Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley: Frankenstein: Or, the Modern Prometheus; University of California; Berkeley.
In the more than 165 years since Mary Shelley wrote her Gothic tale, Victor Frankenstein and his monster have become an enduring symbol of the modern mind. She was only a girl of 18 when her adolescent nightmares curdled into the murky tale of an earnest young man trying vainly to escape the consequences of his experiment in creating life. Frankenstein’s merits do not lie in style or construction: it is as clumsy and, in its own way, as overwritten as any neo-Gothic novel cobbled together by Joyce Carol Oates. Characters are inserted as an afterthought with only the flimsiest of apologies, and the personages are contrived to move from event to event like so many chessmen manipulated by an amateur.
And yet, there is an after-image of the Modern Prometheus that has continued to haunt the conscience of succeeding generations as much as it troubled Mary’s sleep. This daughter of the first feminist (MaryWollstonecraft) and an ardent social revolutionary (William Godwin), a girl who defied convention and ran off with the very model of poetic rebellion–she of all people touched the panel on the wall, by accident, and found the secret passage way to the 20th century: our fear of death, our relentless faith in the white-coated scientists who will save us from extinction, our even greater–and older–fear of what this power means. In the words of the serpent:
Your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil.
That was the first temptation to which the human race succumbed. But it is not so much the creator of life, Victor Frankenstein, that we remember but his creation: the larger-than-life monster who craves the love and understanding he can never receive at human hands, who demands a soul mate that his creator will not complete, who–finally–in his resentment and despair sets out to poison his maker’s life by murdering everyone dear to him his brother, his friend, his wife. When we hold up this tale as a mirror, we see as our reflection not the face of Victor Frankenstein but of his monster; of modern man, the creature of the Modern Prometheus.
The University of California Press should be congratulated on bringing out this splendid Pennyroyal edition at a relatively affordable price ($29.50). The oversized format combined with Barry Moser’s evocative illustrations make it the only edition of this 1818 classic worth acquiring. cc
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