Mary Shelley, the first science fiction novel and why Victor Frankenstein is not just a deadbeat dad but the worst human ever.
Boris Karloff as Frankenstein’s monster in the 1931 Universal Studios’ film. Makeup design by Jack Pierce.
It literally was a dark and stormy night.
Self-appointed (accurately) poetic geniuses Lord Byron and Percy Bysshe Shelley lounged in Byron’s Swiss chalet during one of the darkest, rainiest summers on record. Fueled by opium, laudanum and most likely a terrible combination of ennui and cabin fever, Byron recited Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s creepy poem, “Christabel,” to Shelley and the other intelligentsia gathered for a summer of free thinking and open relationships.
At this point, we imagine Percy made a crack about Byron’s choice of recitation because Byron’s response—“Do you think we can do better?”—incited another genius in the room, an 18-year-old woman named Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, to answer silently yes, I can.
And she did.
The novel she penned in one year and published in 1818 at 19 years old seared itself into the Western literary canon and gave humankind one of its most fascinating, most disturbing, most heartbreaking characters—Frankenstein was alive.
Manuscript page from Mary Shelley’s draft of Frankenstein.
The daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft, the indomitable, outspoken author and pioneer of the women’s rights movement, and anarchist William Godwin, the cult hero who wrote An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice, little Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin was only 11 days old when her mother died of a common post-partum fever. However, her mother’s presence, and the guilt Mary squirreled away in her heart over causing her mother’s death, never left her.
For the next 24 years, Mary’s life would resemble a Gothic tale with soap opera plot lines, including meeting her soulmate and baby daddy, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and sharing him with her half-sister and frenemy, Claire Clairmont. (Mary’s dad remarried, an arrangement that included an unpleasant stepmother and Claire. Oh, and did we mention Mary’s mom had another daughter named Fanny that was Mary’s older half-sister? Yes, by someone who was not William Godwin. We told you this was a soap opera. However, Fanny will be an important detail later.)
Portrait of Mary Shelley by Richard Rothwell, 1840.
Mary and Percy held their assignations in the cemetery near Mary Wollstonecraft’s grave, which, incidentally, is also how Mary learned to spell: by tracing her mother’s headstone. By the time she was 16, Mary was mentally emancipated, a fierce and headstrong person whom her dad called “almost invincible.” Mr. Godwin forbade Percy and Mary from seeing each other, as anarchism and moral freedom become much less appealing when it’s your daughter doing it.
Oh yes, we forgot to mention that Percy Bysshe Shelley was married. With children.
At this time, biology was the burgeoning science of the day. Tales of alchemists and scientists using electricity and magnetism to bring dead animals and newly-hanged convict corpses back to life made their way into the conversations Mary overheard in the elite, scholarly circles that surrounded her. The notion of “galvanizing”—“to give life to”—using electric currents struck a chord in Mary’s imagination and a nerve in her ethical foundation.
When Lord Byron, a notable yet morally bankrupt wit, entered the picture, things got very exciting and (even more) complicated. The young, free-thinking, free-loving radicals wended through Europe to Byron’s chalet on Lake Geneva. While traveling the Rhine, Mary heard of a dubious anatomist named Konrad Dipple who conducted gruesome re-animation and soul-transference experiments from his home, a stone fortress called Castle Frankenstein.
From Mel Brook’s 1974 sequel-spoof, Young Frankenstein.
That fateful summer of 1816, Mary not only took the ghost story challenge Byron issued, but she had a vivid, lucid dream of walking into a grimy room while a young doctor stood before a creature on a medical slab, a creature mish-mashed of human and animals parts, jolting to life before the doctor’s terrified gaze. She had her story.
She also had a baby inside her. By Percy. The baby died shortly after birth and around the time that Percy’s abandoned wife drowned herself from misery. Mary and Percy married, despite their free love ideology, and Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin became Mary Shelley. Her half-sister Fanny committed suicide as well, in unrelated circumstances, two months after the Shelleys’ wedding. These complicated, melancholic facts of Mary’s life weaved themselves into the moral and ethical questions at the heart of her tragic novel: what does it mean to love? What does it mean to have responsibility to another? What happens if you play God with someone else’s life?
That was a terrible year for Mary Shelley, but it was the year she wrote Frankenstein, which she completed while still nursing the second baby with Percy. That child, and the two after, would also die. Only the fifth child survived to adulthood, and even Percy Bysshe Shelley himself did not make it to 30 years old. He drowned on a stormy sea voyage to visit Lord Byron, his body identified by the unmistakable copy of Keats poems Percy carried in his pocket.
By then, Frankenstein was an international phenomenon. Mary Shelley, who could not bring herself to attend Percy’s pyre on the shores of Italy, was a mere 24-years-old.
David Dukes as Victor Frankenstein and John Glover as Henry Clerval in the 1981 Broadway production of Frankenstein by Victor Gialanella.
Because Frankenstein posits the medical possibility of electrifying tissues to life and succeeding, critics credit Mary Shelley’s masterpiece as the first true work of science fiction. For whatever reasons, over time the two main characters, Dr. Victor Frankenstein and his Creation, became confused, with folks mistakenly referring to the Creature as Frankenstein.
There’s a subtle poetic justice in that misnomer, though, because Mary Shelley portrayed Victor Frankenstein as the worst possible example of man: he wants the glory of knowing he can do the work of God yet wants none of the responsibility of being both father and god to his unattractive creation. Instead of loving his child, Victor Frankenstein rejects the Creature based on appearances, denying the Creature’s basic needs for love and belonging. The Creature, with his childlike innocence, loves Frankenstein faithfully, unquestioningly, confused by his creator’s disgust and abandonment. Creature Frankenstein, orphaned by his father, warps into a brute as he is brutalized by the cruelty of man. His name changes to “demon” or “monster” in the novel as he traverses the world in vengeance, resorting to murder.
So, society has done for Dr. Frankenstein what he could not do for his own son: claimed the creature as his own.
James McAvoy in Victor Frankenstein, the 2015 film adaptation.
Famed Yale literary critic Harold Bloom scathingly notes Victor Frankenstein is a “moral idiot” and a fitting archetype for our present time as he is a man who cannot comprehend his role in the consequences of his actions. The demon, Bloom writes, is superior to Frankenstein in feeling, which Mary Shelley biographers have noted must have been a feeling she knew too well in the company of Percy and Byron.
In the end, Mary Shelley, at 18 years old, penned the horror of the human heart, of rejection and the ways withholding love and kindness turn innocence and childlike curiosity into a corrupted and destructive spirit.
But if it’s true that to err is human and to forgive is divine, it’s worth noting that at the end of the novel, after the monster has killed Victor Frankenstein, he anguishes over his father’s body. He asks for forgiveness. By the end of the tale, we can be certain that if roles had reversed, the doctor would never have stood over the creature’s body begging for the same.
What that suggests is pretty terrifying.