Happy Birthday Frankenstein

The Arts

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.


11 comments on “Happy Birthday Frankenstein”

  1. Ian Luck says:

    I was never frightened by Karloff’s masterful portrayal of the creature; in fact, I always felt sorry for it, and his encounter with the blind man in 1935’s ‘Bride Of Frankenstein’ always moves me to tears. However, the picture you show of Charles Ogle as the creature, in Edison’s 1910 version scared the bejeesus out of me as a kid. Of all the portrayals of the creature, the closest to the literary original, in appearance and demeanour, has to be the one portrayed by Rory Kinnear in the TV show ‘Penny Dreadful’. A huge, slightly misshapen man, of sephulchrally pale complexion, with watery eyes, and lank, black hair. Capable of huge violence and evil, intelligent, yet cultured and thoughtful. Powered by a burning rage, and contempt for most around him, he’s capable of great tenderness. I could quite happily have watched his character alone – his entrance, tearing bloodily through Frankenstein’s second creation, as if it is a curtain, and nothing more, is both astonishing and disgusting, but what an entrance.

  2. Brooke says:

    “Mary Shelley was only 20 when she conceived of a monster …” Conceived is exactly the right word, given Mary and Percy’s situation at the time–way outside the norms of society–and the devastation they were creating for themselves and others.

    According to the annotated version, Mary described the creature as “handsome” as it is born; Percy edited the sentence to describe the creature as “beautiful.” Definitely not the Hollywood version. And as you read with the Shelleys’ image in mind, Ian is right– the creature is well worth watching just for himself.

    Regarding the slavery connection, the description of how the creature learns about humans and language mirrors Frederic Douglas’ narrative about how he learned about white society and how he learned to read. And both Mary and Percy were anti-slavery.

    BBC did a nice job reviewing Frankenstein on Free Thinking, if I recall correctly.

  3. J F Norris says:

    The blatant religious allusions in the original Frankenstein are rarely if ever discussed anymore. The creature refers to himself as Adam at one point, he longs to be an angel at the side of his creator, but often feels “like the fallen Lucifer”, his asks for Frankenstein to create a mate for him to relieve him of his painful loneliness… So much of the story is drawn from Genesis and Milton, moreso than the Greek myth that gives the novel its subtitle.

    I’ve been devoting a series of blog posts on Frankenstein inspired novels to help celebrate this 200th anniversary of the publication. The novel was actually first published on Jan 1, 1818 and then pulled from sale. It was slightly revised and reissued on March 11, 1818.

    Anyway, I’ve covered two so far: the recently published English translation of a rather brilliant Iranian novel Frankenstein in Baghdad (it won a prize in Arabic fiction some years ago) and a mature and profound young adult novel called Clay by David Almond. Currently reading the first of two novels featuring Victor Frankenstein’s son raised by Margaret Saville who learns of his true parentage and after attending medical school follows in his father’s footsteps furthering his experiments in recreating life. The second book deals heavily with slavery themes and is aptly called The Slave of Frankenstein. Both books are set in early to mid 19th century Virginia.

    For those interested I’m posting these essays and reviews on the second and third Sunday of every month until I’m done…probably will run well into the summer. My blog is Pretty Sinister Books.

  4. Roger says:

    There are echoes of Frankenstein in Blade Runner – the encounter of Batty and Tyrell (“It isn’t every man that gets to meet his maker.”) and the relationship between replicants and “real” people.

  5. Wayne Mook says:

    Do they put in the murder of William? People who tend to associate with the creature tend to ignore this vicious piece of vengeance. I saw the longer version of Karloff’s Frankenstein and the again the killing of the child is a lot nastier than the cut version. I never had much sympathy for the creature. After all who asks to be born and many are rejected from family & society.

    In later films and adaptations the creature is referred to as Adam, in I, Frankenstein and Bernard Rose’s Frankenstein.

    Pretty Sinister books is a fine site, but if you like old crime novels this site will send you of scurrying after more. It’s one of the few other sites I visit, I’ve not posted on there for a while though, sorry John.


  6. admin says:

    Thanks for the tip John – clearly there’s a lot more reading to be done on the subject.

  7. Helen Martin says:

    I’ve just finished “The Daughters of Mab” an epistolary novel about crazy Shelley and the women in his life. Why do we insist on making our lives as complicated as we can?
    I heard an explanation this morning from a scientist involved in the cloning of dogs (in the wake of Barbara Streisand’s cloning of her dog. It costs about $50,000 and involves a flesh sample from the original animal, donor eggs, and a surrogate mother. The DNA is extracted from the sample and inserted into the eggs, from which the DNA has been removed, the whole is placed in solution in a petri dish and the whole thing is subjected to some form of electrical charge. Can you think of anything else but Frankenstein at that point?
    The Frankenstein debate is about to become vital to society.
    Oh, and I’m rereading Full Dark House and enjoying the references to later books. Over which police station did Marjory Allingham’s Campion live? There was a police reference in FDH that made me think of him.

  8. Ken Mann says:

    Does anyone know why the James Whale film swaps Victor and Henry’s names? Something to do with a play version on Broadway?

  9. Helen Martin says:

    And the skunk stripe that is supposed to indicate witchy predilections. I had one the summer I was thirteen but it never really came back.

  10. Denise Treadwell says:

    If I remember correctly, cloning an animal only results in the cloned animal having all the genetic problems of the clone and they tend to age quickly. I looked into this a bit as I want my cats to live forever! I suppose Streisand thought it was worth it, she has money to burn, what I gather is , it isn’t very successful .

  11. Jan says:

    Seems far easier just to buy another dog. Or try keeping a cat for a change perhaps. The idea being when one dies you buy another has worked well for ages and ages. Or am I missing somethibg?

    This clone hound idea seems a bit drastic.

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