Sunday, May 8, 2016

Book Report: Frankenstein


When one imagines Frankenstein's monster, they likely think green, flat-topped, and played by Boris Karloff in a series of mono-syllabic grunts.  While the monster depicted in James Whale's 1931 film adaptation has become the standard, he's actually quite different from the articulate, long-haired monster from Mary Shelley's original 1818 novel.

With this in mind, I recently revisited Frankenstein, one of the true OG horror tales, and investigated its themes to find out how it's held our collective imaginations for nearly two centuries.  So if you're up for it, grab a shovel and let's see what we can dig up.


Since most people think of film adaptations when they consider Frankenstein, let me cover the broad strokes of the novel, which will indeed include spoilers...from almost 200 years ago:

  • Crew of a ship in the Arctic Ocean discovers Victor Frankenstein on an ice drift.  Victor tells the captain the tale of how he wound up there, including:
    • Victor brings Creature to life, using body parts cobbled together from cadavers and brought to life by SCIENCE!.
    • Victor is immediately skeeved out by Creature and abandons him.
    • Creature is shit on by every person he meets.
    • Creature blames Victor for his woes, decides to murder his younger brother.
    • Victor hems and haws while his family's nanny Justine is falsely convicted and executed for his brother's murder, apparently because he's scared no one will believe him.
    • Creature demands that Victor create a mate for him.
    • Victor hems and haws over whether or not to make a mate, and eventually refuses lest he plant the seed of a whole race of undead superbeings.
    • Creature warns Victor that he will see him on his wedding night, then kills his best friend Clerval as an additional "fuck you."
    • Victor hems and haws about being murdered on his wedding night, vows to be ready for a fight to the death.
    • Creature instead kills Victor's new wife Elizabeth on their wedding night.
    • Victor hems and haws about finding the creature, whom he follows up to the Arctic.
  • Victor finishes his tale, promptly dies upon completion of hemming and hawing.  
  • Creature fetches Victor's body, vows to set self on fire.
With that out of the way, let's discuss Frankenstein's creator, 

Life and Times of Mary Shelley

Born in 1797 to parents Mary Wollstonecraft and Henry Godwin, Mary would never know her mother as she died of infection 11 days after Mary was born. This is a shame because Wollstonecraft was one of the prototypical feminist badasses, and one of her many writings,  A Vindication of the Rights of Women was a manifesto that criticized a hierarchy that forced women into submissive roles .

As Shelley got older she began running with the Romantic contemporaries of her era who emphasized "inspiration, subjectivity, and the primacy of the individual." Included in this group was the man who Mary would eventually marry, Percy Shelley, a man who personified the conflict of progressive ideals with a sense of self-righteous douchebaggery.

Pictured above:  Percy Shelley had he lived in the 1960s
Percy, after all, left his pregnant wife Harriet for Mary (who was 16 at the time), causing Harriet to commit suicide.  After they were married, Percy and Mary separated several times due to Percy's indifference toward his child and his inability to keep his dick in his pants.  And although Percy encouraged Mary to explore other physical relationships, he did so at a time when she would of course be the one scolded for leading such a taboo lifestyle.

One redeeming aspect of their relationship, however, was that Percy encouraged Mary's writing.  In fact, it was during a stay in Geneva with friends that the group "pondered the wonders and horrors of nature" and had a friendly contest to see who could come up with the scariest story.  Mary's contribution was the seed for what would become Frankenstein.

Mary's inspiration for her story likely came from Luigi Galvani, who successfully demonstrated the power of electricity by using a shock to induce movement in disembodied frog's legs.  In a more sensational (see also: fucking creepy) display, his nephew, Aldini Galvani turned the experiment into a sideshow, using the technique to make it appear that recently hanged criminal George Forster was brought back to life.

Death must have been another inspiration for Shelley's writing, as it visited Shelley's family and friends frequently.  By the time she was twenty six, her half-sister Franny had committed suicide, four of her five children died before making it out of infancy, Percy was killed in a boating accident, and most of her circle of friends had passed away as well.  "The last man!" exclaimed Shelley in her journal. "Yes I may well describe that solitary being's feelings, feeling myself as the last relic of a beloved race, my companions extinct before me." In fact, The Last Man was the title Shelley used for a novel she completed about the downfall of society told by the last survivor of a world-wide catastrophe.

In the years after Percy's death, financial concerns forced Shelley to write for money rather than literary fame, and revised editions indicate the more conservative mindset she appropriated in those years.  A version published in 1831 included extensive edits, many of which make her characters less autobiographical, and to move away from depicting relationships that were overly incestuous.   For example, in the original version Elizabeth was a cousin with whom Victor falls in love (ew) but in the 1831 version Elizabeth is a ward of the family with whom Victor falls in love (still kind of ew).

Shelley's legacy, as one might expect, struggled through patriarchal tomfoolery.  Her husband Percy was often identified by knucklehead critics as the primary contributor to the novel.  Once this was proven to be inaccurate, many critics dismissed the novel as unworthy of significant analysis, and it wasn't until the 1960s that the book was considered worthy of academic analysis at colleges and Shelley's legacy was cemented over 100 years after her death in 1851.


Perhaps one of the more easily recognizable themes is the critique of the "mad scientist," which criticizes a culture that "watches the paragon of rationality grow drunk on its own technical prowess."  While Romantics admired scientific advancement, there was also a wariness of "pure reason" used without a moral compass.

Many people, particularly those of us with an affinity for horror movies, sympathize with the Creature as an outcast.  The story positions him not as inherently evil, but rather one "who feels the utter misery of an enforced solitary existence.  In other words, when someone is shit on long enough they tend to take a less-than-charitable view of their fellow man.  Interestingly, this feeling of isolation may have hit a little close to home for some, as stage adaptations took measures such as making the monster mute to make him more "Other," as if allowing the audience more comfort by not making them contemplate their own darkness.

If we look at Frankenstein's theme of "Otherness" as specific to race, things get a bit murky.  While it's nearly impossible to prove any clear intention by Shelley to allude to issues of race, she would have almost certainly been influenced by progressive rhetoric that advocated abolition.  However, even abolitionists of Shelley's time perpetuated falsehoods and stereotypes about black populations and some have observed that these ideas seeped their way into her depiction of the Creature.

Gender is another conflicted theme in the book, as some analysis notes that the women characters have no role in the story other than as passive plot devices meant to give more meaning to the male characters.  Conversely, other scholars note that in depicting Victor's role as creator, he pays the consequences for usurping the role of mother as he suffers pain and insecurity during the creation process (pregnancy), reacts with horror after the child is created (child birth, particularly for women of the time who would have been kept ignorant by primarily male doctors about the process), and rejects and detaches himself from his creation (postpartum depression).  


It's difficult to gauge for certain which, if any, of the above themes were intended by Mary Shelley when she wrote Frankenstein.  She may really have wanted to explore personal and societal themes related to Otherness, or she may have just wanted to tell a story that would creep out her friends.  But whether intentional or not, Shelley created a novel that makes us contemplate our own fears of rejection...while also creeping us out.    

Fun Facts
  • There were five stage versions created between Frankenstein's first publication and the 1823 revised edition.
  • There have since been at least two dozen film/tv adaptations.
  • Aaron Burr, vice president of the US, once visited Shelley's family.  I wonder he recommended that they "talk less, and smile more."
  • In Young Frankenstein, Mel Brooks' inclusion of the Creature's "enormous schwanzstucker" is an accurate allusion to the original book, since the Creature was described as having body parts much larger than typical humans in order to accommodate the intricate work needed to put the pieces together.
  • This is purely personal opinion, and it makes me a little ill to admit it, but one of the most accurate physical depictions of the creature is from I, Frankenstein.  Obviously, the rest of the movie is not quite so faithful.  Or as good.  Or any good.

Further Reading

Haddad, Stephanie.  "Women as the Submissive Sex in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein."  Student Pulse Online.  2010.
Karbiener, Karen.  "Introduction."  Frankenstein.  New York: Barnes and Noble.  2003.  15-36.

Kessler, Jeremy.  "Creating Frankenstein."  The New Atlantis Online.  Summer 2009.

Malchow, H. L.. “Frankenstein's Monster and Images of Race in Nineteenth-century Britain”. Past & Present 139 (1993): 90–130.

Rawson, Claude.  "Review of Mary Shelley:  Bride of Frankenstein."  New York Times Online.  October 7, 2001. 

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