The Book Club

The Terrors of the Uncontrollable Id

Dear Katha,

I am not even going to try to resist the temptation to use Mary Shelley’s most famous creation as a metaphor for, oh, just about everything that happens to her in Miranda Seymour’s sympathetic and meticulously researched biography.

Frankenstein is a fine novel, a key work of the romantic period and a very compelling story with the ever popular theme of hubris. But I think the reason it remains so vivid and present in the modern imagination is that it is the best-ever depiction of our most terrifying nightmare—unleashing our uncontrollable id upon the world and having to be responsible for the destruction it causes. (My vote for second-best depiction of the terrors of the uncontrollable id theme, by the way, is Fantasia’s Sorcerer’s Apprentice sequence with Mickey Mouse and all those brooms and buckets.) That theme was something that Mary Shelley understood very well, even at age 19 when she wrote the book. She was already beginning to learn the price of the impetuous alliance that began by the grave of the mother she never saw.

Mary’s father taught her the alphabet by having her trace the letters on the headstone of her mother, who died at her birth. When she was 16, she declared her love for the married 21-year-old Percy Shelley in that same churchyard. She became pregnant, and she and Percy ran away together. They left her family and his pregnant wife and child shamed and heartbroken.

Mary did not expect to create such uproar. She grew up in a family that encouraged her to challenge society’s conventions. Her mother, pioneering feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, had a child out of wedlock with American businessman Gilbert Imlay and later married Mary’s father, free-thinking philosopher William Godwin, when she was pregnant with Mary. The Godwins supported friends who flouted the prim pre-Victorian strictures about respectable conduct. Godwin was quite frank in a posthumous book about Mary Wollstonecraft in describing her suicide attempts, her views on sex outside of marriage, and her illegitimate child.

But Godwin saw things differently when it came to his daughter. When Mary ran off with Percy, Godwin anguished over the loss of her “spotless fame.” Seymour shows that it was only Godwin’s desperate hope of getting some money from Percy that kept him from cutting off all communication. He forbade her from ever returning home, and she did not see him again until after Percy died.

Mary compared herself to Dr. Frankenstein in her preface to a revised edition of the book when she said, “And now, once again, I bid my hideous progeny go forth and prosper.” She saw herself, like her flawed hero, creating “life” by assembling parts from different sources and then watching her creation leave her control. She was especially unhappy about the many theatrical productions based on the book, partly because they sensationalized the story and partly because she got no payment for them.

Mary, like Frankenstein, dreamed of a way to overcome death after the loss of a mother. He acted on his ideals with the best and most utopian of intentions, only to bring disaster to those he cared for most. He would spend the rest of his life trying to make up for the pain and loss he caused. All of that was true of Mary as well.

Seymour suggests that in addition to identifying with the doctor, Mary might have seen herself as Frankenstein’s destructive—and motherless—creature, simply called “the Monster” in the book. She writes, “Frankenstein’s creation of a child he perceives as abhorrent may tell us something dark and troubling about Mary’s view of herself.” Mary felt responsible for her mother’s death in childbirth and, later, for the loss of all but one of her children and the suicide of Percy Shelley’s wife, Harriet. Like the Monster, she and Percy could not live in the way their fathers wished and believed that they had to escape, no matter the cost.

But I suspect that for Mary, the most meaningful part of Frankenstein was the loving and devoted families she imagined. Both the framing story about Arctic explorer Robert Walton and the story he is told by Victor Frankenstein show the reader families who love each other deeply and who are, in modern terms, highly functional. For Mary, who never knew her mother, did not like her stepmother, was sent away to Scotland by her father, had a half-sister who committed suicide and a stepsister who probably slept with her husband, and who was rejected by her in-laws, that was the real fantasy.

I admit that I got a little bogged down in this book (I’ll talk more about that tomorrow), but it is impossible not to appreciate the passion and drama of Mary’s life. Do you think Seymour provided a good explanation for Mary’s contradictions? And what do you think of her explanation for Mary’s failure to produce anything else as powerful or successful as her first book?