Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus was published anonymously 200 years ago in January, 1818. It has since become the most analysed and contested novel of all time.
It is cited today in debates on the ethics of scientific progress. The “Frankenstein effect” has become synonymous with questionable advances in genetics, in vitro fertilisation and artificial intelligence, evoking the spectre of dangerous science. It has become an example of what goes wrong when science goes too far.
When we return to Frankenstein’s origins, however, we uncover a different story. As Shelley was later to document, the story was forged during the Summer of 1816 in debates that took place between herself, her partner (later husband) Percy Bysshe Shelley, Lord Byron, her stepsister Claire Clairmont and John Polidori at the Villa Diodati on the shores of Lake Geneva.
There, she records, the group was debating the arguments of poet and chemist Sir Humphry Davy and discussed “the nature of the principle of life, and whether there was any probability of its ever being discovered and communicated”.
Shelley had accompanied her father William Godwin to hear Davy give his lectures on chemistry at the Royal Institution in 1812, and later, in 1816, she read his Elements of Chemical Philosophy as she was composing Frankenstein.
Davy’s account of science was mesmerising for the sheer excitement that it conveyed: “Science has … bestowed upon [man] powers which may be called almost creative,” he declared. Frankenstein, drawing upon the scientific advancements of its age, Erasmus Darwin’s early theory of evolutionary development in the 1790s, vitality, galvanism and Davy’s quest to determine the “hidden origins” of nature, partakes of the fascination and anxiety about scientific progress. But it is wrong to read the novel as being straightforwardly sceptical of scientific advancement.
‘A torrent of light’
Victor Frankenstein’s aims in creating new life are, after all, commendable. Reflecting the mixed aspirations of his mythological counterpart Prometheus, Frankenstein wishes to “pour a torrent of light into our dark world” and in so doing “renew life where death had apparently devoted the body to corruption”. He seeks to eradicate diseases which corrupt the human frame before its time.
These are not bad ambitions. But it is the way in which he pursues nature to “her hiding places” that makes his quest so fatal. Ventriloquising Shelley’s views, Frankenstein later observes that:
A human being in perfection ought always to preserve a calm and peaceful mind, and never to allow passion or a transitory desire to disturb his tranquillity. I do not think that the pursuit of knowledge is an exception to this rule.
Knowledge, Shelley argued, should always be pursued in tranquillity; creation should always be the intellectual fruit of a “peaceful mind”.
The words that Frankenstein utters can be read, too, as an expression of Shelley’s approach to authorship. Much has been made of her comparative youth when she wrote Frankenstein. The novel was begun when she was 18.
Despite the fact that Matthew Gregory Lewis, known to both Shelleys, published his own Gothic tale – The Monk (1796) – at the age of 21, some ask how such a young woman could have composed Frankenstein, and falsely ascribe authorship to Percy Bysshe Shelley.
Sir Walter Scott, reviewing Frankenstein for Blackwood’s Magazine, was the first to commit this error, commenting that it “is said to be written by Percy Bysshe Shelley, who, if we are rightly informed, is son-in-law to Mr Godwin”.
Shelley’s response to Scott’s review of her novel was swift. Writing to Scott on June 14, 1818, she pointed out his error, noting, “I am anxious to prevent your continuing in the mistake of supposing Mr Shelley guilty of a juvenile attempt of mine.”
Shelley’s response to Scott’s mistake was decisive in her assertion of authorship. Her journal further illustrates the intensive work that she invested in her manuscript.
Percy Bysshe Shelley may have edited her work, but this was the gesture of one who wished to support and encourage another’s authorial career. Frankenstein was the first in a line of seven novels by Shelley that she published across three decades.
It may be the one for which we now celebrate Shelley, but all of her works reveal an assertion of women’s rights to create as authors and artists, associating these rights with a calm pursuit of knowledge. Shelley, author of Frankenstein, cautious supporter of scientific advancement, was much, much more than the sum of the parts of her first monster.
According to popular understanding, New Year’s Day 2018 belongs to the 68 years since the dawn of the Anthropocene Epoch – where human activity has so dramatically altered the Earth that natural phenomenon is now human phenomenon. Science fiction and fact, indeed all fiction and fact, are persistently mediated by humans. The effects of this blurring show that the role of fictional art (art that is fantasy) is as impactful as ever – perhaps more so, due to its ability to remind us that humans are capable of so much, but are less attentive to our culpability.
Humans now set the trajectory for the current epoch, yet we have little idea how that trajectory will look. We are active, able, creative agents in the world – the makers of the world. And we remain absolutely without a clue as to why we are, or what we are. Whether religious, secular or ecologically concerned, we are still chaotic accidents of organisms who ask the same questions as in other epochs and are responded to with the same resounding silence: why are we here? What are we? What is our purpose?
Increasingly, the value of humans is being questioned in the Anthropocene Epoch – an era which seems to threaten disaster as much it promises longer and better life. Two centuries ago one of the earliest examples of science fiction appeared on New Year’s Day that also asked these questions. Mary Shelley – a political radical, the daughter of the world’s most famous feminist and the wife of an infamous atheist – published Frankenstein: Or The Modern Prometheus.
Even in the title we see that Shelley understood the persistence of the above questions that each age jealously feels belongs only to their particular existential crisis.
In Shelley’s frontpiece quote from Milton’s Paradise Lost, where Adam laments being created, Shelley immediately reminds us that there is a persistent tension in all tales of human existence between a creator who has the ability, but perhaps not the wisdom, to be accountable and responsible for their acts of creation – and a subject who knows not what to do with the life and knowledge they have been given without their consent or request.
Shelley invoked a monster filled with pathos, humble curiosity and ultimately despair – and a creator whose hubris elucidated him as lacking in empathy, megalomaniacal and whose pride was more important than its effect on other living beings.
While one could say the same of every age, the Anthropocene Epoch seems to be performing Shelley’s tale on a global scale – where a single monster is now many species of non-human, or minorities and oppressed humans. The creator, meanwhile, is governments, nation-driven patriots and multinational companies, much like Shelley’s overweening creator, Dr Frankenstein.
Horror made flesh
Shelley’s Frankenstein legacy has a surprisingly unique offshoot. It spawned, due to the creative genius of the famed make-up artist Jack Pierce, a reimagining of a literary character so different from the original that it has entirely replaced it to become a concrete icon of horror – the monster as incarnated by Boris Karloff in Frankenstein (1931) and the more faithful (to the book at least) adaptation, The Bride of Frankenstein (1935).
While the book had already inspired one of the earliest horror cinema adaptations (the 1910 Charles Ogle film), James Whale’s 1931 film for Universal Pictures was the point which reversed the monster with the creator as the most important locus of the story, so turning it from tale to myth. The shift from focus on the God complex of Frankenstein to the wretched existence of the unloved monster marks a moment of humble self-reflection for audiences who identify more with a pieced together, almost mute, bumbling mass of flesh who simply seeks a “friend”, than with the irresponsibly power-mad scientist.
Perhaps reflecting humans’ focus from their maker (whatever that may be) to themselves, the spectacle of Karloff – placed gnarled, deformed and doubtful of the relevance of his existence after the first world war and heralding the imminent concerns of Sartre’s existentialism – is life meaningful? Are we hear for a reason? Do these questions matter? – evoked the dread and ugliness of a meaningless existence at the intersection of biology and technology made flesh.
Cinematically we have not seen a return to the Gothic Shelley adaptation. Recent versions seem twee compared to Hammer’s 1950-70s viscerality – and the sci-fi robot or genetic creation has overtaken Victorian aesthetics. Sleeker, stronger creations of more metal and less flesh allay our horror at simply being a cluster of mortal cells.
While vampires, werewolves and even zombies are sparkly, sexy and utterly hygienic, it has been a while since we have had a truly corporeally flawed yet articulate monster whose body as a patchwork reminds us of the patchwork of identities and ideologies we are.
Empathy with the monster may be an ideal means of navigating this age. We must embrace difference and vulnerability and reflect on the Frankensteinian powers we exert at the expense of others. We should focus not on why we are here, but how we can be here more creatively, more accountably – as part of a world which, in a way, is its own kind of sewn-together organism of multiple different parts without reason or meaning.
The link below is to a book review of ‘Frankenstein,’ by Mary Shelley.
For more visit: