Study Guide

Frankenstein

By Mary Shelley

Frankenstein Introduction

 

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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.

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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.

What is Frankenstein About and 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.

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Frankenstein Resources

Websites

How Galvanic!
Want to know a lot about electricity and Frankenstein? Like, a lot? Check out the National Institute of Health's website.

In Depth
Want to know a lot—a lot about Frankenstein? Check out this annotated e-text, with references to clear up every question you could possibly ask about the novel.

Nothing But the Text
Just want to read the novel without any of that silly "learning" stuff? Check out this Gutenberg e-text.

Movie Magic
Everything you ever wanted to know about Frankenstein's movie history.

Movie or TV Productions

Happy Birthday!
One hundred years after the 1831 edition of Frankenstein, Hollywood came out with the classic movie, with Boris Karloff as the monster.

Star Power
You'd think this 1994 Kenneth Branagh joint—with Helena Bonham Carter and Robert De Niro—would have better reviews.

Frankenstein's Dog
Tim Burton does some movie magic in 2012's Frankenweenie. Come on, who wouldn't want to reanimate the corpse of their favorite dog?

Articles

Light My Fire
Two scholars discuss that pesky "spark of being."

Penetrating Nature
Scholar Anne Mellor looks at Frankenstein as a feminist critique of science.

Heat Up That Tea
Ready to curl up with some good reading? Check out this long, long list of articles that Frankenstein has inspired.

Video

Thanks, Edison
Come on, what else are you going to do with the next 13 minutes than watch this (short) 1910 adaptation of Frankenstein?

It's Alive!
The iconic scene from the 1931 movie. (Better than the book? Worse? Just different?)

Classic Lite
Apparently, not everything Kenneth Branagh touches turns to gold.

Audio

Perfect For a Rainy Day
Here's NPR talking about the weather's effect on Frankenstein.

Put On Your Thinking Cap
BBC Radio 4 discusses vitalism (the idea that a "spark of being" keeps us all alive).

It's Free!
For the full effect of this audiobook, turn out the lights and listen in the dark.

Images

Sweet Dreams
Artist John Henry Fuseli was more than friends with Mary Shelley's mom, Mary Wollstonecraft. Supposedly this painting, The Nightmare, inspired Shelley's description of the dead Elizabeth. (Notice that the demon is crouching right where her uterus would be?)

No Pictures?
The cover page for the first edition of Frankenstein isn't giving anything away.

Poor Monster
Here's Boris Karloff in 1931 as the original Frankenstein-monster. He doesn't look so bad.