Frankenstein, 200 years on: bringing Mary Shelley’s classic back to life
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus was published anonymously in 1818. The novel, its themes and the story of how it came to be written have captured the imagination of generations of readers and writers. There have been many film versions, with the latest, Mary Shelley, released in July 2017. Some of the literary questions that sprang up at the time the novel was published, and have been in the air ever since, are still worth considering.
Jill Lepore argued in the New Yorker recently that Frankenstein was a product of grief following the death of the Shelleys’ baby and Mary’s dream of bringing her back to life by chafing the child’s skin. Others have read it as a condemnation of hubris and a warning against unbridled scientific exploration, seeing the monster as the appalling result of Victor Frankenstein’s overweening ambition to conquer death through technology – now called ‘transhumanism’ – and his deliberate isolation from the influence of friends and family to pursue this obsession.
Another rich way to explore the novel is to interrogate the reasons why we love the monster. He is Rousseau’s tabula rasa: born good, but corrupted by society. Abandoned by his horrified creator as a half-formed failure that Frankenstein expects to lumber off and perish in a ditch, the monster takes control of his own destiny by becoming a self-taught, articulate, well read, rational and compassionate being who puts humanity to shame.
Shelley’s monster desires companionship above all else, but his attempts to join society are spurned with such contempt that he becomes vengeful; echoing Milton’s Satan, he claims evil as his good and punishes Frankenstein’s irresponsible actions in an utterly ruthless way as do the ‘replicants’ in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. But the monster’s arguments for justice are persuasive and cannot be ignored. Mary and Percy Bysshe Shelley were abolitionists who discussed the Haitian revolution. Did Mary’s abhorrence of slavery, tempered by her fear of violence following the Reign of Terror in France, animate the monster?
This startlingly original story emerged from a cauldron of ideas stirred by the churn of history at a time of great instability. There was excitement about the potential of science to cure all future ills, but fear of revolutionary change surging up from the new and terrifying force of the masses. What can we learn about attitudes to human morality, mortality and ambition from Frankenstein, the brilliant flash in the dark which gave birth to a powerful myth but began in the teenaged Mary Shelley’s imagination? Is it a gothic novel or does it mark the birth of science fiction? Why does Frankenstein still resonate today?