MARY SHELLEY: FRANKENSTEIN by Nicholas Marsh, Reviewed by D. L. Macdonald
 

MARY SHELLEY: FRANKENSTEIN
By Nicholas Marsh
(Palgrave Macmillan, 2009) xi + 260 pp.
Reviewed by D. L. Macdonald on 2009-10-18.

Click here for a PDF version.

Click here to buy the book on Amazon.

This book appears in Palgrave's "Analysing Texts" series, of which Nicholas Marsh is General Editor and to which he has also contributed volumes on Austen, Blake, Emily Brontë, Larkin, Lawrence, Shakespeare, and Woolf.

The book comprises an intrinsic analysis of the novel itself and an extrinsic account of its context and critics. The first is the stronger, covering both fictional form and themes. It targets the third (1831) edition--a sensible choice, since this is the version of the novel that Shelley chose to leave to the world. Unlike Anne K. Mellor, who in Mary Shelley: Her Life, her Fiction, her Monsters treats in detail the many revisions made by P.B. Shelley, Godwin, and Shelley herself between 1816 and 1831, Marsh mentions but does not extensively discuss them. Throughout, Marsh's method is close reading: quoting a substantial passage to illustrate each of his points and then commenting on it in detail. This approach, illuminating in itself, also sets a good example for students.

Perhaps the strongest and most original chapter is the first, wherein Marsh examines the paragraphing, sentence structure, and diction of three sample passages to show how the narratives of Walton, Frankenstein, and the monster diverge. On all three levels, Walton's narrative is marked by wild mood swings, Frankenstein's by evasiveness, and the creature's by candour and cogency. Thus, Walton's paragraphs vacillate between narration and reflection; his sentences, between the loose and the periodic (that is, with the main clause interrupted by subordinate matter); his grammatical moods, between the declarative, interrogative, and exclamatory; and his diction, between "delight" and "spirits . . . depressed" (8-17). Attentive to gender, this analysis also depicts Walton as a reckless male adventurer writing to his sensible sister. Turning to Frankenstein, Marsh shows that his paragraphs move confusingly back and forth in time; that his sentences are mostly declarative but mostly loose, so that their definite statements are diluted by qualifications; and that his diction is marked by metaphors of wealth and value, suggesting his snobbery without confessing it (17-27). Ultimately, says Marsh, his narrative "shies away from judgement" (34). Finally, Marsh finds rich complexity in the speech of the creature, whom he always calls "the daemon" (and I will henceforth do likewise, though "daemon" is Victor's problematically loaded term for what he creates). While the daemon's paragraphs are repetitious, always appealing to "justice, sympathy, fear, and hope," his sentence structure shows the most variety of the three narratives (30), and his diction expresses a "wide range of tones," from "patient fatalism . . . to outrage . . . to cutting irony" (31: Felix has taught him well). Unlike Frankenstein, says Marsh, the daemon "follows his ideas through to clear conclusions" (34). Marsh thus challenges critics such as Beth Newman, who have called the book monotonous.

Since the novel's three narrators are also its main characters, the second chapter--on "Characterization"--covers some of the same ground as the first. , Advancing his treatment of gender, Marsh finds Walton, Frankenstein, and Clerval exemplifying "male ambition" (64) while Elizabeth personifies saintly femininity--a trait which, Marsh shows, Shelley does not idealize. Distinguishing between what Forster would call round and flat characters (though he doesn't use the terms), Marsh insists, as Forster does, that flat characters are not necessarily uninteresting or unsympathetic. Walton and Frankenstein are round, while the daemon, because of his single-minded quest first for companionship and then for revenge, is relatively flat, like the secondary characters. Finally, Marsh shows how characterization serves the themes of the novel, with characters acting either as doubles, like Walton and Frankenstein, or as figure and shadow, like Frankenstein and the daemon.

Moving from form and characterization to themes, Chapter begins with the distinction between nature and nurture. While Marsh shows that both Frankenstein and the daemon link nature to free will and the good, and nurture to determinism and evil, he concedes that neither character is entirely consistent about this set of binaries. Stressing the links between nurture, determinism, and evil, Marsh argues that the novel is a powerful proto-Marxist critique of modern capitalism, and that, in rebelling against his creator and master, the daemon symbolizes either the restive English working class or the French Revolutionary mob, or both. Following Anne Mellor, Marsh also reads the novel as a critique of male-driven science: a science that seeks to unveil, penetrate, and control a feminine nature. Provocatively, Marsh argues that there is no positive example of science in the novel--that the daemon's longing to recover his original ignorance might be justified. Having discussed the symbolic meaning of the daemon, Marsh examines the oedipal symbolism of Frankenstein's dream and then what might be called the natural symbolism of the moon, water, mountains, storms, sight and hearing. Eschewing oversimplification (here as elsewhere), he notes that Shelley offers a "great richness of suggestion, coupled with a lack of confirmation" (147). Since Shelley deploys her symbolism within a framework of myth, Marsh also explains what she does with the myths of Prometheus, Oedipus, Narcissus, and especially Satan (as retold in Paradise Lost), and he briefly considers how the story itself has become a modern myth (especially with reference to films). Here Marsh seems to bite off more than he chews. Though he draws clear parallels between Shelley's novel and her sources, he does not really provide a theory of myths, except to suggest that they recall "racial memories" (151).

Besides under-examining the topic of myth, Marsh seems reluctant to cite his sources or acknowledge his precursors. Though the brilliant dialogical/narratological first chapter is clearly based on the work of Bakhtin and Genette, their names do not appear in the text. It likewise fails to mention both Anne Mellor's analysis of the novel as a feminist critique of science and Plato's redaction of the myth of Prometheus. Though Marsh sometimes refers to "critics" (e.g., 17, 63, 68, 152), he does not say who they are. In the endnotes we find Genette, Mellor, and Plato (though not Bakhtin or Forster) but it would be helpful--especially for students--to see them named in the main text.

               It was perhaps inevitable that the second part of this book would be weaker than the first. What can an author say in a twenty-page account of "Many Shelley's Life and Works" (with only six pages devoted to her works), or a six-page account of "The Influence of Frankenstein," or a twenty-page "Sample of Critical Views"? Not pretending to offer a critical history of the novel, this "sample" treats only works (by Muriel Spark, Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar, Anne K. Mellor, Mary Lowe-Evans, and Joseph Kestner) published since the 1950s, and it does not do so in chronological order. Furthermore, both this chapter and the "Further Reading" appendix display a bias in favour of Palgrave Macmillan publications.

               This part of the book also contains a number of errors, most of them not very important individually, but disturbing collectively. Marsh says that Shelley's parents married even though both opposed the institution of marriage (183): Godwin opposed it, but Wollstonecraft did not. He refers (like most critics) to the Genevan ghost-story project as a "competition" (188) when it was actually a collaboration, with Byron suggesting to Shelley that they publish their stories together--quite a boost for a beginning novelist. He gets the plot of The Last Man wrong (198). He can't decide whether Lodore (1835) or Falkner (1837) is Shelley's last novel (200): it's Falkner. He refers to "the three books which formed the daemon's education" (212), even though he has already discussed the fourth, Volney's Ruins of Empire. Among other errors, Marsh is especially prone to mistakes about Byron's personal physician, J.W. Polidori, who was not his friend, did not fall in love with Mary Shelley, did complete his original contribution to the ghost-story project, and did not write the prefatory material for The Vampyre.

               The book is lucidly written, but its stylistic peculiarities include the tendentious use of the first person plural, as in: "We have discussed a number of aspects of Frankenstein, considering whether they can or cannot be called 'symbolic'. We have found that there are numerous occasions, when we can say that there is a symbolic meaning in a particular passage" (147). The "we" in the first sentence is purely editorial and harmless, if old-fashioned. Those in the second, however, interpellate the readers, assuming that we all agree with Marsh's point. This usage occurs hundreds of times. A related usage is that of the exclamation mark, which occurs less frequently, but certainly dozens of times, as in: "How, for example, can 'harmony' apply to the De Laceys? The judgement they accept philosophically is not 'harmony' at all: it is mere corruption and judicial bullying!" (172). (This is not even right: when Felix De Lacey helps Safie's father to escape from jail, he is breaking the law, even if the father has been imprisoned unjustly. He may be right, but he is a criminal.) Despite his often thoughtful discussion of gender, Marsh also consistently uses the terms "man" and "mankind" to refer to humanity and refers blandly at one point to "healthy heterosexual love" (153). In short, this book constructs its reader as a healthy heterosexual he-man who believes everything Marsh has to say or at least can be shouted into silence.

               It is not clear from the General Editor's Preface whom this book is intended for (except "we . . . all" [x]), though a blurb on the back cover refers to "new students." While I certainly learned something, especially from the first chapter, the book is not addressed primarily to academics and elsewhere its usefulness is somewhat limited. It would help an instructor preparing to teach the novel for the first time, not least because of the excellent essay questions that end most chapters. I would hesitate to assign it to students, partly because some of them might be lesbians with minds of their own and partly because it is so long, but they might profitably consult it in researching essays. It might be mostly useful in a distance-learning course, as at Britain's Open University, where it could stand in for a course of lectures on the novel.

 

D. Lorne Macdonald, who died after a brief illness on January 14, 2010, was Professor of English at the University of Calgary. His books include biographies of John William Polidori (1991) and Matthew Gregory Lewis (2000) as well as editions of Frankenstein, Wollestoncraft's Vindications,  Lewis's The Monk, Polidori's 'The Vampyr' and Charlotte Smith's last novel, Letters of a Solitary Wanderer (2007).  His Broadview Anthology of Literature of the Revolutionary Period, co-edited with Anne McWhir, will appear shortly.


Leave a comment on D. L. Macdonald's review.

Name:
Email:
Comments:

 Subscribe to RSS feed

Search NBOL-19.org
Loading