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How Frankenstein Became a Literary Classic
More than a century after its publication, there was a shift in perceptions
of Mary Shelley’s “minor horror story”
By Courtney Suciu
What makes a work of literature “classic”? How do we determine what texts are considered “great,” worthy of critical discourse, important enough to taught in school, an influential part of a common culture?
These are the kinds of questions David Fishelov1 considered in his article “The Indirect Path to Literary Canon Exemplified by Shelley’s Frankenstein.”
Fishelov noted the traditional view that it’s because a literary work is considered valuable by critics and educators that it becomes culturally influential and is deemed a “classic.”
But, according to the scholar, the canonization of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein unfolded in reverse.
Instead, it was the evolving culture of the 1970s and 1980s that influenced the way scholars and educators thought of the novel, he argued. The women’s movement and increased awareness of “Other” perspectives – points of view considered outside the traditional mainstream – changed the way readers understood Shelley’s 1818 novel. This shift triggered critical reconsideration of Frankenstein, resulting in its inclusion into the English literary canon.
So, how did Frankenstein become a classic in Western literature nearly two centuries after its first publication?
Frankenstein in popular culture
“To better understand how certain works gain a stronghold in the literary canon we should broaden our perspective and adopt a multi-dimensional model of the literary work in culture,” Fishelov wrote.
By taking this approach, Fishelov looked at the popularity of Shelley’s novel and the novel’s influence in mass culture, even as critics dismissed Frankenstein as “a minor horror story” for most of its history.
Fishelov explained, among factors that contributed to this early reception, “Shelley’s literary reputation was overshadowed by that of her husband,” the influential rock star of the Romantic movement, Percy Shelley. For this reason, Frankenstein initially flew under the critical radar, the scholar explained, and “the novel did not generate a cumulative body of positive criticism or a significant token of appreciation from the contemporary literary elite.”
Yet, Fishelov pointed out, “from its first publication, the novel triggered a series of artistic dialogues, especially in popular culture in the form of theatrical shows.” Shelley’s work captured the public imagination. From 1821-1986, there were nearly 100 various – and typically watered down – stage adaptations of the novel, as well as several films, including the iconic 1931 version directed by James Whale, starring Boris Karloff.
“One can reasonably assume that it was the popularity of Whale’s Frankenstein that lead to a renewed interested in the novel and to the publication of four new editions in the 1930s,” Fishelov wrote. However, this renewed interest in the novel by the general public did not reflect an interest among scholars or educators.
And what about the novel’s resurgence in the 1970s? Fishelov suggested this second wave of popularity indicated that perhaps our radically changing culture was finally ready for Mary Shelley and her revolutionary contribution to literature.
Fishelov observed an emerging interest in the 1970s among readers and critics “to pay more attention to the writings of women from past centuries” which fueled a desire to “rediscover” and “recover” Shelley’s literary reputation.
In the figure of Shelley, feminists recognized a woman struggling with issues related to motherhood, autonomy and creativity in a male dominated society.
Feminism and Shelley’s biography
Since the 1970s, feminist analyses of Frankenstein have dominated scholarship, inspired by the author’s life and experiences as much as by her writing. The BBC documentary2 Mary Shelley: The Birth of ‘Frankenstein’ offered this insight into why Shelley’s background has resonated so deeply:
Mary Shelley’s intellectual gene pool was a rich one. Both of her parents were revolutionary thinkers. Her mother was Mary Wollstonecraft, the founder of feminism. Mary Wollstonecraft was a unique woman, beautiful, fierce, independent…Even by today’s standards, her philosophy is still radical.
Shelley’s mother died shortly after giving birth – a trauma which haunted the author throughout her life. It was also echoed in her own experiences with childbearing and motherhood. Shelley’s firstborn died two weeks after birth, fueling a recurring dream of the baby’s resurrection, according to Anne Mellor’s essay in The Cambridge Companion to Mary Shelley3.
For Mellor and other scholars, this experience is reflected in the novel’s motifs of parenthood and procreation, and it’s references to nightmares and loss. For Mellor, Viktor Frankenstein’s “total failure as a parent” is the story’s central theme, and the “novel relentlessly tracks the consequences of such parental abandonment."
But other feminist scholars have been more interested in understanding how Shelley’s authorship has historically been trivialized, even as the monster she created became a pop culture icon. In her article “Hail, Mary, the Mother of Science Fiction,”4 Megen de Bruin-Molé explored how stage and film adaptations have born such little resemblance to Shelley’s Frankenstein “while still claiming kinship with it.”
How has such massive, “casual” popularization undermined Shelley’s creation – and her role as its creator? And how has gender factored into her historically diminished legacy as an author?
De Bruin-Molé explained how Romantic notions of artistic greatness, which prevailed at the time Shelley was writing, “often deliberately excluded female artists, whose work was considered lacking in the masculine effort and skill required for genius…and where ‘great’ female authors did appear, they were regarded as exceptional and unnatural.”
Residue of this attitude lingered in literary scholarship until the feminist movement of the 1970s sparked an interest in, and appreciation of, the works of women and other marginalized writers.
And who better than Frankenstein’s monster to represent the struggles and experiences of “Others” who have been abused and diminished by society?
Monsters and marginalization
“Monsters are beings, objects, and ideas that live on the edges of law and bureaucracy, often hybrids of that which is included and that which is excluded, the sacred and the profane,” Sheryl Hamilton and Neil Gerlach wrote in their article “It Won’t Always Be Wrong: Morality and Monsters in Legal Rational Authority5.”
From this point of view, monsters can be understood as any entity which threatens to disrupt the status quo, or what mainstream society has deemed proper, natural and good – such as a woman writer in the Romantic era who, as De Bruin-Molé explained, would be considered “exceptional and unnatural.”
Likewise, Frankenstein’s monster was perceived as a fearful creature, a human-like being but also, having been created and not born, abnormal – a “hybrid of which is included and that which is excluded, the sacred and the profane.”
As such a being, the creature of Shelley’s novel “recognizes society’s injustice when he is rejected and abused for his deformed body,” Brittany Baron argued in “For What Crime Was I Driven from Society?: Material Bodies in Hays’s The Victim of Prejudice and Shelley’s Frankenstein.6”
She explained that simply through his efforts to participate in society, in a body that is viewed as less-than, the creature “attempt[s] to reject society’s confinements and transcend its boundaries.” In response, “society reacts with horror, viewing the creature as unacceptable.”
According to Baron, “Shelley uses the male creature to provide a voice for the otherwise voiceless female characters in the novel.” She pointed out:
He faces the same problems as females in the nineteenth century: he may not interact with society, he lacks the agency to own property and other material possessions, and he faces prejudices based on his material body.
Of course, it wasn’t only women in the 19th century who were so punished based on their material bodies. Race, gender, sexual orientation, size, religion, ethnicity and ability –have all been factors historically (and into the present day) for determining who has a voice, who is accepted, who is singled out for abuse and who is ignored.
According to Fishelov “the figure of the monster related to a contemporary preoccupation with marginal voices in society in general and with the figure of the Other in particular.”
As social movements of the 1970s – including women’s liberation, Black freedom, gay rights and protections for people with disabilities – strove to create a more inclusive society, perceptions of Frankenstein’s creature also evolved. The horrifying villain depicted in Whale’s film and in other pop culture contexts was returned to the context of Shelley’s novel and came to instead signify the horrifying repercussions of social alienation.
And, consequently, Shelley’s “minor horror story” became an essential part of the English literary canon, frequently taught in schools and the subject of on-going critical discourse – as well as a source of inspiration and pleasure for generations of bibliophiles, horror fans and sci-fi aficionados.
For further research:
Check out Danny Boyle’s production of Frankenstein, available from the National Theatre Collection, was described by The Guardian as “a humane, intelligent retelling of the original story.” Critic Michael Billington wrote, “as a piece of staging, it is brilliant.”
Award-winning author Jeanette Winterston’s latest novel, Frankisstein – a “dazzling reanimation of Shelley’s novel – has also been recently reviewed The Guardian. Critic Sam Byer’s wrote it “is a fragmented, at times dazzlingly intelligent meditation on the responsibilities of creation, the possibilities of artificial intelligence and the implications of both transsexuality and transhumanism.”
- Fishelov, D. (2016). The Indirect Path to the Literary Canon Exemplified by Shelley's Frankenstein. CLCWeb, 18(2). Available from ProQuest One Literature.
- Mary Shelley: The Birth of Frankenstein. Downes, M. (Director). (2003, Jan 01).[Video/DVD] BBC Worldwide. ProQuest One Literature.
- Mellor, A. K. (2003). Making a 'Monster': An Introduction to Frankenstein. In E. Schor (Ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Mary Shelley, Cambridge (pp. 9-25). ProQuest One Literature.
- de Bruin-Molé, M. (2018). 'Hail, Mary, the Mother of Science Fiction': Popular Fictionalisations of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley in Film and Television, 1935–2018. Science Fiction Film and Television, 11(2), 233-255,355. ProQuest One Literature.
- Hamilton, S. N., & Gerlach, N. (2010). 'It Won't Always Be Wrong': Morality and Monsters in Legal Rational Authority. Law, Culture and the Humanities, 6(3), 394-419. ProQuest One Literature.
- Barron, B. (2015). ‘For What Crime Was I Driven from Society?’ Material Bodies in Hays's the Victim of Prejudice and Shelley's Frankenstein. Gender Forum, (54), 1. ProQuest One Literature.
Courtney Suciu is ProQuest’s lead blog writer. Her loves include libraries, literacy and researching extraordinary stories related to the arts and humanities. She has a Master’s Degree in English literature and a background in teaching, journalism and marketing. Follow her @QuirkySuciu