You’ve read the novel Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. You thought it was a great sci-fi novel. But what if it wasn’t? What if it was an even better psychological thriller instead? Arthur Belefant did a deep and detailed analysis of the first (1818) and revised (1831) editions of Frankenstein, paying special attention to Mary Shelley’s words, and discovered that Mary Shelley intended her readers to know the Creature did not exist and that instead Victor Frankenstein committed the murders. Read Frankenstein, The Man and the Monster to find out how Belefant discovered that Shelley’s novel is actually a disturbing psychological story based on humanity’s most forbidden passions.
About Arthur Belefant
Excerpt from Frankenstein: The Man and the Monster by Arthur Belefant
Mary Shelley was a well‑read, highly intelligent woman who was familiar with the antecedents of her story. Of the Biblical tale of the creation of Adam from clay and Eve from Adam’s rib, and of the classical Greek tale of Prometheus, who also created mortals from clay, her familiarity cannot be in doubt. The Greek myth of Hephaestus (Roman Vulcan) who made workers out of gold and the tale of Rabbi Löw of Prague who made the Golem out of clay, probably were known to her (Tropp 68). The story of Pygmalion, whose ivory statue was brought to life, was also well known at the time of the writing of Frankenstein and was known to Mary Shelley (Florescu 16).
The significant difference between all the precedent creation stories and Mary Shelley’s tale, and that which makes many people consider Frankenstein a science‑fiction story rather than a myth, fantasy, or fable, is that in Frankenstein, for the first time, an attempt is made to present a plausible scientific explanation of how the creation was accomplished. Victor’s accomplishment did not depend on magic or the intercession of a god (Asimov 4). Furthermore, in all creation stories previous to Mary Shelley’s, the human or the being is constructed out of inanimate materials: clay, gold, bone, or tusk. Mary Shelley has Victor make his Creature out of human parts.
Mary Shelley, in the first sentence of the Preface to her book, tries to certify her scientific approach by saying:
The event on which this fiction is founded has been supposed by Dr. [Erasmus] Darwin, and some of the physiological writers of Germany, as not of impossible occurrence.
In her Author’s Introduction, she elaborates on this certification by discussing a supposed experiment by Dr. Darwin in which a piece of vermicelli was animated.
Frankenstein is considered by Tropp, among others, to be the first true science‑fiction novel (64). That claim rests on her description of the animation of the Creature. “On a dreary night in November . . . at one in the morning” (Chapter 5) Victor tells Walton that he brought his creation to life. Victor does not tell Walton what technique he used to animate the Creature. However, he starts his description by saying that “I might infuse a spark of being into the lifeless thing that lay at my feet” (Chapter 5). The choice of the expression “spark of being” was not just a figure of speech to Victor or to Mary Shelley. In her Author’s Introduction she alludes to the possibility of a corpse being reanimated through “galvanism,” i.e., electricity.
As a child of fifteen Victor witnessed the effect of lightning on an oak tree and said, “I was not unacquainted with the more obvious laws of electricity” (Chapter 2). Nevertheless, when “a man of great research in natural philosophy . . . entered on the explanation of a theory which he had formed on the subject of electricity and galvanism” Victor said it “was at once new and astonishing to me” (Chapter 2).
By the time of the writing of Frankenstein, electricity had been discovered. Many original investigators felt that electricity may have been the “vital force,” that is, the substance of life. For example, the frog‑leg experiment was well known: a voltage applied to the amputated leg of a frog would make the muscle contract. In fact, in 1802 and 1803, Professor Luigi Aldini applied electricity to the head of a recently killed ox and to a recently hanged criminal with these results:
[T]he eyes were seen to open . . . the bodies of human corpses became violently agitated (Mellor 105, 106).
It is likely that Mary Shelley intended that some form of the application of electricity to the assembled parts of humans would be used by Victor in an attempt to vitalize his creation. The results would be just as he described it; the eyes would snap open, the chest would heave, and all the muscles would convulse (Chapter 5).
At the time of the writing of Frankenstein, science had not advanced enough to be capable of re‑animating a body; indeed, it cannot be done even yet. However, many factors are now known that must be considered and overcome if such an attempt were to be made. For example, all the body parts must be from persons of the same blood type to avoid reactions of one blood type on another or immune-suppressive drugs would need to be used, but such drugs are only recently available, and blood typing was not known in the early 19th century. The component body parts must be preserved until they are assembled for a complete body. Artificial refrigeration was not yet invented in Mary Shelley’s time.
A principal characteristic of science‑fiction stories is enunciated by Amazing Stories: [A]ny such story must be based on a plausible extrapolation from real science (Writer’s 583), otherwise the story is a fantasy. Mary Shelley’s story fails as science fiction in that respect.
That her attempt at scientific plausibility fails does not detract from her precedent‑setting literary approach. Mary Shelley recognized her failure. A key statement in the Preface is:
I shall not be supposed as according the remotest degree of serious faith to such an imagination; yet, in assuming it as the basis of a work of fancy, I have not considered myself as merely weaving a series of supernatural terrors. The event on which the interest of the story depends is exempt from the disadvantages of a mere tale of spectres or enchantment. It was recommended by the novelty of the situations which it develops, and however impossible as a physical fact, affords a point of view to the imagination for the delineating of human passions more comprehensive and commanding than any which the ordinary relations of existing events can yield.
In this passage, Mary Shelley speaks of the “event on which the interest of the story depends.” That event was the creation of a being from disparate human parts. Mary Shelley admits unequivocally that the creation is “impossible as a physical fact” and says that she does not believe that such a creation is possible. “I shall not be supposed as according the remotest degree of serious faith to such an imagination.” Rather, she used the “event” as a jumping off point “for the delineating of human passions.” The reader is not to consider that she was “merely weaving a series of supernatural terrors” or “a mere tale of spectres or enchantment.” Although Mary Shelley says that the “event” is “not of impossible occurrence,” in her other statements, we can presume that she never intended the “event” to be taken as a true occurrence in the story, not even in a science‑fiction sense. It took place in Victor’s imagination. Mary Shelley used the event to write of human passions.