Information on the Editions
Format: 1818 published in three volumes, 1831 published as single book.
In total, there are five significant versions of Frankenstein, but the 1831 edition was typically considered the authoritative edition due to Mary W. Shelley's significant revisions. Lately, interest has shifted to the 1818 edition largely due to Anne K. Mellor's influential study, Mary Shelley: Her Life, Her Fiction, Her Monsters.
Theme: in the 1818 edition, humans have free will and there is hope for a loving egalitarian family unit. The 1831 edition relegates human action to fate and the egalitarian family unit is significantly undercut. Why? Possible biographical explanations come from the deaths of Mary's second daughter, son (William), husband (Percy) and Byron. She describes this change in letters:
There I left the mortal remains of those beloved--my husband and my children, whose loss changed my whole existence, substituting for happy peace and the interchange of deep-rooted affections, years of desolate solitude, and a hard struggle with the world;... (Shelley, qtd in Mellor 171).
Victor: The 1818 edition focuses on Victor's rejection of the Creature and lack of responsibility as a creator, while the 1831 edition focuses on the initial inspiration to create the Creature as the pivotal moment.
In 1818 Victor Frankenstein possessed free will or the capacity for meaningful moral choice -- he could have abandoned his quest for the "principle of life," he could have cared for his creature, he could have protected Elizabeth. In 1831 such choice is denied to him. He is the pawn of forces beyond his knowledge or control. Again and again, Mary Shelley reassigns human actions to chance or fate. (Mellor 171)
Consider the moment when Victor's course of study changes in the 1831 edition, a lightning strike takes place when an expert on electricity happens to be with him to explain the theories of electricity and galvanism. Added to this edition, it is due to youthful "caprices of the mind" that set his course to destruction:
Thus strangely are our souls constructed, and by such slight ligaments are we bound to prosperity or ruin. When I look back, it seems to me as if this almost miraculous change of inclination and will was the immediate suggestion of the guardian angel of my life--the last effort made by the spirit of preservation to avert the storm that was even then hanging in the stars and ready to envelop me. Her victory was announced by an unusual tranquillity and gladness of soul which followed the relinquishing of my ancient and latterly tormenting studies. It was thus that I was to be taught to associate evil with their prosecution, happiness with their disregard.
It was a strong effort of the spirit of good, but it was ineffectual. Destiny was too potent, and her immutable laws had decreed my utter and terrible destruction. (Shelley 48-49)
This section, absent from the 1818 edition, distances the responsibility of Victor's choices to chance or destiny. In the 1831 edition, the failure of the "spirit of good" seals his fate. Victor reiterates this later describing his introduction to education at Ingolstadt: "Chance--or rather the evil influence, the Angel of Destruction, which asserted omnipotent sway over me from the moment I turned my reluctant steps from my father's door" (Shelley 51). This is reiterated yet again in the same chapter when Victor listens to M. Waldman,
Such were the professor's words--rather let me say such the words of the fate--enounced to destroy me. As he went on I felt as if my soul were grappling with a palpable enemy; one by one the various keys were touched which formed the mechanism of my being; chord after chord was sounded, and soon my mind was filled with one thought, one conception, one purpose. So much has been done, exclaimed the soul of Frankenstein--more, far more, will I achieve; treading in the steps already marked, I will pioneer a new way, explore unknown powers, and unfold to the world the deepest mysteries of creation. (Shelley 53)
Mary Shelley's additions in the 1831 edition consistently turn towards the inevitable sense of destiny.
Elizabeth Lavenza: In the 1818 edition, Elizabeth is a blood-cousin adopted by Caroline, she is educated with Victor and she is empowered enough to criticize her uncle's plans for Ernest and denounce the vengeful retribution of the law-courts. In the 1831 edition, Elizabeth is an orphan who becomes a prototype of the Victorian "angel in the house." In the 1831 edition, her voice against the patriarchy is silenced. She also becomes the property of Victor:
On the evening previous to her being brought to my home, my mother had said playfully, --"I have a pretty present for my Victor-- tomorrow he shall have it." And when, on the morrow, she presented Elizabeth to me as her promised gift, I, with childish seriousness, interpreted her words literally and looked upon Elizabeth as mine--mine to protect, love, and cherish. All praises bestowed on her I received as made to a possession of my own. (Shelley 45).
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