It’s (Still) Alive!

Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” is nearly 200 years old. So why does it seem more timely than ever?

  • October 18, 2016
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  • 5 Questions
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  • By Humanities Washington

Because Mary Shelley’s 19th century novel Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus has cemented its place among our most iconic cultural works, it’s easy to forget how shocked and disgusted its early readers were by the novel’s groundbreaking subject matter. But some early critics saw past the story’s gruesomeness to recognize Shelley’s ability to articulate a deep fear within the human spirit. Two hundred years later, the story remains among the most recognizable in literature.

What has given Frankenstein its staying power? Humanities Washington spoke with film scholar and Speakers Bureau presenter Lance Rhoades to discuss his talk, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein: Anatomy of a Masterpiece.


Humanities Washington: How did Mary Shelley’s youth and family upbringing influence Frankenstein?

Lance Rhoades: Mary’s early years were filled with several tragic experiences that seem to have had a bearing on Frankenstein, a tale of a being brought to life but rejected and vilified by its creator and by society, and left to fend for itself. Sadly, Shelley’s mother died within days of her daughter’s birth, due to an infection contracted during delivery. Mary’s father, writer William Godwin, had an exceptional intellect, and he encouraged Mary to develop hers. But he was emotionally distant, and Mary was haunted by a suspicion that he blamed her for his beloved wife’s death. Godwin remarried while Mary was still quite young, but his new wife cared more for her biological daughter. As a result, Mary, who never received a formal education, spent a great deal of time alone with her father’s collection of important literary, historical, poetic, and political works, and listened to conversations between her father and the many admirers who would pay their respects.

But just as Frankenstein was not meant to be a simple Gothic thriller, Mary’s personal biography gave the novel direction without limiting it. Much of the genius of Mary’s work lies in her ability to pull together many sources of inspiration into a single plot. Mary shared in Romanticism’s enthusiasm for knowledge as the path to realizing mankind’s potential. At the same time, she was skeptical in a way not expressed by her peers, reflecting on double standards in the rights and responsibilities between women and men—even among enlightened thinkers, and noting disturbing trends such as the bloody aftermath of the French Revolution, or rampant grave-robbing to supply cadavers for scientific research. Frankenstein incorporates many “big” ideas and existential concerns that together portray humanity at a crossroads, where advancing technology was not advancing civilization.

How was Frankenstein received at the time of its release?

The material was considered to be so shocking that it almost didn’t go to press. The publisher that finally agreed to release it, in 1818—two years after Mary began writing—would do so only if the author remained anonymous, so as to not tarnish the Godwin and Shelley names. A handful of reviewers saw in the narrative an instructive warning against overzealous ambition and transgressions against God or nature, especially in scientific pursuits. Most, however, could not see deeper than the tale’s horrifying plot, and relegated the novel to a class of cheap thrillers commonly called the “penny dreadful.” Reviewers also assumed the author was male. When rumors began circulating that Mary Shelley was the author, reviews generally grew harsher. Yet, at its root, this was a reaction to the idea that a young woman with a respectable pedigree could possibly have written such a sordid story at all.

Frankenstein incorporates many “big” ideas and existential concerns that together portray humanity at a crossroads, where advancing technology was not advancing civilization.

While the work faced misgivings or outright hostility from literati on its long, slow path to critical respect, Frankenstein quickly resonated elsewhere throughout popular culture. The novel sold well and within five years it was adapted into as many as a half dozen theatrical productions.

Why did Mary Shelley subtitle her novel “The Modern Prometheus”?

The name Prometheus refers to a figure in an ancient Greek myth—an immortal Titan with the power of foresight who defies the king of the gods by giving fire to mankind. This empowers humans to rise above other animals, to develop new technologies, and to become more self-reliant. Zeus, fearing that man will eventually grow powerful enough to resist his authority, orders Prometheus to tell him his future. Prometheus refuses, stating that Zeus is a tyrant and in any case he cannot change fate. In retaliation, and in the hope the Titan will change his mind, Zeus orders Prometheus chained to a rock where each day an eagle will descend upon him and tear out his liver, which regenerates. This excruciating ordeal lasts for a thousand years but Prometheus is defiant and is eventually freed.

The Titan’s gift and sacrifice were celebrated in paintings and poems throughout modern western history right up to Shelley’s time. The Romantics were especially interested in what Prometheus represented. Once more, Mary takes her contemporaries’ ideas a significant step further. In calling her protagonist “The Modern Prometheus,” she evokes the revolutionary, world-changing aspect of the namesake, but in the context of this tragedy, Frankenstein’s motivations are not selfless, and his suffering is unintended.

Can you elaborate on the juxtaposition between life and humanity in Frankenstein?

“It’s alive!” is what Doctor Frankenstein exclaims in the classic 1931 film adaptation. It’s alive, but the implication couched in the doctor’s professional opinion is that “it” is not human. For example, Frankenstein never gives his creation a name, other than to curse him. As horrifying as the circumstances of the creation are, readers and viewers alike typically share the doctor’s reaction, but this sentiment gives way to sympathy, as we witness the cruelty of Doctor Frankenstein and other people toward the creature. This sympathy grows, as the creature demonstrates feelings and a desire to be a part of the community of human beings—in short, that he wants to love and be loved.

Shelley’s novel extends this sympathy, for here the creature manages to learn how to read and to eloquently speak. He also proves to be insightful and sensitive in ways that Frankenstein is not. Indeed, as the creature makes a case for his humanity, Frankenstein increasingly proves himself to be a kind of monster, thus, popular culture’s confusion between or conflation of the two is not entirely inappropriate, so that the dubiousness attributed to the creature also applies to the doctor—perhaps more so. The creature craves companionship, just one friend, but he is compelled to solitude against his will. Conversely, Frankenstein dismisses the love and concern of his large family, his best friend, and even his fiancee, whom he makes wait by prolonging their engagement for years while he obsesses over his secret experiment. Faced with contempt from humans, the creature eventually embraces the role of humankind’s adversary, unleashing violent and calculated attacks on the Frankenstein family. Even so, the creature kneels and shed tears over the body of his creator after his death.

The terror that the Frankenstein monster inspires has more to do with what it represents—something or someone whose existence throws into doubt the distinction between what is human and what is not, or who is master of whom.

How can we apply Frankenstein to a contemporary setting?

Two hundred years after Shelley wrote her cautionary novel, similar dangers threaten, but in new forms. Extreme specialization in research, mistrust and conflict between nations, deregulation, profit motives (augmented by large-scale investments), and the irresistible desire to make our lives better (or at least more convenient) all magnify the scale of and speed at which experiments in modifying life can take place, in ways that make it harder and harder to see a big picture, or to coordinate and control the numerous experiments.

This perhaps suggests that the emergence of “monsters” is inevitable. The idea is not so outrageous if we consider that the monster need not be an eight-feet tall, green-skinned, yellow-eyed, animate assemblage of cadaver parts. The terror that the Frankenstein monster inspires has more to do with what it represents—something or someone whose existence throws into doubt the distinction between what is human and what is not, or who is master of whom. Frankenstein’s assumption that he is his creation’s master relies on continually convincing himself that the creature is not human. The creature is faster, stronger, more dexterous, wiser, and, by mastering multiple languages within two years of being “born,” the creature surpasses the most intelligent humans.

At present, as likely in the future, other man-made creations challenge the human/non-human distinction, and human predominance. Beyond the issue of how society contends with massive job displacement, there is also the question of whether machine—or artificial—intelligence is the same as human intelligence, and whether machines will demand to be treated with respect, or to be given rights.

It is worth considering, however, that the line between what is human and what is not is blurred not only by increasingly sophisticated technology, but also by humans becoming more machine-like, or even programmed. Humans outsource their labor to their creations; they also outsource calculations and memory storage to them. There is a question of what happens to a human mind that no longer needs to perform these tasks and, by extension, what becomes of human identity. Technological capabilities in biological sciences are making it possible to manipulate or redesign organic structures, or to integrate them with synthetic materials, even at the genetic level, which makes possible the creation of, among other things, animal-human hybrids. There are numerous arguments made for and against actually following through with such experiments, but, as Mary Shelley understood, sometimes the very question of whether something can be done overrides the question of whether we can handle—or survive—the consequences.

Lance Rhoades is presenting his free talk, “Frankenstein: Anatomy of a Masterpiece,” throughout Washington State as part of Humanities Washington’s Speakers Bureau program. Find an event near you.

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