Goethe and Frankenstein: Or, The Devil and the Dream

Goethe and FrankensteinHere’s an exchange from The Secret Memoirs of Mary Shelley when Mary, Percy and Claire are unexpectedly entertained in Switzerland from a local academic who has read Percy Shelley’s St. Irvyn, addressing him under the mistaken name from his pseudonymous “A Gentleman from Oxford” author identity.

“Monsieur Oxford, in your book—an outcast from society wanders in the Alps Mountains hoping for death. This is Wolfstein,” he began, giving the abstract and the main character’s name to the author as if he might have forgotten it. “He encounters an alchemist, the Rosicrucian, who promises him the elixir of life if his magic can raise the corpse of his dead lover, Magalena, from her tomb. But to do this, he must denounce his faith and deny his creator. They are struck by lightning and they are destroyed.”

The familiar story of the creation of the Frankenstein novel is a fireside reading of a book of Gothic tales and a nightmare dream on the lakeside of Geneva one summer. But the formation of the ideas of Mary Godwin’s book arose from her exposure to many influences, of Shelley, a collection of literary minds in the circle of her father’s acquaintances, and her readings, assembling the themes and events of her story from as many parts as her fictional creature.

But what role did Johann Goethe play in the writing of Frankenstein? And his friend, Friedrich Schiller?

When Victor Frankenstein encounters his creature who has been wandering and hiding in the Alps above Geneva, his unwanted creation tells of his education, how he read “The Sorrows of Werter”, “Plutarchs Lives” and “Paradise Lost”, books he found in a dropped leather satchel. It is from Werter, he learns the human need for love and connection, which so angers him with Victor for denying him, it drives him to murder and revenge.

Sorrows of Young Werther Johann Goethe

Today, Goethe is more familiarly known for his play of “Faust”, the doctor who trades his soul for a deal with the devil, but Johann Goethe’s early masterwork “The Sorrows of Young Werther”, the semi-autobiographical tale of a young student so obsessed with a love he cannot have that he commits suicide, was the “Catcher in the Rye” or “Hunger Games” of its day in the late 18th Century, a popular story that reached out to the young, so melancholy that it was blamed for a wave of suicides. The creature in Frankenstein expresses the profound effect the story had on him, which is the author’s expression of the effect it had on her, so much that in it can be found her own inspirations.

“I thought Werter himself a more divine being than I had ever beheld or imagined; his character contained no pretension, but it sank deep. The disquisitions upon death and suicide were calculated to fill me with wonder…”

But the reading of his book was not Mary Godwin’s only connection to Goethe. At the time of her formations of ideas that would permeate her novel, the German classicism was infusing the English literature world, inspiring the romantics of her world. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, a regular of the literary society of her father, William Godwin, and a familiar acquaintance of Mary and Shelley, had been one of the founding sources of this.

Coleridge had learned German on a trip to Germany in his younger days, along with his friend William Wordsworth. Coleridge had encamped for a few months at Gottingen University, where he learned the language and listened to lectures and made side trips. He utilized this on his return to England to launch his literary career by translating to English his version of Friedrich Schiller’s “Wallenstein”.

And though he did not translate Schiller’s play of “Wilhelm Tell” he translated a poem “Tell’s Birthplace”. Percy Bysshe Shelley and Mary Godwin had been so influenced by the story of Wilhelm Tell it had inspired their elopement trip to Switzerland in 1814, to the beauty of the Lake Uri locations of Schiller’s story, where they had hoped to live away from the clucking tongues of English society, until they ran out of money. Shelley had even expected his wife and son might come and live with them in an egalitarian communal paradise.

Schiller was not Coleridge’s only influence on Mary and Percy. About the time of their elopement escape, Coleridge had been approached by publisher John Murray II to produce a translation of Goethe’s Faust. Coleridge was struggling with his own particular demons at the time, his long addiction to Laudanum, and his doubts about his own work with a tendency to begin brilliant works and never quite finish them, like Kubla Kahn, even going so far as to add: Or, a Vision in a Dream, A Fragment to the title, after Byron and friends convinced him publish it.

Coleridge would surely have been well acquainted with the literary circle of Darmstadt, the German Romantic movement “Circle of the Senses”, much like the literary circles of the English publishing world of John Murray, and of Madame DeStael at her Chateau Coppet in Geneva, visited by Bryon and Shelley in their travels around the lake.

The Darmstadt Circle was organized around the literary lights of Johann Merck, Gottfried Herder, and Christoph Wieland. The German authors had been translating works of Shakespeare and Cervantes into their language, as Coleridge had been the German works to English. Goethe, born in Frankfurt had served briefly as a magazine editor in nearby Darmstadt with Merck, before trying to revitalize his legal career in Wetzler, where he was inspired by the suicide of a friend and his own passionate attraction to an unattainable girl to write Young Werther.

Had Coleridge heard of the story of the strange activities of the one-time inhabitant of the Frankenstein Castle at Darmstadt, the college lecturer-alchemist and occult dabbler, Johann Conrad Dippel, from his travels in Germany? Coleridge may have readily been introduced to Dippel’s Oil, a malodorous concoction made from distilled animal parts, claimed as a universal medicine (meant to be rubbed on and not swallowed.) But by Coleridge’s time in Gottingen, the medicinal qualities of the Dippel’s Animal Oil had been largely dismissed and perhaps turned into somewhat of a joke after his chemical formulas had found a use in cloth dies. Mostly now only known for his tangential relation to the Frankenstein Castle, Dippel had written almost seventy works about his chemistry in German by the time of Coleridge’s studies at Gottingen.

Coleridge never published his English version of Faust in his lifetime and only later has what is believed may be his unfinished work been discovered. Mary Godwin also began a book before Frankenstein that she never finished, she called Hate, and what secrets of her sixteen year old heart it held may never be known. But why would she chose a German name for her French speaking Genevan characters of: Frankenstein: Or, The Modern Prometheus? Not only were they French Swiss, but Victor Frankenstein’s father was Italian. Confusing?

Wallenstein, Wolfstein, Frankenstein, and some smelly creepy medicine for a pregnant young woman author, expressing her exposure to the lofty thoughts and influences of the circle of contemplative minds surrounding her. Constantly pressed for an explanation of where she got the idea for her story, if a vision in a dream worked for Coleridge to explain Kubla Khan, why not for Frankenstein?

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