Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley
If any work fits the definition of a classic, it is surely Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus. Since its first publication in 1818 it has been issued in subsequent editions scores of times, and in dozens of translations to other languages. Frankenstein and his unhappy creature have become part of our collective unconscious, with creator and created often conflated in later generations' minds. In theater, film, and television the Frankenstein story has become a staple, rivaling Bram Stoker's Dracula for the title of most adapted supernatural horror story. From Frankenstein (1931) to Frankenhooker (1990), from the sublime to the ridiculous, popular culture has made Mary Shelley's myth its own.
Mary Shelley's novel can be read on several different levels. The most superficial is a melange of science fiction and the Gothic novel. In fact, many commentators have asserted that Mary Shelley's Frankenstein is not a Gothic or horror novel at all, but one of the first instances of science fiction. To appreciate Shelley's influence it requires only a superficial look at the plethora of subsequent stories which feature scientists defying God and trying to create life. Robert Louis Stevenson's The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and H.P. Lovecraft's The Case of Charles Dexter Ward are but two.
As pure science fiction, however, Frankenstein falls short as does its descendant Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. There is little scientific detail. The chapter dealing with the creation of the homonoid is noticeably obscure, supplying the reader with almost no information on the process. Victor Frankenstein, the young "father" of the monster, is more like a medieval alchemist than a 19th Century scientist. He refers to a secret he has stumbled upon in his study and experimentation which makes him "capable of bestowing animation upon lifeless matter" and to the "dissecting room and the slaughterhouse [which] furnish many of my materials." Beyond this, there is almost nothing which the reader can use to form a picture of how this eight-foot monstrosity was fashioned.
As a Gothic novel the work is far more successful. It features many of the conventions and icons of that genre. As in Todorov's working definition, the mood is one of fear and terror, with the creature threatening Victor and his loved ones, and fulfilling that threat. He murders Victor's bride, Elizabeth, his brother, William, and his friend, Henry, and ultimately causes Victor's own death in the frozen Arctic. The settings are also typical of the genre: blasted expanses of terrain, like the Arctic locale at the beginning and end of the novel; primeval forests like the one in which the creature hides after he flees Frankenstein's laboratory.
The structure of Frankenstein also adheres to the Gothic model. The story is told largely through letters, journals, and flashback narrations rather than through a straightforward third person or first person narrator. This narrative mode would also become a favorite among horror writers for decades to come, most notably J. Sheridan Le Fanu, Bram Stoker, and Robert Louis Stevenson.
While the creature appeared on film as early as 1910 in an Edison short, most of the conventions of future Frankenstein films would be established by James Whale in the first feature adaptation of Shelley's novel. Frankenstein (1931) introduced conventions only hinted at in the orginal work or not present at all. First, the physical terrain of Frankenstein's laboratory is visualized concretely by Whale. Frankenstein's method of reanimation is also made specific as he becomes a master surgeon who stitches dead bodies together and then electrifies them, using lightning as his source, recalling the Promethean allusion of the original. Whale also created the look of the creature. Mary Shelley chose to rely on the reader's imagination and the other characters' terrified reactions to the monster to carry the effect.
--ALAIN SILVER & JAMES URSINI
More Things Than Are Dreamt Of, 1994
A selection of Frankenstein related fiction.
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A selection of Frankenstein related non-fiction.
A History of Horror
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