|The Modern Prometheus - Frankenstein and science fiction|
Frankenstein's monster - From "The Modern Prometheus" to Boris Karloff“Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus” is a novel by Mary Shelley first published in 1818. It tells the story of the young Swiss scientist Victor Frankenstein who creates an artificial human being. The existence of his creature sets into motion a series of disastrous events.
The first published version was finished in spring 1817 and published anunymously. Only in the second edition of 1823 Mary Shelley is revealed as author. She wrote a revision of her story in 1831.
Mary Shelley wrote the novel in 1816 at the age of only 18 in the Villa Diadati near the Lake of Geneva in Switzerland. She and her future husband Percy Bysshe Shelley where invited there by Lord Byron and his friend John Polidori to spend the summer together. Because the weather was very bad and they could not do much outdoor activity they came up with the idea that each of them should write a ghost story and present it to the others. It is worth mentioning that John Polidori contributed the first vampire-story (many years before Bram Stoker’s Dracula). Mary Shelly, however, wrote the story of Frankenstein.
The narrator and main character Victor Frankenstein is salvaged from the arctic ice by a ship of an expedition. He tells the owner of the ship and the leader of the expedition his story. It becomes clear, that his experience should be understood as a warning not to breach the boundaries of human reason and responsibility and that there are things men should not undertake despite the power and technical possibilities offered to him. The character of Victor Frankenstein very much reminds us of Goethe’s Faust and of Prometheus of the Greek mythology. Victor’s arduous obsession with the creating life brings about a series of tragic events and makes him loose everything he holds dear.
The monster, on the other hand, is very much the victim of circumstances and a helpless and lonely creature that can find no acceptance and no companion or comfort what so ever. Throughout the novel it does not even get a name but is referred to as monster or daemon. The author herself called it “Adam” and implies that Victor’s mistake is not so much the creation of life itself but rather his utter failure to face the consequences and not being a “good father” to his creature. Many critics today interpret this as a consequence of the author’s own lack of parental love.
So the summer of 1816 not only was a starting point for the literary genre of ghost and horror stories but due to its scientific elements Shelley’s novel also became a cornerstone of today’s science fiction where artificial life and the creation of Robots, Androids and Cyborgs and their confrontation with human beings plays a substantial part.
Scientific backgroundThe scientific background of the novel was inspired by new discoveries and experiments around 1800. The first electric battery was invented and the so called “Calvanists” had machines to produce high voltage currency. In the latest experiments electricity was connected to dead body parts of frogs and even humans which consequently contracted and “moved” again. In 1803 such an experiment was performed in London with the dead body of a criminal. The body moved to such an extent, that the public present was under the impression, that it was alive again. One of the spectators is said to have died of a heart attack only hours later. At the same time there was a growing fear or unease about the fast and unpredictable development of industry in the last 20 years and its (negative) effect on people and social life. Chemistry and Physics produced new and revolutionary insights into the very basics of our world and life itself.
The PlotVictor Frankenstein, a Swiss scientist works at the University of Ingolstadt in Germany. He is obsessed by the idea of creating life. While working day and night on his inventions, he neglects his friends and family. He becomes a sinner and criminal by using parts of dead bodies to assemble his creature. With the help of electricity and lightning the monster comes alive. Victor is terrified by the result and by what he has done and flees the laboratory. When he returns later, the monster is gone. Victor becomes ill with a nervous fever. When he recovers some month later, he learns that his younger brother Wilhelm has been murdered. He strongly presumes, that his monster is responsible. However, he cannot prevent that Justine, the maid of the family Frankenstein, is found guilty in court and executed. Later, on one of his frequent and long walks through the woods and mountains, Victor encounters his creature. It tells him, that the death of Wilhelm was an accident; the boy was strangled by accident when the monster tried to prevent him from screaming and alarming the family. By spying on a family of peasants the creature has learnt to talk and even read. It helped a family secretly by gathering wood and removing the snow in winter. But when it reveals itself to the family, they called for help and attack the creature before fleeing in terror. The monster left in despair and anger decides to confront its maker. The monster has taken with it Victor’s diary when leaving the laboratory and – by now being able to read it – conveys the whole mystery of its existence and deformity. The monster sees itself as the victim of Victor’s greed and the intolerance and hatred of people.
Confronted with this and out of pity and remorse, Victor finally agrees to create a female monster as a companion, so that the two creatures could live together in a secluded place far from civilization. On a remote Scottish Island Victor sets to work. The female monster almost complete, he becomes aware that he is about to repeat his evil deed of creating uncontrollable life and destroys it. The monster has followed Frankenstein to the island and secretly witnesses the destruction of his fellow-creature. Out of revenge the monsters kills Frankenstein’s friend and assistance Henri and tries to set up a scheme to put the blame on Victor. However, this scheme fails and Victor returnes to Geneva to marry Elizabeth. Again the monster follows him and murders Frankenstein’s bride in the very night of their marriage. When soon afterwards Frankenstein’s father dies of grieve, Victor sets out to find and kill his creature. He follows it as far as the arctic where his strength finally leaves him and he is rescued by an expedition. One night, while their ship is stuck in the ice, the creature climbs aboard only to find Victor dead. The monster then returns to the ice and burns itself on a pyre.
FilmsThe first film based on Mary Shelley‘s novel was produced as early as 1910 by the „Edison Company“. In 1931 James Whale adopted the story for his very successful film „Frankenstein“ by Universal Pictures. Boris Karloff played the monster. Together with the expressionist style of the filming and the superbly done mask of Jack Pierce, the monster became its well known characteristic face. The sequel “The Bride of Frankenstein” (1935) focused on the aspects which the first part had neglected. With the success of these films, the monster soon was named “Frankenstein” and became very popular. Although Frankenstein is the name of the scientist and not the monster, this ironically suggests that Frankenstein and his monster – as father and son so to speak - are inseparable and share the same fatal destiny. The commercial success led to further sequels like “The Son of Frankenstein” and other low quality productions in the 1930s and 1940s.
In 1958 the Hammer-Studios produced a quite successful film “The Curse of Frankenstein” and led to a revival of horror films not only in cinemas but also in TV-series. Among them the series of Dracula films with Christopher Lee as Dracula and the 1960s TV-series “The Munsters” where Frankenstein’s monster happily joins Dracula and other members of his family.
In 1994 Kenneth Branagh directed the film „Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein“, which claimed – as the title suggests – to be a very close adaption of the novel. With Kenneth Branagh as Victor Frankenstein and Robert de Niro as the monster, the film succeeds rather well. The film “Van Helsing” of 2004 is an odd and fantastic mixture of Elements of Dracula and Frankenstein, where the monster turns into a kind of super hero who has supernatural strength and is immune to bodily pain.
The Above painting is my interpretation of Frankenstein's creature.
To learn more about "Frankenstein - The Modern Prometheus" see the following linksFrankenstein at Wikipedia
Spark Notes on Mary Shelleys Frankenstein