Reading Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein on Its 200th Anniversary: An Animated Primer to the Great Monster Story & Technology Cautionary Tale

200 years ago, 18-year-old Mary Shel­ley did an extra­or­di­nary thing. After a drea­ry win­ter evening spent indoors telling ghost sto­ries dur­ing the sto­ried “year with­out a sum­mer,” she took her idea and turned it into a nov­el. In Jan­u­ary of 1818, Franken­stein; or, The Mod­ern Prometheus appeared, first pub­lished anony­mous­ly in an edi­tion of 500 copies, with a pref­ace by her hus­band, poet Per­cy Bysshe Shel­ley. Grant­ed, Mary Shel­ley wasn’t an ordi­nary 18-year-old. In addi­tion to her romance with Shel­ley and friend­ship with Lord Byron, she was also the daugh­ter of philoso­phers William God­win and Mary Woll­stonecraft. Which is to say that she was steeped in Roman­tic poet­ry and Vic­to­ri­an thought from a very ear­ly age, and con­ver­sant with the intel­lec­tu­al con­tro­ver­sies of the day.

Nonethe­less, the young novelist’s achievement—her syn­the­sis of so many 19th-cen­tu­ry anx­i­eties into a mon­ster sto­ry rivaled only, per­haps, by Bram Stoker’s Drac­u­la—remains as impres­sive now as it was then. Shel­ley tells the leg­endary tale of the novel’s com­po­si­tion her­self in an intro­duc­tion to the heav­i­ly revised 1831 edi­tion. In the ani­mat­ed video above, schol­ar Iseult Gille­spie sketch­es out the book’s basics (as we know, Franken­stein is the name of the monster’s cre­ator; the mon­ster him­self remains name­less), then briefly explains some of its “mul­ti­ple mean­ings.”

We may be con­di­tioned by the genius of James Whale and Mel Brooks to think of the novel’s cen­ter as the doctor’s elec­tri­fied lab­o­ra­to­ry, but “the plot turns on a chill­ing chase” between mon­ster and doc­tor, and what a chase it is. The book’s grip­ping action scenes get bad­ly under­sold in con­cep­tions of Franken­stein (or the mon­ster, rather) as a sad, stu­pid, lum­ber­ing beast. In fact, Franken­stein, says Gille­spie, “is one of the first cau­tion­ary tales about arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence.” The novel’s Roman­tic inter­est in mythol­o­gy (spelled out more direct­ly by Per­cy two years lat­er in his Prometheus Unbound) and its use of Goth­ic devices to evoke dread mark it as a com­pli­cat­ed work, and its crea­ture as a very com­pli­cat­ed monster—a per­pet­u­al­ly rel­e­vant sym­bol of the hor­rors unchecked sci­en­tif­ic exper­i­men­ta­tion might unleash.

Shel­ley also inscribed her per­son­al trau­ma in the text; though well-known as the daugh­ter of the famed Wollstonecraft—author of the “key fem­i­nist text” A Vin­di­ca­tion of the Rights of WomenShel­ley nev­er actu­al­ly got to know her moth­er. Woll­stonecraft died of com­pli­ca­tions in child­birth, and Shel­ley, haunt­ed by guilt, and her grief over sev­er­al mis­car­riages she suf­fered, the first at age 16, uses what seems like a sto­ry sole­ly about male cre­ative agency to intro­duce themes of child­birth “as both cre­ative and destruc­tive.”

But most­ly Franken­stein comes to us as a nov­el about the “pow­er of rad­i­cal ideas to expose dark­er areas of life.” Though it may do the nov­el a crit­i­cal injus­tice to call it the Black Mir­ror (or Prometheus) of its time, the anx­ious con­tem­po­rary anthol­o­gy show is insep­a­ra­ble from a lin­eage of cre­ative texts in hor­ror and sci­ence fic­tion that owe a tremen­dous debt to the bril­liance of the young Mary Shel­ley. For more info on the ori­gins of this famous book, read Jill Lep­ore’s 200th-anniver­sary essay at The New York­er, and see all of the known man­u­scripts dig­i­tized at the Shel­ley-God­win archive.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Mary Shelley’s Hand­writ­ten Man­u­scripts of Franken­stein Now Online for the First Time

The Very First Film Adap­ta­tion of Mary Shelley’s Franken­stein, a Thomas Edi­son Pro­duc­tion (1910)

Franken­wee­nie: Tim Bur­ton Turns Franken­stein Tale into Dis­ney Kids Film (1984)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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