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March 1975

Shelley, “Frankenstein”

The great Robert LeFevre reviews a classic of modern English literature.

Frankenstein, the author explains in the subtitle, is “The Modern Prometheus.” Mary Shelley wrote the novel hoping that it would find merit as a ghost story in the eyes of her famous husband, Percy B. Shelley, and their friend Lord Byron. What she produced at the age of 19 is a literary classic that goes far beyond the boundaries of a fantasy designed to chill the spinal fluid on some dark night.

The daughter of William Godwin, father of modern anarchism, she had long been exposed to arguments which revealed the dangerous, indeed, monstrous, visage of the State. As the second wife of that Promethean poet, Shelley, with whom she eloped while he was still wedded to his first wife, she sought for self-identity in a world which surely condemned her passion and would never quite forgive her.

Nurtured on sublime poetry and transcendental themes, including the quest for human purpose and the love of those who most sincerely invoked a higher and a better human passage than we yet know, Mary Shelley wove a fantasy containing elements of science fiction, romance, murder, and revenge.

The account is a flashback in which the narrator, in a series of letters, recounts the story told to him by a strange wayfarer, Victor Frankenstein, who is rescued from an ice-floe in a state bordering on dissolution.

Critics have read into the account as many themes and plots as can be found in Milton’s Paradise Lost or Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound. Mary Shelley was familiar with Greek mythology and with the enchanting themes still forming the background, strophe, and antistrophe of contemporary conflict and high drama. But in a sense, Frankenstein is also the story of Mary Shelley’s own hopes and fears, her sense of fitness and unfitness, her grand passion and despair. The immortality of her brilliant intellect and the flaws accompanying any kind of imposed morality provide the duality with which she deals. She sees herself as victoriously creating something good, Victor Frankenstein, her Prometheus. In allegory, she creates the beatific visage of the ideal human, who is not human. But the non-human is more human than its creator, more to be loved and pitied than Victor in his victory.

Whether intending it or not, Mary Shelley describes the triumph of the men who devise and support the State, only to have the State take on a life of its own, a humanness that “outhumans” its devisers. As the State struggles to do the good things it intends to do, it is condemned by its own inhumanness and becomes progressively monstrous. The creature endowed with immortality will have to destroy itself. And because it is humanly inhuman, this is what it will do—although at the end we are left with a vague uneasiness that perhaps the monster still roams the earth and has not yet constructed its own bier nor applied the match to rid us of its presence.

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley will continue for years to be the thrilling ghost story she intended. It is also much, much more. REVIEWED BY ROBERT LEFEVRE / Fiction (224 pages) / LR Price $.75