Cooking with Mary Shelley

From The Paris Review:

This year, I suggest a sad and lovelorn Halloween, tender and tolerant of monsters. The book for the mood is the 1816 novel Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley (1797–1851), a classic of gothic literature whose pages inspired foraged-fare acorn scones, a cocktail, and a bread pudding—not weird science, but foods of love.

Readers, critics, and biographers have long sought the key to Frankenstein in Mary Shelley’s life, which had all the tragedy and plot twists of a good gothic novel. Shelley was the daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft, author of the early feminist text A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, and William Godwin, a radical political writer as famous as Wollstonecraft in his time. When Mary was sixteen, she fell for a young poet on the make, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and ran off to France with him, along with her fifteen-year-old stepsister, Claire Clairmont, who also later had a sexual relationship with Shelley. The ménage ran out of money and returned to England, but stayed together, perennially short of cash and living according to the principles of free love. Their conduct ostracized Godwin despite his radical reputation, and most of Mary’s circle of friends.

. . . .

Mary began work on Frankenstein a few years later, when she was still in her teens, on another trip to Europe. One fateful rainy afternoon, a group that included Mary, Percy, and Lord Byron dared each other to write scary stories. The others never followed through, but Mary’s story would become perhaps the most famous result of a parlor game ever produced. The book is composed in nested points of view, letters and stories within stories, a structure that was popular at the time and is particularly elegant for Frankenstein because the layers make the wild contents feel more plausible. It follows the conventions of gothic literature, exploring themes of fear, exile, and loneliness, and begins in a frozen wasteland, with letters from a young sea captain describing a perilous mission to the far north. There, the sea captain meets Victor Frankenstein, once a promising young scientist, whose “heart overflowed with kindness and the love of virtue” but who had “committed deeds of mischief beyond description horrible, and much, much more.”

Frankenstein’s crime was to have stitched together a giant man from the parts of other men and endowed it with life. When the ecstasy of conception is over, he is horrified by his creation, which has a “dull yellow eye” and a “shriveled complexion,” and moves with “convulsive motion.” He flees from it, but the creature eventually pursues him, and murders, one by one, his family members and loved ones. In the morality of the book, the retribution is partially a condemnation of scientific overreach, but is more a consequence of Victor Frankenstein’s lack of appreciation of what it means to be a human being. When the monster confronts Victor and reveals its point of view, we learn that it felt itself to be “a poor, helpless, miserable wretch” and that it longed for companionship. In this context, Victor’s abandonment of it upon its birth was cruel.

The monster demands that Victor make it a female companion—and promises that if he does so, it will do no further harm. Its words are moving:

If you consent, neither you nor any other human being shall ever see us again. I will go to the vast wilds of South America. My food is not that of man; I do not destroy the lamb and the kid, to glut my appetite; acorns and berries afford me sufficient nourishment. My companion will be of the same nature as myself, and will be content with the same fare. We shall make our bed of dried leaves.

Victor fails to honor this romantic request, and brings about his own downfall. One lesson of Frankenstein is that what matters in life is not our accomplishments but how we treat each other, which must have had special resonance for the author, given her personal circumstance of love and exile. The stitched-up green corpse, in this reading, becomes an object of tenderness, a person we should all do better by.

Link to the rest at The Paris Review

1 thought on “Cooking with Mary Shelley”

  1. Minor point: Dr. Frankenstein’s creature wasn’t a stiched up corpse. That was Dr. Fronkensteen’s.

    Shelly’s version procured “materials” to create life. His creation comes from the golem tradition, not the grave. It helps to remember the book’s full title: FRANKENSTEIN,OR THE MODERN PROMETHUS. After tbe mythological titan said in some versions to have created man out of *clay*.

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