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In Chapter Seven of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (published 1816), I saw the following sentence:

I remembered also the nervous fever with which I had been seized just at the time that I dated my creation, and which would give an air of delirium to a tale otherwise so utterly improbable.

This use of "otherwise" may seem unusual in contemporary English, and would be rewritten with "already." I'd like to know if her use was common in the 19th century, or if it was unique to her.

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"Otherwise" does not mean "already" in this circumstance. He means that the only instance in which talking about his creation would seem acceptable comprehensible to others is if they could convince themselves that he was insane.

A mad man telling crazy stories is believable, because he's mad and bound to come up with anything. A sane person telling insane stories, on the other hand, is not logical and therefore unacceptable to others.

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  • Well, a mad person telling a crazy story isn't going to make the story believable; if anything, it is bound to make the story even less so. – Apollyon Jan 17 at 3:17
  • @Apollyon Right. I suppose I wasn't being precise with my wording. I meant that it's not surprising that an insane person is coming up with insane ideas, so it's easy for others to be dismissive about it, as opposed to the uneasiness of a person who is otherwise sane saying erratic things. – thearchitectprincess Jan 22 at 21:07
  • We use "otherwise + adjective" to indicate a contrast. So we say, for example, "the new evidence supports the otherwise implausible theory." The evidence (making a theory plausible) contrasts with "implausible theory." However, the author's intention didn't seem to be to contrast the delirium with "the improbable story." If the delirium had been intended to make the story probable, the following sentence would have been something like, "I thought my father and others might believe me, however remote that possibility was." – Apollyon Jan 23 at 9:49
  • However, the following sentence is, "I well knew that if any other had communicated such a relation to me, I should have looked upon it as the ravings of insanity." – Apollyon Jan 23 at 10:27
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There is no dictionary meaning of the word "otherwise" as "already." A Google Ngrams search of the usage of "otherwise" for the years 1800–1820 does not reveal any examples of the word "otherwise" in that sense. (Click on the 1800–1820 option next to "Search in Google Books" under the graph.) Occam's razor therefore suggests that rather than Shelley's using the word in an idiosyncratic way, the interpretation of "otherwise" as "already" is mistaken.

A fuller contextualization of the sentence makes the meaning clear:

I paused when I reflected on the story that I had to tell. A being whom I myself had formed, and endued with life, had met me at midnight among the precipices of an inaccessible mountain. I remembered also the nervous fever with which I had been seized just at the time that I dated my creation, and which would give an air of delirium to a tale otherwise so utterly improbable. I well knew that if any other had communicated such a relation to me, I should have looked upon it as the ravings of insanity.

Frankenstein is planning to tell his family about the monster he has created. He realizes that the story is so improbable that he will not be believed. He also remembers that he had fallen ill with fever right around the time he created the monster. He says that his family will attribute his story to delirium caused by fever; otherwise, they will not be able to account for it.

In other words, "otherwise" here doesn't mean "already." It has one of its ordinary adverbial meanings, which Merriam-Webster defines as follows:

2 : in different circumstances
// might otherwise have left
// The test helps identify problems that might have otherwise gone unnoticed.

To his family, Frankenstein's feverish delirium would explain away why he thinks he created a monster. Delirium is the only plausible explanation. Otherwise, they would find no other probable explanation for his story, because his having actually created the monster is, to them, wildly improbable.

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  • MW's definition of "otherwise" you quoted concerns hypothetical scenarios contrary to reality. In " The test helps identify problems that might have otherwise gone unnoticed ," the said problems might have gone unnoticed if the test were unavailable. This is contrary to the reality, in which the problems can be caught by the test. However, in Shelley's sentence, Frankenstein's story of how he created a living being out of dead body parts is already improbable, and his delirium is not going to make it less so. On the contrary, it only serves to add to its improbability. – Apollyon Jan 17 at 3:48
  • Just because his family might have attributed the story of how he created a monster to his delirium does not mean it would make the story probable. The reverse is true; it would make the story even less so. – Apollyon Jan 17 at 3:53
  • You seem to be saying his delirium is the only aspect that would make his story probable. But that assertion would disrupt the coherence of the text, because the following sentence says, "I well knew that if any other had communicated such a relation to me, I should have looked upon it as the ravings of insanity." – Apollyon Jan 17 at 3:59
  • Now I've seen the revision, thank you. But Frankenstein's story is improbable to his family, with or without his delirium. If anything, his nervous fever only makes his story even more improbable. – Apollyon Jan 17 at 4:17
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    Let us continue this discussion in chat. – verbose Jan 17 at 4:30

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