With Halloween next week, you’ll be seeing a lot of costumes or costume-adjacent clothing in the coming days. One popular character that you’re definitely going to see at least one iteration of is Frankenstein’s Monster. Also known as The Creature, this character has had amazing longevity in literature and pop culture.
Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus, came to be as the result of a friendly bet. Shelley, along with her husband Percy and their friend Lord Bryon, decided to have a competition over who could write the best horror novel. The rest, as they say, was literary history. And, since I doubt anyone could name the other submissions, it’s fair to say Shelley won.
From the classic Universal Monster movies to lighthearted takes on the Creature, such as Fred Gwynne’s Herman Munster, as well as diverse takes like the film Angry Black Girl and Her Monster, the Creature strode his way through the decades and is still as present now as he was then.
But why has the book and, by extension, the Creation had such a long-lasting impression? What is it about this particular tale that makes it as widely read today as it was back when it was originally published?
First of Its Kind
One of the main reasons that this book has stood the test of time is due to it being the first science fiction book. Yes, horror elements are still there because that was the original intention behind the manuscript. While it would be fair to classify it as sci-fi horror if you wanted to be super nit-picky, most agree that in terms of the sci-fi genre, it was the first. That alone has contributed to its longevity. The fact that it was written by a woman makes it even more of one.
However, the Creature was a unique force of his own. And when you factor in how young Mary Shelley was when she wrote it? That is impressive in and of its own. (Bram Stoker wrote Dracula, another classic supernatural entity, at 50). Frankenstein is also one of the few instances where science and not an act of a god was used to create something that was essentially a humanoid.
The Idea of Playing God
The prominent theme of Frankenstein is using science to create something outside the normal ways, or an act of playing god. This is also arguably the first time that someone in literature legitimately made life outside the ways one normally would. Victor’s desire to do this is a form of hubris, but there will be more on that later.
Frankenstein’s endeavor also contributes to why this story is still discussed today. This type of scientific manipulation is still present in a good number of stories today, including the story of eugenics (both fiction and reality). The idea behind eugenics is to manipulate genetic qualities to create the ‘perfect’ specimen, which is what Victor claimed to be trying to do. While it didn’t work out for him and is generally discredited today, it is still present in a good majority of the media we consume, such as the works of Octavia E. Butler’s works and Gattaca.
The Cautionary Tale Of Hubris
And lastly, we come to hubris, both the way it is used and how that has helped contribute to Frankenstein’s long-lasting cultural endurance. Shelley did not invent the concept of hubris, as that was around long before she put quill to parchment. There are tons of myths out there that show what happens when you step out of those lines or take blessings for granted. Think of the eviction from the Garden of Eden, Bellerophon and Pegasus, or even the Monkey King. One thing all these stories have in common is that they were about someone blessed by their respective deities who tried to push against the boundaries set out for them and then found themselves being harshly punished.
If we’re to consider that Victor’s high level of intelligence is a boon from a high being, the idea of him using that to act as a creator was seen as an affront to them. This is only amplified by Victor’s overinflated sense of pride in thinking he could act as a god and make life. He went in assuming that he could handle his creation, only to be disgusted by what he created.
When Victor rejected the Creature that he decided to make, he reacted in a very human way: by wanting to hurt Victor back. While it is a type of cautionary tale, it is one in that it was Victor’s hubris and pride that led to his downfall and, ultimately, the death of his loved ones.
As with anything, there are limitless opinions as to why the Creature and Victor have remained culturally relevant for so long. There are no right or wrong answers, but these are just some of the reasons that it has stuck with me. It is one of those rare classics that truly, the more you re-read it, the more you discover.