Frankenstein: A postmodern novel written long before modernism

It’s impossible to be sure what really happens in the text of Mary Shelley’s masterpiece

Mary Shelley

Mary Shelley

 

I’ve written here that Middlemarch is the great 19th-century novel. Okay, true, but that makes Frankenstein the greatest postmodern novel, that just happened to have been written in the 1800s.

Before I lose you, consider my reasoning: Frankenstein is bottomless. It’s, if you’ll excuse the term, an open book. Firstly, it’s impossible to be sure what really happens in the text; events are only partially revealed, and all of these half-told happenings are presented indirectly, firstly through the voice of R Walton, an explorer who recounts the tale in letters to his sister in England, and secondly through the telling of Dr Frankenstein himself who, Lord knows, has reason to give a biased account.

So, before we even start, this is a book we can’t trust. Death of the author indeed, or perhaps total obfuscation of the author, through layers of disavowal (yes, this was typical of Gothic literature, but it also fits the postmodern brief).

Then there’s reception: Frankenstein could be interpreted every single day for a lifetime (in fact, it probably has been) and there would still be endless readings to come. It’s like a Bible story, like a warning shot, a Tarkovsky film, and on top of all that, it has a titillating yet vague inception story, involving elopement and a storm and Byron lounging around sexily (as always). And if all that wasn’t enough, we’re left with differing versions of the text itself, the 1818 and the 1831.

This is, then, postmodernism, while postmodernism itself was still in the womb. It’s the big daddy of genetic criticism, of the movable text, of post-truth, of black hole literature (okay, yes, I made that last one up). Frankenstein is to the postmodern novel what Tupac Shakur is to contemporary rappers: the OG. Hold a copy of Frankenstein in your hands, and you hold infinity.

Sadly, Frankenstein has become one of those cultural stalwarts that people reference but don’t actually read. This is a mistake. Read it, it’s exhilarating. (And, speaking of endless interpretations and textual fluidity, watch Young Frankenstein, just for the utter joy.)

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