Basically the only prose fiction produced by the English Romantic movement, Frankenstein was written by Mary Shelley at the instigation of the great Lord Byron. While on holiday in Switzerland, Byron, John Polidori,Percy Bysshe Shelley and Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin were kept indoors on a cold rainy night and Byronchallenged themto see who couldwritethe bestghost story. Only Polidori and Godwin finished their stories—Polidori in the proto-Draculathriller The Vampyre, and Godwin (who would later marry Percy Shelley) in the stunning, elegant and philosophical Frankenstein.
Horror fiction existed long before Frankenstein in the form of Gothic novels, but they were filled with maudlin sentimentality, sugar-sweet heroines and bizarre monsters with often more than a hint of the laughable about them. Shelley borrowed some of the Gothic conventions—uncertain parentage, supernatural elements, dark secrets—and, in the way of all first-class innovators, turned them upside down. The most obvious of these inverted themes is her replacement of supernaturalism with extreme naturalism. In the novel, the scientific clearly replaces the spiritual but fulfills the same role as its predecessor, most notably in the case of the monster himself.
Of course we are never quite sure who the monster is. Victor Frankenstein refers tohis creation as a monster, but in many ways it is Frankenstein himself, as the creator of the monstrous, who is the monster. This uncertainty of identity is one of the novel's key themes, demonstrated not only in the monster's search for personhood, but in thenarrative structure itself. Masterfully utilizing a notoriously difficult device, Shelley tells the story of the monster's creation, existence and fate through a number of narrators whose stories become more and more intricately involved—at one point, the monster is telling his story to Frankenstein, who is telling his story to a ship's captain, who is telling his story to his sister through a series of letters.
Despite this complexity, the reader is never lost. Which is itself an important element in the story, since Frankenstein's attempts to create life are really thinly-veiled attempts to replace God. Not to become God—but to prove His obsoletion in the Age of Reason. Shelley plays God for us, carefully guiding us throughout so that we see (objectively, as it were) the whole picture. Because this ultimately isn't just a horror story, it's a Romantic manifesto celebrating pure reason as the only path to the sublime, man's unshackling of himself from the vicissitudes of Nature, the triumph of science over religion.
It's no accident that Frankenstein's monster is superhuman, armed with impossible strength and impossible intelligence. Films have given the impression of a lumbering brute, but though Shelley has him hideously ugly, she also attributes to him all that is admirable in man. In an interesting turn, however, man does not create God in his own image; he creates man in man's image, and the result is both better and worse than the original, imitation as it is. Some have referred to Frankenstein as an atheist tract, a humanist treatise,a distillation of Romantic philosophy—while it may be all those, it's ultimate force is observational and speculative rather than prescriptive, as a strangely non-judgmental presentation of the implications of society's embrace of evolving Modern ideals.
Frankenstein is also a plain good adventure story, at times even truly scary. Widely regarded as the first true modern horror novel, it inspired everything from many of Lovecraft's most famous stories to the more recent zombie phenomenon. Like many of its successors, however, the truly horrifying aspects are those that reveal the darker nature of man, the possibility that the monster is not simply a construction of Frankenstein but is actually his primal self set free. More terrifying still is the idea that it is the more human, more civilized Frankenstein, and not his monster, that is the more demonic, the more threatening to the society of which he is a part.
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