched. I think it is even more telling that in Mary Shelley’s novel, the creature has internalized society’s condemnation and decides to immolate himself.
Charlotte Gordon’s Romantic Outlaws, a parallel biography of Mary Shelley and Mary Wollstonecraft, makes a fascinating case that both were hampered and unappreciated by the men in their lives: as thinkers, as writers, as full equals to the supposedly progressive and revolutionary men with whom they were intimately associated. Through her creature, Mary Shelley also speaks out against patriarchy, certainly against how the Miltonic chain of being justified the prevailing political and economic hierarchy—and hierarchy within families—as God-ordained. Though the creature measures himself against Adam and Satan, I see him as similar to Eve, sent to gather food while the angel Raphael warned Adam of Satan’s designs. Like the creature eavesdropping on the De Lacey family (the pun is unavoidable) Eve is forced to obtain knowledge only by subterfuge, then judged as fallen by those who did not deign to teach her.
Mary Shelley’s novel has serious flaws: improbable plot devices, overwrought and silly dialogue, and a neophyte author’s attempt to make it everything from moral fable to philosophical argument to travelogue. But it is intricately and artfully presented through narrative framed within narrative, and at its heart the creature speaks what he rightfully calls the most moving part of the tale.
Today, even if the mob is carrying tiki torches or the stones are cast on-line, the creature still confronts us on behalf of anyone who is labelled Other, who is blamed, exploited, excluded or forced to assert that his or her life matters. Read the novel, or read it again, through the lens of the 21st century. Heed the voice of the creature.
Gastonia poet and writer David E. Poston taught for thirty years in public school, at UNC-Charlotte, and at Charlotte’s Young Writers’ Workshop. His work has appeared in journals and anthologies such as Broad River Review, English Journal, Pedestal, The Cape Rock, The Southern Poetry Anthology: North Carolina, and Kakalak. His poetry collections are My Father Reading Greek, Postmodern Bourgeois Poetaster Blues, and Slow of Study. He served on the steering committee for Charlotte Lit’s Carson McCullers centennial celebration in 2017 and currently serves on the boards of the Friends of the Gaston County Public Library, Gaston Literacy Council, and Charlotte Writers’ Club. He teaches writing workshops for Hospice and other venues and will talk about Frankenstein or Paradise Lost to any group that will listen.