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A reader's guide to Frankenstein

Updated Sunday 1st January 2006

Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, first published in 1818, tells the story of a scientist obsessed with attempting to create life and stop death.

Mary Shelley began Frankenstein in 1816, when she was staying at the Villa Diodati on the shores of Lake Geneva. Lord Byron had proposed that the group assembled there should try their hand at writing ghost stories. At this time scientists had been exploring the possibility of regenerating corpses with electrical power, and Shelley’s work described the efforts of Victor Frankenstein to galvanize new life into a body. His actions were to have dire consequences.

The reborn ‘creature’ is actually described in some poignant and tender passages. He is not intrinsically evil; rather, he is an innocent, lonely victim who longs for integration in society. We witness his desire to find a mate and lead a normal family life.

Boris Karloff as Frankenstein (Madame Tussauds) Creative commons image Icon ensh under CC-BY-NC-SA under Creative-Commons license

However the frightening elements of the text swiftly caught the public’s imagination. By 1823 the story of the creature had become a successful stage production, complete with a terrifying figure who leapt out of a concealed laboratory at the top of a staircase. As time passed, the word ‘Frankenstein’ became associated with monstrosity – so much so, that many people think of the creature, rather than his creator, as bearing that name.

Shelley’s novel has a subtitle – The Modern Prometheus. This alerts us to the fact that she was drawing upon the ancient Greek myth of Prometheus, who formed man and animated him. Although inspired by noble motives, he displeased the gods and had to endure punishment. Like Prometheus, Victor Frankenstein can be viewed both as a creator and a transgressor.

Shelley’s exciting novel has been interpreted from a wide range of perspectives, and hopefully should galvanize discussion in the comments!

 

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