Published in 1818, Mary W. Shelley actually created her “Frankenstein” as early as 1816. On Lake Geneva, where she spent the summer together with her lover and Lord Byron in a year that went down in history as a “year without a summer.” Not the only ironic note one can associate with the genesis of this novel. A story of origin that has itself often become the basis of stories and films.

“Eighteen hundred and froze to death”

the common name for the year 1816

Lord Byron, expelled from England into his Swiss exile, had long tried to avert the advances of Claire Clairmont, Mary W. Shelley’s stepsister. The fact that he finally endured her in his villa on Lake Geneva – and according to almost all accounts, “enduring” seems to be a suitable choice of words – Claire may also owe it to the fact that she was traveling with Percy Bysshe Shelley and his later wife, Mary. The young couple, Mary was barely 18 years old, had not been banished, but had at least fled England because of their love. It was said to have been a ghastly night when the four of them, together with John Polidori, the disgruntled biographer of Byron, decided, that everyone should write a horror story. Claire’s attempt barely reached the stage of an idea. What Shelley and Byron, after all perhaps the two greatest English poets of their time, wrote – today even a literary historian cannot remember this with the best will in the world anymore. But John Polidori created Lord Ruthven that night, and if Bram Stoker had not written “Dracula” a few decades later, the name Polidori would still be world-class today. But fate never meant well with Polidori. When his story was published, the authors’ name was Byron. Not because Byron wanted to adorn himself with it, on the contrary, it said that he felt extremely embarrassed, because he considered “The Vampyre” for a gruesomely lousy book. Byron’s publisher had published it on his own. Polidori never got the credit he deserved throughout his life. Suffering from depression, he finally committed suicide.

Bild: Richard Rothwell – hfrom the National Portrait Gallery, Gemeinfrei

But there was still the fourth in the league, Mary W. Shelley, who laid that night the foundation for a work that can still produce a frisson today just by his mention: “Frankenstein.” A young woman`s novel, that seemed so inappropriate to a young woman, that only after a long search, a publisher was found when she agreed to publish the book anonymously. With a foreword by Percy Bysshe Shelley, so quite a few believed her companion to be the actual author.

“Why tell a story about the shameful challenge of God, about soul-shattering humiliation?”

Mary W. Shelley, from “Transfiguration”

Frankenstein belongs to those terms where today almost everyone has a picture right in front of their eyes. Usually, it is probably Boris Karloff, who gave his imprint to the creature of Viktor Frankenstein through his interpretation. That quite a few people believe that the monster – which never got a name from its author – is called “Frankenstein” is perhaps another irony of the story.

The plot of the novel can, and is, interpreted in many ways. A warning against uncritical euphoria about progress. A feminist critique of the male dominance of society, especially literature and science. The warning to man that he should not make oneself God. These are just the most obvious interpretations. Which was the intention of the author, in the end, probably only Mary W. Shelley herself can know that? A young woman who grew up in a liberal home. The mother, who died at birth, Mary Wollstonecraft, from whom her daughter not only inherited her first name but was also a well-known suffragette of her time. The father a liberal man, though not so enlightened, to give his blessing to the relationship between his daughter and the then still married Percy B. Shelley in the beginning. Mary was an educated young woman. Familiar with the literature of her time, speaking several languages and – one may well assume – blessed with a brilliant mind, or cursed, that surpassed that of her husband as well as Byron`s one. In the circle of the rebellious young men, despite her own passion, she was pushed into the role of the wise person who guided the passions of her companions into reasonable paths. She fought for free love because she wanted that everyone could live as they liked. She, however, never loved anyone other than her Percy. She was also familiar with the scientific findings of her time. Electricity was still in its infancy, scientists in Europe and America experimented and presented their results at soirees, which that would instead remind us of the notions of magicians today. Of course, the claim of the scientists at that time, of course only men, was by no means magical.

Science was entirely devoted to the new development of the Enlightenment, to prove the non-existence of God. Man, in their opinion, was not the creation of a higher being, but a biological machine. Attempts with the new power of electricity seemed to substantiate this thesis. Already 20 years earlier, the Italian Galvani made dead frogs move again with its help as if they were still alive. In the time of Mary Shelley, an experiment caused a sensation in which a scientist apparently breathed life back into the body of an executed murderer by the same means. And even if the author makes little scientific statements about the awakening of her creature, at least electricity plays an important role. If only because, Viktor Frankenstein, as a young man, begins to think for the first time about the possibilities of creating new life through the power of lightning.

Things start with death

But in the beginning, there is death. It is the death of his mother who plunges the young Viktor Frankenstein into a deep depression and becomes the real motivator to create new life. Electricity, his professors in Ingolstadt, all these are just elements that enable him to put his well-meaning insanity into practice. Equipped with the necessary means, he starts his work. No doubt, no inner voice stops him. Only – yes, just when the work is done, he recognizes his madness and flees. He created a new life, a creature with feelings and mind, leaving it to its own destiny. And only with this, he set in motion the bloody chain of events that make this story so gruesome even today. For, unlike God, or even as Prometheus, who received in the full title “Frankenstein – The modern Prometheus,” was Viktor Frankenstein, man, not able to take responsibility for his creation, or to assist her at least as a father.

Theodor von Holst [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The mother’s death is also at the beginning of the life of Mary W. Shelley. Mary Wollstonecraft died a few days after the birth of her only child. A child for whom she and William Godwin himself had broken with their radical anti-social theses and even had attained the bond of marriage. For themselves, they liked the social ostracism, but they wanted to spare their daughter this. Today the daughter stands above the parents. William Godwin is more or less forgotten, Mary Wollstonecraft as the author of the feminist key work “A Vindication of the Rights of Woman” at least noticed as one of the founders in the history of the women’s movement. At that time, however, their parents could also be seen as a burden, not every child of a great parent accomplishes something great by himself, as is well known. Sometimes this burden is just the cause to fall deeper. So Mary W. Shelley never really met her mother, and yet she accompanied her throughout her life. And often she blamed herself for the death of her mother.

Her first child, Percy Bysshe Shelley, was born when she was living in sin with the already-married Shelley at the age of 16. After her escape companion Claire Clairmont, the daughter is called Claire, her son, named after his father William, also died in childhood. The child William will later meet the reader in “Frankenstein” – murdered.

One can assume that many interpreters of the novel are not wrong when they add the death of the mother and the children to the evolution of the story. Even though it was not uncommon at that time, the suffering of the mother and daughter Mary W. Shelley was probably intensely preoccupied with this mundane death in puerperium or the high infant mortality. It remains unexplained to what extent the naming of one of her characters is to be interpreted as “William.”

Is man born good or evil?

In her book, Mary W. Shelley also asks whether a man is good or evil by itself. Her creature is not driven by bloodthirst from the beginning, but a desperate man. Thrown into life, unlike an infant, but viable in a world where all other creatures not only seem so very different from him but also seem to find it repulsive – and fear it. The creature, one should always refer to it as a “creature,” not as a “monster,” because he actually was not born a monster.

Later, he, speaking human language, accused his creator of having been good, the world had made him unscrupulous and evil. In the novel, however, this awakened Kasper Hauser is an intelligent being who learns secretly from man, even fought for a high level of education and so gets on the track of his own creation – and thus also his fled creator.

This part of the story comes in many of the countless films too short. Only the 1994 film adaptation by Kenneth Branagh can be described as faithful to the original, in which Branagh takes on the role of the Victor, Robert de Niro plays the creature. But even de Niro could not take anything of that imprint that Boris Karloff created in the 1931 film adaptation. There are also those scenes in black and white, which bring us the tragedy of the creature vividly. Shunned by the humans, the creature finds friendly welcome for the first time by a blind hermit. An encounter that ends in tragedy when the creature burns down the hermit’s house as a result of an accident. And then that scene with the little girl at the lake. It is the child who, in his innocence, does not perceive the repulsive appearance of the creature, just as the blind hermit before. Even today, almost 100 years later, the scene in which the creature kills the girl, without knowing what it is doing, is one of the most dreadful in film history.

The young Elsa Lanchester as Mary W. Shelley in “Frankensteins Braut”

The film adaptation of James Whale still characterizes today’s favorite image of the narrative. Many readers may even be disappointed if there is no humpbacked Igor in the novel who attests to the mad doctor. And yet, the film is not really bad. It is one of the more inexplicable changes of Whale, why he exchanged the first names of the two figures Frankenstein and his friend Moritz so that Frankenstein in this film is not Viktor, but Henry, but whose actor Colin Clive may be thought to have understood the character. His face of madness may have stuck in the collective film memory, but he also meets the naivety that drives Frankenstein to do his work. And occasionally he even encounters those features of arrogance reminiscent of Lord Byron, who has at least been a godfather of the character. (Just as you can find very many trains in Polidori’s Lord Ruthven in general.)

But let’s go back to the novel, to Viktor Frankenstein. The fled creator lives his life as if nothing had happened. He wants to enjoy what he denies his creature, love. And even when a child of his family is murdered by the vengeful creature, he allows an innocent woman to be sentenced to death, knowing who the real assailant was. It will be a while before he accepts his responsibility. For a long time, he wants only one thing, to keep the illusion alive. Just when the creature blocks the last escape, he decides to act. His way of taking responsibility now is to hunt down his creation to kill it.

“The tree of knowledge is not the one of life.”

Lord Byron

Even before “Frankenstein” there were stories and legends in which man created a new life. The most famous is certainly the Jewish legend of the Golem, who created from clay, as a creature in bondage to its creator, but nevertheless means his downfall. Mary W. Shelley’s “Frankenstein” differs fundamentally from these stories, in which she no longer gives myth to her creation. Her creature is not brought to life by magic, but by science. According to her time, her creature is an awakened machine made up of human body parts. New life is literally created out of dead matter. A bloody, dirty job that would be much more clinical today. Today’s Victor Frankenstein would make use of genetic engineerings, such as cloning, for example. The cloned sheep dolly sends its omens, or that Chinese “Frankenstein” that genetically engineered two girls toward the end of last year to make them HIV-resistant. Of course, without knowing what other consequences his intervention in the divine creation or evolution, which is in the individual’s point of view, may have for its further aftermath. He was shunned by the scientific community, stopped by the Chinese authorities. However, those were less concerned with the fact that such an act should not be committed in principle but were disturbed at the given moment. Our Chinese Victor Frankenstein was merely ahead of his time, it is not so much his deed that is criticized as the fact that he did it at a time when the society itself is still too judgemental of it. The social discussion must first be led, so many of those scientists who condemned him. What they actually meant by that was their observation that the debate had not yet led to social acceptance. The lesson that Mary W. Shelley gives through her story, the warning of the consequences, only plays a role insofar as it has been understood by those who still stand in the way of this inevitable development. Those who realize that the creation of a new man will inevitably mean the abolition of the present man. And those who ponder if that really can be a worthy goal.

Leeds University Library [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Today, Mary W. Shelley is inseparably linked to her work, which for most people refers to “Frankenstein” alone. It is a grim story, as seemingly everything else she wrote, and perhaps except for her novel “The Last Man,” is perhaps mistakenly ignored by a significant readership. The end of her story remains open. Although the creator and the creature seem to perish in the fire, whether that is indeed the case, the observer, a polar explorer whose own obsession provides the framework of the novel, can not say that for sure in the end. Thus, the reader remains uncertain as to whether the creator and creature still wrestle with each other beyond the action of the novel. In a way, the author leaves it up to the reader to decide which end he wants to believe in. Does he close the plot and let Victor Frankenstein die with his creature in the fire, which slowly melts the ice floes of the Arctic Ocean and releases the bodies of the two in the icy depths? Or is the fight going on? It seems like a fitting ending because the author refuses to distribute the roles equally between good and evil throughout the novel. Creator and creature are in a sense both. One of them inspired to save mankind from death, who for this purpose, however, crosses the boundaries of humanity and even accepts the death of innocent people. The other, a creature innocent of its destiny, that does not seek revenge from the beginning, but is made into the monster we associate with it today.

“Did I ask it of thee, my maker,
That you came to pull me out of the darkness?
Have I asked you for it?“
„You are my creator, but I am the Lord,
Obey.”

John Milton, from “Paradise Lost.”

This Text was translated by our Fan and Friend Heidrun Klemmer.