Everyone’s heard of Frankenstein’s monster. The ghoulish green face, the bolt through the head, the slow, incomprehensible speech. The book and its numerous adaptations have become so widespread that most people (and I am ashamed to say that I myself used to be included in this generalisation) seem to combine Frankenstein the scientist and his monster together. This misconception is most likely due to the constant stream of garish costumes and film reruns around this time of year. However as Hallowe’en has just passed, I ask myself: is Frankenstein still relevant for modern readers? In short, is it scary?
The basic story of Frankenstein is well known. A mad scientist plays with nature and faces dire consequences by creating a ruthless, sub-human killing machine, who gradually murders all those closest to Frankenstein to take revenge upon his creator. But how close do these numerous adaptations come to revealing the true heart of the story? Certainly it is frightening: the mere thought of a transgression against nature and God of this kind, particularly for contemporary readers, is horrifying. Frankenstein gathers bones from graveyards and corpses from the medical school where he is a student, and fuses them together. However this is when the film differs from the book: although he becomes horrifying to the scientist when he considers what he has done, his ultimate aim was to give him a face considered ‘beautiful’. In fact, the ‘monster’ as he is referred to in the book is articulate, intelligent and intent on bettering himself- at least until he realises that people will despise him simply for the way he looks. The monster commands our sympathy in a way that Frankenstein himself does not: he is portrayed as rather weak and cowardly. Abandoning the monster is presented as abandoning a child: similarly as a child without guidance may grow into a monster, so does his creation.
But, in my opinion at least, what is truly terrifying about Frankenstein is not the monster per se, but what he represents. The idea that Frankenstein and his creation are two different sides of the same coin is an idea commonly used by critics to represent the two sides of ourselves. And what is more terrifying than an aspect of our own personality running wild, killing, degenerating from something optimistic and hopeful into something unmistakeably monstrous? The fear of not recognising oneself is a popular theme rerun time and again throughout fiction; taking Jekyll and Hyde as only the most obvious example. The psychological elements of this novel, far more than the obvious horror of a monster running amok, are most interesting here. Shelley charts the decline of both Frankenstein and his monster, both consumed by obsession and hatred, in a way that can chill even the most sceptical of readers.
Although Frankenstein’s forays into uncharted territory would have proved terrifying to most of Shelley’s contemporary readers, the repercussions and echoes such experiments must have in our modern technological society is equally as chilling: indeed the term ‘Frankenstein’ has become a casual label for anything deemed likely to transgress what we as humans are ‘supposed’ to do. In the 1800s science was lumped into one broad, malleable discipline, without distinction and frequently compared to philosophy: however today the distinctions are all too painfully clear. We can alter what we look like using plastic surgery; gene therapy is becoming a possibility. There seems to be no limit to the things scientists can now achieve, and this rapid technological progress can be sometimes seen as much of a curse as a blessing. The fear of going too far, and creating something that harms rather than helps the human race is perhaps more potent today than it was for contemporary readers. It is this fear, more perhaps than any other explored in the novel, which is relevant for modern readers. We can all think of comparisons in our society where we wish perhaps that scientists had not dabbled.
Despite Frankenstein’s reputation as a joke, with the all-too-common green bolt costume and the bloody lab coat, I would urge any reader interested in the Gothic genre to go and read it. Shelley’s novel reads as a counter-argument to the inherently human desire to want to explore more, go further and do more than people have done before, which is no less relevant today than it was 100 years ago. Although the physical horror can certainly be considered outdated, it is the psychological and ethical sides to this book which are so interesting: the fear of transgression, and the fear of its repercussions.