Frankenstein's Legacy

23rd March 2018

On the bicentenary of the publication of this gothic classic, Jennifer Lipman explores the reasons behind its enduring popularity…

The title is a byword for monster, the author was a teenage girl with little formal education, and the story covers science, mythology, philosophy and poetry. I’m talking about Frankenstein, Mary Shelley’s novel about a vengeful monster, first published in 1818 and never out of print.

This year marks 200 years since the book was published, having started life during a stormy sojourn at Romantic poet Lord Byron’s lakeside villa. It’s doubtful that Shelley, just 18 when she conceived it, could have had any idea of the mark that Frankenstein would make.

From Mel Brooks to Boris Karloff and Benedict Cumberbatch, Frankenstein is one of those stories that simply refuses to die – much like the creation of the original tale. And it is responsible for one of the most egregious misnomers in literary history – Victor Frankenstein was not, in fact, the monster but the doctor. His creation never received so much as a name.

The novel’s origins are every bit as gothic and astonishing as the story itself, which starts in a science lab and ends with a dramatic chase around the North Pole. Fallout from a volcanic explosion in Indonesia had left Europe’s skies clouded with dust, so when Shelley – originally Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin – arrived at Lake Geneva in 1816 it was anything but summery. She was joined by her husband Percy (poet and renowned philanderer), by poet Lord Byron, and by Byron’s physician John Polidori, author of The Vampyre.

Bored and restless, the bohemian group passed time by discussing scientific breakthroughs, and particularly the possibilities of electricity. They also tasked each other with writing horror stories. Shelley took the bait - the rest, as they say, is history.

The first edition, also titled The Modern Prometheus, was published anonymously in 1818 to great acclaim (although one reviewer scorned it as ‘a tissue of horrible and disgusting absurdity’ and complained of it using the ‘striking language of the insane’). Byron lauded it as wonderful. Shelley’s name would not appear on it until a few years later – unsurprising when you consider women could neither vote nor own property.

The book tells of a man who created a living being using electricity, only to spurn him after he was ‘born’. The creature’s loneliness – after all, he didn’t ask to be made – morphs into anger after Frankenstein refuses to make him a wife, with tragic consequences.

“The novel certainly created a stir in its time,” says Gregory Buzwell, Curator of Contemporary Literary Archives at the British Library. “I suspect Shelley knew she had hit upon a terrific idea and that her book, with its detailed characters, plot and beautiful descriptions was a very good one.”

So good, it was embraced by the literati and has never really gone out of fashion. For two centuries, Frankenstein has been hailed by critics and picked apart by English students.

Partly, it endures in the popular imagination because of its origin story; all these bright sparks telling each other ghost stories. But there are other reasons, not least that it raises moral and ethical questions, from the nature versus nurture debate, to whether humans are innately good or evil.

“The novel addresses many fundamental issues such as the nature of life itself,” says Buzwell. “It taps into a very primal fear – of the scientist who attempts to play God. It’s quite telling that ‘the monster’ only runs amok after being abandoned by its creator. In a sense the whole novel is about the consequences of attempting to outdo nature and then failing to take responsibility for the results.”

It also has the gravity of a bible story, or a Greek myth (as the title suggests, Shelley drew inspiration from the myth of Prometheus, chained to a rock for all eternity for giving man fire). “Like all of the best Gothic novels -– Dracula, Dorian Gray – Frankenstein feels like a story that has been around for ever,” says Buzwell. “There is almost a fairy-tale quality to the story.”

“Shelley created an original myth, rather than simply reworking an old myth,” echoes Lancaster University Professor Sharon Ruston, an expert in Romantic literature. “Myths have lives of their own. The openness of the novel – there are so many unanswered questions – mean that it can be remade and revised continually into new and ever more prescient forms.”  

Indeed, while the world has changed radically since Shelley’s day, the story is so universal that it continues to resonate with every new generation. While modern audiences will get something very different from it than Shelley’s contemporaries did – things like electricity are not exciting; equally the idea of genetic engineering is no longer theory – those fundamental questions are still being asked today.

“The novel is reimagined for every new cultural anxiety we have,” says Ruston, citing the way the term ‘Frankenfood’ is used to describe genetically modified food, or in articles about the rise of the robots and advances in artificial intelligence. The name has become a label for every bogeyman out there – whatever new development we fear – and every generation interprets the novel differently.

“To generations growing up in the aftermath of World War II, the sudden proliferation of nuclear weapons must have had echoes of Frankenstein, and scientists letting a particularly destructive genie out of the bottle,” agrees Buzwell.

Likewise, the appalling treatment of the creature by society – he is hounded by a murderous mob, abandoned by his maker – is a study in how mankind cares for its vulnerable or different. “Students are regularly outraged by the way that the creature is treated,” explains Ruston. “The novel offers up a mirror to our society where, still today, people are treated badly because of the way that they look and we must, as a society, take some responsibility for the worst and most horrible crimes committed.”
Frankenstein’s legacy has not just been the book itself, but in cementing the idea of the mad scientist in fiction, which we still see today with programmes such as Stranger Things, and did back in the 1880s and 1890s with fictional characters in gothic novels, like Dr Jekyll or Professor Van Helsing. And it’s also the model for the ultimate man-made monster who wants revenge, one that we have seen appropriated in films like Terminator or television series like Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Overall, Frankenstein’s cultural legacy has been enormous; the story has been told and retold by everyone from Karloff to Kenneth Branagh, staged as plays and operas, and given new life in graphic novels, sequels or shows such as Penny Dreadful. The Bride of Frankenstein came out in 1935; 1973 gave us Dr. Frank N. Furter in the Rocky Horror Show and the following year Mel Brooks introduced Young Frankenstein.

“Tim Burton’s animated film Frankenweenie is perhaps the cutest,” says Buzwell, musing on the various incarnations. “The tale of a little pet dog brought back to life is very touching and brings a happy ending to a tale which, from the original novel onwards, has typically tended to end in horror.”

To some extent, these versions have eclipsed the original; as Buzwell notes, “when asked to think of ‘Frankenstein’s monster’ more people visualise Karloff’s portrayal with the bolt through his neck than picture the creature as described in Shelley’s novel”. But the book itself still ignites the passion of new generations of readers, and continues to be studied around the world. Shelley’s ghost story is anything but forgotten.

Whether the precocious teenage novelist could have foreseen her creation’s future is hard to say. After all, it started life as a game. Ruston thinks she had no idea what she was giving birth to when she wrote it, much like Victor himself. “She went to see a play version of her novel performed in 1823 and wrote ‘But lo and behold! I found myself famous!’” she explains. Nearly two centuries later, her words still ring true. 

Find Your Local