History of the Text

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Frankenstein’s Reception History: Frankenstein was Mary Shelley’s most popular work of fiction. However, upon its publication in 1818, critical reception was mixed. Though Shelley’s writing style was generally praised, some reviewers criticized the novel as blasphemous and absurd. Below are four major criticisms: 

  • Dedication to William Godwin: The novel is dedicated to William Godwin, Mary Shelley’s father. Godwin was one of the first modern proponents of anarchism and a harsh critic of aristocratic privilege and Britain’s political system. Furthermore, Godwin lived with controversial feminist writer Mary Wollstonecraft out of wedlock and only married her after she became pregnant. Conservative reviewers of Frankenstein were appalled by the novel’s association with such a radical literary figure. 
  • Improbability: Some reviewers, such as John Wilson Croker of The Quarterly Review, took issue with the novel’s supernatural premise, calling it a “tissue of horrible and disgusting absurdity.” Others, such as Sir Walter Scott in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, questioned the probability of details such as the monster’s acquisition of language and subsequent reading of Milton, Goethe, and Plutarch. 
  • Female authorship: As it was dubiously acceptable for women to write novels, Frankenstein was initially published anonymously—and some reviewers speculated that it was written by Percy Bysshe Shelley, Mary Shelley’s husband. Mary Shelley’s authorship was soon exposed, however, and many of the novel’s perceived flaws were attributed to its having been written by a woman. 
  • Morality: Some critics took issue with Shelley’s refusal to moralize Victor Frankenstein’s creation of the monster—considered by many audiences a blasphemous act of playing God. Furthermore, the novel was criticized as having no educational value for impressionable readers. John Wilson Croker, for example, lamented that Frankenstein “inculcates no lesson of conduct, manners, or morality.” 

Frankenstein’s Publication History: The first edition of Frankenstein was initially published anonymously in three volumes on January 1, 1818. Several years later, either Mary Shelley or her father, William Godwin, made 114 changes—mostly to spelling and phrasing—to the original text. The altered version was released as a second edition in August of 1823. A third edition, containing substantial thematic changes, appeared in 1831, by which time Shelley had lost her husband, two children, and Lord Byron, a close friend of the family. Furthermore, Shelley was struggling financially. Misfortune came to convince her that human events are determined by material forces outside human control. The 1831 edition contained the following changes: 

  • Structure: Following Letters 1 through 4, the novel’s chapters proceed from 1 to 24 instead of being divided into three volumes. This change highlights the nesting of Walton’s, Frankenstein’s, and the monster’s stories within one other. 
  • Elizabeth Lavenza’s origins: In the 1818 edition, Elizabeth is Victor’s cousin. Though it was not entirely unheard of for cousins to marry during Shelley’s time, contemporary readers may have found Elizabeth’s and Victor’s marriage scandalous. In the 1831 edition, Elizabeth is merely an orphan of no relation to the Frankensteins. 
  • Free will: Victor Frankenstein appears to be at the mercy of fate in the 1831 edition, whereas he exercised free will and changed his circumstances in the 1818 edition. Frankenstein’s helplessness underscores Shelley’s radically altered philosophical view that human events are controlled by external material forces. 

Literary Predecessors and Influences: Published during the peak of the Romantic period, Frankenstein is a novel with Gothic and Romantic influences. 

  • Novels: In Shelley’s time, the novel as a form was still relatively new and considered inferior to serious and traditional literary forms like poetry and academic histories. However, the novel, which sprung from medieval and early modern romances that featured exciting tales of adventure and intrigue, became immensely popular in the 19th century. 
  • Romanticism and Gothic fiction: Romantic literature is often characterized by intense experiences of emotion, sublime encounters with the natural world, and a great attention to beauty. Romanticism also emphasized individuality and the individual’s internal experience. Gothic fiction, which first rose to popularity in Germany, emerged as a subgenre of Romanticism in England. Gothic literature uses supernatural imagery and events to create dark and dramatic reading experiences. Frankenstein draws heavily on the Gothic tradition and in turn contributes a great deal to it. 

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