Mary Shelley's Frankenstein may be the most over-interpreted book ever written. First published in 1818, it's a tale of the emerging 19th-century worries about death and grave robbing. Or maybe the book is a rejection of Faust—at least, a rejection of the way in which Goethe's 1808 classic was understood in England: a tale of a heroic Enlightenment intellectual rising up above the ordinary rules of humanity.
From Frankenstein to Robert Louis Stevenson's 1886 Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and H.G. Wells's 1896 Island of Doctor Moreau, horror writing has often taken as its theme a rejection of Enlightenment overconfidence. Even Bram Stoker's 1897 Dracula can be read as the vampire's attempt to enter the modern world (note, for example, the scientific and industrial texts Dracula is reading when Jonathan Harker visits him in Transylvania) and modernity's arrogant refusal to recognize the reality of ancient evil. If even Dracula has this as one of its themes, then why not Frankenstein, the ur-text of all modern horror stories?
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I've always been drawn to this reading of the book. There's a literary tradition of suspicion about the moral arrogance of medical researchers, who lose something of ordinary humanity as they study cadavers and cut open the human body, and it lasts well into the 20th century. (If you're ever in doubt about the murderer in an Agatha Christie story, suspect the doctor.)
But for every element in Frankenstein that seems to speak to the moral rejection of Faust, readers can find another element that suggests the point of the story is something else. The glory and the horror of childbirth, for example: a theme with genuine biographical support, since Shelley delivered the manuscript to her publisher only a month or so before delivering Clara, her third (and first legitimate) child with the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley.
Then again, perhaps the story is about the nature of humanity—the question of what constitutes a genuine human being. Or perhaps the story is about the nature of art and the ways in which the artist's work escapes from the grasp of the artist. Frankenstein might best be understood as simply a gothic melodrama, an entry in the genre that began with Horace Walpole's 1764 novel The Castle of Otranto and continued down through the years, despite Jane Austen's devastating parody in her 1818 Northanger Abbey.
Shelley invokes the image of Satan in Milton's Paradise Lost, her model for Frankenstein as a figure rebelling against God and the natural order, just as she quotes Coleridge's "Rime of the Ancient Mariner" for its imagery of a man alienated from the ordinary moral concerns of humanity. But, then, she also quotes Wordsworth's "Tintern Abbey," and it's possible to read Frankenstein as a Romantic adventure story, with Shelley pouring a surprising amount of literary energy into describing great panoramas of mountains and glaciers: their beauty and majesty contrasted with petty human concerns.
And, of course, we might take Frankenstein as the first modern science-fiction novel, or an account of a super-human's lack of place in a human world, or a story about how ugly people have difficulty finding friendship. For that matter, it might be an exploration of children's hunger for parents, by Mary Godwin Shelley, whose mother, the proto-feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, died shortly after giving birth to her.
Frankenstein might even be a desperate search for moral order by a woman caught up in the whole sick crew that swirled around Percy Shelley. The book famously began one night in June 1816, in a villa on the shores of Lake Geneva, as Percy Shelley and his yet-to-be-married lover Mary Godwin joined Lord Byron and the strange doctor, John William Polidori, in a competition to tell ghost stories. By the time the first draft was finished in May 1817, Mary's stepsister had secretly given birth to Byron's illegitimate baby, her half-sister Fanny Imlay had committed suicide in Wales, and Percy Shelley's actual wife, Harriet Shelley, pregnant with Shelley's child, had drowned herself. Oh, and Mary herself was pregnant.
As we reach in 2018 the 200th anniversary of the book, publishers have filled their catalogues with notice of the bicentennial. There's Christopher Frayling's Frankenstein: The First Two Hundred Years, for example, from Reel Art Press. And Frankenstein, Or, The Modern Prometheus: Annotated for Scientists, Engineers, and Creators of All Kinds from MIT's university press. Plus The New Annotated Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, from Liveright Press.
Though Frayling competently lays out the story of the era, the facts of Mary Shelley's life, and the history of her novel's many editions, he is clearly more interested in the cultural effect of the tale—which truly begins, he notes, with the first staging of Frankenstein in 1823. From there, Shelley's creation has gone on to be presented on stage in around 80 different ways and adapted into films more than 90 times. By this point, our imagination of Frankenstein and his creation has become far more theatrical than novelistic.
Meanwhile, the MIT edition of the novel claims to be "Annotated for Scientists, Engineers, and Creators of All Kinds," but creators of other kinds will find the book a little unhelpful, as the intended audience is clearly students in science and engineering. Forty authors add footnotes to the text, some concerning literary matters but most taking up the technical background of Shelley's work and the scientific implications of what she imagines. Seven essays conclude the book, arguing the different ways to interpret the book, from the feminist's reading in "Frankenstein, Gender, and Mother Nature" to the artist's reading in "I've Created a Monster!"
The Liveright edition, edited by Leslie S. Klinger, provides notes on the various versions that Shelley produced, together with innumerable marginal comments, notes, and illustrations—to say nothing of the essays that conclude the book, battling out their rival interpretations. The edition is filled with information. Overfilled, in truth, the notes bludgeoning the actual text of the story into a decidedly subordinate position.
What emerges from all these books is a curious sense that Frankenstein is more a reflection of the reader than a portrait of an early 19th-century medical dabbler and his creation. Each new era overwrites the text with the interests and worries of the age, like scrawls in the condensed steam on a bathroom mirror. And soon enough they fade away, leaving the story clear for interpretations addressed to the interests and concerns of subsequent eras of readers.
Mary Shelley's Frankenstein may not be the most interpreted English text. Hamlet surely has it beat. But Frankenstein may be the most overinterpreted. Shelley herself saw the hole in the story, the insoluble problem of the book. In the version after the 1817 draft, all the way down to her final 1831 edition, she struggled to explain how the creator could fail to look closely at his creature during the months he spent working on his project.
To proceed from the first moments of the original story ("It was on a dreary night of November, that I beheld my man completed") to the final confrontation on the glacial ice of the Mer de Glace, Shelley needs the key turn to come when Frankenstein realizes how ugly and (literally) graceless his creature is—at the very moment at which he brings his creation to life. The entire plot of Frankenstein's revulsion and the monster's revenge depends on it. But unlike a pregnant mother who rejects her child at birth, Frankenstein has been looking at his creature all along the way. How does the moment of life become the moment of aesthetic and moral rejection?
And yet, that blank spot in the plot may be what allows Mary Shelley's work to be a blank mirror, available for any passing interpretation. Frankenstein is not particularly well-written, not a masterwork of literature. But it remains fascinating, capturing our imagination in every age, because we can fill in the gaps with whatever interests and worries our time provides.