Making Frankenstein

Some days ago I mentioned reading a book about Frankenstein.  This was Making the Monster: The Science behind Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, by Kathryn Harkup.  I’ve read several books like this, many of them written about on this blog (search “Frankenstein”—there is a search box out there!), about the context of Frankenstein.  The base story is all the more compelling for having been written by a teenager who’d eloped with a married man who would eclipse her literarily.  Mary Shelley never got rich off Frankenstein, but it is one of the best known novels of the nineteenth century.  It had an impact during the author’s lifetime and has continued to have one these centuries later.  Harkup, however, is a scientist.  Her specific interest, apart from being a female writer herself, is in the science of the story.

Arranged thematically, Making the Monster covers several of the developments which would’ve been “in the air” at the time.  Mary and Percy Shelley both read science also, and knew many of these things.  There was the question of reanimating the dead that coincided with the early dissections of humans that made the modern study of anatomy possible.  There were medical breakthroughs—some of the more difficult parts of this book to read—and there were experiments with electricity.  There were cases of children raised in the wild that had been found and their subsequent stories documented.  There was evolution (in the form known to Charles Darwin’s grandfather Erasmus), there was revolution.  It was a time with so much happening that Frankenstein became a cathartic outpouring of the human soul amid the science that both Shelleys atheistically accepted.

Much of this book is fascinating, even after reading other similar accounts to the background of the novel.  What really brought it all together for me, however, was reading through the chronology at the end.  It takes me several days to read books.  What with the monster of daily work I often forget some of what I’ve read along the way from introduction to conclusion.  Having a chronology at the end reminded me of just how much information is packed in between these covers.  The narrative covers about a century (longer, if you include the alchemists), and shows how Mary was using fiction to address some very real science.  Harkup never loses track of Mary Shelley’s personal experience, however.  Estranged from her father, constantly on the move, widowed fairly young, losing several children, treated poorly by aristocratic in-laws, hers was a story of perseverance and ultimately influencing the western canon.  It shows that science and art can assist one another to make us all more human.  And the monsters left behind endure.

Frankenstein’s Family

The story of Frankenstein has many unexpected twists and turns.  I’m currently reading a book about the writing of the novel—something I’ve done a number of times before.  There was an aspect of this story that hadn’t really caught my attention too much, but then, circumstances changed.  Suddenly old information became new.  It all started with a missed opportunity from childhood. 

It was a real puzzle.  Although my grandmother lived with us her last years, I never knew the name of her mother.  There had been hints.  My grandfather’s book with birthdays in it listed the first name, so I had a Christian moniker and birthdate only.  She’d died young, I knew, somewhere in the Washington, DC area.  This had been the state of my knowledge for many years.  My grandmother died before I was a teen, and before I took any interest in the family story.  I knew her heritage was Germanic, her father having been a first-generation American.

So young Mary Shelley (technically Godwin) was on a tour of Europe with her lover Percy.  Although they both came from distinguished backgrounds, they were cash poor.  Running out of money they made their way back to England as cheaply as they could.  They passed near Castle Frankenstein along the way, although there is no record that they actually visited it.  The name seems to have stuck, as does the story that they potentially learned about a mad scientist who’d lived in that castle.  This scientist was a theologian who dabbled in alchemy and experiments with dead bodies.  I know what you’re thinking—it’s like a puzzle piece we desperately want to go in this place but its fit’s ambiguous.  We’re not sure how much of this Mary Shelley knew.  The alchemist’s name was Johann Konrad Dippel.  I’d read about him before.

I’d spent nearly an entire summer some years back working on my grandmother’s family, finding little.  Just two years ago I did a casual search on “Find a Grave,” and to my surprise, I found my great-grandfather.  I knew it was him because his second wife’s name matched information from all the family records.  The cemetery record, in Maryland rather than DC, had his first wife’s name.  It was that easy.  After decades of searching, a few keystrokes revealed the mystery.  When it also listed her parents, the significance of her mother’s maiden name—Dippel—escaped me.  Now I have no way of knowing if this is the same Dippel family of Castle Frankenstein, but it put flesh on the bones of my long-standing interest in monsters.  Seeking them out may be the same as learning family secrets.  Perhaps it always is.

Frankenstein, Frankly

The classics.  No matter how much I read more contemporary fiction, the classics keep me coming back.  Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is a classic in more than a single sense.  It was a novel that had tremendous influence in the nineteenth century and has continued its impact to the present.  Chris Baldick’s In Frankenstein’s Shadow can be considered a classic in its own right.  Although it only dates from the 1980s, it contains exhilarating analysis of Frankenstein in a number of authors and genres of the nineteenth century.  And I’m a fan of literary scholars who write accessibly.  I’ve read modern literary studies that I simply don’t understand and they leave me feeling alienated and cold, as if they were written for a private audience.  One that didn’t include me.  Baldick’s treatment is wide-ranging and full of moments of blinding insight and is open to all.

Often I put the book down thinking that I’d had my world changed.  Baldick’s no hero-worshipper.  He notes the weaknesses in Shelley’s writing (and they are admittedly there), but he does so respectfully.  The astonishing part of this study is the sheer breadth of the influence Baldick finds for Frankenstein.  A word or phrase, a theme here or there, and yet he makes an excellent case that these can be traced back to their monstrous forebear.  His section on Melville made me want to stand up and cheer.  (I have to admit to being more of a hero-worshipper than the author.)  This is literary criticism done right.  It makes you want to read the books you haven’t.

Since the book deals with literature, it doesn’t really address how the creature morphed into something completely different in the twentieth century.  I know I grew up thinking Frankenstein’s monster was part robot.  I suppose it was the bolts in his neck, according to the Universal script, that convinced me.  That, and his stiff-jointed lumbering about.  Shelley’s story is, however, very much a human one.  In many respects the monster is more humane than his creator.  Various aspects of this tale, including that one, are taken up in other classics and turned over, examined, and reapplied.  Suddenly quite a bit of what I’d read elsewhere made immediate sense.  Interestingly, although I grew up not so much a fan of this particular monster, books on him have become among my favorites as an adult, if I am such.  I think Baldick may have had his fingers on that revivified wrist when he wrote this book.  It certainly did for me what literary criticism always should.  At least for the classics.

Sister Monsters

Every once in a while you read an inspirational book.  I’m hoping readers will keep in mind that inspiration comes from different locations for some of us.  Monster, She Wrote: The Women Who Pioneered Horror and Speculative Fiction, by Lisa Kröger and Melanie R. Anderson, is a source of inspiration.  With the usual Quirk Books touches, this isn’t a tome heavy on literary criticism, but it is a wonderful compendium of brief bios on women who walk(ed) on the dark side.  I find books like this encouraging in a number of respects.  First of all, these are women who did what they loved and were recognized for it.  Secondly, it gives the rest of us some hope that getting through the establishment to actual publication isn’t as impossible as presses would have us believe.  And third, it’s also a lot of fun.

It isn’t often pointed out that women played a major role in the development of the horror genre.  Some of the earliest Gothic novels were by Ann Radcliffe and Margaret Cavendish.  Probably the first fully fledged horror novel was Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley.  The real learning kicks in when the other names come out—many women found, and continue to find, the genre compelling.  Most of them, like most of us, are lost to history, but many of them have been rediscovered.  Here again is cause for hope; those of us who write, I think, have our eyes set on the far distant future.  We’re inscribing our “Kilroy was here” on paper—I still can’t think of ebooks as actually existing—in hopes that those down the road might know us a little better.  The fact that some of our sisters have been found suggests that we too may be resurrected some day.

There’s no plot here, and the point isn’t to present some great discovery.  This is a book that encourages women to be who they are through example.  The fact that it involves monsters and horror is simply a bonus.  As a non-female reading this it struck me time and again that women have long been informed of what they should or could do by men.  Men don’t like to see women knowing as much as they do about the shadow side of human existence, even as they relegated them to the shadows.  It’s my hope that this book will inspire women to be themselves.  And if they want to invite monsters along, so much the better.

Frankenfear

While re-reading Frankenstein the uncomfortable thought kept recurring that our tendency to save lives leads to undiscovered fears. I’m not suggesting that we should just let people die, but even from my own experience of doctors, the sense of personal agency has become somewhat eroded. You go to the doctor and s/he tells you, “You should have this done.” I’m still too busy trying to figure out what this box that’s attached to my TV should be called, so how am I qualified to assess a professional opinion about my health? We mend bodies with plastic and metals and chemicals. Some modifications, like fillings and glasses, seem no brainers. But what about plastic tubes and computers to regulate body functions? They’re all good, but have we thought this through, I can hear Mary Shelley asking.

Religion, which is now also eroding, was a traditional way of coping with the fact of our own mortality. Everyone dies. From the beginning of the world, with the possible exception of Elijah—and even he had to come back—everyone has died. Religion traditionally said that it wasn’t the last word. The body wears out, and in a materialist world there’s nothing that can be left. Technology can prolong life, but some may not want it to be prolonged beyond a certain point. I’m not being morbid; I just don’t like arguing with what can’t be changed. Religion, it’s easy to forget, is about finding peace. Some people misunderstand that, for sure, but that doesn’t change the facts.

Did Prometheus overstep his bounds? Mary Shelley seemed to think so. In her recollections the story was intended to scare, not to predict. Victor Frankenstein creates the monster simply because he can. He does it alone, without thinking through the consequences even with a convenient Igor. Religion has often been cast as that annoying, moralizing sibling to science. (Philosophy could well join the ranks too, as some prefer it to religious thinking.) Without that sibling, however, how can we make informed decisions? Science, by its very definition, can’t tell us what should be done. The only values it knows are quantifiers. We live in a piecemeal world where some parts have been removed while others have been added. We don’t know if this is right or wrong since religion is one of the pieces excised without being replaced. Prometheus, ironically, translates to “forethought.” The problem with Frankenstein is precisely that Prometheus is missing.

Frankenstein and Co.

Authors, I expect, don’t anticipate that their work will be annotated. Since I deal with annotated Bibles on a daily basis, I often ponder that the anonymous writers—we know of few biblical writers with any degree of certainty—had no idea that they were writing the Bible. Nor did they realize that some day many people would make their livelihood from interpreting that book. Among the interpreters are annotators. When my wife gave me Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein for Christmas I was at first puzzled. I have a copy of Frankenstein already. In fact, I read it again just last year. Then I realized it was an annotated edition: Annotated for Scientists, Engineers, and Creators of All Kinds. Edited by David H. Guston, Ed Finn, and Jason Scott Robert, the book contains the original text and an introduction, as well as the said annotations. Like a typical study Bible, it also contains essays. The editors joke that it’s kind of like a Frankenstein monster itself.

The “value added” material isn’t all about science. In fact, quite a lot of it has to do with human relationships, and particularly women’s rights. Mary Shelley was an early feminist and her novel shows what goes wrong when men try to reproduce without women. Another recurring theme that, amazingly, had never dawned on me while reading Frankenstein was the Adam and Eve story. Victor Frankenstein, like God, creates a man. Then he creates a woman. Well, almost. Afraid what might happen should his creature find a companion too companionable, he destroys the second creature before she’s finished. The biblical parallels are nevertheless there.

Originally subtitled The Modern Prometheus, the novel was based on pre-Christian myth as much as on Holy Writ. Nevertheless, the Bible suffused British culture in the nineteenth century just as it has continued to overwhelm American culture to the present day. We ignore it at our peril. Morality in science is a major focus of the essays in this volume, but I wondered how many scientists might be enticed to read a piece of feminist fiction in order to learn some ethics. The largest ethical conundrum we face in the United States is that so few people read for personal growth. Spending time with a book is a sacred activity for those committed to the principles of literacy. Frankenstein isn’t a prefect novel; the pacing is pretty slow even for a gothic masterpiece. There are loose ends left hanging. The protagonist is often insufferable. Still, as the editors and annotators have demonstrated, there’s much to learn from this old story. All it takes is the willingness to read and deeply reflect. And perhaps read the annotations.

Revisiting Frankenstein

There’s nothing like going back to the classics. Many people don’t realize that one of the best-selling books of the nineteenth century was Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. It has never been out of print. As a novel it has its issues, but the tale strikes something deeply responsive in readers. And the story may not be what you think. You see, the movies have made Frankenstein’s monster into something Shelley never intended. Indeed, today’s Frankenstein monster is pieced together from various monster images, just like the mad doctor’s original creation.

After a lapse of many decades, I decided to read Frankenstein again. It must’ve been in my tweenage years that I’d last done so. I recall putting the book down thinking how sad it was. Something happens, however, when you return to a book after a span of many years. This time I was looking for the mad doctor and hoping to determine if the monster deserved that title at all. The story won’t let any easy answers come. Victor Frankenstein is a young, impulsive man carried away by an idea. He doesn’t contemplate the consequences of what he’s doing. It’s like buying a dog without considering that you’ve just realigned your priorities for several years. Not noticing that his growing creation is hideous to the eyes until it’s too late, he simply abandons the creature without a word. (The parallels with an absentee father should be obvious.)

The creature—monster is a bit harsh—wants acceptance. He isn’t a mute brute with bolts in his neck. He’s not a robot. He is Adam kicked out of the garden with no Eve. He doesn’t start out evil. The rejection of his creator forces him to murder in a desire for revenge. Shelley’s world was deeply influenced by the Bible as well as Milton. Religious concepts are constantly under evaluation. The child of radical parents—her mother was one of the first feminists on record—Shelley questions everything here. No doubt in Victor’s mind he’s created a demon. Or has the monster created Frankenstein? Until the very final pages nobody else actually sees his monster, or at least hasn’t seen him and lived to tell about it. What fuels the creature’s fury is rejection. Evil doesn’t just happen in the world of the mad doctor.

Sympathies are divided in Frankenstein. We feel for the monster. His creator never apologizes. Never reflects that he somehow shares (or completely owns) the blame for the sad fate of that which he’s created. Living under a Frankenstein presidency, these unanswered questions hang thickly in the air. Lack of foresight seldom ends well. The monster isn’t always who you assume it to be.