By Judy Cox
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Frankenstein: birth of a monster

This article is over 18 years, 1 months old
Frankenstein's monster is one of the most enduring ghouls of horror books and films.
Issue 1880

Frankenstein’s monster is one of the most enduring ghouls of horror books and films.

But the popular image of Mary Shelley’s monster as a lurching brute is a world away from her original vision.

A television programme this weekend goes some way towards setting the record straight.

Frankenstein was written in 1816, when Mary was staying near Geneva with her lover, the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, and their friend Lord Byron.

They all belonged to a circle of British radicals inspired by the French Revolution of 1789.

Mary’s mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, wrote the pathbreaking A Vindication of the Rights of Women. Her father, William Godwin, was also a radical.

The friends were deeply engaged with the scientific ideas of their day, including those of galvanism, or creating life through electric impulses.

But Mary’s novel is rooted in politics more than in science.

In Mary’s day the language of monsters and fiends was used by the ruling class to describe the revolutionary masses of Paris and rebelling industrial workers.

Mary’s monster was not a speechless, subhuman beast – and he didn’t have a bolt through his neck.

Victor Frankenstein makes his monster out of beautiful parts but the end result is hideous. However, Mary’s monster educates himself by listening to the De Lacy family read Milton’s Paradise Lost. He weeps with joy when he hears great music.

And he recognises the injustice of the society around him: ‘I learnt of the strange system of human society – immense wealth and extreme squalor.’

Mary’s monster is intelligent and wants to be loved. But he is abused and hounded.

This treatment drives him to take the sort of revenge that the middle classes feared from the poor around them. The monster kills his creator’s friends and family and burns down property.

The bourgeoisie, Marx wrote, ‘has conjured up gigantic means of production and exchange like a sorcerer no longer able to control the powers of the netherworld he has conjured up through his spells’.

By creating the monster but depriving him of the means to be happy, Frankenstein creates a force that hates him and has the power to destroy him.

Frankenstein: birth of a monster
Sunday, 8pm BBC1

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