Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus, was composed in the summer of 1816 by the 19-year- old Mary Wollstonecraft, later the wife of poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, during a vacation she spent on the shores of Lake Geneva with Shelley and their friend the poet George Gordon, Lord Byron. The weather was cold and rainy; to pass the time, she, Shelley, and Byron engaged in a contest to craft the best horror story. Published anonymously in 1818, Mary Shelley’s gothic novel has continued to exert an influence on literature and popular culture for nearly 200 years. The theme of man’s overreaching in an effort to take on godlike powers and create an immortal life form has resonated deeply in the popular imagination as a warning against scientific hubris and the consequences of tampering with the forces of nature. It has been credited with giving rise to the horror genre, with variants of the Frankenstein story portrayed in dozens if not hundreds of stage and film adaptations. Although most such adaptations have been based only very loosely on the novel, the hideousness of the monster’s appearance and the rejection that this disfigurement creates has remained a constant element.
In the novel, Victor Frankenstein, a young medical student, studies biology and chemistry at the University of Ingolstadt in Switzerland. He becomes obsessed with creation, and in following the scientific advances of his professors, he experiments with reanimation to bring dead tissue back to life. During his studies, Victor Frankenstein takes up a reclusive existence. He abandons and rejects family and friends as his work takes him from clandestine experiments in his makeshift laboratory to committing acts of grave robbery to gather the raw materials from which he hopes to create a new life form that could live indefinitely. When his offspring awakens, we witness not a scientist jubilant in success but a man horrified by his actions, shocked by the monstrosity of his work. Victor Frankenstein abandons the life he has created and shuns and rejects his creation.
The monster, now frightened and isolated, begins to experience feelings and sensations just as any small child would, but unlike an infant or child who has a parent or guardian to guide him, the creature is alone. He realizes this, and in learning to exist in exile, mistreated and rejected by villagers, his heart hardens and he swears revenge. When monster and creator are reunited, the monster articulately defines the sins of his father. The monster says that he was born good and benevolent, but that misery and rejection have turned him into a fiend. He then curses Frankenstein and demands a companion. In exchange, the monster promises to go into hiding with his mate forever.
The novel achieved almost immediate notoriety; within just 5 years of its publication several theatrical versions emerged, gaining wide attention across Europe. The first theater performance was a three-act play, Presumptions; or The Fate of Frankenstein, by Richard Brinsley Peake. Many changes were made in this adaptation, including the addition of a clumsy and comedic laboratory assistant who became a stock figure in subsequent versions of the story. In this version, he is named Fritz and Victor is called “Dr. Frankenstein.” In addition, in this and later adaptations, the monster is unable to speak or to learn, unlike the creature in Mary Shelley’s original.
Over time, the Frankenstein monster evolved into a popular cultural icon through many stage and film adaptations of the tale. The first Frankenstein film was Thomas Edison’s 16-minute film, Frankenstein (1910). The German version, Golem, was released in 1914. In 1931 Universal Studios released James Whale’s Frankenstein into mainstream popular culture. The actor Boris Karloff portrayed Shelley’s articulate, educated, and sensitive creature as a mute and maniacal beast without soul or conscience. For 2 decades Universal Studios produced a series of Frankenstein movies, including The Bride of Frankenstein (1935), The Son of Frankenstein (1939), Ghost of Frankenstein (1942), Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943), and House of Frankenstein (1948). In each film, a stitched forehead, lumbering lanky limbs, and sunken eyes branded the monster’s appearance. Electrodes jutted from each side of his neck to complete the iconic monster mask. Mary Shelley’s original intent to portray the creature as a lost soul, abandoned and scorned, was jettisoned in favor of inciting fear and revulsion in the audience.
In 1957, Hammer Films produced The Curse of Frankenstein with Peter Cushing as Victor Frankenstein and Christopher Lee as the monster. It is in this film that we see the first reference to Frankenstein’s well- known “mistake” of using a defective brain in the creation of the monster, thus providing a rationale for the monster’s violent nature.
The 1994 film Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, directed by Francis Ford Coppola and starring Kenneth Branagh, Robert DeNiro, and Helena Bonham Carter, was the first cinematic version to attempt to maintain fidelity to the story as Mary Shelley had written it, allowing audiences to see and understand Victor Frankenstein and his creature as the author had intended.
See also Dracula, Legend of; Vampires; Werewolves
Hunter, J. P. (Ed.). (1996). Frankenstein (A Norton Critical Edition). New York: Norton.
Nardo, D. (Ed.). (2000). Readings on Frankenstein. San Diego, CA: Greenhaven Press.
Shelley, M. W. (1992). Frankenstein or the modern Prometheus. New York: Penguin. (Original work published 1816)