200 Years Later, We’re Still Learning from Frankenstein: The 1818 Text

Cover detail from Frankenstein: The 1818 Text by Mary Shelley

How can I describe my emotions at this catastrophe, or how delineate the wretch whom with such infinite pains and care I had endeavoured to form? His limbs were in proportion, and I had selected his features as beautiful. Beautiful!—Great God! His yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath; his hair was of a lustrous black, and flowing; his teeth of a pearly whiteness; but these luxuriance only formed a more horrid contrast with his watery eyes, that seemed almost of the same colour as the dun white sockets in which they were set, his shriveled complexion, and straight black lips.

These are Victor Frankenstein’s words upon seeing his “child,” the Monster, who is never named by his father. The Monster is created early in the book’s narrative, in chapter four, and the rest of the novel’s action concerns itself with the consequences of Frankenstein’s ultimate sin as a parent: the abandonment of his newborn.

It’s the bicentennial of the publication of Mary Shelley’s first novel, a novel that has been translated to television and film more than any others – 177, as of October 2017. And yet, those who have not sat down with the original version, written by Mary Shelley when she was between sixteen and eighteen, and published when she was twenty, will have little idea of the real story of Frankenstein. The gothic novel was the product of a famous challenge among Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley, John William Polidori, and Mary Godwin, who was not yet married to Shelley. Byron challenged all of them over a weekend to write a scary tale. Out of that weekend, Polidori wrote The Vampyre, the original vampire novel, and Mary, unable to come up with anything over the weekend, worked on Frankenstein for a year.

Godwin had written the novel at a time when pregnancy dominated her life. Between 1814 – when she was 16 – and 1819, she would give birth to four children. Her first child, Clara, lived only 13 days. William, born in 1816, would die of cholera in 1819, and her third baby, another Clara, died before her first birthday. Only Percy Florence, born in 1819, survived to adulthood.

Thus, when Shelley wrote Frankenstein during 1816-1817, she had given birth twice and became pregnant with her third. As feminist theorists have written in the past, there is something of “birth trauma” in Mary Shelley’s story, as if she were trying to come up with a way to give birth to a baby without its attendant horrors.

Certainly reading the description of the monster’s birth is nothing like the joyful birth announcements that modern parents send out, and bore little resemblance to the happy experiences portrayed in other novels of the time. For Victor, the monster’s birth is a time of loathing and horror at what he has brought forth into the world. While Victor is working to create the monster, he describes periods of losing himself, of the “unremitting ardour” with which he pursued his passion. He might be describing an extended period of love-making or courtship, as he notes that:

No one can conceive the variety of feelings which bore me onwards, like a hurricane, in the first enthusiasm of success. Life and death appeared to me ideal bounds, which I should first break through, and pour a torrent of light into our dark world.

While he is enraptured with his project, he begins to imagine the wonderful life he will have with his “child.” He speculates that “no father could claim the gratitude of his child so completely as I should deserve their’s.” (Sic)

But when he beholds the child, born at last, the Monster’s appearance lands with a sickening thud.

And while her working out her own tragedies with child-bearing may be present, I suspect that Mary Shelley was actually thinking of her own birth.  Shelley’s mother, the feminist theorist Mary Wollstonecraft, died as a consequence of giving birth to Mary. She died of puerperal fever: the systemic infection that we now know was caused by the introduction of bacteria into the open blood vessels of the uterus after birth. It was a brutal, painful way to die, and the destruction of tissue also produced sickening odors that made it a true horror for its sufferers and those who witnessed its effects.

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, puerperal fever was second only to tuberculosis in killing women of childbearing age. It wasn’t until germ transmission was understood that it was recognized that the greatest threat to the laboring woman was her doctor’s unwashed hands. The transfer of the disease was so great that the death rate could reach 100 percent for women giving birth in hospital wards.

Mary Shelley may have been intrigued by the idea of a woman-less birth as a means of avoiding the tremendous risk represented by childbirth. Growing up without her mother may have manifested itself in the idea of being able to create life without risk. It wasn’t Victor Frankenstein’s process that created a terrifying monster. Despite the monster’s inhuman appearance, Shelley makes clear that physiology doesn’t make him a threat. Victor Frankenstein causes the frightening things that happen. It is his immediate rejection of his own child that sets into motion the terrible events that Shelley elucidates. Frankenstein abandons his child at birth, and the pain of that causes the monster to seek revenge against his “father.”

Reading Frankenstein also causes me to wonder if Shelley’s emphasis on how paternal abandonment destroys children may have been a veiled commentary on her husband’s great friend, Lord Byron. Certainly there was room for critique. Like Percy Shelley, Byron had commenced affairs with women while married, and like Shelley, he had gotten his partners pregnant. In Byron’s case, he had an affair with Claire Clairmont, Mary Shelley’s half-sister, and then abandoned her when she became pregnant. Mary, Percy, their child, Will, and Claire pursued Byron to the shores of Lake Geneva, which set in motion the famous “ghost story” challenge that sparked Frankenstein’s creation. Is it possible that Shelley wanted men to comprehend how much damage they created when they walked away from children?

Even her husband, the Romantic poet, was guilty of abandoning his children. His first marriage was disrupted by his affair with the 16-year old Mary Godwin, and he was unable to marry her due to that marriage, despite Mary’s pregnancies. He lived apart from his wife, who continued to raise their children. Shelley was “free” to marry Godwin though, after his wife committed suicide because she was pregnant – by another man.

Abandoned children in England faced foundling homes – if they were lucky – or wound up buried in trash heaps and down waste holes. A father walking away from his children made life nearly impossible for women left with no resources of their own. Often, the children suffered. In this way, Frankenstein is about the monsters created when men give life, but don’t take responsibility for what they have done.