Mysteries of Creation: The 200th Anniversary of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein
“So much has been done, exclaimed the soul of Frankenstein — more, far more, will I achieve; treading in the steps already marked, I will pioneer a new way, explore unknown powers, and unfold to the world the deepest mysteries of creation.”
This year, 2018, marks the 200th anniversary of the first publication of Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus. Mary Shelley’s novel was revolutionary in a myriad of ways, and it manages a continual relevance that few works from the Romantic era (or any era) could boast. It has been produced in countless editions, translated, annotated, interpreted, explicated. Shelley herself, influenced by the successive deaths of almost everyone she held dear, made significant thematic revisions to the 1818 original in her 1831 edition (the frontispiece appears above left). Thus, Frankenstein demonstrates its continual malleability, bringing different meaning to different readers, or even the same reader (its author) depending on external experiences. Frankenstein, often overlooked in popular culture as a simple mad scientist horror story, is replete with complex themes. The novel has had a profound influence, creating an entire genre (science fiction), as well as spin-off literature, and trickling down (however diluted) into popular movies and television. Historical fiction authors are but one group that has successfully mined Shelley’s original. Everyone from the child dressed in a green face-painted and neck-bolted Halloween costume to the AI-obsessed technologists of Silicon Valley have extrapolated personal meaning from the story of Frankenstein.
At its heart, Frankenstein is a characterization of two beings: one the creator, the other that which was created. Authors building on Shelley’s work usually choose to focus on one or the other to explore a variety of concepts. What are the dangers of an obsession with knowledge heedless of cost? What responsibility does a creator bear towards the life he brings forth and, conversely, for the consequences of his creation, the cascade effect of that creation’s actions? How do we deal with alienation and loneliness, empathy and love? What does it truly mean to be human?
Shelley’s creature is a far cry from the stiff-limbed, square-headed version popularized by movie adaptations. Instead, he is “prodigiously eloquent, learned, persuasive”1 in ways that frequently beggar belief, but are necessary in order to evoke empathy in the reader. The creature himself realizes his need for fundamental human comfort: “I do know that for the sympathy of one living being, I would make peace with all. I have love in me the likes of which you can scarcely imagine and rage the likes of which you would not believe. If I cannot satisfy the one, I will indulge the other.” It is the denial, the lack of empathy, beginning with Victor Frankenstein, the man who owes it most, which results in tragedy – for the creature and many others. In her poetic yet opaque A Monster’s Notes (Knopf, 2009), Laurie Sheck has an eight-year-old Mary Shelley encountering the creature at her mother’s grave, asking his name, to which he replies, “I don’t have one.” The creature here is loss and loneliness personified, a concept with which Mary Shelley was terribly familiar; he is denied even the comfort of a name – unnecessary, since there is no one who would call it.
Others have taken the opposite tack, such as Dave Zeltserman in his novel, Monster (Overlook, 2012). Here the nameless creature is given not only a name, but a past. Friedrich Hoffman is executed for a murder he did not commit. He wakes from that execution to a new horror – Hoffman’s brain has been animated inside Frankenstein’s creation of pieced-together corpses. Hoffman retains his memories, and struggles to retain his humanity as well, despite his monstrous new form. He is pitted against a Victor Frankenstein that, in this imagining, is less obsessed scientist and more intentional evil. The question of who is actually the “monster” is another essential precept of Shelley’s original.
The struggle to achieve or keep humanity, even the very definition of what it means to be human, fascinates authors who tackle Shelley’s work. In Confessions of the Creature (Fireship, 2012) by Gary Inbinder, the creature is given the opportunity for normalcy, starting with his outward appearance. Inbinder notes that it is first “Frankenstein [who] denies the creature’s humanity. As their hatred for each other grows, both creator and creature become less human, more monstrous.” Rejected by his creator from the outset, Shelley’s poor creature was never offered the empathy he perhaps deserved; Inbinder chose to be kinder: “In my sequel, the creature is given the chance of becoming truly human, the person he was meant to be. No longer hideous, the transformed creature sets out on a quest of redemption through love, the love that was denied him in Shelley’s novel.”
Susan Heyboer O’Keefe, in Frankenstein’s Monster (Broadway, 2010), gives her version of the creature the introspection to ask why this love was denied, how he had failed his creator: “What had he wanted from his labors that I proved so poor a substitute?” This, then, is the question that many authors who focus on the creator, Victor Frankenstein, attempt to answer. Peter Ackroyd’s The Casebook of Victor Frankenstein (Chatto & Windus UK, 2008 / Nan A. Talese US, 2009) has a religious Frankenstein tempted over to the dark side by the atheist poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. What Frankenstein seeks from his labors is nothing short of the creation of the perfect human being, an impossibility he hopes to achieve through unfettered knowledge. “How I loved to learn!…The worst of my faults even then was ambition. I wished to know everything…”
It is this thirst for knowledge, for scientific exploration, that must necessarily figure heavily in any adaptation of the character of Frankenstein, for it was such a large part of the era in which Shelley’s original was written. Kathryn Harkup, author of Making the Monster: The Science Behind Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (Bloomsbury Sigma, 2018), acknowledges the central scientific elements of Shelley’s work: “It can be read in the context of the fantastic scientific advances that were occurring at the time and how the excitement and possibilities of science were both exhilarating and frightening. The pace of discovery was astonishing.” Shelley’s approach was unique in that, even though Frankenstein is classed as a Gothic horror novel, as Harkup stresses, Shelley “relies entirely on science, not magic or the supernatural, to drive its plot. It is a huge legacy.”
While the very name of Frankenstein, Harkup points out, “has become a by-word for bad science or science gone wrong…her creature was not the product of bad science; Victor Frankenstein’s scientific experiments were enormously successful. The creature is more intelligent, articulate, stronger, faster and more resilient than his creator and other humans. It was Shelley’s character’s lack of care for his creature that brought about his downfall, not a mistake in his science.” This illustrates a central concept of the novel: while many view it as a cautionary tale of science gone awry, it is just as easily read as a warning against the moral failings of humans towards those they consider “lesser” or “other.”
And what of Frankenstein’s creator herself? Shelley certainly knew what it was to be considered lesser. Some have used this to approach the subject of Frankenstein tangentially – examining the historical events surrounding Mary Shelley’s creative process. Marty Ambrose, in Claire’s Last Secret (Severn House, 2018), observes Shelley and her coterie from the point of view of her step-sister, Claire Clairmont, who tells the story of the “haunted summer” of 1816 when Frankenstein saw its genesis. “It’s always daunting to include a literary figure in historical fiction — no less one as iconic as Mary Shelley,” says Ambrose. “How does one even begin to portray her as a person, yet do justice to her stature as a writer?” Most are familiar with Byron’s ghost story contest and the nightmares which led Mary Shelley to the creation of Frankenstein, but Ambrose notes, “She and Claire were largely silent partners in the evenings at Villa Diodati when the two great poets [Byron and Percy Bysshe Shelley] debated philosophy, science, and politics. Mary described this summer as one of the happiest times in her life but, in reality, she and Claire led somewhat isolated lives as the mistresses of married men.”
The reaction to Frankenstein when first released was, at best, to view it as “singular” and “peculiar,” yet a work of “original genius” – all adjectives used by Sir Walter Scott in his review in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine. Of course, Scott and most of his contemporaries assumed that Frankenstein was written by Percy Bysshe Shelley, not his teenaged mistress, later wife.2 The novel was roundly condemned by those of a more conservative persuasion: “a tissue of horrible and disgusting absurdity,” and the author “often leaves us in doubt whether he is not as mad as his hero.”3 Critics were more dismayed when they learned the novel’s author was a woman. Even today, there are those who depreciate Shelley’s original manuscript in favor of her husband’s edits to it, however slight they may have been.
The novel is, on the one hand, undeniably a product of its time: Gothic, Romantic, melodramatic. Its epistolary structure is decidedly early 19th century, and its reliance on galvanism for reanimation, a concept convincing to its original audience, long since debunked. And yet, as Ambrose notes, “It’s Mary Shelley’s understanding of personal conflicts and human limitations that make Frankenstein such an enduring novel. Frankenstein explores the ever-relevant themes of love and abandonment, the consequences of scientists playing God, and the ‘monster’ who lies within each individual. It also seems to portend a time when technology would lead humanity to inventions that could threaten its very survival. How could that kind of novel ever grow outdated?”
How indeed? Happy 200th anniversary, Frankenstein.
1. Jill Lepore. “The Strange and Twisted Life of Frankenstein,” The New Yorker, 19 February 2018.
2. Walter Scott. “Review of Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus,” Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, 2 (March 1818): 613-620.
3. John Wilson Croker. “Review of Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus,” The Quarterly Review, 36 (January 1818): 379-385.
About the contributor: Bethany Latham is the Managing Editor of Historical Novels Review. She has authored various nonfiction books, numerous journal and magazine articles, and is a regular reviewer for HNR and Booklist.