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What is Frankenstein?

By Kathy Hawkins
Updated May 23, 2024
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The word "Frankenstein" may refer to several different items: the 1818 book by Mary Shelley, one of the many films of the same name, or any of various representations of Frankenstein's monster himself.

Frankenstein, the novel, first written in 1818, but revised into the version read today in 1831, is by Mary Shelley, wife of the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. The Gothic horror novel is about a scientist, Victor Frankenstein, who decides to create a living person from various organs and body parts of people who have died. His plan works, yet when the creature comes to life, he is hideous. He immediately flees from scientist's laboratory and kills Victor's brother.

Later, the creature begs Frankenstein to build a companion for him, but the scientist doesn't complete the task, so the creature murders his wife and best friend. The novel ends with Victor's death on board a ship in pursuit of the creature, and the creature killing himself. Many critics believe the novel to be a critique of the Industrial Revolution and the power of science.

Throughout the book, the creature is referred to as "Frankenstein's monster," not as Frankenstein himself, as he is often known in popular culture. The 1931 film adaptation, starring Boris Karloff as the monster, loosely follows the plot of the novel. Boris Karloff also starred as the monster in two spin-offs to the original film: Bride of Frankenstein and Son of Frankenstein. Though the franchise continued through the 1940s, the later movies were B-grade films with little resemblance to the original novel.

The films of the 1930s and 1940s turned the monster into a popular cultural icon. Later films that featured a character based on the monster included the Hammer Film Productions Frankenstein films of the 1970s, 1957's I Was A Teenage Frankenstein, and Mel Brooks' horror-comedy Young Frankenstein.

Frankenstein's monster has also become a popular character in comic books by DC Comics and Marvel Comics. Horror novelist Dean Koontz wrote a series of books that are loosely based on Mary Shelley's original novel. In 1994, a film called Mary Shelley's Frankenstein was released. Starring notable actors like Kenneth Branagh, Robert De Niro, and Helena Bonham Carter, the film was an attempt to create a respectable counterpart to the original novel; however, the movie was not a box-office success.

Language & Humanities is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.

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