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Retro Read: Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

200 years after its first publication, why does Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein continue to captivate readers?

By Christine Brovelli-O’Brien, Ph.D., Content Contributor 

To say that Mary Shelley was ahead of her time when she wrote Frankenstein is no exaggeration – the word “science” wasn’t even in vogue yet. Mary’s hero, Victor Frankenstein, was a “natural philosopher,” the term used to describe what we now think of as scientist: someone who studies the physical and natural world.

Shelley began the novel in 1816 as a challenge between friends. Mary was a rebellious sixteen-year-old who had run away to continental Europe with a small band of infamous companions that included her partner, the well-known poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, and their close friend, Lord Byron, the original rebel without a cause. As the daughter of two famous revolutionary academics (feminist author Mary Wollstonecraft and philosophical writer William Godwin) and in possession of a fiery spirit, a teenaged Mary was primed to write a shocking tale of what happens when humans test the limits of their imagination.

As a child growing up in the household of her intellectual parents, Mary Shelley was a first-hand witness to the explosion of scientific discoveries, at a time when researchers were discovering and experimenting with electricity, magnetic fields, chemical compounds, and gasses such as oxygen. Philosophical discussions about the ethics in scientific discovery were swirling around Mary as she wrote and later revised Frankenstein, particularly with electricity; in the 18th century, the Age of Enlightenment, when these scientific achievements were occurring at rapid speed. Electricity was considered the “instigator of thought,” writes Kathryn Harkup in Making the Monster: The Science behind Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. That Mary focuses on the “spark of life” that electricity can bring provides contemporary and modern readers with insight into how the scientific mind operates.

In the decades leading up to the publication of Frankenstein, scientists were doing all sorts of cool things like discovering oxygen, potassium, and sodium. Galvani was conducting electrical experiments; Volta was busy inventing the first battery (known as the “pile”); and the study of anatomy was coming to the forefront of medical studies. The seedier side of this scientific progress is that to study further these inquiries, scientists needed hands-on experience. A lot of frogs gave up their lives for Galvani’s discoveries in what we now call the field of bioelectricity, and the lack of deceased human bodies to examine led to the lucrative practice of resurrection. Dr. Frankenstein finds himself collecting human and other animal parts for his “superman,” and although Mary glosses over the gory stuff, it was a very horrific (and smelly) endeavor.

One of the main themes in Frankenstein’s is the relationship between creative imagination and ethics – taking responsibility for what you create. Mary meditates on how the passion that drives a scientist to experiment, discover, and observe sometimes can be at odds with what is empathetic and compassionate. Victor struggles with this ethical dilemma – taking responsibility for his actions – throughout the novel, particularly when he recognizes the powerful impact of his invention. Or, as he lovingly refers to the Creature, his “hideous progeny.”

Mary wrote and published her novel during what literary theorists call the Romantic period (approximately 1798-1820s), a time of upheaval in politics, social structure, and, most importantly, scientific discovery. In their work, the Romantics delighted in the exploration of the unknown – however terrifying – and violence, both physical and psychological. The French Revolution was going on, so who could blame them for their fears.

Writers at this time also were concerned with the power of nature, and the role of nature in Frankenstein sometimes is overlooked and/or underappreciated. The driving force of nature propels and compels the characters to action. In his letters to his sister, the novel’s main narrator, Walton, describes the stark and bleak environment that he encounters during his arctic journey, and it’s in this territory that we first “see” the Creature. This Romantic ideal of nature found in Frankenstein(forest, north pole, ice) is one that continues to intrigue readers, especially young burgeoning environmental biologists and others who seek to preserve our Earth’s landscapes.

In addition to the ethical scientific and social dilemmas it proposes, the novel’s Gothic elements set the blueprint for what it means to be dark and dreary: the grotesque; the mysterious; the ghostly (including weather, such as fog and rainstorms); the crimes; and straight-up fear. Sound familiar? These motifs have been in scholarly and popular culture ever since the novel hit shops.

Theatrical productions of the novel started in the 1820s (Mary even saw the play in London!) and haven’t stopped since; Victorian Gothic authors drew upon Mary’s dreary landscapes and unspeakable horror. The first film version was released in 1910 by Edison Studio (as in, Thomas Edison, the lightbulb guy), and its influence has dominated film, television, and books since.

Artistic adaptation and interpretation is responsible for the green, clumsy monster named Frankenstein (Mary never names Victor’s creature) as well as feminist fiction like Kiersten White’s The Dark Descent of Elizabeth Frankenstein. For other reads both retro and contemporary, check out our staff picks for Frankenstein Read Alikes that will give you the creeps (in a good way) just as much as Mary’s novel does. If you’re looking for something more intensive, learn more about our Frankenstein-themed field trip with special guest Kiersten White coming up this December.

In 2017, a group of faculty members at MIT published Frankenstein: Annotated for Scientists, Engineers, and Creators of All Kinds. This edition speaks to the enduring important of Mary’s novel: what responsibility do we have for what we create? As the MIT authors point out, ethical dilemma is central to current scientific studies in the fields, including “synthetic biology, artificial intelligence, robotics, and climate engineering” as well as of stem cell research and genetic modification.

Introducing students to these STEAM concepts through fiction is a terrific way to help them discover and develop their own thoughts, opinions, ideas, and aspirations – to give them an outlet for their imagination, to see connections between concepts that may not be readily apparent and to develop their critical thinking and inquiry skills. Shelley’s Frankenstein is the perfect book for the job.