Throughout modern civilization, Frankenstein stands resolutely as one of the greatest and most commonly appreciated horror narratives. The story has long passed the tests of time, serving as bastion for fear and terror that is lovingly passed from one generation to the next. Its elements and structure are simple and unmistakable: a misguided scientist revives the dead, his creation escapes his control, and chaos breaks lose. The story is good fun for the whole family, and the monster can rightfully take his place at Halloween or other festive gatherings.

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To the average individual, unfamiliar with the story’s origins, this is a perfectly valid way of understanding and representing the tale. As the picture above might express, a cultural stereotype exists towards the narrative that casts it as an insubstantial, a slightly frightening tale not to be thought of seriously. However, to those initiated in the study of Mary Shelley’s original novel, the deep fissures in this model begin to reveal themselves. The horror in the novel is much more strong and unique, and the ideas it presents are great in intellectual scope. Very quickly, cultural expectations and confidences are wiped away as the true form of the text appears.

This was highly confusing for myself, personally. Why is there so great a chasm between the cultural understanding and its literary source material, especially in such a well-appreciated story? I began to realize that there appear to be two separate Frankenstein tales: one written by Mary Shelley, the other propagated by society and culture.

The version embraced by society takes the form of a folk myth. The purpose of this story is to entertain, titillate, and frighten. The principal entity and subject is the monster; he holds such a central role, that it is common belief that he himself is titled “Frankenstein.” He is slow moving and slow witted, inarticulate and insensitive, existing in classic form with protruding neck bolts and a flattened cranium. The monster is easily typified by the “undead,” creature trope, marked with many characteristics common to the category. The scientist who creates him is nothing more than the modern manifestation of the sorcerer, seeking dark and mysterious knowledge within science, rather than the arcane arts.  The creator is also an accessory figure, used to grant novelty, relevancy, and interest to the monster’s history and birth. Although well loved, this iteration of the story can be placed alongside many other simplistic frightening folk myths, describing feared entities from witches, to trolls, to werewolves, to golems. Poignant qualities in Shelley’s text led to a reiteration of this type of story for the modern world. Some important qualities were retained, but it was altered to fit this structure to a great degree.

In writing her original, however, Mary Shelley appears to have had drastically different intentions. Although both her original novel and the myth both are linked to ancient types of storytelling, the novel functions more as high literature, bearing similarity to high myth or epic. The story is obviously cast in the vein of ancient Greek origin myth, with the subtitle of the modern Prometheus. This type of story seeks to entertain to a degree, but it also offers intellectual and moral meaning, and a more fully nuanced and complex expression of human culture and linguistics. This manifests itself in the great complexity that I was surprised to notice. Dr. Frankenstein and his monster are both discussed and explored, with neither being forced down as an accessory subject. Most of the text is not devoted to describing the birth of the monster or violent chases. Rather, a great deal of time is focused on the introspective thoughts of the characters, poignant and meaningful events and actions, and small elements of perception. Both Frankenstein and the monster have complex and very human thoughts, motivations, and questions. The large themes and tropes, such as tragic fall, human hubris, and life’s creation are complex enough to merit serious literary analysis.

In Frankenstein, there is a unique duality of meaning in the two forms of the story. Both reflect common structure, with the folk myth speaking to primal feelings and simple cultural traditions, and the novel appealing to high myth and intellectual pursuits. The almost universal appeal of the former often hides the latter, resulting in the inconsistency that many readers of Frankenstein experience when introduced to the reality of the novel.

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