Mary Shelley’s Influences for Writing Frankenstein

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When we hear the name “Frankenstein” a cold shiver trickles down our spine. Why? Because the name has become synonymous with the Swiss scientist, who through experiments created a monster. The tale of the Frankenstein monster has been popular in horror films that it is hard not to think about the monster, whenever the name “Frankenstein” is mentioned.

While most people can give an account of how the monster came into being, one thing they do not understand is how the writer came up with such a horrific tale that has revolutionized the entertainment world.

It was the summer of the year 1816. It was a year like no other in history. Mount Tambora in Indonesia had experienced volcanic eruptions a year before, which had resulted in serious weather changes in many areas of the world including Europe. The temperatures were lowered significantly and as a result, there was no summer in Europe.

The year 1816 is thus referred to as the year without a summer. Mary Shelley was then just a teenager. Her illicit affair with the then married Percy Bysshe Shelley had seen them escape from England to Villa Diodati, a large house near Lake Geneva. They were also accompanied by Lord Byron, a poet and his personal physician, John Polidori. The weather was very volatile outside that the group spent most of the summer indoors.

As a way to pass time, they would engage in discussions covering various topics, including scientific theories. During one stormy night, they discussed Luigi Galvani’s works. Galvani was a reputable Italian scientist, who used electrical charges to cause muscle convulsions in deceased frogs. The word “galvanize” is therefore derived from his name and was introduced to the English dictionary to mean “to stimulate to action”.

From this discussion, they pondered about the possibility of using electrical impulses to bring back dead matter to life. After their discussions, Lord Byron suggested that each member should come up with a horror story. Mary took that opportunity to weave one of the best horror story ever written.

Although she was very young- 18 years to be exact, and with no prior writing experience, she did not hesitate to showcase to the world how brilliant her literary skills were. As a result, she has come to be referred to as the “mother of horror stories”. Coming from a family of intellectuals and literary experts, there was no telling what this young girl would do.

Her father, William Godwin was a revered journalist and novelist, whose literary masterpieces such as An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice and The Adventures of Caleb Williams attacked political entities of the day. Her mother was an accomplished writer and feminist, who dedicated her skills towards championing for equal rights of women.

Unfortunately for Mary, her mother died when she just a tender age of 10 days. Although she was not around, Mary Wollstonecraft continued to influence her daughter through her literary works. Her father also educated and tutored her and she therefore became a lover of literature. Her competence however had not yet been revealed until that fateful night when her gift was made apparent through what is widely considered a matter of chance rather that planning.

Although the idea was to come up with a horror story as quickly as possible, Mary was not able to start her work until later in the year due to what many people consider a writer’s block. The first person to spawn a tale was John Polidori, whose masterpiece The Vampyre is regarded as the forerunner of vampire tales.

It was not until she had a detailed vision of Dr. Frankenstein creating the monster that she decided to write her magnum opus. In the preface of her novel, she wrote:

“I placed my head on my pillow, I did not sleep, nor could I be said to think. My imagination unbidden, possessed and guided me… I saw with shut eyes, but acute mental vision, – the pale student of unhallowed arts standing before the thing he had put together, I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life and stir with an uneasy, half vital motion… frightful must it be; for supremely frightful would be the effect of any human endeavour to mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world. His success would terrify the artist; he would rush away from his odious handiwork, horror stricken…. He (the artist) sleeps but he is awakened; he opens his eyes; behold, the horrid thing stands at his bedside, opening his curtains and looking on him with yellow, watery, but speculative eyes.”

Several days after her vision, Mary began the novel. She had intended it to be a short story, but her husband persuaded her to make it a full-length novel. Therefore, the short story that was to be Frankenstein, ended up becoming the fourth chapter of the extended storyline. She finished the book in 1817 and was first published in 1818.

Her husband, Percy Shelley wrote the preface in the first edition. Despite the fact that only 500 copies were printed, the novel grew a cult following and as a result, various theatrical adaptations of the novel were made, including Presumption, which was developed by Brinsley Peake. The first edition had three volumes, while the second edition, which was published in 1823 had two volumes and was credited to Mary Shelley and not her husband.

The last revised edition was published in 1831 in one volume. Mary made several changes to this edition. For instance, she changed the relationship between Victor Frankenstein and Elizabeth. Initially, they were related by blood, but she decided to change that by making Elizabeth an adopted child. Her vision was not the only thing that influenced her novel. According to her admission, she was also influenced by other books that she read with her husband. She even referenced them in her own book. For instance, the Frankenstein’s monster identifies with Satan after reading John Milton’s Paradise Lost.

“But, Paradise Lost excited different and far deeper emotions…Like Adam, I was apparently united by no link to any other being in existence; but his state was far different from mine in every other respect. He had come forth from the hands of God a perfect creature, happy and prosperous, guarded by the especial care of his Creator; he was allowed to converse with, and acquire knowledge from, beings of a superior nature: but I was wretched, helpless, and alone. Many times I considered Satan as the fitter emblem of my condition; for often, like him, when I viewed the bliss of my protectors, the bitter gall of envy rose within me.”

A theory has also been proposed regarding the name Frankenstein and where she got it from. According to Walter Scheele, a German historian, Mary and Percy passed through Germany from Basel. While there, they learnt about a German alchemist by the name Johann Konrad Dippel, who resided at Burg Frankenstein, a castle near Darmstadt.

According to the legend, Johann experimented with corpses and as a result created a monster. Another interesting thing to note is that she was also influenced by a Swiss painter Henry Fuseli. Fuseli was once in a relationship with Mary’s mother, which could have exposed her to his paintings. One particular painting that she borrowed heavily from in her novel is The Nightmare. She used the vivid imagery of the portrait to describe Elizabeth’s dead body after the monster murders her:

“She was there, lifeless and inanimate, thrown across the
bed, her head hanging down, and her pale and distorted features
half covered by her hair. Everywhere I turn I see the same
figure–her bloodless arms and relaxed form flung by the
murderer on its bridal bier.”

While the novel has been honored as a literary classic of the horror genre and subsequently adopted in many horror films, Mary Shelley may have had a different perspective when she wrote the book and did not anticipate that it would be taken for its literal meaning. If she wanted a horror story, she could have used the same approach as John Polidori in his novel The Vampyre.

However, she chose to air out galvanism, a practice that was very popular during the 18th century. Written at the onset of industrial revolution, many have speculated that she wrote it as a warning on the use of science for selfish purposes of fame, glory and wealth, without much regard to the dangers that the creations pose for humankind.

This theory could not be further from the truth when we consider the number of people who have suffered as a result of science. A good example is the atomic bomb that was used to wipe out two cities in Japan. As if we have not seen enough, now we have scientists working tirelessly to create human beings.

Whatever her intentions were, we will never know. However, the general consensus is that the creation is never the problem, the motive behind the creation is the problem. The monster was not bad initially, but since its creator and everyone decided to mistreat it, it transformed to an uncontrollable creature.

The atomic bomb is not the problem, the intentions of the persons who created it is the problem. But as we learn from the protagonist Dr. Victor Frankenstein, for every action there must be a counter reaction. All decisions we make will affect us one way or another.

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