Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, first published in 1818(1), remains an astoundingly popular story two centuries later. Adaptations for stage and screen, many based only loosely – some very loosely – on Shelley's book, continue to proliferate. Moreover, especially since the mid-twentieth century, literary scholars have recognized the novel as something more than popular entertainment and continue to produce studies and analyses that vary widely in their conclusions about its implications(2).

What is it about this book, its author a young woman still in her teens when she began it and only twenty when it was published, that can still support such popularity and so many differing interpretations? Written in a time of revolution, when every aspect of Western culture from scientific discovery to governments, from technologies to economies, from literature to social custom itself was undergoing such incredibly swift change that all the changes could scarcely have been discerned, let alone assessed, Frankenstein seems somehow to have touched a central nerve from which all sorts of meanings began to radiate out, like spokes from a hub or ripples from a stone tossed into a pool. Its meanings and connotations are still being discovered, because the revolution that had just begun in Mary Shelley's time is the revolution we are still living in today.

Mary's first and best-known fiction began as a conventional horror story, suggested as she later wrote(3) by a friendly contest in which she chose to compete. The challenge was to contribute a "ghost story," similar to short tales the group had been reading, and the enterprise seems to have been undertaken as a way to pass the time rather than to produce anything publishable(4).

But her relationships with serious writers(5) had prepared her to take writing seriously, and what was begun in a spirit of trivial entertainment evolved into a considered and considerable undertaking. In Frankenstein, Mary Shelley drew on her reading, wide-ranging discussions with her peers and elders, and personal experience, no doubt including hints from her subconscious mind. Among her strongest influences, however, was the relatively new form of the novel itself, one of whose emerging and immensely popular genres was what we now call the Gothic novel.

Horace Walpole, who introduced the term "Gothic" to identify this genre by adding "A Gothic Story" as subtitle to the second edition of his 1764 novel, The Castle of Otranto, also helped to define the genre by describing that book as a combination of the medieval romance and the novel(6). By the medieval romance he meant stories and poems like Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and other Arthurian tales, usually set in distant or imaginary lands and in times long past, featuring magical or supernatural events. By the "New Romance" (Walpole's term for the novel, which had been invented as a form only a few decades before his Otranto was published) he meant a long work, always of prose fiction, although it sometimes purported to be factual history(7). It was set in real geographical locations and usually in contemporary times. Its events were supposed to be taken as realistic, in the sense of being possible, although many novels of the period featured wildly improbable coincidences and highly sentimentalized action and characters.

The combination described by Walpole was a long fiction, in a realistic setting but featuring supernatural events. Its protagonist characters, with whom readers were invited to identify, were threatened by uncanny and horrific antagonists. This hybrid genre was something new, and it was immediately popular. A financially secure and literate middle class, replete with leisure time and hungry for entertainment, created a growing demand, which writers hurried to meet. The Gothic novel became one of the most, if not indeed the most, popular genres of fiction, much imitated. It is hardly surprising that Mary Shelley's book, begun as the story of a man creating and bringing to life a monster, followed this model. That the "monster" is not a demonic or other sort of supernatural being from a religious context reflects Mary's atheistic background and beliefs; it is a preternatural and horrific figure, which satisfies the requirement of the Gothic model. However, the fact that the Creature is not of supernatural origin but is the protagonist Frankenstein's creation is more significant.

Frankenstein adheres in great part to the basic Gothic structure. The central conflict is between the horrifying Creature and the innocent realistic characters – his creator Victor Frankenstein and Victor's friends and family. The protagonist characters are involved in a typically sentimental domestic situation: Elizabeth Lavenza and Victor are engaged to be married; Victor's mother has recently died; his father is anxious for Victor's educational success and his future; his friend Henry Clairval is persuaded by Elizabeth to defer his own career in order to attend Victor, who after leaving home to attend university has become distant and uncommunicative. The dualities characteristic of the Gothic are observed: the realistic novel and the fantastic romance(8); the light, sentimental family situation opposed by a dark and uncanny threat; the brave but relatively weak – because human – hero in conflict with the powerful, unnatural, terrifying villain, from whose depredation the hero must eventually rescue his helpless beloved.

But Frankenstein subverts this basic structure in ironic ways. Whereas the typical Gothic novel ends with the defeat of the antagonist, none of the protagonist characters in Frankenstein survives. The betrothed couple, Victor and Elizabeth were raised as brother and sister (and, in the novel's first edition, were actually first cousins), and throughout much of his story Victor resists his fiancée's increasing anxiety about his commitment to her. The hero and the villain, instead of being strangers to each other, are creator and creature, in a relationship analogous to that of a parent and child. Two further differences are especially striking.

First, whereas in a typical Gothic novel the antagonist figure is malicious and evil, the Creature in Mary's novel, who is allowed to tell his own story at length, is a sympathetic figure; it is Victor's rejection of him that goads him into antagonism.

A second striking difference from other Gothic novels is a conspicuous contrast between the rhetoric employed by its major narrator and the details of his story. The language Victor uses to describe his domestic situation and his family relationships is typically sentimental, yet what he tells of events and actions contradicts his rather trite descriptions. His parents' marriage, for example, was the domestic ideal of helpless femininity supported by masculine strength (his mother was a "fair exotic… sheltered by the gardener"(9)), yet he tells of Caroline Frankenstein having singlehandedly cared for her own impoverished and ill father until his death, when she was discovered and rescued by the much older man she would marry, and he also recounts her adoption of a child, to be supported and raised as his sister, without consulting her husband. His apparent belief that Elizabeth – this adopted "sister" who is also his fiancée – was a model of passive and needy femininity is belied by his detailed quoting, from memory, of several letters she wrote to him in her anxiety about his apparent unwillingness to celebrate their marriage. Readers must recognize, in these quoted letters, Elizabeth's desperate attempts to manipulate Victor in what we would call a passive/aggressive way – which recognition was surely Mary Shelley's purpose in including the letters' texts at great length.

The contrast between what Victor tells us and the way he apparently understands (or fails to understand) it should not be ignored or excused as a sign of an inexperienced writer. It is emphasized by the same contrast apparent in the frame narrative of the explorer Robert Walton, Victor's rescuer in the Arctic regions, who has embarked on a dangerous enterprise far from his home in England and who serves as a double for Victor himself. The contrast evident in these two narratives is, importantly, not exhibited in the narrative of the Creature, whose rhetorical style is altogether more natural, more honest, and unaffected by sentimentality. The effect of all this is to emphasize an apparent division between what Victor believes to be true of himself and his behavior, including his creative enterprise, and what a discerning reader will come to see as the real truth about him and about his "enemy," the Creature. 

Before Victor succeeds in his enterprise, bringing the Creature to life, it has seemed beautiful to him. He sees it as monstrous only when it is wholly separate from him and begins to exist on its own. This is because, in order to conform to the pietistic, sentimental mode of manliness and virtue his culture advises him to embrace, he has unwittingly invested his creation with the dark passions and aggressions he does not wish to acknowledge as his own, as well as the strength and honesty of purpose he has never truly understood in himself. Now that he has put these traits into a separate entity, he sees them as ugly and dangerous. As he will later admit, the entity's very existence has depleted him of the capacity to take responsibility for it. The Creature, who might be a useful and productive friend to him and his family, is incapable of self-control, and Victor is now unable himself to control what he has created.

The division central to the Gothic novel, seen in its time as a division between natural realism and supernatural, horrifying fantasy, becomes in Frankenstein a division between sentimental tropes (ranging from the primacy of the family, supervised by gentle feminine affection, to the simultaneous supremacy of masculine enterprise and industrial progress) and their unacknowledged Gothic counterparts (ranging from the social and legal inequality of women to unrestrained economic and physical violence, both domestic and public(10). The division is an unhealed breach between societal mores and their unrecognized but very real, and very dangerous, consequences. By subverting the Gothic model, Mary Shelley suggests that the threats society encounters are not from outside but are in fact the results of enterprise divided from and hostile to the values it supposes itself to embrace. They are, in a sense, its creations.

One of the reasons, perhaps the main reason, for Frankenstein's continuing popularity and interest is the similarity of the situation Mary observed to our own situation today. Our "creatures," like Victor's, begin as attempts, often well-meant, to advance knowledge, scientific progress, and humanity's well-being. But in them we have instilled destructive power that we find too late we cannot control. Whether in a laboratory in New Mexico in the middle of the twentieth century, in a Harvard dormitory at the beginning of the twenty-first, or in any of countless other places where inventions and ideas are conceived of and completed, we are engaged in creating entities that have a tendency to become monstrous and beyond our control. In Frankenstein, Mary Shelley, using intuition and insight into her own culture, imagined the progress of one such creation and its consequences. Her book, like a stone tossed in a pool, sends out warning ripples in our direction.

About the author of this work

Mary Patterson Thornburg holds a Ph.D. in British and American Literature from Ball State University, Indiana, where she taught for 20+ years. She lives in Montana with her husband, Thomas Thornburg, writes novels and short fiction, and shamefully neglects her blog and website at www.marypattersonthornburg.com.

Footnotes and References

1. Frankenstein was published anonymously in 1818, with a preface written by Percy Bysshe Shelley. A second edition (1822) identified Mary Shelley as the author. An 1831 edition introduced numerous substantial revisions by the author, including a new Introduction. Most recent editions of the book are based on the 1831 text as edited by M. K. Joseph in 1969, but some scholars prefer the 1818 text, regarding it as more faithful to Mary Shelley's original intent. Both the 1818 and the 1831 texts have been given recent scholarly editions.

2. See, for example, The Endurance of Frankenstein, George Levine and U. C. Knoepflmacher, editors, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982. The twelve essays in this collection attempt in diverse ways to trace and account for the continuing popularity of both the novel and its central concept.

3. See the 1831 Introduction, in which Mary recounts the circumstances of this "contest," refers to her "unlucky" story, and describes the dream she says inspired it and the difficulty she experienced making headway, at first, in its writing (Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, 1969, 2008, 7-10). Her tone here seems consciously light-hearted and self-deprecating, and she emphasizes her wish to frighten readers as her dream had frightened her. No doubt this was, as some readers have inferred, at least in part an attempt to promote a book that many people knew by then as the source of sensational dramatic entertainment much more familiar than the novel it was derived from, whose twin purposes were scaring an audience and delivering a moral lesson: human beings should not venture into territory reserved for Nature and its God. But there is no reason to suppose she was not telling the truth about the origins of her story, and the complexities of the novel leave no doubt that, whatever her original impulse, her aim in writing it soon exceeded a wish to provide horrific entertainment.

4. In addition to Frankenstein, John Polidori's tale "The Vampyre" (1819), a thinly disguised caricature of Byron, perhaps inspired by this contest, was also published.

5. Mary's parents, Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin, were both writers with whose work she was literally familiar, as she was with Shelley's verse and prose writing and that of his and her family's wide range of personal acquaintance.

6. Punter, David, The Gothic, London: Wiley-Blackwell, 2004, 178.

7. For example, Daniel Defoe's Moll Flanders (1722), often cited as the first English novel, is fictional but was claimed by the author, and no doubt believed by many readers, to be the actual and detailed autobiography of the title character.

8. The term romance should be understood in the literary sense as a prose or verse fiction featuring heroic and frequently non-realistic characters and events, rather than in the narrow modern sense of a love affair or work of fiction concerning such a relationship.

9. Shelley, 33.

10. See Mary Patterson Thornburg, The Monster in the Mirror: Gender and the Sentimental/Gothic Myth in Frankenstein, Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1987, Chapter 1. Broadly speaking, my thesis here is that much of the popular fiction of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, in England, America, and Protestant Europe, expresses a self-contradictory, sentimental world view that sees femininity and masculinity as exclusive sets of traits, which must be united in domestic harmony to achieve completion – an ideal state – but which at the same time are (as revealed by the Gothic) so separate from and opposed to each other, in the roles and spheres of activity strictly assigned to each gender, as to be incapable of such completion.

To read this book free online:  http://www.pagebypagebooks.com/Mary_Wollstonecraft_Shelley/Frankenstein/

Some other useful links

Iris Veysey. "200 years of Frankenstein on Stage and Screen." https://lithub.com/200-years-of-frankenstein-on-stage-and-onscreen/. Vesey's short article discusses dramatic adaptations of Frankenstein, serious, comic, and weird, and includes many photos and other illustrations.

Philip V. Allingham. "Mary Shelley's 'Frankenstein' (1818): A Summary of Modern Criticism." http://victorianweb.org/previctorian/mshelley/pva229.html. Allingham's "summary" is not at all complete, but it presents several directions taken by 20th and 21st century criticism and includes a short, useful bibliography.

James P. Davis. "Frankenstein and the Subversion of the Masculine Voice." http://knarf.english.upenn.edu/Articles/davis.html. Davis's essay examines Frankenstein as a feminist text.

Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frankenstein. The Wikipedia article on Frankenstein, including notes, is a useful source for students of Mary Shelley's novel.

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