Gothic, Novels, Science Fiction

Frankenstein: The Most Misread Novel?

Start with the basics: there is a world of difference between Mary Shelley’s original 1818 novel Frankenstein and the countless films that have been inspired by it. Even Kenneth Branagh’s 1994 adaptation, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, adds much to Shelley’s original vision and in doing so takes much away. Its title may signal fidelity to the original, but it ends up performing a hatchet-job on Shelley’s book, and is led to desperate attempts to stitch together the disparate pieces to form a coherent, and living, whole. The result is, if not quite a monster, then at least a mess.


But then the book is always accompanied by misreadings or misapprehensions, such as the famous conflation of the creator with the (unnamed) creature (so people talk of ‘Frankenstein’ instead of Frankenstein’s monster), or the belief that the creator is ‘Doctor Frankenstein’ (not so: in the book he is but a humble student). It is a famous book which everyone knows or thinks s/he knows, but perhaps it is the most famous book that is not read.

Shelley was just a teenager when she began writing it, in 1816. The circumstances of its genesis are well known: in 1815 the volcano known as Mount Tambora, in Indonesia, erupted, causing a drop in the average global temperature of around 0.5 degrees Celsius. This led to a subsequent failure of many crops. 1816 was ‘The Year Without a Summer’ (Byron documented the event in his poem ‘Darkness’). Shelley, along with her poet-husband Percy Bysshe, went to stay at Lake Geneva with none other than Byron, and a young man named John Polidori. To occupy the time, the four of them held a competition to see who could come up with the best ghost story. From this event, we got not only what is arguably the first science fiction novel, Frankenstein, but the first vampire novel too (Polidori’s The Vampyre, which appeared in 1819, a year after Frankenstein).

But what is Frankenstein really about? It is often cited as a moral fable about the dangers of playing God, of being a sort of Prometheus figure, he who in Greek mythology stole fire from the gods and gave it to man (indeed, the novel’s subtitle is The Modern Prometheus). This is undoubtedly part of the novel’s message, but it took a scientist to clear away the science-fiction element of the story and show its main theme. He was Stephen Jay Gould (1941-2002), the palaeontologist and evolutionary biologist, who wrote an article on Frankenstein in the July 1994 issue of Natural History (Gould wrote a monthly column in the magazine for many decades). Gould argued that the novel was not really about the dangers of playing God by creating a human life, for that is not what makes the creature turn into a monster. It is Frankenstein’s subsequent rejection of the creature he has made which leads to the creature’s violent and destructive behaviour. As Gould puts it: ‘Victor [Frankenstein]’s sin does not lie in misuse of technology, or hubris in emulating God; we cannot find these themes in Mary Shelley’s account. Victor failed because he followed a predisposition of human nature – visceral disgust at the monster’s appearance – and did not undertake the duty of any creator or parent: to teach his own charge and to educate others in acceptability’ (see Gould, Dinosaur in a Haystack, p. 61). The novel is not about bad science, but bad parenting.

The 1987 single by British group T’Pau, ‘China in Your Hand’, is about Shelley’s novel. The song’s opening line – ‘It was a theme she had on a scheme he had told in a foreign land’ – points to the story’s own origins (Mary and Percy Shelley sitting around with Byron in Switzerland making up ghost stories). Other lines from the song reveal deeper parallels: ‘Come from greed, never born of the seed, took a life from a barren hand,’ as Carol Decker sings. ‘To take life on earth to the second birth and the man was in command’: in lines like this, the parallels between Frankenstein and the song really are made manifest. They also show that T’Pau saw the novel’s true message. Perhaps the subsequent work of art which is closest to Shelley’s original theme is not any of the films, but this song.


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  6. Reblogged this on Grandtrines and commented:
    My favorite is “Young Frankenstein.” I would address the lesson of that film, but I might have to mention the word “Schwanzstücker.” Therefore, I won’t do that.

  7. Reblogged this on Jude's Threshold and commented:
    ‘Fraid I’ll have to stick with ‘bad science’!

  8. Pingback: Five Fascinating Facts about Mary Shelley | Interesting Literature

  9. There’s definately a lot to learn about this issue.
    I likje alll of the points you made.

  10. I don’t think anyone has mentioned that there are five versions of the original manuscripts! If you want to read an excellent introduction to how the story evolved get a copy of Frankenstein publ by Broadview Literary Text, edited by DL Macdonald and K. Scherf.(1994) It has the longer 1818 text and although fascinating to read is rather turgid and long-winded. The shorter versions were probably edited to make the story more readable.

  11. Look at recent events just before Mary wrote this fantastic novel. French Revolution which overthrew monarchy handed down from God and replaced it with a Republic – ‘Thing of the people’. Don’t mess with God or Nature folks, or else look what you get.

  12. Pingback: Frankenstein

  13. The whole thing about the bad-parenting theme is perhaps a little ironic given Mary’s persistent tragedies with her own children (only one of four survived childhood) and Byron’s own infidelities and love child(ren). In fact, I often wonder if therein somewhere lies the true origins of the tale. With regard to the song reference, I’d never heard ‘China in Your Hand’ before, despite being an 80’s adolescent, so I had a look on YouTube. If you hadn’t explained the lyrical connection, there is no way I would have seen this video in a Frankenstein context, to be honest. I mean, after reading your article, I was expecting a far more Gothic flavour to the video – a bit more ‘Bauhaus’ or ‘Siouxsie and the Banshees’ or something… Nevertheless, very thought-provoking article.

  14. Great read. Love the blinking Frankenstein monster graphic. insightful comments too. Glad I found your blog, or rather, that you found mine. A refreshing change from my usual obsession with our current political dystopia and the brain-dead zombies that inhabit it’s comment threads. Thanks.

  15. Great essay, very interesting! I hate to be too hard on Ms. Shelley, but I think we might be giving her too much credit in reading in the novel a cautionary tale for creators to nurture their offspring instead of the more conventional reading as a warning about the hazards of plunging headlong into discovery. After all, it’s not only the subtitle that argues for this reading, but also the framing device with Captain Walton and his crew. Victor’s shortcomings are, I have to say, probably as much to do with Shelley’s poor plotting (convenient fainting spells in your protagonist amount to deus ex machine in my opinion) as to a lurking secondary theme. But then again…perhaps Shelley was trying to comment on Prometheus as well. If it is a warning about tending the garden of your own creation, then might not Victor’s scientific infringement be the titan’s fault, too? Do the gods share the blame for what we miscreate? Am I out on a limb now or what?

  16. I actually loved the book…getting inside the “creator’s” mind and emotions in a way that no movie can illustrate. I love the comment above (though it is a simplified version” that Victor Frankenstein was a deadbeat dad…very clever…

  17. Very good post with a great reading of the classic. Have you read Susan Lederer’s Frankenstein? It was the book that went along with the exhibit at the National History of Medicine Museum. It also is a good read!

  18. Excellent post. For some parents, having a child is a vanity project that loses its appeal when caring for him/her gets to be too daunting. Victor Frankenstein was a deadbeat dad!

  19. Thank you for writing about this. I have always related to the bad parenting theme of this book; how the rejection, heartbreak, and loneliness results in violence. This theme is so “everyday” critical. I know that I often made the Frankenstein mistake as a parent.

  20. Hi, not a lot to add here but I did want to say what a good piece I thought this was (good discussion too). It’s surprisingly rare to read a piece on Frankenstein that comes across as being by someone who’s actually read the book, not read an expectation of the book based on the very different films (the 1931 version owes far more to early German silent The Golem than it does to anything Shelley wrote).

    I have seen the stage version (as a film broadcast) and they do capture the central element of rejection there, as well as building on that duality theme some have mentioned.

  21. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen “The Bride” (1985), but I recall a similar theme in that movie. Sting played the Frankenstein character as a driven, egotistical, creator who despised his creations. I remember a scene in which he rejects a point that his lovely creation (played by Jennifer Beals of “Flashdance” fame) makes; he treats her with great condescension, after which she proceeds to prove him wrong. His other “monster” is treated even worse. The theme of the creator turning on his creation(s) is an interesting one with obvious echoes in Christianity and other religions.

    I wonder how much of the original book is meant as a critique of Christianity or at the very least of an Old Testament God, one who’s quick to turn against His imperfect creations? This is all from (deep) memory, so please forgive any inaccuracies. But it seems to me that the “monsters” are innocents and the good doctor (or student, as the case may be) is the one who warps them by rejecting them. In that sense, “The Bride” captures an important aspect of the original book.

  22. Yes! Thank you for making this point. I love this book and hate how misunderstood it is. I wrote a recent blog post about it, focusing on how I think Victor’s selfish impulsivity is what did him in. If you care to read it, here’s the link:
    Anyway, great post!

  23. After my AP students finish Gardner’s Grendel we’ll head over to Frankenstein and I would like to refer to your blog as added background on the novel. Thanks for the insights.
    Sadly enough there are no true representations of the novel. However, it’s difficult to abstain at least one scene from Young Frankenstein (putting on the Ritz ;)

  24. I actually think the story is largely Mary Shelley’s commentary/critique on Biblical theology. Frankenstein’s rejection of his ‘imperfect’ monster is a metaphor for God’s rejection of ‘imperfect’ Mankind in the Garden of Eden, who is then left to fend for him/herself to find out the meaning of life. Shelley tells the story in such a way to demonstrate the injustice of this rejection. I believe this interpretation is most plausible when taken in the context of the ‘Byronic’ culture of which she was a part, where rationalism was replacing religious doctrine and life was seen as basically meaningless.

    • That’s intriguing – especially given the influence of Milton’s Paradise Lost on Frankenstein, which supports your interpretation. I’ll have to go away and research that a bit more I think. Certainly, given her husband’s well-known atheism, Mary Shelley was engaging in theological debates on a regular basis with those around her – and she does even refer to the creature as ‘Adam’ somewhere… Thanks for the thought-provoking comment!

  25. Wow! I really enjoyed your post. I’ve always thought that maybe all Frankenstein’s creature needed was a little bit of love and acceptance.
    Thanks for the following me too.

  26. I enjoyed this immensely. I had to stop and ponder: “Gould argued that the novel was not really about the dangers of playing God by creating a human life, for that is not what makes the creature turn into a monster.” It made me think about how many times it is not the actual person/thing that holds the negativity so much as what One does/doesn’t do to utilize it properly. However, often the blame is placed where it may not have originated from due to the lack of time taken to really look beneath the surface. Thanks for stopping by and I look forward to reading more in the future.

    • Thanks Joy! I completely agree: it’s true that the novel conveys a wider message about humanity (and inhumanity). It’s a truly great book, and to think she was relatively young and inexperienced when she wrote it (though I suppose she’d lived more than many eighteen year-olds) makes it all the more remarkable.

  27. I don’t think we’ll find the monster is given any name in this work, and remains “the mosnter” or the equivalent throughout. More recent interpretation has led toward the idea of the double, in the sense that Frankenstein precedes Jekyll and Hyde by suggesting a double for Victor Frankenstein himself. That is,,Frankenstein himself harbors kinship with the monster itself in terms of his rejection and cold-heartedness, leading the monster to greatly over-react in a sort of adult’s (or large creature’s) tantrum, from which he does his horrific acts. This view brings Shelley’s work much closer to a profound view of human nature (which of course the horror films completely overlook). for our own time Mary Shelley may turn out to be the most relevant and significant figure of the famous group which included her husband.
    The monster not only springs out of Frankenstein as the creator, but also mirrors him.

    • The Romantics did have an eerie and profound fascination with the double. Dostoevsky did (eg. his novel ‘The Double’). The Scottish writer James Hogg’s Confessions of a Justified Sinner is a perfect example of the horrific and demonic use of the double motif. And one of the finest songs of the era, Schubert’s Der Doppelgänger (lyrics by Heinrich Heine) sums up for me the atmosphere, the psychological tension and terror associated with this concept.

      I agree that Shelley uses these themes with the monster and Victor Frankenstein; it is what makes the monster truly terrifying. Of course, this then links back to the idea of the monster as ‘child’ – for isn’t one’s offspring the ultimate mirror of its creator? A child reflects what its parents are and did to it. The monster reflects the worst parts of Frankenstein and in a very real sense, it IS the worst parts of Frankenstein (his lack of care, his inhuman side in creating something inhuman).

  28. I’ve heard a lot about the original story but haven’t managed to get around to reading it yet – shall have to crack it open and hopefully not misread it!
    Wonder how the image of Frankenstein as a green square headed human-like monster with bolts in his head came to be…

    • I think the ‘green monster’ image (complete with the neck-bolt) was largely the fault of Hollywood in the 1930s (particularly the Boris Karloff film), but I’ll have to seek out a reputable source for that info. Bet there are a few good books on it! Will let you know if I find a good one. The novel is a great read though. Happy reading!

  29. You followed me therefore I’ve followed you and what a treasure I’ve found!!!!!!!!!!Thank you a billion times for your perceptive post. As for all the neglectful parents out there, BEWARE. People kill. Treat your children well and live by the Golden Rule. Mary Shelley must be laughing in her heaven at the different misinterpretations of her ghost story and no royalties in sight! Not even from Mel Brooks.

  30. When is a story not about another? I think you’re really onto something here. Stories tend to be autobiographical regardless of content. Shelley, despite her intentions in writing Frankenstein, was herself subject to an incredibly tough patch in her teenage years. Even if her father was not to blame for this, he must not have, in Shelley’s eyes, done anything to protect her. A failure of parenting. Well! I’m not telling you anything, you’ve got it sussed. :D
    Thank you for providing this perspective; until now I supposed Shelley had grabbed whatever themes she could to work with in order to scare the pants off that arrogant Lord Byron.

    • Thanks for such an insightful response to my post! I think you’re right about Shelley’s father – obviously he was a great writer on political and philosophical matters, but then great men aren’t always great fathers (and often, because they put all their energies into their work, they’re neglectful parents). Also like your point about Byron! Funny that he failed to write a successful ghost story during that Lake Geneva trip, whereas Shelley and Polidori both helped to establish two of the most significant genres of fiction!

  31. Very, very interesting. I’m so glad there is someone like you out there who can take a great novel down to it’s basis form. People forget so much of the purity of the original after time. Makes me want to re-read it. I also look forward to reading your post on Victorian Myths-my favorite era! Thanks for spreading the knowledge~I cannot consume enough.

    • Thanks for the comment! I think Frankenstein’s a wonderful novel, evidently the work of a rough but precocious young talent, and although the language can be a bit clunky (she’s overfond of certain words such as ‘benevolent’ and ‘ardour’, I remember!), the story has such power that it’s become a modern myth. Talking of myths, I hope you enjoy my post on the Victorians…

      • Ah precocious young talent usually has the greatest imagination! It’s funny that you speak of the overuse of some words because I was just thinking the same thing while working out my review of “Gone Girl” (uses Thick as an adjective too much). I am about to start your Victorian piece & look forward to talking about it soon!

  32. Good commentary! The atmosphere of the original is rarely captured in film and its philosophy (there is quite a lot of discussion, isn’t there) even more rarely. I wish I’d seen the recent stage production with Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller, directed by Danny Boyle and broadcast in cinemas as National Theatre Live, especially as there are no plans as yet to release it on DVD: this version may have been more intelligent and faithful to the book than the various cinematic adaptations.

    One summer my wife read the book (which was a GCSE text) with our son, who’s mildly dyslexic, while we were on holiday in Chamonix, within sight of the glacier which features in a key scene towards the end of the book, and that made it even more immediate to him. I myself hope to read one of the earler versions, which I understand is significantly different from that usual published, though when I’ll get round to it heaven knows.

    • Thanks very much! I’ll have to keep my ear to the ground regarding a DVD of the Danny Boyle one, as I’d be curious to see that. In mentioning the earlier editions of the novel, you’ve just reminded me that I heard a story a few years back that the first edition of the novel was typeset very carefully, so that each page of the novel ended on a suggestive word, so as to heighten the suspense on every page. I haven’t managed to track down the literary critic/historian who discussed this, but will have to post about it if I manage to find something on it!

      I’d love to read the novel while surrounded by the wonderful atmospheric Alpine setting. I need to reread Frankenstein anyway, so maybe it’s a good excuse for a holiday!

  33. This is an interesting take. I read Frankenstein for this first time in 2011 and was surprised by it. Mostly because the movies painted an different picture than the story actually presented. Glad to know I wasn’t the only one who felt that way. I actually wrote a brief post on Frankenstein and wondered if Shelley was familiar with Autism.

  34. Thank you so much for this post and following my very new blog – Your post is very insightful. On top of this, you’ve shown how music and poetry find a way of revealing the truth of the ‘most misread novel’ as you put it. I believe the failure to accept Frankenstein’s monster’s difference is the reason he becomes a monster – perhaps it is also a comment on the failure to value diversity as well as a metaphor for how the failure to see and accept the dark side in all of us can turn negative.

    • Thanks very much for your kind kind – and very perceptive – comment on the blog post! I think you’re absolutely right: the fault of Frankenstein is that, in creating somebody different from the ‘norm’, he then chooses to abandon the ‘child’ just because the child is different. Parenthood is definitely an important theme in the novel.

  35. Nice to read that Gould’s Frankenstein piece is not completely forgotten; surely it is the best observed & analytical review of the work, without ever needing to stray into literary criticism to identify the true nature of the story..

  36. Sadly, don’t movies always seem to fall short of their printed predecessors? Still, some very good points in here. You certainly know the topic well. Thanks for the follow.

  37. Good point – none of them are from that first wave of ‘proper’ Gothic novels, yet they are undoubtedly more famous than, say, The Mysteries of Udolpho or even The Castle of Otranto. In many ways, the Gothic only got better when it stopped being exclusively ‘Gothic’ and became urban and quasi-scientific, as those novels demonstrate.

  38. Interesting. Nowadays, people think of Frankenstein, Dracula and Doctor Jekyll and Mister Hyde as a group of Gothic novels. It’s worth remembering that Frankenstein was published much earlier than the other two, which first appeared around 70-80 years later.

  39. About the name of “the Creature”.
    Offspring is always named after the parent. The father was Frankenstein so his progeny would be called Frankenstein too.

    • I believe the monster is called Adam in the book, and seeing as it is not “offspring” in the way of a child, I don’t think it’s fair to make the assumption that it would take on his surname…

      • Thanks Callum – yes, doesn’t he describe himself as the ‘Adam of your labours’, suggesting that he is ‘a kind of Adam’, or first man, if not even Adam in name? I agree, too – I’ve never bought the ‘offspring name’ argument either, not least because Frankenstein, in creating ‘Adam’, is as much the mother of the Creature as he is his father – and children don’t traditionally take their mother’s names.

      • As someone who has spent the last four month studying the book, the creature is not named by Frankenstein at any point throughout the book. He is referred to by varying names as the ‘fiend’, ‘creature’, and ‘monster’. Hope this helps.