Today marks the 200th anniversary of the publication of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, one of the most haunting and enduring works ever written in English, and arguably our greatest tale of horror. Below, Susan Wolfson and Ronald Levao, whose widely celebrated annotated edition of the novel we published in 2012, reflect on Shelley’s creation, Frankenstein’s “Creature,” and the work’s lasting cultural legacy.
Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus was published January 1, 1818, and since then has never been out of print, or out of range. The range is more than the book: it is a fable and a language. On December 21, 2017 (the darkest night of the year), Nancy Pelosi, Minority Leader in the U.S. House of Representatives, denounced the recently passed unilateral tax bill this way: “It’s a Frankenstein. Anybody who’s familiar with Frankenstein knows it was… a monster that was created… Do you know the ending of Mary Shelley’s story?” she exclaimed. “The monster comes back to destroy.” Her reference needs some nuance: Frankenstein was the creator, not the creation. And the creation was not “a monster,” but deemed so on the basis of a physical appearance outside or beyond the normative range. And the Creature (let’s call him) was abandoned and abused, and miserably lonely, before he became a vengeful destroyer. Such reservations aside, we can marvel at the readiness of the reference, needing no footnote 200 years on: who is not “familiar with Frankenstein”?
The novel main-titled Frankenstein told a terrific tale, tapping the idealism in the new sciences of its own age, while registering the throb of misgivings and terrors. The publication of 1818 was anonymous, from a down-market press. It was a 19-year-old’s debut in print. She proudly signed herself “Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley” when it was reissued in 1823, in sync with a stage confection at London’s Royal Opera House in August—running for nearly 40 nights in this debut. Scarcely a month goes by now without some development earning the prefix Franken-, a near default for anxieties about or satires of new events.
The dark brilliance of Frankenstein is both to expose “monstrosity” in the normal and, conversely, to humanize what might seem monstrously “other.” When Shelley conceived Frankenstein, Europe was scarred by a long war, concluding on Waterloo fields in May 1815. “Monster” was a ready label for any enemy. Young Victor Frankenstein begins his university studies in 1789, the year of the French Revolution. In 1790, Edmund Burke’s international best-seller Reflections on the Revolution in France recoiled at the new France as a “monster of a state,” with a “monster of a constitution” and “monstrous democratic assemblies.” Within a few months, another international best-seller, Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man, raged against “the monster Aristocracy” and cheered the American Revolution for overthrowing a “monster” of tyranny. Mary Shelley’s father, William Godwin, called the ancien régime a “ferocious monster”; her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, pointed out that the system of monarchy was an “artificial monster,” a “luxurious monster,” and its despots a “race of monsters in human shape.”
The language of “monster” had another stage, with heightened interest in the era of the rights of man, when large populations of human beings were systematically brutalized. With much controversy, and against the lobbying of wealthy plantation owners, England outlawed participation in the slave trade in 1807; but slavery in its colonies was legal until 1833. (Frankenstein reaches its third and most popular edition in 1831). Who was a “monster”? Abolitionists saw the capitalists, investors, and slave-masters as the moral monsters of the global economy. Defenders of slavery cast the Africans as monsters: subhuman, improvable perhaps by conversion to Christianity and disciplined work, but a threat, especially the men, if freed. “In dealing with the negro,” ultra-conservative Foreign Secretary George Canning lectured Parliament in 1824, “we are dealing with a being possessing the form and strength of a man, but the intellect only of a child. To turn him loose in the manhood of his physical strength…would be to raise up a creature resembling the splendid fiction of a recent romance.” The reference was transparently Frankenstein, not only the novel but also the recent stage-plays, which stripped the Creature of the eloquent and moving language Mary Shelley wrote for him, and rendered the familiar or cinematic tradition: a mute, lumbering, physical threat.