Frankenstein remains a frightful favorite for more than two centuries
Mary Shelley's 1818 novel was the first science fiction book.
Halloween brings out the ghoul and monster in many kids and adults, and a perennial favorite character of the season is Frankenstein. Mary Shelley’s novel of that name, which inspired hundreds of films, novelties and costumes and whose protagonists have long been pop culture icons, is acknowledged as the first science fiction story. Four years ago, it hit another milestone: the book was published in 1818, and in 2018 attained the rare mark of 200 years of continuous popularity. A notable distinction among historic books, “Frankenstein” has never been out of print.
University of South Carolina English Professor Paula Feldman, an expert on Shelley, said “Frankenstein” was immediately popular for a reason. “Her goal when she was writing it was to speak to the mysterious fears of our nature,” she said. “And I think that she did that. I think that it resonates with people today just as it resonated with people in 1818 when it was first published, because it does speak to us on a very, very basic level.”
Feldman said the idea for “Frankenstein” came from events in Shelley’s own life – including the death of her first child - that made her wish she could bring people back from the dead. “One day, two weeks after it was born, she walks into the nursery, and it had died,” said the professor. “But then two weeks after the death of this child, she writes in her journal, ‘dreamed that my little baby came to life again. That we rubbed it before the fire, and it lived.’
“There’s the germ of ‘Frankenstein.’ The idea of re-animating the dead corpse. And of course, her mother had died giving her birth, and she must have wished, on some level, to bring her mother back to life.”
Jeanne Britton curated an exhibit on Frankenstein at USC’s Hollings Special Collections Library during the anniversary year. She said the novel’s popularity in the 1820s led Shelley to revise it in 1831. “And there were stage productions that helped fuel that popularity. Mary Shelley saw a production of the stage version of ‘Frankenstein’ in the 1820s. And Mary was very pleased, she said that a lady fainted,” Britton chuckled. “And so the 1831 edition was partly motivated by the popularity not only of the novel, but also the stage production.”
Britton said the novel raises important questions “about what it means to be human. It raises important questions about the nature of sympathy, the extent to which one person can sympathize with a person who is not like them.”
Feldman ranks “Frankenstein” among the greatest novels of all time, which has only been acknowledged recently. “By the mid-20th century, ‘Frankenstein’ was never taught in school, never studied in literature courses in college. So one of the privileges of my academic career was to have been one of the early scholars of the late 20th century who said, ‘you know, we really need to take this book seriously. And think about it as the groundbreaking work that it was.’”
The story of Frankenstein has endured over two centuries partly because it continues to be relevant, said Britton, because scientific issues such as human enhancement and extending life continue to be debated. Also, she said, its appeal lies in the monster’s narrative (Feldman prefers the term “creature” because she considers him to be too sympathetic a character to be classified as a monster). “I think that anybody can identify with his isolation, with being misunderstood. And so his struggles, I think, continue to resonate with people, even 200 years after the novel first appeared.”
Feldman said the novel has inspired science fiction writers for 200 years and has given them the freedom to imagine an alternative universe. And for film buffs, she advised, “If you only know Frankenstein through film, read the novel! It’s a good read.”