Mary Shelley’s magnum opus, Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, has captivated audiences for over two centuries. Published in 1818, when Shelley was just 21 years old, the novel is a deeply-layered work that has cemented its place as one of the most memorable Gothic novels of all time. The book’s dark, foreboding atmosphere, psychologically complex characters, and timeless themes continue to resonate with modern readers. In this article, we will explore the dark allure of Frankenstein and reveal why it is still considered a gothic masterpiece.
The Birth of a Legend
Frankenstein’s origin story is as fascinating as the book itself. It is well-known that Mary Shelley conceived the idea during a trip to Lake Geneva with her husband, the great poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, and their friend Lord Byron. The trio was discussing the idea of reanimation when a competition was proposed - to write the most terrifying horror story. That fateful night, Mary had a dream about a scientist who created a monster, and the seeds of Frankenstein were sown. Little did she know that her tale would become one of the most enduring horror stories of all time.
A Rich Tapestry of Gothic Elements
Shelley’s novel is a classic example of Gothic literature, a genre characterized by its emphasis on atmosphere, emotions, and the supernatural. The dark and eerie settings in Frankenstein - from the stormy Orkney Islands to the frigid wastes of the Arctic - create an atmosphere of dread and foreboding that is central to the Gothic style. This gothic atmosphere can also be found in other works such as Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights and Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre.
The novel is also remarkable for its innovative structure. The narrative unfolds through a series of letters and narratives, a literary technique known as “Chinese boxes” or “framed narratives.” This complex structure serves to heighten suspense and emphasize the theme of isolation that permeates the novel.
Characters that Transcend Time
Victor Frankenstein, the doomed scientist who creates the monster, is a fascinating and deeply flawed character. Haunted by his ambitious quest for knowledge, and the terrible consequences it brings, Victor is a tragic figure whose hubris ultimately leads to his downfall. His story serves as a cautionary tale about the dangers of unchecked ambition and the perils of playing god.
The Creature, often mistakenly referred to as “Frankenstein” instead of its creator, is one of the most memorable and haunting characters in literature. Its hideous exterior belies a gentle soul, longing for love and acceptance. However, the Creature’s rejection by society, and its creator, drives it to seek vengeance. The Creature’s struggle to understand its own existence and the world around it resonates with readers, making it a poignant and deeply sympathetic character.
Timeless Themes that Resonate with Modern Readers
Despite being written over two centuries ago, Frankenstein continues to attract readers because of its timeless themes. One of its most central themes is the moral and ethical implications of scientific advancement. Through Victor’s catastrophic experiment, Shelley explores the limits of human knowledge, asking whether there are some things that humanity should not seek to understand. This theme can also be found in works such as Goethe’s Faust, which deals with the struggle between good and evil.
Another theme that resonates with modern readers is the idea of loneliness and isolation. Both Victor and the Creature suffer from extreme isolation - Victor because of his obsessive pursuit of knowledge, and the Creature due to its monstrous appearance. Their respective plights serve as a reminder of the importance of human connection, and the consequences of living without it.
Finally, the novel also deals with questions of nature versus nurture. The Creature is initially kind and innocent, but it becomes violent as it is shaped by the hatred and rejection it faces from society. This debate about whether individuals are born evil or become evil through their experiences remains relevant today, particularly in discussions surrounding criminal behavior and punishment.
The dark allure of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein lies in its rich tapestry of Gothic elements, the psychologically complex characters of Victor and the Creature, and the timeless themes that continue to resonate with modern readers. Over two centuries after its publication, this Gothic masterpiece continues to captivate audiences, and provoke thought and discussion about the nature of humanity, the implications of scientific progress, and the importance of love and compassion.