Today in Redundancy Theatre, we talk about how Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, the seminal novel by Mary Shelley, nee Wollstonecraft Godwin, that pioneered science fiction, and how it is Quite Good.
Does Frankenstein need a plot summary? Is there anything new to say about it? Shelley’s masterpiece has been imitated, adapted, ripped off and commercialised for so long that its plot has been hard-wired into the Western imagination. It’s the tale of a man creates life in his own image, only to reject it when he is horrified at its appearance, but he cannot escape his responsibility, and in the end, it destroys them both. Is it a metaphor for childbirth? Which is the real monster: Frankenstein or the creature? How might it have turned out if Frankenstein had owned up to his mistake? These questions have plagued the essays of English Lit students for decades, and no doubt will continue to do so for as long as the English language is in use.
Maybe the reason Frankenstein has endured and prospered (besides Boris Karloff) is its thematic richness. Most of its themes remain relevant today. The idea that knowledge and the pursuit of progress can be dangerous in and of itself has echoed throughout horror media, from Lovecraft to The X-Files. The name “Frankenstein” has become shorthand for the notion that science must be limited by the bounds of conscience, of dangers of tampering in God’s domain: we still reach for the word to label our fears over genetically-modified crops and designer babies. The word itself conjures an image of lumbering, composite monstrosity— it’s telling that Shelley claims the idea came to her spontaneously in a dream, half-formed and uncreated, stitched together in a patchwork epistolary framework. Frankenstein was a breakthrough in the notion that horror doesn’t need to rely on the supernatural, on the fear of God and the afterlife: Victor’s undoing comes entirely from his own hubris, from the physical world that he sought to master and pervert. It’s a book that dared to transgress taboos regarding the human body, childbirth and abortion by presenting the creature as something half-formed and spurned, both by its creator and society. Nearly two centuries since it’s publication, Frankenstein retains its capacity to ask difficult questions and leave the reader uneasy. Familiarity and pastiche have not robbed it of its power.
(While doing the research for this post, I learned that Shelley was eighteen when she started wrote Frankenstein, and now I feel like my whole life has been a failure)