“It’s Still Alive,” by Jill Lapore. The New Yorker, 2/12 & 19, 2018. (Coinciding with the recent re-release of the original book, Frankenstein, in paperback by Penguin Classics.)
Let’s quickly pass over what most of us know: Frankenstein was written by Mary Shelley, wife of (or cohabitant with) the famous English Romantic poet Percy Shelley. “Frankenstein” refers to Victor Frankenstein, a university student and creator of the monster, not the monster itself, who is nameless. Victor Frankenstein is the narrator, telling the story to a friend.
Mary Shelley’s full name was Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin Shelley. She came from intellectual royalty. Wollstonecraft was her mother’s maiden name, Mary Wollstonecraft, a famous feminist, Godwin was her father’s name, a well-known philosopher, and Shelley was her married name. Her mother died soon after giving birth to her. She began writing the book, Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus, when she was eighteen, two years after the birth of her first child, who died after 11 days. She became pregnant again only weeks after her first baby died and was still nursing this second baby when she began writing Frankenstein. She published the book anonymously in 1818.
Percy Shelley’s hero was William Godwin, Mary’s father. Lord Byron met up with Mary, Percy Shelley, and Claire Clairmont, Mary’s stepsister, in Geneva, forming a group one biographer called “The League of Incest.” That was the famous group that one night began a contest of writing horror stories out of boredom.
People often said all Mary had done was piece together the writings of her father and husband. Mary went along with this story to avoid the scandal of her own writing.
Misconceptions not in the book: Victor Frankenstein was not a crazed baron living in a castle; there was no Igor; there was no Teri Garr; there was no life-giving lightening storm (the monster was given life by some unexplained elemental principle), the monster was not stitched together from disinterred dead parts (dead parts, yes, but the parts came from a dissection room and a slaughter house). The monster was not a shuffling, grunting subhuman. He was, in the book, exceptionally articulate, who taught himself first to talk and then to read, and then educated himself by his reading (this was too much of a stretch for many).
Much of the book, surprisingly, is on the abolition of slavery, and the monster is a metaphor for a slave, living under someone else with the power of life and death. Mary’s depiction of the monster is clearly African in his physical characteristics. In later 19th century movies and stage productions, he is dressed as an African and wears face paint. He tells Victor Frankenstein, “Increase of knowledge only discovered to me more clearly what a wretched outcast I was. . . . Cursed, cursed creator! Why did I live?” These comments mirror those of Fredric Douglas who was born into slavery the same year Frankenstein was published. Mary was such an abolitionist, she refused to eat sugar because of its association with slavery.