Critical analysis » Reception: 1818
Frankenstein received mixed reviews when it was first published:
- it was noticed in many of the leading periodicals of the day
- some of the reviews were concerned by its dedication to a well-known radical writer, Mary Shelley’s father William Godwin
- some reviews were concerned by the fact that it bore many of the features of the extremely popular literary genre of Gothic fiction. More on Gothic fiction?
Reasons for success
- The novel’s Gothicism was one of the reasons for its popularity with readers, if not with reviewers
- Its concern with the topical subject of the possibilities and limits of scientific enquiry also contributed to its success.
Reviews: favourable and less favourable
Sir Walter Scott
The best-known reviewer of Frankenstein was Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832), the leading novelist of his generation. It was Scott’s review, which appeared in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, 2 (1818) that first placed the novel in the Gothic genre. Here are some extracts from Scott’s review.
A more philosophical and refined use of the supernatural in works of fiction, is proper to that class in which the laws of nature are represented as altered, not for the purpose of pampering the imagination with wonders, but in order to shew the probable effect which the supposed miracles would produce on those who witnessed them. In this case, the pleasure ordinarily derived from the marvellous incidents is secondary to that which we extract from observing how mortals like ourselves would be affected …
Even in the description of his marvels, however, the author who manages the style of composition with address, gives them an indirect importance with the reader, when he is able to describe with nature, and with truth, the effects which they are calculated to produce upon his dramatis personæ …
In the class of fictitious narrations to which we allude, the author opens a sort of account-current with the reader; drawing upon him, in the first place, for credit to that degree of the marvellous which he proposes to employ; and becoming virtually bound, in consequence of this indulgence, that his personages shall conduct themselves, in the extraordinary circumstances in which they are placed, according to the rules of probability, and the nature of the human heart. In this view, the probable is far from being laid out of sight even amid the wildest freaks of imagination; on the contrary, we grant the extraordinary postulates which the author demands as the foundation of his narrative, only on condition of his deducing the consequences with logical precision …
It is no slight merit in our eyes, that the tale, though wild in incident, is written in plain and forcible English, without exhibiting that mixture of hyperbolical Germanisms with which tales of wonder are usually told, as if it were necessary that the language should be as extravagant as the fiction. The ideas of the author are always clearly as well as forcibly expressed; and his descriptions of landscape have in them the choice requisites of truth, freshness, precision, and beauty. The self-education of the monster, considering the slender opportunities of acquiring knowledge that he possessed, we have already noticed as improbable and overstrained. 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 Werther, 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.
It can be seen from these extracts that Scott balances praise for the novel with some reservations:
- he admires the fact that Mary Shelley introduces extraordinary or improbable events not for their own sake, but in order to speculate upon how they would affect ordinary individuals
- he also comments on the kind of contract (‘account-current’) that the narrative makes with the reader, so that the reader accepts the extraordinary or ‘improbable’ events of the story on the understanding that within this framework the characters will behave in ways that the reader can accept as probable
- Scott also praises the forceful directness of Mary Shelley’s language
- he is, however, less convinced by the way in which the monster acquires language and knowledge about the world, arguing that eavesdropping on the de Laceys, together with his reading of Plutarch, Goethe and Milton (see Literary context: The monster’s reading) is too improbable to be accepted even within the terms of his own argument about probability.
John Wilson Croker
A much less favourable review, written by John Wilson Croker (1780-1857) appeared in the Quarterly Review. Croker was a Tory (i.e. Conservative) MP and unlikely to be sympathetic because:
- the novel was dedicated to a notorious political radical, William Godwin
- the story challenged the boundaries of scientific knowledge and practice.
The extracts below make Croker’s objections clear:
Our readers will guess from this summary, what a tissue of horrible and disgusting absurdity this work presents. – It is piously dedicated to Mr. Godwin, and is written in the spirit of his school. The dreams of insanity are embodied in the strong and striking language of the insane, and the author, notwithstanding the rationality of his preface, often leaves us in doubt whether he is not as mad as his hero. Mr. Godwin is the patriarch of a literary family, whose chief skill is in delineating the wanderings of the intellect, and which strangely delights in the most affecting and humiliating of human miseries. His disciples are a kind of out pensioners of Bedlam, and like 'Mad Bess' or 'Mad Tom,' are occasionally visited with paroxysms of genius and fits of expression, which makes sober-minded people wonder and shudder …
But when we have thus admitted that Frankenstein has passages which appal the mind and make the flesh creep, we have given it all the praise (if praise it can be called) which we dare to bestow. Our taste and our judgement alike revolt at this kind of writing, and the greater the ability with which it may be executed the worse it is – it inculcates no lesson of conduct, manners, or morality; it cannot mend, and will not even amuse its readers, unless their taste have been deplorably vitiated – it fatigues the feelings without interesting the understanding; it gratuitously harasses the sensations. The author has powers, both of conception and language, which employed in a happier direction might, perhaps, (we speak dubiously,) give him a name among these whose writings amuse or amend their fellow-creatures; but we take the liberty of assuring him, and hope that he may be in a temper to listen to us, that the style which he has adopted in the present publication merely tends to defeat his own purpose, if he really had any other object in view than that of leaving the wearied reader, after a struggle between laughter and loathing, in doubt whether the head or the heart of the author be the most diseased.
Croker, confronted with a book that he finds disturbing and puzzling, attacks Frankenstein from a number of points of view:
- he refers to the dedication to Godwin, attacking his ideas and also assuming that the novel is written by a member of his literary (and literal) family, who share his views
- he sees the author and the characters as insane, and the language of the novel as expressing this insanity
- he describes the novel as absurd, and offending against the rules of probability
- he says it teaches no moral lesson and will be of no benefit to its readers
- the phrase ‘it gratuitously harasses the sensations’ suggests that Croker is out of sympathy with the whole conception of Gothic fiction
- finally, Croker admits that the author has ‘powers, both of conception and language’ but believes that they could have been more usefully employed in another kind of story.
Three anonymous reviews from 1818
There now follow brief extracts from three other contemporary reviews, with some questions for you to consider.
Read the review below, from The Edinburgh Magazine and Literary Review
- How does the anonymous author of this review account for the public taste for books like Frankenstein?
- What ‘events’ might the reviewer be referring to in the final sentence of the quotation?
Review in The Edinburgh Magazine and Literary Miscellany, March 1818
There never was a wilder story imagined, yet, like most of the fictions of this age, it has an air of reality attached to it, by being connected with the favourite projects and passions of the times. The real events of the world have, in our day, too, been of so wondrous and gigantic a kind,--the shiftings of the scenes in our stupendous drama have been so rapid and various, that Shakespeare himself, in his wildest flights, has been completely distanced by the eccentricities of actual existence …
Our appetite … for every sort of wonder and vehement interest, has in this way become so desperately inflamed, that especially as the world around us has again settled into its old dull state of happiness and legitimacy, we can be satisfied with nothing in fiction that is not highly coloured and exaggerated; we even like a story the better that it is disjointed and irregular, and our greatest inventors, accordingly, have been obliged to accommodate themselves to the taste of the age, more, we believe, than their own judgment can, at all times, have approved of. The very extravagance of the present production will now, therefore, be, perhaps, in its favour, since the events which have actually passed before our eyes have made the atmosphere of miracles that in which we most readily breathe.
Read the review below, from The Literary Panorama and National Register
- On what grounds does the author of this review object to Frankenstein?
- How would you argue against this view?
We have mentioned that there are gross inconsistencies in the minor details of the story. They are such, for example, as the following: the moment Frankenstein has endowed with life the previously inanimate form of the being which he has made, he is so horror-struck with the hideousness of the form and features, when they are put in motion, that he remains fixed to the spot, while the gigantic monster runs from the horizontal posture in which he lay, and walks away; and Frankenstein never hears any more of him for nearly two years. The author supposes that his hero has the power of communicating life to dead matter: but what has the vital principle to do with habits, and actions which are dependent on the moral will? If Frankenstein could have endowed his creature with the vital principle of a hundred or a thousand human beings, it would no more have been able to walk without having previously acquired the habit of doing so, than it would be to talk, or to reason, or to judge. He does not pretend that he could endow it with faculties as well as life: and yet when it is about a year old we find it reading Werther, and Plutarch and Volney! The whole detail of the development of the creature's mind and faculties is full of these monstrous inconsistencies. After the creature leaves Frankenstein, on the night of its birth, it wanders for sometime in the woods, and then takes up its residence in a kind of shed adjoining to a cottage, where it remains for many months without the knowledge of the inhabitants; and learns to talk and read thro' a chink in the wall!
Read the review below, from The British Critic
- On what grounds does the author of this review criticise Frankenstein?
- The reviewer mentions the fact that the author is a woman. How does he use this in commenting upon the novel?
Review in The British Critic, April 1818
We are in doubt to what class we shall refer writings of this extravagant character; that they bear marks of considerable power, it is impossible to deny; but this power is so abused and perverted, that we should almost prefer imbecility; however much, of late years, we have been wearied and ennuied [i.e. bored] by the languid whispers of gentle sentimentality, they at least had the comfortable property of provoking no uneasy slumber; but we must protest against the waking dreams of horror excited by the unnatural stimulants of this later school; and we feel ourselves as much harassed, after rising from the perusal of these three spirit-wearing volumes, as if we had been over-dosed with laudanum, or hag-ridden by the night-mare …
We need scarcely say, that these volumes have neither principle, object, nor moral; the horror which abounds in them is too grotesque and bizarre ever to approach near the sublime, and when we did not hurry over the pages in disgust, we sometimes paused to laugh outright; and yet we suspect, that the diseased and wandering imagination, which has stepped out of all legitimate bounds, to frame these disjointed combinations and unnatural adventures, might be disciplined into something better. We heartily wish it were so, for there are occasional symptoms of no common powers of mind, struggling through a mass of absurdity, which well nigh overwhelms them; but it is a sort of absurdity that approaches so often the confines of what is wicked and immoral, that we dare hardly trust ourselves to bestow even this qualified praise. The writer of it is, we understand, a female; this is an aggravation of that which is the prevailing fault of the novel; but if our authoress can forget the gentleness of her sex, it is no reason why we should; and we shall therefore dismiss the novel without further comment.
What do the reviews from these three publications have in common?