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It’s Alive! Frankenstein at 200

By: Daniel Ross Goodman
January 29, 2019

 classic, Mark Twain once said, is a book that everyone wants to but nobody has actually read. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is one of the few classics that many people have actually read. A staple of high school and college English curricula, Shelley’s mesmerizing story about an ambitious scientist who creates human life—and the havoc that ensues as a result of his creation—has become entrenched in popular culture and our collective consciousness in ways unrivaled in literature, with the possible exceptions of Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde. Perpetually commented upon, ceaselessly adapted, and endlessly parodied, the impact of Frankenstein is difficult to overstate. Its legacy can be felt in multiple genres—horror, literary fiction, and science fiction (a genre it invented)—in multiple mediums—art, theater, film, television, and even comic books—and in our everyday discourse as well: foods made with GMOs (genetically modified organisms) are sometimes referred to as “Frankenfoods,” and the novel is frequently invoked whenever the specter of cloning, genetic engineering, and the regeneration of organs through stem cells and DNA are discussed. With the remarkable influence and undying endurance of Mary Shelley’s masterpiece showing no signs of abating, the two hundredth anniversary of its publication is a propitious time to review its legacy and celebrate its vast cultural and artistic achievements.

“It’s Alive! Frankenstein at 200” is by far the best exhibition on an author or work of literature I have ever seen. The Morgan Library in New York has put together an exhibition worthy of Frankenstein’s monumental legacy. “It’s Alive!” spans two full galleries and covers nearly every facet of Frankenstein’s creation, context, and cultural contributions.

The first gallery introduces us to the cultural context—a Western European world in which romanticism and gothic art were gaining sway—within which Mary Shelley (née Godwin) lived and wrote. The exhibition leads off with Henry Fuseli’s The Nightmare, a proto-surrealist painting depicting a sleeping woman in a white dress sprawled across her bed while a hideous demon crouches on top of her and an unusually expressive horse lurks in the background. Shelley almost certainly knew about The Nightmare before she began her work on Frankenstein, and there is a strong likelihood that the painting was one of the primary influences upon the novel. Fuseli, an Anglo-Swiss artist, was known to Shelley’s mother. In the novel, when the monster murders Victor’s wife Elizabeth on their wedding night, Shelley’s description of Elizabeth reads as an almost exact description of the prostrate woman in Fuseli’s painting.   

The next segment of the show presents an overview of the scientific context into which Shelley was born, one in which a growing interest in chemistry, anatomy, and especially electricity was beginning to dominate European scientific pursuits. Shelley writes of Dr. Frankenstein stitching his creation together from limbs of corpses (the creature was quite tall, proportional in limbs, but horrible-looking—Dr. Frankenstein was a surgeon but not a plastic surgeon), but the novel tells us almost nothing about how Dr. Frankenstein actually reanimated the monster. But there is a strong indication that some form of electricity was involved: Dr. Frankenstein wishes to “infuse a spark of being” into the creature. Display cases show us examples of the tools that would have been available to Dr. Frankenstein in the 1770s (roughly when the novel takes place): prototypes of the very first electric battery, then called a “voltaic pile” (named after the Italian scientist Alessandro Volta, from whom we get the term “voltage”), the first electrostatic generator, an early induction coil, and a painting of the alchemist who discovered phosphorous. In another display case we see the typical surgeon’s kit from the time, replete with scalpels, syringes, blades, and saws for cutting skulls.

The next portion of the exhibit, which includes portraits of Shelley’s parents, Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin, presents us with an overview of Mary Shelley’s life. Wollstonecraft and Godwin were both rebellious, free-thinking, free-loving intellectuals; Wollstonecraft penned the first major tract on feminism, A Vindication of the Rights of Women (1790), and had a child out of wedlock before she met William. Godwin, for his part, was an atheist and anarchist who advocated the abolition of government and institutional religion, both of which he believed interfered with people’s natural rights.

In 1814, Percy Bysshe Shelley, the famous romantic poet, met Mary Godwin. Soon after, Percy and Mary eloped to Paris. In the summer of 1816, they settled in Switzerland and rented a small house next to Lord Byron’s by Lake Geneva. One day, Byron challenged Mary and Percy to a ghost story-telling competition. Mary’s came to her in a “twilight, dream-like state” (she tells this origin story in the preface to the third edition of Frankenstein). The novel was published in 1818—Mary wrote it when she was only eighteen—and it hasn’t been out of print since. The gallery contains a copy of the original 1818 edition, and paintings of some of the sublime Swiss landscapes relevant to the novel’s creation and to the novel itself.

The second gallery covers the cultural legacy of her “hideous progeny,” as Mary Shelley termed Frankenstein. On view are pictures of the first actor to play the monster on stage (Thomas P. Cooke, in London in 1823), and pictures and video installations of James Whale’s 1931 film, which is responsible for creating the flat-headed, green-faced, bolt-necked “Frankenstein” that came to define our collective image of the monster. One of the centerpieces of this gallery is an original six-sheet poster (that is, an extra-large-sized old-fashioned movie poster) of Whale’s successful (and also influential) 1935 sequel, “Bride of Frankenstein.” Other items of note include the wig created for Elsa Lanchester for her role as the monster’s bride in the 1935 film, a bust of Robert DeNiro made up as the monster for his role in Kenneth Branaugh’s faithful 1994 adaptation of the novel, and eight original movie posters of various Frankenstein adaptations from across film history, spanning work from Andy Warhol to Ed Wood. (At two hundred-plus films and counting, Frankenstein is easily one of the most adapted literary works of all time.) The gallery even includes a small sampling of the many Frankenstein-related comic books published over the years. And no Frankenstein multimedia exhibit would be complete without a sampling from Mel Brooks’ hilarious 1974 classic Young Frankenstein, which the Morgan’s Frankenstein exhibit—or should we say “FRAHNK-en-steen” (as Gene Wilder’s Dr. Frankenstein insists it be)—thankfully provides. 

Beyond the endless popular culture portrayals what has made Frankenstein so enduring? In addition to its captivating dramatization of timeless themes, the novel has also captured the hearts and minds of its readers because it resonates with us on a deeply rooted mythical and theological level, something which the exhibition only hints at. “Its Alive!” contains excerpts from the three works of literature which the creature uses to teach himself English: Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther, C. F. Volney’s Ruins of Empire, and Milton’s Paradise Lost. The last of this trio is the most significant; Shelley tells us so herself by having chosen a verse from it as her epigraph for the novel, which indicates that she saw Frankenstein as not merely a gothic horror story or work of proto-science fiction but as a theological narrative sharing company with Milton’s biblical epic. Like Paradise Lost, a “midrash” (creative interpretation and expansion) of the story of the creation of Adam and Eve and of the fallen angel Satan whom God shunned, Frankenstein tells the story of the creation of a new life who is also spurned by his creator. And by choosing to subtitle her novel “The Modern Prometheus” (Prometheus was the mythological Greek hero who stole fire from the gods but was punished for his discovery), Shelley also positioned Frankenstein as a work of modern mythology, a tale about a fictional Swiss scientist who comes upon the greatest medical-technological breakthrough in human history but must face harsh repercussions for his incredible invention. 

Its ability to tap into the deepest and most ancient aspects of our collective cultural consciousness—to link itself to the foundational narratives of Athens and Jerusalem, the Greco-Roman and Judeo-Christian pillar-stones upon which Western Civilization has been built—has allowed Frankenstein to resonate in the West. And not only in the West: as the recent Iraqi novel Frankenstein in Baghdad and a Persian translation of The Apprenticeship of Victor Frankenstein (which debuted last year in Iran) demonstrate, its influence is global. The promise and perils of scientific exploration, the dangers of obsession and ambition, the psychological trauma inflicted when parents shun their children—and the spiritual trauma inflicted when God turns away His face from His creations—and the dream to create life and revive the dead are perennial preoccupations which provoke our fears and animate our ambitions. Frankenstein the monster may have been given life by an electric spark, but Frankenstein the cultural touchstone is given new life every day by each and every one of us, whenever we worry about “designer babies” and whether scientific experimentations are going too far, whenever we allow our ambitions and obsessions to get the best of us, whenever we wonder whether evil is a product of nature or nurture, whenever we wish that our parents had loved us more, and whenever we wonder why it is that God has seemingly abandoned us. Frankenstein lives, because we live: it lives in our highest hopes and in our most fanciful dreams, in our greatest sorrows and deepest fears.