Frankenstein is 200 Years Old: What is it About?

It’s considered the first ever proper modern science fiction novel. 200 years after it was first published, it still manages to wow audiences. It’s been reinvented more times than Madonna but a resurgence a few years ago means we are once again craving the timeless tale. It all began when Danny Boyle adapted it for the stage, casting Johnny Lee Miller and Benedict Cumberbatch. But what makes this story so timeless and why does it still resonate 200 years later?

Its full title is Frankenstein or the Modern Prometheus hit the shelves 1st January 1818. Shelley initially published under a male pseudonym, just as the Bronte’s would several decades later. But her standing and class as the wife of a famous poet meant she was soon outed. She’d been quite successful at publishing his work and he is said (by Shelley herself) to have contributed greatly to the story’s first edition. Nevertheless, it is her name that now graces covers.

You Don’t Really Know Frankenstein

No, seriously. Trust me. You don’t. Discard all of those 1930-50s Hammer Horror and other silver screen adaptations because what you think you know about the story is wrong. Dead wrong. Shelley’s original work was not the horror we have come to understand. The creature was not a bumbling lug with only murder in mind. Those stories took away the creature’s voice and made Doctor Frankenstein into a mad scientist pantomime villain. His sins are far deeper and far more nuanced than that. Frankenstein’s timelessness is wrapped up in such ideas as

  • Parental irresponsibility and refusal to face our obligations towards our children/creations
  • Making poor judgements about our life choices and to an extent, blaming others for them
  • Arrogance and biting the hand of redemption when presented to you

All of these sins are of Doctor Frankenstein and not the creature. His constant and repeated failures towards his “child” is the tragedy and the drama. The saying goes Pride Goeth Before the Fall. Frankenstein is through his pride, at pretty much every step, the master of his own fall.

But what of the creature? He is not a child as we would understand, whose murders and pursuit of Doctor Frankenstein is driven purely by the hatred of the father. No, he is a nuanced and subtle character. He reads the great philosophers and soon comes to the realisation the extent of Doctor Frankenstein’s failure. This creature has a voice, a mind, a morality and a voracious appetite for humanist ethics. The creature’s angst, despair ultimately – pathos comes through as he understands the gift of life that has been thrust upon him.

Undoubtedly, the villain of the piece is clearly Doctor Frankenstein.

What Drove Mary Shelley to Write Frankenstein?

Far be it from me to speculate on the muse of a fellow writers, especially one who lived 200 years before my time, but there are events in her personal life that led to this. Shelley was just 19 at the time she first put pen to paper. Even at that young age, she was not an unworldly woman; she moved in high circles of the romantic poets. She married one of then. At age 21, Shelley hit success and Frankenstein or the Modern Prometheus (to give it the full title) was published. In that time, she’d spent a lot of time in the Rhineland and Switzerland with her husband Percy Shelley and their friend Lord Byron. It was another friend – one John Polidori who set them all the task of writing a horror story. The rest, as they say, is history.

The themes of childhood abandonment came through personal tragedy. Her mother died in childbirth while the half-brother born from her father’s second marriage was a stillbirth. She herself would go on to almost die in childbirth were it not for the quick-thinking actions of her husband putting her in a bath of ice.

Can We Reinterpret Frankenstein for the Ages?

Some have. Six years on from Danny Boyle’s stage production, it has once again brought into sharp focus the timeless tales of Mary Shelley’s tragic work. It has alternatively been reinterpreted in this increasingly insular time, as a lack of compassion for those who are different from us – LGBT, the physically disabled, even immigrants and people of different genders. It also has an environmental metaphor, the actions of the destructive father (humanity) for the child (our planet on which we rely). Some of these appear far fetched but what is clear is that now, with 200 years having passed, Frankenstein or the Modern Prometheus still has secrets to reveal.

EDIT: There is a biopic of Mary Shelley’s out now starring Elle Fanning.

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