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Literary Essays on Gothic Horror, Ghost Stories, & Weird Fiction

from  Mary  Shelley  to  M.  R.  James —

by M. Grant Kellermeyer

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The Background, History, and Symbolism of Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein"

The Year Without a Summer was the grim conclusion to nearly twenty years of constant global warfare, economic depression, and the toppling of many of the major monarchies and governments of mainland Europe. It was a volcanic winter caused by the eruptions of several volcanoes across the globe, particularly the Indonesian giant, Tambora. Darkness entombed the Northern Hemisphere, snuffing out the granaries of Europe and blasting an already resource-depleted society with a year of widespread starvation, malnutrition, and typhus; looting, riots, and civic unrest throttled governments still staggering from world war.

Weather, too, became a miserable parade of gloom: frost afflicted the Rhineland as early as August, excessive rains bloated the continent’s waterways, destroying riverside settlements, crops, and industries, and red snow – discolored by ash – fell on cities in the last throes of a calendar summer. In total, 200,000 people perished during the Year Without a Summer, but in 1816, Mary Shelley brought something to life.

Switzerland was a haven for political and social radicals, like the rakish adulterer Lord Byron and his cohabitating (and also adulterous) friends Percy Bysshe Shelley and Mary Wollstonecraft. But in 1816, it suffered more civil violence than any other country affected by the blight. The Swiss Confederation declared a national emergency as day after day of shadowy weather smothered life out of its wilting cereal grains and skeletal milk cows. In this environment the teen-aged Mary and her male companions languished, prevented from boating, hiking, and picnicking by the pelting rains and the sloshing, black waters of Lake Geneva.

Instead, they entertained themselves with German tales of supernatural horror – as befitted the Gothic atmosphere. When the three, accompanied by Byron’s physician, John Polidori, decided to test one another’s mettle as writers, only the teen-aged mistress and the substance-abusing doctor of two of England’s preeminent poets completed the project. Both exited Geneva with masterpieces: Polidori had written the first modern vampire story – aptly named The Vampyre – basing his aristocratic seducer off of his abusive employer, and Wollstonecraft had completed the most excellent horror story written in English up to that date: Frankenstein.

The novel is doubtlessly a response to the Age of Enlightenment (ca. 1650 – 1795) which promoted Humanism, scientific and social progress, a retreat from empassioned religiosity, and a reverence for reason, logic, scientific method, coolheaded-ness, and methodical rather than reactionary responses to social issues of the day. Medicine in particular was breaching into an culture of experimentation previously untapped: gone were the days of superstitious quackery (for the most part) and the persecution of curious scholars, chemists, astronomers, and physicians who were reprimanded (or perished) by the authority of the church under the titles of alchemist and heretic.

As the eighteenth century progressed, an entirely unprecedented eon of scientific professionalism developed, as Peter Gay noted in his survey of the era: “It had been an age of major innovations in medical theory, astonishing advances in anatomy, proper midwifery, brilliant experimentation, sensible classification of diseases, the professionalization of surgery, an improved understanding of the role of fresh air and sound food in health, and, perhaps best of all, of attacks on superstition” (The Science of Freedom, 23).

It is, to any reasonable person, perplexing why Shelley would react against an age of such progress – both socially and intellectually – especially considering the allowances it afforded the unconventional and the marginalized – that is to say, every person within her family and social circle. But in 1792, within but a few years of the action of Frankenstein, the Enlightenment’s brain child, the French Revolution – a project adored by Shelley’s friends and the Romantics – descended into the Reign of Terror, and the question was immediately raised: did we overrate ourselves?

The Revolution’s failure as a Humanist coup unsettled the British radicals (including Shelley’s father), and caused them to detest the political machinery which failed to protect the weak, the marginalized, and the outspoken (compare with the execution of Justine). One common theory is that while she supported the Enlightenment’s inclusivity and progressivism, she became increasingly disgusted with its emphasis on individualism, especially the brand of selfish machismo that Shelley, Byron, and their cronies practiced at the expense of the women in their entourage. Shelley has accurately been depicted as an idealist to whom Byron was a hedonistic foil, but both men were known for causing havoc wherever they went without much regard for the implications for their friends and family.

At one point in the novel, after Justine’s execution, Victor describes Elizabeth’s growing cynicism and her impatience with the idealistic world that Victor and her father have promoted: “When I reflect, my dear cousin,” said she, “on the miserable death of Justine Moritz, I no longer see the world and its works as they before appeared to me.” Elizabeth – something of a stand in for Mary and the other Shelley/Byron groupies – speaks with a weary realism that many have read as Mary’s own feeling towards her self-involved husband. Mary was surrounded by dreaming, idealistic, reckless men who frequently sacrificed human sincerity and comfort for lofty thoughts and unrealistic expectations. Her father, husband, and his best friends all fit the Victor model. Here, however, we can hear Shelley speaking through Elizabeth: jaded, sad, disappointed, and cynical.

Shelley was skeptical of the ideals of her menfolk, especially watching their sometimes callous responses to death and heartbreak, and this disillusionment with her husband’s unsustainable idealism is reflected in Elizabeth’s disillusionment with society and mankind. No fewer than three women committed suicide on Shelley’s account, one of whom was Mary’s half-sister fanny, the other was his pregnant wife whom Shelley had abandoned for Mary. Like Victor, the Romantics often rationalized their libertine, anti-social lifestyles by claiming a sort of hedonistic idealism: they weren’t being selfish, they were being true to human nature. But the love triangles, adulteries, suicides, and accidental deaths that piled around them deeply impacted Mary, and her novel has a consistent message of community over self – a sort of feminine socialism that defies Percy Shelley’s masculine libertarianism.

Victor would still have a family, a wife, and likely children had he gone to university, made friends, passed his classes, gone to bed at night, mingled with classmates during the day, and returned home a shining exemplar of the Enlightenment to his fertile espoused and his loving father. Instead he bypasses the domestic conventions (monogamous marriage and heterosexual intercourse) in the name of science and human progress, reverse engineers the process of life, and edits out the need for ethically burdensome, emotionally needy women (procreation in Victor’s world requires no women; and it’s not merely a “gay thing”: it requires no homosocial friends either – it requires only the self-deified individual and their omnipotent will to create).

In the Frankenstein household, Caroline – his mother – was the epicenter of moral wisdom, and as much as Victor loved her, he revels in removing this gendered conscience, cutting free from ethically interrogative women like Elizabeth. And while there is a strong misogynistic strain in Victor, his purge is not merely limited to women: one of the most powerful exclusions in his life is the brutal cleaving out his Godwinian father in a passive aggressive move that is searingly Oedipal. Bereft of his troublesome Super Egos (both the feminine anima that harps on him about family and marriage and the masculine animus that jabbers about duty and obligation), Percy – oops, I mean Victor – is free to carelessly experiment with life, consequences be damned.

Percy Shelley’s own breakneck nonchalance is unmistakably knit into Victor’s personality: both men regularly boast about physically dominating their enemies, both men recklessly sail into bad weather and unfamiliar waters without navigational aid or skill, and both men aggressively brandish firearms (several of Shelley’s friends feared that he would accidentally shoot them because of how carelessly he fiddled with his prized dueling pistols which he always kept on his person).

So while Mary Shelley was certainly a political radical and a friend to the Romantic movement, her most enduring work is largely a moody dressing down of Romanticism’s emphasis on libertarianism, individualism, the monotony of community, the freedom of isolation, and the worthiness of defying conventions, abandoning family, and leading a morally dissident lifestyle. Mary at first tolerated these traits in her father, husband, and friends (for the sake of fitting in to their free love community, she once agreed to take on a lover, but never consummated the relationship: Percy’s was an open marriage, but Mary’s was not), but after the loss of her first child – and especially after the loss of her second born – she grew increasingly impatient with their antisocial, libertine, libertarianism.

Frankenstein was as much a child of the Enlightenment as it was of the Romantics – just as the Creature is the bastard child of classical, Enlightenment humanism and the rugged individualist, Captain Walton is an unshakable hybrid of intellectual Reason and emotional Romance – but its conclusion is ultimately pessimistic of human ambition, pleading the case for a life of intimate ignorance rather than a path towards self-destruction and oblivion. As H.P. Lovecraft would later write in the beginning paragraph of his chef d’oeuvre, “The Call of Cthulhu”:

“The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.”

This corresponds – with notable similarity – almost exactly to the ethos of Frankenstein, whose dalliances into the gated worlds of the cosmos nearly (by his own, if inexact estimation) led to the demolition of society and the extinction of humanity. Mary seems to warn her readers that there is virtue in solitude – in quiet thoughtfulness, in lonely boatings to the middle of a lake, in solitary walks through the woods – but that such tastes must be episodic: not a lifelong pattern of self-involved irresponsibility. Victor abandons his family for years at a time to tend to his obsessions, allowing his family to die off one by one until the last living member – Ernest, the second-oldest – fades from the novel like a cloud of mist. This can naturally be read literally as a call on intellectually robust men of independent means not to forget their obligations to family, but it is also a broader critique of the most socially negligent elements of the Enlightenment which had lead to the establishment of self-focused Romanticism.

While the Enlightenment had advocated a strong, Roman-inspired community, it had granted special lisence to the so-called “one percenters” – intellectual prodigies and the social elite – to experiment outside of the moral and social peramaters that were allowed to the less priveleged members of society. We see the way that wealth, religion, gender, and class are valued in Victor’s society – the same society that ennabled and encouraged his negligent “free spirit” – in the manner that Justine – a poor, Catholic, girl of low breeding – is easily convicted on admittedly lean evidence while Victor – a wealthy, Protestant, man from a founding family – isn’t in any jeopardy whatsoever. In fact, he is only suspected of malfeasance when he lands in Ireland – a poor, Catholic country with a reputation for having a dirty, illiterate peasantry – where he becomes an outsider. And there is no greater outsider than the abhuman Creature who is doomed to be outcast from every human community he encounters: the ultimate Other.

Shelley’s novel is deeply concerned with the treatment of otherness – regardless of its form – and the way in which society can deceive itself in believing that it is liberal, inclusive, and fair until a genuine threat to its heterogeneousness appears at its doorstep: famously progressive Geneva is no match for a penurious, Catholic, orphan girl; classically educated and religiously-tolerant Felix is a perfect model of progressivism until he catches a glimpse of the Creature’s ugliness; even courageous and intellectually curious Robert Walton finds himself “involuntarily” placing his hands over his face when confronted by the first manmade human being (rather than staring, wide-eyed, in scientific awe). Indeed, Shelley seems to have engineered the Creature into being a sort of moral litmus test for humanity: by dwelling amongst mortals with a good heart but an ugly visage, the Creature reveals how unevolved mankind is, and how wicked and prejudiced people are at their heart.

When Walton accuses the Creature of brutality in the novel’s climax, the rejected being passionately describes the unwarranted violence he had suffered at the hands of people he had helped during travels. Deeply disgusted with human prejudice, he appeals to Walton to consider which behavior is most detestable: the outcast lashing out at his oppressors, or the contented race of men who reject an outsider due only to his ugliness.

Despite its manifest genius, Frankenstein has its flaws, and is far from a perfect novel. Like a 21st century influencer's TikTok page, it is awkwardly spackled over with moralistic advocacies of her family's crunchy lifestyle choices (vegetarianism, pedagogical parenting, teetotalism, republicanism, etc.). Its protagonist is infamously dislikable and its characters – outside of the marvelously well developed Creature – often seem flat, contrived, or terribly boring. And yet the premise has spawned generations of theatrical, cinematic, and televised adaptations, creating and indelible impression on pop culture.

However, the caricature we continue to promote – the one best illustrated by James Whale’s 1931 film – misses the most fascinating element of Shelley’s novel. Aside from the monomaniacal student of dark arts, the pensive bride throttled in her uncreased wedding bed, and the dramatic landscapes of Arctic ice fields and alpine vistas, Frankenstein is the story of poor stewardship, failed fatherhood, lost innocence, painful alienation, social rejection, the entangled relationship between adoring love and septic hatred, and the unfairness of a world which evicts a warm, gentle, curious, and eager spirit based on the casing of its skin.

Simultaneously spawning the genres of horror and science fiction, Frankenstein established the basic tropes, vocabulary, and themes that would later serve as foundations for the two schools. Themes of mankind’s futile attempt to tame and restrict nature, the sublime duality – both majestic and terrifying – of the universe beyond human society’s microcosm, the humanitarian and ecological costs of technological progress, and the long-term psychological effects of terror, loss, and isolation have all been deeply imprinted into the DNA of science fiction and horror.

Shelley’s influence is starkly clear in novels about the horror that lurks within our own desires and strivings: The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, The Invisible Man, The Island of Dr Moreau, The Picture of Dorian Gray, The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, and The Werewolf of Paris all delve into these disquieting themes. And yet it also enters into a conversation that was already centuries old, contributing to and expanding the story of bested ambition: the Greek myths of Prometheus, Phaëton, Narcissus, Echo, Pandora, Icarus, and Oedipus, and early modern tales such as Marlowe’s Dr Faustus, Goethe’s Faust, Milton’s Satan, and Shakespeare’s Macbeth provided a mythic backdrop on which Shelley could render her unique interpretation.

As much as Frankenstein has benefitted those specific genres, it has also endowed the English-language canon with a literary text that transcends genric form and appeals to the most emotionally visceral and uncomfortable of human experiences. The story of an offspring who falls short of its father’s expectations can resonate even with those whose paternal relationships were more or less uplifting. In her afterword to Frankenstein, Joyce Carol Oates noted that “[s]urely one of the secrets of Frankenstein which helps account for its abiding appeal, is the demon’s patient, unquestioning, utterly faithful, and utterly human love for his irresponsible creator.” The conflicting emotions of secure comfort and reckless curiosity, of desired intimacy and yearned-for independence, of repelling hatred and inescapable love are all deeply imprinted into the human experience. Shelley herself hoped that the novel would “speak to the mysterious fears of our nature.” Its combined attentiveness to the mythic narratives of the past and a vision of heart-rending imagination assured that her goal would be met.

Frankenstein continues to maintain a reputation as one of the most versatile novels in the language: it attracts the excited interest of Marxist, Freudian, Jungian, feminist, gender studies, structural, post-structural, mythic, religious, linguistic, and new historic critics with meaty passages, thick and dripping with content and context. Far from the gibbering, stiff-gaited Neanderthal (referred to bothersomely as “Frankenstein”) handed down to us from the Universal Pictures franchise, the Creature is an eloquent, complex, and earnest rhetorician (not to mention inhumanly fast and flexible) with a story that is heart-rending in its relatability and moral chaos. His violence conflicts with his gentle mindset (and vegetarian diet), and his hatred for the “deadbeat dad” who effortlessly ignored his existence until his relatives began dying conflicts with his suicidal grief at the same man’s fatal suffering. It is unrivalled in the pathos invested in its characters’ motives and fates, and it is the unrivalled as the most versatile and visceral of the novels in the Gothic tradition.

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