Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein has endured in popular culture for two centuries. As a story about stories, how does it capture audiences even now, and what does it tell us about literary tradition?
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein has been haunting our cultural imagination for 200 years now. Even if you’ve never read the novel, you know the story. You’ve encountered it in some way, shape, or form. Even as early as 5 years after its initial publication in 1818, the novel was adapted into a stage play. And ever since, it’s been twisted and translated, parodied and paid homage to in countless books, films, TV shows, plays, video games, memes, t-shirts, and has even entered into our lexicon (who hasn’t used “Franken” as a prefix, stitching it onto other words like some linguistic version of Frankenstein’s monster?). Frankenstein’s monster remains an enduring cultural touchstone. So why do we keep adapting this strange tale, dreamed up in the mind of a teenage girl? Why is Frankenstein such an enduring story? How does it still resonate?
When we think of Frankenstein, we think of shambling insensate monsters, of the mad scientist in his darkened lab, hunched over a slab of corpse fragments. We think lightning and stitched skin and a mob of pitchforks and torches. But all these images were borne out of the afterlives of Shelley’s novel. Why, then, does the novel lend itself to this kind of modern myth-making?
Well, if we go back to the novel itself, which is often lost among these countless iterations and adaptations, it becomes clear that this is a story about stories. Shelley built her novel on a sturdy foundation of Milton and Shakespeare, science and philosophy and art. It’s a story that speaks through stories about the way stories shape us. It’s no surprise, then, that Frankenstein’s monster, after being abandoned by his creator, learns about the world through books:
I can hardly describe to you the effect of these books. They produced in me an infinity of new images and feelings . . . I found myself similar, yet at the same time strangely unlike the beings concerning whom I read, and to whose conversation I was a listener. I sympathized with, and partly understood them, but I was unformed in mind; I was dependent on none, and related to none.
The creature finds solace in reading, but also comes to better understand himself and the world around him.
Stories allow us to experience and understand things that are unfamiliar to us. Shelley’s novel does exactly that. Instead of painting the creature as a one-dimensional monster, the novel invites us to sympathize with him, despite his bitter cruelty and horrific violence. The monster only becomes monstrous, after all, because of the terrible things done to him.
Why do we keep coming back to Frankenstein? In a world that wants to fit people into black-and-white categories, to distinguish between good and evil, Frankenstein resists easy interpretation. It wallows in seams and ambiguity and gray areas. The book is disturbing, as any good horror fiction should be. But it’s also suffused with loss, desire, grief, and love. No matter how far its offspring stray, Frankenstein continues to resonate because it speaks to our human impulse to create and find some kind of connection through the stories we tell each other.