Happy Birthday, Frankenstein

On March 11, 1818, Frankenstein: Or the Modern Prometheus was anonymously published in London.

In 1821, the second edition of Frankenstein was published in Paris, identified as the work of Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin Shelley, the 23 year-old daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin, and the wife of poet P.S. Shelley.

Many a high school teacher, English Lit Professor, Cliff notes editor, or Universal Studios Executive may have their ideas about various themes in Frankenstein, but, as it turns out, we must not overlook its discussion of justice and the criminal justice system.

To begin, the novel was dedicated:

To William Godwin, Author of Political Justice, Caleb Williams, &C.  These Volumes Are respectfully inscribed by The Author.

The Foundations of Literary Studies in a blog post from 2013 argues that “This dedication implies that Shelley shared views of political justice with Godwin.”

And, that

William Godwin was a firm supporter of justice.  He states in his Enquiry Concerning Political Justice that ‘the cause of justice is humanity. Its advocates should be penetrated with universal good-will, ‘ taking a clear stance on the issue of justice and its importance.

In Chapter 7 of the novel, readers learn that Justine Moritz, a young woman who has been living with the Frankenstein family, is accused of murdering Victor Frankenstein’s youngest brother, the child William.

“Justine Moritz! Poor, poor girl, is she the accused? But it is wrongfully; every one knows that; no one believes it, surely, Ernest?”

Upon learning of this, Victor Frankenstein tries to assert her innocence:

This was a strange tale, but it did not shake my faith; and I replied earnestly, “You are all mistaken; I know the murderer. Justine, poor, good Justine, is innocent.”

And, again,

“My dear father, you are mistaken; Justine is innocent.”

“If she is, God forbid that she should suffer as guilty. She is to be tried today, and I hope, I sincerely hope, that she will be acquitted.”

This speech calmed me. I was firmly convinced in my own mind that Justine, and indeed every human being, was guiltless of this murder. I had no fear, therefore, that any circumstantial evidence could be brought forward strong enough to convict her. My tale was not one to announce publicly; its astounding horror would be looked upon as madness by the vulgar. Did any one indeed exist, except I, the creator, who would believe, unless his senses convinced him, in the existence of the living monument of presumption and rash ignorance which I had let loose upon the world?

Elizabeth Lavenza, the Frankenstein’s adopted sister (and cousin in the 1818 edition), also says:

You perhaps will find some means to justify my poor guiltless Justine. Alas! who is safe, if she be convicted of crime? I rely on her innocence as certainly as I do upon my own. Our misfortune is doubly hard to us; we have not only lost that lovely darling boy, but this poor girl, whom I sincerely love, is to be torn away by even a worse fate. If she is condemned, I never shall know joy more. But she will not, I am sure she will not; and then I shall be happy again, even after the sad death of my little William.

Despite their assertions, Justine is convicted of the murder of William Frankenstein.

According to Foundations of Literary Studies,     

Justine’s death in Frankenstein demonstrates injustice on multiple levels. First, Frankenstein betrays justice by betraying Justine, both literally and symbolically.  He knows that she is innocent and that William’s death is his own fault, yet he fails to take the blame, which is an unjust act.  Symbolically, Justine serves as a symbol for justice.  Therefore, by betraying Justine on a general level, Frankenstein is betraying justice.

The second example of injustice found in Justine’s death is the failure of the criminal justice system, a system that Godwin heavily critiques.  Frankenstein describes the reasoning of the court ruling as “harsh” and “unfeeling,” (Shelley 85). Shelley is here making a critique of the criminal justice system.

In Chapter 8, Shelley shows Justine’s trial, and after her conviction and sentencing, Justine shares with Elizabeth and Victor that while she had confessed to the crime, she had confessed because she felt she had to, not because she had committed the crime, saying:

I did confess, but I confessed a lie. I confessed, that I might obtain absolution; but now that falsehood lies heavier at my heart than all my other sins. The God of heaven forgive me! Ever since I was condemned, my confessor has besieged me; he threatened and menaced, until I almost began to think that I was the monster that he said I was. He threatened excommunication and hell fire in my last moments if I continued obdurate. Dear lady, I had none to support me; all looked on me as a wretch doomed to ignominy and perdition. What could I do? In an evil hour I subscribed to a lie; and now only am I truly miserable.

Today, Frankenstein is 203 years old.  Two-Hundred years ago Mary Shelley took credit for her world changing work, the themes of which people continue to debate and discuss today.

Thus, we say--Happy Birthday, Frankenstein. 

Resources:

Legal Justice in Frankenstein

The Project Gutenberg eBook of Frankenstein, by Mary Wollstonecraft (Godwin) Shelley