But the politics of “Frankenstein” are as intricate as its structure of stories nested like Russian dolls. The outermost doll is a set of letters from an English adventurer to his sister, recounting his Arctic expedition and his meeting with the strange, emaciated, haunted Victor Frankenstein. Within the adventurer’s account, Frankenstein tells the story of his fateful experiment, which has led him to pursue his creature to the ends of the earth. And within Frankenstein’s story lies the tale told by the creature himself, the littlest, innermost Russian doll: the baby.
The novel’s structure meant that those opposed to political radicalism often found themselves baffled and bewildered by “Frankenstein,” as literary critics such as Chris Baldick and Adriana Craciun have pointed out. The novel appears to be heretical and revolutionary; it also appears to be counter-revolutionary. It depends on which doll is doing the talking.
If “Frankenstein” is a referendum on the French Revolution, as some critics have read it, Victor Frankenstein’s politics align nicely with those of Edmund Burke, who described violent revolution as “a species of political monster, which has always ended by devouring those who have produced it.” The creature’s own politics, though, align not with Burke’s but with those of two of Burke’s keenest adversaries, Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin. Victor Frankenstein has made use of other men’s bodies, like a lord over the peasantry or a king over his subjects, in just the way that Godwin denounced when he described feudalism as a “ferocious monster.” (“How dare you sport thus with life?” the creature asks his maker.) The creature, born innocent, has been treated so terribly that he has become a villain, in just the way that Wollstonecraft predicted. “People are rendered ferocious by misery,” she wrote, “and misanthropy is ever the offspring of discontent.” (“Make me happy,” the creature begs Frankenstein, to no avail.)
Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin Shelley took pains that readers’ sympathies would lie not only with Frankenstein, whose suffering is dreadful, but also with the creature, whose suffering is worse. The art of the book lies in the way Shelley nudges readers’ sympathy, page by page, paragraph by paragraph, even line by line, from Frankenstein to the creature, even when it comes to the creature’s vicious murders, first of Frankenstein’s little brother, then of his best friend, and, finally, of his bride. Much evidence suggests that she succeeded. “The justice is indisputably on his side,” one critic wrote in 1824, “and his sufferings are, to me, touching to the last degree.”
“Hear my tale,” the creature insists, when he at last confronts his creator. What follows is the autobiography of an infant. He awoke, and all was confusion. “I was a poor, helpless, miserable wretch; I knew, and could distinguish, nothing.” He was cold and naked and hungry and bereft of company, and yet, having no language, was unable even to name these sensations. “But, feeling pain invade me on all sides, I sat down and wept.” He learned to walk, and began to wander, still unable to speak—“the uncouth and inarticulate sounds which broke from me frightened me into silence again.” Eventually, he found shelter in a lean-to adjacent to a cottage alongside a wood, where, observing the cottagers talk, he learned of the existence of language: “I discovered the names that were given to some of the most familiar objects of discourse: I learned and applied the words fire, milk, bread, and wood.” Watching the cottagers read a book, “Ruins of Empires,” by the eighteenth-century French revolutionary the Comte de Volney, he both learned how to read and acquired “a cursory knowledge of history”—a litany of injustice. “I heard of the division of property, of immense wealth and squalid poverty; of rank, descent, and noble blood.” He learned that the weak are everywhere abused by the powerful, and the poor despised.
Shelley kept careful records of the books she read and translated, naming title after title and compiling a list each year—Milton, Goethe, Rousseau, Ovid, Spenser, Coleridge, Gibbon, and hundreds more, from history to chemistry. “Babe is not well,” she noted in her diary while writing “Frankenstein.” “Write, draw and walk; read Locke.” Or, “Walk; write; read the ‘Rights of Women.’ ” The creature keeps track of his reading, too, and, unsurprisingly, he reads the books that Shelley read and reread most often. One day, wandering in the woods, he stumbles upon a leather trunk, lying on the ground, that contains three books: Milton’s “Paradise Lost,” Plutarch’s “Lives,” and Goethe’s “The Sorrows of Young Werther”—the library that, along with Volney’s “Ruins,” determines his political philosophy, as reviewers readily understood. “His code of ethics is formed on this extraordinary stock of poetical theology, pagan biography, adulterous sentimentality, and atheistical jacobinism,” according to the review of “Frankenstein” most widely read in the United States, “yet, in spite of all his enormities, we think the monster, a very pitiable and ill-used monster.”
Sir Walter Scott found this the most preposterous part of “Frankenstein”: “That he should have not only learned to speak, but to read, and, for aught we know, to write—that he should have become acquainted with Werter, with Plutarch’s Lives, and with Paradise Lost, by listening through a hole in a wall, seems as unlikely as that he should have acquired, in the same way, the problems of Euclid, or the art of book-keeping by single and double entry.” But the creature’s account of his education very closely follows the conventions of a genre of writing far distant from Scott’s own: the slave narrative.