What is Cultural Criticism?
by Lee E. Heller
Mary Shelley's tale of creation and destruction has claimed a central place in Anglo-American culture since its first publication in 1818. Along the way, Frankenstein has come to stand for the genre we call Gothic. Yet it is hard to define Gothic in any single way, for its conventions and their meanings depend upon the historical, ideological context in which they were created and construed. Cultural criticism endeavors to reconstruct Gothic, as far as it can, by exploring the ways in which its writers and readers understood its intention and its impact.
Gothic fiction as it emerged from 1760 to 1820 was associated with the development of new forms of popular literature. The emergence of accessible reading matter intended to entertain was linked with the extension of literacy to new classes of readers; in turn, concerns about reading and its uses were part of larger debates over education, the location of power in society, and the nature and control of individual behavior. The development of Gothic fiction, and of Mary Shelley's novel, takes its meaning from the tensions informing these cultural concerns about human nature, its potentials and limits, and the forces that go into its making.
The redefinition of human nature and its possible shaping through education was a crucial concern for eighteenth-century British culture. John Locke's Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1689) popularized the notion that character is acquired rather than innate. Personality and conduct could be created, or at least controlled, by controlling experience: "of all the Men we meet with," Locke wrote elsewhere, "Nine Parts of Ten are what they are, Good or Evil, useful or not, by their Education. . ." (qtd. in Axtell 114). Rousseau's Emile, published seventy years later, offered "a textbook of how to educate for the development of natural virtue" (Silver 18): it emphasized the importance of childhood experience in determining adult behavior, and identified education as the essential tool for forming--and reforming--cultural values. Mary Shelley's parents, Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin,, and the circle of Jacobin radical writers sympathetic to the egalitarian ideas of the French Revolution, reinforced Rousseau's view of the perfectibility of human character while resisting his elitism and gender biases; they argued for the use of education to reform the economic and social status of women and workers.
Education came increasingly to bear the weight of anxieties about control of those who had no tradition of formal education, and who therefore seemed most vulnerable to social instability and most dangerous if formed for ill: middle-class children, women, and the working class. And the area in which they were least protected and most open to influence was the newly acquired literacy that was growing rapidly amid precisely these three groups. Even conservative opponents of radical reform, like Hannah More, acknowledged the formative power of education, and more specifically reading, as a powerful tool for social control. More's works attempted to determine the values and conduct of these new readers by determining what they read: she wrote Strictures on the Modern System of Female Education, with a View of the Principles and Conduct Prevalent among Women of Rank and Fortune (1799) as a reply to and attack on Wollstonecraft's egalitarianism and feminism, while her Cheap Repository Tracts, aimed at preventing the spread of reformist ideology in juvenile and working-class readers, borrowed form and style from popular street literature in order to work against the very reforms that popular literacy implied.
Books, it seemed, could shape people's lives. That this was perceived to be the case was evident in the boom in conduct manuals— self-help books giving instruction in everything from childrearing to family religion--for newly literate, rising middle-class readers lacking institutions to educate them in their new social roles. But if books could provide guidance, they could also lead readers astray. The capacity to read could be acquired without institutional guidance (radical or conservative), through a growing array of material cheaply available, highly appealing, and of uncertain moral influence. For publisher William Dicey this was a point in favor of his street literature, with its stories of crimes and fantastic romance; he advertised his broadsides by claiming:
the use of these Old Songs is very great, in respect that many Children never would have learn'd to Read, had they not took a delight in poring over Jane Shore, or Robin Hood &c. which has insensibly stole into them a Curiosity and Desire of Reading other the like Stories.... (qtd. in Vincent 226)Conduct manuals, with their interest in the impact of reading on the formation of character, reflected the conservative effort to control the spread of literacy via the very literature that Dicey praised. They defined the proper use of literacy by excluding such street literature as inappropriate to the upwardly mobile values of their aspiring readers, advising what should and shouldn't be read, and by whom.
The different kinds of Gothic fiction that emerged in the late eighteenth century reflected the perceived vulnerabilities of their intended readers. Gothic achieved a measure of respectability only in the "sentimental Gothic" form popularized by Ann Radcliffe, whose plots were little more than scary versions of the didactic novel's lessons about women's proper marital choices. In general, however, Gothic fiction was considered proof of the dangerous influence of the wrong kind of books on susceptible readers. Even the radical Jacobins objected to its misuse of literacy's power. Mary Wollstonecraft attacked Charlotte Smith's Gothic stories for their tendency "to debauch the mind" so that "duties are neglected, and content despised" (qtd. in Roper 126), while Thomas Holcroft objected to Gothic precisely in terms of the power of reading to shape character: "It contributes to keep alive that superstition which debilitates the mind.... The good writer teaches the child to become a man; the bad and indifferent best understand the reverse art of making a man a child" (qtd. in Roper 125). Reviewers worried in particular about the malleability of unsophisticated readers seduced by material like William Dicey's broadsides and the popular "blue books" or "shilling shockers" (cheap redactions of Gothic tales of the supernatural or of violent crime). Such trash, even when a stern moral was tacked on, was clearly sensational in purpose and effect; and thus it was a threat to the innocent, unguided minds of middle-class schoolboys, fragile young women, and the newly literate laborer.
James Lackington, the London bookseller, observed in his 1791 autobiography that "[the sorts of farmers, and even the poor country people in general, who before that period spent their winter evenings in relating stories of witches, ghosts, hobgoblins, &c. now shorten the winter nights by hearing their sons and daughters read tales, romances, &c." (qtd. in Leavis 132). Thus oral stories of the supernatural and the sensational, transferred to print in the form of chapbooks and shilling shockers, made the transition to literate culture via a new generation of rising and increasingly urban readers, and connected elite literate with subordinate illiterate classes. This "horror Gothic"'—popularized by Matthew "Monk" Lewis and German supernatural fiction--borrowed from oral storytelling and the street literature of the poor: broadsides of criminal confessions, Newgate biographies (histories of the lives of criminals), and newspaper accounts of supernatural events and horrendous violence. To hostile reviewers, horror Gothic was obscene and immoral, emphasizing sexual misconduct, criminality, and antiaristocratic sentiment. It seemed to prove that expanding literacy meant that new classes of readers were bringing their vulgar, indecent, even anarchic tastes with them.
Despite, or perhaps because of, its controversial cultural status, it was horror Gothic that provided the conventions for the form of Gothicism developed by novelists interested in politics and human psychology. In "philosophical Gothic," as we might call it, "the laws of nature are represented as altered, not for the purpose of pampering the imagination with wonders, but in order to shew the probable effect which the supposed miracles would produce on those who witnessed them" ("Remarks on Frankenstein" 613). Philosophical Gothic made explicit the concerns about character, conduct, and education that underlay the emergence of popular Gothic fiction; in place of the machinery of sentimental and horror Gothic, it explored the horrific elements of human personality, and the forces--including education and reading--that go into their creation. Philosophic Gothic did not simply provide education, like its sentimental counterpart, or seem, like horror Gothic, to subvert it; it offered a kind of scientific study of the making of human beings. Its principal representatives were William Godwin, author of the influential novel Caleb Williams, or Things as They Are (1794); the American Charles Brockden Brown, Godwin's disciple and author of Wieland, a study of the forces involved in the making of a mass murderer; and Mary Shelley.
Early reviews of Frankenstein indicate that its first readers assessed it in terms of cultural concerns about the formation of character and the role of reading. The Quarterly R eview announced that "it inculcates no lesson of conduct, manners, or morality; it cannot mend, and will not even amuse its readers, unless their taste have been deplorably vitiated" (385).2 A more open-minded reader recognized its philosophical thrust—"All these monstrous concepts are the consequences of the wild and irregular theories of the age" (Edinburgh Magazine 253)—but went on to characterize those theories, and the novel, as misguided. It was only fellow novelist Sir Walter Scott, in an unsigned review in Blackwood's Magazine, who recognized the intellectual function of this "more philosophical and refined use of the supernatural," in which "the pleasure ordinarily derived from the marvellous incidents is secondary to that which we extract from observing how mortals like ourselves would be affected . . ." ("Remarks on Frankenstein" 613).3 Frankenstein focus is on human nature and on the possibility of controlling experience in order to shape character and cultural values. More specifically, it focuses on the problematic influence of experience--both social and literary--on those vulnerable, unstable groups around whom cluster cultural concerns about education and reading. Although Mary Shelley does not seem explicitly to raise issues of class and gender, her novel is very much about controlling the formation of character among potentially dangerous and endangered social groups.
The text describes again and again the process by which individual characters are formed, via types who represent the vulnerable groups described above--sentimental young women (representing concerns about class and gender), bourgeois boy children, and self-taught nameless, classless men. Mary Shelley spends the least time describing the education of women, but as with the male characters whose stories we will hear in more detail, she repeats one version of female upbringing. Caroline Beaufort is the model of virtuous femininity rescued from class degradation; in Mary Shelley's 1831 revision, Caroline seeks out other girls similarly situated, rescuing them from lower class influences and educating them in the virtues of a specifically bourgeois domesticity. Thus she finds Elizabeth, whose seemingly innate, upper-class feminine virtue makes her shine amid a family of "dark-eyed, hardy little vagrants" (40). Once under proper middle-class guidance--neither with peasants nor with Italian aristocrats (as in the original 1818 text)4--she is the perfect domestic woman: daughter, sister, friend, and wife-to-be.
Justine Moritz is also saved and educated by Victor's mother, whose very "phraseology and manners" she imitates (64). Justine's social status as servant and member of the lower class reflects cultural anxieties about women's vulnerability and the stabilizing role of a bourgeois domestic education. Like Caroline and Elizabeth before her, Justine represents female upward mobility, as becomes apparent when Elizabeth explains Caroline's adoption of Justine by praising Geneva's flexible class boundaries: "there is less distinction between the several classes of its inhabitants; and the lower orders being neither so poor nor so despised, their manners are more refined and moral" (64). (The anxieties surrounding such flexibility are revealed by the fact that it is Justine— painted as a lower-class woman whose education fails to take--who is accused of, and dies for, William's murder.) Elizabeth's observation about class flexibility seems to apply only to women in the novel, and reflects the text's definition of ideal female experience as bourgeois: where women are concerned, class and gender roles depend on a foundation in a good education consisting of models of bourgeois domestic virtue. Thus educated, women fulfill and are fulfilled by their social roles, and so pose little danger of disrupting the culture and its values.
Women, once guided into good conduct, are less actors in the drama of
education than they are objects acted upon by men, whose deeds then reveal
character. Symbols of the ideal merger of gender and class identity, women's
vulnerabilities to men's misconduct reflect cultural anxieties about social
order and the education of bourgeois and working-class boys. Though virtuous,
Justine is wrongly executed for murdering little William, while the perfect
Elizabeth is the final and most intimate victim of the monster's revenge:
both women, representing social ideals, suffer the consequences of the
combined miseducations of the middle-class boy (Victor) and the nameless
upstart (the monster). It seems ironic, given that Mary Shelley was the
daughter of a feminist educator and novelist and that she kept such careful
records of her own reading in her journals, but the novel is less engaged
by the education and reading of its women than by the education of the
central male figures whose stories supply the main structure of the text.5
P>The novel's structural unity is supplied by the autobiographical narratives of the parallel figures of Walton, Victor, and the monster, and in particular by their educations. The first two offer varieties (Henry Clerval would be a third) of the ambitious, talented individual whose energy is dedicated to serving humanity.6 Walton is our introduction to the type: he is engaged in a daring endeavor—"I preferred glory to every enticement that wealth placed in my path" (27)—and expects to achieve extraordinary things, to confer "inestimable benefit . . . on all mankind to the last generation, by discovering a passage near the pole . . or by ascertaining the secret of the magnet. . . " (26). Victor, too, is nobly ambitious: "wealth was an inferior object; but what glory would attend the discovery, if I could banish disease from the human frame, and render man invulnerable to any but a violent death!" (45). Although they seem to abjure the pursuit of wealth, they are all three quintessentially bourgeois in status, as is clear from the example of Clerval, the merchant's son. In the 1818 version Victor describes him as "the image of my former self,' (Rieger 155), while the 1831 text conflates material success with humanitarian ambition, describing Clerval's desire to "visit India, in the belief that he had . . . the means of materially assisting the progress of European colonisation and trade" (135). The sons of successful but not aristocratic fathers, these figures direct their self-creating energies toward enterprises that unite personal gain to cultural progress, expanding humanity's power over the material world.
Each narrator explains himself in terms of his childhood education--and in particular, his reading. Walton describes how books, the primary tools of his self-education, have shaped him and his choices. He characterizes himself as "passionately fond of reading" (27) but adds that as a boy he was "self-educated: for the first fourteen years of my life I ran wild on a common, and read nothing but our uncle Thomas's books of voyages" (29). He bemoans this neglect: "Now I am twenty-eight, and am in reality more illiterate than many schoolboys of fifteen" (29). His goals, both noble and dangerous, are the product of the unguided childhood reading that has been almost the sole influence over him.
By contrast, the world in which Victor grows up seems at first an educator's paradise, with all the elements necessary to turn happy children into virtuous adults. Everyone and everything is in perfect concord: "Such was our domestic circle, from which care and pain seemed for ever banished. My father directed our studies, and my mother partook of our enjoyments" (Rieger 37). The 1831 edition heightens the ideal nature of that parental authority: "We felt that they were not the tyrants to rule our lot according to their caprice, but the agents and creators of the many delights which we enjoyed" (43). The Frankenstein children are products of an educational system based on an ideal, partly Rousseauian pedagogy: "Our studies were never forced; and by some means we always had an end placed in view, which excited us to ardour in the prosecution of them" (Rieger 31). This happy family lives in Geneva (Rousseau's ideal middle-class polity), a republic composed of virtuous burghers like Alphonse Frankenstein, with "simpler and happier manners than those which prevail in the great monarchies that surround it" (64).
Victor, the promising eldest son of a virtuous public servant, credits his parents with close guidance of his education. But the event that shapes his future actions is a chance encounter with a book--the work of Cornelius Agrippa, the medieval natural philosopher. He calls it, and the other books he is led to read, "wild fancies" (44); like Walton's sea stories, and like Gothic fiction itself, they are unsanctioned, dangerously exciting explorations of the mysterious. And they have obvious power: although Alphonse Frankenstein and M. Krempe dismiss them as worthless, they start Victor down the path that results in his awful discovery.
Victor's reaction to Agrippa is partly determined by his father's careless dismissal of the book as "sad trash" (44). He intimates that his father is one of many instructors who "utterly neglect" their responsibility to direct "the attention of their pupils to useful knowledge" (Rieger 32):
If, instead of this remark, my father had taken the pains to explain to me, that the principles of Agrippa had been entirely exploded, and that a modern system of science had been introduced . . . I should certainly have thrown Agrippa aside.... It is even possible, that the train of my ideas would never have received the fatal impulse that led to my ruin.(44)As Walton disobeys his father's injunction against seafaring, so Victor disobeys his father's will in pursuing his interest; further, he seems to imply that his father is responsible for that act, and for its consequences. The novel thus raises explicitly the central issue of dangerous conduct and its causes. Who is responsible for the train of events beginning with Victor's reading of Agrippa, and ending with the annihilation of the entire Frankenstein family?
Critics have tried to find someone to blame for the horrific events of the novel—bad parents (Walton's neglectful uncle, Alphonse for failing to monitor Victor, even Clerval's insensitive father), or rebellious sons (Walton for acting against his father's dying "injunction," Victor for disbelieving and in effect disobeying his father). Such critics have then read these as variants on the neglectful Victor-as-father and his rebellious monster-son. Certainly the novel is critical of irresponsible instruction. In addition to emphasizing the consequences of Alphonse's carelessness, Mary Shelley offers us models of bad and good pedagogy. At Ingolstadt M. Krempe ridicules Victor's reading as "nonsense," with the consequence that, like Alphonse, he turns Victor back to those "exploded systems" (49). M. Waldman on the other hand is an inspiring instructor, who succeeds not by mocking Victor's favorite philosophers but by seeing the same potential in the new chemistry. In fact, Waldman says that chemistry offers a better field for such ambitions: "[T]hese philosophers . . . have indeed performed miracles. They penetrate into the recesses of nature, and show how she works in her hiding places. . . . They have acquired new and almost unlimited powers . . . " (50-51).
If Waldman's good pedagogy guides Victor in the direction of great achievements in the field of chemistry, it is this new expertise, combined with his earlier ambition to conquer death, that leads to Victor's discovery and the train of consequences which follow. Given Waldman's contributory role, then, we must reject the simplistic notion that bad teaching or the wrong kind of reading is to blame. We need to consider instead the difficulty of controlling the experiences, including reading, that affect the shaping of character, and the extent to which individuals are themselves responsible for their actions.
What we realize first is that "education" is partly accidental; as Victor discovers Cornelius Agrippa by chance, so the accident by which he learns about electricity in the 1818 version of the novel "explodes" his faith in alchemical texts and temporarily turns him away from his fatal path. Then Alphonse's plans to send Victor to more modern science courses--which, presumably, would have made Victor's change permanent--are frustrated by " [s]ome accident, which prevented my attending these lectures until the course was nearly finished" (Rieger 36). The 1831 version of the novel emphasizes the image of the vulnerable unguided child: "I was left to struggle with a child's blindness, added to a student's thirst for knowledge" (45). But it also complicates the issue of character's origins by adding Victor's apparently innate longing to penetrate the secrets of nature, and by making Alphonse scientifically uninformed rather than careless. The revised text seems to emphasize fate; Victor mentions a "guardian angel of my life" trying to "avert the storm that was even then hanging in the stars," and claims that "[d]estiny was too potent . . ." (46). What I would argue is not that Mary Shelley literally means to abandon materialist concepts of character in favor of a fatalistic mysticism, but that her increasing emphasis on destiny, as well as on inherent tendencies of character, is metaphoric for the inaccessibility of character--as the product of complex forces that include predispositions and accidents--to human control. No one person is to blame for flawed character and bad actions, the novel then seems to say, but a combination of social, familial, and literary experiences, some within our control, some not: "Thus strangely are our souls constructed, and by such slight ligaments are we bound to prosperity or ruin" (46).
As Victor's education parallels Walton's, so the monster's echoes that of his maker--and in his we see explicit cultural anxieties about social disorder, criminal potential, and the relation between reading and experience. Victor's (mis)education reflects specific anxieties about bourgeois childrearing; the monster represents both the abstract concept of natural "man" and his social equivalent in late eighteenth century England--the culturally displaced, newly literate rising worker lacking class traditions to guide or guard him. The monster calls his story "an account of the progress of my intellect" (111); it is exemplary simultaneously of eighteenth-century psychological theories of the mind as tabula rasa, political theories of the development of class identity and social hierarchy, and historically specific cultural concerns about the violent potential of the rising lower class.
The creature's sensory development, described from the moment of "birth" as it were, echoes Locke's notion of sensory experience as the source of thought: "A strange multiplicity of sensations seized me, and I saw, felt, heard, and smelt, at the same time; and it was, indeed, a long time before I learned to distinguish between the operations of my various senses" (92). As presocial man, he is a model for Rousseau's noble savage, creating social ties out of initial equality and finding in society only injustice.7 But the monster is also the type of the classless, placeless, self-taught upstart. Lacking parentage or identity, he is on the move in search of means to survive (like the displaced rural peasants migrating to cities and industrial towns). Poor and untaught, he educates himself in a rural hovel, with the De Lacey family as examples of appropriate lower-class virtue--because they are not really lower class, but good bourgeoisie who preserve the domestic virtues despite their reduced circumstances. (One is reminded here of Caroline Beaufort, that model of good character and embodiment of ideal middle-class conduct.) Ugly yet hardy, he is like the little vagrants from whose home Elizabeth Lavenza is removed or like the "horrid and slimy" peasants whom Mary Shelley described, in language prophetic of her novel, in her journal for 1814: "our only wish was to absolutely annihilate such uncleanly animals, to which we might have addressed the Boatman's speech to Pope--'Twere easier for God to make entirely new men than attempt to purify such monsters as these"' (Jones 12).
As with Walton and Victor, we see in the story of the monster the complex question of reading, experience, and character. Books literally shape his initial conception of reality, giving him the ideological concepts to explain the social behavior he witnesses. He learns language by watching Felix read Volney's Ruins of Empires, and understands Safie's story alongside that book. As one critic notes, the monster's first education, via Safie and her assigned reading, is in class identity--and in his own apparent lack thereof (O'Flinn 28): he learns from Felix's teaching of Safie that "the possessions most esteemed by your fellow-creatures were high and unsullied descent united with riches" (106), and he defines himself by contrast: "And what was I? . . . I knew that I possessed no money, no friends, no kind of property" (106).
Against the reality of social injustice is set the ideality of the three books that so profoundly influence the monster's desires and his consequent actions: Goethe's Sorrows of Werther, Plutarch's Lives, and Milton's Paradise Lost (also the source of the novel's controversial epigraph). The Sorrows of Werther offers the monster models for ideal feeling: "The gentle and domestic manners it described, combined with lofty sentiments and feelings, which had for their object something out of self, accorded well with my experience among my protectors, and with the wants which were for ever alive in my own bosom" (112). He learns republican values from Plutarch: "I was of course led to admire peaceable law-givers, Numa, Solon, and Lycurgus, in preference to Romulus and Theseus . . ." (112). And he learns good and evil from Milton, identifying with both Adam and Satan: he too came forth potentially perfect, acquiring knowledge "of a superior nature" (113), but like Milton's Satan he is embittered by experience of his inequality; and like Adam, knowledge (in the form of experience) contradicts and debases his initial virtues (which his books have taught him). It is the gap between the ideal offered by this reading, and the reality that he confronts, that precipitates the monster's crisis of identity and values: "As I read, however, I applied much personally to my own feelings and condition. I found myself similar, yet at the same time strangely unlike to the beings concerning whom I read.... Who was I? What was I? Whence did I come? What was my destination?" (112). It is the gap between what he has been taught to value, and what experience teaches him he can have, that will propel him into assaults on the social order via its ideal representation--the Frankenstein family.
As with Victor and Walton, it is possible to blame the irresponsibility of the parent-creator for the actions of his creature. Victor clearly was derelict in abandoning what was in effect a helpless outcast infant. Again, however, the issue is more complicated than this. We learn from the monster that a variety of factors have produced him. His tendency toward goodness is reinforced by good romantic books, but they are contradicted by experiences of injustice--by the De Laceys' rejection, by the violence of the peasant who shoots him, by the revulsion of William, all of whom repay his good deeds with hostility. What makes the monster's case hopeless is that there is no way to reconcile what he learns from books with what he experiences in his social relations; as long as he appears horrid and slimy, people (meaning the exemplary bourgeois families he wants to join) will fear and reject him, and the rules of conduct about which he reads will not apply to him. Even the promise of new social relations, via the wife he demands from his creator, is uncertain; Victor's fears that she will reject him, or that both will be unsatisfied, echo cultural anxieties about the rising lower classes' ability to assimilate to middle-class society. In this the monster is a symbol of the violent potential of social instability, and of the danger posed by the discontinuity between the ideals that books imagine and the reality that such readers must confront.
Frankenstein is Gothic because its stories of education become stories of crime--committed not just by the monster, but by Victor, who calls himself the murderer of both William and Justine and feels "as if I had committed some great crime . . ." (138). The monster represents the criminal potential of the uncontrolled, perhaps uncontrollable lower classes, formed by the contradictory lessons of social and literary experience; Victor's transgression represents the potential of even bourgeois men of talent, as products of the complex forces that make up early experience, to become a danger to the very social order they desire to serve. In the novel's analysis of the role of reading in the formation of character and conduct, we see the working out of cultural concerns in which it is itself--as that controversial thing, a Gothic novel--implicated, looking for ways to explain how education in general, and books in particular, contribute to individual behavior and the construction of identity. Mary's father, William Godwin, in The Enquirer: Reflections on Education, Manners, and Literature, wrote that "[w]hen a child is born, one of the earliest purposes of his instructor ought to be, to awaken his mind, to breathe a soul into the, as yet, unformed mass" (2); however, he added:
[w]e are too confident in our own skill, and imagine our science to be greater than it is.... The world, instead of being, as the vanity of some men has taught them to assert, a labyrinth of which they hold the clue, is in reality full of enigmas which no penetration of man has hitherto been able to solve. (16-17)If his daughter's novel, which she dedicated to her father, has affinities with crime literature and today's horror films, in which violence is committed upon the undeserving by the unmotivated, it is in this sense that character is finally enigmatic, and our control over its formation tenuous at best.
The most widely known version of Frankenstein is not Mary Shelley's novel but the 1931 Universal Studios film, directed by James Whale, whose revisions of the story reflect both departures from and the persistence of concerns about the nature and origins of character and the limits on our control over it. The most important revisions were made in the two central characters: the monster "was simplified to a creature of brute primitive force and emotions" while "Victor Frankenstein was assimilated to the myth of the godless and 'presumptive' scientist, tampering with nature's secrets" (LaValley 249). These changes reflect significant differences in the way that early nineteenth--and early twentieth-century Anglo-American culture understood human personality and the power to shape it.
Instead of autobiographical education narratives, criminality frames the story from the opening scene, replacing those narratives as the central structure of the text. Frankenstein, renamed Henry, is now explicitly criminal; the movie opens with him and Fritz (the proverbial hunchbacked assistant) hiding at the fringes of a funeral, waiting to steal a corpse. They then cut down a hanged man to see if they can use his brain. And brains themselves are classified into normal and abnormal, socially upright and criminal, inherently virtuous and innately evil. It is a significant accident (like yet unlike the accidents that determine character in the novel) that Fritz drops the "good" brain, and so must steal the "bad" one for implantation.
Although Henry dismisses the brain's criminality by claiming that it is just tissue, the brain functions as the equivalent to Mary Shelley's long story of social experience in conflict with reading. If, as the film's Waldman claims in his medical lecture, personality and action are inscribed in the very physical folds of the brain, then we can explain behavior by the very factors that limit our control over it. The monstrousness of Frankenstein's monster emphasizes this aspect of the story. Although he initially seems submissive and obedient, even childlike in his delight with flowers, he nonetheless drowns little Maria, probably without intending violence but effecting it nevertheless. Nor can he claim to have been neglected by his creator: the film's Frankenstein is weak, but he does not reject his creation until after it has murdered Fritz and menaced himself; and even then, he leaves it in the hands of his own teacher. The monster's criminal brain is the only possible cause of his unmotivated, uncontrollable, and deeply threatening violence. Heredity and physiology are destiny.
As with the monster, changes in the characterization of Frankenstein reflect crucial shifts in cultural concepts of personality. His education too is omitted; we get no sense of what led him to the "mad dream" that drives him. But where Victor was nobly ambitious in his goals, discussions of Henry's character focus on his sanity. Elizabeth reports his erratic behavior: "He said he was on the verge of a discovery so terrific that he doubted his own sanity. There was a strange look in his eyes." When "Victor Moritz" (Henry Clerval rebaptized) accuses Frankenstein of madness, the latter decides to prove that he is sane: "A moment ago you said I was crazy. Tomorrow we'll see about that." The message conveyed by this talk of madness, and by subsequent events, is that Frankenstein is not in control of his own diseased psyche or the thing that he has made. We see this most clearly in his empty boast that "I made [the creature] with these hands, and with these hands I'll destroy him"; he threatens, but he is physically helpless in the creature's hands. The illusion of human power over oneself and over life, an illusion conveyed by the spectacle of technology and ambition apparently gratified, is destroyed by the reality of a monstrosity outside our power to change or control.
These changes in the representation of human personality and potential make sense given the context in which the film was made. The cultural understanding of what makes people who they are, and the extremes of which they are capable, had been reshaped in the century since the publication of Mary Shelley's novel by new theories of the origin of the species, the elements of human psychology, and the nature of identity as determined by gender, class, and race. Early twentieth-century American culture experienced the culmination of those changes in the context of World War I and the social and economic disruptions of the Depression, both of which offered simultaneous examples of human powerlessness and unprecedented human brutality. Ideologies of racism promoted the idea that character is genetically determined, and that social order depends on controlling those whom race-heritage makes dangerous. The Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925 raised related cultural anxieties about the Darwinian view that the human species originated not in a first, perfect man, but in lower (monstrous) animal forms; and it represented the battle over what version of human nature would be taught to, and used to teach, America's children. Such con cerns resulted in the eugenics movements of the 1920s and 1930s, which advocated selective human breeding in order to weed out the bad and improve the species as a whole; in Europe, these movements culminated in the racial typing, sterilizations, and genocide practiced in Hitler's Germany. What comes through in the 1931 version of Frankenstein is a sense of profound cultural anxiety about the inability to do more than watch as human beings enact a physiologically determined criminal potential.
The persistence of Frankenstein is not a result of some eternal
truth that the text achieves, but of its representation of concerns at
the center of Anglo-American culture. Differences within that culture,
the consequence of changing historical circumstances, are evident in turn
in changes in the uses and versions of the story. Gothic itself, in all
its types, reflects different cultural anxieties, focused around the kinds
of disorder to which the community felt vulnerable--disorder based on new
classes of readers empowered by their literacy and endangered by what it
might teach them; on fears of what these new readers, especially from the
lower classes, might bring with them in the way of criminality threatening
to run amok; and, for twentieth-century ideologies of human personality,
on fears of the uncontrollable insanity and criminality imprinted in our
animal being. In our postatomic culture genetic engineering suggests both
a new way to control human destiny and an even greater sense of the physical
determinism behind the illusion of choice.
1I am relying here on the very helpful distinctions among Gothic types described by Hume (2).
2Percy Shelley's preface to the 1818 edition of Frankenstein written as if by Mary Shelley, anticipates such reactions, and asserts the text's conformity to cultural expectatlons about fiction and moral instruction: its "moral tendencies," he wrote, are directed "to the exhibition of the amiableness of domestic affection, and the excellence of universal virtue" (7).
3Robert Spector, in his bibliography of criticism of English Gothic fiction, attributes this review to Scott.
4several subsequent references are to the edition of the 1818 text edited by James Rieger (see Works Cited). I rely primarily on the 1831 edition of the novel, but with reference to the first edition of 1818, in order to assess how differences in the two versions of the novel help to elicit its essential interest in cultural concerns about education, literacy. and conduct.
5There is biographical support for Mary Shelley's characterization of the subordination of female to male educational experience: her journal kept as careful track of her husband's reading as of her own and noted her dependency on his guidance of and involvement in her reading.
6Judith Wilt refers to these three figures as types of the "Shelleyan doomed seeker" (69-70), and I think she is right to see them as representatives of an abstract notion of human potential in search of fulfillment. Certainly Walton, Victor, and the monster are variants on the romantic theme--embodied also by Goethe's Faust and the Werther about whom the Monster reads--of uncontainable human desire. But the cultural-critical reading I offer here places the novel in the context of more historically local concerns about how specifically identified social groups--women and the rising working class— might use, or abuse, their power.
7For more on Mary Shelley's reading in these areas and its impact
on Frankenstein, see Pollin.
Axtell, James L., ed. The Educational Writings of John Locke. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1968.
Edinburgh Magazine and Literary Miscellany 2 (March 1818): 249-53. Review of Frankenstein.
Godwin, William. The Enquirer. Reflections on Education, Manners, and Literature. In a Series of Essays. Philadelphia: For Robert Campbell by John Bioren, 1797.
Jones, Frederick L., ed. Mary Shelley's Journal. Norman: U of Oklahoma P. 1957.
Hume, Robert D. "Gothic versus Romantic: A Reevaluation of the Gothic Novel." PMLA 84 (1969): 282-90.
LaValley, Albert J. "The Stage and Film Children of Frankenstein: A Survey." The Endurance of Frankenstein: Essays on Mary Shelley's Novel. Ed. George Levine and U. C. Knoepflmacher. Berkeley. U of California P. 1979. 243-89.
Leavis, Q. D. Fiction and the Reading Public. London: Chatto, 1939.
O'Flinn, Paul. "Production and Reproduction: The Case of Frankenstein in." The Study of Popular Fiction: A Source Book. Ed. Bob Ashley. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P. 1989. 23-39.
Pollin, Burton. "Philosophical and Literary Sources for Frankenstein. " Comparative Literature 17 (1965): 97-108.
Quarterly Review 18 (January 1818): 379-85. Review of Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus.
"Remarks on Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus; a Novel." Blackwood's Magazine 2 (March 1818): 613-20.
Roper, Derek. Reviewing before the Edinburgh, 1788-1802. Newark: U of Delaware P. 1978.
Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus (The 1818 Text). Ed. James Rieger. 1974; Chicago: U of Chicago P. 1982.
Silver, Harold. English Education and the Radicals, 1780-1850. London: Routledge, 1975.
Spector, Robert Donald. The English Gothic: A Bibliographic Guide to Writers from Horace Walpole to Mary Shelley. Westport: Greenwood, 1984.
Vincent, David. Literacy and Popular Culture: England, 1750-1914. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1989.
Whale, James, dir. Frankenstein. Universal Studios, 1931.
Wilt, Judith. Ghosts of the Gothic: Austen, Eliot, and Lawrence. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1980.