Gothic tale still resonates after 200 years
Two hundred years ago, a creature that challenged morality and the laws of humanity was born. It was cemented in lore and became a figurehead of horror. During the Halloween season, one is hard-pressed not to find him lurking around the corner. He is Frankenstein’s monster.
Published in 1818, Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” altered the landscape of English literature — bringing in a new age of story-telling that has stood the test of time.
“It was a groundbreaking text — it deals with so many different issues,” Sharon Joffe, LU assistant professor of English and Mary Shelley scholar, said. “In the text, Victor Frankenstein has attempted to create life from dead body parts, something only God can do.
“Even people who have never read the book know the story. Most people have some comprehension of what ‘Frankenstein’ is about.”
When “Frankenstein” was originally published, with the appellant “or the Modern Prometheus,” it was published anonymously. Joffe said that there was speculation as to who had written it and that upon its release, it received negative reviews because of its subject matter.
“The story of creating a human being from dead body parts was a way for Mary Shelley to work out some of her own feelings about the loss of her children, or the loss of her mother at a very young age,” she said. “This text can be analyzed on so many levels — Shelley shows us several elements of her childhood through the creature, rejection, her education, etc.”
Shelley’s “Frankenstein” was developed during a perfect storm — literally.
“She was in Switzerland with (her husband) Percy Shelley and her step-sister Claire Clairmont, in June 1816,” Joffe said. “They were in Geneva, and living close by for that particular summer was Lord Byron, the famous British poet, and his doctor, John Polidori. Because the weather was not good, they stayed inside.
“They entertained each other by reading ghost stories and then it evolved into, ‘Well, let’s create a competition and see who can tell his or her own ghost story.’ From that competition, ‘Frankenstein’ was born.”
Shelley’s life influenced what she wrote about, Joffe said.
“I’m sure some people are not really aware of her background — she was the daughter of two very famous writers and philosophers — Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin,” Joffe said. “She lost her mother at a very young age, like nine or 10 days old, and so she was brought up by her father, but with her mother’s educational principles. To me, the absent mother is so present in Shelley’s life. Within ‘Frankenstein,’ through the education of the creature, we see the kind of educational principles Mary Wollstonecraft actually recorded in her books.”
The first edition of “Frankenstein” was published in 1818, and was republished in 1831 with some alterations.
“There are not major differences between the two, but they are significant,” Joffe said. “Critic Anne Mellor has suggested that Shelley’s life experiences between the composition in 1818 and then the publication in 1831 — she’d lost a number of children, she’d lost her husband Percy Shelley – made her more pessimistic.”
Joffe said the discovery of Shelley’s 1816 draft manuscript was monumental because readers were able to see the story from its inception.
“They found it in the Bodleian library in Oxford, and Charles Robinson has actually given us the 1816 draft manuscript with both Mary and Percy’s notes, and then compiled Mary’s alone without Percy,” she said. “So now we have an even earlier draft of the 1818 text, which is incredible to see how the text has evolved.”
Frankenstein’s monster has been a beloved movie antagonist since it was brought to the silver screen in 1910. Joffe said because of this, the creature has been able to live on in pop culture, especially during Halloween.
“Shelley has given us one story, but then you have Boris Karloff, who acted in 1931 in the James Whale movie of ‘Frankenstein,’ and he acted as the monster in a certain way that changed the character,” she said. “I think the association with Halloween came about as a result of the 20th and 21st century, and the way the story has been taken by Hollywood. I think it’s very far removed from what Shelley intended.”
Joffe said that “Frankenstein” is still relevant because of the underlying themes that deal with rejection, and nature vs. nurture.
“The creature commits murders and does all sorts of horrible things at the end of the text, but at the beginning, all he wants is to be recognized by his father figure, Victor,” she said. “(The creature) is benevolent. He is kind. He wants to be recognized by Victor and Victor rejects him. It is that rejection that I think Shelley is really focusing on in this text. What are the effects of rejection? That’s a question we ask ourselves today.
“In Shelley’s own life, she’s raised by her step-mother who did not like her, it was well-known she didn’t like her. I think she felt that rejection from her step-mother and wrote that into ‘Frankenstein.’”
The novel has inspired horror authors such as Stephen King, and became a major turning point in the gothic novel tradition popular at the time.
“As a genre, horror has evolved,” Joffe said. “The gothic tradition transitioned into the horror genre, and Shelley was not the first to write in that tradition, but because this is probably our first text that deals with creating new life out of something dead, it made a huge impact.”
Joffe said that “Frankenstein” is a commentary on the society of Shelley’s day.
“We have a character like Elizabeth who — after Caroline Frankenstein, the mother of Victor who’s killed off pretty early through scarlet fever — is now Victor’s future wife, but is also a very important character within that family, because Alphonse Frankenstein turns to her for assistance for help raising the younger children,” she said. “I think Shelley is talking about women’s rights — here we have this 19th-century society, and a woman like Elizabeth is relied upon to help Alphonse raise those children.
“When Justine Moritz is accused of killing William, it’s Elizabeth who goes to the judges and pleads for Justine to be saved. She’s not successful, but she has a voice. Shelley is saying that there’s a place for women in society — there are important female characters and although they are living in the 19th century, she is asserting the importance of females within that society.”
Victor Frankenstein may be a fictional character from the 1800s, but he represents characteristics that are still seen today, Joffe said.
“That desire to create life — questioning what God should do — we still see that today,” she said. “It might be considered a flaw to question something that we don’t really have the answer to, but there are other flaws Victor has. He’s indecisive. He doesn’t protect his family and he’s all about himself. He’s got a mission in life and he doesn’t really care what the ramifications are of that mission, even when the creature appeals to him, he listens but he doesn’t do anything.
“He shows weakness because he knows that many of the evil deeds that have been done were done because he rejected the creature and didn’t reach out and say, ‘OK, what can we do to heal the rift between us?’ He’s extraordinarily selfish and that’s probably something we might recognize today.”
Joffe said there are important lessons to take away from “Frankenstein,” even in 2018.
“Shelley deliberately shows us the effects not only of an education, but also what society can do to people if we reject them,” she said. “She definitely presents us with this benevolent character in the creature, and then he changes because of what society has done to him. That, in-and-of-itself, is a lesson.
“The takeaway of this text is to be kind, be nice and accepting of people.”
Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” remains an ominous moral struggle between the living and dead, and where those two worlds intersect. It’s a story of sacrifice and self-reflection that has survived for two centuries and will be just as revered in two centuries more, Joffe said.
Story and graphic by Olivia Malick, UP managing editor