Have you ever been so bored of the men at a party that you create an entirely new genre of literature? Did you then follow that up by writing one of the most enduring monster stories of all time? That’s the potted version of Mary Shelley’s life, but that’s what happened, and we should all be worshipping at her feet. I’ll talk more about her fascinating (and terribly tragic) life in a minute, but for now let’s take a look at her best-known work: Frankenstein, the story of a young scientist and an unorthodox experiment that went horribly wrong.
The original full title was “Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus”, though most modern editions (including mine, see above) exclude that subtitle, which is a shame because it tells us a lot about the story. A quick Greek mythology lesson: Prometheus created mankind on Zeus’s orders. He taught us to hunt and read and talk and do all those human-y things we love to do. Zeus was a bit disappointed with the final product, though, so he punished us by keeping fire for himself and the other gods. Our boy, Prometheus, wasn’t having that, and he told Zeus to fuck right off. He brought fire down to us, and copped his punishment on the chin. Zeus sentenced him to be eternally fixed to a rock, where each day an eagle would peck out his liver, only for it to regrow overnight and he’d have to go through the same again the next day. So, yeah, we owe Prometheus a lot, and it doesn’t take a genius to see the parallels with Shelley’s Frankenstein…
Oh, and another quick note to get out of the way before we dive in: yes, we know, Frankenstein is the name of the doctor, not the monster. We fucking know. People who point it out are (generally) wankers. Shelley never gave the monster in the name, identifying it in the book as the “creature”, “monster”, “demon”, “wretch”, “fiend”, and so on. Of course, she was making a point about how the lack of a name prevents a sentient being from forging a true identity and all of that, but the confusion also means that mistakes will happen and I wish readers wouldn’t make such a big deal about it. I’ll be calling the monster “the monster”, for the sake of clarity, but just so you know if I ever hear you say um-actually-Frankenstein-was-the-doctor in conversation, I will roll my eyes at you.
So, the story of Frankenstein and his monster is actually framed a couple of different ways in the book. It’s an epistolary novel, with events taking place sometime during the 18th century. Captain Robert Walton kicks things off with a few letters to his sister; he’s been trying to sail to the North Pole, and his crew picked up one Dr Victor Frankenstein off the ice, where he had apparently collapsed while chasing after a monstrous creature.
Through a series of conversations with the good doctor, Walton is able to deduce that he actually created this monster and now lives a life of misery and horror as a result of his creation. Frankenstein offers up his story as a cautionary tale, and tells it so…
Young Victor was obsessed with science as a kid, even though everyone else thought he was a weirdo. After his mother died, he took himself off to university, and he began doing experiments as a way of escaping his grief and keeping his mind busy. That’s how he stumbled upon a technique for creating life from inanimate objects.
Now, you might assume he used electricity to do that, but that’s actually not in the canon – Shelley, in her book, described an elemental process and some vague alchemy. The use of electric shocks and screws in the monster’s neck didn’t appear until the 1931 film adaptation and other early depictions of Frankenstein’s monster. So, there you go.
With his new secret chemical formula to make dead things become alive things, Frankenstein created a huge humanoid form (it had to be big, he explained, otherwise the small bits would be too fiddly) out of pieces he scrounged from cadavers. He tried to make it pretty, but when the monster came to life it was scary as all hell. Frankenstein, freaked out by what he had done, reverted to the age-old tradition of doing a runner. He bailed the fuck out of his laboratory, leaving the monster there.
You’d think that would take up most of the pages of this slim book, but Frankenstein moves really quickly, so the story is only just beginning. In perhaps my favourite plot point ever, Dr Frankenstein returned to his laboratory to find the monster missing… and he’s all “Phew! We’re cool! Problem solved!”. He doesn’t even wonder where it went. LOL!
The whole situation stressed him out so much that he ended up getting really sick. He recovered just in time for the monster to kill his little brother. The criminal justice system being what it is, the authorities arrested and convicted the kid’s nanny of the murder, and put her to death. By Frankenstein’s math, that put his monster’s death toll up to two, and he was pissed.
After a while, he reunited with his monster. The poor creature tried to explain himself, saying he was just sad that everyone hated and feared him (aw!). He asked the doctor to build him a wife, so he didn’t have to be lonely anymore. That sounded pretty reasonable to me, but then the monster threatened to kill everyone Frankenstein loved if he didn’t comply with this request – which was, admittedly, less chill.
How is the monster able to communicate these demands, you ask? Well, it turns out he spent most of the intervening time stalking a kind immigrant family, peeping in their windows, and somehow all those hours watching them and stealing from their library taught him language. He’s startlingly eloquent, given the basis of his education. Yes, it’s a bit of a stretch, but if the monster learning to speak is the most unrealistic part of this novel for you, you might need to re-evaluate your priorities…
The doctor headed for England, taking a friend with him, and the monster followed hot on his heels. Frankenstein got to work back in the laboratory, but inside he was still freaking out that the female he created would hate the monster, or turn out even more evil than him, or (worst of all) they might fall in love and start breeding, unleashing a new generation of horror on the world. When that thought occurred to him, it was the final fucking straw. Frankenstein had had a gutful, you guys! He destroyed all the work he had done and told the monster to shove it.
You’d think the monster would fly into a rage at this point, but he actually took the news quite well. In sum, his reaction was: “Yeah, okay, no wife for me, but no wife for you either – when you get married, I’m coming for your girl on your wedding night, so watch your back,”. And then he killed Frankenstein’s friend, just to show he meant business.
Now, I realise Dr Frankenstein doesn’t have a great track record with decision-making, but at this point he makes a truly, unbelievably bad call. Despite the monster’s warnings, and his own growing anxiety, he went ahead and got married to his adopted sister (whom he referred to as his cousin – it’s almost-but-not-quite incest, which is a bit gross, but George R.R. Martin has pretty much deadened our sensitivities on that subject forever).
And, sure enough, that very night, the monster showed up and took her out. The doctor, enraged, chased him all the way to the North Pole, determined to defeat his monstrous creation once and for all, but he collapsed from exhaustion and hypothermia before he could catch him. That’s where Walton and his crew found the man, and we’re back at the beginning again.
Dr Frankenstein promptly dies, but he makes Captain Walton promise to kill the monster on his behalf. The monster, of course, conveniently appears on board shortly thereafter. I was expecting a big violent showdown, but he is able to talk Walton out of killing him by making a big show of mourning the death of his creator. He promises to kill himself instead, and Walton’s all “Um, okay?”, and watches as the monster drifts away on the ice, never to be seen again. It’s not a happy ending – heck, it’s not a happy book.
It was a lot more introspective than I expected. Really, this whole story is about interior worlds. Frankenstein, at its heart, is about the shame and guilt of the Doctor, and the loneliness and desperation of his monster.
Now, this is one of those rare cases where the story of how a book came to be written is just as fascinating as the book itself (if not more!). In 1814, aged just sixteen, Mary met and fell in love with the then-unknown poet Percy Shelley, and she ran away with him. They weren’t married until 1816, shortly after Percy’s first wife died by suicide (oh, yeah, the guy was a real peach).
The idea for Frankenstein came to Mary that year, when she was holidaying with Percy and his mate Lord Byron on the shores of Lake Geneva. Byron suggested that they have a writing competition, to see who could come up with the best ghost story. Mary dithered for a few days, and struggled to come up with anything she thought would be scary enough, but she knew she was onto a winner when she dreamed of a scientist who created life but was horrified by what he had made. She connected that premise with her earlier travels in Geneva, where she’d passed Frankenstein Castle (yes, a real place); in there, a couple centuries earlier, an alchemist had engaged in strange and dark experiments. Boom! A horror story, and the science fiction genre, was born.
The themes of the work, we can see in retrospect, were very clearly drawn from Mary Shelley’s real life. She had a pretty rough trot: her mother died, she had a terrible relationship with her father, her first child was born prematurely and died in her arms while Percy was off having an affair with one of her step-sisters. From these experiences, she distilled themes of loss, guilt, and the consequences of defying nature, and funneled them into Frankenstein. Consider how the monster turns evil due to a lack of parental and spiritual guidance, for instance…
Mary initially conceived Frankenstein as a short story, but with Percy’s encouragement she expanded the manuscript into a full-length novel. She wrote the first four chapters in the weeks following the suicide of her half-sister (told you! rough fucking trot!), and the first edition was published anonymously in January 1818. Then she moved to Italy, where she lived with Percy until he drowned in 1822 (seriously, the woman’s life was just an endless parade of death and misery).
Mary Shelley’s name wasn’t connected to the book until the second edition was published with a proper byline in 1823. She was 25 years old. When the author’s gender was revealed, the British Critic published a review that said:
“The writer of it is, we understand, a female; this is an aggravation of that which is the prevailing fault of the novel; but if our authoress can forget the gentleness of her sex, it is no reason why we should; and we shall therefore dismiss the novel without further comment.”
“Oh, snap!”, they might have thought, but the reading public didn’t give a shit. Frankenstein sold gangbusters; it was an immediate popular success, and by the middle of the 20th century it was demanding serious and extensive critical attention from academics. The list of subsequent adaptations and re-releases is longer than my arm, and readers are, even today, always hungry for more.
Frankenstein fused elements of the Gothic and the Romantic, capturing the attention of both audiences, and it levelled-up the popular ghost stories of the time to create the first true science fiction novel. No longer were monsters and mysterious beings purely fantastical; Shelley gave us a monster that was the product of man’s own actions, his own scientific experimentation and discovery, and that had never been done before. Not bad for a teenager who was just trying to show up her boyfriend and his mate on holiday, eh?
There are now a few different editions floating around, the later ones being highly revised and sanitised. It’s up to you which you’d prefer to read, but I’m a fan of dirty bits in literature, so I’d recommend trying to find the earliest version, as close to the original as you can. I’d also highly recommend you check out this great discussion over on the Keeper Of Pages blog, for more fascinating insights into reading (or re-reading) Frankenstein.
My favourite Amazon reviews of Frankenstein:
- “free book enough said” – andrew
- “*SPOILER ALERT* Basically, this guy spent time of his life trying to life from scratch. But when he finally succeeded, he got scared and ran away from it? There are a lot of questionable decisions from him too. He fits the definition of “coward”.” – Rusydi Farhan
- “I thought I had the wrong book when I started reading it. Very different from most of the Frankenstein movies.” – Mark B
- “WRONG LANGUAGE” – jackeline
- “This book stinks! Munsters re-runs are much better” – Rich Fish from Glen Ridge
- “Very boring story about a crazy science guy who wants to reanimate a Trump lookalike. On the positive side I would like to pitch in and her a hand” – Prince Henri I
- “Movie was a million times better than that stupid story but I will say that it was very poorly written” – JMann
- “Terrible novel; long, preachy, unrealistic, especialy where Frankenstein’s “monster” has read Milton’s “Paradise Lost” and other classics and holds forth like an Oxford don.” – Richard Kelly
- “This book was so boring I threw it out my window. (Almost) It just had too much detail” – Bernard Callahan