This month The Classics Club asked: “Contemplate your favorite classic to date. When was this book written? Why would you say it has been preserved by the ages? Do you think it will still be respected/treasured 100 years from now? If it had been written in our own era, would it be as well received?”
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was published in 1818. This was, as you’ve probably realised already, a very long time ago. Just shy of two hundred years ago, in fact. And, like any good two-hundred-year-old, it often gets asked the same question many grandparents get asked (though not the two-hundred-year-old ones, for obvious practical reasons):
Are you even still relevant any more?
Luckily, in the case of Mary Shelley’s classic novel, the answer is a resounding yes. In fact, I’d argue that Frankenstein is one of those rare books that is even more relevant now than it was when it was first written. A very ambitious claim, I hear you say. I hope you have some proof to back it up. And I do. Allow me to elaborate….
Frankenstein centres around the life of an ambitious scientist called Victor Frankenstein. Obsessed with finding the secret of life, he locks himself away in his laboratory and begins trying to create a human being out of bits of dead people he’s dug up from graveyards. Charming, I know.
He becomes so obsessed that he forgets his friends and family, and gets lost in his quest to defy the laws of nature. In telling Victor Frankenstein’s dark story, the novel examines the tension between nature and science. Mary Shelley was writing at a time when huge leaps in science and technology were being made, which would soon usher in all the dust, dirt and depression of the Industrial Revolution.
But as much as scientific advances were exciting and new, they also made a lot of people uneasy. Primarily because many people wondered whether scientists really had the right to mess around with the laws of nature. After all, they’d worked well so far. How far would ‘playing god’ take them?
And this is just one of the reasons that Frankenstein is still a very relevant text. In today’s world, our everyday lives are increasingly coloured by technology; in the sixties mankind proved that even the sky wasn’t the limit anymore, not when it came to modern science.
In the novel, as Frankenstein becomes obsessed with breaking the laws of nature, he increasingly retreats from the beautiful natural settings of his home in the Swiss alps. Only when he realises that he has made a terrible mistake can he begin to appreciate the beauties of the natural world once more. He immerses himself in nature as a kind of therapy, appreciating the wonder of a world he tried so hard to defy. Sadly, it’s too late for him, but modern readers can easily relate to the beautiful descriptions of the natural world that Mary Shelley offers. It’s even more poignant today because so much of what is described in the book is rapidly disappearing beneath roads, apartment blocks, and the ever-present influence of global warming.
Mary Shelley could have no idea, when she wrote this book at the start of the nineteenth century, just what our world would soon look like. But she did express a concern which is still very, very relevant to everyone alive today. What will our relentless striving for technological advance do to the planet that we live on? How far is too far to take science? This is just one of the reasons the book will survive the test of another two hundred years. I think – at least I hope – that even when we have evolved into photosynthesising aliens with three sets of eyes on our heads (and wouldn’t that make reading so much quicker? You could read two books at once!), we’ll still be reading and appreciating Mary Shelley’s masterpiece.
You can find more responses to this month’s Classics Club meme here.