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).
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