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Frankenstein (Photo by Fabio Teixeria/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

The human heart of a monster

Essay | 10 minute read
Mary Shelley's manuscript, published for the first time with its original handwritten notebooks, shows her efforts to humanise the monster from a 'creature' into a living, feeling, being

I first discovered Frankenstein when I was about twelve years old, thanks to the small black and white television set in my attic bedroom. I spent much of my childhood fidgeting with that set in an attempt to minimise the static and interference as much as possible. It was the 1931 film starring Boris Karloff. My first image of the monster was therefore of that legendary face with its huge forehead and bolted neck. I understood the monster created by Henry Frankenstein (not Victor Frankenstein like in the novel – this was the first of a long list of differences) as a terrifying creature endowed with an assassin’s brain. An old-fashioned horror story – particularly effective for a young boy during the late 1980s.

One summer day a few years later, I wandered into a second-hand bookshop in the south east of France, desperately searching for a book that would stimulate my senses. For whatever reason, I, like most teenagers, wanted to be scared. I had already devoured the works of Stephen King, Dean Koontz, Shirley Jackson, Graham Masterson, and HP Lovecraft, among others, when I stumbled upon an old and yellowed copy of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. With the scenes from the film still vivid in my memory, as well as the experience of reading Bram Stoker’s Dracula (which I considered to be of ‘the same style’), I decided to leave the store with the book in my hand.

I must admit that I was very disappointed.

The pages contained no horror. Nothing terrifying in Shelley’s description of the monster’s creation. No assassin’s brain for this creature with bloody urges. None of it. Even worse: the story took forever to develop, with repeated philosophical digressions. Just the opposite of what I was looking for.

Nevertheless, I found myself unable to put the book down. Little by little, Mary Shelley’ s words began to manifest their power. I began to feel as though I were there with the Frankenstein family – I became Victor’ s companion, discovering his passions and obsessions and undergoing with him his growing despair. Shelley made me into an avid reader, eager to learn more about this fascinating character.

For this is one of Shelley’ s great skills: the ability to render her narrator easy to relate to by way of existential questions. Who doesn’t ponder the fugacity of life, the irrevocability of death, and its relationship to creation? In other words, God, paternity, power, and submission…

I remember my distress upon discovering the original version of the monster – neither despicable nor wild as I had hoped he would be, but rather gentle, sensitive, and, most of all, equipped with a critical mind and incredible command of language! When he took over as narrator, I was at first sceptical, then completely taken over by what Shelley pushed forward: his deep humanity.

I imagined Victor Frankenstein and his giant invention, in the twilight of their minuscule mountain cabin, barely lit by a timid fire’s flames, rocked by the gravelly voice of the ‘demon’ who becomes, throughout the novel’s paragraphs, a fragile being slowly shattered by the rejection of his appearance, until I lifted my head with one thought – one word on my lips: racism.

Shelley’ s book went much further than I expected it to. It was not just a fantastical story meant to scare. It was a portrait of humanity, of society; in this way we can consider the novel a work of horror in that it dissects the very worst of modern man, and in a brutal manner.

And this remains the most significant misunderstanding regarding Mary Shelley’ s masterpiece: it is perceived and understood simply as a gothic novel while most people have never actually opened the book. There are few works as well known yet so little read as this one – the paradox of a text that created a legend that surpassed its origins. It is no coincidence that the name ‘Frankenstein’ in the general public’ s opinion refers to the monster himself and not to his creator – the miserable Victor who played God just because he could.

Mary Shelley’s style should also be evoked briefly because of its lasting impact, both on me and on generations of readers completely captivated by the text, incapable of closing their books. […. ] Her style is formed by a multitude of minor edits. She finds the right word for the right moment. A delicate balance is struck in each sentence: an elegant style, very 19th century without being too descriptive, yet demanding the modern reader’s close attention. Shelley handles her work with care. She endeavours to uphold the coherence of her text no matter what: while describing atrocities (a giant monster made from cadaver bits who awakens to kill), Shelley remains playful. For example, in the passage in which she describes Victor’s life in the caves full of cadavers, Shelley manages to evoke disgust – ‘I saw how the worm inherited the wonders of the eye and brain’ – while still remaining graceful: ‘My attention was fixed upon every object the most insupportable to the delicacy of the human feelings’, or ‘I saw how the fine form of man was degraded and wasted.’ Shelley leads the reader to the cusp of horror, but does so with great skill, playing with style so that the reader’s terror does not trump their intelligence. Better yet, she utilises these moments of horror to bring to fruition that which is at the very heart of the novel: ‘until from the midst of this darkness a sudden light broke in upon me – a light so brilliant and wondrous, yet so simple, that while I became dizzy with the immensity of the prospect which it illustrated, I was surprised that among so many men of genius who had directed their inquiries towards the same science, that I alone should be reserved to discover so astonishing a secret.’

This excerpt is indicative of Shelley’ s style: very well balanced. As soon as her reader begins to fall into the darkest depths of the text, Shelley balances everything out with a fundamental discovery, or even more often with a sign of deep humanity, even from the monster himself. Ultimately, horror is not present in her descriptions, and even less so in her manner of describing (examine her corrections in the manuscript to witness her search for musicality and general harmony in an attempt to bring nuance to the stark); rather, it is present in the portrait of humanity that develops slowly throughout the text.

Indeed, society is not presented under a pleasant light. This may be one of the greatest surprises that I experienced as a young reader over the course of those pages. Our systems are constantly questioned (science, pedagogy), even the justice system, as demonstrated by the cruel turn of events in Chapter 7, when Justine is executed for a crime she did not commit: ‘”Dearest niece,” said my father, “dry your tears. If she is, as you believe, innocent, rely on the justice of our laws, and the activity with which I shall prevent the slightest shadow of partiality.”‘

Shelley questions the very foundations of our civilisation: Victor Frankenstein created the creature but it is the whole of humanity that made him into the assassin-monster that we know. The monster’s own words confirm this: ‘My heart was fashioned to be susceptible of love and sympathy, and when wrenched by misery to vice and hatred, it did not endure the violence of the change without torture such as you cannot even imagine’, or ‘Once my fancy was soothed with dreams of virtue, of fame, and of enjoyment. Once I falsely hoped to meet with beings who, pardoning my outward form, would love me for the excellent qualities which I was capable of unfolding.’

Shelley’ s work resonates with that of Rousseau – a being, born pure then corrupted by society. And the monster himself concludes: ‘still I desired love and fellowship, and I was still spurned. Was there no injustice in this? Am I to be thought the only criminal, when all humankind sinned against me?’

This is also apparent in the manuscript: you will see [below] that the corrections (some of which are written in the hand of her soon-to-be husband Percy Shelley) show her conscientious deliberations to humanise the monster. She replaces the word ‘creature’ with ‘being’, transforming the monster into a living being, almost more human than man himself (up until the point at which he is driven to hatred).

Mary Shelley’s correction shows her conscientious deliberations to humanise the monster

Here Shelley changes the word ‘fangs’ into ‘fingers’, again, to show her monster as more human than she originally conceived him to be

Frankenstein would become a foundational text, forerunner of the entire fantastical-horror universe, certainly more than we are actually aware of. As one of the very first of its kind, the novel has served as inspiration for numerous myths, including the one that surpassed the novel, as I mentioned earlier, the ‘Frankenstein monster’ popularised in film. I also think that Frankenstein served as inspiration for a whole other genre that came about much later: the ‘zombie’ genre.

Frankenstein: an epic critique of society; a text that a forms the right to be different; a story about cadavers that come to life. These are already all the ingredients that constitute the myth of the ‘zombie’ – popularised by the 1960s with Romero’ s The Night of the Living Dead and Zombie – a genre whose codes remain the same today, with the buzz of today’ s television, films, comics, and novels. Cadavers brought back to life to die – criticism of society, racism, and so forth – the very essence of Shelley’ s legacy.

The novel is also revolutionary because of its narrative choices.

As she began to write, Mary Shelley knew that her text would be marked by the mysterious, composed of bizarre, and even morbid, passages that were susceptible to rejection during this era of the nascent industrial revolution – a period during which the boundaries of popular knowledge were constantly shattered and facts were valued above all else. It’ s hard for me to imagine that Shelley would not have envisaged the novel in its epistolary form.

Shelley opted for this genre because it supports the credibility of her narrative: it reinforces the impression of reality, blurs the line of fiction, and allows for a wide analysis of all the characters. We see this in her effort to bring the fantastical into her work, and in her effort to make the story more human, more intimate, and stronger.

In her writing of Frankenstein, Mary Shelley invented a sort of model, in which the form, which is rooted in the quotidian, counterbalances the irrational content. And this model has withstood the test of time.

The equally famous novel Dracula would revisit it. Howard Phillips Lovecraft, who created his cult classic Cthulhu Mythos at the start of the 20th century, would also make use of it, just like Edgar Allan Poe before him, up until the contemporary master of the genre: Stephen King. King used this model to write Carrie, his first major success. In light of this, the evidence remains undeniable that Frankenstein’s overarching influence surpassed the mere influence on its readers. Frankenstein created a genre.

I am often troubled about the manner in which this literary monument is not valued as highly as it should be. Perhaps this is because it has been attended by its own folklore, or perhaps because the novel’ s pages do not contain what the casual reader hopes to find in them. Shelley’ s writing does not lend itself easily to the very young reader. And for the very reason of the novel’s mythology, those who have already lived their lives without reading the novel are unlikely to go back to the source because they believe that they already know the story.

I, personally, will never forget this book, perhaps because it teems with questions on morality, on human nature – interrogations that enthral teenagers and, I hope, adults too.

This is a work that puts into perspective the role of the creator and his or her work. This work is particularly fascinating for the writer, especially the writer whose work has met with success.

This experience leaves nobody untouched.

In your hands is a manuscript of great influence, the significance of which rests somewhere on the grand scale of humanity.

It is a veritable repository of human genius.

Admire its genesis.

And see how its talent is nothing less than a magnificent spark of brilliance, reworked over and over again.

Frankenstein, in Mary Shelley’s own handwriting, put together from the original handwritten notebooks held in the Bodleian Library, Oxford, is published by SP Books