The Origins of Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein”
In 1815, the eruption of Mount Tambora plunged parts of the world into darkness and marked a gloomy period that came to be known as The Year Without a Summer. So when Mary and Percy Shelley arrived at the House of Lord Byron on Lake Geneva, their vacation was mostly spent indoors. For amusement, Byron proposed a challenge to his literary companions: Who could write the most chilling ghost story? This sparked an idea in 18-year-old Mary. Over the next few months, she would craft the story of Frankenstein.
Popular depictions may evoke a green and groaning figure, but that’s not Mary Shelley’s monster. In fact, in the book, Frankenstein refers to the nameless monster’s maker, Dr. Victor Frankenstein. So tense is the struggle between creator and creature that the two have merged in our collective imagination.
The book traces Dr. Frankenstein’s futile quest to impart and sustain life. He constructs his monster part by part from dead matter and electrifies it into conscious being. Upon completing the experiment, however, he’s horrified at the result and flees. But time and space aren’t enough to banish the abandoned monster, and the plot turns on a chilling chase between the two.
Shelley subtitled her fireside ghost story, “The Modern Prometheus.” That’s in reference to the Greek myth of the Titan Prometheus who stole fire from the gods and gave it to humanity. This gave humanity knowledge and power, but for tampering with the status quo, Prometheus was chained to a rock and eaten by vultures for eternity. Prometheus enjoyed a resurgence in the literature of the Romantic Period during the 18th century. Mary was a prominent Romantic, and shared the movement’s appreciation for nature, emotion, and the purity of art. The Romantics used these mythical references to signal the purity of the Ancient World in contrast to modernity. They typically regarded science with suspicion, and “Frankenstein” is one of the first cautionary tales about artificial intelligence. For Shelley, the terror was not supernatural, but born in a lab.
In addition, gothic devices infuse the text. The gothic genre is characterized by unease, eerie settings, the grotesque, and the fear of oblivion - all elements that can be seen in “Frankenstein.” But this horror had roots in personal trauma, as well. The text is filled with references to Shelley’s own circumstances. Born in 1797, Mary was the child of William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft. Both were radical intellectual figures, and her mother’s book, “A Vindication of the Rights of Women,” is a key feminist text. Tragically, she died as a result of complications from Mary’s birth. Mary was haunted by her mother’s death, and later experienced her own problems with childbirth. She became pregnant following her elopement with Percy at 16, but that baby died shortly after birth. Out of four more pregnancies, only one of their children survived. Some critics have linked this tragedy to the themes explored in “Frankenstein.” Shelley depicts birth as both creative and destructive, and the monster becomes a disfigured mirror of the natural cycle of life.
The monster, therefore, embodies Dr. Frankenstein’s corruption of nature in the quest for glory. This constitutes his fatal flaw, or hamartia. His god complex is most clear in the line, “Life and death appear to me ideal bounds which I should first break through and pour a torrent of light onto our dark world.” Although he accomplishes something awe-inspiring, he has played with fire at his own ethical expense. And that decision echoes throughout the novel, which is full of references to fire and imagery that contrasts light and dark. These moments suggest not only the spark of Prometheus’s fire, but the power of radical ideas to expose darker areas of life.
From the TED-Ed Lesson Everything you need to know to read “Frankenstein” - Iseult Gillespie
Animation by Silvia Prietov