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Who Was Mary Shelley? Under What Circumstances Did She Write Frankenstein?

Gothic CastleGOTHIC: TALES OF the macabre, fantastic, and supernatural, usually set amid haunted castles, graveyards, ruins and wild picturesque landscapes. They reached the height of their considerable fashion in the 1790's and the early years of the 19th century (Oxford Companion to English Literature, p. 405-06).

Undoubtedly, there are Gothic elements to Mary Shelley's novel. She was familiar with the classics of Gothicism: Mrs. Radcliffe's The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794), M.G. Lewis's The Monk (1796) and William Beckford'sVathek (1786). In common with these Gothic tales, Frankenstein made use of the correspondence between theme, character and setting. One of the chief elements in the novel is the use of atmosphere to create mood. The icy mists of the Arctic and the bleak windswept Alpine glacial fields are linked to the spiritual and social isolation of the Creature and its Creator. The filmography of Frankenstein has indelibly engraved the image of the Monster's silhouette climbing the crags of Mount Blanc amid outgrowths of tree stumps, illumined by the icy blue flash of lightning.

Not unlike Victor Frankenstein, Gothic heroes are trapped in gloom unable to appreciate the light of day. They are the descendants of Cain, Satan, and Prometheus - heroic in their rebellion yet pathetic in their destiny. Their pain and suffering exalt them above the collective and enshrine them in their excruciating settings. In order to depict the shadowside of their heroes, Gothicists used ghostly visitations, especially a device known as a döppleganger, a mirror image of the self. Creature and Creator in Frankenstein are in reality one self reflecting different sides of human personality. Victor Frankenstein says: "I consider the being I cast among mankind ... nearly in the light of my own vampire, my own spirit let loose from the grave, and forced to destroy all that was dear to me."

In Frankenstein: or, the Modern Prometheus the haunted gothic castles and medieval trappings are missing, replaced by experimental science and rationality. Frankenstein transcended Gothicism by combining science with the supernatural, or at least the supranatural. Shelley scholar Maurice Hindle draws attention to the differentiation between what Shelley was doing in distinction to her Gothic predecessors. The Gothic goal was to rebelliously assail the secrets of Heaven, whereas, in Shelley, Nature is being penetrated in a wanton act of assumption and pride.

Science Fiction: the current name for a class of prose narrative which assumes an imaginary technological or scientific advance, or depends on an imaginary and spectacular change in the human environment (Oxford Companion to English Literature, p. 876).

Mary Shelley read and relied on the most recent findings and theories of science to create her tale. She replaced the mythological theme of "heavenly fire" with the latest experiments of electricity. Benjamin Franklin, whose name has been suggested for the "Frank" in Frankenstein, may have been the modern Prometheus from whom Shelley drew inspiration. The concepts of electricity and warmth were theorized by Humphrey Davy whose experiments emphasized the electrical and chemical in a process know as galvanisation which was said to be the key to the animation of life. The spark of life was quasi-electrical in nature.

Mary became familiar with galvanisation both from the summer conversations at Villa Diodori with Byron and from her husband Percy's interest in this theme while at Oxford. A friend of his, Jefferson Hogg, describes Percy Shelley's early experiments with galvanism which solidly makes the link between Mary's husband and Victor Frankenstein:

Percy Shelley proceeded with much eagerness and enthusiasm, to show me the various instruments, especially the electrical apparatus; turning round the handle very rapidly, so that the fierce, crackling sparks flew forth; and presently standing on the stool with glass feet, he begged me to work the machine until he was filled with fluid (electricity), so that his long, wild locks bristled and stood on end... (Maurice Hindle, "Introduction", Frankenstein, Penguin Edition, p.xx).

Whatever else Percy was attempting to do, he provided not only a prototype for Mary's Victor but perhaps even the caricature of the mad scientist for later film versions.

Frankenstein: or, the Modern Prometheus meets the criteria of at least proto-typical science fiction and has inspired other literary works which typify the genre more closely such as H.G. Wells' The Island of Dr. Moreau and The Invisible Man. More popularly, Shelley's novel has inspired robotics sci-fi and even films such as The Terminator.

Mary Shelley's classic defies strict categorization as either Gothic of Science Fiction. While containing elements of both, it moves beyond these genres and may be viewed as an argument against the Romanticism of her idealistic husband Percy and Lord Byron. Regardless of label, it is a cautionary tale very much rooted in the Nineteenth Century but thoroughly applicable to our approaching Twenty first Century.

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© Copyright 1996 by Arthur Paul Patterson, Winnipeg, Canada

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