Frankenstein at 200
Frankenstein – Happy Birthday, Frankenstein! Well, perhaps this expression would be considered somehow incongruous since the character associated with this name has usually been depicted as a source of horror. Indeed, Frankenstein is probably the most iconic monster of all times, although in a strict sense that is not his name. Dr. Victor Frankenstein is, in fact, the name of the young scientist who in the novel by Mary Shelley, creates a monster who is referred to as “the creature” or “the monster,” among other derogatory terms.
Mary Shelley started to write the story when she was just 18-year-old, and the book was finally published in January 1818. The young author, a member of the Romantic Movement, together with her husband Percy Shelley and Lord Byron, came from a family of thinkers. Mary’s father was the political philosopher William Godwin, and her mother was no other than the pioneer feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, who during the times of the French Revolution had written “Vindication of the Rights of Woman.”
The complete title of Shelley’s novel had been “Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus” an allusion to the Greek myth of Prometheus, the creator of man. In the story, Victor Frankenstein, obsessed with his experiments by which he attempted to give life to inanimate matter, undertakes the task of creating a man by using the recently discovered capacity of electricity as a source of energy. The idea of using corpses to build the creature was incorporated into the story by the 1931 movie adaptation directed by James Whale, featuring Boris Karloff as the monster. The novel doesn’t mention that.
“Frankenstein” is also considered the first work of science-fiction since the creature is the result of a scientific procedure, involving experimental methodology in a laboratory setting, unlike the use of some magical methods as in the case of other monsters featured in ancient medieval stories.
Adaptations first into plays, and, during the 20th century, into movies and TV series have frequently been made, sometimes as mere exploitation of the appeal the monster still enjoys, without much consideration for the quality of the productions. From horror, the story has also made incursions into other genres, including comedy of which certainly the most memorable was “Young Frankenstein” (1974) directed by Mel Brooks and starring Billy Wilder. In recent years the monster has also made it into the animation film series “Hotel Transylvania” where he joins other famous horror characters such as Dracula, Werewolf and The Mummy, but in a festive setting.
It is also interesting to point out that as an exponent of romanticism, Mary Shelley in her novel was drawing attention to the potential dangers that science and technology –then seen in all their splendour, as the engines of the Industrial Revolution– could eventually unleash. One has to remember that the Romantics were the first environmentalists. Not surprisingly then, that today some activists decrying the actions of big multinationals such as Monsanto with its genetically-modified organisms, call the agricultural products resulting from those seeds “Frankenstein food” which are “messing with nature” in a way similar to that of Dr. Frankenstein 200 years ago.
And for those interested in the literary work of “Frankenstein’s” author, Blue Metropolis presents a panel discussion titled “The Children of Mary Shelley.” This event will feature David Demchuck, Amal El-Mohtar, Melissa Yuan-Innes, and be moderated by Su Sokol. It takes place this Sunday, April 29 at 4 p.m. at the Salle Jardin of the Hotel 10 (Sherbrooke and St. Laurent). Free admission.
Feature image: Boris Karloff as the Monster in the 1931 movie directed by James Whale