WE ALL KNOW the general plot of Frankenstein , either from Mary Shelley's novel or from the motion pictures that have been taken from it. But beneath the narrative surface, just what is Frankenstein really about?
There has never been full agreement on this, since the novel is unclear in some ways. In her preface to the 1831 edition, Mary said that the book dealt with irresponsible scientists, who were prying too deeply into nature's secrets. This was certainly the overt theme. But her husband, Percy Shelley, in a planted, anonymous review stated that the novel was concerned with violation of the social contract: treat a person badly and he will become bad. This refers, of course, to Victor Frankenstein's dodging of responsibility to the Monster, once it had been animated. Percy, too, was justified in what he said, since many of the dialogues between Victor and the Monster are concerned with just this question of moral duty.
Yet it has always seemed that there is more in Frankenstein that must be explained. The Monster, for example. He is distressingly verbal and can make a good case that he has been treated badly, but he goes too far when he claims that his mistreatment justifies his crimes. He speaks prettily, but acts viciously. Is this any more than the heritage of Caliban? When Victor refuses to fashion a mate for the Monster, he claims that his duty to mankind outweighs his parental duty to the Monster, even though he expects to be murdered as a result. Is this the theme of Frankenstein -- self-sacrifice to the largest human denomination?
Then there is the strange attraction that draws Victor and the Monster together in love and hate; perhaps Mary intended the Monster to be a dissociated personality fragment of Victor. But why is the Monster plot buried in the framework of a voyage to the North Pole, with an Ancient Mariner situation? Is Frankenstein's fate intended to be a lesson to the explorer? If so, why does the story end so leadenly?
The contributors to this volume unite in rejecting the surface explanations of Frankenstein and in attempting deeper analysis. Since they do not explain their methodology or attempt to justify it, we are left with the task of speculating about their unstated assumptions: that the novel as a totality is an inner drama for Mary, and not just a thriller for the reader; that the novel and Mary offer reciprocal interpretations; that the author's unconscious personality projects into the story; that seemingly trivial detail may be meaningful and offer the true key to the book. It is further assumed that this true key will account for the power of the novel over 160 years, with 12 editions even now in print.
Unfortunately -- eight contributors come up with eight very different answers, not all of which are presented as well as they might have been. Thus, Frankenstein is, variously: (1) a projection of Mary's fears of childbirth, miscarriage and dead babies; (2) a continuation of Gothic crypto-religiosity; (3) adolescent rebellion against William Godwin, Mary's cadging, selfish father; (4) an unconscious repudiation of Godwin's political liberalism; (5) an expression of annoyance against the irresponsible, harebrained Shelley, whom Victor does resemble; (6) dream humor a la early Freud; (7) doubts about the role of the family; (8) alignment with complexes within the Zeitgeist. Among these eight essays, Lee Sterrenburg's "Mary Shelley's Monster: Politics and Psyche in Frankenstein " is outstanding in showing how political vituperation conditioned the description of the Monster.
Perhaps it is time to stop being oversubtle and to go back to the obvious in Frankenstein , not the remotely hidden; to read in it, not into it. It might be more perceptive to recognize that while Mary had a fairly clear idea of her central themes, she was very young (20 when the novel was published), and far from being a master of technique. Much that is taken to be meaningful could also be accidental.
In addition to the essays that try to explain Frankenstein there are four other pieces: an interesting essay on its symbolism of fire and ice; a murky discourse on socialization and speech; a useful history of the Monster phenomenon in the arts, and a discussion of the novel and film technique.
On the factual level there is little to criticize. One can take issue with the statement that Mrs. Radcliffe introduced the brave, persecuted gothic heroine. Has Pamela been so soon forgotten? Rabbi Lowe and the Golem legend are hardly medieval; Lowe died in 1609. And certainly Wegener's film Der Golem had nothing to do with Gustav Meyrink's novel Der Golem . Perhaps Meyrink should be read rather than referred to. But these are trivial errors. Is it the theory -- despite occasional insights and demonstrations of ingenuity -- that produces a feeling of less than satisfaction with this book.