Why does the monster from Mary Shelley’s
Frankenstein continue to unsettle us so much?

Hero image

Aside from the misspelling it was telling when Donald Trump accused former Senator Al Franken of sexual misconduct in November by referring to him as “Al Frankenstien”. Opponents of genetically modified crops call them Frankenfoods. Modified plans for an already unpopular service station on the M3 near Basingstoke were dubbed “Frankenstein’s monster” when unveiled last month. The monster from the Mary Shelley novel published 200 years ago has become so ingrained in the public consciousness that it has become a byword for the hybrid and the horrific – but is that how she meant it?

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein tells the story of a gifted student who creates a human-like creature by splicing together body parts and gives it life through galvanism – applying electric currents. But, horrified by what he has done, Victor Frankenstein abandons his creation, which then exacts revenge through murder and terror.

“The creature’s handsome – he’s based on Michelangelo’s Adam in the Sistine chapel.”

Unlike Hollywood adaptations that depict the creature as a mindless killing machine with green skin and a bolt through its neck, Shelley’s version is an intelligent, tragic un-named hero (Frankenstein was her name for the scientist but has now morphed into the creature’s name) who educates himself while hiding in a hovel and spying on the De Laceys, a poor French family.

“The problem with the whole Hollywood film tradition, starting with the iconic John Whale version with Boris Karloff playing the creature, is he never speaks, so you don’t have the monologue at the end of the book about his growth, his experiences of isolation, rejection, abandonment and his desire to be part of a human community,” says UCLA professor Anne Mellor. “In the cover image of the second edition of the novel, which is the only image of the creature we know Mary Shelley saw, he’s very handsome – he’s based on Michelangelo’s Adam in the Sistine chapel. He’s meant to be heroic and beautiful. Hollywood really misrepresents him, it’s a complete corruption of the novel.”

The story of how the book came to be written has become almost as legendary as the story itself. In 1816 Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, aged 18, spent summer in Geneva with her married lover, the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. Avoiding debt collectors and estranged – she from her disapproving father, the political philosopher William Godwin, and he from his wife and children – they had been travelling Europe since eloping.

The cover of the second edition of Frankenstein, the only image Shelley saw, contrasts with the Hollywood caricature (main image above)

In Geneva they became neighbours with politician and poet Lord Byron and physician John Polidori. On one of many wet days that summer, Byron suggested that they each write a ghost story.

“Of course it was set up as a competition and she felt inadequate,” says Mellor, author of Mary Shelley: Her Life, Her Fiction, Her Monsters. “The others were published authors and she describes being ‘barren’ for many days before the germ of the idea came to her in a waking daydream.”

Shelley’s mother Mary Wollstonecraft – feminist philosopher and author of The Vindication of the Rights of Women – died days after giving birth to her. Over her nine-year relationship with Percy Shelley, she would have five pregnancies but only one child survived. When she created Frankenstein Shelley had just given birth to her second child, having lost her first a year earlier, and by summer’s end would be pregnant again.

“With the image of the pale student of unhallowed arts leaning over the creation, clearly she’s registering her own anxieties about giving birth – that she could give birth to a monster. She’s not married, she’s very young and very insecure,” says Mellor. “Could I have a healthy normal child? Could I raise it well? Her mother died after giving birth to her, so that’s of course another anxiety: could my creation kill me?”

Mellor says Shelley was also grappling with the fear that a new mother might not love her child. “We call it postpartum depression today but, for lots of women, these infants come out looking pretty ugly and you look at it and think, is this a freak? Is this something I want? That of course is Victor Frankenstein’s reaction – once the creature comes alive he takes a look and runs away.”

Yet Mellor says Shelley didn’t trust herself as a writer and gave it over to Percy Shelley who “deforms the manuscript in serious ways – mainly stylistically.

“She’s writing very straightforward, vernacular, natural prose and he wants to elevate it to high classical style which really doesn’t work very well, but of course she’s sufficiently insecure that she accepts all his revisions.”

Polidori’s The Vampyre – the other famous story to come out of the competition – is the archetypal supernatural horror story. Shelley’s tale, by contrast, has come to be seen as the first modern sci-fi novel, the archetypal man-made horror. As improbable as it now seems, an early review of Frankenstein said the book had “an air of reality attached to it, by being connected with the favourite projects and passions of the times”.

“At the time there was a real sense in which the bounds of life and death were permeable,” explains Lancaster University professor Sharon Ruston, adding that the French encyclopaedia at the time described two types of death, “incomplete” and “absolute”, and that incomplete death could be cured. “It would seem quite possible, what Frankenstein was trying to do, so it was really quite horrifying for people.”

If the men in Shelley’s life are Victor Frankenstein, the creature is Shelley herself

In 1780 Italian physician Luigi Galvani discovered that the muscles of dead frogs’ legs twitched when struck by an electrical spark. His nephew, believing electricity was the vital principle that provided life, began experiments with ox heads and then humans. In 1803 he performed a public demonstration in London.

“The Prince of Wales goes, and lots of celebrities. He tries to resurrect this murderer George Forster and he manages to get him to sit up – his fists clench and he looks really angry and loads of people run screaming from the room,” says Ruston. “They think the murderer is coming back so when they say he grimaces and has an angry face, that’s because they think the character has come back. Then you start getting people being buried with bells in their coffins.”

The figure of Professor Waldman in the book, Victor Frankenstein’s teacher, was inspired by real-life chemist Humphrey Davy, according to Ruston. Waldman praises the masters of science who “penetrate into the recesses of nature, and show how she works in her hiding places”. Shelley, whose husband penned the essay The Necessity of Atheism, lived an irreligious life but Mellor believes she might have believed in a sacred life force – “she would probably call it nature, but that which cannot be stolen or manipulated by men”. Frankenstein’s experiments can be seen as a warning about scientists abusing nature.

“Nature is figured as female, and there’s this language of conquest – he’s going to take her over,” says Ruston. “To penetrate nature – I’m not sure how else that’s supposed to be read really.”

But even to rescue the book from the Karloff stereotype and place it in the scientific context of the time is not a full interpretation. It is littered with people fainting and appearing “lifeless” before being “restored” and Ruston believes that was informed by Shelley’s losses.

“Wollstonecraft tried to kill herself a couple of times and I think she would have known about that. Wollstonecraft wrote a letter saying she was ‘inhumanely brought back to life’ after leaping from Putney Bridge, which probably means they used the Royal Humane Society’s techniques,” says Ruston. “They thought if you were living then you were warm so they would try and warm the body.” Shelley dreamt of her first baby being warmed back into life in front of a fire.

Over the two years it took to develop Frankenstein from a short story into a published novel Fanny Godwin, Mary Shelley’s half-sister, committed suicide and Harriet Westbrook, Percy Shelley’s wife, drowned herself while pregnant. Despite their progressive views on relationships – the Shelleys believed in free love, although he was more enthusiastic about it than her – they were now free to marry, with hopes of placating William Godwin and securing custody of Percy Shelley’s children by Harriet. But although Shelley was reunited with her father, the courts deemed Percy an unfit father.

“Frankenstein is quite explicitly a criticism of Percy Shelley’s fathering, which was negligent to say the least,” says Mellor, pointing out that his first set of poems was published under the pseudonym Victor. “It is very much a critique of the men she knew – Byron as well and her own father.”

If the men in Shelley’s life are Victor Frankenstein, points out Mellor, then the creature is Shelley herself, railing against abandonment. “She has no mother, the creature has no mother; her father keeps his distance from her, just as Victor Frankenstein does.

“When the creature comes to the De Lacey cottage he spends two years looking through this keyhole at this happy family of which he’s not a member. When she was 14 her father basically mailed her off to a family in Scotland that she’d never met. She spends two years with them looking in on this happy family which she’s not a part of. That part I think is profoundly autobiographical. The creature is saying: ‘I have no role models, who am I, what am I?’

“The pursuit of knowledge which takes you away from family responsibilities, from friendships, from community service, knowledge for its own sake, is evil – she’ll go that far. That was Victor Frankenstein’s problem – he’s doing this research all alone, he’s not sharing it with anyone, and then of course he’s not taking responsibility for it.”

But although Mellor says Shelley was “tremendously” influenced by her mother’s feminist teachings – her books being her only connection to her – the book is not radical in its political vision.

“Mary Shelley didn’t quite believe that the time had come for the rational, strong, independent woman to survive,” says Mellor, pointing out that women in the novel live domestic lives and end up dead or absent. “And of course we don’t get a female creature.”

Nor do the De Laceys quite represent the egalitarian ideals promoted among her progressive circle. They provide hope for the creature that a section of society might accept him but Shelley doesn’t commit to the ideal and once the creature reveals himself they literally burn their own house down.

“I think the book is her criticism of patriarchal society and her acknowledgement that that’s what she’s living in – a very homosocial world – but she can’t envision a utopian alternative,” says Mellor.

Why does a story informed by such outdated ideas still haunt us 200 years on? Scientifically, Ruston says, Shelley isn’t explicit about the techniques used, so Victor Frankenstein’s methods don’t sound too ridiculous and the idea of splicing parts of bodies together seems more relevant than ever.

In the last year alone, the prospect of humans receiving organs from pigs moved one step closer after scientists successfully transplanted them into primates, and Italian neurosurgeon Sergio Canaver claimed to have successfully reconnected the spine, nerves and blood vessels of a corpse to a severed head. A similar operation on a live human will take place “imminently,” he said – although scientists doubt his claims.

And when the creature says to Frankenstein “You are my creator, but I am your master” it evokes 21st century fears about robots and artificial intelligence. A study by thinktank Future Advocacy in October suggested one in five UK jobs will be affected by automation as we near a workplace revolution while science and tech figures from Elon Musk to Bill Gates have warned of the dangers of artificial intelligence.

In November Stephen Hawking said “powerful autonomous weapons, or new ways for the few to oppress the many” could lead to the “worst event in the history of our civilisation” unless we found a way to control AI development. Last month Google’s AI technology DeepMind taught itself chess in four hours just by playing itself and then wiped the floor with the previous best chess programs. Meanwhile, Shelley’s portrayal of nature’s revenge on technological and scientific advances now reads like an eerie prediction of climate change.

Equally resonant though is the fact that the creature is rejected because of his appearance – highly relevant at a time when social media spawns image obsession, and already tense societal divisions are exacerbated by leaders who can’t spell Frankenstein. In a passage inverting Milton’s Paradise Lost – one of the books the creature educates himself with – he first encounters his image in a pool of water, but while Narcissus falls in love with what he encounters, the creature is horrified. Ruston likens it to the way women view their reflections – how Mary Shelley, a young girl in her third pregnancy, living in an image obsessed society, perhaps saw hers.

“At the time of the book your looks determined who you were,” says Ruston. “You got physiognomists, the people who look at the shape of a face and say it determined morals and behaviour, and phrenologists who look at the bumps on your head to determine how you’re going to act. They think there’s a real link between the physical and the moral.”

Ruston says the book is a favourite text for most of her students. “It’s certainly speaking to something in a way that it doesn’t to other generations,” she says. “They’re more stressed than we were and we get a lot more anxiety issues. They really feel for the creature.”

Shelley and Percy were estranged by the time he drowned in 1822. She went on to publishing success – although without much money – living with her son and his wife, a widow Shelley chose as much for companionship for herself. She distanced herself from her progressive circle and in 1831 published a revised second edition of Frankenstein, the version that is largely in circulation today.

“It’s a quite different novel in many ways,” says Mellor. “Her husband has died, Byron has died, several of her other friends have died, and she introduces what I think of as almost a new character, – fate or destiny. Victor Frankenstein is no longer responsible for his actions. I much prefer the first edition.”

Ruston agrees: “I just think it’s totally better. She takes a lot of the science out of the second edition, and she removes things like the really incestuous relationship between Frankenstein and Elizabeth. She cleans it up so it’s not as much of a radical book – she was trying to get an inheritance for her only surviving son and Percy’s father is saying that she can’t rock the boat and write anything too racy, so she tones it down.”

In April Oxford World Classics is releasing a new edition of the 1818 text, something Mellor made a case for in her own book. “I think more people are actually reading the novel. They might be coming to it from Hollywood or comic books but one of the things that’s really registering is the relevance of this novel, really to the last five years.”

Q&A: Ramsey Campbell

The Liverpool-based author of The Bride of Frankenstein and other horror fiction on the enduring influence of the creature

When did you first read Frankenstein and what impact did it have on you?
It was in my early teens, and, to be honest, to begin with I found it overly Gothic in style and structure for taste. I’d already read the writers who had refined and condensed the Gothic – Poe, Le Fanu and later Lovecraft – not to mention more contemporary work. But scenes such as the monster’s appearance at the end of the bed – a classic nightmare image, and as far as I know the first such in literature – and the extended section that directly conveys the creature’s experience certainly affected me, and I ended up rereading the novel with much more appreciation.

You wrote a novelisation of The Bride of Frankenstein in the late ‘70s. Did you look back to the original for inspiration?
I’ve always felt that a book based on a film or its script can be done as carefully as a film based on a screenplay or indeed on a book. I have to admit I didn’t return to Mary Shelley here – my aim was to stay as close as possible to the film – though I did omit the prefatory scene set at the Villa Deodati, and some of the scenes of violence are a bit more gruesome than in the film, though still restrained, I hope. I tried to suggest some of the subtext – not least that the bride of Frankenstein isn’t the misnomer that literalism would have it but is in fact Dr Pretorius – and found in the story a theme I’ve often used in my own work, the yearning of a central character to return home.

Why is the monster’s mate such a compelling image?
I’d say it’s because he is in a sense the only member of his species – as perhaps we all feel when we’re most alone – and incomplete without a mate. It’s a hugely poignant image, and of course also has biblical resonance – the creation of the mate.

Apart from that book has Frankenstein influenced your own career in a way you have been conscious of?
I think perhaps my novel The Seven Days of Cain has some roots in it, since the central notion is of creating versions of yourself you can’t control – in this case, separate personalities that initially appear on the internet and then take on a kind of uncanny physical life.

How do you believe Frankenstein has shaped the horror genre over 200 years?
It’s a recurring and hugely fruitful theme. Stephen Jones’s The Mammoth Book of Frankenstein is a fine anthology of tales deriving – sometimes very explicitly – from it. I should say my contribution is very minor indeed.

Does that legacy extend to other literary genres such as sci-fi and fantasy?
Very much to science fiction. Brian Aldiss claimed it as the first modern science fiction novel, and pointed out that Frankenstein explicitly rejects alchemy as a way to create life, instead using scientific means. Brian argued that the Industrial Revolution underlay the theme, and so the book is crucial in building a fiction from scientific developments that were then contemporary – very much the way of modern sci-fi.

What do you think is Frankenstein’s wider legacy in pop culture?
Above all, in the cinema, from Boris Karloff’s tortured monster to the Hammer Films approach (which concentrated on Peter Cushing’s Frankenstein) to the Kenneth Branagh film, which cleaves most closely to the novel. The central characters and theme are as amenable to interpretation as Shakespeare.

Mary Shelley had a troubled first half of her life. Are the best horror characters inspired by real life torment?
Not necessarily, but some of mine have been. On the other hand, Mr Hyde and Lovecraft’s entities came from dreams, and I think Clive Barker had a pretty untroubled life, for which his early horror tales and films are perhaps a compensation.


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