By Rachel Zalucki, E23 Reporter

200 years ago in 1818, an unremarkable book was published by an unremarkable woman, and critics expected it to be an inevitable flop. That woman was Mary Shelley and that book was the classic horror novel “Frankenstein.”

Since the Romantic period saw so few female authors and artists, many expected Shelley’s novel to be “emotional and nonsensical,” according to The Guardian. Upon its publication, many were shocked at the poignant tragedy of Dr. Frankenstein and his misguided creation. Some claimed her husband Percy had written it instead and allowed her to take credit, but according to the notebooks held by the Bodleian Library, he did no more than a simple line edit.

The novel was the result of Shelley challenging John Polidori to a competition to see who could write the better horror story, according to The Public Domain Review. Even today it’s hard to tell who was the rightful victor of this contest, seeing as Shelley’s “Frankenstein” would become a horror icon and Polidori would become the father of the “modern vampire.” Both works are famous for their literary innovation and influence, but Frankenstein was slightly more influential for frequently overshadowing its frightening monster with a larger discussion of how science and abuse intersect.

Cover drawing shows a hunched over monster in the woods

A cover of Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” (Image was cropped and used with permission by Flickr user “Christo Drummkopf.”)

In discussing the novel’s monster, the use of the name “Frankenstein” is often considered incorrect by critics and scholars alike, as the name refers to the doctor instead of the monster himself. However, many defend this choice, since the name has come to describe the failures of Dr. Frankenstein (i.e., the monster) as much as his successes. Because the parallels between Dr. Frankenstein and his creature show how alike they are, it would be almost incorrect to call him anything else. The monster himself admits, “I ought to be thy Adam, but I am rather the fallen angel.”

The original monster had yellow skin and long black hair, appearing to be much more attractive than any future descriptions. In fact, its only downside was its creepy eyes. The cartoonish green skin, the neck bolts and the strong forehead are all a result of Boris Karloff’s rendition of the monster in the 1930s version produced by Universal Pictures. The commercialization of Frankenstein’s creature into a slow, dim-witted monster from a beautiful, intelligent creation is interesting in itself but also undoubtedly vital to its status as a movie icon.

In popular culture, Frankenstein has become a very distinctive figure in horror, along with other “movie monsters” such as Dracula and the Wolfman. However, Frankenstein is often set apart from his peers in that his story is not rooted in ancient lore. His character is based on the traditional “man versus monster” conflict, but it is inherently unclear who serves what role. In a sense, “Frankenstein” was the first work to actively humanize its monster, similar to the recent film “The Shape of Water.”

On the other hand, Frankenstein also proposed the idea that sympathetic monsters are still monsters capable of violence and destruction. The monster experiences pain from negative human interactions, and through this pain, the monster learns to take control of his environment through his own violent action. The monster’s primary motivation to kill comes from a place of loneliness and frustration with his circumstances, but the negligence of his creator teaches him that violence is the quickest way to solve problems. Plus, it certainly doesn’t help that Dr. Frankenstein is probably one of the most amoral protagonists to come out of literature.

Unfortunately, the novel’s allegories of the destructive nature of humanity are erased in the film adaptations. In the 1931 movie, the monster had no speaking roles and was only depicted as a brainless abomination of science. Fans of the novel met this iteration with distaste because much of the intellect of the monster is what humanizes him and sets the novel apart as a masterpiece. The following movies and branding for “Frankenstein” completely ignored major plots points, but the simplification of the monster made him much more digestible to the masses. The creature’s internal conflict was — ironically — too reminiscent of the common man’s existential crisis, and the ‘30s were much less interested in questioning everything around them than the Romantic-era 1810s were. So while Frankenstein’s monster soared to fame and fortune, the qualities that humanized him were left behind.

As Frankenstein turns 200 this year, it is important to look at how the novel, and more so the monster, has impacted cinema and culture throughout its lifespan. “Frankenstein” has defined how we perceive monsters and how we relate to them, but it’s also worthy to note how Frankenstein’s glamorization could not coexist with the monster’s complexities. Nonetheless, Frankenstein will forever be a classic work of literature and a brilliant example of what truly defines a monster.

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