Few works of fiction have captured the public’s imagination as Frankenstein has. Several plays, numerous movies, television shows, and even comic strips have been based on it, and generations of children have dressed up as the monster for Halloween. Although originally published over 150 years ago, the book is still in print in almost every major language. According to Janet Harris, “since the first year of its publication there has always been, somewhere in the world, a printing press at work turning out still another copy or version of Mary’s immortal story.” The monster indeed has a life of his own apart from the book, as perhaps only Sherlock Holmes and Scrooge out of all the characters originally in novels do. Each generation adds its own characteristics to the monster.
Some scholars have identified Frankenstein as the source of the genre of science fiction, which seeks to define the place of man in the universe. Both the idea of a “mad scientist” and the concept of creating a person in a laboratory originated with Frankenstein. Following Mary Shelley’s lead, authors such as Edgar Allan Poe, Robert Louis Stevenson, H. G. Wells, and, more recently, Robert A. Heinlein and Ray Bradbury have created horror stories whose protagonists face problems brought about by science gone awry.
Frankenstein is also a product of its time, the early 19th century, a world of social, political, scientific, and economic upheaval. On the one hand, the novel emphasizes the importance of the intellect in seeking out the secrets of the universe (rationalism). Yet it also validates the emotions and the importance of individual needs (romanticism).
Aside from its historical interest, why does Frankenstein continue to be so popular, and what does it say to us today? For one thing, at the heart of the novel is a question about science and its relationship to humanity. Does science always act for the good of man, or does it have a dark side? Does man have the right or the power and intellect to act as a creator or God? Mary Shelley’s answer seems to be that science and progress are ethically neutral with the capacity to work for either good or evil. Science thus presents humans with the enormous challenge to handle its power responsibly and humanely.