The plot of Frankenstein, Chris Baldick points out, can be summed up in two sentences. ‘Frankenstein makes a living creature out of bits of corpses. The creature turns against him and runs amok.’ The mystery is why so many people know the plot of Frankenstein, and have known it, as this book ably demonstrates, since shortly after the work’s first appearance in 1818, without necessarily reading a line of Mary Shelley’s prose. More than a century before it was filmed, it existed in two rival stage versions. Cartoonists drew it, writers and politicians alluded to it. The plot, rather like the monster, got away from its creator and walked the world.
It’s for the range of its significations in changing contexts that Chris Baldick is interested in Frankenstein. ‘This will not be an exercise in tracing Mary Shelley’s literary “influence” (as far as prose style is concerned, it is just as well she had none), but a study of that process of adaptation, allusion and revision by which a modern myth is born and sustains its life.’ Baldick’s time-span is an extended 19th century, from the Fall of the Bastille to the First World War. Some myths invoked in Romantic writing, like Faust and Prometheus, have remoter origins than the Frankenstein fable. Other Gothic novels carried on, Baldick says, ‘safely retrospective flirtations with feudal and Papal power’. But Mary Shelley’s novel is set at the close of the Age of Reason. It’s a story of the 1790s, the decade which ushered in a sixty-year-long cycle of European revolutions, counter-revolutions, rapid social and economic change. Frankenstein, its protagonist, is a man of his day – a scientist, imaginatively a social scientist, who aspires to re-make the world of nature, social and political forms, men and women.
Only eighty pages of Baldick’s book deal directly with Mary Shelley’s. Of these the greater part examines either the myth of a monstrous birth before Mary Shelley adopted it, or the fortunes of the idea after she published it. This approach in effect re-distributes authorship of the fable, and obliges us to consider it as a collaborative popular invention. The idea of likening the French Revolution and particularly the Parisian mob to a parricidal monster may have occurred first to Edmund Burke. Already in his Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), Burke saw the fomentors of revolutions as sinister magicians, the Parisian municipal army as ‘a species of political monster, which has always ended by devouring those who have produced it’.
After this there was a ready-made rhetoric of unnaturalness and monstrosity on which colourful, emotive 19th-century writers such as Carlyle loved to draw. As Conor Cruise O’Brien observed, the spectre haunting Europe in the first sentence of The Communist Manifesto ‘walks for the first time in the pages of Burke’. Burke’s early opponents, English radicals such as Tom Paine and Mary Shelley’s parents William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft, tried to neutralise the damage his imagery did to the popular side, by giving the monstrous child an even more monstrous parent. If the Revolution was going bad, it was because of the sins of the fathers. Aristocracy became a cruel and negligent parent which reared a race of deformed children.
There have been many modern critical explanations, especially in the last decade, of the power and ‘meaning’ of Frankenstein. But most interpreters take the plot to be Mary Shelley’s own property, and guess at the experiences which may lie behind it. She wrote about a birth because she was a woman; about a hideous birth, followed by parental abdication, either because she was Godwin’s daughter, or Shelley’s wife, or the mother of dead babies. The long sweep of Baldick’s perspective makes all this biographical guesswork look distinctly short-sighted. In its details, his location of the plot’s governing metaphor in the revolution decade is not original to him, as he acknowledges. But no one else has matched the pre-history of Frankenstein so well with the post-history, or indeed attempted a sustained account of what could be called the book’s external relations.
The date at which Frankenstein emerged, 1818, was for the British quite as much a time of incipient revolution as the era in which the action was set. The novel was anonymous, but it opened by naming a more powerfully evocative name than the author’s, that of the dedicatee, William Godwin. Its first critics responded by reading it politically and, as Baldick shows, judged its merits largely according to their opinion of Godwin’s politics. The Tory Quarterly Review and Edinburgh Magazine both found a novel of the Godwinian type, impious and subversive. In 1824, a radical reviewer of the second edition in Knight’s Quarterly Magazine recommended the book for taking the side of the Monster: ‘The justice is indisputably on his side, and his sufferings are, to me, touching to the last degree.’ The reviewers broadly agreed to interpret the struggle between creator and creature as a political allegory, no doubt assisted by the fact that the central contest between a master-aristocrat and a peasant-servant repeats the central plot-device of Godwin’s allegory of class conflict, Caleb Williams.
These early reviewers simplified the book they had to deal with. Baldick’s more careful comparison of Mary Shelley’s protagonists with those of any model in the 1790s shows that her sympathies are unusually evenly distributed, her message complex and oddly elaborate. In her father’s novel, Falkland surely does stand for aristocracy in general and for its leading current spokesman Edmund Burke in particular. Sometimes Mary Shelley seems even more boldly universal. At the mythic level, Frankenstein’s actions in first creating the creature, then expelling him from his sight, recall those of the God of Genesis and of Paradise Lost. There are precedents in 18th-century radical rhetoric for turning God into the type of the absolutist despot. And Frankenstein is also identified as the eldest son of one of the Syndics of Geneva, so that he is born into an aristocratic élite in one of its more benign, enlightened forms. If these are the points that register most strongly about Frankenstein, we hear the echoes of Painite, Godwinian rhetoric against existing institutions.
On the other hand, the novel also insists that Frankenstein is secretive and anti-social. He pursues arcane studies that his father the Syndic doesn’t like; and to do this he enrols at Ingolstadt, a university which became notorious in 1797 as the home of the Illuminati, a freemasonry of avant-garde intellectuals alleged by the Abbé Barruel to have spread a network of subversion across Europe. By likening Frankenstein to the Arctic explorer Walton, Mary Shelley further emphasises his alienation from the society even of his own class and family. If he is a dissident, he could be one of the presumptuous individuals Burke liked to thunder at.
Perhaps because she meant to frustrate the highly politicised reviewers of her day, Mary Shelley introduced a bewildering number of trails, redundant alternative explanations for what is going on. The book’s plethora of victims, characters punished for crimes they did not commit, certainly looks Godwinian, and implies a bitter ironised portrait, as in Caleb Williams, of ‘Things As They Are’. Yet Frankenstein’s oddly particularised and disturbed relationships with his family, especially with his mother and with his proposed bride, his foster-sister Elizabeth, are also spelt out through his dreams, and this material has tempted some modern readers to conclude that the novel’s, and Frankenstein’s, other interests are all a distraction from the reality he is neglecting, the well-being and happiness of those nearest to him. Baldick praises the book’s abundance as the very quality which ensured its after-life. Mary Shelley overloads ‘the novel with approximately parallel codes of signification – psychological, pedagogic, sexual, Miltonic, political – which overlap and interfere with one another at so many points that no single line of interpretation can convincingly fend off all the others’.
But the public hasn’t seemed content with these pregnant uncertainties, and the rest of Baldick’s narrative shows how and when some one-sided readings of Frankenstein gained on all others. Richard Brinsley Peake’s adaptation, Presumption: or the Fate of Frankenstein, was staged in 1823. Mary Shelley was not consulted and not impressed. Among other defects, the drama reinterpreted the novel along confident ideological lines, spelt out in an announcement by the theatre’s management: ‘The striking moral exhibited in this story, is the fatal consequence of that presumption which attempts to penetrate, beyond prescribed depths, into the mysteries of nature.’
Peake’s adaptation especially seems to have led the way to many subsequent Christianised readings of a fable apparently secular in its original impulse. The production opened in an elaborate set, Frankenstein’s laboratory, which had a staircase up to the room in which the monster lay gradually coming alive, and a window for him to peer through. It introduced into the proceedings Frankenstein’s comic servant Fritz, an honest bumpkin whose fear, of his master as well as of the monster, helps to direct the audience’s responses to the action. It was also Peake who first silenced the monster, thus removing the formal characteristic of a dialogue. On these points James Whale’s film of 1931 follows Peake’s stage version, so that Boris Karloff’s monster, the definitive realisation, exacts emotions of terror and pity but not of social indignation.
The filmgoer who consults Mary Shelley’s text in a modern reprint will probably think the Karloff version reasonably faithful to the book. This is because the text now usually available is that of the third edition, which was revised by the author in 1831 along lines influenced by her conservative critics and adaptors. ‘Supremely frightful,’ declares Mary Shelley’s new introduction, ‘would be the effect of any human endeavour to mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world.’ In the text, Frankenstein gets a number of new soliloquies, in which he muses remorsefully on his own presumption and rash ignorance in creating an ‘unhallowed’ creature with only ‘a mockery of a soul’. This theological vocabulary is absent from the first edition. Unless you are lucky enough to pick up a copy or rare reprint of that, you may have to deduce the very different impact of the original secular plot from Baldick’s summary.
The 1820s and 1830s are the decades when the religious revival and its German high-intellectual mediations were absorbed by the English literati. It’s not so surprising that Mary Shelley herself saw her own book of (1790 to) 1818 differently by 1830. Other older authors whose works reappeared then in the new format of the cheap reprint – including Scott, and Godwin too – also busied themselves putting a modishly introspective, spiritual and timeless gloss upon novels which had formerly looked current, social and political. What’s less predictable is Baldick’s demonstration that Mary Shelley, even assisted by the stage adaptations, didn’t succeed in de-politicising Frankenstein for her own times. The old ‘meaning’ of the monster, as the symbol of an irresistible outbreak of popular energy, was too deeply entrenched or still too much needed to be quickly deflected.
And so almost all Baldick’s sightings of the creature in England from early to mid-century view him indeed as the spectre peculiar to modern times, the populace stirring itself into life. The Foreign Secretary, George Canning, speaking in a debate in the House of Commons in 1824 on the emancipation of West Indian slaves, said of the slave that ‘to turn him loose in the manhood of his physical strength, in the maturity of his physical passion, but in the infancy of his uninstructed reason, would be to raise up a creature resembling the splendid fiction of a recent romance.’ Elizabeth Gaskell in Mary Barton draws a similar lesson from the dangerous career of John Barton, Chartist and trade-unionist. Uneducated, lacking wisdom and judgment, his one clear feeling was
hatred to the one class and keen sympathy with the other ... The actions of the uneducated seem to me typified in those of Frankenstein, that monster of many human qualities, ungifted with a soul, a knowledge of the difference between good and evil.
The people rise up to life; they irritate us, they terrify us, and we become their enemies ... Why have we made them what they are; a powerful monster, yet without the inner means for peace and happiness?
Meanwhile Punch cartoons revert from time to time to the compelling vision of a gigantic ragged proletarian, captioned to make the connection with Mary Shelley’s book: ‘The Brummagem Frankenstein’, ‘The Irish Frankenstein’. Usually the creature appears with his middle-class friend, John Bright or Charles Parnell, who cowers in his threatening shadow. But at least once, in 1843, Punch’s monster is on his own, and it’s easy to see how Elizabeth Gaskell, along no doubt with an increasing proportion of the public, came to believe that the name Frankenstein belonged to him.
Hoffmann and Hawthorne in this period, Wells and Stephen Crane much later, wrote compelling stories based directly on the Frankenstein plot. Among the novelists who used it, Baldick makes most of Herman Melville and Charles Dickens. He sees Moby Dick as a natural extension of the myth, in which the demon that drives the Frankensteinian Ahab is in effect the dynamic energy of American territorial and industrial expansion. The whale, a mute monster, is spoken for by his advocate Ishmael. Both these characters are victimised and essentially innocent, and it is Ahab, mutilated, vengeful and self-enslaved, who is the book’s true monster.
Dickens also employs the myth in its original secular form, as a contest between the classes in a post-revolutionary, post-industrial world. ‘As the poetic justice of Dickens’s plots so often implies, monsters – all the way from Jonas Chuzzlewit to the French Revolution – are our own creatures.’ Martin Chuzzlewit, Hard Times, the Christmas tale ‘The Haunted Man’ and Great Expectations all include creator-creature relationships which issue in deformity and self-destruction, and are intended to be symptomatic of the social system.
There’s no denying that Baldick set himself an aesthetic problem when he chose to divide his book into two parts, in every sense unequal. Whether admirers of Romantic symbolism or of Victorian realism, his readers may find it awkward to have to treat a single flawed book as a kind of yardstick for measuring the Euro-American fictional mainstream from 1820 to 1920. Though the quality of the materials improves in the second part, the quality of Baldick’s criticism is bound on the whole to decline, since he has to treat so many good novels as the sum of their plots. But the momentum of the argument picks up again at the very end of his book, if too briefly, when he throws out a series of challenges.
Recently it has been the Gothic genre, to which Frankenstein appears to belong, and not the realist ‘mainstream’ 19th-century novel, that has made the new critical running. But in effect Baldick has been breaking down or rather re-distributing these categories, by making the original Frankenstein a secular social allegory, and delaying the story’s transformation into a symbolic narrative with the customary ‘Romantic’ properties. And he sees the full mythic possibilities of the monstrous birth most richly realised, not in Frankenstein itself, not indeed in any formal fantasy, but in great realists, of whom Zola, on the last page, is the final example. Here Baldick plainly states that, viewed as a distinct aesthetic achievement, the Frankensteinian inheritance he has been tracing cannot rival the great realist tradition. On the other hand, realism, left to its own devices, or rather to its usual restricted local setting, can’t grasp history’s covert workings – what Marx saw as going on behind our backs. The ‘non-realistic register’ this book alerts us to proves an important component of 19th-century novels of all types, since without it there is no way of apprehending the ‘monstrous dynamics of the modern’.
Like so many of the best investigative books, this one looks past the specific issue with which it begins, to the general assumptions or theories it has disturbed. There has been no study of the Romantic or Gothic novel in English which is not materially challenged or enriched by it. But that field is too confined, since on this showing realist novels, too, draw upon the substratum of popular mythologising represented by Frankenstein, sometimes for a metaphor or an incident, sometimes more structurally. Baldick shows that the elusive phenomenon of the popular plot-type, its function, its transformations, the mode of its transmission, needs more careful and less wildly selective treatment than it has been getting.