Mary Shelley's Frankenstein is the classic story of an amateur scientist, Victor Frankenstein, who succeeds in bringing life to a monster. Horrified by his creation, he abandons it. The monster, aware of nothing more than its own existence, searches for acceptance in a world repulsed and terrified by his appearance.
The story's genesis traces back to the volcanic summer of 1816 when an eighteen year old Shelley developed the idea after sharing ghost stories on a visit to Switzerland. Expanded from a short story, the novel was initially published anonymously and received a mostly negative critical reaction. Today, it will be greeted in much the same way. Dated by both style and pace, the book is often ponderous and repetitive. It hardly stands out as a great literary work on its own merit. Nonetheless, it's fascinating to delve into the source material of the now iconic creature, the monster of Frankenstein.
The story has changed drastically. Only a short few years after the novel's publication, playwrights struggled to translate the inner-monologue driven narrative to a visual medium. Subsequently, the story became increasingly sensationalized. For example, instead of the ambiguous chemical process Frankenstein employed to bring the monster to life in the novel, stage versions had electricity bolting into the creature, animating the grim collection of body parts. The character of Frankenstein, originally well-meaning, became increasingly corrupt, eventually morphing into the original Mad Scientist, along with his hunchbacked assistant Igor, a character also noticeably absent from the original story. But it is the monster that has changed the most drastically through the story's countless adaptations following the advent of cinema. Originally an eloquent creature of considerable intelligence, our modern monster has devolved into a lumbering zombie, inherently violent and mischievous.
It is the themes of the novel that resonate the most deeply to this day, however, as Shelley explores man's quest for knowledge, the harnessing of the elements, and our attempts at playing God. It taps into our unease over the ethical implications of genetic engineering and, most recently, the cloning of livestock. Yet it is ultimately the story of an even more universal theme: that of a man's obsession leading to his downfall.