Frankenstein: A monster still alive today
Monsters and Me, one of Homerton College's events to mark its 250th annivesary, with Prof Geoff Ward and Dr Beth Singler, will mark 200 years of Frankenstein.
What fascinates me most about Frankenstein is its refusal to die. Mary Shelley’s novel was published exactly 200 years ago, when she was aged only 20. Within five years it was a stage hit in London. The first film version was a silent made in 1910 – and then, of course, came Boris Karloff in the 1930s Universal Studios film classics, and the picture of Frankenstein’s creation with its shambling walk, scars and bolts through the neck became indelibly etched into popular culture. (These were all cinematic inventions – in the original novel the ‘daemon’ as he is often called, has ghoulish features but long, lustrous hair, and is described as moving at superhuman speed.)
Then the mutant just keeps on mutating, as what had begun as a tortured gothic allegory morphed into cartoons, high-camp films such as the Hammer productions starring Peter Cushing, even influencing musicals like the Rocky Horror Picture Show. There must be something that people secretly love about Shelley’s monster. Partly it’s about adolescent rebellion. Shelley had rebelled – in spades – by running away from home aged 16 and pregnant, and this with a married man – Percy Bysshe Shelley, the radical Romantic poet. An excellent new biography by Fiona Sampson reveals that for a while young Mary had felt monstrous herself, a medical condition that may have been psoriasis or undiagnosed tuberculosis causing one arm to swell and be massively bandaged. There is a monster in all of us who lashes out at a world that we can’t always like, and that doesn’t always like us.
The other fascinating side of Shelley’s novel is the circumstances in which it was written. The Shelleys were staying in Italy in June 1816 with their friend the poet Lord Byron, famously described by a jilted lover (one of many) as “mad, bad and dangerous to know”. After the villa in which they were staying was wracked by an apocalyptic storm, Byron challenged everyone present to write a ghost story. After a fretful dream, Mary began Frankenstein. The feverish atmosphere was undoubtedly exacerbated by the manic behaviour of Percy Shelley, whose capacity for ghostly hallucination may partly be attributable to the opiate laudanum, as well as the vegetarian diet which Mary’s monster shares, but which Shelley adopted at a time when diet was poorly understood. Was Percy Mary’s own monster?
The novel concerns a scientist who goes beyond the bounds of the ethically acceptable by the blasphemous creation of a life from the dead. New techniques of galvanism, whereby the corpses of criminals could be brought back if not to life then to spasmodic movement, were of great interest at this time. But the image of the scientist as one who ignores ethical restraint and goes too far is at least as old as the trial of Galileo, and comes right up to date with the manipulation of stem cells and other scientific interventions.
Through new biotechnological breakthroughs, diseases will certainly be cured and lives saved – but is there a boundary line we should not cross in rewriting our own DNA? And is the rapid advance of robotics and other experiments in artificial intelligence a danger to humanity as well as a threat to the human workplace?
On the verge of creating a brave new world, we are still asking Mary Shelley’s questions 200 years on.
Monsters and Me, one of Homerton College’s events to mark its 250th annivesary, with Prof Geoff Ward and Dr Beth Singler will mark 200 years of Frankenstein by exploring what we’re afraid of, now that artificial intelligence means something different from Mary Shelley’s vision. Saturday, April 14, 3pm-4.30pm at the college. Free.