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Why Is Frankenstein a Classic?

Instructor: Clayton Tarr

Clayton has taught college English and has a PhD in literature.

Mary Shelley's ''Frankenstein'' is not only a literary classic, but a cultural one as well. This lesson will touch on its troubled central characters and its innovative themes and form. Then you can test yourself with a short quiz.

The Author In Context

Mary Shelley was born in 1797 and was the daughter of two famous authors. Her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, wrote both fiction and nonfiction, and was an exceptionally influential champion of women's rights in the late eighteenth century. Shelley's father, William Godwin, also wrote both fiction and nonfiction, but his writing tended to be more political and psychological in nature. Unfortunately, Mary Wollstonecraft died shortly after giving birth to Shelley, due to complications following the pregnancy. As a teen, Shelley (who was Mary Godwin at the time) met the up-and-coming poet Percy Shelley, and the pair ran off together despite her father's objections. Mary Shelley was barely an adult when she began writing Frankenstein, which has become a literary classic, not only because it influenced many subsequent novels that dealt with science and the supernatural, but also because it has endured with such vigor today. The novel has remained, in other words, a crucial part of culture; it is a classic text that shows no signs of being forgotten.

Mary Shelley, creator of Frankenstein
Mary Shelley

The Novel In Context

It was a dark and stormy night--quite literally--when Shelley conceived of the main plot of Frankenstein. She and Percy had traveled from England to Geneva, Switzerland, in the summer of 1816 to visit Lord Byron--a spectacularly famous aristocrat and poet. That summer, the weather was notoriously poor, and the group (which also included John Polidori--the author of the first complete vampire story) was forced indoors for much of the holiday.

One night, they decided to tell ghost stories. Mary Shelley later revealed that she conceived of Frankenstein in a dream. The novel was published in full in 1818, and Shelley revised it, rather heavily, for a new edition in 1831, though scholars generally agree that the first version is best. It became a pioneering text in the Gothic genre, a popular style of literature in the nineteenth century that focused on both the supernatural and the dark aspects of human nature.

The Familiar Story

Frankenstein has become a classic not only because of its of pioneering theme of reanimating the dead, but also because of the interactions between its two main characters--the young scientist Victor Frankenstein and the creature that he creates, who remains nameless throughout the novel. (Note: the creature is NOT named Frankenstein!) Most of us know the main story; it involves a dead body, a bolt of lightning, and a reanimated monster. Generally, what you know is true.

Victor is a bright but troubled student who gets the idea for bringing dead tissue back to life. After many months of experiments, he succeeds. But the thing he creates (which is constructed from various body parts that Victor robbed from burial vaults) is too ugly for him to gaze upon. After seeing his work come to life he immediately regrets his decision and abandons it.

Sometime thereafter, the creature tells his own story of finding shelter, learning customs and language by observing a family in the woods, and finally beginning his path of revenge. We learn that the creature tried to become part of society, but was shunned due to his appearance. This gives him a vendetta against his creator, whom he vows to kill. Eventually, Victor does die, but not before he has to experience the deaths of almost everyone he loves--all at the hands of the creature.

Who Is The Novel's Hero?

Despite being our main narrator, Victor is not necessarily our protagonist, the hero of the story. Rather, he at least shares the role with the creature, who has in adaptations (if not Halloween costumes) become a monstrous villain. This is not the case in the novel, however. The creature's life is abject misery, all because his creator Victor was petulant and overzealous. This innovative concept is partly what makes Frankenstein such a classic. Readers have trouble fully identifying with either troubled character. In fact, Shelley masterfully explores the real implications of human nature, showing that people are inherently flawed. Our aspirations and obsessions can also be our downfall. We are neither heroes nor villains, but always straddling the boundary between them.

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