Happy Halloween, everyone!
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheusis a classic of Science Fiction, Gothic Horror, and Romantic literature (but not romantic literature, of course). It is also very different from the story you probably know. First published in 1818, Frankenstein was always popular, though it took some time for critical opinion to catch up– there was a particularly scathing review of the book in The British Critic that ended by saying “The writer of it is, we understand, a female; this is an aggravation of that which is the prevailing fault of the novel; but if our authoress can forget the gentleness of her sex, it is no reason why we should; and we shall therefore dismiss the novel without further comment.” The review derided the book for the grotesque nature of its “disjointed combinations and unnatural adventures”, and expressing just how horrifying the book is, object to the wicked and immoral actions of its protagonist.
Of course, that’s the entire point, but they seem to have missed that.
Today, we’re going to go over the content, context, and themes of the book, and how they have grown into what we know of the story today.
The plot of Shelley’s novel is as follows: An English sailor named Walton is attempting to discover the North Pole. No, seriously, that’s how it starts. In a series of letters to his sister, Walton relates how he found a young man named Victor Frankenstein and of how he gained Frankenstein’s trust enough for the young man to relate how he ended up on a dog sled racing across the Arctic.
Victor Frankenstein was a Swiss student with a long, happy childhood. After the death of his mother, he goes off to university to study Natural Philosophy (early 19th century for Science) and Chemistry. While studying, he solves the mystery of creating life, which he then proceeds to test by creating a lifeless body through an untold process (that he specifically does not reveal in order to prevent its replication). While he builds the creature to be beautiful, when it does come to life, Frankenstein is horrified by its appearance and immediately abandons it. Some time later, he’s visited by a friend from home that his family sent because they haven’t heard from him in ages. Frankenstein’s youngest brother has been murdered, and a servant in their household has been arrested for the crime. Frankenstein immediately suspects the creature that he created to be the murderer and when he returns home, his suspicions are confirmed and he and the creature have a confrontation. In it, the creature declares to Frankenstein that “I ought to be thy Adam; but I am rather the fallen Angel, whom thou drivest from joy for no misdeed.”
After relating to his creator the story of how he observed, for a year, a French noble family that was living in exile in Germany, the creature demands that Frankenstein build him a companion. After several months of procrastination, Frankenstein travels to a very remote part of Scotland to fulfill his promise to his creation. But when struck by the thought that this companion might lead to an entire race of creatures like them, Frankenstein destroys the companion. The creature is understandably upset, and vows to Frankenstein that “I’ll be with you on your wedding-night” as well as killing Frankenstein’s best friend. And when Frankenstein does get married, the creature comes to the house and kills Frankenstein’s bride. This is what sets off their chase across the continent and lead to him chasing the creature on a dog sled across the Arctic.
Walton is amazed by this, but with the ice closing in, he and his crew decide that they must turn back and they fail to discover the North Pole. Frankenstein dies, and the creature, in mourning, decides to stay in the Arctic and die as well.
Before we get into all the surprising things that happened in that brief summary, here’s how this book came about.
Mary Shelley was visiting Geneva with her husband, her half-sister, George “I literally drank wine out of skulls” Gordon, Lord Byron, and Byron’s personal physician. There was really nothing to do because it was 1816, the “year without a summer”, and also the internet hadn’t been invented yet, and so they had a novel writing contest. Whoever wrote the best ghost story won. And while Byron’s doctor wrote The Vampyre, which was a major inspiration for Bram Stoker, Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein. A lot of people read Frankenstein with a biographical lense, and there is some cause for that. Shelley’s mother, Mary Wollstonecraft (best known for writing A Vindication of the Rights of Woman) died shortly after Shelley was born, and Shelley’s firstborn, a daughter, was premature and died soon after she was born.
Shelley herself mythologized the creation of her story as much as her story mythologized a creation. In her own words, “I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half vital motion. Frightful must it be; for supremely frightful would be the effect of any human endeavour to mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world.”
Prometheus and Paradise
So the biggest thing that is different between the novel and most adaptations is the relative intelligence and eloquence of the creature. We’re all familiar with the Boris Karloff, Universal Monster movie archetype, but the creature in the book is actually quite articulate and better read than most people, having read the French editions of Paradise Lost and Plutarch’s Lives. The references to Paradise Lost are intentional and complicated– yes, the book explicitly draws parallels between the creature and the character of Lucifer in Paradise Lost. Now, on the one hand, these parallels work in a modern reading because of how we typically view the creature in popular fiction. Lucifer is the antagonist of Paradise Lost, as the creature is the antagonist of Frankenstein, and our own biases against what we consider to be monstrous inform those readings. That being said, there’s a reason that Byron and Percy Shelley’s social circle was called “The Satanic School of Romanticism”. A popular reading of the Epic Poem was that literal Satan was actually the protagonist and that God had put too many rules on the angels and man. The position of Lucifer as a Byronic hero is important to how the reader is supposed to sympathize with the creature, who is supposed to be at least somewhat sympathetic, even with all the murdering.
Shelley also directly compares Frankenstein to the Greek myth of Prometheus– it’s even in the title. Prometheus, in Greek mythology, is credited with the creation of humans, but is best known for bringing fire to humanity. To the British Romantics, Prometheus was a figure of human ambition and the search for knowledge, as well as an embodiment of the revolutionary spirit, attempting to tear down the establishment. The Romantics were kind-of proto-Punks in that way. Percy Shelley, who was kicked out of Oxford for writing a pamphlet on Atheism, wrote his own Prometheus myth in Prometheus Unbound, which was long and… well, it’s long. Mary Shelley used the Prometheus myth as the allegory and tragedy of overreaching (which today we associate with the story of Icarus, but that’s an argument for another day).
That being said, the novel isn’t wholly anti-science. To follow the “unnatural birth” theme, there’s also an emphasis on Frankenstein’s attempt to bypass the feminine to create new life. Before his experiment, Frankenstein even says that he would become like a god to his creation and that “No father could claim the gratitude of his child so completely as I should deserve theirs”. But Frankenstein is not God. In his video essay on the parallels between Forbidden Planet and Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Kyle Kallgren states “Of course, Morbius [the villain of Forbidden Planet] isn’t a Renaissance man. He’s modern man, and…modern man– and definitely sci-fi man– only wants to be master of the cosmos. In traditional Science Fiction, the brilliant scientist is always destroyed by his own creation as punishment for his arrogant belief that he could control the universe. And it’s been that way ever since Mary Shelley wrote a story about a scientist who created the thing that destroyed him.” Frankenstein’s ultimate destruction comes from the attempt at playing God.
The real cultural lodestone for the Frankenstein mythos is the 1931 Boris Karloff film (though in the movie, it’s Henry Frankenstein, and the assistant’s name was Fritz, not Igor). In fact, Bela Legosi (aka Dracula) was originally supposed to play the creature, but the changes that were made to the source material caused him to leave the film. Also, the film made Frankenstein a doctor (whereas in the book, he was still an undergrad) and cemented the idea that the creature was made of corpses and brought to life by electricity. The book was purposely vague about how the creature was created– in the Watsonian sense, Frankenstein did not want anyone to repeat his mistake, in the Doylist sense… well, Shelley wasn’t a biologist, and this was pre-Darwin biology, so it actually keeps the book from the common scifi trap of its irrelevance due to the progression of scientific understanding. The interaction with the blind man is in the book, as is the scene with the girl and the river– though the creature saves the girl from drowning as opposed to accidentally causing it. However, most everyone survives the film, as opposed to the book, and Shelley is credited as “Mrs. Percy B. Shelley”, so there’s a lot that’s wrong as well.
The book is fantastic. You should definitely read it, but there’s a lot of things that will surprise you if you’ve only ever seen the movies. That being said, it’s a classic for a reason. The prose holds up as elegantly baroque, quite fitting for its genre, and its themes are still relevant, of course.
Plus, it’s a great story for Halloween.
Any other classic stories you want to get Back to Basics with? Any obscure Frankenstein films you want to talk about? And yes, it’s pronounced Fronk-en-steen! Let me know in the comments. Also, like if you can, and subscribe– or follow us on Facebook!— so you don’t miss any new content.