Great Novel No. 9: “Frankenstein”

Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus

by Mary Shelley


 It would be difficult indeed to overestimate the influence of this novel on our collective imagination. One could say that is more dependent on the various film versions, but the truth is that the story of Frankenstein has held a grip since its first publication in 1818. Every generation finds something new to appreciate even as it translates the story to other media.

Published anonymously, but with a preface by Percy Shelley, most originally believed it to be the work of that famous poet. But it eventually came out that it was in fact written by his mistress — later his second wife — named Mary Godwin. The couple were part of a more unorthodox set of friends seen as shockingly scandalous at the time; not the least shocking of whom was George Gordon Lord Byron. The story of Mary’s inspiration to write Frankenstein in Switzerland during the “wet, ungenial summer” of 1816 is itself the stuff of literary legend.

The first element of the novel that will surprise readers familiar only with the Hollywood version is the fact that it doesn’t begin with either the doctor or his Creature. Instead the novel has a nested structure, beginning with a man named Walton who is determined to sail farther north than anyone has before, writing letters to his sister about the strange encounter with a man named Victor Frankenstein who proceeds to narrate his own story of scientific hubris; during the course of his story the Creature he creates tells his own story of his first two years of life after being abandoned by Dr. Frankenstein — and in this he gives the brief history of a family of peasants he spies on. From Walton, to Frankenstein, to the Creature, to the peasants, back to the Creature, back to Frankenstein, back to Walton, the novel is a story within a story within a story within a story. And ostensibly all in an epistolary format, given that Walton writes all this down in a series of letters. The characters do not tell us the story; they tell the story to each other. We simply eavesdrop on the narratives they share among themselves.

What kind of novel is Frankenstein? The truth is, it doesn’t sit nicely in any one genre. It is often hailed as the first work of science fiction, with a central character who is a scientist determined to make a new discovery and progress into the future of humanity. But it also retains strong ties to the Gothic, and that genre’s reliance on the supernaturalism of humanity’s past to create atmosphere and struggle with philosophical concepts such as good and evil. Dr. Frankenstein himself is first inspired in his quest for knowledge by reading the works of medieval alchemists, much as Mary Shelley was first inspired by stormy nights spent reading ghost stories. Moreover, Frankenstein’s method of reviving a stitched-together cadaver is kept deliberately obscure rather than given a strong technical explanation. Thus, the theme of potential hubris within scientific advancement is held in tension with the atmosphere of the Gothic Revival and its obsession with the supernatural. Frankenstein is a hybrid novel unique in that it is claimed as an ancestor by modern writers of both horror and science fiction.

The novel is usually seen as predominantly a cautionary tale about the dangers of overreaching ambition. While that is a strong aspect, I wonder if there might be more to it than that. This sense is most strongly apparent when the Creature admits he has read Milton’s Paradise Lost…and identifies more with Satan than with Adam in how he relates to his Maker. The plot bears this out, as the Creature takes on the role of a tormentor to Dr. Frankenstein, haunting him and killing those he loves the most. The God-Adam dynamic which Dr. Frankenstein foresees as he works on bringing his dreams to life changes into a God-Satan dynamic when reality finally arrives. This does interesting things to our perspective; if we see Frankenstein as a kind of God analogue, and tend to sympathize with the Creature in his victimization by his Maker as well as the humans he encounters, what then is the story saying about God? It isn’t too great a leap to see Mary Shelley’s more socially radical views coming into play. (It’s also interesting that the religious allusion is drawn from a later poetic work rather than the original Bible; this is another manifestation of tension with the Gothic, a way of bringing in supernaturalism without it overwhelming the narrative.)

There are other themes touched on in the novel as well, not the least of which are the motivating factors which drive a person’s evil intentions and the world’s tendency to judge based on appearance. More is here than a simple warning against hubris. There are depths in this work that raise it to the glorious height known as timelessness. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein has endured for almost 200 years because it asks questions about being human that succeeding generations will answer slightly differently. That is what great novels — and great stories — are for.

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