Frankenstein: Icon of Modern Culture

September 3, 2009

It may be impossible today to envisage Victor Frankenstein's Monster without invoking the grotesque that Boris Karloff created in the corny but influential 1931 cinema adaptation, one of the first of more than 1,000 film versions of the story. Karloff's incarnation stamped our cultural imagination with the flat head, the rectangular face, the bolted neck and the criminal brain, but it is not Mary Shelley's Frankenstein.

Karloff's kitsch beast spoke to the political and economic fears of the 1930s. Perhaps this is not surprising, since the Creature has become a cultural touchstone, whether he is given the ability to play the flute or endowed with an "enormous schwanstuker", as the 1974 parody Young Frankenstein had it. To paraphrase what has been said of other monsters, every generation creates the creature it deserves.

Attesting to the iconic stature of the ubermonster, the volume under review describes the various manifestations of the Frankenstein creepshow in all their camp glory. Taking the icon to encompass not only the nameless Creature but also his creator and Mary Shelley's novel, Audrey Fisch convincingly argues against a single, uncomplicated version of Frankenstein. Instead, Shelley's novel spawned so many iterations that it is more accurate to speak of a multiplicity of Frankensteins. Fisch introduces us to many of these outre stepchildren. Clearly, Frankenstein is a gift that keeps on giving.

Described by William Beckford as "the foulest Toadstool that has yet sprung from the reeking dunghill of present times", the first version of Shelley's novel was published anonymously in 1818 to mixed or negative reviews. Contextualising this response, Fisch usefully reconstructs its publishing history and critical reception against a background of contemporary texts (mostly by Shelley's politically radical parents, William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft) and contemporary ideas about human nature and the clash between religion and science.

Perhaps to avoid the moral outrage that greeted the initial appearance of Frankenstein, Shelley revised the novel in 1831. By this time, however, since she had been outed as its writer, critics ranted about the impropriety of female authorship. But not so fast.

The question of attribution, complicated by Percy Bysshe Shelley's contributions to the revised edition, has led to a scholarly smackdown. As recently as 2007, John Lauritsen, the controversial independent scholar, went so far as to credit Percy with the work. Germaine Greer responded in The Guardian that (for dubious reasons) Frankenstein was written by Mary: "It's obvious - because the book is so bad."

Verging on the namby-pamby, Fisch refuses to weigh in on which text should be considered authoritative. Although she is aware of Charles Robinson's work on the original manuscript notebooks, she did not have access to the Bodleian Library edition, which has just been published. Here Robinson presents two versions - one of them without Percy's revisions. It is quite a different animal.

Contrary to popular opinion, initial sales of Frankenstein were unremarkable. Almost immediately, however, what Mary Shelley called her "hideous progeny" took on an extra-textual life. Fisch explores the over-the-top permutations of the Frankenstein franchise in various genres, considering its global reach. In fact, the book's beauty resides in its stitching together of fabulous manifestations of this malleable icon.

The terrific and lengthy indented excerpts (some go on for pages) are, however, crunched together in a small, off-putting font. Although the book is generously illustrated, many of the images - marvellous though they may be - are fuzzy.

The number of plates and the wealth of quotations speak to Fisch's stated goal: describing, contextualising and "displaying... the variety of 'Frankensteins' that have emerged over time".

Perhaps it is for this reason that Fisch includes little interpretation or theory, although she does discuss the "shape-shifting icon" in terms of science and the women's movement, rehashing the feminist canonisation of the novel.

Mercifully, she does not indulge in cliched readings such as - heaven help us - the birth myth. But it is disappointing that Fisch finds the reason our collective imagination is so obsessed with this icon to be "unresolvable".

She refuses to speculate about the big question: why has Frankenstein's Monster, who appears everywhere, from Hallowe'en costumes to gum wrappers, become such a rich cultural mash-up? And why are we still jonesing for monstrosity and schlock?

Frankenstein: Icon of Modern Culture

By Audrey A. Fisch. Helm Information, 320pp, £38.00. ISBN 9781903206201. Published 16 April 2009

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