Two hundred years ago this summer, an unknown 21-year-old woman conceived the idea for a story that became one of the most popular and influential novels ever written. “Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus” has been the inspiration for hundreds of movies, plays, stories, musicals, comic books and television shows, and translated into numerous languages.
“Frankenstein” has been the subject of countless philosophical, psychological, literary and sociological analyses. The name itself, Frankenstein, conjures images of a terrifying and powerful creature intent on exacting a monstrous revenge on the man who created him. Fittingly, the idea for the story came to the author on a dark and stormy night…
Mary Shelley was the precocious daughter of brilliant parents whose ideas about society were far ahead of their time. Her father, William Godwin, to whom her novel is dedicated, was a political philosopher whose works criticized government and called for greater personal liberty for all citizens. Her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, is considered to be the first feminist. She published the highly influential and controversial manifesto “A Vindication of the Rights of Woman” in 1792. Tragically, she died 11 days after giving birth to Mary on August 30, 1797.
In the summer of 1816, Mary and her husband, the brilliant Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, vacationed with Lord Byron, another and more famous Romantic poet, and a few friends at a cottage on Lake Geneva.
On a dark and stormy night, “before a blazing wood fire,” Byron issued a challenge: Everyone should write a story based on a “supernatural occurrence” (p. 62). Byron and his personal physician dashed off vampire sketches that eventually found their way into print and were soon forgotten. Mary alone managed to complete and publish a great novel.
At first, Mary struggled to come up with an idea. One afternoon, as she relates in her Preface to the 1831 edition, Byron told her about experiments performed by Erasmus Darwin (Charles Darwin’s grandfather) with vermicelli that seemed to suggest that the re-animation of a corpse might be possible. That night, Mary could not sleep. In a heightened state of awareness, she imagined in terrifying detail one of the pivotal scenes of the novel she had yet to write:
I saw – with shut eyes, but acute mental vision – 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… [the student rushed] away from his odious handiwork, horror-stricken. He would hope that, left to itself, the slight spark of life which he had communicated would fade, that this thing, which had received such imperfect animation, would subside into dead matter, and he might sleep in the belief that the silence of the grave would quench forever the transient existence of the hideous corpse… [but] when he opens his eyes… that horrid thing stands at this bedside. (p.339)
“Frankenstein” contains many powerful scenes such as this one, scenes in which the creator rejects his creation, which craves his help and affection; scenes in which a hubristic faith in the powers of science is obliterated by a realization of its limits; scenes in which the scorned and hunted creature becomes a vengeful hunter.
Indeed, “Frankenstein” is a multi-hued prism through which many styles, themes and allusions are brilliantly filtered. For those who are only familiar with the story through a different medium, I urge you to read the novel. See for yourself how much more complex and profound it is compared to the different versions that have appeared. Judge for yourself why the world has treasured this story for 200 years.
This fall, “Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus” will be one of the novels that will be read and discussed in GCU’s new book club, Novel Ideas. If you are a current GCU student, contact Professor Raftery for more information. If you are interested in becoming a student at GCU, contact us by using the Request More Information button at the top of the page.
Which version of the Frankenstein story do you like the best? Why? Add to the discussion by commenting below!
- Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein, or A Modern Prometheus” (1818)
- James Whales’ “Frankenstein” (1931), a film starring Boris Karloff as the creature
- Mel Brooks’ “Young Frankenstein” (1974),a film starring Peter Boyle as the creature and Gene Wilder as Victor Frankenstein
- Jim Sharman’s “Rocky Horror Picture Show” (1975), a film starring Susan Sarandon and Tim Curry as the creature
- Kenneth Branagh’s “Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein” (1994), a film starring Robert DeNiro as the creature
- Shelley, M. J. (2012). The Annotated Frankenstein (S. J. Wolfson & R. L. Levao, Eds.). Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University.