Metamorphoses Within Frankenstein

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The Critical Metamorphoses of Mary Shelley’s
Frankenstein

You must excuse a trif ling d eviation,
From Mrs. Shelley’s marvellous
narration
— from th e musical Frankenstein; or,
The Vamp ire’s Victim (1849)
Like Coleridge’ s Ancient Mariner , who erupts into Mary Sh elley’s text as o ccasionally and inev itably as th e Monster into Victor Frankenstein’s lif e, Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometh eus passes, like night, from land to land and w ith stang ely ad aptable powers of speech addresses itself to a critical aud ien ce that is larger and mor e diverse than that of almo st any oth er work of liter atur e in Eng lish : Mary Shelley’s Franken stein is famously reinterpretable. It can be a late v ersion of th e Faust my th, or an ear ly version of the mo dern myth of the mad scientist; the id on the ramp age, th e proletariat running amok, or what happens when a man tries to h ave a b aby without a woman. Mary Shelley invites speculation, and in the last g eneration 1

has been rew arded w ith a great d eal of it.
How far we wedd ing guests h ave attended to what Frankenstein has to say and how far simp ly and unashamedly bound it to our own purposes is a moot poin t. Still, the fact that it can be — has been — read to mean so many things in its comparatively short lif e is what makes the novel especially fascinating and challenging. And I am concerned in this ar ticle only with the extent and variety of the acad emic critical atten tion Frankenstein has r eceiv ed; only w ith wh at w e might call its ‘critical metamorphoses’ . If we were to add to these critical metamorphoses all adaptations of the novel or myth in fiction, on stag e, in the cinema and in retail, then the numb er of metamorphoses or diff erent ver sions is quite liter ally incompreh ensib le: impossible to get around, to encircle and tak e

1

Sydney S tudies

Critica l Metamorphoses of Frankenstein

in. Mary Sh elley’s older contemporary, the literary satir ist Thomas Math ias observed th at Goth ic novels ‘propagated their species with unequalled fecundity’ and lef t their ‘ spawn’ in every bookshop, but Mary Shelley’s creation has sp awned w ith a Malthusian men ace of which Math ias could not even h ave conceiv ed.2 Indeed, we cannot conceiv e of it. Already, for example, it is quite simp ly impossible for any one individual to pursue every r eferen ce to ‘Fr ankenstein’ on th e internet in h is or h er lif etime. The forms th ese metamorphoses hav e taken , the degree of familiarity with the origin al story they betray , have varied enormously.3 Still, howev er, they can all be said to have origin ated in Mary Shelley’s novel of 1818 or its rev ised edition of 1831.

In literary cr iticism and literary history, as it h appens, this restless metamorphosis has no t alw ays been th e case. Popularization s and parodies have continued unabated since Presumption; or, The Fate of Frankenstein took to the London stag e in July 1823,4 but until th irty years ago Frankenstein drew from liter ary cr itics only an occasional, parenth etical reference to its well-meaning inep titude. Fran kenstein w as cited as ‘an inter esting example of Romantic my th-mak ing, a work ancilliary to such established Pro methean masterpieces as Shelley’s Prom eth eus Unbound and Byron’s Manfred’, to quote Sandra Gilber t and Susan Gubar, and Mary Shelley her self only acknowledged because of the ‘literary /familial relationships’ sh e repr esen ted.5 G ilb ert and Gubar may well hav e had in mind H arold Bloom’s influen tial visionary h ierar chy:

what mak es Frankenstein an importan t book, though it is only a strong, flawed novel with frequen t clumsiness in its narr ative and characterization, is that it contains one of the most viv id versions w e have of the Ro man tic mythology of the self, one that resemb les Blake’s Book of U rizen, Sh elley’s Prometheus Unbound an d Byron’s Manfred, among other works. Becau se it lacks the sophistication and imag...
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