The greatest horror novel was written 200 years ago by a 19-year-old. Susan J. Wolfson and Ronald Levao, the team behind the notes in the spectacular new The Annotated Frankenstein, tell us why.
Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, conceived by nineteen-year old Mary Shelley, and published before she was twenty, may be the most famous, most enduring imaginative work of the Romantic era, even of the last 200 years. First issued in a mere 500 copies in 1818, it has never been out of print, and has gone on to inspire legions of writers, theatrical producers and film-makers, to rewrite the fable of man-creating Prometheus to reflect the excitements of scientific idealism and the anxieties about ambitious schemes run disastrously out of control. Frankenstein continues to generate cautionary tales, to haunt allegories of aliens and alienation, and to name any half-acknowledged human “other.”
The young woman who after this stunning debut would sign herself “The Author of Frankenstein” was born in 1797, with complications that killed her mother ten days later. Her name was Mary Wollstonecraft, famous (or infamous) as one of the powerful “feminist” political philosophers in English letters. The infant’s father was William Godwin, also famous for controversial anti-government polemics. In his grief, he may have viewed little Mary as a dreadful error, inadvertently instructing this motherless child what it was to come into the world as a painful confusion. Although Frankenstein is about much more, it is deeply rooted in the primary catastrophe of a creator dismayed by his Creature on its first breath—so dismayed that he abandons the being he brought to life.
Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin met Percy Shelley when she was fifteen. Although he was married, they fell in love and became lovers when she was sixteen. Mary’s life with Percy was intimate, liberating, exciting, stressful and often painful. She was soon pregnant, but their infant died a few weeks later on the night of March 5, 1815. In acute grief, on March 19 she wrote in her journal, “Dream that my little baby came to life again—that it had only been cold & that we rubbed it by the fire & it lived—I awake & find no baby—I think about the little thing all day.” The dream would return more than once in Frankenstein, as warmth or fire animates the dead, or near dead, into life. The next pregnancy led to the birth in January 1816 of a child she named William, her father’s name.
In summer 1816, Mary, little William, and Percy headed to Switzerland to meet Lord Byron at his villa on the shores of Lake Geneva. He and Percy Shelley had admired each other’s poetry and were eager to know one another. During this visit the group read volumes of ghost stories to each other. Byron then proposed that they try their own skill. Except for Byron’s personal physician, who worked with an idea from Byron about a vampire, turning it into a story that later in the century would become the seed of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, everyone gave up. Not Mary. “I busied myself to think of a story,” she recollects (in an introduction to a new version of the novel published in 1831). But she hit a writer’s block, a dead “mortifying negative” to everyone’s question Have you thought of a story? --until one night her “imagination, unbidden” came to life with “vividness”:
I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half vital motion ... I recurred to my ghost story,--my tiresome unlucky ghost story! O! if I could only contrive one which would frighten my reader as I myself had been frightened that night!
Swift as light and as cheering was the idea that broke in upon me. “I have found it! What terrified me will terrify others” . . . On the morrow I announced that I had thought of a story.
Frankenstein arrests us by force of its astonishing fantasy and its range of implication: the definition of “monster,” judgments that derive virtue or villainy from class origins and accidents of physical appearance; the responsibility of creators to and for their creations; the responsibility of society for the anger of those to whom it refuses care, compassion or just decent regard; the relationships of parents and children--and all this arrayed with an eerie, brilliant intuition, a century before Freud, about the psychological dynamics of repression, transference, condensation, dream-work, and alter egos.
“Frankenstein” has multiplied in force to name any disturbing development in science and technology, as well as in history and politics, sports and fashion, and just about everything else--with various and sometimes overlapping senses of amusement, alarm, awe, and admonition. Hardly a month passes without some new iteration. “We have created a Frankenstein,” murmured one reporter on the horror of Hiroshima, in August 1945. At the end of this century, Dolly, the first cloned lamb, was compared to Frankenstein’s misbegotten creature. Anxiety about genetics replacing Genesis led President George W. Bush to veto federal funding for stem-cell research on the grounds of the blasphemy of playing God, and columnist William Safire to warn of “the slippery slope to Frankenscience.”
In the animations of early cinema, Thomas Edison, the genius of electricity, made the first film of Frankenstein in 1910. Many of us first encountered the fable in this media. Among the most famous are James Whale’s 1931 Frankenstein (with Boris Karloff as the Creature) and the 1935 sequel, The Bride of Frankenstein. Then a torrent of sequels, reimaginings, parodies and charming recastings. Just this fall, Tim Burton’s Frankenweenie entertains a youthful experiment, motivated by heartfelt grief, gone wrong, elaborated with knowing references to Shelley’s tale (including a monstrous turtle-catastrophe named “Shelley”), yet with a sweetly optimistic, life-affirming conclusion. Frankenstein remains, above all, our greatest horror tale, retaining its hold on our imaginations because it drives deep into, and draws deeply from, our most fundamental fears about the thin line between vitality and dead matter, and our inadequacy amid the most alluring temptations of our idealism.