Puttin' on the Fritz: A review of Frankenstein: A Cultural History

In 1965, Ishiro Honda, the Japanese director behind Godzilla, released a fairly dreadful film -- to my mind, at least. Japanese monster aficionados, on the other hand, seriously enjoy man-in-a-rubber-suit movies. In any event, in America, his fairly dreadful film was given a title that was shamelessy overblown but was -- we can all agree -- a grabber:

Frankenstein Conquers the World

Susan Tyler Hitchcock could have borrowed the title for her new book, Frankenstein: A Cultural History, because that's the argument she makes: What was considered a disreputable little novel -- even a blasphemous one -- went on to shape our responses to science, genetics and female Romantic authors. It has entered the literary canon as well as the pop-culture universe as a 19th-century classic.

When Mary Godwin wrote Frankenstein in 1816, she was only 18 years old, a daughter of radical parents, and an unwed mother who'd run away with her married lover (later her husband), Percy Bysshe Shelley. She wrote a gothic novel unlike any other -- no haunted castles, no beautiful sirens trapped alive in crypts, no ancient family curses. There is nothing essentially "supernatural" in the story. Instead, Frankenstein is the tale of a man inventing another man; it's a "'scientific" creation story, Genesis with electric sparks. Coming as it did at the start of the Industrial Revolution and inspired, in part, by new galvanic experiments, Mary Godwin's novel became over the years a symbol of technology run amok. This is ironic, considering that in Godwin's age, there was relatively little modern technology that could even run amok: no gas engines or electric dynamos, and the first steam locomotive wouldn't run on tracks for another 14 years. Even so, as a creepy yarn about science (if vague on the technical details), Frankenstein has been called our first truly modern myth.

Yet as Ms. Hitchcock shows, our knowledge of that myth is mostly drawn from the still-powerful Boris Karloff films of the '30s -- and those Frankensteins have little to do with the novel.

This explains why students every year are disappointed when they encounter the book's multiple viewpoints, its shifting scenes from the Alps to the Arctic, its inconclusive ending. The grunting monster they know from a hundred cartoons and movies, the shrieking doctor, the angry villagers waving torches, the hunchbacked assistant ("What hump?"): All of these originally came from Victorian stage adaptations which served as source material for the Hollywood scriptwriters.

As the stage and screen adaptations made Frankenstein more dramatic and more lurid, Ms. Hitchcock notes, the story also became less provocative and less ambivalent, more conservative and cautionary -- until only Karloff's performance on screen lends the monster a shred of human pathos. Frankenstein is about what it means to be human, about the source of our morality. It is Mary Godwin's bold, somewhat muddled answer to Milton's Paradise Lost. Instead, it came to express primitive fears of scientific advances we don't understand, of any tinkering with God's creation.

In the novel, for instance, the monster learns both kindness and hatred from human society -- from reading books (including Milton) and spying on a family. But in the original 1931 movie, as we all remember, the sadistic assistant Fritz dropped the good brain that he'd been sent to steal and took the "criminal" one instead. It seems, therefore, that people are not taught evil -- some of us are just born with evil brains! (crash of thunder) -- exactly the opposite of what Godwin intended.

This is some of Ms. Hitchcock's best material, tracing the early ways the monster was pumped up and dumbed down. She is also good at the other end of the book, on the controversies over genetic engineering ("Frankenfood") and how even the name "Frankenstein" was avoided by Bush administrators working to curtail cloning and stem-cell research. With good cause, they'd already been labeled "anti-science"; bringing up the monster would only make them look worse.

On this point, Ms. Hitchcock seems rather partial to Leon R. Kass, Bush's conservative point man on bio-ethics, famous for his argument that revulsion is a sound basis for moral judgment: If something grosses you out, you should trust your instinct and conclude that it's probably bad. Despite this peculiar reasoning -- which surely would lead one to conclude that the music of Celine Dion is morally suspect, at best -- Mr. Kass gets high marks (and extra attention) from Ms. Hitchcock: at least he turns to fiction like Frankenstein when weighing such matters.

In between these two ends, Frankenstein: A Cultural History is a survey of films and comic books, toys and even postage stamp versions of the bolt-necked creature -- including such send-ups as The Rocky Horror Picture Show and Mel Brooks' Young Frankenstein, currently on Broadway. Unfortunately, by the end, this leads to a rapid litany of artifacts. It also means Ms. Hitchcock keeps making the same general observations, keeps writing about yet another story of man playing God and getting his comeuppance from his own creation.

Her inclination toward Jungian myth criticism increases this sameness. That is, all her examples blur together into a convenient archetype: yet another story about man playing God, etc., etc. At one point, for instance, she makes the generalization that liberals tend to be Promethean characters (testing our limits -- like Victor Frankenstein) while conservatives are more like Adam (accepting the world as it is).

A half-minute's consideration, and the large holes here are apparent. Surely, Rudolph Guiliani is one of the more Promethean political figures around today; one could make the same case for Dick Cheney (defying Constitutional limits on executive power the way he does). Or even Joe McCarthy (he went too far and took on the Army in the Army-McCarthy hearings). Conversely, much of the point of eco-liberalism would seem to be humbly "living within limits," not just accepting but trying to preserve our bio-world as it is.

Ms. Hitchcock clearly has the impulses of a fan, and a word needs to be said in favor of such thoroughness: She touches on rare nuggets beyond the usual chronology of Hammer horror films: a 1910 Edison silent-film short, for example, Theodore Roszak's novel, The Memoirs of Elizabeth Frankenstein and even an NBC-TV adaptation by, of all people, Christopher Isherwood.

Given this thoroughness, though, it's surprising when this otherwise entertaining book overlooks some remarkable touchstones:

  • The 1986 film, Gothic. Starring Gabriel Byrne (Byron), Julian Sands (Percy Shelley) and Natasha Richardson (Mary Godwin), this Ken Russell film presents those infamous nights at the Villa Diodati on Lake Geneva when the Shelleys and Lord Byron played at telling ghost stories -- the evenings that led to the creation of both Frankenstein and The Vampyre by John Polildori, Byron's "physician-friend."

    As was conventional by 1984, the supposedly unconventional Mr. Russell sees the poets' party through psychedelic lenses. It's a '60s bad acid trip, with the radical politics played down, and the hallucinations and swinging sex played up.

    But the film is most notable for us because it also explicitly draws on the feminist interpretation advanced by Ellen Moers in Literary Women in 1976 -- one that Ms. Hitchcock treats at length. According to this theory, the gruesome assembling of the monster expressed a natural revulsion toward the "hideousness" of childbirth and Mary Godwin's personal fears of giving birth. One wonders what Mr. Kass might think of the bio-ethical implications -- childbirth as revolting. It was a sensible response for the time, however: Godwin's own mother, the pioneering feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, died giving birth to her, Mary suffered miscarriages and her own children would die young as well.

    In this regard, Victor Frankenstein's "workshop of filthy creation" can also be seen as akin to the exploding chest scene in Alien -- a horrific "masculine birth" doomed to violence and sterility because of the lack of female involvement (note that Victor cannot bring himself to build a female monster). The novel constantly twines life and death, female and male, like this, and Ms. Hitchcock, tellingly, titles her opening chapters "Conception" and "Birth and Lineage."

    As an example of the "female gothic," Frankenstein is also said to reflect a critique of the masculine hero (and even possibly of the poet Shelley in particular): That is, the women don't fare well in conventional, masculine gothic novels. They tend to be monstrous (femme fatales) or, when they're the heroines, they tend to be troubled and tormented by the brooding male protagonist. Victor is a morally ambiguous figure, at best, and his monster, you'll recall, turns on him and murders his young bride. Shelley's first wife, whom he abandoned, would eventually commit suicide. And here is his (eventual) second wife writing about creation and procreation. Do the math: Young and unwed and isolated, the child of radical authors -- and therefore, somewhat socially disreputable -- committed to an angelic, idiotically impractical freethinker like Shelley, and to his child, Mary Godwin may well have felt a little ... imperiled at times. Little wonder her novel sees rampaging male monsters and their egomaniacal creators.

  • Is It OK to be a Luddite?", a lengthy, 1984 New York Times essay by novelist Thomas Pynchon. In it, Mr. Pynchon uses Lord Bryon's political sympathies to link Frankenstein to the Luddites, the rebellious weavers who smashed automated looms and became symbols of resistance to progress. Byron even wrote the lyrics for a Luddite song while staying at Villa Diodati.

    Mr. Pynchon's essay also points out an enduring appeal of the monster, one that Ms. Hitchcock completely misses. The monster, Mr. Pynchon writes, is a Big Bad-Ass. He's an unstoppable destroyer. And we've liked Big Bad-Asses from Achilles to the Terminator. Amazingly enough --

  • Ms. Hitchcock overlooks the Terminator, too -- a man-made, flesh-and-metal creature. He would seem to be one of the sons of Frankenstein, right down to his mix of the human and the monstrous, plus his desire to destroy his creator.

    And true to their Frankensteinian heritage, the Terminators, according to the movie, are going to conquer our world in the near future. Obviously, Arnold Schwarzenegger has already begun the process, and Fox TV -- it would be Fox, wouldn't it? -- is bringing the cyborg back for a new series starting in January. So it would have made sense for Frankenstein: A Cultural History to have studied the Big Guy.

    While there's still time.

    Addendum: A shorter version of this review was broadcast on KERA-FM and appears on the KERA blog with a gracious comment from Ms. Hitchcock.

  • November 16, 2007 3:07 PM |



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