New episode of Narrabilia, a new story to dissect: what are the deep themes of Frankenstein by Mary Shelley? Between hubris, society-created monsters and the need for recognition.

I have been thinking a lot about what to bring you here for Narrabilia this month. March contains in itself the beginning of the spring - even if this year it would not seem - and the International Women's Day. I could have told you about mimosas and social struggle, but not being the most qualified person to do it, I chose something else.

On March 11, 1818, a novel was published that we still hear often about today - not always about it. AND Frankensteinthe The modern Prometheus, written by the then very young Mary Shelley.
A story in which we speak, in a certain sense, of rebirth (just like nature that blossoms in spring), written by one woman: the perfect theme for this March 2022. And if this sounds like a stretched hook, wait until you see what I thought for April.

This article is the third episode of the column Narrabilia, in which we tear up stories to better understand their meaning and origins!
Here are the previous episodes:
The Brothers Grimm: The Beginning of All Stories;
Orpheus and Euridice: a story of love and beyond the grave.

Mary Shelley, painted by Samuel John Stump (1831)
Mary Shelley, painted by Samuel John Stump (1831)

The genesis of Frankenstein

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley is a title that everyone knows, even if only for the film version of Kenneth Branagh. There are fewer abs in the original, however.

The genesis of the novel is legendary. It involves a character we got to talk about also to Dionysius Podcast.
It was May 1816. The eighteen year old Mary Shelley she was a guest, together with her sister Clair, her husband Percy Shelley, their newborn son and John Polidori, of Lord Byron in Geneva. Actually, Percy was not her husband at this point: the two would only get married in December of the same year, when she was already pregnant number three.
1816 was known as "the year without summer", so the group found themselves spending the rainy days indoors. And, in a scenario that probably represents the essence of Romanticism, Byron launched a challenge: to each write their own ghost story. And as if the rivers of ink poured on were not enough Vampire of Polidori, on that occasion the idea that it would later become also came to life Frankenstein.

The Creature of Frankenstein, from the film by James Whale (1931)
The Creature of Frankenstein, from the film by James Whale (1931)

The plot of Frankenstein In short

I know that Frankenstein it's one of those gothic novels that need no introduction, but for the sake of completeness I'll do them anyway.
Frankenstein o The modern Prometheus tells the story of a scientist, Victor Frankenstein precisely, whose dream is to create a perfect, long-lived and intelligent human being. All starting from inanimate matter, in which "inanimate matter" means "pieces of corpses". The gothic is beautiful.

However, Frankenstein succeeds in his intent, but he is the first to be disgusted by his Creature and abandons her. There Unnamed creature develops a strong feeling of revenge towards those who rejected him (Victor and humanity itself), which leads to a long series of deaths.
The ending of the story (as well as its beginning) takes place in the ice of the North Pole, where both Victor and his Creature find their death. And in short, all is well that ends well.

The Bound Prometheus by Nicolas-Sébastien Adam (1762)
Il Prometheus Bound by Nicolas-Sébastien Adam (1762)

The figure of Prometheus: the challenge to the gods and hubris

Although the novel is relatively short, it collects a good range of themes both ancient, and purely romantic, as well as current. And what are they?

First, you have certainly noticed that the other title of Frankenstein è The modern Prometheus, which is so much intellectual salon.
Prometheus, whose name means "he who reflects first", according to Greek mythology was a Titan, therefore an ancient deity. In fact, the Titans are born directly from the sky Uranus and from the earth Gaea - even if this is not actually the case of Prometheus, son of the Titan Iapetus and of an oceanic divinity (Climene or Asia depending on the version). Be that as it may, it is that slice of Greek theology that we are talking about.

Now, as is often the case, the Prometheus myth contains a lot of stuff and links to a lot of other myths, but we're only interested in the salient part. Prometheus, friend of men and advocate of progress, steal fire from the gods to give it to humanity. Obviously, in the best Greek tradition, this is going to end badly for him. Today Prometheus is essentially known as "the guy chained to a cliff with an eagle that eats his liver for eternity." What a touch of class, Zeus, to choose the only organ that regenerates.

We also talked about it for Orpheus, so I'm not telling you anything new by pointing out that this too is a story of hybris. Because in the Greek myth you get away with so many bad things, but not for arrogance towards the gods.
Prometheus is therefore in the collective imagination he who defies the gods. But that's not all: the metaphor expands and takes a more indented form. It becomes the rebellion against authority, knowledge free from constraints and impositions. And, in Frankenstein, the man who challenges nature itself.

The Creature and Frankenstein illustrated by Bernie Wrightson in Bernie Wrightson's Frankenstein (1983)
The Creature and Frankenstein illustrated by Bernie wrightson in the volume Bernie Wrightson's Frankenstein (1983)

The creation of evil and the responsibilities of society

Of characters à la Prometheus history is full - and new ones are emerging even today. But to name just one particularly interesting one, I will mention only one name: Satan. Both in the version of the Christian religion and in that described in John Milton's 1667 work, lost paradise.
The beauty is that, in hindsight, even in Frankenstein one speaks in some way of creation of evil. And this brings us to our second point.

If the Promethean theme of Frankenstein by Mary Shelley refers to the responsibility of the scientist, there is also another responsibility that is brought up: that of the company. And to this theme, I would associate another one: that of recognition. But let's go in order.
The Creature of Victor Frankenstein was born, fundamentally, good. The abandonment by its creator, the rejection, the terror of humanity towards it do nothing but make it the Monster that everyone believes it to be. And in fact it will be the Creature himself who will blame society for what he made it become.
In essence: there would be no Frankenstein Monster if people hadn't seen a monster first. And the ensuing carnage is none other than the concretization of a prejudice.

Obviously when Mary Shelley wrote all this between 1816 and 1818, what she had in mind was the society of her time: strongly patriarchal, strongly closed, strongly conditioned by strict social norms. Yet, stories similar to those of Frankenstein's Creature are not lacking even in recent times - and I don't necessarily speak of strictly derivative works.

The Penguin from Batman Returns (1992)
The Penguin from Batman Returns (1992)
The Penguin: bad because he can't take off his mask and the world sees him only as a monster

An example that I have always particularly liked is that of the character of Oswald Cobblepot/Penguin, in the version told to us by Tim Burton in 1992 with his Batman Returns.
Although we never see a Penguin good in the film, it's clear that Oswald actually never had a choice but to become bad. He is immediately abandoned by his parents due to his looks like him and Batman suspects him before there is even a reason for it. Why Bruce Wayne, despite having a side dark, he is inserted in society, he is the hero. Oswald cannot take off "the mask" and can only be what the world sees in him: the Penguin.

The Joker: the need for recognition from society

And remaining in Gotham, neither does the film deviate too much from these themes Joker of 2019. And it is here above all that the aspect of recognition.
In Frankenstein the Creature does not even have a name, a very important element in the novels of his time, to underline his own lack of identity within a society that does not recognize it. In Joker we have something similar.
In fact, what struck me from the first vision was a detail: when Arthur tries to enter the hospital where his mother is hospitalized, the sliding doors do not open. Arthur is so indifferent to the world that not even the photocells see him. And what he wants is to be seen. Be recognized. And this frustrated desire will transform him into the Joker, just as the Creature's frustrated desire to be loved will transform him into the Monster.

The Joker from the movie Joker (2019)

Some concluding words on Frankenstein

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley is a novel that continues to be read after more than 200 years. And not only because, through the fault or thanks of the Universal Monsters, it has become part of pop culture.
We keep coming back from Frankenstein because its themes were and remain relevant. From humanity that wishes to continue to progress to those who, remaining on the margins, want a society capable of recognizing them: we are all a little Prometheus, we are all a little Creature.