Books: The Man-Made Monster

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THE ENDURANCE OF "FRANKENSTEIN" Edited by George Levineand U.C. Knoepflmacher; University of California; 341 pages; $16.95

Of all the imaginary monsters that have lurched forth in the past two centuries, none has frightened more people more often than the one sparked into life by the idealistic scientist Victor Frankenstein. Dracula retains his bite, to be sure, and has flapped into current vogue on stage and screen. But the overtones of the thirsty count's exploits are chiefly sexual, leading to titillation rather than thought. That is not true of Frankenstein's man-made man-monster. He troubles the mind because he is a projection of the mind, a soaring ambition shockingly embodied in flesh. Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1818) appeared well before Freud, well before the technologies of organ transplants and genetic tinkering that make the laboratory creation of life ever more plausible. Yet the young author, only 19 when she began her tale, guessed horrible possibility that increasingly haunts the modern mind. It is not just the sleep of reason that brings forth monsters; reason working at its loftiest pitch can do the same job just as well.

Such speculation may seem lugubrious to those who know the monster only through Boris Karloff 's film impersonations or through such burlesques as the TV sitcom The Munsters and Mel Brooks' Young Frankenstein. As this collection of twelve essays suggests, though, Mary Shelley's novel is a surprisingly open-ended source of disturbing, even terrifying implications. Its awkwardness and philo sophical uncertainties mark Frankenstein as the first and most powerful modern myth, not a pure Jungian river flowing through the collective unconscious but a polluted industrial spillway.

Biography alone can never explain leaps of imagination, but the facts of Mary Shelley's life do point toward the direction she took. She was the daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft, an author and pioneering feminist who died of a retained placenta eleven days after little Mary's birth in 1797. Her father was William Godwin, a novelist and Utopian planner. Despite his free-living principles, Godwin acted outraged as any bourgeois papa when Mary, then 16, ran off with Poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. In Percy, the impressionable Mary found a dreamer like her father, but several times larger than life. She absorbed much of his apocalyptic optimism and encyclopedic learning. She also took time to ponder the casualties that Shelley's blithe spirit left in its wake. In the year before she began Frankenstein, she bore Shelley a daughter who lived less than two weeks. She confided a heartbreaking vision to her journal: "Dream that my little baby came to life again, that it had only been cold, and that we rubbed it before the fire, and it lived. Awake and find no baby. I think about the little thing all day." Not long after Mary started her novel, Shelley's abandoned first wife Harriet committed suicide.

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