Frankenstein: Returning to the Tale in 2021

Returning to a classic, we examine the titular character of Mary Shelley’s 1818 gothic-horror novel Frankenstein and how his behaviours and actions have resonance today.

By Bretton Weir

A personal goal for 2021 is to read more. I figured I’d start this adventure with a classic, and personal favourite, Mary Shelley’s 1818 Frankenstein.

Why Frankenstein? It has been a decade since I first picked up the novel for an assignment in my first year university English class. I have such vivid memories of this enthralling and harrowing tale so I needed to see if my memory held up. It did.

If anything, 10 years of lived experience between readings has given me a more mature point of view on the events of the novel.

Illustration of Victor Frankenstein at work in his laboratory, from the 1922 publication of the novel
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Fellow TMR contributor Adriana Wiszniewska wrote back in 2018 that Frankenstein is a story with which we all have some familiarity, whether it be from reading Shelley’s novel or being subjected to the Hollywood adaptations and their associated images. Not only that, but Adriana writes that the story of Frankenstein is one we continue to come back to, so I feel it is appropriate to give the novel another look. This time, looking at the titular character and his motivations, his downfalls and his ultimate demise.

We are introduced to Victor Frankenstein, the child of an upper class Genevan family in the 18th century. His upbringing is one of privilege. He demonstrates intellect, compassion for his family and an eagerness to go to university to advance his studies and expand his mind. All good intentions.

Now, I have historically been critical of Victor. Upon rereading, these feelings toward him do not change. Victor is motivated by his own ego and self interest. He chooses to create a living creature to prove that he can. He chooses to make it at a behemoth proportion for his personal ease. He chooses to abandon the creature instead of accepting his parental responsibilities. He chooses to remain silent while his closest friends, family members and confidantes die at the hand of the creature. Not only all of that, but he’s so self-absorbed that when the creature remarks he will come after Victor on his wedding night, Victor naturally assumes it will be his death at the hand of the creature.

While we can rag on Victor as the true villain of this story, his actions (and inactions) are what lead to his ultimate demise. But what are the lessons here? I can’t help but feel if Victor was honest with his family and friends about the creature, the outcome would have been drastically different for everyone involved. And are we so harsh as to not sympathize with Victor and his personal fear of failure? His family’s expectations of him seem to allege that he is a golden child who cannot do wrong or misstep in any way. Is there not a societal and familial pressure that could drive one mad, independent of the external appearances he feels he must keep up?

Portrait of Mary Shelley by Richard Rothwell. Source: Wikimedia Commons

It is recorded that Mary Shelley’s idea for this novel came out of a dream she had. While a looming creature given life by the hands of an ambitious and green young adult conjures up frightening imagery, the novel clearly explores fears around adulthood, responsibility and accountability – universal anxieties I feel many of us have experienced to some degree.

While I hope no one is attempting to be a modern Prometheus in this day and age, I do think we can stop, take a minute to breathe and sympathize with the fact that the future is uncertain. Change is constant. And while we might be frightened by the “creatures” in our shadows, perhaps being frank and honest about them will benefit everyone.

Kindness Among the Unkind: Penny Dreadful and the Art of Adaptation

Showtime’s short-lived horror drama Penny Dreadful embodied the very best of Victorian Gothic. The show’s investment in literature proves that the best adaptations are unafraid to honour their origins. 

By Adriana Wiszniewska

As we discussed earlier this month, the Victorians were much more than their stodgy reputation leads us to believe. Victorian society was slippery and grey, invested as much in the supernatural as the natural. It was, after all, a time of great upheaval. And out of that shadowy underlife emerged some of the most iconic Gothic monsters.

Do you believe there is a demimonde, Mr. Chandler? A half-world between what we know and what we fear? A place in the shadows, rarely seen but deeply felt?

Penny Dreadful, “Night Work” (1×01)

While Gothic literature had its heyday in the late eighteenth century, the genre underwent a massive resurgence in the Victorian era. The old forms of eighteenth-century Gothic were updated to reflect the anxieties of a society teetering on the edge of modernity. It’s remarkable just how many Gothic novels were published in the final decades of the nineteenth century, including classics like Joseph Sheridan le Fanu’s Carmilla (1872), Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886), Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890), Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897), and Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw (1898).

Among this slew of new horror fiction were penny dreadfuls, cheap, sensational, serialized stories that were looked down upon not just for their lurid subject matter but also for their mass popularity. Which brings me to Penny Dreadful (2014-2016), a TV series that took its inspiration from all of the above.

Episode 101
Eva Green is mesmerizing as Penny Dreadful‘s Vanessa Ives. If there’s one reason for you to watch this show, it’s Eva Green. Photo: IMDb

Written and created by John Logan (who also wrote the play Red), Penny Dreadful takes the monster-parts of classic Gothic literature, from Dracula to Dorian Gray to Frankenstein, and stitches them together into one exquisite tapestry of postmodern beauty and terror, blurring the edge between the lurid grotesque of pop culture and the high-minded literary aspirations of high art.

Penny Dreadful wears its literary influences on its puffy Victorian sleeve, shamelessly flaunting its literariness at every step. While most obviously shaped by nineteenth-century Gothic, the show is also knee-deep in Romantic poetry.

sadpoetry
She’s not wrong. Sad monsters too, apparently. Photo: Tumblr

In Penny Dreadful, two strangers can casually recite the same poem to each other from memory like it’s nothing. Victor Frankenstein, in seeking a name for his creation, reaches not for the Bible but for Shakespeare, because “theological connotations aren’t very ‘us’, are they?”

The same could be said of Penny Dreadful. In a world of vampires, werewolves, and witches—a world of senseless death and cruelty—existence seems devoid of the divinity and order that the Romantics saw in nature. As Frankenstein’s monster puts it:

I am not a creation of the antique pastoral world. I am modernity personified. Did you not know that’s what you were creating? The modern age? Did you really imagine that your modern creation would hold to the values of Keats and Wordsworth? We are men of iron and mechanization now. We are steam engines and turbines. Were you really so naive to imagine that we’d see eternity in a daffodil?

Penny Dreadful, “Resurrection” (1×03)

The Gothic is the dark underside of Romanticism, anticipating the bloody monstrous mechanized world that Penny Dreadful knows has already arrived and still haunts us to this day. But the show’s investment in poetry, in beauty and love and kindness among the unkind, shows that there are ways to hold back the dark, even if just for a moment.

That’s why all monsters in Penny Dreadful are secretly poets, the Creature perhaps most of all. Just as his creator reached for Shakespeare, the Creature renames himself John Clare after the poet of the same name  in an attempt to shed his monstrous past. And in the cavernous dark beneath London (a place in the shadows, rarely seen but deeply felt), Clare finds kinship with Vanessa Ives, another damaged person who dwells in the halfway place between light and dark (Vanessa, notably an original creation, is the glue that holds the show together). She looks at his scarred face with warmth and the two trade soft words and lines of poetry:

The characters of Penny Dreadful speak in and through literature, finding solace in poetry when the world offers them only pain and loss and darkness. This is a story about monsters—the scary, bloodsucking, evil monsters, of course. But also the sad, lonely, misunderstood monsters—the broken things—the kind of monsters that shed light on what it means to be human and, conversely, what it means to be cast out from humanity.

Stories make up Penny Dreadful‘s blood and bones. Its characters use literary texts to define themselves, to narrate their lives, to make sense of the world around them. They themselves are texts, living and breathing and endlessly generative. That’s what makes literature so powerful to begin with, and Penny Dreadful understands that better than any show on television.