It all started in 1816, when a small group of friends gathered one night in the summer to trade ghost stories. In the Villa Diodati, on the shores of Lake Geneva, Lord Byron, John Polidori, Percy Shelley, and Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin all gathered to each come up with a good ghost story. One of those stories was concocted by the then 18-year old Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin (later Mary Shelley, after she married Percy Shelley), and went on to become one of the greatest science fiction novels of all time.
I’m talking about Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus, of course, the story of how a young student of natural philosophy, led by blind ambition, went on to animate a body built from parts from different sources, giving it life, only to reject it out of disgust and fear.
What is the story of Frankenstein about?
Frankenstein is a lot of things. For starters, it is the very first science fiction novel in recorded history. It’s also a tragic romance, a Gothic horror, and one of the most popular and caricatured parables. It’s all of those woven together in what is undeniably a well-written prose.
There are two tragedies at the heart of this story: the dangers of playing God, or overreaching, and the pain of abandonment, both by one’s parents and by society in general. Part of the reason why the story of Frankenstein has stood the test of time, proving Lindy, is that these two tragedies have never lost their relevance through time. In fact, they are arguably more relevant today than ever.
Part of the power of the story of Frankenstein lies in its appeal to popular imagination. There are two archetypes brought to life in the story that have made it possible for the story to leap out of the novel and find its way onto theater stages, screens, and now video games. These are those of the ‘creature’ and the ‘mad scientist’. If you look carefully enough, you will find these archetypes reproduced in many places, even where the story of Frankenstein is not explicitly acknowledged as a source of inspiration.
Why is the story of Frankenstein popular?
Interpretations of Frankenstein have been a dime a dozen. There was the short film in 1910, Thomas Edison; there were also Britain’s Hammer series and Hollywood’s Universal Pictures, and there was the Rocky Horror Picture Show. There were also more recent treatments of the story, such as 2001: A Space Odyssey. We have had Japanese and Italian Frankensteins. We’ve had Blackenstein, a Blaxploitation film. It is even discussed in universities, where students are often required to write papers about this topic. You can read some of them at https://eduzaurus.com/free-essay-samples/frankenstein/.
We’ve had takes from Tim Burton, Kenneth Branagh, and Mel Brooks. We’ve had comic books, spin-off novels, series on TV, songs by artists like Metallica and Ice Cube, and even video games centered on the character, such as Abomination: The Heir of Frankenstein, The Wanderer: Frankenstein’s Creature, and the 1995 classic, Frankenstein: Through the Eyes of the Monster.
So why has this single-story, written a couple of centuries ago, captured the imaginations of so many, and inspired so many to cast their own interpretations?
The power of the parable
Part of the answer lies in the power of the story as a parable. It has been used to argue for and against slavery, as well as revolution. It has been used to support the proliferation of empires, as well as their vivisection. It has been used to cast various dichotomies, such as the struggle between religion and atheism, or tradition and progress. Even the prefix ‘Franken-’ has become a byword for anything that worries, such as genetically modified crops, stem cell research, the atomic bomb, and, more recently, artificial intelligence.
The story of Frankenstein is something of an empty vessel with an astounding power to hold whatever zeitgeist of the day we put in it. In Mary Shelley’s time, it captured perfectly the mood of 19th Century Europe, teetering on the age of the modern age. Many people were anxious about the exact extent of the rapid developments they were seeing in science, technology, and industry. The story of Frankenstein took this contemporary anxiety and fused it into an electrifying work of science fiction, with incredible results.
Frankenstein is a vessel for us to fill with our own worldviews
Another aspect of the story that makes it so seductive is how much is left to the imagination. Contrary to the clarity you might see in later interpretations, the original story was actually pretty vague about both the science involved in the animation of the Frankenstein monster and the description of the creature itself. The definitive passage from the novel is as follows:
“ With an anxiety that almost amounted to agony, I collected the instruments of life around me, that I might infuse a spark of being into the lifeless thing that lay at my feet.”
The description of the monster is even vaguer:
“It was already one in the morning; the rain pattered dismally against the panes, and my candle was nearly burnt out, when, by the glimmer of the half-extinguished light, I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open; it breathed hard, and a convulsive motion agitated its limbs.”
There’s not much to go by in either of those cases. While this might seem like a bad thing, it actually opened the parable up to different kinds of interpretation. Other novels, comics, movies, series, and even video games have since taken advantage of that, and that trend looks like it will persist for much, much longer.
Frankenstein is a classic, precisely because it doesn’t try to be. It was an honest treatment by a young lady of the fears of her time. It just turned out that she tapped into such a powerful part of the human psyche, that it had always been relevant before her time, and remained so in the time since.
Judy Nelson is a writer and editor with an interest in classical and contemporary literature. She enjoys capturing the essence of popular works and breaking them down in an accessible way for her readers. When not writing, you’ll most definitely find her reading, curled up on her sofa with a yogurt or glass of red wine.