Happy Birthday Frankenstein
He’s a sprightly 200 years old. Mary Shelley was only 20 when she conceived of a monster created from parts of animals and humans, galvanised to life. Her husband Percy Bysshe Shelley had attended anatomy classes and was fascinated by electrical experiments, which suggests that his ideas may have fed into hers.
On that infamous Swiss holiday when stories were written to amuse against the inclement weather, Frankenstein emerged from Shelley’s dreams to become the first true science fiction story. The first edition appeared without an author credit. The modern Prometheus was a solid hit from the outset, but no-one realised how strongly the fable would maintain its grip. Two centuries later a new edition is being published with a preface arguing that the relation between man and nature is still as hot a topic as ever. It’s a novel about sentience, soul and ethics that wants to understand how we define life and intelligence.
Shelley imagined her creature as a lithe, agile non-human, not as a lumbering stiff-legged thing with bolts in its neck. Just as Disney’s version of Winnie-The-Pooh replaced the beloved E H Shepard illustrations, so Universal’s film monster wiped out the image of a human creature. When you consider that the first screen depiction of Frankenstein was in 1910 and the most recent was last year, you can see that the desire to visualise Shelley’s creation continues much as it ever did.
One of the things often forgotten about the original novel is that it has a framing device. It’s written in epistolary form as correspondence between Captain Robert Walton and his sister, Margaret Walton Saville. Walton is a failed writer and captain who sets out to explore the North Pole. During the voyage, the crew spots a dog sled driven by a huge creature. They rescue an emaciated man named Victor Frankenstein who has been in pursuit of his creation. Frankenstein sees in Walton the same obsession that has destroyed him, and tells his story…
Whenever a book piques universal interest there proves to be a thousand ways to retell the tale to suit the age. It comes as little surprise to discover that Millennials don’t identify with the scientist hero but with the grotesquely stitched-together mass murderer, possibly because of the fragmented times that question our origins, or even because of a greater interest in animal rights. We are, after all, in a year when a film about a woman falling in love with a fish wins the Best Picture Oscar. Perhaps Frankenstein, like Dracula, can reflect the zeitgeist. A Harvard professor recently decided that the creature represents the history of slavery, and it’s only amazing that no-one has claimed it as the first trans character.
It seems the monster will always be with us, in one form or another.