The story of Frankenstein’s origin is one of literature’s favourite and most recounted stories. On a rainy evening in 1816, the year that had no summer as a consequence of a volcanic eruption of Mount Tambora, Mary Shelley found herself at Lake Geneva with a small party. In those fittingly gothic surroundings, Frankenstein was given life. As a means of passing the time, the group decided to compete to see who could write the best horror story; Mary Shelley and her would-be husband Percy, Lord Bryon, and John Polidori set about their task with fervour. The output of each would be notable in its own way but none would enjoy the lasting prominence of Mary Shelley’s effort, which would later become her seminal novel.
An epistolary work, Frankenstein’s narrative (and his Creature’s within that) is framed within the letters of Robert Walton, an English traveller, to his sister back home in Britain. On an expedition to the North Pole, Walton comes across a dishevelled man about the Arctic Circle. This is, of course, Victor Frankenstein, and after saving the stranger’s life, Walton relates the fantastic story Frankenstein has to tell.
Born to an aristocratic family, young Frankenstein is raised on the works of long discredited alchemists Agrippa, Paracelsus, and Albertus Magnus, believing them to be true masters of natural philosophy. He pursues his studies at the University of Ingolstadt, moving away from his family and becoming lost in his research. Pushing the boundaries of known science, Victor attempts to create a new being from raw materials collected from dissecting rooms and local butchers. The resulting creature stands a terrible eight foot tall and when vivified is too much for Frankenstein. The young scientist rejects his creation and falls into a terrible depression at the thought of what he has done. It is a melancholy that leaves him bed-ridden for some time and when he awakes he finds that death follows him across Europe as those close to him are terrorised. When Frankenstein refuses to make a female companion for his newly articulate creature that he might live in peace away from the world with but one companion, the dye is cast. Frankenstein is stalked until he has nothing left to lose. This pursuit and the idea of the creature are inspired. The lurking menace, hell bent on one’s destruction and seemingly impossible to shake, is the stuff of claustrophobic nightmares; not outright horror but terror, its more powerful cousin. To bring this hell bent pursuit into the modern(ish) day, Frankenstein’s Creature is basically The Terminator minus shotgun and motorcycle, but plus a penchant for Milton. When things look at their lowest for Frankenstein, however, he turns the tables on his creature, chasing down his creation in the sure knowledge that he must destroy him.
Incorporating the dark science of Gothic fiction (Frankenstein, the scientist, replaces the old Gothic villains – the priests, aristocrats – who wielded power) with an increasing appetite for new technologies, Shelley focuses on the human desire to subjugate nature and in particular death and decay. Frankenstein does not wish to help humanity with his science but merely to raise himself up as the master of a superhuman race: "A new species would bless me as its creator and source; many happy and excellent natures would owe their being to me. No father could claim the gratitude of his child so completely as I should deserve theirs." There are evident parallels with the relationship between God and humans, and the Creature makes explicit this parallel when he refers to himself as Adam at one point.
In a post-Enlightenment world that was increasingly turning to Science as the new religion, Mary Shelley was not afraid to place Romanticism, as her husband and Lord Byron did, ahead of the Enlightenment in her writing. Drawing on her early notions of the Sublime, she paints a world where to disturb the natural law is a dangerous thing, and attempting to assume the role of the Creator is fatal and blasphemous. In Frankenstein, promethean striving for knowledge is an undoubtedly dangerous thing when not checked by better judgement. The idea of creating consciousness from inanimate material still captivates us now as much as it did two hundred years ago, with science-fiction authors like Asimov leading the explorations of robots assuming consciousness in fiction during the twentieth century.
Wrapped up in modern ethics is the same question that Frankenstein faces: what responsibility does a scientist have to his creation, be it animate or not? For to create is but the start of any technological development and the modern world knows all too well the damage that can be done from scientific discovery gone awry, its use purposefully perverted or otherwise; one need only look at the use of atomic bombs and the far-reaching effects of nuclear power. Frankenstein represents the blinded scientist who, in his thirst for knowledge, ploughs forward with an exciting endeavour without asking not just if he can but if he should.
In his Faustian quest to mark himself apart from society, Frankenstein eschews family and friendship in his pursuit of superiority and scientific discovery. But by focusing his sights on so narrow an aim to the exclusion of his relationships, Frankenstein alienates himself from his own humanity as much as humanity as a whole. An isolated genius, his conscience is not checked and he spawns a creature who must go on to endure his own alienation from the world in turn as his creator rejects him.
Knowledge in Frankenstein’s hands is shown to be destructive and capable of causing a disconnection with the rest of society and yet there are glimmers in the creature’s acquisition of language that knowledge also has the power to heal and integrate. Given the opportunity to intervene in his creation’s life, Frankenstein dithers and, like Hamlet, fails to act decisively. Yet, it is not clear whether it is Frankenstein’s rejection of his creature that causes it to go on a murderous spree of vengeance against Frankenstein and all humanity, or whether it is an innate evil that stokes this behaviour. That the creature later shows his ability to be civilised through the acquisition of language suggests that, like most of us, he has the potential to have his behaviour constricted/refined by the social contract and that the reality of his being is less monstrous than his appearance would suggest. Rather than unfeelingly wreaking havoc it seems that much of the creature’s torment comes from feeling too much, from feeling bitterness at his loneliness and abandonment. This is not a being that revels in murder for its own sake but one who feels Othered by humanity and, in particular, his creator.
Perhaps fittingly, if sadly, the first published edition of Frankenstein did not bear the name of its author. Fitting not only because of the idea that once in the world a novel leaves its creator in the background but so too as a comment on the novel’s female presence. For women in the novel are but translucent spectres by comparison to their male counterparts upon whom the burden of actively progressing the plot is placed. As much as Frankenstein’s Creature lives in the shadows of the novel so too do his women. In Frankenstein’s creation and rejection of his monster there is further symbolism relevant to all women: that of childbirth. For there is heavy symbolism linked to childbirth in this unholy act of creation. There is a great deal of fear and anxiety in the metaphor for the monstrous birthing of a creature, a dark horror directed at childbirth.
Frankenstein is very clearly a book written by a young mind hooked on the excitement of the Sublime and chilled by the idea of the Gothic. The tone of the novel oscillates violently between hope and despair giving it a sense of melodrama and between Frankenstein and his creature there is a fairly constant stream of self-pity and gnashing of teeth at the rotten luck they encounter (rotten luck mainly brought about by their own actions). There is no getting away from the silliness of parts of the story – the characters’ choices and the coincidences that move the plot forward often confound logic – but in case the premise hadn’t suggested as much from the outset, Frankenstein is a book to savour with disbelief well and truly suspended.
Yet one should not underestimate the author. Shelley’s expansive prose creates a Gothic landscape that excites in the reader all the sensations of the Sublime that the Romantics are famous for idolising. Here is writing for the sake of writing, for connecting with the natural world and the poetry all about us. Set aside the idea that every line must serve a purpose in moving the story forward and instead luxuriate in the detail and atmosphere that Shelley conjures. However, while the landscape is described with great verbosity, the creature is described only in sparse detail. The sense is certainly given of his stature and looming menace but a great deal of the terror of Frankenstein’s creation is left for the reader to conjure within their own mind.
Aside from admiring Shelley’s style, the literary allusions – weighty and numerous – should be admired too. From classical literature like Plutarch to Dante and later Milton’s Paradise Lost, Frankenstein shows off Shelley’s grounding in the foundational texts of the European literary world. Amusingly many of these allusions are put into the mouth of Frankenstein’s Creature, who not only acquires the ability to read but also digests the weightiest literature the English-speaking world has to offer.
Frankenstein is a novel of great vitality and vivid imagination, which preys on fears as relevant now as when it was written. A truly excellent Gothic horror that is smart and savvy too, it brushes against the Sublime parts of the soul and is ineffably and enduringly enjoyable. It is not hard to see why the story has remained part of the common conscience two hundred years since its first inception.