the romance, the double, the psyche
The level of romantic conventionality dips even lower however in those passages which are not much more than a travelogue along the Rhine and through England to the Orkneys. This is perhaps the weakest point in the whole novel: there is almost no thematic connection between these travels and the plot: they stand out as fairly clearly descriptions for their own sakes, inserted to fit the conventions and as reflections of Mary Shelley’s own travels.
Where she succeeds magnificently in exploiting romantic topography is in those passages where she is prepared to heighten and exaggerate. Some of the most vivid scenes in the novel are set in the glacial wastes of the Arctic:
the ice began to move, and roarings like thunder were heard at a distance, as the islands split and cracked in every direction
This may have been achieved with the help of Coleridge, but she has the inventiveness and the eye for symmetrical composition to cast the other important confrontation (between Frankenstein and the Monster) in a similar setting – on the Mer de Glace:
The sea, or rather the vast river of ice, wound among its dependent mountains, whose aerial summits hung over its recesses. Their icy and glittering peaks shone in the sunlight over the clouds
Some of the other romantic elements of the novel are similarly ‘mixed’ in the effectiveness of their contribution to it. Sentiment in the novel is couched in conventional terms of high-pitched emotions, crying, fainting, and illnesses. Walton’s early letters establish the tone of excitation as he sets out on his northern exploration: ‘It is impossible to communicate to you a conception of the trembling sensation, half pleasurable and half fearful, with which I am preparing to depart’, and as soon as Frankenstein boards the ship he brings with him emotions set an even higher level of fevered anguish:
tears trickle[d] fast between his fingers, – a groan burst from his heaving breast … the paroxysm of grief that had seized the stranger overcame his weakened powers, and many hours of repose and tranquil conversation were necessary to restore his composure’
Frankenstein falls ill on more than one occasion – after the creation of his Monster, and following the death of Clerval.There is a fairly conventional longing for death and contemplation of suicide, and much of the action is forwarded in a state of nervous excitation: ‘My limbs now tremble, and my eyes swim with the remembrance, but then a resistless, and almost frantic, impulse, urges me forward’.
Even the Monster is pray to this use of Sentiment. Sometimes his feelings are justified: he weeps with sadness when he realises that he has been excluded from society. At other he joins the convention of sympathetic tears – contemplating the lot of the American Indians at the hands of the Europeans, ‘noble savages’ like himself. And he too comes almost unaided to the romantic conclusion that the only escape from the pain he suffers will be in death.
There is also no shortage of the conventional macabre. Mary Shelley follows the Romantic-Gothic formulas here. Frankenstein makes his studies at the outer limits of ‘anatomy’: ‘I must also observe the natural decay and corruption of the human body’ and he assembles his Monster from unconventional ‘materials’:
I dabbled among the unhallowed damps of the grave or tortured the living animal to animate the lifeless clay … I collected bones from charnel-houses; and disturbed, with profane fingers, the tremendous secrets of the human frame.
Children and beautiful young women are murdered, an innocent girl is hanged, and the Monster, as one would expect, is frighteningly horrible. But it is to Mary Shelley’s credit that she does not overdo this aspect of the narrative: in fact there is perhaps less of the macabre than one might expect in a tale of this kind, which is possibly one further reason for us still taking it seriously almost two hundred years after it was written.
1. Mary Shelley’s own introduction to the novel. Oxford University Press edition (2011) which reprints the 1831 text. All subsequent quotations are from this edition.
2. James Rieger (ed), Frankenstein, New York: Bobbs-Merrill, 1974, which reprints the 1818 text.
3. Robert Kiely, The Romantic Novel in England, Harvard University Press, 1972.
4. Kiely gives an account of this reading, combining it with the Frankenstein/Shelly as Prometheus reading.
Christopher Small, Ariel Like a Harpy, London: Gollancz, 1972, which also covers exhaustively the biographical readings of the novel.
6. Masao Miyoshi, The Divided Self, New York: New York University Press, 1969.
7. Sigmund Freud, The Ego and the Id, London: Hogarth Press, 1962. All subsequent quotations are from this edition.
8. Cited in David Punter, The Literature of Terror, London: Longman, 1980.
© Roy Johnson 2011
Frankenstein – study resources
Frankenstein – Oxford Classics – Amazon UK
Frankenstein – Oxford Classics – Amazon US
Frankenstein – York Notes for students – Amazon UK
Frankenstein – York Notes for students – Amazon US
Frankenstein – Spark Notes for students – Amazon UK
Frankenstein – Spark Notes for students – Amazon US
Frankenstein – Cliffs Notes for students – Amazon UK
Frankenstein – Cliffs Notes for students – Amazon US
Frankenstein – Norton Critical Editions – Amazon US
Frankenstein – 1994 Robert de Niro film – Amazon UK
Frankenstein – 1931 original film with Boris Karloff – Amazon UK
Young Frankenstein – 1974 Mel Brooks spoof – Amazon UK