HISTORY | CULTURE
A Cultural History
By Susan Tyler Hitchcock
Norton. 392 pp. $25.95
"I saw -- with shut eyes, but acute mental vision, -- I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half vital motion."
A monster wasn't the only thing stirring in the dreams of teenaged Mary Godwin. A vocation was awakening, too. The lover of poet Percy Shelley and daughter of ur-feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, young Mary knew enough of literature and commerce to realize she was on to something. "What terrified me will terrify others," she reasoned, and she was not even half wrong. As Susan Tyler Hitchcock's delightful cultural history reminds us, the monster that Mary fashioned from her slumbers is still alive and kicking: "in our bookstores, on our film and television screens, from morning cartoons to wee-hours rerun movies. He plays roles in advertising and political debate, he appears at public library story hours and on graduate-level reading lists. He is both a joke and a profound ethical dilemma."
But in the beginning, he was the product of a dare, thrown down by Lord Byron in that rainy Geneva summer of 1816: "We will each write a ghost story." Byron and Shelley bowed out, but Mary Godwin found a voice. Drawing on a private brew of philosophy, literature and myth, she discovered probably her most proximate inspiration in the writings of Luigi Galvani, who had used electrical currents to trigger movements in disembodied frog legs. Readers looking for more science than that will have to look elsewhere, and anyone coming to the original story from the Hollywood back lot will be startled to find that Victor Frankenstein's monster, after a brief setback, learns both to speak and read. Goethe, Plutarch and, fittingly enough, Paradise Lost are among the texts he marshals against his creator, who dies unmolested on an Arctic voyage, mourned by the creation he has once again abandoned.
The novel was published in 1818 by Lackington & Allen, "Cheapest Bookseller in the World," and while the reviews were mixed (Walter Scott was among its defenders), readers took to it and began immediately changing it to their liking. Within a year, the monster whom Mary Shelley (by the book's publications, Mary Godwin and Percy Shelley had married) deliberately left nameless was being given the name of its creator. The accretions we associate with Universal Pictures -- angry villagers, bumbling lab assistant, climactic grapple between scientist and science project -- were initially the work of London stage adapters.
By the time Dickens referenced the story in Great Expectations in 1861, " 'Frankenstein' had become a code word for misguided ambition, for new ideas conjured up with good intentions but destined to grow and change beyond all reckoning, ultimately overwhelming those who conceived them." As such, the name could be appropriated by virtually anyone: capitalist, socialist, democrat, imperialist. In an all-too-familiar pattern, Mary Shelley's own creation escaped her, and today we find it used as a shorthand for everything from cereal (Franken Berry) to genetically engineered produce (Frankenfoods).
No one, it seems, can quite agree on what this monster means, and for more than a century, no one could be sure what he looked like -- until director James Whale tapped a minor, 40-something actor named Boris Karloff for the 1931 film adaptation. Karloff's sunken cheeks and deep-set eyes were heaven-sent, but the monster's true auteur was makeup artist Jack Pierce, who deduced that Dr. Frankenstein, being "a scientist but no practicing surgeon," would saw the creature's skull "straight across like a potlid." Pierce decided to "make the monster's head square and flat like a shoe box and dig that big scar across his forehead with the metal clamps holding it together." Add neck bolts, throw in a pair of asphalt worker's boots, and you have the lumbering, lurching beast of a billion Halloween costumes.
You also have the beginning of the end. The trajectory from Karloff to Herman Munster is dismayingly short, and it could be argued that, once Mel Brooks and Abbott and Costello and Frank N. Furter have had a go at you, you're no longer the stuff of nightmares. Each new interpretation vitiates the original's power, with the result that Frankenstein becomes less interesting as it becomes more universal.
With great effort, then, we work our way back to the core text. Clear away, for starters, that business of henchman Fritz dropping the "normal" brain intended for the monster and making do with the one nearest to hand. Whoopsies, it's abnormal! Marty Feldman made antic hay with this in "Young Frankenstein," and it's a deeply silly way to explain the creature's antisocial rages when the circumstances of his birth are reason enough. As Karloff himself pointed out, "The most heartrending aspect of the creature's life was his ultimate desertion by his creator."
We have feminist scholars to thank for placing that loss within the context of Mary Shelley's own life. Seventeen when she first gave birth, she lost three children within four years and had to sit by while her "free-thinking" lover chose pleasure and poetry over child-rearing. The question isn't why she would revolt at the idea of caring for her own creation but, more properly, what parent hasn't? And while we're at it: What child has never felt abandoned? Forget Galvani and his frogs. The real subject of Frankenstein is parents and children and the harm they inflict on each other. "This is our monster," writes Susan Tyler Hitchcock. "To know him is to know ourselves." *
Louis Bayard's most recent book is "The Pale Blue Eye," a novel about Edgar Allan Poe.