Frankenstein: 10 possible meanings

Frankenstein at the National Theatre

A global cinema audience will this week watch Danny Boyle's stage production of Frankenstein. It's the latest take on Mary Shelley's famous Gothic novel. But what's the book really about?

The idea emerged from a summer that didn't happen.

Due to the largest volcanic eruption for more than 1,600 years, in Indonesia in late 1815, the northern hemisphere was plunged into a freakishly cool and sunless summer the following year.

On the shores of Lake Geneva, the miserable weather kept five British tourists cooped up inside a villa for days, where they passed the time in a horror story-writing competition. The 19-year-old Mary Godwin, in Switzerland with poet Percy Shelley, envisioned "the hideous phantasm of a man" and turned her contribution into a novel published anonymously in 1818.

It told the story of a Swiss scientist, Victor Frankenstein, who is so horrified by the ugly creature he brings to life from assembled body parts that he abandons him, with terrible consequences.

Live screenings of Frankenstein

  • 17 March: Benedict Cumberbatch as Creature, Jonny Lee Miller as Victor Frankenstein
  • 24 March: Lee Miller as Creature, Cumberbatch as Frankenstein

Within a few years, the novel was being adapted for the stage, and in the 20th Century there were many memorable film versions that took the work in different directions. This week, a production by Slumdog Millionaire director Danny Boyle at London's National Theatre is being screened live to 400 venues in 22 countries.

Nearly 200 years after that sunless summer, the novel is considered a landmark work and every decade brings a new interpretation. Here is a selection - some include plot details.

1. Science can go too far

The term "Frankenstein foods" - applied to genetically modified products - suggests the name of the novel has become a byword for bad science. But this metaphor is unfair, says Angela Wright, a lecturer in Romantic literature at the University of Sheffield.

"There's evidence that she was very conversant with the scientists of her day. But she believed in the sanctity of human life and knew the work of Lawrence and Abernethy, who were working in Edinburgh in the 1810s in dissection theatres, on the re-animation of corpses. [Her husband] Percy Shelley was also very interested in that."

She thought these people had crossed a line, says Wright, but she had a lot of admiration for scientific thought in general.

2. Actions have consequences

Frankenstein on screen

Boris Karloff in the 1931 film Frankenstein
  • 1910: Thomas Edison makes first film
  • 1931: Boris Karloff (above) plays the monster
  • 1957-1974: Hammer Films produce a series of Frankenstein movies featuring Peter Cushing
  • 1974: Young Frankenstein parody by Mel Brooks
  • 1994: Kenneth Branagh's film returns to novel
  • 2011: Frankenstein's Wedding, BBC Three

It's not just the responsibility of creating life that Shelley wants to emphasise, says Wright, and this is clear in the letters of Robert Walton that frame the Frankenstein story - the wider narrative that is often overlooked.

Walton is the seafarer who rescues Frankenstein from an ice float deep in the Arctic, as the scientist pursues the monster. Encouraged by Frankenstein, the captain ignores the pleas of his crew to to turn back, actions that Shelley appears to condemn.

"Walton doesn't take responsibility for the safety of his men and that is criticised within the novel. He comes round but regretfully, simply because the atmospheric conditions are against him, not out of concern for his men.

"He seems to be a very shadowy double of Victor Frankenstein in many ways, because he pants for tales of romance and adventure in the same way."

3. Don't play God

"As suggested by the novel's subtitle, The Modern Prometheus, Victor Frankenstein is an example of the Romantic over-reacher, who transgresses boundaries between the human and the divine," says Marie Mulvey-Roberts, author of Dangerous Bodies: Corporeality and the Gothic.

According to Greek myth, Prometheus stole fire from the gods and gave it to man, and suffered eternal punishment. The sense that Frankenstein has pursued forbidden knowledge is further underlined by the references to Milton's Paradise Lost, a work the creature reads and recites. His rejection by his creator can be seen as a second Fall of Man.

4. A warning about freed slaves

A life among the literati

Mary Shelley
  • 1797: Born in London to two major literary figures, Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin
  • 1814: Meets one of father's acolytes, the married Percy Shelley, with whom she runs off to France
  • 1815: Gives birth prematurely and baby dies
  • 1816: Begins Frankenstein in wet summer on Lake Geneva with Shelley, Lord Byron and others
  • Dec 1816: Shelley's wife dies, he marries Mary
  • 1818: Frankenstein published
  • 1822: Percy Shelley dies
  • 1851: Dies after long writing career

Shelley was writing the novel a mere 10 years after the abolition of the slave trade in the British Empire, and she did so in Bath, not far from the port of Bristol, where many of the slaving ships departed the country. There are references to it in the novel, says Mulvey-Roberts.

"Frankenstein says he is enslaved to his work, and the creature escapes like a refugee slave, pursued by his master. But then there's a power shift, so you get a hegemonic master-slave dialectic where the slave is a master and the master is a slave to his work and to his obsession.

"Mary Shelley was certainly no supporter of slavery but she did not protest when [Foreign Secretary George] Canning used the analogy of the Frankenstein as a spectre warning of the danger of slaves being emancipated too quickly. In the novel when the creature assumes mastery, he causes mayhem leading to the loss of life."

5. Shelley's maternal guilt

Many critics think the novel is shaped by the tragic events in Shelley's own life. Her mother died days after she was born and Shelley herself lost her first child, born prematurely.

The first feminist interpretation of Frankenstein was by Ellen Moers, who read Shelley's novel as a sublimated afterbirth, says Diane Hoeveler, from Marquette University in Wisconsin, US.

"The author expels her own guilt both for having caused her mother's death and for having failed to produce a healthy son for Percy, as his legal wife Harriet had done three months earlier.

"For Moers, the novel's strength was to present the 'abnormal, or monstrous, manifestations of the child-parent tie' and in so doing, 'to transform the standard Romantic matter of incest, infanticide, and patricide into a phantasmagoria of the nursery'."

6. Post-natal depression

The rejected child

The novel can be read as a critique of the family as much as a longing for one. The monster can be seen as a way of coping with the loss of her mother shortly after Mary Shelley's birth as well as the loss of her own babies. It deals with the rejection, the lack of nurture - Victor's solitary male propagation.

Marie Mulvey-Roberts

The feminist movement has championed the elevation of Mary Shelley to canonical rank, says Prof John Sutherland, former Booker Prize judge and an expert on Victorian fiction. And there are moments when the creation appears to be presented as a birth and Victor Frankenstein as a stricken mother.

"It was on a dreary night of November, that I beheld the accomplishment of my toils... It was already one in the morning; the rain pattered dismally against the panes, and my candle was nearly burnt out, when, by the glimmer of the half-extinguished light, I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open; it breathed hard, and a convulsive motion agitated its limbs. How can I describe my emotions at this catastrophe, or how delineate the wretch whom with such infinite pains and care I had endeavoured to form?" (Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, Chapter five)

Is this, asks Sutherland, inventor's remorse or post-natal depression?

7. Monsters are not born monsters

Frankenstein at the National Theatre Boyle's production suggests the scientist is the real monster

The creature's initial innocence suggests you are not born a monster, says Vic Sage, a professor at the University of East Anglia who has written extensively on the Gothic tradition.

"When he looks into the pool and sees himself, you want to shout out at him 'You're not a monster, you're OK.'"

Many of the Hammer films didn't even give the monster a voice, he says, only capable of grunting the odd word.

"Even with [director] James Whale, it doesn't ever feel like history could ever be on Boris Karloff's side. They are thought to be great films but they missed the point of the book.

"Mary Shelley gave him a voice. It's great that he talks like an 18th Century philosopher because then you have this disparity between his appearance and his speech, which tests the viewer."

8. Difference should be celebrated, not shunned

Today's society has a greater understanding of the notion of difference, says Dr Sage, so the scene where Frankenstein rejects his creation, so repulsed is he by his disfigurement, has a wider resonance.

"Everyone reading it now knows that she's dramatising difference in the most absolute way possible. Differences in race and class. That's why it's very important to think that the creature is a creature and not a monster, and that he has a voice."

9. Vive la revolution

The violence of Irish nationalism

Within decades of the book's publication, the central theme was picked up by cartoonists and used satirically, says Chris Baldick, author of In Frankenstein's Shadow: Myth, Monstrosity and Nineteenth-Century Writing.

In 1843, a cartoon entitled The Irish Frankenstein appeared in Punch, and depicted Irish political leader Daniel O'Connell being threatened by a thuggish Irish peasant.

Forty years later, Charles Parnell appeared in the same magazine after the Phoenix Park murders, cowering from a simian-looking creature.

The inference in both cartoons was that the politicians had helped to create a monster.

Frankenstein's creature has been interpreted as symbolic of the revolutionary thought which had swept through Europe in the 1790s, but had largely petered out by the time Shelley wrote the novel.

Critics said the creature's failure to prosper and the havoc unleashed was evidence that Shelley was anti-revolution, unlike her radical parents and husband, and supportive of the old order.

But by applying modern values to the narrative, it is clear that the failings lie with man, the creator, and not the creature, says Dr Sage.

"That's the notorious riddle: Who is the 'new Prometheus' of the title - Victor or his creature? You can read into it that it's a failure of the revolution that he represents, but only if you don't have the psychological and social attitudes of today."

10. Christian allegory

The book is really a dialogue between reactionary and progressive points of view, says Sage, and this applies to the question of the presence of Milton and the Christian story - the treatment of the Fall - which it puts under the glass.

"The creature has read Milton but, as he says, he feels more like the fallen angel than Adam in that story, because he has to play the part of the outcast. Mary Shelley dramatises the conflict between the Romantic view of Satan as a Promethean hero, out to take God's place, which was the projection of a set of male poets - Blake, Shelley, Byron and Goethe, for example - and the havoc that such idealistic projects wreak domestically, in people's actual lives."

Here is a selection of readers' new meanings for Frankenstein.

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