Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley was born to radical thinkers William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft in London in 1797, a period of political and social unrest. A revolution was sweeping Europe, one whose technological innovations would forever transform traditional means of labor. As a result, farm laborers flocked to rapidly growing cities, the hubs of manufacturing. Although the Industrial Revolution increased production of goods in efficient and ingenious ways, it also brought new levels of squalor and brutal working conditions to the working class. In response to these inhumanities and to the science that had made such miraculous—or diabolical—machines possible, an intellectual and artistic movement grew. Later called Romanticism, the movement included political dissidents, radical philosophers, and rebellious artists who rejected the traditional forms of thinking and writing to fashion their own way of interpreting the world. The exotic fascinated them; distant places and peoples captured their imaginations. To the Romantics, the natural world was divine and beautiful—an awe-inspiring creation to be respected.
Mary Shelley was a nineteen-year-old Romantic thinker spending the summer of 1816 in Geneva in the company of her husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and the poet Lord Byron, when she penned one of the most well-known horror stories of all time. The writers were confined indoors for much of the stormy summer, and Byron set forth the challenge to write a horror story. As Mary Shelley pondered what her story might be, she listened to the conversations of her husband and Byron regarding the latest achievements—and limitations—of science. Could life be given to the lifeless? Where and how did life begin?
It was in this environment that Frankenstein: Or, The Modern Prometheus was conceived. Frankenstein is the story of an obsessed, glory-driven scientist whose unnatural creation corrupts his maker’s character and destroys the lives of those he loves most. It is a story of human loss and revenge, of guilt and debilitating remorse. It serves as a cautionary tale about unchecked ambition and progress, contrasting the powerful beauty of the natural world with an abhorrent creation of man. In the end, Frankenstein is a story of an abominable creature, its abominable creator, and their inextricable connection to one another.
What are the consequences when the wishes of God or nature are defied? Which fate is worse—to die or to live and suffer? Shelley explores both themes throughout the novel, and indeed the novel’s subtitle refers to a deity in Greek mythology who gave fire to mankind, thus bestowing on the human race an instrument both for good and for its destructive opposite. An angry Zeus had Prometheus bound to a rock, where an eagle ate his liver, only to have it grow back and be eaten by the eagle again, day after day. Shelley also evokes The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, wherein a mariner shoots an innocent albatross while at sea, thus committing a crime against nature. The mariner’s crew perishes as a result, while the mariner is doomed to remain alive. He wanders the earth in guilt and misery, warning others with his tale of woe.
Victor Frankenstein lives with his own albatross—the monster of his creation. His story endures because we continue to struggle with questions of scientific ethics: Where do we draw the line between scientific intervention and the laws of nature? As cloning, reproductive medicine, and end-of-life care become more and more advanced, is it always right to pursue scientific advancement? What are the costs?
Frankenstein has persisted throughout time as a menacing, but fascinating, presence in popular culture. Whereas in the novel Frankenstein is the creator, popular culture has appropriated the name and given it to the creature. Thus, people instantly recognize the lumbering bolt-necked giant, popularized in James Whale’s 1931 film, as Frankenstein. However, this confusion may be easily understood: creator and creature may be more alike than they are different.
By the end of the unit the student will be able to:
1. Explain how Frankenstein is a cautionary tale about the possible consequences that can result when scientific knowledge defies nature.
2. Demonstrate that one theme of the novel is concerned with the folly of judging by appearance and not by character.
3. Explain the significance of companionship to each of these characters: Captain Walton, Victor Frankenstein, and Frankenstein’s creation.
4. Sequence the intellectual and emotional development of Frankenstein’s creation throughout the novel.
5. Determine how the novel’s various settings contribute to its mood of loneliness and despair.
6. Compare and contrast Victor Frankenstein with his creation, explaining when in the story they are most different and when they are most alike.