Mary Shelley, Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus


Manesse Bibliothek der Weltliteratur, published in 1983


The story how and why Mary Shelley wrote “Frankenstein” is legendary. Mary Godwin Wollstonecraft is born in London in 1797. As the daughter of two writers and future wife of the famous English Romantic Percy B. Shelley, writing comes to her naturally. In the summer of 1816 the young Mary Godwin spends some time with Shelley, Lord Byron and his personal physician John Polidori in a villa on Lake Geneva. Because the weather is unusually bad that summer, the literati gather around the fireplace to read German ghost stories.


This leads to the suggestion each of those present should write their own ghost story. In the preface to a later edition, Shelley writes the idea for her story came to her in a nightmare that haunted her in a stormy night. After she suddenly wakes from the terrible vision of a human corpse brought back to life, the young author, then only 18 years old, wants to devise a story “to make the reader dread to look round, to curdle the blood, and quicken the beatings of the heart.”


Shelley’s epistolary novel tells the story of the Swiss natural scientist Viktor Frankenstein who, inspired by his studies of alchemy and medicine, becomes obsessed with the idea of bringing back to life a human corpse. When the experiment finally succeeds, he realizes, to his great horror, that he’s created a monster. He casts the unfortunate creature out – a decision that will cost him and other people their life in the course of the novel’s events.


In both form and content the novel is a product of its time, of the developments in literature on the one hand, and of science on the other hand. We are in the early 19th century and thus in the age of electricity, the invention of the voltaic pile, and the experiments with galvanism. These experiments, which employ electricity to cause muscle contractions in human corpses, are incredibly fascinating for people since they create the illusion of breathing new life into the deceased. At the same time, Romantic literature, partly as a reaction to the rationalism of the 18th century, turns to the irrational, supernatural, and the fantastic.


As a warning about human hubris and the danger of playing God, the novel is as topical today as it was 200 years ago; genetic engineering and stem-cell research play out in exactly that area of conflict between science and ethics that “Frankenstein” addresses.


The novel is first published in 1818 and because of its great popularity is soon republished in a second and third edition. And yet the author achieves sustained critical acclaim only in the later 20th century. During her lifetime this recognition is often denied her due to her connections with famous men: Either her novel receives bad reviews because she is linked to the radically left-wing ideas of her politically controversial father, or accusations are put forward that her husband Percy Shelley substantially contributed to the writing of the book. Mary Shelley’s personal life is almost as tragic as that of her fictional creation Viktor Frankenstein: Only one of her four children survives and she loses her husband in an accident at sea when she is still very young.


by Teresa Teklić




Signet Sunflower Foundation