Back To CourseEnglish 101: English Literature
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It was a dark and stormy night … maybe. I don't really know. It might have been a nice night for wine drinking and partying. Anyway, it was nighttime, and it was at the Villa Diodati in Geneva when not one, but two staples of horror fiction were brought into the world. The year was 1816, and Mary Shelley, Percy Shelley (her husband, not her brother), Lord Byron, and John Polidori were stuck inside their holiday home, apparently due to inclement weather.
One night, they were inspired by conversations about modern science and the occult, and they decided to have a storytelling competition to see who could tell the most horrific story. (This kind of shows the difference between them and us. We'd probably just crack open a bottle of wine and play Apples to Apples or something, but they were doing productive things with their free time.) John Polidori produced The Vampyre, so we can blame him for Twilight. Mary Shelley, who was only 18 years old at the time, eventually came up with what some people have called the first science fiction story ever: Frankenstein. It was kind of the more famous of the two stories that came out of that night, although the vampire legacy is just as rich.
Of course, the Frankenstein legend has grown a great deal beyond the actual original work, basically thanks to Hollywood proliferating the story of the 'monster.' But before we can discuss where Hollywood went with it and how the monster has been adapted over time, we should probably take a look at the original novel itself so we know where we're coming from with it.
Once the competition began, it took Shelley two years to finalize her story. She called it Frankenstein, and she subtitled it The Modern Prometheus. It was first published anonymously in 1818 in London. You might be wondering, 'If Frankenstein is the modern Prometheus, who is the un-modern Prometheus?' Prometheus was a Greek Titan, one of the gods that came before the familiar Olympian gods like Zeus, Athena, Aphrodite, and all those people. He's famous for having stolen fire and given it to mortals. This got him in a lot of trouble because fire is super important, and it was a big betrayal of his Titan comrades and of Zeus and the other gods. That's the story of the original Prometheus. Keep it in mind when we talk about Frankenstein: How does stealing fire - this important, life-sustaining force - and giving it to mortals relate to bringing this monster into the world?
The story, when it was published, drew a mixed critical response. Some were really into it; they praised its powerful language and its really interesting plot. Others were kind of 'blah' about it; they weren't that into it. Maybe the critics in 1818 just weren't ready for the power of the story like we are today.
Let's talk a little bit about the form of the novel. It's basically told using two major literary devices. They're often forgotten when we talk about the story because we want to get straight to the monster, but they're actually important for understanding what's going on and the significance of it all. First of all, it employs the epistolary form, which basically means it's written as a series of letters ('epistles' is a fancy word for letters). In this case, the letters are from the failed writer and North Pole explorer Robert Walton to his sister Margaret Walton Saville.
This introduces the second device, called a frame narrative, which is essentially just a story within a story. In this case, that story belongs to Victor Frankenstein, who's a frail, defeated old man discovered by Walton and his crew when they're up in the Arctic. After Walton rescues Frankenstein, the old man recounts to him the story of his life and his most terrifying work - but you probably know that's coming. Maybe you didn't know that Frankenstein starts in the Arctic, but now you do. You're learning things already!
So, we've got letters on the outside, then we've got a story-within-a-story and, finally, we've got the familiar part of the story on the inside, like the nugget beneath the layers. Victor tells his tale of what his life was like. He's pursued science his whole life, and his experiments were encouraged when he's in college. He basically figures out how to animate dead tissue. Unfortunately, or maybe fortunately, this has fallen out of the curriculum at many liberal arts colleges... although we will be introducing a course on it very soon (no, we won't).
He takes this ability to its obvious extension and builds for himself a facsimile of a man. He builds this big guy made up, essentially, of parts, but he has to build it larger than normal because he can't get the finer parts of the anatomy correct to scale. So the guy ends up big. Then he uses electricity to bring this thing to life. Unfortunately, as soon as the creature comes alive ('It's ALIVE!'), Victor is immediately repulsed by it. Like the stereotypical people in a monster movie, Victor flees, which is clearly not the responsible thing to do because you just created a monster and now you're leaving. (I think it goes without saying: Don't try this at home. Don't try to collect body parts and then zap them; it will not work.) But do you remember how I said that this was the first work of science fiction? That's why.
Frankenstein gets sick from all this distress. He goes off and deals with his illness, and he comes home four months later to find that his brother has been murdered. He becomes convinced that the monster has done this to get back at him. Ever the hero, Victor retreats again but is eventually found by the creature. Then we get the creature's story, so now we're in a double frame narrative. We have the Arctic letters, Frankenstein's story, the story of how the monster was created, and now we have the monster's story on an inside layer.
Essentially, the monster says that after Victor bailed the first time, he was left to his own devices. He didn't know what to do or who he was; he didn't know anything. It's a touching, sad story that the creature tells. He ran off and ended up studying a family that lived in a cottage to figure out how he should act and how things were. He learned language, he learned socialization, and he learned how to read by watching these people. Now, because he knows all this stuff, he wants to be human; he craves human interaction, but he's been rejected every time he's tried. (I would run away too if I saw a big hulking mass of dead flesh running after me). It's really sad. The family he observed didn't want to talk to him; random townspeople don't want to talk to him. The creature comes to Victor with a demand that seems rather reasonable. He says, 'Make a female for me so I can have company.' If Victor grants his request, he'll go away to a remote corner of the world. If not, he will continue to exact his revenge on Victor.
Victor actually begins to work on the second creature, but partway through the process, he realizes that if there's both a male and a female of this weird species he's created, they could have offspring, which would be super strong, giant, weird monster creatures that might overrun the world. So he destroys this second project, thinking, 'I'm going to release horror upon the world if I do this.' The first creature watches him as he does this and decides he's going to murder Victor's betrothed, and also his best friend, as revenge. Victor's father dies out of grief.
Victor's family has been pretty much decimated by this point, and he vows to pursue his creation across the Earth until one of them destroys the other. That is how he ends up at the North Pole. This is where we return to our initial frame. Captain Walton says that shortly after Victor finishes telling his story, he dies. His final request is for Walton to finish the work that Victor started in terms of pursuing and killing the creature. The creature is actually aware of everything that has happened, and he feels a lot of grief over Victor's death because Victor is the closest thing he had to a father. He also feels bad about killing a bunch of people, as he should. He vows that he's going to kill himself instead of wreaking more havoc. So, that's how the story ends - on a really cheerful note!
But the story doesn't really end. Hopefully, you were surprised by how complex this story is - how it's got all those layers, first of all, but also that the creature isn't evil; it's sentient. There are lots of differences between the actual original story and the way it has been picked up in Hollywood. Shelley's novel basically ends up taking on a whole new life for readers to follow because it's a perfect distillation of Gothic and Romantic sensibilities, it creates a new genre of fiction, and also partly because the existential crisis - the 'who am I' feeling that the monster experiences - might be familiar to a bunch of us. 'Why am I here?' 'Why can't I find someone like me?' All of that stuff. There's a reason OK Cupid exists: 'Why can't I find someone like me?' I think we can all identify with the creature a little bit.
Theatrical adaptations of the book started as early as the 1820s, and the thing was only published in 1818. Basically, as soon as film existed, they were making movies about Frankenstein; in 1910, Edison Studios produced Frankenstein, which was a 16-minute adaptation of the novel. The most notorious Frankenstein film, the one that really shaped our understanding of the character (and also what made us think Frankenstein was the monster instead of the doctor; I hope we've got that all cleared up now for you), was Universal Studios' 1931 film. It was called Frankenstein and had Boris Karloff as the creature. We get this lumbering, green hulk of a thing with bolt attachments and slicked-back hair, and it's from this movie that we think that the poor guy can't talk. In Shelley's book, he's actually super eloquent and tells his own whole version of his story.
Like I said before, this movie is also the reason we call the monster 'Frankenstein', which is incorrect. Frankenstein is really the doctor who creates the monster. As you already might have guessed from this description, the plot of the film differs significantly from Shelley's novel. It's actually based on a prior stage adaptation of the novel. In this version, Henry Frankenstein (for some reason they change his name; he's not Victor anymore) creates the monster accidentally. He includes in his creation the brain of a criminal, and as a result, the monster becomes an actual bad guy because he's got a bad-guy brain. The movie ends with the monster being destroyed by angry townspeople.
This story and this conception of Frankenstein have persisted more than any other - maybe not as much as vampires, but a lot - in the popular imagination. There's a whole empire of sequels (Bride of Frankenstein, Son of Frankenstein); there are ones that make fun of it (Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein); The Munsters is taken from it, as is Young Frankenstein, the Mel Brooks movie. Even The Rocky Horror Picture Show takes cues from it as well. There's all sorts of great stuff that comes out of this very potent figure Mary Shelley created.
The tale of Frankenstein really has come a long way since Mary Shelley dreamt it up to win a contest in 1816. She probably would not have guessed that her character would some day fight alongside Superman and Batman as they do in a comic book. And whether the story focuses on a young scientist named Victor, the creature that has the brain of a criminal, or a sex addict in the case of Rocky Horror, the key questions of the work persist: 'How far should humans go in their attempts to play God?' That's really what we're getting at here. Should we create life if we can, and what are the consequences of doing so? Are we made by our parents, or are we made by ourselves? Who's stronger, Frankenstein or Wolfman? (That's probably not one Shelley was worried about.) You can see that Frankenstein persists not only because it's an awesome monster story, but because it really gets at things that are fundamentally interesting to us in terms of our own place in the world. So, that's Frankenstein.
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Back To CourseEnglish 101: English Literature
15 chapters | 138 lessons | 10 flashcard sets