Even if you've never read the novel Frankenstein--or knew there was a novel--you know the story.
You've seen it depicted in movies and cartoons, and you've spotted the monster on cereal boxes and at Halloween parties. The tale of the rogue scientist and the creature he brought to life is 200 years old, yet it seems as if it were H ripped from today's headlines: scientists creating synthetic organisms; engineers designing increasingly powerful artificial intelligence systems; researchers growing organs in petri dishes. How did Mary Shelley, just 18, come up with this story, and what can we learn from it today?
It all started with a dare on the unusually cold and stormy night of June 15, 1816, in a stately house on the shores of Switzerland's Lake Geneva. "We will each write a ghost story," said the party's host, the famous poet Lord Byron. Mary--born Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin--and her soon-to-be husband, the poet Percy Shelley, were spending the summer with Byron, but the weather was so terrible that they huddled indoors reading by candlelight from a book of German folk tales about vampires and tortured souls.
Mary Shelley recalled later that the seed for Frankenstein had come to her in a vision deep in the night: "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."
Often regarded as one of the first science fiction novels, Frankenstein tells the story of a young student, Victor Frankenstein, who abandons his studies to pursue his dream of bringing the dead back to life. He robs graveyards and slaughterhouses for body parts and cuts himself off from everyone. When Victor finally succeeds, the creature horrifies him and he flees, leaving this highly intelligent, inhumanly strong being to fend for himself. Repeatedly rejected by his maker and society at large, the creature becomes a monster, exacting his revenge by killing everyone Victor loves.
To create her novel, Shelley drew on her troubled past and her extensive book knowledge. Her mother, the feminist philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft, had died after giving birth to her. (Shelley claimed she learned to read by tracing the letters on her mother's tombstone--which she spent many hours visiting as a girl.) And Shelley's own first child died at just a few weeks old. Frankenstein reflects this personal history: It's a story about the dangerous and unpredictable process of bringing new life into the world.
Shelley was also well-versed in the philosophical and scientific ideas of the time. Her father, William Godwin, a well-known philosopher, and her stepmother home-schooled her, and Shelley studied Latin and Greek, and read widely in philosophy, the sciences, and other fields--extremely unusual for a woman of that era. Shelley was particularly interested in galvanism, a new scientific theory that electricity could be used to stimulate or restart life.
As a result, Shelley came up with a strange new kind of book that has the plot of a gothic adventure story filled with murder and mayhem but also reads like a work of philosophy. Because of its strangeness, its violence, and the author's gender, only a third-rate publisher would take the project and the author's name was kept secret. Finally, on January 1, 1818, Shelley's novel Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus appeared in a print run of 500 copies in London. The reviews were mixed.
"Early readers did not like Frankenstein," says Charlotte Gordon, author of Romantic Outlaws, a biography of Shelley and her mother. "They did not know who the author was, as it was published anonymously. When they found out that Frankenstein was written by a woman, they were horrified."
One critic, Gordon says, thought the author must be as "monstrous" as the monster she created. But despite the public's uneasiness, the proof of Frankenstein's impact was in how quickly people "borrowed" it, and by that measure the novel was a huge success, with numerous stage adaptations in the years that followed. These plays often opened to huge crowds and scandalous publicity.
When the English Opera House in London advertised the first adaptation of the "improper work called Frankenstein" in 1823, the advertisements said, "Do not take your wives, do not take your daughters, do not take your families!!!!"
The Industrial Revolution
Shelley had put her finger on the uncomfortable intersection of scientific and technological change that was sweeping the world in the form of the Industrial Revolution--the rise of mechanized production and the shift from an agriculture-based economy to an industrial one. Experimental science was still in its early days. In fact, at the time the book was published, the word "scientist" did not exist. Shelley's flawed character Victor actually predated its first use by at least 10 years. Shelley also harnessed much older religious and ethical dilemmas about creating life and taking responsibility for our actions.
Today, Frankenstein is one of the most read novels in history, available in hundreds of editions and translations. It's assigned in more college classes in the U.S. than any other novel, according to the Columbia University-based Open Syllabus Project, and it appears on many high school reading lists.
The creator and the creature haunt us in film and television too, which is where millions...