Halloween Special: "Did I solicit thee from darkness to promote me?"

Today’s Reading: Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus (1818), Mary Shelley

Everyone knows that the stitched-together, reanimated monster of Mary Shelley’s novel isn’t the square-headed, bolt-necked, lumbering mute of the iconic Boris Karloff films. What I didn’t expect, though, is that he isn’t stitched together at all, nor even reanimated!

Don’t get me wrong, Shelley’s Frankenstein clearly derives his “materials” at least in part from corpses—he mentions stealing bones from charnel houses and raiding dissecting rooms, among other sources—but it seems equally clear that those materials aren’t assembled into his creature by any process so crude as stitching them together. And it’s equally clear that Shelley’s real interest isn’t in the monster as animated corpse, as has been increasingly emphasized in Hollywood’s adaptations, but as artificial life.

Your evidence, sir? Well, for one thing, along with dissecting rooms, Frankenstein also claims “slaughterhouses” as a source—so unless Shelley is anticipating the rise of pig-valve heart transplants, it’s raw biological matter, and not whole organs, that her mad scientist is after. Shelley’s text makes exactly zero references to the process by which Frankenstein assembles those parts into what he describes as “a new species.” In fact, Shelley seems to make a point of keeping the process as mysterious as possible, “occult” in more sense than one, most likely something resembling the mediaeval alchemy that Frankenstein studies in his off hours. Frankenstein makes his creature deliberately gigantic—eight feet tall, to be precise—but there’s no mention of any difficulty in finding body parts on that scale. Later, Frankenstein fears that if he creates the bride the monster has requested, the couple will spawn a whole race of monsters as terrible as themselves. Now, nineteenth century understandings of heredity weren’t what ours are today, but surely Shelley was smart enough not to imagine that the child of two reanimated corpses would be a third reanimated corpse.

But Frankenstein is filled with plot holes and inconsistencies of this type, you say. It’s a horror novel written by a teenager, for heaven’s sake, even if it is the best horror novel written by any teenager ever! To which I say, sure, yes, all true—and then quote this line, which occurs while Frankenstein is contemplating his first creation, and in which he explicitly declares his inability to raise the dead: “Pursuing these reflections, I thought, that if I could bestow animation upon lifeless matter, I might in process of time (although I now found it impossible) renew life where death had apparently devoted the body to corruption.”

So what if Shelley’s Frankenstein is less walking corpse and more artificial life form, less this and more this? Well, maybe not much—but if I still need good reasons for getting hung up on minor details in a work of literature, well then what’d I quit grad school and start a blog for in the first place?

It does reinforce some already common place readings of the novel, like the Miltonic one, in which Frankenstein himself is a mockery of God and the monster is his unfortunate Adam (but given that Shelley takes her epigraph from Paradise Lost and has the monster himself read the poem and explicitly draw the connection, that reading doesn't need much help!). It also reinforces Shelley’s apparent contemplation on the source and conditions of human personhood. The term “physicalism” may have been two hundred years off in Shelley’s day, but science was already telling us enough about the operation of the human brain to raise the specter of “body without soul,” to quote the title of one early stage adaptation of the novel.

Later this week, I’ll take a look at this physicalist reading of the Frankenstein story as it develops through the monster’s changing portrayal in cinema. It'll also be a chance to look at some fantastic films that are very much in the spirit (oooh! spooky!) of the season, and also a Kenneth Branagh movie (terrifying!).