Oct 4, 2016
Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus
Genre: Science Fiction, Gothic Horror
Author: Mary Shelley
Summary: An often misunderstood tale due to confusion with the loosely adapted films of the same name, Frankenstein is both a marvel of the gothic horror genre as well as the first true science fiction novel.
Let’s start by clearing things up:
- Frankenstein is the scientist, not the Creature.
- The Creature is not cobbled from corpses, but created via scientific means by Frankenstein.
- The Creature is not the monster.
- Frankenstein is the monster.
Moreover, the Creature isn’t a lumbering, barely coherent beast, but an eight-foot, athletic man who would be beautiful save for some minor coloring issues (black lips, yellow skin) and that he’s in the uncanny valley of physical perfection. The Creature is well-spoken, learns at an accelerated rate, and is what one would expect if you built the perfect man from the ground up.
Of course, he’s rejected by his creator. Victor Frankenstein is a scientist who rejects moral and ethical culpability for his actions, abandoning the Creature immediately after creation in horror at what he’s done. Throughout the novel, Shelley’s sympathy is with the creature, not with Frankenstein. Even as the Creature begins systematically tormenting his creator by murdering his brother and wife, it’s only after Frankenstein rejects an opportunity to assume responsibility for his actions, which brings us to the subtitle of the book.
In Greek mythology, Prometheus was a Titan who created mankind, and then repeatedly assisted them against the Olympian deities, first tricking the Olympians into accepting a lesser sacrifice, later ensuring that hope was within Pandora’s Box, and then bringing fire to mankind when it was withheld by Zeus. For his actions, he was punished for eternity by the Olympians. These tales are well-known even now, and certainly would have been known to a well-educated young woman like Mary Shelley, whose family was highly progressive concerning the rights and education of women.
The equalization of Frankenstein with Prometheus also sets up a contrast – whereas Prometheus was willing to suffer greatly for the good of his creation, taking ultimate responsibility for their actions and wellbeing, Frankenstein immediately rejects his creation and sets out upon a “respectable” life, only to suffer at the hands of his own creation – which, had he embraced, would have celebrated him as a God. Had he kept his promise to the Creature and created a mate and partner, the resulting offspring and family would have spoken of him in legendary terms – Frankenstein would have become mythic, like the tale of Prometheus. Instead, he shirks classical virtue for modern respectability, and in so doing brings loss and suffering upon himself.
Frankenstein has been adapted for the stage and screen many times in the two centuries following the initial publication, including as an early film by Edison showcasing his motion picture camera, and most famously as the second of the Universal monster films in 1931, where Boris Karloff created an inimitable character with a few words and many lumbering actions. The story was played to great comedic effect by Mel Brooks in the classic Young Frankenstein, where Peter Boyle’s Creature acts as a perfect straight man to the comedic chaos around him, especially opposite an uncredited Gene Hackman as the blind hermit. However, throughout the film adaptations, the Creature remains deformed or hideous in some obvious way, and is more often simple-minded, rather than the erudite and well-spoken Creature of Shelley’s imagination.
This archetypal story’s influence continues to this day – from Tony Stark’s Ultron, to 2001: A Space Odyssey’s HAL-9000, to ex_machina’s Ava, the creation that surpasses the expectations of the creator runs through science fiction. The replicants of Blade Runner pursue their creator to find a solution to their limited lifespans, as the robotic Maria in Metropolis undermines the work of her living counterpart. Mankind is fascinated with creation mythology, in an effort to explain our place in the world, and how man would react to being the creator serves as a basis for many a morality play.