“I, the miserable and the abandoned, am an abortion to be spurned at, and kicked, and trampled on.”
So cries Frankenstein’s monster at the end of Mary Shelley’s most famous work, published in 1818, when the author was just 21. In her introduction to the 1831 edition, Shelley attempts to answer the question “so frequently asked” of her –
“How [did] I, then a young girl, [come] to think of, and to dilate upon, so very hideous an idea?”
Her answer is less than satisfying: my parents were famous writers, I was bored on vacation and Lord Byron challenged us all to write ghost stories, my famous poet-husband encouraged me to develop the idea that had come to me in a half-waking vision.
Irony abounds in the afterlife of Mary’s novel – that easy slippage between Frankenstein the scientist and his unnamed creature, which we often call by his creator’s name, the endless adaptation of the story into the stuff of cheap, gruesome thrill, and most of all, the surprise, mock or otherwise, that such a young girl as Mary was could have dreamed up and set down such a horrifying – and enduring – tale: How did she, then a young girl, come to think of and dilate upon so very hideous an idea?
To ask the question is to assume that young girls do not think large and sometimes terrifying thoughts, having experienced too little of life to be able to write with any authority about human nature’s seamier side. To ask the question is to assume that girlhood means, universally, an idealized upper-middle class girlhood sheltered from knowledge of sex and from discussion of any bodily functions, full of dolls and needlework and cheerful daydreams. To ask the question is to forget what most girls’ lives are and have been.
Frankenstein is a story about creativity, about incarnation, and by the time Mary conceived the idea, at age 18, she had already experienced incarnation’s cost. Her mother, the famous feminist writer Mary Wollestonecraft, died eleven days after Mary was born from puerperal fever, a strep infection of the uterus and a frequent slayer of newly delivered women in the age before antibiotics. Mary Shelley herself was just sixteen and pregnant when she ran off to Europe with the poet Percy Shelley, who was married, and whose wife was also pregnant. Mary’s child was born prematurely, and died too soon to be named –
“find my baby dead,” she wrote in her journal. “A miserable day.”
Mary Shelley was pregnant again just eight weeks later; the baby was five months old when she began writing Frankenstein. A few months after she started, her half sister killed herself. Then Harriet Shelley, Percy’s wife, drowned herself, pregnant by another man. Mary Shelley was pregnant almost constantly for five years, with but one living child. For Mary, there was no birth, no life, no love without the specter of death. Victor Frankenstein’s creation, the monster, is a story of conception, of ecstatic desire, of exhausting pregnancy, of birth, of crushing postpartum depression, and of infant abandonment:
“I had worked so hard for nearly two years for the sole purpose of infusing life into an inanimate body. For this I had deprived myself of rest and health. I had desired it with an ardor that exceeded moderation; but now that I had finished, the beauty of the dream vanished, and breathless horror and disgust filled my heart.”
It’s then that the monster opens its eyes, and Victor flees, leaving the intelligent, sensitive but ugly creature to make his own way without a benevolent creator – or a loving mother – to guide him.
Mary Shelley wrote in her journal of a dream she had after finding her first little baby dead. She dreamed that it was not dead, but merely cold, and that she rubbed it before the fire, and it warmed and reanimated – life warmed from death, precisely what Victor Frankenstein aspired to and achieved, but to horrific effect. The novel is, of course, often read as a caution against godlike aspiration.
When Christians think and talk about Incarnation, or the Nativity, we think of it as very beautiful, very quaint. We talk a lot about light – the Star, the light of lights coming into the world. But incarnation has that little root in there – carnis – carnage. It implies God taking on gruesomeness unflinchingly – not only not abandoning the creature, not only becoming the creature, but of taking up space inside the creature, making his way “between urine and feces” as is often misattributed to St. Augustine. Christmas means carnage.
Mary Shelley explicitly writes Frankenstein as a bad creator. But her creature is bad because he has been abandoned, so it’s equally plausible to read in Frankenstein her understanding of God: how dare he judge us? He left us.
It’s also possible to read in Frankenstein Shelley’s ambiguity about motherhood – the frightful state that killed her mother and made her so frequently pregnant and yet so often without a living child, the state that impelled her rival’s suicide. I imagine her visceral horror, her disgust, at finding her dead baby, perhaps already starting to decompose.
And it’s then that I remember what a scary thing Incarnation is; how much the Blessed Virgin’s consent means. For every pregnancy exacts a blood sacrifice, and sometimes the ultimate sacrifice. And there is, crushingly, no guarantee that it won’t end with a whimper, with blood in the toilet, with a bereft mother dreaming of her baby’s resurrection.
Which is, of course, what the Blessed Virgin Mary did. And her baby did reanimate before the fire.
Maybe that’s why, dark though the Christmas story certainly is, we hope.
Rachel Marie Stone teaches English at The Stony Brook School in New York, and is the author of several books, including Eat With Joy: Redeeming God’s Gift of Food, and, most recently, the 40th anniversary edition of the More-With-Less cookbook, just out from Herald Press. She’s pictured here with her elderly cat.
(Rachel’s humanitarian service includes creating the No. 1 trending Twitter hashtag #AddAWordRuinAChristianBook. Do yourself a favor and search some of the results. –Ed.)