When Byron, inspired by some fireside readings of supernatural tales, suggested that each member of the party should write a ghost story to pass the time, there could scarcely have been a more propitious set of circumstances for the creation of the gothic and romantic classic called Frankenstein , the novel that some claim as the beginnings of science fiction and others as a masterpiece of horror and the macabre. Actually, it's both more and less than such labels might suggest.
At first, Mary Shelley fretted about meeting Byron's challenge. Then, she said, she had a dream about a scientist who "galvanises" life from the bones he has collected in charnel houses: "I saw — with shut eyes, but acute mental vision — I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together.
Frankenstein at 200 – why hasn't Mary Shelley been given the respect she deserves?
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. The scientist Victor Frankenstein, then, is the author of the monster that has come in popular culture to bear his name.
Frankenstein's story — immortalised in theatre and cinema — is framed by the correspondence of Captain Robert Walton, an Arctic explorer who, having rescued the unhappy scientist from the polar wastes, begins to record his extraordinary story. We hear how the young student Victor Frankenstein tries to create life: "By the glimmer of the half-extinguished light," he says, "I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open; it breathed hard, and a convulsive motion agitated its limbs.
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Unforgettably, Frankenstein has unleashed forces beyond his control, setting in motion a long and tragic chain of events that brings him to the brink of madness. Finally, Victor tries to destroy his creation, as it destroys everything he loves, and the tale becomes a story of friendship, hubris and horror. Frankenstein's narration, the core of Shelley's tale, culminates in the scientist's desperate pursuit of his monstrous creation to the North Pole. The novel ends with the destruction of both Frankenstein and his creature, "lost in darkness".
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The subtitle of Frankenstein is "the modern Prometheus", a reference to the Titan of Greek mythology who was first instructed by Zeus to create mankind. This is the dominant source in a book that is also heavily influenced by Paradise Lost and The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.
Mary Shelley, whose mother was the champion of women's rights, Mary Wollstonecraft, also makes frequent reference to ideas of motherhood and creation. The main theme of the book, however, is the ways in which man manipulates his power, through science, to pervert his own destiny.
Plainly, Frankenstein is rather different from, and much more complex than, its subsequent reinterpretations. The first reviews were mixed, attacking what one called a "disgusting absurdity". The novel was adapted for the stage as early as and Walter Scott saluted "the author's original genius and happy power of expression". It has never been out of print; a new audiobook version, read by Dan Stevens, has just been released by Audible Inc, a subsidiary of Amazon. A second edition appeared in to cash in on the success of a stage version, Presumption.
Two German films, The Golem and Homunculus , dealt with a similar theme derived from Jewish folklore. This film was a great success and was followed by dozens of variations on the Frankenstein story in films such as Bride of Frankenstein and Frankenstein Conquers the World , a Japanese-made version. You are using an outdated browser.
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See Article History. Learn More in these related Britannica articles:. When the actor starred in a succession of frightening films….