If you walk through the streets of central London, it won’t be long before you come across one of the city’s famous blue plaques. The markers are visually distinctive—cobalt circles with white lettering—and they commemorate the addresses of former Londoners of distinction. Being the recipient of a blue plaque is about as stable a sign as it is possible to imagine that you are a person of note, worthy of having your historical presence recorded on the fabric of the capital.
In 1975, the Greater London Council made plans to place a blue plaque on the building in which Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley lived during her final years. But their plans were derailed by the occupier of the house. “I’m not keen to have the phrase ‘author of Frankenstein’ emblazoned across the plaque, especially as the house is a vicarage,” he wrote in complaint. “I would rather that it were re-worded to read ‘author(ess) and wife of the poet.’”1 His concerns were heeded for almost three decades. It was not until 2003 that Shelley finally got her blue plaque. Today, if you stand outside 24 Chester Square in Belgravia, you will see it: “Mary Shelley, 1797–1851, author of Frankenstein, lived here, 1846–1851.”
In the 200th anniversary year of the publication of Frankenstein, it is instructive to recall Shelley’s star-crossed journey to blue-plaqued respectability. Today it seems extraordinary that as recently as 1975 Frankenstein could legitimately be rejected as too shocking a title to adorn the wall of a vicarage, but throughout its history the novel has resisted many attempts to make it the subject of a tidy story. More scholarly ink has been spilled in decoding Frankenstein than has been expended on everything else Mary Shelley wrote; every generation recasts its legacy afresh. What, then, is Frankenstein’s story at 200, and what does its continued power as a metaphor for the human condition tell us about ourselves?
In order to try to answer these questions, it is necessary first to turn briefly to the story of Frankenstein’s beginnings. In 1816 an 18-year-old called Mary Godwin spent a stormy summer on the shores of Lake Geneva in the company of her lover, the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley; her stepsister, Claire Clairmont; Clairmont’s lover, the poet George Gordon; Lord Byron; and Byron’s doctor and traveling companion, John Polidori. Out of conversations about the origins of life, the germ of a story was born, which, over the next nine months, Mary Godwin transformed into a full-length novel.
Within a few years of its publication, “Frankenstein” had become a metaphor for the danger inherent in uncontrolled human ambition.
During this period she married Percy Shelley and conceived and bore their third child. She also watched her pregnant stepsister confront the inevitability of parting with a child fathered by Byron, and was forced to acknowledge the bitterness of the unwanted when first her neglected half sister, Fanny Imlay, and then Percy Shelley’s estranged wife, Harriet, committed suicide. In a year when a volcanic eruption caused the sun to disappear, she saw the resultant failure of the harvest drive the poor to desperation; in walks through the English countryside, she saw suffering embodied in human form. Malnourished bodies, pregnant bodies, newborn bodies, dead bodies: all were brought into Shelley’s consciousness during the period of Frankenstein’s composition.
In response, she wrote a novel whose frame story also stretches over a nine-month period, between December 11 and September 12. (Shelley’s mother, the philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft, died on September 10, 1797, less than two weeks after giving birth to Shelley.) Within this frame narrative Shelley unfolds the story of Victor Frankenstein, a young man of boundless ambition and naiveté who creates a being from the limbs of the dead in order to satisfy his own curiosity and vanity. This act of creation, in which Frankenstein is figured as a “modern Prometheus” attempting to steal the secret of life from the gods, unleashes a series of tragic consequences for both Frankenstein and his unnamed and unloved creation.
Within a few years of its publication, Frankenstein had become a metaphor for the danger inherent in uncontrolled human ambition. In 1824, British Foreign Secretary George Canning used the novel to bolster his case for amelioration rather than immediate abolition during a debate on slavery in the British Empire. Freeing a slave “in the manhood of his physical strength, in the maturity of his physical passions, but in the infancy of his uninstructed reason, would be to raise up a creature resembling the splendid fiction of a recent romance,” he warned.2
Throughout the 19th century conservative thinkers invoked Frankenstein to prophecy the dangers to Britain of a radicalized Irish nationalist movement; in the 20th century the novel became a much-deployed metaphor in discussions about the dangers of technological innovations ranging from nuclear power to genetic modification. More recently, both Trump and Brexit have been Frankensteined by newspaper columnists and bloggers on both sides of the Atlantic. “Trump is the GOP’s Frankenstein monster,” proclaimed the Washington Post in February 2016. “Now he’s strong enough to destroy the party.”3
Frankenstein may have become a rhetorical commonplace in debates about the way monstrous creations of all kinds can run out of control, but it has also become a critical commonplace to point this out. In order to probe a bit deeper into the complexities of the novel’s legacy, it is perhaps more interesting to turn away from Anglo-American examples and to instead track the reinvention of Shelley’s creation in less familiar contexts. As well as marking the 200th anniversary of Shelley’s novel, January 2018 saw the publication of the English translation of Iraqi writer Ahmed Saadawi’s prize-winning novel Frankenstein in Baghdad.
Frankenstein in Baghdad is less a rewriting of Frankenstein than a response to its central provocation. Set amid the chaos and violence of postwar Baghdad, it tells the story of Hadi, a junk dealer who, affronted by the lack of respect accorded to the body parts strewn across the streets, picks them up and assembles them into human form. Into this composite figure settles the spirit of Hasib, the victim of a suicide bombing whose own body has been obliterated, leaving his family with nothing to bury. Meanwhile onto Hadi’s creation the widow Elishva projects the image of her lost son Daniel. Daniel was forcibly disappeared in a Baathist purge of the neighborhood many years before the novel’s opening, and Elishva has spent decades waiting for him to return.
As word spreads through the streets of a terrifying figure who can withstand bullets and knives, Hadi’s creature takes on the title of “Whatisname” (“shesma” in the original Arabic). Whatisname sets out to avenge the dead from whom he has been made, but his rampage of killing turns him literally from victim to criminal, as he destroys others indiscriminately and is forced to repair his disintegrating form by taking limbs from the perpetrators as well as the victims of violence. “I am trying to bring together all the elements of the Iraqi experience,” Saadawi told the New York Times. “There are many messages. One of them is that with this war and violence, no one is innocent.”4
It might appear from this synopsis that Frankenstein in Baghdad has little more than a title in common with Shelley’s novel. Hadi is no ambitious young intellectual pursuing dreams of knowledge and glory; Whatisname has none of the sympathy or complexity of his literary ancestor. But Saadawi nevertheless pays homage to his source text in several illuminating and arresting ways.
The creature Whatisname is an embodiment above all of chaos, of the unpredictability unleashed by war.
First, he draws our attention to the bodies in Frankenstein and to the novel’s corporeal preoccupations. Shelley’s Creature is so articulate it is easy to forget that he has been stitched together from bits of other bodies; 20th-century cinematic reincarnations turned him into a cartoon figure with a bolt through his neck. Saadawi makes us look again at the Creature himself. He also makes us think about what it means to exist and die in a body and about what it might mean to be a grieving parent with no body to bury. “You’d better find out where your body’s gone,” a passing spirit tells the newly dead Hasib. “Or else things are going to end badly.”
Second, Saadawi responds to Frankenstein’s insistence on shared culpability and to Shelley’s refusal to let either Frankenstein or his creation be solely victim or aggressor. Nothing is that straightforward when it comes to questions of responsibility, insist both writers, and especially not when the fabric of civil society has been ripped apart.
Third, both novels seize the opportunity offered by the creation of an uncanny being to hold up a mirror to the unstable, fractured world around them. Frankenstein does many things: it confronts slavery in its treatment of those who look different from the powerful; it addresses questions of parental responsibility; it engages with materialist debates about the origins of life. Crucially, though, it responds to the changes wrought in Europe by revolutions both industrial and political. It is alert to the possibility and the destruction inherent in seismic change, and it presents a world in which the foundations of belief and social order are shaken. The same is true of Saadawi’s Baghdad, a space in which different forces are fighting physically, intellectually, and spiritually for supremacy, and in which all the assumptions of a vanished order have been upended. Whatisname is an embodiment above all of chaos, of the unpredictability unleashed by war.
A Godlike Science
Frankenstein in Baghdad is a grisly novel, unimaginably more violent than its predecessor. Despite the bleakness of its subject, however, it is not a bleak book; indeed, in places it is extremely funny. It celebrates the power of creativity, whether that creativity is represented by Hadi’s stubborn determination to honor the bodies of the dead by making them anew or by the fictional narrator’s decision to turn Whatisname’s history into a novel and thus to make it into art, which even at its most fantastic moments reflects the reality of Baghdad life.
In this respect too it has a great deal in common with its literary ancestor. One of the reasons we are still talking about Frankenstein 200 years after its first publication is that above all it celebrates the human ability to imagine impossible futures. It warns of the dangers of creativity unleashed in ways that are selfish or driven by ego, but it is alert to the excitement of creative endeavor even at its most corrupted. It also, as Frankenstein in Baghdad illustrates, continues to inspire creativity in others, so that through its own inventive power it continually remakes itself. Shelley once referred to the novel as her “hideous progeny.” Could she survey the progress of her progeny today, she would surely be pleased.
This essay was commissioned by Arianne Chernock.
- James Morrison, “Mary Shelley to Get Blue Plaque at Last,” Independent, September 13, 2003. ↩
- George Canning, “Amelioration of the Condition of the Slave Population in the West Indies,” March 16, 1824, Hansard Parliamentary Debates, Commons, vol. 11, cols. 1091–198. ↩
- Robert Kagan, “Trump is the GOP’s Frankenstein’s Monster. Now He’s Strong Enough to Destroy the Party,” Washington Post, February 25, 2016. ↩
- Tim Arango, “Baghdad Is a Setting, and a Character, Too,” New York Times, May 16, 2014. ↩