The Framing of Frankenstein; or, Is There a Reader in This Picture?
Mary and Child: A Set of Pictures
As the most cursory study of film history or even infrequent excursions to the local multiplex confirm, there exists a small catalogue of perennial favorites of western literature that, time and again, are subjected to the Hollywood treatment. To wit, an updated Emma Woodhouse returned—“as if!”—a valley girl in Clueless; a gym-trimmed Hester Prynne turned up with Demi Moore’s abs of steel, and a mondo Disney Quasimodo transmogrified into a huggable Hunchback-in-a-lunch bag. Few novels have inspired as many cinematic variations as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the most celebrated of which, James Whale’s Frankenstein (1931) and Bride of Frankenstein (1935), exemplify effective makeovers. Notwithstanding box office failures such Kenneth Branagh’s 1994 take on Frankenstein or the Daniel Radcliffe starrer Victor Frankenstein (2015), the public’s fascination with the story of a scientist and his humanoid creation appears to have remained undiminished, or at least is judged to be strong enough to warrant further revisits. In fact, since Albert J. LaValley’s genealogical study “The Stage and Film Children of Frankenstein: A Survey” (1979) or Steven Earl Forry’s Hideous Progenies: Dramatizations of Frankenstein from Mary Shelley to the Present (1990), the Frankenstein “family” has grown considerably.
How those younger Frankensteins are placed in relation to Mary Shelley and her novel depends on who is in charge of creating the family portrait. While some pictures now display a motley crowd of Gods and Monsters, others still show a solitary figure. Is there a parent in these pictures? If yes, who is it: Mary Shelley, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, or Frankenstein, pop-cultural phenomenon? Is it, perhaps, Percy Bysshe Shelley, or Mary Wollstonecraft, or Milton? Even traces of the Golem or Prometheus, creator of mankind, may be discerned on some canvasses. Yet surprisingly, one figure rarely moves into the frame: the figure of the reader as creator of Frankenstein.
Picture this: Hollywood, the 1930s. It was a time when Mary Shelley’s novel had not yet been canonized and was consequently of little interest to literary scholars. The story of the scientist and his creation, however, enjoyed continuous success not only in the form of Shelley’s novel and its revisions, but as stage adaptations which, as Martin Tropp puts it, were “necessary steps in the evolution of the Frankenstein myth, linking the novel with the films that have kept the story before a mass audience throughout the twentieth century” (85). In the 1930s, therefore, the act of portraiture was not in the hands of literary critics but was left to the film industry which, with Universal’s popular Frankenstein franchise firmly in place, outlined its portrait of the Frankensteins with a few confident strokes of the brush. As a result, the figure of Mary Shelley as the author of Frankenstein was effectively kept out of the family picture for decades to come, making room instead for the creators of the Karloffian Monster and its many celluloid descendants.
These descendants, commonly known as sequels, were made instantly recognizable by established markers such as “son of,” “revenge of,” or “curse of” which link the original screen version of a particular story to subsequent retellings. Thus the House of Frankenstein (1944) was identified as having its origins in James Whale’s Frankenstein (1931) which fathered the Son of Frankenstein (1939) and Frankenstein’s Daughter (1959) as its legitimate and illegitimate (i.e. off-Hollywood or independently produced) offspring. The film titles signaled two paternal figures: James Whale’s 1931 film, the originator of the Frankenstein franchise, and the film’s eponymous character as genitor of more or less viable children. Where did Mary Shelley fit into this picture?
Even the patriarchal system of classic Hollywood could not altogether ignore Shelley’s role in the evolution of the Frankenstein myth. Screen credits aside, the author reemerges in the guise of Elsa Lanchester in the prologue of Bride of Frankenstein(1935). Screenwriters John L. Balderston and William Hurlbut turned Shelley into a narrator who introduces the tale to follow by informing Percy Bysshe Shelley and Lord Byron that her story did not end with the death of the creature. Arguably, however, the decision to introduce a character named Mary Shelley as narrator is not so much an homage to the author of the novel upon which the films are based, or, as Tropp calls it, “a clumsy attempt at authenticity” (97), but mainly an ingenious device to set up this and any subsequent sequel of what has now been effectively turned into a potentially never-ending story. It is not surprising, therefore, that the figure of Mary Shelley does not make a reappearance in later cinematic retellings of Frankenstein.
Branagh’s Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1994) tried to establish a closer kinship between the adaptation and the novel rather than previous film versions by symbolically returning the story, after appropriations such as Andy Warhol’s Frankenstein, to its presumably rightful owner or originator: as the title indicates, the story is, once again, presented as Shelley’s. The literary label “Mary Shelley’s” serves as a guarantee of a more literary or faithful adaptation, the application of which has undoubtedly been motivated by the financial success of Bram Stoker’s Dracula(1992). Such efforts to reunite the author with her child, however motivated, may be interpreted as the latest attempt by a male creative team to patronize Shelley and to appropriate her story—and her name—for yet another dramatization. Are Mary Shelley—who was, after all, “much amused” by a performance of Presumption, an early adaptation of her novel (qtd. in Forry, Hideous Progenies 4)—or Frankenstein in need of such mother-child reunion efforts?
For literary theorists, who finally began to rediscover and reclaim Mary Shelley’s novel in the mid-’70s, the answer to this question depends on the particular perspective, the angle from which the Frankenstein family is approached. Whereas one group of critics, who view Frankenstein primarily as a creature that went out into the world, now tries to trace the trail of relatives, others, having witnessed the results of such mixing and mingling, prefer to restore the novel to Shelley’s nursery; and for the past twenty years or so, the latter critics have been particularly active in undertaking their effort. It comes as no surprise, therefore, that references to birth, family, and lineage are not limited to family portraits, Hollywood style, or to panoramic surveys of dramatizations of Shelley’s novel for film (LaValley) and stage (Forry). Literary criticism of Shelley’s novel often uses similar vocabulary, such as Poovey’s “’My Hideous Progeny’: The Lady and the Monster,” Homans’ “Bearing Demons: Frankenstein’s Circumvention of the Maternal,” or Rubenstein’s “’My Accursed Origin’: The Search for the Mother in Frankenstein.” Not unlike cultural criticism concerned with Frankenstein’s stage and film descendants, these essays explore issues of origin and authorship, of production and reproduction.
Considering the novel’s focus on creation and procreation in a male-centered society, Homans suggests that not only the critics, but even Shelley herself employs such metaphors by “equat[ing] childbearing with the bearing of men’s words” (117). The emphasis on authorship and self-assertion is also signaled by the frequent use of the possessive pronoun “my” in essay titles. In “My Monster/My Self,” for example, Barbara Johnson suggests, that the novel “can be read as the story of the experience of writing Frankenstein” (63), whereas, in “My Hideous Progeny,” Mary Poovey argues that in “her depiction of the monster and the 1831 Frankenstein, Mary Shelley elevates feminine helplessness to the stature of myth” (142). No matter how the process of conception, birth, and nurturing of Frankenstein is interpreted, the family portrait that emerges here has at its center the maternal figure of author Mary Shelley whose biography is frequently scrutinized as closely as her writings.
As the aforementioned titles illustrate, the author as mother of Frankenstein is an issue of particular interest to feminist critics, whereas cultural critics, and especially male writers, are more eager to create the picture of papa Frankenstein in a circle of children and grandchildren, behind whom, framed and hanging in its appointed place, appears the image of Mary Shelley as papa’s dead but fondly remembered mother.
In her aptly titled essay “Custody Battles: Reproducing Knowledge about Frankenstein” (1995), Ellen Cronan Rose comments on the different critical approaches to Shelley’s novel, their changes and interconnections,
arguing that as recent criticism of Frankenstein by men and women, feminists and nonfeminists, contests the right to produce knowledge about a major text of English romanticism, it manifests anxieties that eerily reflect the text’s anxieties about gender and procreation. (810)
The act of “[r]eproducing knowledge about Frankenstein,” of representing the Frankenstein family through portraiture, is the domain of the critics who have been particularly re-productive since the mid-’70s. Knowledge about Frankenstein’s readers and the reading process, however, have not been reproduced with such fervor. Where, one might ask, does this leave the common reader, who, although excluded from the ongoing custody battle, adopted or abducted Frankenstein over 175 years ago?
Myth or Matricide?
In 1974 George Levine argued that it’s “a commonplace now, that everybody talks about Frankenstein, but nobody reads it” (“The Ambiguous Heritage” 3). Levine was, of course, not concerned with critics whose custody battles over Frankenstein commenced roughly two years later with the publication of Ellen Moers’s Literary Women; “everybody” and “nobody” here refer to the common readers, or their alleged disappearance. To be sure, not everyone familiar with the name “Frankenstein” actually reads the novel, just as not everyone who recognizes the mask of Boris Karloff is necessarily familiar with the 1931 film. For example, an article appearing in a 1994 issue of Policy Review, entitled “Clinton’s Frankenstein: The Gory Details of the President’s Health Plan,” merely sports a photo of one of Universal’s creature features, but makes no references to Shelley’s novel or its plot and characters; “Newt Gingrich’s Frankenstein,” an article published in the Columbia Journalism Review several months later, develops its metaphor more carefully, even refers to and quotes Harold Bloom, but admits to having been inspired by the fact that “Newt Gingrich’s defiance of the elements to win control of the House of Representatives in November  coincided with the theatrical release of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein” (Hanson 49). “Frankenstein,” after all, is no longer just the proper name of a specific fictional character, but a noun which, according to Webster’s New Universal Unabridged Dictionary, describes “anything that becomes dangerous to its creator.” Thus, to modify Levine’s statement, many people use the word “Frankenstein” without necessarily having read Frankenstein.
As the acceptance of Frankenstein as a noun into standard English vocabulary demonstrates, the essential elements of Shelley’s story exist, independently from the novel or any of its dramatizations, as a modern myth. The existence of the Frankenstein myth has long been recognized. In its definition of “myth,” for instance, The Norton Anthology of English Literature offers the following example: “An ordinary or even inferior tale may take on mythic dimensions—witness Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s Frankenstein or the wooden volumes of Horatio Alger, Jr.” (Abrams 2597). That this definition, which appears in the anthology’s fifth edition, published in 1986, has undoubtedly been carried over from previous editions, may easily be deduced from the estimation of Shelley’s novel as an “ordinary or even inferior tale.” Again, feminist criticism is largely responsible for the attention—and respect—Frankensteinhas been receiving for over two decades now.
Yet in their continued custody battles with nonfeminist critics, as well as in their emphasis on Mary Shelley’s biography as a key to interpretations of the novel, feminist critics may also have been responsible for gaps in the discussion of the Frankenstein myth since the publication of Christopher Small’s Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein: Tracing the Myth in 1972 or Martin Tropp’s Mary Shelley’s Monsters in 1976. Ironically, well over a decade later, Anne K. Mellor lamented the lack of such discourse, pointing out that, as “myth, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, for all its resonance, has hardly been well explored” (Mary Shelley 39). Virtually coinciding with the publication of Mellor’s study, Chris Baldick’s In Frankenstein’s Shadow: Myth, Monstrosity, and Nineteenth-Century Writing seemed to offer the further explorations Mellor had been looking for. Not unlike Mellor, Baldick argues that the “story of Frankenstein and his monster enjoys a status which appears to literary criticism as an anomaly, a scandal: it is a modern myth. Such a thing simply should not exist, according to the most influential accounts of what ‘myth’ is” (3).
In her review of In Frankenstein’s Shadow for the November 1989 issue of Modern Philology, Mellor nonetheless dismisses Baldick’s study, which traces the myth in Victorian literature, claiming that “[n]either a study of influence nor a study of ideology, this book disappoints in its claim to have studied the myriad ramifications of a modern myth” (195). The dismissal, however, appears to be based on Baldick’s approach to Shelley’s novel. After all, the point of his study, Baldick explains,
is not to lament the corruption and distortion of an authentic literary original, nor to correct erroneous departures from the truth of a “real” Frankenstein story. There may be Shelleyan purists for whom the development of the myth is all a huge mistake, but I shall prefer in this study to avoid giving any final authority to the novel. (4)
This approach seems to clash with feminist criticism which has indeed set out to restore final authority to the novel. It is telling, therefore, that Mellor deplores what Baldick readily establishes as the premise of his study: “Baldick notes the direct allusions to Frankenstein in many of the texts he discusses, often ingeniously finding buried echoes, but too many of the texts analyzed in this book cannot be shown to refer directly to Frankenstein” (195). To Mellor, only a direct focus on Frankenstein can validate such a study. Yet discussing the Frankenstein myth in its myriad ramifications must mean removing it from the confines of Shelley’s novel. Cultural critics, of course, have been doing just that; and in their discussions of the manifestations of the myth in the twentieth century, most of them turn—or return—to Hollywood as maker or propagator of myth. To Tropp, for instance, film is “perfect for sustaining myth,” since, as Tropp argues, “alone together at the movies, we experience the fusion of self, society, and technology that is the domain of the myth of Frankenstein” (85-6). LaValley, who finds it “useless to quibble about” the differences between film and book, points out that
Frankenstein has always been viewed by the playwright or the screenwriter as a mythic text, an occasion for the writer to let loose his own fantasies or to stage what he feels is dramatically effective, to remain true to the central core of the myth, and often to let it interact with fears and tensions of the current time [. . . ]. (245)
William Nestrick goes even further by suggesting that the “persistence of the Frankenstein myth in film not only reiterates cultural values about reproduction, creation, and preservation, attempts through myth to keep human species and monstrous machines separate, but also displays a continued ambivalence toward film itself” (295). Nestrick argues that “sometimes the motif of ‘coming to life’ reasserts the possibility that the medium can bridge the polarities of technology and human nature and art” (295). Even James Rieger, who holds that myths are “neither validated nor invalidated by the comparative talent, sophistication or honesty of the artists or hacks who transmit them,” allows that, in the case of Frankenstein, “the myth itself has not necessarily been weakened” (xxxiv) by cinematic dramatizations. Mellor, on the other hand, rejects Hollywood as a mythmaker worthy of serious consideration, arguing that “while the film industry has exploited and popularized the more salient dimensions of the story, it has ignored the complexity of Mary Shelley’s invention” (39). The question is: does the power of the Frankenstein myth lie in its complexity or its simplicity?
After all, in dramatizations, journalistic writings, as well as in cartoons and caricatures—whether in nineteenth-century or twentieth-century media—the myth exists unbound since it effectively reduces the three volumes of Frankenstein to two sentences: a) Frankenstein makes a living creature out of corpses, and b) The creature turns against him and runs amok (Baldick 3). As modern myth, this skeletal story of Frankenstein has become a pop-cultural phenomenon, and it continues to be explored as such by cultural critics. When David Leon Higdon, for example, writes about “Frankenstein as Founding Myth in Gary Larson’s The Far Side,” he points out that “[s]everal details make it apparent that Larson’s Frankenstein cartoons allude to Frankenstein, The Bride of Frankenstein, and The Son of Frankenstein, rather than to Mary Shelley’s novel” (52).
Whose myth is it, anyway? Whereas some writers (to appropriate a couple of those campy B-movie titles) demonstrate the many ways in which the myth of Frankenstein Conquers the World, others seem to argue that such myth-interpretations of Frankenstein Must be Destroyed. “On the level of cultural myth,” Joyce Carol Oates asserts, “the figures of Dracula, Sherlock Holmes, Alice [in Wonderland], and the rest are near-autonomous beings, linked to no specific books and no specific authors. They have become communal creations; they belong to all of us” (73). Is Frankenstein’s creature to be excluded from this list of communal creations? Mellor clearly thinks so. To her, the Frankenstein myth is Frankenstein’s myth, linked to a specific text and belonging not “to all of us” but to a specific author:
[T]his myth of a man-made monster can be derived from a single, datable event: the waking dream of a specific eighteen-year-old girl on June 16, 1816. Moreover, Mary Shelley created her myth single-handedly. All other myths of the western or eastern worlds, whether of Dracula, Tarzan, Superman or more traditional religious systems, derive from folklore or communal ritual practices. (38-9)
Thus the discourse on myth as outlined above appears to be at the core of the ongoing custody battles over Frankenstein. While cultural criticism of Frankenstein, an approach taken mainly by male critics, investigates the appropriation of the myth without necessarily returning to the reading of Shelley’s novel, feminist criticism, starting with Moers’ discussion of the novel as a “woman’s mythmaking on the subject of birth” (93), has set out, instead, to investigate the myth primarily as it relates directly to—or stems from—Shelley’s life and work.
Viewed as a myth that can be reduced to a couple of sentences or retraced to a single author, Frankenstein threatens to turn into a fiction that has been all figured out. In his essay “The Ambiguous Heritage of Frankenstein,” for example, Levine offers this neat package of themes: “Birth and Creation,” “The Overreacher,” “Rebellion and Moral Isolation,” “The Unjust Society,” “The Defects of Domesticity,” “The Double,” “Technology, Entropy, and the Monstrous” (8-17). According to Baldick, the “process of myth-making violates the multiplicity and interplay of meanings which the novel’s narrative complexity retains, and sets its radically foreshortened story free to attract new narrative or interpretative elaboration around it” (3). Yet it is precisely the “novel’s narrative complexity,” the vast space between those two summarizing statements, which readers, familiar with the myth and the many narrative elaborations, fill with meanings or bridge through emotions.
In his introduction to The Implied Reader, Wolfgang Iser suggests that the novel “is the genre in which reader involvement coincides with meaning production” (xi). For the past twenty-five years or so, meaning production appears to have been meaning reduction: the multiplicity of reader responses to one of the world’s most popular fictions has yet to be recognized and recorded. In short, to modify George Levine’s statement one more time: everybody writes about Frankenstein, but nobody writes about its readers.
The Common Misnomer and the “Common” Reader
Are reader-response criticism and Frankenstein (the novel, not the myth) ill-matched? In his essay “Frankenstein: Creation as Catastrophe,” Paul Sherwin wonders: “how can the same text sustain divergent critical representations and what authorizes or disqualifies any representation at a particular moment?” (40). Would such a question arise if the text under discussion were a different one, one not viewed as a two-sentenced meaning cluster? Sherwin reasons that, ultimately “the authorizing model relies on an interpretation of how things are [ . . . ] and whether or not the representation is privileged depends on the particular analyst’s rhetorical skill and our willingness to be lied to” (Sherwin 41; emphasis added).
Is an honest reader-response to Frankenstein still possible? Reader-response criticism could at least provide an alternative to biography bound feminist criticism and myth-based cultural criticism by exploring how the appropriation of the myth, a reader’s knowledge of the skeleton story, as well as its various interpretations, impact on the actual reading experience. Thus, considering the commonplace that everyone knows Frankenstein’s central elements and characters prior to the reading event, the novel seems to recommend itself to reader-response models which see the “process of reading” as “an active interweaving of anticipation and retrospection” (Iser 282).
Instead, now that Shelley’s novel has been accepted into the canon of English literature, the responding readers seem to have become excluded from further discussions as critics argue that the “ghost story” of yesteryear has become too complex for the uninitiated. Oates, for example, reasons that the multiplicity of Frankenstein—as “‘novel’ of 1818 and timeless ‘metaphor’—makes it a highly difficult story to read directly. A number of popular misconceptions obscure it for most readers” (72). LaValley, who, as scholar of the stage and film children of Frankenstein, can afford to include himself among the confused, agrees and explains that
[b]y the time we read the novel the images from various films are so firmly imprinted on our minds that it is almost impossible not to filter the events and images of the book through the more familiar ones of the films. We are apt to distort the novel to fit a familiar mold, miss what is fresh or unfamiliar in it, and react with discomfort and disappointment. (243)
Thus, while critics frequently concede that the film images have a profound influence on the experience of reading Shelley’s novel, their choice of words—“misconceptions,” “obscure,” and “distort”—also indicates that reading under the influence will lead to blurred vision and impaired reasoning.
In fact, discussions of such “misconceptions” about Frankenstein are commonly reduced even further, namely to a single act of “misreading,” the oft mentioned “[p]opular confusion between the Monster and his maker, which has produced ‘creating a Frankenstein’ as a proverbial expression” (Small 18). While this could become a starting point for reader-response criticism, the implications of such influences on the reading experience are rarely explored much further.
A collection of critical essays published in 1992 as part of the series “Case Studies in Contemporary Criticism” may serve as an illustration of the sparsity of reader-response criticism as an approach to Shelley’s novel. True, its five critical approaches to Frankenstein include feminist criticism, cultural criticism, as well as reader-response criticism. Yet whereas the editors recommend another seven and eight essays on Frankenstein written by feminist and cultural critics respectively, they do not provide a similar list of studies in applied reader-response criticism. Furthermore, the essay chosen to represent reader-response criticism, Mary Lowe-Evans’ “Reading with a ‘Nicer Eye’: Responding to Frankenstein,” is not only written from a teacher’s perspective—where else, one might argue, can readers whose names have not appeared in literary journals be approached—but is almost hostile toward student readers and responses.
Lowe-Evans introduces her students as college juniors and seniors who “all brought to the work similar preconceptions about the story of Frankenstein based on film versions but were ignorant of the novel itself” (217). And since the instructor here appears to be more interested in combatting ignorance than in learning what her students do know, think, and feel about Frankenstein prior to the reading experience, the discussion of influences on the reading event is, once again, reduced to the familiar misnomer: “The reader conditioned by movies mistakenly assigns the name ‘Frankenstein’ primarily to the monster and only secondarily to the monster’s creator, the mad scientist” (217). Of course, the “mistake” can be easily identified and corrected during the reading process, particularly under the guidance of an instructor. Occasionally critics argue that the misnomer, once identified, corrected, and effectively defused, can even be worked into meaning-based interpretations. Levine, for example, suggests the misnomer may actually heighten readers’ awareness of the concept of doubling in Shelley’s story which has entered “some of the popular versions and is un-self-consciously accepted by everyone who casually calls the Monster ‘Frankenstein’” (“The Ambiguous Heritage” 14). Bloom argues that “the common reader and the common viewer have worked together, in their apparent confusion, to create a myth soundly based on a central duality in Mary Shelley’s novel” (“Introduction” 1-2). Yet rather than the “idea of meaning as an event, something that is happening between the words and in the reader’s mind” (Fish 28), it is commonly the novel, the written text sanctioned as authoritative, that holds meaning across which even the common viewers-turned-readers, “in their apparent confusion,” must eventually stumble.
Further to counteract her students’ ignorance, Lowe-Evans, who sees her average student as a “modern consumer of film media [who] comes to the novel [. . .] conditioned to expect, first and foremost, a monster story, an entertainment” (217), seeks to “dislodge and even replace the students’ perceptions of Frankenstein by persuading them to consider rhetorical signposts and gaps within the text in ways they might not otherwise have considered” (217). Are students who find Frankenstein on their syllabus, who enter the interpretive community of the classroom anticipating tests and term papers, and who generally keep education and entertainment separate, really hoping for diversion? As a result, are students who accept the artifice of classroom discussions not, to use the term coined by Gibson, mock-reading the novel as well as their instructor? Lowe-Evans herself seems to be “conditioned to expect, first and foremost,” a group of moviegoers-turned-readers who cannot get past the images of a grunting Boris Karloff and whose perceptions of the novel are in need of correctives.
To be sure, prior to the reading experience, a person unfamiliar with Shelley’s novel may very well have questions and expectations such as these:
Where is Frankenstein’s marvelous laboratory? What happened to the big creation scene? The book gives us a cryptic account of the Monster’s “birth,” so brief as to leave us wondering how it was done. And where in the creature of the book are the familiar lineaments of Boris Karloff? (LaValley 243)
Yet during the reading experience, even the most casual or careless reader will eventually realize that those are not the ingredients of Shelley’s Frankenstein but of several other variations on the popular myth.
Not unlike Lowe-Evans students, I, too, read Frankenstein as a junior in a literature class. Yet whereas Lowe-Evans does not share with her readers whether she, when first encountering Shelley’s novel, had been equally “ignorant of the novel,” I readily admit to having been a reader who “mistakenly assigns the name ‘Frankenstein’ primarily to the monster.” The misnomer is more than a mere mistake. It exemplifies the evolution of the myth of Frankenstein and attests to the influences of Hollywood as the most powerful mythmaker of the 20th century. O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night may serve as an illustration: “I made you! You’re my Frankenstein” (1370), exclaims Jamie, addressing his brother—and neither O’Neill nor his creations acknowledge the confusion. Considering the enormous popularity of Universal’s Frankenstein and its sequels in the 1930s, it is possible that the misnomer is not that of the well-educated Tyrone family anno 1912, but that of the playwright. Yet according to the Oxford English Dictionary, the misnomer dates back as far as 1838, when Gladstone referred to mules as “Frankensteins of the animal creation.” Could generations of English readers be wrong? Are those who know the right name for each character better readers? To me, the real question is whether Lowe-Evans’s guided reading as error-correction is the most sophisticated method of eliciting reader-responses to Frankenstein.
Jane P. Tompkins once pointed out that reader-response criticism “merely transposed formalist principles into a new key,” as in both approaches “meaning is the aim of the critical act” (201). In “Frankenstein and Comedy,” however, Philip Stevick attempts a feeling-based, rather than a meaning-based reader-response to Shelley’s novel. Stevick discusses the novel’s “capacity to provoke laughter” (221) by juxtaposing moments of “energy and torpor, movement and rest, obsessive frenzy and virtually pathological detachment. They are strange and amazing contrasts that bear directly on the reader’s response” (222). Yet, as it turns out, his response is not so much based upon reading, but on remembering Frankenstein:
One experiences the comic aspects of Frankenstein in different ways according to one’s distance from the book. Before the fact, one tends to expect the book to be, in some respects, funny. It seems likely that such an expectation is a mid-twentieth-century phenomenon and that no reader before, say, the nineteen-thirties had any such expectation. As one actually reads the book, it seems rarely, perhaps never, funny; scarcely anyone laughs at Frankenstein page by page. After the fact, the book is often comic, as one remembers certain set pieces, as one tries to retell them, or as one tries to translate the action of the book into another form. (222)
While “before the fact” and “after the fact” are important concepts in reader-response, Stevick’s discussion lacks a focus on what happens during the fact. Is Oates right, after all, when she refers to Shelley’s novel as “a highly difficult story to read directly”? With its readers marginalized and dropping out of the picture, Frankensteinappears to have been framed by feminist and cultural critics alike. Yet even critics like Stevick, Lowe-Evans, or Peter Brooks have not done much to provide an alternative family portrait, since they have paid closer attention to the before and after of reading Frankenstein, to the connections between instructor and student, or to the narrative contract between narrator and narratee, than to the relationship between the narrative and its late-twentieth-century readers.
Coda, or: The Art of Reframing
Commenting on “Is There a Woman in this Text?” Ellen Cronan Rose points out that in her critique of Anglo-American feminist criticism, Mary Jacobus “uses feminist criticism of Frankenstein rather than the text itself to make her point” (812). As a result, “[a]lthough pointedly critical of Moers and Gilbert and Gubar, Jacobus does not herself offer the ‘French’ reading of Frankenstein she would prefer” (813). Of course, I have fallen into the same trap. I have not managed to read Frankensteindirectly either, have failed to offer my reflections on the workings of the reader’s mind, the interweaving of anticipation and retrospection, the interconnections between the variations on the Frankenstein myth and the printed word, which are the reading event. In the framework of my essay, I have not provided what I claim is missing in the essays on Frankenstein written by feminist, cultural, as well as reader-response critics. Instead of bringing Frankenstein to life through the reading event, I have “created a Frankenstein,” a patchwork of stitched together arguments that is now turning against me.
Shelley’s novel, however—forcing its attention on me once more and inspiring me to create the illusion of its having the last word—remains an invitation. In a pact of life and death, it confronts each reader-creator with the following demand and promise: “Do your duty towards me, and I will do mine towards you and the rest of mankind” (90).
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