Frankenstein or, The Modern Prometheus
A genre-defining horror novel in the gothic tradition, Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus (1818) by British author Mary Shelley (1797–1851) tackles the subjects of scientific ethics, lost innocence, and the fallibility of human judgment when a scientist conducts an experiment to construct a living, thinking being from inanimate flesh. Because of its basis in technology—Shelley mentions the burgeoning field of galvanism as an influence in the preface to the 1831 edition—and treatment of its consequences, Frankenstein is widely considered the first science fiction novel. Through the protagonist Victor Frankenstein's creation of a sentient monster and the creature's subsequent effort to comprehend the world into which he is born, the novel explores the boundaries between life and death, innocence and experience, nature versus nurture, and the perils of scientific hubris.
Frankenstein shocked both readers and critics with its frank depictions of violence and terror and subverted expectations with a bleak, tragic conclusion that lacked the redemptive romantic ending typical of gothic novels of the period. Early commentators decried the novel's impiety in drawing parallels between a scientist's powers of creation and those of God, and Shelley's references to Paradise Lost (1667) by John Milton (1608–1674) only serve to reinforce this comparison. Coming at a time of cultural transition and political unrest in Europe, the novel reflected public fears about the consequences of unchecked scientific advances, as well as its author's own experiences of grief, loss, and motherhood. Although Shelley imbued her work with moral questioning and psychological complexity, Frankenstein inaugurated an often far less literary horror tradition that grew to include countless popular books and movies featuring murderous, rampaging monsters.
HISTORICAL AND LITERARY CONTEXT
Shelley conceived the germ of the novel during the summer of 1816 while on vacation in continental Europe with family and friends, among them the leading romantic poet Lord Byron (1788–1824). In addition to reading German ghost stories for amusement, the small group decided to hold a friendly competition to see who could come up with the best original horror tale. Shelley's contribution, inspired in part by a dream, went on to become Frankenstein. The creation of the novel was informed to some degree by Shelley's personal life, particularly the death of her infant daughter in 1815 and her successful pregnancy the year after. Preoccupied as it is with matters of creating life and dispensing death, Frankenstein undeniably reflects Shelley's own experiences, including her mother's death shortly after Shelley was born. Frankenstein can also be read as a criticism of Enlightenment values that permeated English society in the early nineteenth century. In particular, Frankenstein critiques Enlightenment-era thinkers’ trust in the benefits of scientific progress. Whether Frankenstein's unnatural creature is monstrous—and what the underlying cause of that monstrosity is—are the fundamental issues of the novel.
Frankenstein is considered a gothic novel, although it deviates from the usual gothic tropes in a number of ways, namely its lack of a clear central heroine, dilapidated castle setting, or happily resolved denouement. Seminal eighteenth-century gothic works such as The Castle of Otranto (1764) by Horace Walpole (1717–1797) and The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) by Ann Radcliffe (1764–1823) made liberal use of haunted castles, villainous rogues, unexplained events, tragic deaths, and happy, romantic endings. The goal of gothic fiction was typically to arouse heightened emotion in the reader, often fear or dismay, but with the expectation that the protagonist would triumph in the end. In short, gothic literature aspired to the sensational in its most literal sense.
Shelley borrowed psychological aspects from the gothic tradition, specifically inspiring terror through supernatural events and descriptions of her characters’ inner thoughts and feelings, but her frights went beyond garden-variety ghosts or mysterious happenings to include the senseless killing of innocents, even that of a child. In addition, she did not offer her readers a break from the gloom as other gothic novels did; the novel ends not with the happy union of two lovers but with the death of nearly all of the principal characters.
Frankenstein extended the gothic tradition by reworking the supernatural aspect into a more realistic and domestically grounded plotline. The spectrum of subjects the novel touches on—science, psychology, Page 211 | Top of Articlemorality, familial relationships, the perils of ego, social alienation, the merits of education—as well as its humanizing and at times sympathetic portrayal of the monster paved the way for later “creature” narratives such as Dracula (1897) by Bram Stoker (1847–1912). Frankenstein also ushered into being the trope of the “mad scientist.” Novels such as Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886) by Robert Louis Stevenson (1850–1894) and The Island of Dr. Moreau (1896) by H. G. Wells (1866–1946) feature scientists who, like Victor Frankenstein, lose sight of both reason and morality while pursuing their scientific goals.
THEMES AND STYLE
Frankenstein lends itself to multiple thematic interpretations, ranging from the consequences of scientific overreach to the responsibility of the creator for the created, the corruption of innocence, and the alienating psychological impact of social isolation and rejection. Each interpretation is embodied in the scientist Victor Frankenstein and the creature he lets loose upon the world. Frankenstein's human weaknesses, namely his hubris and quest for scientific glory, lead him to animate the creature without regard for the moral or ethical consequences of doing so, while the creature himself, innocent at the moment of creation, becomes violent only when the world rejects and judges him. The book therefore begs the question: who is more monstrous—the scientist or his hapless creation?
Frankenstein's subtitle, The Modern Prometheus, clearly indicates one of the novel's primary themes of the dangers of seeking forbidden knowledge. In classical mythology, Prometheus is variously described as the progenitor, protector, or savior of human beings who defied Zeus in order to bring fire to humanity (and thus further society's advancement) and who suffered brutally for his transgression on behalf of mortals. Shelley therefore likens Frankenstein's pursuit of knowledge and power and his resultant undoing to Prometheus's circumvention of Zeus's authority and subsequent punishment. Similarly, the novel draws parallels between the creature's rejection by his creator and both Adam's banishment from the Garden of Eden and Satan's expulsion from heaven as depicted in Milton's Paradise Lost. This connection suggests that Frankenstein tempts fate by playing God and creating life from lifelessness and that his innocent creation suffers needlessly through its contact with the corrupting influences of society.
Structurally, Frankenstein is told as a frame narrative, its story relayed through the letters of Robert Walton, who discovers Frankenstein near death in the Arctic and who relates the dying man's tragic tale. Contained within Frankenstein's narrative is the story of the creature, and within the creature's narrative is the story of the family he observes and learns from. Filtering the story through the character of Walton lends a degree of credibility to the otherwise fantastical tale at the core of the story. The novel opens with Walton's realistic description of his encounter with a strange, hulking shape that we later learn is Frankenstein's creation. The technique also puts Frankenstein's fantastic tale on the level of hearsay, because the story goes from Frankenstein's lips to Walton's ears and then from Walton's mind to his pen as he drafts letters to his sister about what he has heard. There is no implication that Walton is an unreliable narrator per se, but the frame narrative allows Shelley to introduce an aspect of doubt that diffuses some potential incredulity on the part of the reader, likely more so than the use of an omniscient narrator would.
Frankenstein sold well upon its initial publication in 1818, but reviews were mixed. Many critics found the descriptions of violence and murder shocking and felt they stretched the limits of decency. An anonymous reviewer in the British Critic in April 1818 spoke for many when he said, “The horror which abounds in [the book] is too grotesque and bizarre to ever approach the sublime, and when we did not hurry over the pages in disgust, we sometimes paused to laugh outright.” The reviewer conceded that, despite these shortcomings, the author of Frankenstein showed promise: “We suspect, that the diseased and wandering imagination, which has stepped out of all legitimate bounds, to frame these disjointed combinations and unnatural adventures, might be disciplined into something better.” Sir Walter Scott (1771–1832) is emblematic of other reviewers who found the work to be innovative and creatively powerful. In a review published in Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine in March 1818, he faulted the book for straining the reader's credulity but concluded, “The work impresses us with a high idea of the author's original genius and happy power of expression,” describing it as “a novel which excites new reflections and untried sources of emotion.”
Critical attention paid to the work, and to Shelley's career and biography, grew slowly during the nineteenth century. Although some critics did not take her seriously because of her gender and youth, appreciation of her work and the body of scholarship built around it increased exponentially in subsequent decades. Because the story taps so well into deep-rooted human fears, including fears of the unknown, the ravages of conscience, parental regret, and science run amok, critical approaches to the novel have shifted over time to reflect the overriding social concerns or anxieties of each new era. As issues of slavery came to the fore in the nineteenth century, for example, some critics and politicians drew parallels between Frankenstein's creature—as a sheltered being set free into the world only to return to terrorize his overseer/creator—and freed slaves, who, it was argued, might behave in similar fashion. In the twentieth century, some critics, such as Leonard Isaacs, came to view physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer (1904–1967) as a Frankenstein-like figure who unleashed the destructive power of nuclear weapons on the world. He wrote in his essay “Creation and Responsibility in Science: Some Lessons from the Modern Prometheus” that “the Frankenstein myth provides, or can be interpreted to provide, twentieth-century society with two incontestable benefits: it offers, as do most living myths, warning and catharsis.”
Modern feminist critics have read Shelley's narrative as one of oppression, with its female characters, including the aborted female creature Frankenstein constructs for the monster, suffering cruel fates at the hands of men. Alternatively, feminist scholars such as Anne K. Mellor have seen in Frankenstein an assertion of the importance of the role of women in society, exemplified by the abominable result of Frankenstein's arrogant attempt to create a living being without female involvement. Psychoanalytic critics, on the other hand, have approached Frankenstein through the framework of its author's psychology and personal biography to deduce the ways in which the narrative reflects Shelley's mental and emotional states during the time the book was composed, with some suggesting that Frankenstein's molding of the creature and bringing it to life signifies the way the young author was herself shaped by the views and expectations of her parents and her husband. The Frankenstein narrative (and its Promethean undercurrent) has also been invoked in contemporary scientific debates surrounding the ethical dilemmas that arise in fields such as synthetic biology, whose advances blur the lines between natural and unnatural, organic and artificial, and animate and inanimate, and whose practitioners are often accused of playing God by creating new forms of biotechnological life in the laboratory.
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Mellor, Anne K. “Frankenstein: A Feminist Critique of Science.” In One Culture: Essays in Science and Literature. Edited by George Levine and Alan Rauch. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1987, 287–312.
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Frankenstein. Directed by James Whale. 1931. Universal City, CA: Universal, 2004. DVD.
Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. Directed by Kenneth Branagh. 1994. Culver City, CA: Columbia Tristar Home Video, 1998. DVD.
Victor Frankenstein. Directed by Paul McGuigan. 2015. Beverly Hills, CA: Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment, 2016. DVD.
Young Frankenstein. Directed by Mel Brooks. 1974. Beverly Hills, CA: Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment, 2006. DVD.