Frankenstein: The Literary Legacy of a 200-Year-Old Monster
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New Year’s Day, 2018, marked the 200th anniversary of the publication of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Few could have predicted that this story, written by a teenager, would have such a long-lasting impact on literature, culture, and even science.
Shelley’s novel is a classic in every way possible, it is exemplary of Gothic fiction of the 1800s, while also remaining relevant and beloved over the following two centuries. It is a cultural touchstone, instantly recognisable in any context, from fairground ghost trains to advertisement campaigns.
The true test of any classic is if it can be described as a story that everyone knows, without ever having read or seen any version of it. This is particularly true of Frankenstein, as few stories have such a discrepancy between their original narrative and their pop culture representation. Those who come to the book looking for a straightforward story of monstrosity and horror rarely expect the story found between the pages. It is undoubtedly a masterpiece in ghost story writing and although it is profoundly disturbing, it contains little in the way of jumps and frights. Instead, the horror is situated among the other classic Romantic characteristics, such as mesmerising descriptions of landscapes and nature, and reflections on the inner turmoil of the protagonist. And while Frankenstein is certainly an exploration of monstrosity and horror, Shelley’s monster and creator are repulsive towards one another quite equitably.
It can be said that Frankenstein is as much misunderstood by pop culture as the monster is misunderstood by his creator, even down to the famous misconception that the name "Frankenstein" refers to the monster when it in fact refers to the monster’s creator.
With this in mind, the best way to celebrate this 200th anniversary is naturally to head straight to the book itself. There are a range of stunning editions to choose from, below are just some of my favourites:
However, beyond this obvious first step, there are a huge variety of ways to mark the occasion and read further into the story. With 200 years of literature that have accumulated around Shelley’s iconic work, there’s an entire corpus to explore. Indeed, the 200th anniversary sparked a variety of commemorative books, as well as this month of celebration coinciding with the release of the English translation of Ahmed Saadawi’s prize-winning novel Frankenstein in Baghdad, but more on that later. In all, there has never been a better time to get to grips with one of literature's most famous characters. Frankenstein may have accidentally created a monster, but he also created a well-spring of literature and literary discussion. The following is a list of books, both fiction and nonfiction, which are perfect for anyone looking to delve deeper into Mary Shelley’s iconic Gothic novel.
For the first recommendation we won’t be going very far, in fact we’re still on Frankenstein itself, but Frankenstein with an important distinction. This year does indeed mark the 200th anniversary of Frankenstein, but specifically of its first version. The 1818 edition was published anonymously in three volumes, but in 1831 it was re- released under Shelley’s name and in a single volume. This second version is the more commonly published, a distinction which merits noting as Shelley heavily revised the text before reprinting. Some of the more radical political elements were softened, as was her strong feminist voice throughout the book. There have been a few versions of the 1818 text published in recent years, and now for the anniversary, Penguin Classics has added Frankenstein: The 1818 Text to its list. This edition includes a new introduction by author and world-renowned Shelley expert, Charlotte Gordon, as well as recommended further reading, literary excerpts and reviews.
Another bicentennial release of the 1818 text is this gorgeous version, Classics Reimagined, Frankenstein. This deluxe edition includes an eight- page insert detailing the doctor’s designs, printed endpapers, and a gatefold image of the monster. The artwork is by David Plunkert; his illustrations are both unsettling and surreal, and work wonderfully with Shelley’s text; the collage style reflects the piecing together of the monster himself.
If you’re still looking for alternative versions of the story, and your interest was piqued by the illustrations of the previous recommendation, you’d do well to check out Gris Grimly’s Frankenstein, a graphic novel rendition of the story. Grimly had already established himself in the world of literary macabre with his Edgar Allan Poe's Tales of Mystery and Madness. Here Grimly takes on Frankenstein, a story which he professes played an important part in his life. His love for the project is evident on every page. He uses as abridged version of the text, to create one that is part prose, and part graphic novel.
It opens with hand lettered renditions of the correspondence of Captain Walton, while the main body of the story is conveyed through Grimsly’s wonderfully twisted and grotesque illustrations.
If you’re looking for something completely different, Inkle, a game studio that specialises in interactive narratives, has released an app version of the story. In this adapted version you are placed into the story, acting as Frankenstein’s confidant and guiding moral compass. This is a new kind of reading experience, blended with gorgeous graphics and illustrations, and an interface that allows you to mould the relationship between the doctor and his monster. Inkle has had enormous success with 80 Days, an interactive version of the Jules Verne classic. In line with many of the other recommendations on this list, they re- released the app for the anniversary, and this promises to be a wonderfully innovative way to immerse yourself in Shelley’s text.
Turning from fiction to nonfiction, it’s time to look at some of the books that have been released which explore the history of the novel. Here again we have a special release for the bicentennial, this time with Christopher Frayling’s Frankenstein: The First Two Hundred Years. Frayling, a scholar in the field of pop culture, maps out a cultural history of the book and its characters. He traces the novel’s inception, delving into Shelley’s background, her social circle and the ins and outs of the writing and editing process. He then goes on to the book’s critical reception, the popularity it found on the stage, and later in a wide variety of films. Frayling’s book manages to be both knowledgeable and approachable, giving a huge depth of information around Frankenstein, without becoming stiflingly academic.
While Frayling’s book gives wonderful insight onto Mary Shelley’s life and experience writing Frankenstein, if you’re looking for a more in-depth examination it’s certainly worth picking up a biography or two of this extraordinary author. Mary Shelley remains one of the most fascinating literary figures in history. Her parents, William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft were at the cutting edge of contemporary literary movements, and were both powerful activists for political and social change. Consequently, their daughter was brought up among the great intellectuals of the age. She became a central figure of the Romantic movement, a place cemented by her marriage to radical poet-philosopher Percy Bysshe Shelley. Their life was full of the drama and even horror that can be found in their writing.
With such exciting material to work with, it’s unsurprising that there have been several excellent biographies. A standout example however, is Charlotte Gordon’s Romantic Outlaws The Extraordinary Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley. This biography is the first to combine the story of both Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley. Gordon, who we mentioned was an acclaimed scholar on Shelley, also demonstrates her impressive talent for storytelling. The two women’s lives are recounted across alternating chapters. This interweaving of the two lives highlights the experiences that the women had in common as well as the points of difference. It also shows with immediacy the effect of Wollstonecraft’s legacy on her daughter. Gordon brings us right into the worlds of these women while exploring their literary and political impact. For this gripping work, Gordon won a National Book Critics Circle Award. If you’re looking to focus solely on Shelley herself, then Fiona Simpson’s new biography In Search of Mary Shelley: The Girl Who Wrote Frankenstein is a great place to start. As might be expected, it was released for the anniversary and aims to delve into the shadowy corners of Shelley’s life, particularly her childhood. Simpson centres her book on pivotal moments in Shelley’s life, ones which she considered had the most impact on the writer and her work. She also attempts not just to get into the mind of Shelley, but also her body. Simpson demonstrates the connection between the experience of illness, pregnancy, and motherhood, and Shelley’s imagination around Frankenstein’s monster and the construction of life. In this way, it is a visceral account of Shelley’s life, using present-tense prose and colloquial language to draw you into a sense of familiarity with this otherwise enigmatic figure.
Finally, here are some great examples of fiction that has been influenced or inspired by Frankenstein.
The title making headlines at the moment is the previously mentioned Frankenstein in Baghdad. Ahmed Saadawi won the International Prize for Arabic Fiction in 2014 for this war-time take on the Frankenstein story. His story centres on Hadi, a scavenger in U.S.-occupied Baghdad, who is collecting body parts and stitching them together, in order to create a single body that merits a proper burial. However, the corpse goes missing and a slew of mysterious and violent crimes follow, and Hadi soon realises he has created a monster. This is not a strict retelling, rather it is its own story, taking inspiration from Shelley’s work. But like Shelley, Saadawi uses this premise to explore cycles of vengeance and violence, and the destructive cruelty of mankind. It is a gripping read that is both darkly humorous and strikingly profound.
Saadawi, however, is not the only author to pick up on the imagery of creating composite bodies. Closer to Shelley’s own era, H.G. Wells was another early writer in the genre of science fiction, and his 1896 novel The Island of Doctor Moreau carries a similar tone to Frankenstein in its macabre and unsettling horror. The story follows a shipwrecked Edward Prendick who finds himself on an island run by the enigmatic Doctor Moreau. Prendick soon uncovers the reality of Moreau’s gruesome experiments with vivisection and is plunged into a world of danger and fear. Wells, like Shelley, explores philosophical themes of human identity as well as man’s power over nature, his cruelty and his morality. In E. B. Hudspeth’s 2013 novel The Resurrectionist, we have a contemporary take on the theme, but one which still situates itself in the era of Gothic fiction, in this case in 1870s Philadelphia. The Resurrectionist is essentially two books in one. The first follows the fictional biography of Dr. Spencer Black. The son of a grave robber, Black has worked his way up to become a student at Philadelphia’s esteemed Academy of Medicine, when he proposes a disturbing hypothesis: that the creatures of our myths are in fact, humans’ evolutionary ancestors. The story follows Black’s life up to his mysterious disappearance and then the book turns to Black’s own writing, namely his magnum opus: The Codex Animalia. This fictional textbook provides detailed and intricate anatomical illustrations of mythological beasts. A literary cabinet of curiosities, The Resurrectionist indulges our dark fascination with the grotesque and unexplained.
Of course, if you’re looking for books closely linked to Frankenstein you can look to Shelley’s own writing, and her family's. An excellent place to start is her novel The Last Man, which has remained woefully overlooked. It is one of the earliest examples of dystopian writing, and follows a group of intellectual friends and their lives as the Earth becomes overridden with an unstoppable plague. Looking to Shelley’s immediate circle, there are the writings of her parents: Godwin and Wollstonecraft published important works of philosophy and politics. For Godwin the most famous of these was Enquiry Concerning Political Justice and for Wollstonecraft it was her A Vindication of the Rights of Women, but they also produced important works of fiction. Godwin’s novel Caleb Williams marks a notable step towards the establishment of the Gothic genre, and centres on the theme of doubling between a protagonist and a figure set out to destroy him, a theme which can certainly be seen to inform Frankenstein. Wollstonecraft's novel Maria, or the Wrongs of Woman remains unfinished due to her death after giving birth to Mary Shelley, but delivers a hellish portrayal of a woman for whom the world’s governmental and social systems seem designed to oppress and destroy. Yet again, we see themes of inescapable terror that plague Shelley’s writing. As Frankenstein’s subtitle is The Modern Prometheus, Percy Shelley’s poem Prometheus Unbound offers an interesting counterpoint on a myth that clearly preoccupied the couple. Then, naturally, there is the whole genre of Gothic fiction with its shared themes and imagery between the various works, and so you can find monstrous doubles in Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, and The Picture of Dorian Gray, or atmospheric landscapes in Wuthering Heights, and many more besides.
That Frankenstein is a pivotal literary work is undoubtable, from these recommended books it is clear the far-reaching influence and importance of Shelley’s novel. Frankenstein may be responsible for “the spark of existence which [he] had so wantonly bestowed” but Shelley can be held responsible for altering the shape of literature and culture for centuries to come.
Header image from Classics Reimagined, Frankenstein, illustrated by David Plunkert.