The Evolution of Frankenstein


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The Evolution of Frankenstein

 

Not so long ago, relative to the world at large, in picturesque Geneva not so far from Lake

Leman, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley took part in a not so commonplace "contest". The contest

was to write a ghost story. The outcome was Frankenstein; what is considered today to be a

classic, one of the first science fiction tales, and a story immortalized many times over in film.

And what at its inception was considered little more than the disturbed and ill conceived writings

of a woman by some, and a noble if misplaced effort by others. Critical readings of the novel have

grown over time to encompass more aspects of the critical range and to allow for a broader

reading and understanding of the work which accounts for more than merely face value formal,

rhetorical, mimetic or expressive theories alone.

 

In March of 1818, the same year Frankenstein was published, The Belle Assemblee

magazine reviewed Frankenstein. In its opening paragraph states "..that the presumptive works of

man must be frightful, vile, and horrible; ending only in discomfort and misery to himself. But will

all our readers understand this?". Clearly this reviewer is, in some part, taking into account

rhetorical theories. The analysis given is in the interests of the reader, so that they might better be

able to appreciate the work. As well, credit is given to formal aspects of the work, the

"excellence of its style and language" as well as "its originality, excellence of language, and

peculiar interest".

 

Though this review was brief, and did little more than summarize the book for interested

readers of the time, it did what many others did not, in that it focused on Frankenstein as an

original work that offered something new to readers of the time. Further reviews, from sources

such as Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine allowed the author, whose identity was not known for

certain at the time, some small leeway in their criticisms. Though they too agreed that the formal

style of Frankenstein was unique and praiseworthy, strictly mimetic theories are taken into

account in matters they consider inconsistent within the novel, particularly as they pertain to the

nature of the monster. It is looked upon as non-reflective of the way of the real world, that a

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monster such as that should be able to roam the country side unnoticed for so long, or learn to

speak and enjoy novels such as Paradise Lost or Plutarch's Lives. This sentiment is echoed in

The Belle Assemblee's review, calling it "prolix and unnatural".

 

One of the recurrent themes in early critical reception of the novel was the morality, or

perceived lack thereof, within the work. The Quarterly Review, proffered a particularly harsh

review, going so far as to say it "inculcates no lesson of conduct, manners, or morality; it cannot

mend, and will not amuse its readers, unless their taste have been deplorably vitiated". This

review, like many others of the era, was very concerned with the final message imparted to the

audience, which follows the strong rhetorical tradition of the times. What was lost on these

reviewers however, and seems to be clear to many modern day reviews of the work, is that there

is a clear and strong moral message ingrained in the text. The very sub-title of the work, The

Modern Prometheus is practically self explanatory in that manner, likening the character of Victor

Frankenstein to the Titan Prometheus, who overstepped his bounds and stole fire from the gods.

Frankenstein's character makes the same leap of decency and morality into creating life from

death, playing with his own gods, and suffering the consequences. This very well could have been

lost on the critics of the day amidst what is admitted by many to be a fairly melodramatic text, and

a very new and bizarre tale. This combined with rumors that Percy Shelley had written the work,

an author who many critics looked upon as blasphemous in his own works, perhaps made some

apprehensive of ascribing moral worth to the story.

 

Possibly as a result of the passage of times, the rhetorical take on moral meaning in the

novel has adapted to allow room for what was, more than likely, Shelley's intention from the

outset, that the readers should be able to take away from the story a clear message about the

nature of man and his place.

 

Another concern by many critics was that audiences would have no understanding of the

subject matter. Moreover, some zealous critics went so far as to say there was nothing to

understand, as The Quarterly Review chose to paraphrase it "'a tale told by an idiot, full of sound

and fury, signifying nothing--'. At the same time however, it was lauded by Blackwood's as

being written in "plain and forcible English... the ideas of the author are always clearly as well as

forcibly expressed".

 

Of the more bizarre criticisms are those that deal with the "inconsistencies" within the

novel. These criticisms are of the way in which events in the novel are seen to poorly reflect the

real world; their lack of mimesis. Blackwood's, who generally received the book well use the

words "improbable and overstrained" to describe the manner in which the monster learns

language. The Literary Panorama and National Register begins their entire review by calling the

novel a "feeble imitation of one that was very popular in its day, -- the St.Leon of Mr. Godwin".

They go on to point out what, in their view, are glaringly unrealistic inconsistencies, such as the

monster walking soon after its "birth" and then learning to read a mere year later. The problem

here, of course, is that Frankenstein endowed the creature with life, not the faculties it would

require to walk about and learn. This form of strict mimetic criticism makes little room for the

suspension of disbelief and seems to want to liken every aspect of the work to real life, as though

the fictional creation of a monster and its development should parallel the real creation and

development of a child. What these critics failed to appreciate, and what perhaps modern day

critics can be all the more appreciative of due to the huge presence of horror, science fiction and

fantasy in literature, is that these genres cannot follow strictly mimetic principles because they are

introducing unrealistic elements into the real world. Such criticisms can aptly be applied to

consequences within fantastic works, but not to the fantastic elements therein, because there is

simply no basis for comparison. These sorts of criticisms of the "unrealistic" nature of the

monster are all but impossible to find in modern criticism, which seems to have developed a sense

of the fantastic since this time and is willing to accept the fiction along with the science.

 

At the time of its publication, Frankenstein was an anonymously penned work. Rumors

began floating around that perhaps Percy Shelley had written it, and then in time it came to light

that his wife had, in fact, written the novel. When the authorship was still unknown, some critics

still took it upon themselves to speculate about the faculties of mind and soul that would prompt

an author to create such a work, leading The Quarterly to decide the style leaves one in doubt of

whether "the head or the heart of the author be more diseased". This type of criticism, leaning

towards the expressive, also has roots in what would today be considered psychoanalytic

criticism; pondering the motivations of the author. But, clearly, at its inception, the foundations

of psychoanalysis were not present and, rather than speculate on what psychological roots helped

spawn such a novel, it was more appropriate to deem it the result of a disturbed heart or mind.

However, there were a number of circumstances in Mary's own life that, through even preliminary

psychoanalytic interpretation, reflect on themes in the novel. The ideas of marriage, family and

responsibility, as well as creation (or procreation) expressed in Frankenstein apparently parallel

Shelley's own experiences with these themes as stated in the Essay Marriage and Mary Shelley by

Arthur Paul Patterson; from her anti-matrimonial parents' viewpoints, to her own marriage with

Percy Bysshe Shelley by way of eloping against her father's wishes, and the loss of several of her

children shortly after their birth, her life was wrought with these themes and clearly she expressed

many of them in her writing.

 

When it came to the attention of The British Critic that a woman had written the novel,

they called it an "aggravation of that which is the prevailing fault of the novel", this after stating

that the "diseased and wandering imagination, which has stepped out of all legitimate bounds, to

frame these disjointed combinations and unnatural adventures, might be disciplined into something

better". Both of these criticisms dismiss the author almost outright, again questioning the mental

faculties of a person who could create a work such as this, and further degrading her sex as an

aggravation of what is already wrong with the book.

 

Modern criticisms, particularly feminist criticisms, view Shelley's sex as an asset to the

work, having allowed her unique perspective on the relation between men and women. While

some critics will point out the caricatures of women that serve as characters in the novel, others,

such as Arthur Paul Patterson1, argue that the female characters counter the men as equally

flawed characters each separated by relational holding patterns caused by these flaws that lead to

their mutual destruction. This relational viewpoint can easily be attributed to the way Shelley

herself saw the society in which she lived, in which women were not empowered in the same way

as men and which she did not agree with.

 

In years since the first publication of Frankenstein, literary criticisms of the work have

branched away from these original themes dealing with basic critical theories. While the various

mimetic, expressive, rhetorical and formal theories apply, in part or in whole to any criticism of a

work, modern theory has expanded, either because these basic principles had already been

covered in years past, or because it was felt by some that more could be read into a text if it was

analyzed in a new light. While denounced by many as gruesome or bizarre in its day, the basic

themes of the novel were not, as Prof. Colleen Devlin2 states, plucked out of thin air. The idea of

reanimating corpses was a subject of scientific study at the time. What some attributed to a

diseased mind was in fact an "indictment of the hubris of modern science." In this way, it can be

seen that early expressive criticisms of what the author brought to the work had missed the mark,

as had rhetorical criticisms of the morality being imparted to readers, since it does seem clear that

Shelley had been speaking against the monstrous acts displayed in her tale, and the presumptive

nature of men like Victor Frankenstein, who thought to dabble in the realm of gods.

 

From 1818 to the present, many methods and underlying principles of criticism have

remained the same. While every Period seems to have its predominant theory, each one will be

linked in some way to one or more other theories, for in any analysis, aspects of the rhetorical

often will encompass expressive theories or mimetic, and formal theories are very nearly integral

as well. How these critical theories are applied differs over the course of time as critical theory

expands and new perspectives are borne. The rise of psychoanalytic, feminist and other theories

certainly shaped how later critics read the text of Shelley's work.

 

Critics of the present day have been able to form more in-depth analyses of the text that

go beyond the very basic analyses of those from the time of Frankenstein's publication, due to the

more widely available information about the life of author, Mary Shelley, as well as more insight

into varying theories and how they can all be applied to a given work. Moreover, the significant

presence of the science fiction genre in today's literature and a wider range of experimentation

within novels has left today's critics in a position to be less shocked and offended by a novel,

thereby allowing them to give a more impartial critical assessment of a work than was the case

when Frankenstein was first published while going beyond the limits of preliminary formal,

expressive, mimetic and rhetorical theories.

 


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