With 200 years of critical analysis weighing down on any critic or reviewer, what is one to do with a novel such as Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus? Trying to find new insight or interpretation is almost pointless. Such is the nature of the novel that it opens itself to an almost boundless variety of interpretations, on human relationships, sex and sexuality, or science and the modern world. That burden of scholarship can be oppressive and hamper the ability to say anything sensible or interesting about such a complex novel.


Let’s start at the beginning. The story of the novel’s genesis is well know, probably much better known than the novel itself. It did not come as a surprise to me, with the experience of reading Dracula last year, that the novel bears little or no relationship to its popular culture incarnation. Crucially, the monster is not an incoherent, stumbling beast, but a highly intelligent and articulate creature, albeit one which is monstrously ugly and extremely, dangerously strong. The sub-title of the novel, the Modern Prometheus, should not be overlooked. Wikipedia says that “Prometheus became a figure who represented human striving, particularly the quest for scientific knowledge, and the risk of overreaching or unintended consequences. In particular, he was regarded as embodying the lone genius whose efforts to improve human existence could also result in tragedy“. Quite. Is this then a straightforward anti-science parable – don’t meddle with nature because you will create a monster beyond your control? Certainly the anti-GM protagonists would support that reading. But simple readings of this kind, however attractive, are invariably over-simplistic and resisted by classic texts, and this is no exception. I suspect this is a bit of authorial mis-direction. The sub-title invites us to a simplistic don’t meddle with the unknown interpretation. Suspicion of science and where it might take us at the beginning of the 19th century was certainly understandable. For me the novel’s themes about parenthood and original sin are more interesting.

The narrative structure of the novel is the complex “Russian doll2 approach much loved of 19th century novelists. To be honest this adds little to the story overall – you quickly forget you are reading a letter from the explorer who has met Frankenstein and is passing on his tale to his loved one, in much the same way you forget Wuthering Heights is told as a series of fireside gossipy chats from the ever present domestic servant to the new tenant of the neighbouring house. It is almost as if the truly omniscient narrator had yet to be accepted by authors or readers at this stage of the development of the novel, (which in the early 19th century was not quite so anachronistically named). The author appears to feel compelled to show the reader what happens by using increasingly artificial devices – someone claims to have observed what happened – rather than just tell the story. In this novel this is pushed to ridiculous extremes – so for example the monster lives for almost a year in a hovel adjoining the house occupied by the DeLacey family without their once wondering “I wonder who it is who lives next door?”. Dracula uses much the same technique, despite the almost 100 years between the two novels. Is this in homage to the early 19th century spirit of the novel?

John Sutherland’s book on puzzles in 19th century literature which I wrote about earlier this month has an interesting take on this novel, and in particular the question of how Frankenstein actually creates the monster. The author gives virtually no detail – there are glimpses of how he prepares, but the actual process itself is not described at all. Time and again Shelley uses the word “disgusting” to describe Victor’s reaction to his work. This could be a response to the body parts he is presumed to have used, but when he begins to create the monster’s partner later in the nvoel he does so in a remote Orkney croft-house with only his scientific equipment to hand, far from any mortuary or graveyard. Sutherland speculates a sexual component to Frankenstein’s disgust, which is a seductive interpretation. How does man create life, after all? This would go some way to making sense of the original sin theme of the novel – Frankenstein creates life, then rejects it, and reaps the consequences. All parents will have some sympathy with how he feels.

As a central character it is hard to warn to Frankenstein. He is a complete idiot – for example, despite the monster making it clear to him that he will make him suffer if he does not create him a partner, and that he will see him again on his wedding night, the penny does not drop that there might be a threat to his fiancee. He lives a life of considerable privilege, but wastes his energies and gifts on ultimately fruitless personal obsessions.  The monster is a more interesting character, although again his “no-one loves me so I am going to kill someone….Why does nobody love me?” wears thin fairly quickly.

As I mentioned earlier, there are many ways to read this complex novel. The one that appeals to me the most is that the monster is, like Mr Hyde, a product of his creator’s sub-conscious. Both doctors Jekyll and Frankenstein create monsters that run out of control and lead to their ultimate demise. Victor is arrested for the killing of Charval, and it is surprising that no-one suspects him of Elizabeth’s murder. Several people fear he is mad, and few other witnesses see the monster clearly. The sexual under-currents of the novel could also explain Victor’s terror of his wedding night. I appreciate I haven’t explored this idea in any depth, and no doubt there are scholarly articles and books out there which explain the idea far more coherently than I could ever do, but it is an interesting reading of the novel I think.

Advertisements