Frankenstein was first published 200 years ago as of this year! Crazy, right? Now, I don’t know what Mary Shelley was thinking when she wrote it, but today I’m going to be looking at Frankenstein from a modern perspective and in a modern context. I hope you enjoy!
Much has changed since Mary Shelley’s nightmare-inspired Frankenstein first hit the shelves. 200 years on, it still remains popular and the messages relevant. Adaptations are being released all the time, both in book form and film.
Pop culture has diluted Shelley’s initial story, and inevitably her meanings and intentions. I’m used to green-skinned monsters bursting through creaking doorways on a thundery night, bolts jammed haphazardly through their necks. I’m used to Thriller-esque Halloween costumes and mistakenly calling Frankenstein’s monster by the name of his maker. So when I actually read Frankenstein, I was surprised by the extent to which this really isn’t a book about a monster, but more a book about his creator, and the unintended repercussions of our actions.
Frankenstein is true to the Romantic genre in its focus on the intensity of emotion. Frankly, for the majority of this book, Victor is cooped up in a sickbed, unable to fully process his thoughts and feelings. He is the image of a delicate protagonist, a stock character usually reserved for love novels. He is a man in touch with his emotions, a fact that remains important and profound, perhaps more today than historically. In a society consistently questioning the definition of ‘masculinity,’ it is important to look back to characters like Victor Frankenstein, overrun with emotion and in touch with his feelings. Although I’ll admit most men are not in the same circumstances as Victor, the point still stands: When did this become shameful?
This is the focus of Frankenstein. It makes sense that the titular character would also be the subject of the story. Perhaps that is where the name-confusion comes in: People are so invested in the subplot, the growth and rampages of a monster, that they forget about the main plot, the suffering and downfall of a monster-maker. But this leads me to another question: What makes a monster? And who is the real monster in Frankenstein? The subtitle, ‘The Modern Prometheus‘ further indicates that it is not Frankenstein’s monster that is the real antagonist, but Frankenstein himself. Prometheus is credited with the creation of man from clay. Frankenstein is credited with the creation of a monster from man. This act in itself is monstrous.
Is Frankenstein’s monster so horrifying because he is so close to humanity?
Victor Frankenstein wanted to create a beautiful specimen. He is so impassioned with this endeavour that he becomes isolated, content only when working on this project. He collates the most beautiful aspects of deceased humans, dug from graves, and manipulated to produce a new creature. In theory, Frankenstein’s monster should be beautiful. But in reality, the opposite is true: his ‘lustrous black…flowing‘ hair and ‘teeth of a pearly whiteness’ – the image of beauty – are cancelled out by ‘watery eyes,’ a ‘shrivelled complexion,’ and ‘straight black lips.’ In disgust, Frankenstein abandons his monster, leading to the question of nature/nurture: Did Frankenstein’s monster wreak havoc because it was in his nature to? Because he defied natural processes? Because he shouldn’t have existed? Or did monstrousness come only in his nurture, his abandonment? What if Frankenstein raised his monster, integrated him into society, taught him about the world? We would certainly have a very different story.
Regardless, this is clearly much more than a cautionary tale about meddling with life and death. This is more than a chastise for the people wanting to play God.
Building on this, perhaps this novel presents a lesson of responsibility. Arguably, it is Frankenstein’s refusal to take responsibility that creates his monster. He is haunted by his bad decisions in the form of a living, breathing monster, yet still refuses to really take action. If Frankenstein had looked beyond the appearance of his creation, he could have seen the blank slate he had created – no prejudice, no knowledge, not even any awareness of language or the workings of society. He could have created a superior being, a beautiful being, not a monster.
Is the lesson, then, if one is to meddle with life, to meddle responsibly? To integrate your creations into society? To be transparent with everything you’re doing or aim to do? Again, we would certainly have a very different story if Frankenstein shared his secret earlier on. This makes me question the reasoning behind Victor being so secretive: was he really so ashamed of his creation that he couldn’t even face admitting what he had done, so as to save an abundance of people from pain and death? Or did an underlying sense of pride remain? Was Victor merely hesitant to share the secret to the creation of life? After all of his monster’s terrible deeds, did he still want to protect the process of his creation? His intellect? His achievement?
Much of Frankenstein actually reminds me of the modern development of robots and artificial intelligence. I’m sure we’re all aware of Sophia, the humanoid robot created in 2015 who is only getting smarter. She has won awards and titles ordinarily reserved for humans. Does she have the right to be treated like a human? If we consider this in the context of Frankenstein, what would have happened if Sophia was abandoned upon creation? Probably, she would have run out of battery. But what if Frankenstein’s monster was treated like Sophia? Introduced to society? Taught so that he too was only getting smarter? People are dubious as to whether Sophia should be allowed to exist, just as they presumably would have been about Frankenstein’s monster. So does the creations of Sophia reflect a modern Frankenstein? The modern Modern Prometheus?
The Importance of Explanation
If Frankenstein were released today, I am certain it would be frowned upon for some aspects of the plot. For example, it is extremely convenient that the first person Frankenstein’s monster tries to befriend just-so-happens to be Victor Frankenstein’s younger brother. Frankly, this whole novel is based on convenience and coincidence, and I don’t think this would be received in the same way today.
However, is this not what makes Frankenstein so enjoyable? The coincidences? The ambiguity? The general lack of explanations?
How did Frankenstein create his monster? Many adaptations depict Victor in a lab, test tubes bubbling, and electricity having some part to play in the monster’s awakenment. There is also the famous exclamation, ‘it’s alive! It’s alive!‘ This is what Frankenstein is famed for. But we are never actually told how Frankenstein came to bring an eclectic mix of body parts into a living, breathing organism. Ambiguity is the making of this novel, not answers or evidence. Frankenstein remains alive today, 200 years on, because of this.