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Frankenstein: the mother of all fantasies

Since it was first published in 1818, Mary Shelley's 'Frankenstein' has spawned an enduring cult in literature, cinema, music and the arts. What explains the novel's persistence in pop culture and why is it worth revisiting after two centuries?

Mary Shelley. Photo: Getty Images
Mary Shelley. Photo: Getty Images

Most readers with a passing interest in the classics would have heard of the story of the 18-year-old Mary Godwin conceiving of a fantastical tale that bestowed literary immortality on her on a stormy night in June 1816. She and her soon-to-be husband Percy Bysshe Shelley were guests of Lord Byron’s at the Villa Diodati in the village of Cologny, near Lake Geneva, in Switzerland. Frankenstein, the novel she wrote inspired by a frivolous dare among friends, turns 200 this year.

Apart from spawning a rich tradition of science fiction and horror in literature, cinema and the visual arts, the iconic gothic novel has added the word “Frankenstein" to the English vocabulary—borrowed from the name of the hapless scientist who raises a “monster" from the dead, bringing disastrous consequences upon himself. The Oxford English Dictionary classifies it as noun: Frankenstein is “a thing that becomes terrifying or destructive to its maker". In its contemporary usage, though, the word has far exceeded its specific connotation, becoming synonymous, albeit misleadingly, with a range of other references—a creature of pure evil, a signifier of hubris, the devil incarnate, a baleful, destructive force.

If the term conjures up a vision of the living dead, most commonly represented by a zombie with putrefying flesh and repulsive face, that is the effect Shelley (she was married to the poet by the time Frankenstein was first published in 1818) had possibly intended for the reader. The idea to entertain themselves with self-composed horror stories had struck the assorted company at Villa Diodati—the Shelleys, Lord Byron and his friend, John William Polidori—as a sport and pastime. But what began as fun and games resulted in a prose fragment by Byron, which appeared as part of a long narrative poem, Mazeppa, in 1819. Polidori wrote The Vampyre, also published in 1819, which heralded an immensely popular supernatural genre that reached its epitome with Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897) and persists well into the 21st century in franchises like Twilight. Shelley’s masterpiece had a stranger gestation, progressing through multiple editions to reach its present avatar, which was substantially edited by her husband, but was published in its current form in 1831, long after his death.

In spite of its spooky provenance, Frankenstein has been called the mother of the modern science fiction fantasy by Brian W. Aldiss, one of the genre’s most celebrated practitioners, and with good reason. Born to Mary Wollstonecraft, the feminist writer who died giving birth to her, and William Godwin, a liberal political thinker, Mary Shelley grew up in an ambience of free thought. At 16, she fell for Percy Bysshe Shelley, while he was still married to his first wife Harriet and had had the distinction of being expelled from Oxford for propagating atheism. The two eloped shortly afterward, lived a peripatetic life, enjoying the company of fellow Romantics, and soaked in the spirit of scientific rationalism that had flourished with the Enlightenment in the 18th century.

Although Shelley didn’t go deep into the mechanics of resurrecting the dead in Frankenstein, she quoted the authority of the renowned physician, Erasmus Darwin, the grandfather of Charles Darwin, in the opening passage of the preface, to emphasize the credibility of her plot. The central moment in the narrative—that of the animation of the dead by Victor Frankenstein—is “not of impossible occurrence", she wrote, attributing this view to the revered scientist. Lest her claim might be deemed heretical, she balanced this proposition by drawing generously from the creation myth described by John Milton in Paradise Lost, which gave credence to the Biblical narrative of Adam and Eve, but also tempered it by mentioning the theories of Italian polymath Galileo Galilei.

From the epigraphs to each of the three volumes of Frankenstein to sporadic references to Adam and Satan along the way, the influence of Paradise Lost is all-pervasive in Shelley’s novel, as it was on the work of most other Romantics. Yet, while drawing on literary history, she was keenly aware of the advances made in the sciences during her time. By the time Frankenstein was written, Newton’s laws of nature, gravity and his theory of the universe were over a century old, Kepler’s laws were still being debated and Michael Faraday was making headway into the discovery of the properties of electromagnetism and electricity (it’s not a coincidence that Frankenstein is fascinated by the power of the latter to inject life into dead flesh and bones). But Shelley’s scientific temper and taste for the macabre were also inflected by a more personal, indeed primal, impulse.

An illustration from the 1831 edition. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
An illustration from the 1831 edition. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

One of the most moving readings of Frankenstein can be found in a chapter titled “Ice" in Rebecca Solnit’s autobiographical book of essays, The Faraway Nearby. A year before she began the novel, Solnit writes, Shelley, then barely 17, lost a baby girl, born prematurely, who lived for two weeks and faded away quietly in her sleep.

“My dearest Hogg my baby is dead," she wrote to her friend Thomas Jefferson Hogg, evidently distraught but still capable of going over her loss in excruciating detail. “It was perfectly well when I went to bed—I awoke in the night to give it suck it appeared to be sleeping so quietly that I would not awake it. It was dead then, but we did not find that out till morning—from its appearance it evidently died of convulsions—Will you come—you are so calm a creature & Shelley is afraid of a fever from the milk—for I am no longer a mother now."

Days later, she noted in her journal a haunting dream. “Dream that my little baby came to life again—that it had only been cold & that we rubbed it before the fire & it lived. Awoke and found no baby. I think about the little thing all day." There’s a record of a similar dream again sometime later—only Shelley knew how many more such visitations she might have had.

In the next few years, Shelley would give birth to three more children, only one of whom would live, and nearly die of miscarriage herself, narrowly escaping the fate of her own mother who had died shortly after she was born. Saved by the quick thinking of her husband, Shelley would lose him too, as he drowned after his sailboat was hit by a tempest.

Wedged into this series of births and deaths in Shelley’s life, the appeal of Frankenstein goes far beyond its promise of terror and titillation, crossing over into the realm of plaintive tragedy. At its heart, there is a yearning for the dead to come back to life, a cry every individual who has ever lost a loved one will recognize. But the fulfilment of that impossible wish, even within the make-believe world of fiction, exacts a devastating price.

Having suffered several agonizing losses by the time she was 25, Shelley knew no other way to end her story but to let her “monster", once lovingly called back to live among humans, disappear into a vast expanse of unending ice.

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