Frankenstein at 200: the Creature Lives

Mary Shelley's Frankenstein is 200 years old.

You think you know Frankenstein? The green-hued creature of the 1931 movie? Peter Boyle singing and dancing in Young Frankenstein? Think again, and take a dive into the novel that started it all.

First fun fact: Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin was 18 years old when she came up with the story. While staying in Geneva in 1816 with her lover Percy Bysshe Shelley and their friend Lord Byron, Byron challenged the party to come up with the best ghost story. Mary Shelley was the only one to complete hers. She turned her story into a novel and published it anonymously in March, 1818, as Frankenstein; or the Modern Prometheus. It wasn’t until the 1822 second edition of the book that Mary Shelley was credited as its author.

Shelley was the daughter of the philosopher William Godwin and the feminist and philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft. Her mother died of infection shortly after Mary’s birth. At fifteen she met Percy Shelley, a married man, and ran away with him. By the time she wrote Frankenstein she had given birth to, and lost, one baby, and had had a second child who later died. In all, she gave birth to five children, only one of whom lived to adulthood. She and Shelley married only after the suicide of his first wife. By the time she was 24 she was a widow.

Another fun fact: As depicted in the many filmed versions of the story, the creature is a mute savage. In the novel, though, he is intelligent, introspective, and articulate. Abandoned by his creator, he teaches himself to speak and to read by observing humans. We read him as a sympathetic character, betrayed by Victor Frankenstein.

Shelley’s Frankenstein is three narratives in one. The novel’s envelope are the letters of Captain Walton, an arctic explorer, to his sister. On his voyage Walton encounters Victor Frankenstein, in pursuit of his creation. Frankenstein relates his story to Walton, who writes it for his sister. Within that narrative is the nameless creature’s own story, as he told it to his creator. The novel ends with Frankenstein continuing his pursuit of the creature, all the way to the North Pole.

In Frankenstein, Shelley explores topics that captured the imagination of people in the early 19th century: scientific experimentation, electricity, polar exploration and the Northwest Passage, slavery, justice.

Movies aren’t the only adaptations that have been made of Frankenstein. As early as 1823 a play had been written on the story, which Mary Shelley and her father attended. The very first film adaptation was a 1910 silent movie from Edison Studios. Many more have followed it. The best known films are the 1931 classic starring Boris Karloff as the monster (does anyone remember who played Victor Frankenstein?) and the 1994 adaptation starring Kenneth Branagh. The funniest has got to be Mel Brooks’s Young Frankenstein. There have also been television adaptations, ballets, and any number of parodies.

For readers interested in Mary Shelley, there’s Romantic Outlaws by Charlotte Gordon, a joint biography of Mary Shelley and her mother. You can also read Child of Light by Muriel Spark. Fictionalized biographies include Passion by Jude Morgan and there’s an upcoming bio-pic set to open in theaters in May. To learn more about the novel itself, search the library catalog using the subject  Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft, 1797-1851. Frankenstein, or use Literarature Resource Center, one of our library databases, packed with analysis

At 200, Frankenstein is a proven classic. It’s not a thing of the past, though. Its themes engage us in 2018: we still concern ourselves with the consequences of scientific experimentation, with identity, with injustice. Frankenstein. Read it.

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