Mary Shelley’s Transformation is a work of short fiction that bears some interesting similarities to the masterwork that is her magnum opus, Frankenstein (1818/31). It speaks to the psychological undercurrent that writers experience, even as H. M. Jones has suggested, that “our novelists search the subconscious mind…in order to achieve reality, the mode of achieving verisimilitude” (xx). This “search” is the meditative process that extraordinary art requires, which for Shelley is the opportunity to do what she does best, pairing bold, exquisite language with the recurrent themes that linger in her imagination.
Some comparisons go as follows:
1A) Victor Frankenstein is a self-assured student of medicine who through his ambitions, believes he can control the forces of nature, which underscores his character with a sense of arrogance.
1B) Guido of Genoa has an “imperious, haughty, tameless spirit.” He realizes the “wild impetuosity” of his character and states that he was “insolent and domineering,” and possessed of a “rebel heart.”
2A) After experiencing a drastic chain of events, Victor finds himself scaling the Alps, alone seeking solace from the world and its woes.
2B) Having lost everything as a result of his behavior, Guido finds himself wandering alone the shores of the sea.
3A) Surrounded by the vast mountainside isolation, Victor encounters the monstrous “fiend” bounding towards him, a sight that is highly unusual. The two end up conversing about the great dilemma Victor has caused for them both.
3B) Along the isolated sea shore, Guido observes a shipwreck from which the sight of a surviving dwarf “bestrding a sea-chest” is astonishing and very strange to see. They come to discuss Guido’s unfortunate predicament.
4A) A voyeuristic theme emerges in connection with the loss of love, when Victor’s creation is seen peering through the window, where a mate is about to be created for him. Here the loss of love actually comes to take place.
4B) Voyeurism makes an appearance when Guido “hid himself” to watch the window of his love, who is set to marry the dwarf who is inhabiting his body. Here the loss of love is threatened.
Both narratives establish characters who experience the “great-is-thy-pride” theme, which translates into the inevitable and subsequent theme, “the greater thy pride, the harder thy fall.” Victor and Guido are dumbfounded by the consequences of their actions, and turn to the sublimity of nature as a means to remedy their inner turmoil. Nature is viewed here as the go-to source for healing and wisdom in the presence of emotional discomfort and confusion. As well, the natural space becomes the metaphorical space of the mind, a natural-world battlefield where the ugliness of the alter-ego is forced to make an appearance for the purposes of confrontation.
Both confrontations are pivotal story points designed to bring forth a resolution, speaking to the human condition which all humans must face, the path of coming to terms with the debacle of self. For Victor, his alter-ego is personified as an unspeakably strong monster, representing the fostered arrogance which has grown to overpower him. For Guido, his cocksure, near-criminally-minded ways are represented and personified as the dwarf-human whose voice was “screeching and horrid, and his contortions as he spoke were frightful to behold.”
The dwarf is a fascinating aspect of Transformation for the way it ushers in the Victorian view of dwarfism, as seen in the writings of other authors. In 1872, Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla describes a hunchback with “sharp lean features that generally accompany deformity,” who has a “pointed black beard…white fangs…and a grotesque hat.” In 1891, Oscar Wilde echoes a more startling picture, and the shame it incurs, when he describes what happens at The Birthday of the Infanta — when a dwarf who has never seen himself looks in a mirror, he realizes: “It was a monster, the most grotesque monster he had ever beheld.” Such views have a history, as we see in Sarah Scott’s Millenium Hall (1762) — when a visitor spots what he believes to be a small zoo, a proprietor answers that the enclosure is an “asylum for those poor creatures who are rendered miserable from some natural deficiency or redundancy,” little people “whose deformity would lead them to wish to be secluded from human view.” Here they are kept from the “monster-mongers” who would display them, where the cost of the “maintenance of the monsters [is] a hundred and twenty.” The notion of displaying little people for money, along with the world of others who look different, reaches into the 20th Century, where criticism has been heaped upon Todd Browning’s notoriously ill-conceived movie, Freaks (1932).
Shelley’s depiction of a dwarf as “misshapen” is not so much a politically incorrect standpoint as it is, what I would term, a Barthesian Slip. Roland Barthes posited that writing does not need an authorial tag because an author is merely the transfer point between society and the written page (Source). The Great British perception of dwarfism emerges through Shelley’s writing; her mind is but an extension of a larger state of consciousness. Shelley’s authorship, as any author’s might, functions as the interpretation of the social mores of her day, even when judgments as to the exact nature of insensitivity are difficult to define and comprehend.
The form of Transformation is certainly worthy of note. To read it in a day or two sitting as a compact version of the Frankenstein story is to experience in real time the vivid power of language. Written in the first-person, the first few acts consist of Guido “telling” us about the horror he has caused, a combination of conveyed events with heartfelt confessionals that read like intense poetry.
“I arrived in Genoa. I trod the pavement of my ancestral palace. My proud step was no interpreter of my heart, for I deeply felt that, though surrounded by every luxury, I was a beggar. The first step I took in claiming Juliet must widely declare me such. I read contempt or pity in the looks of all. I fancied that rich and poor, young and old, all regarded me with derision. Torella came not near me. No wonder that my second father should expect a son’s deference from me in waiting first on him. But, galled and stung by a sense of my follies and demerit, I strove to throw the blame on others.”
The language is dense and requires careful reading, yet when the moment arrives when he agonizes at sea, the sudden “showing” of the scene becomes impacting on the mind. We are treated to lustrous visuals along with a sense of alarm, thus drawing in the readership into the stakes of the story.
“Even now my heart fails within me when I recur to this rout of grim-visaged ideas. Now subdued almost to tears, now raving in my agony, still I wandered along the rocky shore, which grew at each step wilder and more desolate. Hanging rocks and hoar precipices overlooked the tideless ocean; black caverns yawned; and for ever, among the seaworn recesses, murmured and dashed the unfruitful waters.”
The key formulaic detail that alters the text from condensed story-telling to the sudden feeling of immersion is found in the dialogue, and the effect which reflects the very title itself becomes complete. The story literally “transforms” from the diegetic to the mimetic, serving to move a claustrophobic texture to that which is open and breathable, allowing for a lightening of the mind, a chance to ride the wave of the plot-line.
Transformation stands in opposition to Frankenstein when the ending unfolds, and for this we are thankful. The sense of tragedy that clung to the lives of people before and during the Victorian Era is hard to fathom — Chartism was a nightmare, civil rights were unheard of, children had it very rough, and the continual presence of death from disease, most notably in tuberculosis among others, must have been a nuisance. To read then a story in which a protagonist changes his ways to become a better person is the kind of writing of which, if Shelley was a conduit of the times, then what she gave back was the notion that matters do not have to remain as they stand.
Barthes, Roland. “The Death of the Author.” Essay, 1967. UbuWeb, 2019.
Jones, Howard Mumford. Introduction. Joseph Andrews, by Henry Fielding, 1742. The Modern Library, Random House, Inc., 1939.
Le Fanu, Sheridan. “Carmilla.” In a Glass Darkly. London, 1872.
Scott, Sarah. Millenium Hall. London, 1762.
Shelley, Mary. “Transformation.” The Keepsake. London, 1831.
Wilde, Oscar. “Birthday of the Infanta.” A House of Pomegranates. London, 1891.