Frankenstein is a famous novel, but why? There were plenty of Gothic horror stories in the 19th century. Among them is the very famous Dracula. So why is it that Frankenstein, of all the various ghouls, goblins, and monsters of the 1800s, would be so famous? The green-skinned monstrosity has been the basis for dozens upon dozens of characters. There have been no end of spinoffs, parodies, representations, re-representations, and fanart of Frankenstein. So what gives? How come he’s such a big deal? What makes this monster such a monster among monsters? There’s got to be a reason of some kind, right?
To understand what made it such a big-time novel, and why so many people still wear Frankenstein t shirts more than a hundred years post-publication, you have to get into the historical context. Yes, Frankenstein is a big scary green monster and has bolts in his neck. Everybody knows that. But is there more to him than that? Indeed there is. Frankenstein is not just a beast or a monster made from technology. On some level, Frankenstein is technology. To put a finer point on it, Frankenstein is what we’re afraid of when we’re afraid of technology. He’s the ghost in the machine.
In the 19th century, technology was advancing rapidly enough that people were beginning to notice it in their own lifetimes. In prior centuries, technology advanced so slowly that people didn’t notice. Yes, things got more advanced, but it took centuries for such things to take place. At most, a person might see one or two technological jumps in their lifetime. The 1800s were the first time in history when technology began to advance fast enough for people to notice in their own lives. “Hey, this isn’t even the world I grew up in, because of all the new gizmos” was something that people began to say in the 1800s.
And that brought fear with it. Technology is scary because it makes us more powerful, but it also raises serious questions about what we’re gonna do with that power. Heinous weapons of war, such as poisonous gas and machine guns, were first conceived of in the 19th and 20th centuries. Those weapons came from technological progress. So it wasn’t all sweetness and light. It turned out that technology could be very frightening, because it could create terrible weapons. It could make machines that made people obsolete, such as textile machines that put thousands of people out of work. It could poison rivers and pollute the air. It can, in short, create monsters.
If technology “creates monsters”, then what’s a good metaphor for that? Well, a literal monster! Frankenstein is exactly the kind of horrible creature whose possible existence first dawned on us in the 19th century. Later on there would be stories of malevolent AIs, mutants, zombies, and other scientific monstrosities. But in the 1800s, we had Frankenstein. There were a few other examples of this in early sci-fi, such as the short story The Island Of Dr. Moreau by H.G. Wells. In The Island Of Dr. Moreau, an evil scientist creates human/animal hybrids through vivisection. This is a similar concept to Frankenstein. This was the century where we first became aware of the horrors that could come from technology.