The creation of man by Prometheus. Marble relief, Italy, 3rd century CE.

“A man is a god in ruins.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

“Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay
To mould me man? Did I solicit thee
From darkness to promote me?” ― John Milton, Paradise Lost

 

The story of Dr. Frankenstein and the “monster” he created is now 200 years old. Most people think of it as a horror story, but it was intended to be much more.

If you ever read the book, rather than just seeing any of the almost 100 movie incarnations of the monster, you would know that it has a lot to do with man’s consideration of mortality.

You may heard about the story’s origin. In 1818, Mary Shelley published the first edition of Frankenstein or the modern Prometheus, but it began on a stay near Lake Geneva with her husband, the poet Percy Shelley, and fellow poet Lord Byron. Trapped indoors by storms and bored, they decided to have a little ghost story writing competition. The story that Mary created wasn’t so much a ghost story, but her story idea led to the novel.

Mary

Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley

I only learned recently in reading a new edition of the novel that Mary Shelley had lost a premature baby daughter when she was only 17. She was haunted by thoughts and visions of the dead baby. She wrote in her journal that in a dream she saw her dead daughter brought back to life after being robbed vigorously in front of a fire.  It was only two years later, when she was 19, that she wrote the novel.

In movie versions of the novel, electricity sent through a human body brings the dead body to life. There were experiments done in her time, such as those by Alessandro Volta, to find the connection between electricity and the way our muscles move. But Shelley never described the details of the reanimation process. She describes the scientist finding an “elemental principle of life” which allows him to give life to inanimate matter. He realizes the God-like power this offers him and hesitates to use it. But finally, after two years of constructing a body using materials supplied by “the dissecting room and the slaughter-house,” he finishes his creature and brings him to life.

Dr. Frankenstein never gives the creature a name. (“Frankenstein” is the doctor, not the creature, but the movies have made that distinction unclear.) Shelley intended the result of the experiment to be considered a monster to be pitied. Certainly, one theme of the novel is the dangers of man “playing God” – a theme that is very relevant today as we experiment with genetics and artificial intelligence.

Mary Shelley subtitled her novel “The Modern Prometheus” and she expected her readers to know the story from Greek mythology of the Titan Prometheus. His name means “forethought” and he is a troublemaker for the other gods. He is credited with the creation of man from clay, done at Zeus’ bidding. But he defies the gods by stealing fire and giving it to humanity. A hero to mankind, his theft and gift enabled progress and civilization. But Prometheus is punished by Zeus, king of the Olympian gods, and sentenced to eternal torment bound to a rock. Every day for eternity an eagle (emblem of Zeus) would feed on his liver. The organ (which the ancient Greeks considered to be the seat of human emotions) would then grow back only to be eaten again the next day.Prometheus is freed from his torment by the hero Heracles (Hercules).

Shelley’s scientist is a strange combination of ideas. He is heroic, tragic, genius, madman. Lord Byron was a fan of the play Prometheus Bound by Aeschylus, and Mary’s husband Percy wrote his own Prometheus Unbound a few years later, so perhaps this topic was part of the Lake Geneva conversations.  Prometheus came to be viewed as a symbol of human striving, particularly the quest for scientific knowledge. But he also represents the risk of overreaching or unintended consequences. The Romantics viewed him as someone whose best efforts to improve human existence resulted in tragedy.

“Modern Prometheus” was a term coined by philosopher Immanuel Kant in reference to Benjamin Franklin and his experiments with electricity. (Mary’s father was the political philosopher and novelist William Godwin, so it is likely she was aware of this reference. Dr. Frankenstein comes to see his creation as a monster and regrets giving it life. He decides that death must be viewed as a final thing.

The movie versions of her story, as with many other movie versions of novels and of real life, have made deeper impressions on audiences. The serious themes that Mary wanted to address are made less important in the films, while the horror of the “monster” and the “madness” of the scientist are brought to the front.

Frankenstein is a Gothic novel and clearly a part of the Romantic movement, but is also a very early example of science fiction. It can be argued that it is the first true science fiction story when compared to earlier stories that are more fantasy. This scientist and his modern experiments in the laboratory that echo some of the science of today does what most modern sci-fi still does. It looks at where we are and imagines where that might lead in the future. Like much sci-fi, her story is a cautionary tale, a warning.

 

“It was on a dreary night of November that I beheld my man completed …” (Draft for Frankenstein)

The first edition of the novel was published in 1818 in three volumes (the “triple-decker” format was typical for 19th-century first editions) with only 500 copies and without Mary’s name on the book.  A second edition in 1822 had two volumes with her name on the title page. By then a successful play, Presumption; or, the Fate of Frankenstein by Richard Brinsley Peake, had driven some demand for the novel.

It wasn’t until 1831 that a one-volume edition appeared. Mary heavily revised the novel to make it “less radical” and this is the version that is generally read today. But there are versions of the original “uncensored” edition and some nice annotated versions that I would recommend as they give the reader background on elements of the story. There is even a version called Frankenstein: Annotated for Scientists, Engineers, and Creators of All Kinds. I have read all of them and the story continues to interest me as I read more about Mary Shelley and think about how her story applies to our modern times.