WHAT’S INSIDE A GIRL? Mary Shelley and the Ventriloquism of the Undead


Two hundred years ago, in the spring of 1814, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin began her romance with Percy Bysshe Shelley—a romance shadowed by dreadful mortality, but which birthed Frankenstein: or The Modern Prometheus in 1818. February 1st is the anniversary of her death in 1851. The name Frankenstein as a unit of exchange has become synonymous with forms of bastard science, Promethean or Faustian transgressions and their mutant consequences. So profound is this shorthand metaphor, so great has been its escape, that Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s teenage wit in producing the name Victor Frankenstein has been obscured. But it is there, buried in the lurid séance of the narrative. Mary Shelley’s tale is a sustained act of extraordinary ventriloquism in which the reader does well to remember that none of its creatures actually ‘speaks’ except for the mariner Robert Walton, who transcribes the entire catastrophe of Frankenstein and his creature in a manuscript intended for his sister Margaret.

That memorized manuscript—part confession, part reconstructed epistle—descends through several layers of ventriloquism, reaching absurd depths, the nadir of which is the obligatory Arabesque interlude when Shelley is writing what Walton recalls of what Frankenstein remembers of what the creature told him of letters that he copied from the originals sent by Safie, the ‘sweet Arabian,’ to Felix De Lacey after being translated into French by her old man confidant. The novel itself is a chimera, always straining at its bonds. In the second volume of the novel, the creature begins a monologue that continues for six chapters, except that it is Victor Frankenstein ventriloquizing his undead real-doll, in turn animated by Walton, whom we encounter from the position of Margaret reading his manuscript. Since, at the conclusion of the tale, Victor Frankenstein is dead, we are left with Walton animating Frankenstein’s corpse by assuming his voice. But what is animated inside the abused name of Frankenstein?

Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley
Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley

It’s an odd name, Frankenstein: a conflation, a Teutonic chimera. The stein component is relatively straightforward, indicating ‘stone’. The Franken element, via the gothic Franks (the name Frankenstein is also a loose pun on Frangistan or Western Europe), essentially indicates ‘free’. The stone is of course the stone of the Semitic Golem to which the novel is obviously indebted; it is also the stone to which Prometheus, and by extension the anxiety to which all of Western European post-classical thought, is shackled; it is the stone of the grave; and it is the stone of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, and of her radical feminist mother whose name she doubles, and who died of septicaemia shortly after giving birth to her. The placenta and the grave become synonymous. The name Wollstonecraft has roots in Saxon words for wolf (synonymous with freedom), and enclosed ground, a name that originates in the frozen north, where Shelley’s narrative begins and concludes. As such the names Wollstonecraft and Frankenstein are related.

In Mary Shelley’s novel, Geneva is Victor Frankenstein’s enclosure, his stone-walled tomb world, his necropolis. In the realization of his transgressive desire, Victor Frankenstein frees the stone dead from their stones. The briefly triumphant Victor, contained in the noun vivisector, like his creature, wanders the novel in a state of unmourning, fearful of returning to the necropolis. It makes some sense that the creature has, in many instances, assumed the name of its creator. The deliberate anonymity of the creature ensures synonymity with its creator, and thus the conflation of the two on the subsequent popular culture production line—snarkily regarded as a sign of ignorance—is actually a construct justified by Mary Shelley’s devices. What’s good for the goose is good for the gander, and so for creature and creator. And further, the stony paralysis of Geneva, of grief and melancholy, that Victor is destined to attempt to transcend finds its analogue in the ice which confines Walton’s ship as he strives for his own Promethean moment in the ‘eternal light’ of the Arctic, from which he ultimate retires, a bipolar Shackleton, shackled to the guilt he borrows from his passenger, Frankenstein.

There’s an enjoyable issue of class, too: the chimeric body parts that constitute the creature are an amalgam of the proletarian and the animal. The churchyard gravesites and charnal houses of the lower order are easier desecrated than the locked mausoleum edifices of the aristocracy to which Victor Frankenstein belongs. The other long bones come from slaughterhouse animals. There’s an alignment with H.G. Wells’ later vivisector Doctor Moreau here, another ship-bound narrative. It is in the lycanthropy of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley that Victor and his creature encounter the peasantry of Europe, their experience, their laws and taboos. The creature is essentially a working class animal created by an aristocrat. Flash forward 166 years to the climax of The Terminator, where John Connor, illuminated by heroic irony, finally and literally takes back control of the means of production from which humanity has been alienated and crushes the futurist golem of the bourgeoisie in the crude machinery of the production line.

Frankenstein 4

Of course, Frankenstein’s work is a Lazarene raising of the dead, a rolling away of the stone (something he fails to do when given the opportunity to free the rather pathetic, falsely-accused Justine Moritz from her stone prison, thereby condemning her to death) that is conventionally blasphemous. When Frankenstein’s Lazarus speaks, it is not through the resurrected language of the working class animal, but through the ‘borrowed’ language and culture of the fallen De Lacey family: Plutrach, Volney, Milton and Goethe. He parrots a pidgin classical culture—another form of ventriloquism.

The several voices of the novel are finally indistinct. Either through Shelley’s inexperience, or Walton’s aspirations for the manuscript he is recording, they share the same mannered vocabulary. But the undifferentiated tones have the effect of uniting Victor Frankenstein and his creature in word as well as deed: the creature recounts his own failed attempt to “restore animation” to a drowned girl. Walton says of Victor Frankenstein that “Such a man has a double existence.” That double existence is shared by Frankenstein and Wollstonecraft Shelly in their drive to defeat death, to escape mourning. To do so, it becomes necessary to occupy the same space as the dead, to embody the corpse, and through ventriloquism, perpetuate a state of unmourning.

James Reich is the author of BOMBSHELL: A NOVEL, and I, JUDAS: A NOVEL (Soft Skull Press) and a faculty member at Santa Fe University of Art and Design. 

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