Tuesday, September 2, 2008


Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus is a novel written by the British author Mary Shelley. Shelley wrote the novel when she was 19 or 20 years old. The first edition was published anonymously in London in 1818. Shelley's name appears on the revised third edition, published in 1831. The title of the novel refers to a scientist, Victor Frankenstein, who learns how to create life and creates a being in the likeness of man, but larger than average and more powerful. In popular culture, people have tended to refer to the Creature as "Frankenstein", despite this being the name of the scientist. Frankenstein is a novel infused with some elements of the Gothic novel and the Romantic movement. It was also a warning against the "over-reaching" of modern man and the Industrial Revolution, alluded to in the novel's subtitle, The Modern Prometheus. The story has had an influence across literature and popular culture and spawned a complete genre of horror stories and films. It is arguably considered the first fully realized science fiction novel. The novel raises many issues that can be linked to today's society.

Shelley's inspiration

The first draft of Frankenstein, along with Percy Shelley's emendations; page begins "It was on a dreary night of November that I beheld my man completed..."

During the rainy summer of 1816, the "Year Without a Summer," the world was locked in a long cold volcanic winter caused by the eruption of Mount Tambora in 1815. Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, age 19, and her lover (and later husband) Percy Bysshe Shelley, visited Lord Byron at the Villa Diodati by Lake Geneva in Switzerland. The weather was consistently too cold and dreary that summer to enjoy the outdoor holiday activities they had planned, so the group retired indoors until almost dawn talking about science and the supernatural. After reading Fantasmagoriana, an anthology of German ghost stories, they challenged one another to each compose a story of their own, the contest being won by whoever wrote the scariest tale. Mary conceived an idea after she fell into a waking dream or nightmare during which she saw "the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together." Byron managed to write just a fragment based on the vampire legends he heard while travelling the Balkans, and from this Polidori created The Vampyre (1819), the progenitor of the romantic vampire literary genre. Two legendary horror tales originated from this one circumstance.


Mary Shelley completed her writing in May 1817, and Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus was first published on 1 January 1818 by the small London publishing house of Harding, Mavor & Jones. It was issued anonymously, with a preface written for Mary by Percy Bysshe Shelley and with a dedication to philosopher William Godwin, her father. It was published in an edition of just 500 copies in three volumes, the standard "triple-decker" format for 19th century first editions. The novel had been previously rejected by Percy Bysshe Shelley's publisher, Charles Ollier and by Byron's publisher John Murray.

Critical reception of the book was mostly unfavourable, compounded by confused speculation as to the identity of the author. Sir Walter Scott wrote that "upon the whole, the work impresses us with a high idea of the author's original genius and happy power of expression", but most reviewers thought it "a tissue of horrible and disgusting absurdity" (Quarterly Review).

Despite the reviews, Frankenstein achieved an almost immediate popular success. It became widely known especially through melodramatic theatrical adaptations — Mary Shelley saw a production of Presumption; or The Fate of Frankenstein, a play by Richard Brinsley Peake, in 1823. A French translation appeared as early as 1821 (Frankenstein: ou le Prométhée Moderne, translated by Jules Saladin).

The second edition of Frankenstein was published on 11 August 1823 in two volumes (by G. and W. B. Whittaker), and this time credited Mary Shelley as the author.

On 31 October 1831, the first "popular" edition in one volume appeared, published by Henry Colburn & Richard Bentley. This edition was quite heavily revised by Mary Shelley, and included a new, longer preface by her, presenting a somewhat embellished version of the genesis of the story. This edition tends to be the one most widely read now, although editions containing the original 1818 text are still being published. In fact, many scholars prefer the 1818 edition. They argue that it preserves the spirit of Shelley's original publication (see Anne K. Mellor's "Choosing a Text of Frankenstein to Teach" in the W. W. Norton Critical edition).


One interpretation of her novel was alluded to by Shelley herself, in her account of the radical politics of her father, William Godwin:

"The giant now awoke. The mind, never torpid, but never rouzed to its full energies, received the spark which lit it into an unextinguishable flame. Who can now tell the feelings of liberal men on the first outbreak of the French Revolution. In but too short a time afterwards it became tarnished by the vices of Orléans -- dimmed by the want of talent of the Girondists -- deformed and blood-stained by the Jacobins."

The book can be seen as a criticism of scientists who are unconcerned by the potential consequences of their work. Victor was heedless of those dangers, and irresponsible with his invention. Instead of immediately destroying the evil he had created, he was overcome by fear and fell psychologically ill. During Justine's trial for murder, he had the chance to perhaps save the young girl by revealing that a violent man had recently declared a vendetta against him and his loved ones. Instead, Frankenstein indulges in his own self-centered grief. The day before Justine is executed and thus resigns herself to her fate and departure from the "sad and bitter world", his sentiments are as such:

"The poor victim, who was on the morrow to pass the awful boundary between life and death, felt not, as I did, such deep and bitter agony... The tortures of the accused did not equal mine; she was sustained by innocence, but the fangs of remorse tore my bosom and would not forego their hold."

It is noteworthy, however, that Frankenstein, despite his colossal folly at creating his monster, did realize the foolishness of his actions. In Chapter 24 he warns Walton of the danger inherent in tampering with such evil.

"Learn from my miseries and do not seek to increase your own."

These are the words he uses to potentially redeem some part of himself, as well as prevent further evil from occurring.

Representing a minority opinion, Arthur Belefant in his book, Frankenstein, the Man and the Monster (1999, ISBN 0-9629555-8-2) contends that Mary Shelley's intent was for the reader to understand that the Creature never existed, and Victor Frankenstein committed the three murders. In this interpretation, the story is a study of the moral degradation of Victor, and the science fiction aspects of the story are Victor's imagination.

Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frankenstein

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