on 8 November 2012
Which edition of Frankenstein should be taught? There are significant differences in the novel published in 1818, and the revised novel, published in 1831. Theory and practice does not assume that the author's final edition is definitive. For example, it's believed that the first edition of Frankenstein has greater biographical context than the later. The context includes the recent death of Mary Shelley's first baby, her dissatisfaction with Percy Shelley's Romantic ideology, her political observation of the aftermath of the French Revolution in 1814-1816, and her scientific curiosity regarding the experiments with galvanic electricity.
The difference between the two editions include a thematic disparity concerning the role of fate in relationship to destiny, the extent of Frankenstein responsibility for his actions, the representation of nature and family, and the role of Clerval. There are two preliminary observations, which include the disparity between Mary Shelley's original style as reflected in her surviving manuscript, and the chronological account of the manuscript given by James Rieger, the editor of the only reprint of the 1818 text, which is inaccurate and prejudicial in favor of Percy Shelley. Therefore, students should be warned of deceiving statements, unwarranted speculations, half-truths, and falsehoods.
Rieger credits Percy with phrasing the contrast between Frankenstein and Elizabeth and between the Swiss republic and less fortunate nations. As well, Rieger proposes that it was Percy that used Mont Blanc for its metaphoric value to power. He also credits Percy for enlisting a journey to England to create a female monster, for editing the final pages, and correcting Mary's "frequent grammatical solecisms, her spelling, and awkward phrasing" (206). Finally, Rieger credited Percy with assisting at "every point in the book's manufacture was so extensive that one hardly knows whether to regard him as editor or minor collaborator (Rieger xviii).
As Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein, she did hand the manuscript off to her husband, Percy Shelley, for editing. However, she "did not owe the suggestion of one incident, nor scarcely of one train of feeling" to Percy Shelley (Riegar 229). However, there was an exception: Percy suggested that Frankenstein's trip to England be proposed by him rather than his father. It is true that Percy suggested numerous corrections, around a thousand, on the original manuscript pages. The corrections were mostly accepted by Mary.
Regarding the comparison of Elizabeth's character to Victor Frankenstein's, Percy did expand it, but he did not initiate the comparison. He did not develop a comparison of Switzerland's republicanism with other lesser nations. The description of Mont Blanc and the Mer de Glace are based mostly on Mary's observations. In truth, Mary's grammatical errors were infrequent, and her phrasing often times more graceful than her husbands. Rieger's suggestion that Percy may have been a "minor collaborator" is unjustifiable. Rieger's opinions appear to have been sexist-since he insinuates that she could not have created this story on her own.
With that being noted, Percy did change the last lines of the novel. Mary penned Walton's final view of the Creature thus:
He sprung from the cabin window as he said this upon an ice raft that lay close to the vessel and pushing himself off he was carried away by the waves and I soon lost sight of him in the darkness and distance.
Percy changed it to:
He sprung from the cabin-window, as he said this, upon the ice-raft which lay close to the vessel. He was soon borne away by the waves, and lost in darkness and distance. (Rieger 221)
Mary's version leaves the troubling possibility that the Creature may still be alive. But Percy's asserts that the Creature is lost provides the reader with more closure of demonic threats.
By far, Percy's revisions were largely stylistic. Often times, he changed Mary's diction and colloquial sentence structure into more refined and complex structures. He is largely responsible for the ornate prose style. Mary's writing was more sentimental rather than abstract, and more rhythmic rather than flat prose. For example, here is Mary on Frankenstein's fascination with supernatural phenomena:
Nor were these my only visions. The raising of ghosts or devils was also a favorite pursuit and if I never saw any I attributed it rather to my own inexperience and mistakes than want of skill in my instructors.
Nor were these my only visions. The raising of ghosts or devils was a promise liberally accorded by my favourite authors, the fulfillment of which I most eagerly sought; and if my incantations were always unsuccessful, I attributed the failure rather to my own inexperience and mistakes, than to a want of skill or fidelity in my instructors. (Rieger 34)
Percy used more learned language and terms. As well, he eliminated Mary's colloquial phrases, which include-from have to possess, from place to station, from time to period, from smallness to minuteness, from die to perish, and from mind to understanding.
The differences between the first, 1818, and second, 1831, editions of Frankenstein, correspond with Mary Shelley's philosophical changes. By the deaths of Clara, William, and Percy; by the betrayals of Byron and Jane Williams; and by her economic dire straits, Mary Shelley philosophy changed-events are decided by an indifferent destiny of fate. The values in the first edition-nature is a nurturing force that punishes only those who transgress against its rights, Victor is morally responsible for his actions, that the Creature is driven to evil by social and parental neglect, that families similar to the De Laceys, who love all their children equally, offer the best hope for happiness, and that egotism creates the greatest suffering in the world. All those notions are rejected in the second edition.
In the 1818 edition, Frankenstein possesses freewill: he could have abandoned his quest for the "principle of life,' he could have cared for his Creature, and he could have protected Elizabeth. But in the 1831 edition, Frankenstein is a mere pawn within the force of nature, which is beyond his understanding. Victor says, "Destiny was too potent, and her immutable laws had decreed my utter and terrible destruction" (Rieger, app. 239). As well, Elizabeth changes her tune to fatalism: "I think our placid home, and our contented hearts are regulated by the same immutable laws" (Rieger, app. 243).
In the 1831 edition, Mary changes from her organic nature to a mechanistic nature. She portrays nature as a juggernaut or a mighty machine, an "imperial" tyrant (Rieger, appl. 249). In this edition, human beings represent puppets. Victor's sins are not egotistical "presumption and rash ignorance," but rather bad influences, which include his father's ignorance, or Professor Waldman's Mephistophelian manipulations. Victor's sin is not his failure to love and care for his Creature, but rather his original decision to construct a human being. Victor is portrayed as a victim rather than creator of evil. Clerval, who originally functioned as a being of moral virtue, is now portrayed as an equally ambitious being of fame and power, a future colonial imperialist.
Thus in the final 1831 edition, Mary Shelley disclaims responsibility for her progeny and insist that she remained passive before it, "leaving the core and substance of it untouched" (Rieger 229). Invention "can give form to dark, shapeless substances, but cannot bring into being the substance itself" (Rieger 226). Imperial nature, the thing-in-itself, is triumphant. Mary's imagination can mold shapeless darkness into a hideous monster. Similar to Victor, Mary has become an unwilling "author of unalterable evils" (211).
The changes in diction and philosophical context between the three versions of Frankenstein-the manuscript, the 1818 edition, and the 1831 edition, make this an ideal text for classes in editing, or theory. From the perspective of deconstructive criticism, Frankenstein portrays what Julia Kristeva calls "the questionable subject-in-process," both a text and an author without stable boundaries. However, the 1818 edition presents a more stable and coherent conception of the character of Victor Frankenstein and of Mary Shelley's political and moral ideology.