Frankenstein and the Modern Zeitgeist

Like many women writers, when I think of my early influences, I can’t help but reminisce on my first encounter with Mary Shelley’s seminal novel Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus. Shelley first published the book anonymously as this was a time when female authors faced vast discrimination and many successful women writers typically took a male nom de plume.

Since the epistolary novel was published on January 1, 1818, it has been the subject of extensive literary analytics. LSQ’s own Sara Amis ably chronicled the novel’s creation.

Any discussion of the women who pioneered the literary landscape of genre fiction must recognize this masterpiece. Shelley’s influence is too vast across the landscape to be ignored, so before I delve into the many women whose creativity broke barriers in the 20th century, which led to the explosion of new female voices now reshaping science fiction and fantasy, I just had to salute the influence of this epic tale. The many ways that her characters have penetrated the cultural landscape helped carved out the earliest path for so many of us to follow.

Thanks, Mary, for sharing with us your vision, thus expanding the road for generations of science fiction writers to follow. Inspired to reread the tale or try it for the first time? There are many free sources of her work on the web, but here’s a link to the mammoth Gutenberg site.

There are multiple days in which to celebrate the story, beginning of course with the author’s birthday. Here’s a link to Cheryl Wollner’s post in which she shared birthday wishes. Other days to celebrate the character include the moveable feast of Frankenstein Friday, the last Friday in October, and the set calendar date of October 29.

However, one of the best times to read the book is just after the New Year, when the holidays have past. The bleak landscape of winter with its snowy scenes and howling winds invokes memories of reading one of the book’s most iconic scenes. The crew of a ship is stuck in the ice while on a voyage to explore the North Pole. They see the large hulking shadow of a man before rescuing Dr. Victor Frankenstein, who is starving and nearly frozen to death in pursuit of that man, his monster.

Arguably one of the most influential female writers of her generation, Mary Shelley rewrote the cultural mythos with this one tale. Her monster stands as a cultural icon in a limelight as bright as Melville’s white whale. Dr. Victor Frankenstein’s ongoing struggle with his creation echoes in cultural influence with Ahab’s pursuit of his quarry, except for the argument that in Shelley’s novel, both creature and creator are driven to and by madness.

Shelley’s characters are now part of the political lexicon. The monster is frequently invoked in politics as a criticism of politicians who break free of handlers and the mad scientist meme is often referenced in relation to environmental disaster.

Frankenstein’s reach extends to every genre. Portrayals flow from the fine and performing arts to film, television, and every corner of electronic media. Not a year goes by without a cinematic reinterpretation. The work has been turned into both a symphony and a heavy metal rock opera:

In dance, Liam Scarlett’s full length ballet was staged at the Royal Opera House in London in 2016.

Comic send-ups of the characters have moved from movie cartoons to television shows. At the movies, Looney Tunes saluted the character along with others in 1938’s “Have You Got Any Castles.” In 1946’s “Hair-Raising Hare,” Bugs Bunny meets a character based on the monster. The original character was nameless, but it was later named Gossamer as the character came into its own.

On television, cartoon shows have embraced the monster. The Simpsons has referenced Shelley’s work in multiple episodes, such as this scene in which the monster plays basketball:

In “Total Rickall,” an episode of Rick and Morty, an interstellar parasite attempts to control Rick’s mind by implanting a false “memory” of Rick serving in the Vietnam War with the Monster.

In print comics, Shelley’s legacy persists as well. Archie Comics featured a “Frankie” issue in February 1965. In November 2017, Archie Comics launched a digital feature, “Franken 9.

Shelley’s characters have been so embraced by the zeitgeist that they have become endearing, inspiring, warm memories of childhood. For how many decades have kids dressed up as Dr. Frankenstein or (more likely) the monster for Halloween? What kid from Generation X onward doesn’t remember the Monster Breakfast cereals launched by General Mills in 1971? In that series, Frankenberry is dedicated to the monster, while Boo Berry features a generic ghost, and of course Count Chocula salutes Dracula.

From the twentieth century onward, many of the modern reinterpretations of the work take strong influence from James Whale’s movies Frankenstein, as well as his sequel, Bride of Frankenstein. Here, the monster meets his “bride,” who rejects him at first sight:

Whale’s movies included his own additions to the Frankenstein mythos. The movies used timely props such as the Tesla coil. Choreography of the legendary “Frankenstein walk” came from the Whale moves, as did the open sympathy for the monster as a substitute for the “other” in a time of cultural constriction. Shelley’s novel provided Whale with an apt metaphor for the persecution increasingly faced by many marginalized groups in the 1930s under the rising tide of fascism. All of these elements result from the novel’s power and depth, which allows it to be open to reinterpretation.

No salute could be complete without recognizing Gene Wilder’s Young Frankenstein, which sends up the Whale movies. The movie later spawned its own musical tribute, seen here:

While the film and television adaptations have introduced the book to many generations, one character, Igor the assistant, was not in Shelley’s original work. However, this character is inexorably linked to the Frankenstein genre as a spinoff creation. In Whale’s movies, Dr. Frankenstein had an assistant named Fritz. In 1939, Rowland Lee filmed Son of Frankenstein as a sequel to Bride of Frankenstein. That movie introduced Ygor, played by screen icon Bela Lugosi. The character so captured the imagination that he became a cultural icon himself, ably spoofed by comic genius Marty Feldman in Young Frankenstein. Most recently, Igor got his own feature length cartoon treatment, voiced by John Cusack, in 2008’s eponymous film.

Full disclosure: I discovered the book after watching the films and cartoon versions. I then used those reinterpretations to introduce the book to my own children. I wrote a bit of flash fiction based on my experiences reading and watching with my kids, which can be read here.

The book’s influence is so vast across time and format and so continuous into the present day that a definitive catalogue could encompass volumes. Ultimately, the best way to measure its impact is to return to source material and to share new interpretations with generations to come.