Mary Shelley

Mary Shelley – image from Literary Witches

It is Halloween month and so I expect to see at least a few Frankenstein decorations and costumes. I’m sure that Mary Shelley (August 30, 1797–February 1, 1851) would not be amused. This is also the 200th anniversary of her novel.

She intended her novel to be more than just fodder for horror films and costumes. The book’s 1831 full title – Frankenstein; or The Modern Prometheus – hints at that intention.

Some of her themes are as relevant, perhaps more relevant, today. The novel asks many questions about science and social responsibility. It was truly science fiction as she used many ideas that she had heard at lectures she frequently attended.

The novel is often dismissed as something much lighter because of the subsequent adaptations of it in other forms. We usually forget that “Frankenstein” is the doctor performing the experiments, not the “monster” he creates and regrets having brought to life.

We forget that her title, Frankenstein; or The Modern Prometheus, alludes to Greek mythology.  Prometheus was a Titan, a trickster figure who defied the gods by stealing fire and giving it to humanity. But Shelley’s allusion is to the credit he is given for creating man from clay. This god is then closest to the God of monotheism – and Dr. Frankenstein is being a modern-day god. (It is also no coincidence that the monster fears fire more than anything.)

In one introduction to the novel, Mary Shelley wrote:

Every thing must have a beginning… and that beginning must be linked to something that went before… Invention, it must be humbly admitted, does not consist in creating out of void, but out of chaos; the materials must, in the first place, be afforded: it can give form to dark, shapeless substances, but cannot bring into being the substance itself. In all matters of discovery and invention, even of those that appertain to the imagination, we are continually reminded of the story of Columbus and his egg. Invention consists in the capacity of seizing on the capabilities of a subject, and in the power of moulding and fashioning ideas suggested to it.

I had to look up her reference to Columbus’ egg. The term is used to describe a brilliant idea or discovery that seems simple or easy after the fact. The expression refers to an apocryphal story in which Christopher Columbus, having been told that discovering the Americas was inevitable and no great accomplishment, challenges his critics to make an egg stand on its tip. After his challengers give up, Columbus does it himself by tapping the egg on the table to flatten its tip. The story is often alluded to when discussing creativity.

The novel often comes up in conversations about cloning, test tube babies, genetic engineering, end of life and even artificial intelligence. Those instances would please Mary.