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From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

This article is about the 1818 novel. For the monster itself see Frankenstein's monster. For movies, comics and other derivative works see Frankenstein in popular culture.

Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus is a novel by Mary Shelley. First published in London, England in 1818 (but more often read in the revised third edition of 1831), it is a novel infused with some elements of the Gothic novel and the Romantic movement. It was also a warning against the "over-reaching" of modern man and the Industrial Revolution, alluded to in the novel's subtitle, The Modern Prometheus. The story has had an influence across literature and popular culture and spawned a complete genre of horror stories and films. Many distinguished authors, such as Brian Aldiss, claim that it is the very first science fiction novel.

Plot summary

The novel opens with Captain Walton on a ship sailing north of the Arctic Circle. Walton's ship becomes ice-bound, and as he contemplates his isolation and paralysis, he spots a figure traveling across the ice on a dog sled. This is Victor Frankenstein's creature. Soon after he sees the ill Victor Frankenstein himself, and invites him onto his boat. The narrative of Walton is a frame narrative that allows for the story of Victor to be related. At the same time, Walton's predicament is symbolically appropriate for Victor's tale of displaced passion and brutalism.

Victor takes over telling the story at this point. Curious and intelligent from a young age, he learns from the works of the masters of Medieval alchemy, reading such authors as Albertus Magnus, Cornelius Agrippa and Paracelsus and shunning modern Enlightenment teachings of natural science (see also Romanticism and the Middle Ages). He leaves his beloved family in Geneva, Switzerland to study in Ingolstadt, Bavaria, Germany, where he is first introduced to modern science. In a moment of inspiration, combining his new-found knowledge of natural science with the alchemic ideas of his old masters, Victor perceives the means by which inanimate matter can be imbued with life. He sets about constructing a man—perhaps intended as a companion—using means that Shelley refers to only vaguely. The main idea seems to be that Victor built a complete body from various organic parts, then simulated the functions of the human system in it. In the novel it is stated (chapter 4, volume 1) that he uses bones from charnel houses (repositories for the bones or bodies of the dead), and The dissecting room and the slaughterhouse furnished many of my materials; and often did my human nature turn with loathing from my occupation, whilst, still urged on by an eagerness which perpetually increased, I brought my work near to a conclusion. However, this is at odds with him creating a similar Monster later in the novel on an island that would not have a large enough selection of corpses. An alternate theory is that the bones in the charnel houses' were used to understand human anatomy, and the body was made from base chemicals.Subsequent visual interpretations of the story have included the creation of Frankenstein's monster through alchemy, by the piecing together of corpses, or a combination of the two. In films, the body is often given the "spark of life" in the form of a channeled lightning bolt, conducted from a lightning rod during a stormy night.

He intends the creature to be beautiful, but when it awakens he is disgusted. It has yellow, watery eyes, translucent skin, and is of an abominable size. Victor finds this revolting and runs out of the room in terror. That night he wakes up with the creature at his bedside facing him with an outstretched arm, and flees again, whereupon the creature disappears. Shock and overwork cause Victor to take ill for several months. After recovering, in about a year's time, he receives a letter from home informing him of the murder of his youngest brother William. He departs for Switzerland at once.

Near Geneva, Victor catches a glimpse of the creature in a thunderstorm among the rocky boulders of the mountains, and is convinced that it killed William. Upon arriving home he finds Justine, the family's beloved maid, framed for the murder. To Victor's surprise, Justine makes a false confession because her minister threatens her with excommunication. Despite Victor's feelings of overwhelming guilt, he does not tell anyone about his horrid creation and Justine is convicted and executed. To recover from the ordeal, Victor goes hiking into the mountains where he encounters his "cursed creation" again, this time on the Mer de Glace, a glacier above Chamonix.

The creature converses with Victor and tells him his story, speaking in strikingly eloquent and detailed language. He describes his feelings first of confusion, then rejection and hate. He explains how he learned to talk by studying a poor peasant family through a chink in the wall. He performs in secret many kind deeds for this family, but in the end, they drive him away when they see his appearance. He gets the same response from any human who sees him. The creature confesses that it was indeed he who killed William and framed Justine, and that he did so out of revenge. But now, the creature only wants companionship. He begs Victor to create a synthetic woman (counterpart to the synthetic man), with whom the creature can live, sequestered from all humanity but happy with his mate.

At first, Victor agrees, but later, he tears up the half-made companion in disgust and madness. In retribution, the creature kills Clerval, Victor's best friend, and later, on Victor's wedding night, his wife Elizabeth. Victor now becomes the hunter: he pursues the creature into the Arctic ice, though in vain. Near exhaustion, he is stranded when an iceberg breaks away, carrying him out into the ocean. Before death takes him, Captain Walton's ship arrives and he is rescued.

Walton assumes the narration again, describing a temporary recovery in Victor's health, allowing him to relate his extraordinary story. However, Victor's health soon fails, and he dies. Unable to convince his shipmates to continue north and bereft of the charismatic Frankenstein, Walton is forced to turn back towards England under the threat of mutiny. Finally, the creature boards the ship and finds Victor dead, and greatly laments what he has done to his maker. He vows to commit suicide. He leaves the ship by leaping through the cabin window onto the ice, and is never seen again.


During the snowy summer of 1816, the "Year Without A Summer," the world was locked in a long cold volcanic winter caused by the eruption of Tambora in 1815. In this terrible year, the then Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, age 19, and her husband-to-be Percy Bysshe Shelley, visited Lord Byron at the Villa Diodati by Lake Geneva in Switzerland. The weather was consistently too cold and dreary that summer to enjoy the outdoor vacation activities they had planned, so after reading Fantasmagoriana, an anthology of German ghost stories, Byron challenged the Shelleys and his personal physician John William Polidori to each compose a story of their own, the contest being won by whoever wrote the scariest tale. Mary conceived an idea after she fell into a waking dream or nightmare during which she saw "the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together." This was the germ of Frankenstein. Byron managed to write just a fragment based on the vampire legends he heard while travelling the Balkans, and from this Polidori created The Vampyre (1819), the progenitor of the romantic vampire literary genre. Thus, the Frankenstein and vampire themes were created from that single circumstance.


Book covers for Frankenstein have taken many forms over the years which emphasize different themes of the novel such as gothic horror, science fiction, and romanticism. In this example, an historical anatomical painting of the human arm by Girolamo Fabrici (1537-1619) examines the themes of romanticism, science and art.
Book covers for Frankenstein have taken many forms over the years which emphasize different themes of the novel such as gothic horror, science fiction, and romanticism. In this example, an historical anatomical painting of the human arm by Girolamo Fabrici (1537-1619) examines the themes of romanticism, science and art.

Mary Shelley completed her writing in May 1817, and Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus was first published on 1 January 1818 by the small London publishing house of Lackington, Hughes, Harding, Mavor & Jones. It was issued anonymously, with a preface written for Mary by Percy Bysshe Shelley and with a dedication to philosopher William Godwin, her father. It was published in an edition of just 500 copies in three volumes, the standard "triple-decker" format for 19th century first editions. The novel had been previously rejected by Percy Bysshe Shelley's publisher Charles Ollier and by Byron's publisher John Murray.

Critical reception of the book was mostly unfavourable, compounded by confused speculation as to the identity of the author, which was not well disguised. Walter Scott wrote that "Upon the whole, the work impresses us with a high idea of the author's original genius and happy power of expression", but most reviewers thought it "a tissue of horrible and disgusting absurdity" (Quarterly Review).

Despite the reviews, Frankenstein achieved an almost immediate popular success. It became widely known especially through melodramatic theatrical adaptations – Mary Shelley saw a production of Presumption; or The Fate of Frankenstein, a play by Richard Brinsley Peake, in 1823. A French translation appeared as early as 1821 (Frankenstein: ou le Prométhée Moderne, translated by Jules Saladin).

The second edition of Frankenstein was published on 11 August 1823 in two volumes (by G. and W. B. Whittaker), and this time credited Mary Shelley as the author.

On 31 October 1831, the first "popular" edition in one volume appeared, published by Henry Colburn & Richard Bentley. This edition was quite heavily revised by Mary Shelley, and included a new, longer preface by her, presenting a somewhat embellished version of the genesis of the story. This edition tends to be the one most widely read now, although editions containing the original 1818 text are still being published. In fact, many scholars prefer the 1818 edition. They argue that it preserves the spirit of Shelley's original publication (see Anne K. Mellor's "Choosing a Text of Frankenstein to Teach" in the W. W. Norton Critical edition).

The revised edition was changed in several significant ways: any indication that Frankenstein's monster was created by vice was removed, and the text details a benevolent creator who creates the monster merely for the purposes of science. Suggestions of an incestuous relationship between Victor and Elizabeth are also removed, by making Elizabeth an adopted child of the Frankensteins.

Name origins

The creature

Main article: Frankenstein's monster

The creature – "my hideous progeny" – was not given a name by Mary Shelley, and is only referred to by words such as 'monster', 'creature', 'daemon', 'fiend', and 'wretch'.

During a telling she did of Frankenstein, she referred to the creature as "Adam", though, as a name, or as a reference to some for of being the "first" man, is not known.

After the release of James Whale's popular 1931 film Frankenstein, the filmgoing public immediately began speaking of the monster itself as "Frankenstein". A reference to this occurs in Bride of Frankenstein (1935) and in several subsequent films in the series, as well as in film titles such as Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein.

Some justify referring to the Creature as "Frankenstein" by pointing out that the Creature is, so to speak, Victor Frankenstein's offspring.


Mary Shelley always maintained that she derived the name "Frankenstein" from a dream-vision, yet despite these public claims of originality, the name and what it means has been a source of many speculations. Literally, in German, the name Frankenstein means stone of the Franks. Frankenstein is the former name of Ząbkowice Śląskie, a city in Silesia. There is a town called Frankenstein[1] in the palatinate with Burg Frankenstein[2] (Frankenstein Castle) and Burg Frankenstein[3] near Darmstadt. Moreover Frankenstein is a common family name in Germany.

More recently, Radu Florescu, in his In Search of Frankenstein, argued that Mary and Percy Shelley stayed at Castle Frankenstein on their way to Switzerland, near Darmstadt along the Rhine, where a notorious alchemist named Konrad Dippel had experimented with human bodies, but that Mary suppressed mentioning this visit, to maintain her public claim of originality. A recent literary essay[4] by A.J. Day supports Florescu's position that Mary Shelley knew of, and visited '[6]Burg Frankenstein' before writing her debut novel. Day includes details of an alleged description of the Frankenstein castle that exists in Shelley's 'lost' journals. However, this theory is not without critics; Frankenstein expert Leonard Wolf calls it an "unconvincing....conspiracy theory".[5]


A possible interpretation of the name Victor derives from the poem Paradise Lost by John Milton, a great influence on Shelley (a quotation from Paradise Lost is on the opening page of Frankenstein and Shelley even allows the monster himself to read it). Milton frequently refers to God as "the Victor" in Paradise Lost, and Shelley sees Victor as playing God by creating life. In addition, Shelley's portrayal of the monster owes much to the character of Satan in Paradise Lost; indeed, the monster says, after reading the epic poem, that he sympathizes with Satan's role in the story.

Victor was also a pen name of Percy Shelley's, as in the collection of poetry he wrote with his sister Elizabeth, Original Poetry by Victor and Cazire.[6] There is speculation that one of Mary Shelley's models for Victor Frankenstein was Percy, who at Eton had "experimented with electricity and magnetism as well as with gunpowder and numerous chemical reactions," and whose rooms at Oxford were filled with scientific equipment.[7]


"Modern Prometheus"

The Modern Prometheus is the novel's subtitle (though some modern publishings of the work now drop the subtitle, mentioning it only in an introduction). Prometheus, in some versions of Greek mythology, was the Titan who created mankind, and Victor's work by creating man by new means obviously reflects that creative work. Prometheus was also the bringer of fire who took fire from heaven and gave it to man. Zeus then punished Prometheus by fixing him to a rock where each day a predatory bird came to devour his liver.

Prometheus was also a myth told in Latin but was a very different story. In this version Prometheus makes man from clay and water, again a very relevant theme to Frankenstein as Victor rebels against the laws of nature and as a result is punished by his creation.

Prometheus' relation to the novel can be interpreted in a number of ways. For Mary Shelley on a personal level, Prometheus was not a hero but a devil, whom she blamed for bringing fire to man and thereby seducing the human race to the vice of eating meat (fire brought cooking which brought hunting and killing)[8] For Romance era artists in general, Prometheus' gift to man compared with the two great utopian promises of the 18th century: the Industrial Revolution and the French Revolution, containing both great promise and potentially unknown horrors.

Byron was particularly attached to the play Prometheus Bound by Aeschylus, and Percy Shelley would soon write Prometheus Unbound.


Frankenstein is in some ways allegorical. The novel was conceived and written during an early phase of the Industrial Revolution, at a time of dramatic advances in science and technology. That the creation rebels against its creator can be seen as a warning that the application of science can lead to unintended consequences.

Another interpretation was alluded to by Shelley herself, in her account of the radical politics of her father:

A common critique views the story as a journey of pregnancy. The novel taps into the widespread fears of stillborn births and maternal deaths due to complications in delivery. (Shelley had suffered a stillborn birth in the prior year.) Frankenstein -- the Monster's parent, in a sense -- is fearful of the release of the Monster from his control, when it is free to act independently in the world and affect it for better or worse. Also, during much of the novel Victor fears the creature's desire to destroy him by killing everyone and everything most dear to him. However it must be noted that the creature was not born evil, but only wanted to be loved by its creator, by other humans, and to love a sentient creature like itself. It was mankind who taught it evil, Victor rejected it, and the creature's poor treatment by villagers taught it how to be evil. In this reading, the creature represents the natural fears of bringing a new innocent life into the world and raising it properly so that it does not become a monster.

The book can be seen as a criticism of scientists who are unconcerned by the potential consequences of their work. Victor was guileless and irresponsible with his invention. Instead of immediately destroying the evil he had created, he was overcome by fear and fell psychologically ill. During Justine's trial for murder, he had the chance to come forth and protest to the fact that a violent man had recently declared a vendetta against him and his loved ones, thus saving the young girl. Instead, Frankenstein indulges in his own self-centered grief. The day before Justine is executed and thus resigns herself to her fate and departure from the "sad and bitter world", his sentiments are as such:

Representing a minority opinion, Arthur Belefant in his 116-page book, Frankenstein, the Man and the Monster (1999, ISBN 0-9629555-8-2) contends that Mary Shelley's intent was for the reader to understand that the Creature never existed, and Victor Frankenstein committed the three murders. In this interpretation, the story is a study of the moral degradation of Victor, and the "science-fiction" aspects of the story are Victor's imagination.

Alchemy was a very popular topic in Shelley's world. In fact, it was becoming an acceptable idea that humanity could infuse the spark of life into a non-living thing (Luigi Galvani's experiments, for example). The scientific world just after the Industrial Revolution was delving into the unknown, and limitless possibilities also caused fear and apprehension for many as to the consequences of such horrific possibilities.

The book also considers the ethics of creating life and contains innumerable biblical allusions in this context.

In the 1931 film "Frankenstein," Boris Karloff plays the part of the Creature, and the scientist, played by Colin Clive, is renamed Henry Frankenstein. Shelley's character Henry Clerval does not appear in the film at all, which eliminates Victor's foil altogether. However there is a character called Victor who is after Elizabeth, Frankenstein's fiancee. Changing the doctor's name from Victor also eliminates some original irony, inasmuch as the novel ends after exposing the doctor's utter failure and destruction. Since this film, the horror culture has confused modern audiences into replacing the scientist's name with his freakish creation. This event has stimulated much conversation in the literary criticism of Shelley's work. Attributing the name of the scientist to his creation reveals a deeper connection between the two, especially when the scientist realizes the great danger that the creation presents to himself and to the world.

Frankenstein in popular culture

For Frankenstein in film, comics, games and other derivatives, see Frankenstein in popular culture.

See also

  • Frankenstein argument
  • Frankenstein complex
  • Frankenstein's monster
  • Frankenstein in popular culture
  • The homunculus was thought to be a living being created through alchemy.
  • The golem was a living being created from clay through Kabbalah.


  1. ^ [1]
  2. ^ [2]
  3. ^ [3]
  4. ^ This essay was included in the 2005 publication of Fantasmagoriana; the first full English translation of the book of 'ghost stories' that inspired the literary competition resulting in Mary's writing of Frankenstein.
  5. ^ (Leonard Wolf, p.20).
  6. ^ [4]
  7. ^ [5]
  8. ^ (Leonard Wolf, p. 20).
  9. ^ Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, "Life of William Godwin," p. 151

Further reading

  • Comroe, Julius H., Jr. (1975). Retrospectroscope article in the American Thoracic Society website. Analyzes errors in the re-telling of Mary Shelley's original plot.
  • Florescu, Radu. In Search of Frankenstein
  • Garrett, Martin (2002). Mary Shelley.
  • Lylys, William H. (1975). Mary Shelley, an Annotated Bibliography
  • Mellor, Anne K. (1990). "Choosing a Text of Frankenstein to Teach." In Approaches to Teaching Frankenstein.
  • Rosenberg, Samuel. The Confessions of a Trivialist
  • Spark, Muriel. Mary Shelley
  • Wolf, Leonard (2004). The Essential Frankenstein. ISBN 0-7434-9806-2. The complete original text of Mary Shelley's novel, fully annotated with thousands of facts and legends.

External links

Wikisource has original text related to this article:


  • Frankenstein, The Pennsylvania Electronic Edition, annotated edition containing critical articles and other resources.
  • Frankenstein, 1831 illustrated edition, scanned book via Internet Archive, includes prefaces.
  • Frankenstein, available freely at Project Gutenberg, omits the prefaces, edition unknown.
  • Frankenstein audibook from LibriVox, no prefaces and no edition information.
  • Frankenstein, Online Literature Library, includes the prefaces, no edition information.
  • Frankenstein RSS version, edition and prefaces unknown.


  • Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley Chronology & Resource Site
  • Online Sparknotes for Frankenstein
  • Percy Shelley's Review of Frankenstein
  • Various artists' illustrations of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein
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