In A Nutshell
Want more deets? We've also got a complete Online Course about Frankenstein, with three weeks worth of readings and activities to make sure you know your stuff.
Despite what Hollywood wants you to think, there was no flash of lightning, no bolt through the head, no scientist crying "It's alive!," and no flat-top haircut. (Oh, and the monster wasn't named Frankenstein.) But if you ask us, the real story of Frankenstein is way, way cooler:
During the summer of 1816, eighteen-year-old Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin was hanging out in a Swiss lake house with her lover and future husband Percy Bysshe Shelley; famous English poet, Lord Byron; and Byron's doctor John Polidori. (And some others, but those are the important names.) It was a bummer of a vacation, since the 1815 eruption of Indonesian volcano Mount Tambora disrupted weather patterns so severely that 1816 became known as the "Year Without Summer."
So, you're bored out of your skull in a lakeside villa with two of the most famous writers in all of English literature. What do you do?
You have a ghost story contest.
Lord Byron challenged everyone to write the scariest, freakiest, spookiest story they could come up with. Polidori came up with The Vampyre, one of the first sexy vampire stories in the English language. Byron wrote a few fragments. And Mary Godwin had a vision (she claims) that she turned into one of the most famous horror stories in English literature: Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus.
Let's back up for a second: Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin wasn't just any eighteen-year-old. She was the daughter of two seriously smart people: Mary Wollstonecraft, who wrote basically the first work of English feminism ever (not to mention a bunch of political philosophy about human rights in general); and William Godwin, an atheist, anarchist, and radical who wrote novels and essays attacking conservatism and the aristocracy (and whose Caleb Williams probably influenced Frankenstein). Just imagine their dinner table conversations.
Our point is, Mary Godwin wasn't some girl writing gothic fan fiction in her LiveJournal. She may have been only eighteen, but she was seriously engaging with major intellectual questions of the time, like:
- Should there be limits to scientific inquiry?
- What's the relationship between human rationality and human emotion?
- What's the role of the individual in relation to society, or to the family?
The result was Frankenstein, a horror story about what happens when one man's desire for scientific discovery and immortality goes horribly wrong—and what happens to society's outcasts. With Percy's support (and the help of his extensive vocabulary, whether she asked for it or not), she expanded her short story into a novel and published it in 1818.
The critics didn't exactly go wild, but it was popular enough to be republished as a one-volume edition in 1831. Only Shelley wasn't the same bright-eyed 21 year old she'd been in 1818. By 1831, she had lost her husband and two of her children, and the revised edition has a grimmer tone. In the 1831 text, nature is a destructive machine; Victor is a victim of fate, not free will; and families are not so much happy and supportive as claustrophobic and oppressive. She made so many changes, in fact, that there's a real question about which version we should be reading.
Shmoop is sticking with the 1831 edition, because that's the one most people read. But if you ask us (and most scholars), the 1818 edition is where it's at.
Why Should I Care?
Frankenstein is basically responsible for the genre of science fiction, has seared our collective cultural imagination, has inspired countless monster movies (Tim Burton's among them), Halloween costumes, parodies, TV characters (think shows like Scooby Doo and The Munsters), and achieved all-around legend status.
So, obviously plenty of people have cared about it. Why should you?
Do you care about finding out the long-term effects of holding radiation-emitting devices near your ear for long periods of time? (None so far.)
Do you care about whether injecting human genes into goats might have unintended consequences? (Either way, pretty cool.)
Do you care if finding the Higgs Boson particle is going to create a black hole? (Uh, no.)
Do you care if Facebook learns a little more than you wanted it to know about your TV-viewing habits? (Because it knows all.)
Our point is that, just as much as Mary Shelley (and maybe even more), we live in an era of breathtaking scientific advances. And they are awesome. We love the Internet. We love not getting smallpox. We really love endless marathons of I Love the 80s. But there's a nagging little voice in the back of our head that asks, "What is all this doing to us? When is the other shoe going to drop?"
And we bet that you feel the same way.