Cultural Interpretations of Frankenstein


By Susan Tyler Hitchcock

It wasn’t really Mary Shelley’s novel that penetrated public awareness: it was the irresistible story, the myth that reached deep into everyone’s psyche, embodying hopes and fears of the future and the unknown. The first edition of Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, published in 1818 by Lackington & Allen — their motto “the Cheapest Bookseller in the World” — caused quite a stir among critics, literary and otherwise. “Parts of it are strikingly good,” said The Gentleman’s Magazine; “nonsense decked out with circumstances,” wrote the Quarterly Review, querying “whether the head or the heart of the author be the most diseased.”

Personal obligations crowded Shelley’s life, taking her attention away from her creation just as it was gaining a life of its own. After several tragic years in Italy, she returned to England in August 1823, a widow with a three-year-old son. In London, she, her father, and her half brother attended a performance of Presumption! or, The Fate of Frankenstein — one of at least five stage renditions of the story of the monster made by man mounted that year. “Lo & behold!” Shelley wrote to a friend, “I found myself famous!”

The first edition of Frankenstein, published by the London printers Lackington, Hughes, Harding, Mavor & Jones in 1818. NYPL, Pforzheimer Collection

Playbill for an 1827 stage production of Richard Brinsley Peake’s Presumption! or, The Fate of Frankenstein. NYPL, Pforzheimer Collection

It was the monster and his pitiful story that grabbed the spotlight. “The piece upon the whole has little to recommend it, but that, as times go, will be no great obstacle to its success,” one critic wrote of the play. Leaflets questioning its moral fiber appeared throughout London and Birmingham. “Do not take your wives and families,” naysayers warned, since the play “treats of a subject which in nature cannot occur.” Yet the forbidden is forever fascinating, and new versions of the Frankenstein story, both tragic and burlesque, drew crowds in London, Paris, and New York.

The myth of the monster made by man swiftly became a formula to describe social and political dilemmas. Member of Parliament George Canning invoked “the splendid fiction of a recent romance” in a debate on slavery. Freed slaves, he argued, would be physically strong yet morally uneducated, a challenge to the emancipator who “recoils from the monster which he has made.” Mary Shelley was flattered. She told a friend that “Canning paid a compliment to Frankenstein in a manner sufficiently pleasing to me.”

New, but now familiar, details attached to the story as it snowballed through popular culture: a bumbling assistant; an inarticulate monster; links to machinery and power generation. The monster’s costume and makeup changed from show to show: a toga in one rendition, blue skin in another.

The title of that first and most popular play became the one-word summation of the story and its message: Presumption. “In every age of the world woman’s curiosity has been equalled by man’s presumption,” read the opening words of a two-penny chapbook retelling the story. Blunt moralisms explained away the ambiguities and mystery of Shelley’s story. Most adaptations ended when some natural catastrophe — lightning, volcano, explosion — destroyed man and man-made monster in one sweep.

Mr. T. P. Cooke, of the Theatre Royal Covent Garden, in the character of the monster in Richard Brinsley Peake’s 1823 stage adaptation of Frankenstein. NYPL, Pforzheimer Collection

As a political symbol during the 19th century, Frankenstein represented both Reconstruction efforts in the U.S., and workers’ rights upheavals in England. In a satirical cartoon by Sir John Tenniel published in Punch on September 8, 1866, tiny John Bright, M.P., a supporter of workers’ suffrage, does his best to avoid the monstrous shadow of “The Brummagem Frankenstein,” that is, the working man. In Birmingham — working-class pronunciation was “Brummagem” — a reform demonstration drew an estimated 250,000 workers. As the cartoon’s caption notes: “The unwillingness of Parliament to accept any measure of Reform had aroused a wide-spread discontent amongst the working classes. A monster gathering was held at Birmingham in August.” NYPL, Print Collection

In 1831, some 15 years after the novel first appeared, the Frankenstein story was common knowledge in Europe and the United States. (Many now consider it the first myth of the modern age.) London publisher Richard Bentley, recognizing its longevity, invited Shelley to revise her work for his series of Standard Novels.

So she touched up her story, slanting it ever so slightly toward early Victorian morality and casting sterner judgment on her protagonist. In the 1831 edition, for example, Victor Frankenstein mourns that in his life, “Destiny was too potent, and her immutable laws had decreed my utter and terrible destruction.” Shelley also wrote her famous preface for this edition, in which she told of the ghost story competition at Villa Diodati and her nervous dream of “the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together.”

The frontispiece of the 1831 edition of Frankenstein featured the first visual depiction of Frankenstein and the Creature. NYPL, Pforzheimer Collection

As the 20th century began, the Frankenstein story was familiar, but there was no agreement on how to visualize the monster. Mary Shelley had kept physical description to a minimum. She had also not named the monster; without a past, without a family, without an identity, how could he have a name? That was all to change with the coming of the motion picture.

First Thomas Edison’s Kinetoscope series adapted the story for the screen, using mirrors and an image sequence shown backwards for special effects, 1910-style. Then came the 1931 watershed adaptation, the Universal Studios talkie that shaped the Frankenstein story for generations to come. Boris Karloff was an unknown actor when selected by director James Whale to portray the monster in his Frankenstein. They met in the Universal Studios cafeteria, so the story goes, and Whale told Karloff his face had “fascinating possibilities.” Makeup artist Jack Pierce spent hours every day building a towering forehead, sculpting scars, and attaching false electrodes. An iron rod down his spine and heavy lifts in his boots forced Karloff into the stiff, leaden walk we today associate with the monster.

Frankenstein came out months after Dracula, starring Bela Lugosi, and the duo of films solidified Universal’s fortune as the American horror film production studio. Followed in 1935 by Bride of Frankenstein, and then three more pictures, the suite of Universal Frankenstein films codified the popular rendition of the story: the mad scientist fiddling with machines; the giant man-monster, flat-topped, bolt-necked, and lurching; the blonde betrothed who falls victim to the monster; and, soon equally iconic, the “bride of Frankenstein” — a partner made for the monster, her hair an electrified stand-up bob, her clothing a grim parody of wedding gown turned shroud.

Makeup artist Jack Pierce preparing actor Lon Chaney, Jr., for a scene in the 1942 film The Ghost of Frankenstein, directed by Erle Kenton and produced by Universal Pictures. NYPL, Billy Rose Theatre Division

Promotional photograph of Boris Karloff as the Creature in 1935 film Bride of Frankenstein, directed by James Whale and produced by Universal Pictures. NYPL, Billy Rose Theatre Division

Lionel Atwill, as Dr. Bohmer; Sir Cedric Hardwicke, as Ludwig Frankenstein; and Lon Chaney, Jr., as the Creature, in a scene from the 1942 film The Ghost of Frankenstein, directed by Erle Kenton and produced by Universal Pictures. NYPL, Billy Rose Theatre Division

As American families turned on the television, Frankenstein lumbered into the living room. Local stations began airing packages of Universal horror films in 1957; local personalities including New York’s Zacherley and Miami’s M. T. Graves rose from plywood coffins, engulfed in a dry ice fog, hosting late-night reruns. By the 1960s, Frankenstein — a name by now synonymous with the monster — was a household word.

The monster even became a lovable friend on “The Munsters,” a sitcom first airing in 1964 and still in reruns. Fred Gwynne played Herman Munster, a cousin to the real thing. It also became the mascot for antiestablishment camp carryings on: hence The Rocky Horror Picture Show, a stage musical opening in 1973 that inspired the 1975 film, still a cult favorite.

The myth inspired pop music: Edgar Winter took it wordless; Alice Cooper identifed; Tom Petty acted out the story. The story found his way into comic books and cartoons, with the monster sometimes a hero, other times a torturer, but always known by certain salient details: the flat-top head, the bolts in neck or temples, the grunts, and the lumbering walk. The camp culmination of 20th-century renditions, Mel Brooks’s Young Frankenstein, cleverly quoted both Shelley’s novel and the early Karloff films, becoming a classic in and of itself.

Today, many people have never read Shelley’s novel, yet multitudes around the world know the story, believe the monster is named Frankenstein, and know just how he looks. To retell the story is a challenge in itself; it is so layered with interpretations. Yet at its core is a myth of human ingenuity, a story that taps hope and fear simultaneously. Artists continue to take on the challenge, retelling the story as part of the perennial quest for the deep truth of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

Promotional photograph of Ilona Massey, as Baroness Elsa Frankenstein; Lon Chaney, Jr., as the Wolf Man; and Bela Lugosi, as the Creature, in the 1943 film Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, featuring an ensemble cast of monsters, directed by Roy William Neill and produced by Universal Pictures. NYPL, Billy Rose Theatre Division

Promotional photograph of Glenn Strange, as the Creature, and Bud Abbott, as Chick Young, from the 1948 film Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, directed by Charles Barton and produced by Universal Pictures. NYPL, Billy Rose Theatre Division

Promotional poster for the 1974 comedy film Young Frankenstein directed by Mel Brooks. NYPL, Billy Rose Theatre Division

Susan Tyler Hitchcock is the author of 14 books including Frankenstein: A Cultural History, which she researched, in part, at The New York Public Library's Carl H. Pforzheimer Collection of Shelley and His Circle. She works as a nonfiction book editor for the National Geographic Society.

Post new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.

Patrons who contribute comments are asked to read our Policy on Patron-Generated Web Content.

View our privacy policy