Frankenstein has entered the popular culture in a way that is quite different from Mary Shelley’s original creation.
Mary Shelley was born in the midst of the Romantic era. Lyrical Ballads was published the year after her birth. Her parents were the English philosopher William Godwin and his wife, Mary Wollstonecraft, who was one of the earliest feminists. She wrote a treatise called A Vindication of the Rights of Woman before Mary was born. Mary’s mother died during her birth, and the feelings of guilt and sense of loss Mary felt affected her in profound ways. When she was a teenager, the poet Percy Shelley visited her father, and the two fell in love and eloped. Percy Shelley was already married. His wife Harriet committed suicide, and Percy and Mary married shortly thereafter in the hopes that a marriage would help him secure custody of his children. It didn’t. The couple went on to have several children, most of whom died young. The only child that survived into adulthood was their son Percy Florence Shelley, named for his father and the city of his birth.
I think the story of the origin for the idea behind Frankenstein is nearly as fascinating as the novel, and apparently I’m not the only one. I can think of at least two movies based on the origin of Frankenstein. One’s called Gothic and the other’s called Haunted Summer. In 1815 Mount Tambora in Indonesia, still an active volcano, erupted. The resulting volcanic winter altered the climate for a time afterward, which is why in the summer of 1816 when the Shelleys went to visit Lake Geneva, Switzerland with their friend Lord Byron, his doctor, John Polidori, and Mary’s cousin Claire Clairmont the weather was so terrible. They were unable to do any of the outdoor activities they had planned. They stayed inside and talked. One of the topics of their conversation was stories about the experiments of Erasmus Darwin, the grandfather of naturalist Charles Darwin. Erasmus Darwin was said, if you can believe it, to have actually animated dead matter. The group discussed galvanism, which is using an electrical current to make muscles contract, and also whether or not it was feasible to put together a body constructed of corpse parts and reanimate it using electricity. The group also passed the time with a few ghost stories, and Byron suggested a contest to see who could write the scariest supernatural story. Two great contributions to horror fiction came from that suggestion: Mary Shelley conceived of the idea of Frankenstein, and Dr. Polidori wrote the first vampire novel.
This is how Mary Shelley described the image that inspired her to begin her novel.
Mary began writing what she thought would be a short story. With Percy Shelley’s encouragement, she expanded it into a novel. She later described that summer in Switzerland as the moment “when I first stepped out from childhood into life.” The book was published as Frankenstein, Or A Modern Prometheus on January 1, 1818. Mary initially published it anonymously. It was believed, probably rightfully so, that a book like Frankenstein published by a young woman would not be taken seriously. The preface was written by Percy Shelley, and she dedicated the book to her father, William Godwin. The initial run of the first edition was just 500 copies. It had been rejected by two publishers before Harding, Mavor, and Jones accepted it. A second edition was published in 1823, the year after Percy Shelley died, and this time was credited to Mary Shelley. Appropriately enough, on Halloween in 1831, the first popular edition of Frankenstein appeared. This edition had been extensively revised by Mary Shelley and included a longer preface with more details about the origins of the story. This edition is the most widely read edition today, but the first edition is still read, too, and your copy of Frankenstein has an article about different editions of Frankenstein in the back.
Mary Shelley, like most other writers, crafted her ideas together based on influences. The Faust legend is the story of a man who sold his soul to the devil for knowledge. It was made into a play called Doctor Faustus by Christopher Marlowe during the Renaissance in England, and Wolfgang von Goethe, the German Romantic writer, resurrected the legend for his own story Faust. The message of this story is that the pursuit of forbidden knowledge is a dangerous thing, an idea that goes back to the story of Original Sin in the Garden of Eden. Mary Shelley actually subtitled her novel “A Modern Prometheus.” She purposely meant to invoke the myth of Prometheus, who was a Titan renowned for his intelligence. He stole fire from Zeus and gave it to man. Zeus, not known for his leniency, was especially harsh in punishing Prometheus, who was chained to a great rock and had to endure having a great eagle or vulture eat his liver out every day, only to have it grow back and be devoured again the next. And the next. The Greek hero Hercules eventually killed the bird and freed Prometheus. The Prometheus myth was embellished by later Greek writers like Plato, Aesop, Sappho, and Ovid, who credited Prometheus with fashioning mankind from clay. Therefore, two ideas from the novel -- forbidden knowledge and forbidden creation -- are enfolded into the allusory subtitle that Shelley gave her novel. Shelley also uses a quote from John Milton’s Paradise Lost as an epigraph: “Did I request thee, Maker from my clay / To mould Me man? Did I solicit thee / From darkness to promote me?” Milton’s Adam says these words to God. I have mentioned before that the Romantics, particularly Mary’s wife Percy Shelley, believed Satan to be the unintentional hero of Paradise Lost. They saw his overreaching in attempting to throw over a tyrannical God as admirable. Of course, Percy Shelley was an atheist, and he saw the idea of religion itself as tyrannical, so his interpretation makes some sense. While Milton refers to God many times in Paradise Lost as the Victor (with a capital V), it is really Milton’s Satan who would influence the development of Mary’s character Victor Frankenstein. In fact, you will discover that the monster in the novel mentions he sympathizes with the character of Satan in Paradise Lost. She saw the creature itself as much more like Adam, and even called him Adam in a reading she gave of her novel. In the novel itself, the creature is never given a name. Finally, many scholars believe that in many ways, Victor Frankenstein, the monster’s creator, was a thinly veiled depiction of Percy Shelley himself. He is known to have used the pen name Victor when he published a collection of poetry with his sister Elizabeth, and Mary is known to have affectionately referred to him as Victor.
Critical reception of the novel was mixed, but it was an immediate success. It’s interesting when you look at the criticism of the novel to note that readers who believed it was written by a man praised it as original, bold, and expressive, but when it came out that it was written by a woman, the reviews begin to attack Mary’s femininity. It was adapted for theater, and Mary Shelley is known to have attended an adaptation called Presumption; Or the Fate of Frankenstein in 1823. At any rate, Frankenstein became the first of the mad scientist genre novels, and it’s probably still the best known example. Many consider it the first science fiction novel because of the focus on artificial intelligence (after a fashion). Frankenstein was one of the earliest and has remained one of the most popular subjects for movies. Thomas Edison made the first Frankenstein movie in 1910. Boris Karloff played the creature in three movies in the 1930’s. It’s mainly those movies that helped perpetuate the confusion about the title character. Those movies referred to the monster as Frankenstein. The Frankenstein of the title actually refers to the monster’s creator, Victor Frankenstein. However, that might be splitting hairs. Most children take the surnames of their parents, don’t they? After Hollywood took over the story, it changed and took on a new life, and I have no doubt Mary Shelley would be amazed. The Frankenstein most people know today is not her Frankenstein. Frankenstein is now a kid’s Halloween costume and even a friendly face on our breakfast cereal.
This novel was written during the Romantic period, but in many ways it foreshadows the disillusionment people would come to feel for Romantic ideals, such as the notion that individuals can transform society. Another Romantic ideal attacked in the novel is the notion of idealism. Frankenstein idealizes the notion of creating life, and once he is successful, he rejects his creation and retreats from it. He’s not ready for the fruits of his ambition, and he unwittingly releases what he believes is an abomination inspired from his imagination. Should he have ignored his intuition about whether his experiment would work and listened to reason?
Finally, we will examine what lessons this novel can still teach us about science, ambition, religion, love, and prejudice. In fact, it wouldn’t surprise me if you already have some preconceived notions about this novel itself that will be turned on their head. And to begin with, I want you to spend just a few minutes sharing with me the quick journals I asked you to write about what you know about Frankenstein and expect it will be about. After we’ve read, please hand these in to me. I am not going to grade them, but I plan to keep them, and we will revisit them when we finish the novel.
Readers haven't been able to get enough
of it ever since.
Godwin and early
Wife of Percy Bysshe
Shelley, Romantic poet
How I, then a young girl, came to think of, and to
dilate upon, so very hideous an idea?
I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling
beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous
phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the
working of some powerful engine, show signs of life,
and stir with an uneasy, half vital motion. Frightful must it
be; for supremely frightful would be the effect of any
human endeavour to mock the stupendous mechanism
of the Creator of the world.
First edition: January 1,
Second edition: August
11, 1823; credited
Third edition: October
31, 1831; revised
Paradise Lost by John Milton
Can individuals transform society?
What happens when our ideals are realized?
In what ways can imagination and inspiration unleash
both the best and worst in men?
What is the tension between reason and intuition?