Shelley’s Prometheus

Frontspiece to the original edition of Frankenstein

One of my favorite stories in all of literature is Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

It remains one of the most haunting and sad and resonant to me. The origin of the story is as interesting too. A full discussion of the details of that and the novel is here.

Some highlights below.

In the summer of 1816 at the famed Villa Diodati on the shores of Lake Geneva, Switzerland, where Mary Shelley spent most of that summer together with her future husband Percy Bysshe Shelley, her stepsister Claire Clairmont, Lord Byron and Dr. John Polidori, Byron’s physician. Inspired by a reading of the Fantasmagoriana, a collection of German ghost stories, on June 16 they decided to try their hands on supernatural stories themselves.
The first one to come up with a story was Polidori, who began his now famous tale The Vampyre. Its main protagonist Lord Ruthven was supposedly modeled on Lord Byron. However, Mary Shelley was not that quick in creating her first piece of literature. Initially, she suffered from some kind of writer’s block and produced nothing so far until one day she had (or claimed to have) a sort of vision that finally inspired her to write Frankenstein. She described this vision in the preface of the novel:

“I placed my head on my pillow, I did not sleep, nor could I be said to think. My imagination unbidden, possessed and guided me.. I saw with shut eyes, but acute mental vision, – the pale student of unhallowed arts standing before the thing he had put together, I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life and stir with an uneasy, half vital motion… frightful must it be; for supremely frightful would be the effect of any human endeavour to mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world. His success would terrify the artist; he would rush away from his odious handiwork, horror stricken…. He (the artist) sleeps but he is awakened; he opens his eyes; behold, the horrid thing stands at his bedside, opening his curtains and looking on him with yellow, watery, but speculative eyes.”

 Lynd Ward’s rendering of Frankenstein

“When Mary Shelley composed Frankenstein, she was influenced by several literary classics she had read with her future husband Percy. She references these works in Frankenstein, among them Ovid’s Metamorphoses and John Milton’s Paradise Lost. At one point in the novel, the monster says, after reading Paradise Lost, he sympathizes with Satan’s role in the story:

“But  Paradise Lost excited different and far deeper emotions.
[…] Like Adam, I was apparently united by no link to any other being
in existence; but his state was far different from mine in every
other respect. He had come forth from the hands of God a perfect
creature, happy and prosperous, guarded by the especial care
of his Creator; he was allowed to converse with, and acquire
knowledge from, beings of a superior nature: but I was wretched,
helpless, and alone. Many times I considered Satan as the fitter
emblem of my condition; for often, like him, when I viewed
the bliss of my protectors, the bitter gall of envy rose within me.”

Another of Lynd Wards drawings of the Monster

“The name Frankenstein was probably taken from a castle near the German town of Darmstadt, where Mary and Percy had travelled through on their way from Basel. According to a highly disputed theory by German historian Walter Scheele, Mary had heard of Johann Konrad Dippel, a German alchemist, who had lived at Burg Frankenstein in the early 18th century. Legend has it that Dippel experimented with dead bodies and was able to create an artificial monster, just like Victor Frankenstein.”

“One particularly interesting influence is the Swiss painter Henry Fuseli, who once had a relationship with Mary’s mother, that lasted four years. Fuseli’s painting The Nightmare inspired the description of Elizabeth’s dead body flung across her bridal bed just after her murder by the creature in chapter 23:

“She was there, lifeless and inanimate, thrown across the
bed, her head hanging down, and her pale and distorted features
half covered by her hair. Everywhere I turn I see the same
figure—her bloodless arms and relaxed form flung by the
murderer on its bridal bier.”

Henry Fuseli’s Nightmare
“Frankenstein warns of the careless use of science – the book was written at an early stage of the Industrial Revolution, a period of dramatic scientific and technological advance. This is still an important issue, even 200 years after the book was written. Taken into consideration what many inventions of the last 50 years brought upon mankind, one must assume that many scientists still do not care much. (E.g. the splitting of the atom was turned into nuclear bombs and the invention of the computer resulted in an eerie dehumanization of our society).”

In his corrupting pursuit for knowledge Victor Frankenstein is compared to Prometheus
Hollywoods characterization of the Monster is really a huge disappointment. It really has little relation to the more fully realized create of the novel. 
The rendering of the Monster from the 1924 version of the story is more disturbing (at first glance). You’d think, in all these years someone would produce a more faithful version of the tale and reimagine the monster in a more memorable way.

The 1973 Frankenstein: The True Story (screenplay by Chrispther Isherwood and Don Bachardy) is closer, but still a distinct variation that explores themes of it’s own.
The 1994 Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein promised to be more faithful, but was atrocious.

Hopefully someone will make a genuinely faithful and inspired adaptation of one of Literature’s greatest achievements. In the meantime it continues to be one of the most inspiring tales ever told.

 “But since one of its main topics is a scientific discovery, Frankenstein could equally be called a precursor of the science fiction novel. The artificially created Monster is often seen as a foreshadowing of recent scientific developments like test-tube babies, robots and organ transplantation. The Monster may also be interpreted as “a symbol of the ambiguous nature of the machine” or as a symbol of modern technology.” 

And when you think of it the idea of man made horrors has been explored pretty creatively over the years… and in doing so the spirit of Shelley’s creation lives on.

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