Mary Shelley. Photo: Wikimedia Mary Shelley. Photo: Wikimedia

Frankenstein was published 200 years ago. It’s a horror story but the horrors it described are rooted in capitalism as well as the imagination

Mary Shelley had the idea for Frankenstein: or the Modern Prometheus when she was 18 and finished writing it when she was 19. This teenager, who was excluded from the kind of education her male peers enjoyed, created not one but two of the most enduring characters in fiction—the obsessive scientist and the monster he creates. For 200 years Frankenstein has generated multiple stage and film adaptations across all genres and it remains as firmly rooted within our culture as ever.

Mary Shelley was the daughter of two hugely important radicals: feminist icon Mary Wollstonecraft and political philosopher William Godwin. She was the lover and then wife of the revolutionary feminist poet Percy Bysshe Shelley and friend of the infamous rebel Lord Byron.Frankenstein was famously conceived while Mary, Shelley and Byron, were trapped indoors by bad weather during their stay in a villa by Lake Geneva in 1816. To occupy themselves, they decided to invent ghost stories and Frankenstein was Mary’s contribution. 

As so often with women writers, Mary Shelley, ’traditionally has been treated as an appendage to her parents’ and her husband’s literary careers… whose primary function was to guard the reputations of the more illustrious minds that framed her own’. Mary’s life after Shelley’s death is usually dismissed as uninteresting and uneventful. Biographer Richard Holmes writes, ‘She was still obsessed by Shelley’s papers, and trapped by memories both idealised and remorseful, her life attained a curious stillness’. Mary was only 25 when Shelley drowned. She was active enough to support herself and her surviving son despite being ostracised by society and by Shelley’s aristocratic family. She was a writer, reviewer, travel writer, essayist, executor of father’s estate and architect of Shelley’s poetic reputation – in addition to writing five further novels which explored gender inequality and criticised social institutions. 

It is, unfortunately, quite difficult for some to accept that a young woman, however talented, was capable of writing Frankenstein. A Professor Charles Robinson worked through a hand-written copy of Frankenstein counting some 5,000 changes suggested by Percy Shelley. The professor declared that ‘he made significant changes in words, themes and style. The book should now be credited as “by Mary and Percy Shelley”.’ This is rubbish. Other critics have noted that Shelley did no more than any editor, mainly correcting spelling and punctuation. One academic recently suggested that Percy’s changes, in fact, weaken Mary’s more muscular prose. Secondly, when Shelley drowned just before his 30th birthday, he left a literary mess behind him. Many of his poems remained unpublished until Mary edited and published them. She exhausted herself editing the poems and adding titles and biographical information. Another academic argues that Mary Shelley’s ‘magisterial editions of 1824 and 1837’ were vital in securing the poet’s reputation. Nor was Mary a mere cypher. Susan Wolfson writes that Mary’s editing demonstrated, ‘considerable authority, at times co-creation’. To put it bluntly, without Mary, Percy Shelley would never have entered the great canon of English literature. But does anyone claim that Shelley’s poems should now be credited to Percy and Mary Shelley?

For other critics, Mary’s achievement can be explained with reference to her personal life. Many women writers are subtly undermined by the patronising assumption they simply artlessly describe their personal experiences. Mary Wollstonecraft died after giving birth to Mary and by the summer of 1816, 18-year old Mary had had two children and buried one of them. In 1817 Shelley’s wife Harriet and Mary’s half-sister Fanny both committed suicide. Bingo! The creation and destruction, the parody of giving birth, in Frankenstein be satisfactorily explained away. But again this will not do. Mary was familiar with all the intellectual and scientific developments of her time. She attended lectures given by chemist Humphrey Davey and Dr Luigi Galvani who passed electric currents through dead bodies. Mary was also a profoundly political woman. Her book is best understood as an imaginative engagement with the Industrial Revolution which threatened to reshape man’s relationship with nature and with capitalism which was still in its blood-soaked infancy. In Frankenstein, she created a tale which continues to resonate because it articulates a powerful response to capitalism, to class division, exploitation and revolt. 

A monstrous new world

Frankenstein has been cited as evidence that Mary Shelley was not an advocate of women’s rights because the women in the novel are marginal and passive. However, there is a sense in which it can be read as a feminist novel. It is Victor Frankenstein’s attempts to supplant women in the process of reproduction that leads to his undoing. He refuses to create a female monster for his first creation fearing that she may decide to reject her mate or that she may accept him and breed with him. Either prospect is so terrifying that Frankenstein destroys her and sets a terrible chain of events into motion. The story, with its dead mothers and murdered wives, reveals what happens when women are marginalised. 

Frankenstein was set in 1790s, the decade of the French Revolution (which her mother had travelled to Paris to experience and which her father defended in print) and the Haitian Revolution which established the first black republic. The reverberations of these events were still being felt some 15 years later, but revolution was not just a historical memory. As capitalism developed, it provoked a violent response from those it impoverished by new methods of manufacturing– some 12,000 troops were sent to Nottingham to quell the Luddite Rebellion of 1812. Lord Byron’s first (and only) speech in the House of Lords opposed the introduction of the death sentence for machine breaking, but hundreds of Luddite rebels were executed before the movement subsided. Frankenstein’s monster was born out of these social convulsions and protests.

Mary’s monster is not the mute, dumb monster portrayed by Boris Karloff in the 1931 film. He learns to speak and to read, to love music and the poetry of John Milton. ‘I was benevolent and good; misery made me a fiend. Make me happy, and I shall again be virtuous’, the monster pleads. Here Mary echoes the pleas of her reforming contemporaries who argued that only improving worker’s lives could prevent violent revolt. But Frankenstein is not just an appeal for worker’s rights – there is a deeper and more fundamental protest going on. 

Unlike previous monsters, Mary’s monster is a dynamic, totalising monster. Frankenstein does not stay in the shadows or in the creepy castles like the ghosts in Anne Radcliffe or Lewis Monk’s gothic novels. Frankenstein and his monster chase each other across huge geographical spaces. This reflects how capitalism is also a dynamic system, driven to constantly expand and grow. In addition, the workings of the system are hidden and mysterious and far beyond the control of any individual capitalist, however powerful. From the Communist Manifesto comes this description; ‘Modern bourgeois society with its relations of production, of exchange and property, a society that has conjured up such gigantic means of production of exchange, is like the sorcerer, who is no longer able to control the powers of the nether world whom he has called up by his spells’. Educated, bourgeois Victor Frankenstein attempts to create something beautiful, to ‘shed light on the darkness’, but instead conjures up a monster which he cannot control just like the capitalists whose technological and scientific progress depends on the immiseration of the majority.

Frankenstein’s monster is a metaphor for the condition of the working classes in the early years of the Industrial Revolution. The monster is not natural, he has been created. Like the men and women being forced into the factories, the monster is stitched together from different elements and like them, he is deformed and debased. Marx described the condition of workers in factory production: ‘It is true that labour produces marvels for the rich, but it produces privation for the worker. It produces palaces, but hovels for the worker. It procures beauty, but deformity for the worker. It produces intelligence, but it produces idiocy and cretinism for the worker’. Through the monster’s naïve eyes, Mary invites us to share his disgust at the degradation of workers. He tells Victor, ‘I heard of the division of property, of immense wealth and squalid poverty, of rank, descent and noble blood. I learned that the possessions most esteemed by your fellow creatures were high and unsullied descent united with riches. A man might be respected with only one of these advantages; but, with either, he was considered, except in very rare instances, as a vagabond and a slave, doomed to waste his power for the profits of the chosen few!’ 

Between Frankenstein and the monster, there is what Franco Moretti has described as a ‘dialectical relationship’, like that which, according to Marx, connects capital with wage labour. Moretti writes, ‘On the one hand, the scientist cannot but create the monster: “Often did my human nature turn with loathing from my occupation, whilst, still urged on by an eagerness which perpetually increased, I brought my work near to a conclusion”.’ Victor is compelled to complete his project, like a good capitalist who is compelled to compete with others. On the other hand, he is immediately afraid of his creation and wants to kill it. He realises he has given life to a creature stronger than himself. The creator and the monster are mutually dependent but also mutually antagonistic. Monster warns Frankenstein: ‘Remember that I have my power …You are my creator, but I am your master!’ In the monster, Frankenstein has created his own gravedigger. Ultimately, Frankenstein is a novel of hubris and of failure. Frankenstein’s project brings only death and misery to all those he loved. The bourgeoisie sought to shed light in the darkness but created a monstrous system which has wreaked havoc and destruction ever since. Two hundred years later, Mary Shelley’s novel is more relevant than ever because capitalism is today more monstrous than even she could have imagined. 

Judy Cox

Judy Cox is a lifelong socialist writer and speaker. Now a teacher in East London, Judy was on the editorial board of International Socialism and has written amongst other things on Marx’s theory of alienation, Rosa Luxemburg’s economic theory, William Blake and Robin Hood.