How Mary Shelly's Frankenstein upended 2000 years of literature – by making us the monsters

Colin Clive holding torch before the monster Boris Karloff in a scene from the film 'Frankenstein', 1931
Colin Clive holding torch before the monster Boris Karloff in a scene from the film 'Frankenstein', 1931 Credit: Universal/Getty

Having analysed it in my book on the psychology of storytelling, The Seven Basic Plots, I was, naturally, intrigued by the recent coverage marking the 200th anniversary of one of the most famous stories in the world, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. But what I missed was any reference to what made this novel unique in the history of literature.

Everyone knows that Frankenstein is a story about a monster. And perhaps the most familiar basic plot of all, from Greek myths or David and Goliath to Star Wars, James Bond and Jaws, is what I call “Overcoming the Monster”. A community is fatally threatened by some dark, totally egocentric figure, until a selfless hero sets out to slay him. Against all odds he does so. Humanity is saved!

What Mary Shelley did was to turn this plot completely on its head. At the start, we see the young hero, Frankenstein, surrounded by a happy family and the beautiful girl he is due to marry. But he then switches to the dark side, creating from corpses the monstrous semblance of a human figure.

When his creation comes to life, however, his first act is to offer his hand to Frankenstein in friendship. Frankenstein rejects him, and the “monster” escapes into the mountains where, by eavesdropping on peasants, he learns to speak. He then reads the great books of the world, wishing to become a wholly benevolent human and wanting only to live at peace with all mankind. In other words, except in physical form, he is not a monster at all.

Frankenstein's monster meets a child in James Whale's 1931 film adaptation  Credit: Ullstein Bild/Getty

The only character in the story egocentrically possessed by darkness is the hero Frankenstein himself. But from then on, as the monster is twice more cruelly rejected, he also becomes increasingly dark, determined to revenge himself on his creator. One by one he kills all the people around Frankenstein, including, on their wedding night, the girl he loves.

Frankenstein pursues him into the Arctic, bent on destroying his nemesis, only for the monster to slay him first, before vanishing away across the ice. No story before it had so completely inverted the “Overcoming the Monster” plot.

And how uncannily, as I show in my book, this foreshadowed what was about to happen around young Mary herself. Her husband, the tortured poet Shelley, identified himself in her would-be benevolent but rejected monster and, one after another, all those closest to the couple died, culminating four years after the novel’s publication in the tragic death of Shelley himself.

More generally, however, this strange, dark story reflected a profound psychological shift that was taking place all through Western storytelling at this time as it entered the age of Romanticism: when similarly “dark inversions” of all the other archetypal plots reflected that something ominously significant was going on below the surface of Western civilisation. Its consequences we are still living with to this day.


Where is that cake now, Boris?

Almost the only clear thing emerging from the murk shrouding our tortuous progress towards Brexit is how completely we can now forget last year’s fatuous claim by Boris Johnson that, on leaving the European Union, we could somehow “have our cake and eat it”.

Gone are the days when we could fantasise that in March 2019 we shall “with one mighty bound be free”: out of the EU and free to sign all those wonderful trade deals with the rest of the world. It has finally dawned that extricating ourselves from the EU is far more complicated than our politicians ever realised it would be.

Neither side is remotely prepared for all the hugely costly border controls needing to be installed once we leave the single market, making inevitable that “transition period” of two years or more when, despite leaving the EU, we remain essentially still in it. Hence also that absurd EU Withdrawal Bill, whereby we turn all EU laws into UK law, to pretend that we have somehow “taken back control”.

Equally dawning are the damaging consequences likely to face much of the largest part of our export trade, worth £230 billion a year: by no means all of which could be remedied by that “bespoke trade deal” that Theresa May still dreams of, let alone by those fondly imagined future deals with other “third countries”.

Never has it been more obvious that if only we had chosen to leave the EU but stay, like Norway, in the European Economic Area, we need not have got into this mess.