Books: The Man-Made Monster

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So the motherless child grew up to become, at first, the childless mother. What Mary knew of idealism and birth was darkened by what she had learned, painfully and young, of despair and death. In the clearest, most succinct essay in The Endurance of "Frankenstein, " Critic Ellen Moers points out that Mary was one of the few women authors until recent times who wrote and published successfully during the same years that they were having babies. Mary's pregnancies, Moers notes, "record a horror story of maternity of the kind that literary biography does not provide again until Sylvia Plath."

Small wonder that in her tale Mary projected the ordeal of birth onto a man, who must build a "workshop of filthy creation" to realize his goal.

Yet Frankenstein is not simply a woman's revenge. It is not, in fact, simply any one thing. Beneath its rhetorical, overwritten surface, the novel moves as fitfully as a dream, allowing as many interpretations as there are willing interpreters. The classic Karloff films take only part of the story and twist that as well.

Karloff's monster is stiff-jointed and barely verbal; Mary Shelley's monster is quick on his feet and can speak like a Romantic poet on an off night: "I will glut the maw of death until it be satiated with the blood of your remaining friends." Similarly, most popular dramatizations of the novel have singled out the Faustian side of Frankenstein's quest: the monster is his punishment for seeking too much power.

Mary's version is less moralistic and straightforward. Frankenstein may err in creating the monster, but he commits a far greater wrong in repudiating the creature once he brings it to life. The catastrophic failing is not too much ambition but too little compassion.

Even so, those who feel that twelve scholarly essays on Frankenstein are eleven too many may be half right. A fascinating subject is nearly buried in sepulchral dithering. True, the essayists are earnest and erudite, and their prose is rarely worse than that required to win the fellowships and respect of academe. But the capital offenses are all here: the preening citations of the obvious: "In the film The Bride of Frankenstein, as Albert LaValley reminds us, Elsa Lanchester plays both Mary Shelley and the monstrous bride . . ."; the fancy notion among professors that authors and characters " articulate" rather than speak; the impossibly pretentious titles ("Vital Artifice: Mary, Percy, and the Psychopolitical Integrity of Frankenstein "). Pity the poor parodist when such things are written seriously. Never mind. Mary Shelley's monster lives through such fussy attention, just as he has survived all the murderous, torchbearing hordes of ignorant villagers in the movies. The Endurance of "Frankenstein " may be a collection of inert parts, but its theme makes it worth the attention of any reader who is ready to provide a spark .


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