The Strange and Twisted Life of “Frankenstein”

Jill Lepore / The New Yorker

Among the many moral and political ambiguities of Shelley’s novel is the question of whether Victor Frankenstein is to be blamed for creating the monster—usurping the power of God, and of women—or for failing to love, care for, and educate him.

Emphasis mine.

In The History of Western Philosophy, Bertrand Russell’s analysis of Frankenstein is a bore:

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein […] contains what might almost be regarded as an allegorical prophetic history of the development of Romanticism.

This hygienic take leaves Shelley only capable of thinking within the confines of her epoch — Romanticism’s box — and not as a human, as a woman, in her own right. As Lepore points out, between the time of the novel’s commencement and its publishing, Shelley was pregnant four times and buried three of those four. By this account, Frankenstein’s nameless monster can be none other than the hell that is loss, the malignancy of an existence acutely felt by a woman reconciling a triptych of identity as mother, wife, and artist.

Lepore also calls out The Monster’s ambivalence about his epistemological journey, wherein he considers it a curse to have learned to read, only to use that ability to read of his mistreatment in Frankenstein’s journals. Like Derrida’s spectre, neither he nor Shelley can return to an existence prior to the knowledge—and the pain that that knowledge causes—of catastrophic loss. This part of Russell’s analysis I do like, as he plucks out The Monster’s monologue as he stands over Frankenstein’s body:

That also is my victim! in his murder my crimes are consummated; the miserable genius of my being is wound to its close! Oh, Frankenstein! generous and self-devoted being! What does it avail that I now ask thee to pardon me? I, who irretrievably destroyed thee by destroying all that thou lovedst. Alas! he is cold, he cannot answer me. . . . When I run over the frightful catalogue of my sins, I cannot believe that I am the same creature whose thoughts were once filled with sublime and transcendent visions of the beauty and the majesty of goodness. But it is even so; the fallen angel becomes a malignant devil. Yet even that enemy of God and man had friends and associates in his desolation; I am alone.

Existence is solitary, wishful, and unforgiving.