In June 1816, eighteen-year-old Mary Shelly and her lover Percy Bysshe Shelly went to Switzerland to visit their friend Lord Byron. One evening the two poets and the young girl decided that each of them should write a ghost or horror story. Several days later Mary had what she described as a “waking dream” in which she had a vision of a young student bringing “a hideous phantasm of a man” to life. She finished “Frankenstein” or “The Modern Prometheus” in May, 1817, and the book was first published in March 1818 by a small London publishing house – just 500 copies, in three volumes. A legend was born.
Many people call the monster Frankenstein, but, as most of them also know, Victor Frankenstein was in fact the name of the man who created the creature out of human body parts. In the novel the monster has no name, although it describes itself to the Swiss science student as “the Adam of your labours”. Shelly’s work is usually referred to as a Gothic novel, but some say it should also be considered to be the first real science fiction story.
The book is written as a series of letters between Captain Robert Walton, an explorer, and his sister, Margaret. On a trip to the North Pole, Walton and the crew of his ship see a dog sled pulling an enormous figure, and a few hours later they find and rescue a man who has nearly died from cold and hunger who tells them that his name is Victor Frankenstein and that he was chasing the creature across the ice. And then he tells the terrible story of how his plan to play at being God and make a beautiful person from non-living matter turned into a nightmare filled with death and destruction, fear and revenge.
Now, perhaps you haven’t read the novel, but since the first film version in 1910, hundreds of movies and TV series having been made about Shelly’s monster. English actor William Henry Pratt – better known by his stage name, Boris Karloff – played the part three times (1931-39) and his is probably the most famous screen image. In 1994 it was the turn of Robert de Niro, and in 1974 Mel Brooks directed Young Frankenstein, a hilarious parody of the original with Gene Wilder starring as Victor.
Mary Shelly’s final years were marked by sadness and ill health, and she died in 1851 at the age of 54. Her writings dealt with various themes – Romanticism, politics, feminism and others – but she will always have a place in literary history as the creator of Victor Frankenstein and his own unique creation.
Oxford Frankenstein Readers