(Portrait: Richard Rothwell, scan of a print from the National Portrait Gallery)
Mary Shelley is best known for Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, which is mostly what I’ll be writing about here.
In the 19th century, what began as a contest amongst friends to see who could write the most chilling ghost story gave birth to one of the most influential monsters in popular culture. What’s more is that Shelley began this timeless story at the age of 18, and it was published only a few years after.
Forget what you know about hulking green monsters and neck-bolts. Frankenstein is the story of Victor Frankenstein, a student of science with an unnatural obsession: the creation of life. He makes grossly fantastic progress in this area, to the point where he does indeed imbue a corpse with life. The creature, though possessing beautiful features, repulses him and he abandons it, failing to even name his creation. From then on, the creature attempts to establish relationships with others but learns that he is an abomination in everyone’s eyes. He confronts Victor and demands that he make a companion for him and ultimately, when Victor refuses, the creature seeks his revenge upon his creator.
The structure of Frankenstein complements the telling of its story in a way I have yet to encounter again. We begin with Robert Walton, a sea captain exploring the North Pole, writing letters to his sister about his chance encounter with Victor Frankenstein, a man he is drawn to for his fascinating intellect and sombre bearing. As the two develop their relationship, Victor explains to Robert that he is in the North Pole hunting a creature. He then tells the story of his manic obsession and his creation of the creature. Victor’s own story contains an encounter with the creature, in which the creature then relays his own experiences with humanity to his creator. These layers to the narrative are interwoven so seamlessly that any transitions are completely natural and rather than interrupting the story, they just draw you in deeper and deeper, and blur the lines between man and monster.
The crux of the story is the fear of progress. As Victor delves hungrily into the unknown, desperate to realise his legacy, we implore him to stop, to at least think. When he doesn’t, things take a darker turn as he runs from his responsibilities after creating a living, feeling being. The great debate of Frankenstein is not simply whether or not man has the right to ‘play God’, but the responsibilities man has for his actions. I don’t think this theme is hugely original to Frankenstein; for me, it conjures images of Icarus flying too close to the Sun. And so it should really, as this theme is what gives Frankenstein its pseudomythological status. Modern science fiction stories manipulate this fear in spades:
“Don’t you see the danger, John, inherent in what you’re doing here? Genetic power is the most awesome force the planet’s ever seen, but you wield it like a kid that’s found his dad’s gun.”
– Jurassic Park
Read Frankenstein, and gain a new perspective for future encounters with the science fiction genre. Above all, understand the feelings of fear behind responsibility and abandonment. The man and the monster are as pitiful and as wretched as one another, and yet we can never ignore the responsibility of man. So many of our stories today rely on these horrors, but none handle them so smoothly and so tragically as Mary Shelley’s masterpiece.