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Frankenstein | Study Guide

Mary Shelley

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Learn about the historical and cultural context surrounding Mary Shelley's book Frankenstein (1818) with Course Hero's video study guide.

Frankenstein | Context


The Genesis of Frankenstein

What prompts a 19-year-old to write a horror story about science run amok? Whatever caused Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley to formulate the story, the impetus for doing so was something of a contest, as she explained in her preface to the 1831 edition of the novel. Stuck inside because of the incessant rain while on a tour of Europe, Mary, Percy Shelley, and their friends Lord Byron and John Polidori passed the time reading a book of German ghost stories. Byron suggested they each write a horror story, and the others agreed. While Mary struggled to find an idea for a story that would "awaken thrilling horror," another conversation among the friends a few days later sparked her novel. On that occasion they discussed galvanism, or using electricity to animate muscle, as Italian physicist Luigi Galvani had done with a frog. That night she had a vivid dream of a "pale student of unhallowed arts" kneeling beside "the hideous phantasm of a man," which he stirred to life. The scientist quickly regretted "his odious handy-work" and hoped the life he had stirred would die out again. But he was wakened from his sleep by the creature at his bedside "looking at him with yellow, watery, and speculative eyes." Mary was frightened awake, but she then realized that the terrifying dream was exactly the kind of idea she sought. The next day she began writing the story that became Frankenstein.

Gothic Literature

Frankenstein fits in the tradition of gothic literature—stories about mystery, horror, and the supernatural—that had been launched in the mid- to late 18th century by The Castle of Otranto (1764) by Horace Walpole and popularized in the 1790s by the novels of Ann Radcliffe. It is known that Percy Shelley read two of Radcliffe's gothic novels in the years 1814 and 1815; while it is not certain that Mary did, it is likely. Typically set in eerie, isolated places, such as castles, monasteries, or wild expanses of nature, gothic stories usually include violence, suspense, and mystery. The gloomy setting is ideal for the brooding heroes, monsters, and deranged people in attics who often populate these novels.

Romantic Movement

Frankenstein is also a work in the tradition of the romantic movement. Romantic writers took as their topics a deep connection to nature, the depth of human emotion, and the conflict between the individual and society. Percy Shelley, along with William Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, and John Keats, were the foremost romantic poets. Wordsworth captured the essence of romantic poetry in the preface to his collection Lyrical Ballads, calling it "emotion recollected in tranquillity." Characteristics of romanticism in Frankenstein include humans' emotional tie to nature and attraction to the sublime, the term the romantics used for the powerful and awe-inspiring aspects of nature, as opposed to the merely beautiful.

Another characteristic of romanticism is attraction to a heroic figure interested in breaking the boundaries of traditional society and achieving a lofty ideal. Some romantics viewed French emperor Napoleon I as such a figure until his conquest of other countries made him seem more tyrant than hero.

Scientific Revolution and Enlightenment

The romantics also rejected the exaltation of scientific thinking and reason, hallmarks of the Scientific Revolution, which began in the 15th century, and the Enlightenment, which began in the 17th century. The Scientific Revolution promoted the ability of the human mind to understand the laws of nature and even, perhaps, to control them. Enlightenment thinkers believed in the power of reason to find new solutions to centuries-old social and political problems and build a better world. Romanticism was marked by a fascination with scientific advances mixed with a sense of the world having secrets that were unknowable—though they could perhaps be intuited. Romanticism also rejected rationality, order, and balance in the arts and Enlightenment thinkers' emphasis on reason. Individual experience and subjective perceptions were valued over social harmony and objective principles. Faith in human progress through the application of reason—a hallmark of the Enlightenment—did have some parallels in romantics' thinking as well. Some romantics, including Percy Shelley, embraced the republican and revolutionary impulses introduced by the French Revolution and believed that a better, more equitable age was about to dawn.

Another aspect of the Enlightenment relevant to Frankenstein was the interest of thinkers from this movement in questions of the state of nature. Political philosophers discussed the state of nature as the human condition prior to the formation of social groups, and they viewed this existence in varying ways. To Thomas Hobbes, the state of nature was insecure and threatening, and humans needed to form society to gain security. To Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the state of nature was more peaceful, with humans working to ensure survival but also cooperating with others. John Locke and Rousseau were also concerned with how humans learned and developed intellectually and morally. Locke thought the human mind was a blank slate that accumulated knowledge and formed moral impulses as a result of experience. The Monster in Frankenstein can be seen as living in the state of nature and as a creature that develops as a result of his experiences and self-education.

Mary's Authorship

Much debate took place in the past over, first, Mary's authorship of the novel and, second, the extent of Percy's influence on it. The fact that Percy provided the preface to the first edition, his reputation as a writer, and Mary's being unknown as a writer all contributed to the belief that he had written the novel when it was first published. That Mary's other works did not enjoy success reinforced that view. Even when her authorship was finally established, some critics speculated that Percy's editing strongly shaped the work. Indeed, one modern scholar has pointed to a few thousand edits made by Percy as evidence that he left his stamp on the book. This scholar also points out that William Godwin, Mary's father, read and annotated the manuscript. In the 21st century, scholars agree that the inspiration and execution were Mary's, though Percy encouraged her to write the book and read and annotated her drafts.

Critical Reception

Mary published Frankenstein anonymously in 1818, and critics assumed the novel had been written by a man, in part because of the two male narrative voices. The novel was widely reviewed. Sir Walter Scott (1771–1832), one of the most popular novelists of the era, set the tone when he praised the author's use of language but found some of the novel's events less than believable. Other critics found the work offensive. Conservative writer John Wilson Croker (1780–1857), writing in the Quarterly Review, concluded by stating that readers were left "in doubt whether the head or the heart of the author be the most diseased." Some critics complained that the novel was irreligious and immoral because Shelley had not condemned Victor Frankenstein for trying to usurp God by creating life, despite his repentant words and death. Others strongly objected to what they saw as its pardoning of the Monster's behavior: a reflection of Godwinian ideas that the root of evil was injustice.

In 1822 the second edition of the novel was published. In 1831 Mary heavily revised the third edition of the novel to make it less offensive. The new edition made Victor even more regretful about his actions and more religious in outlook. She also split the first chapter in two and changed Elizabeth's background so that she was no longer Victor's cousin.

By the 1850s only one edition remained in print, and sales were low. One reason for the paltry sales was that the copyright holder—after 1831, a publisher, not Mary—insisted on publishing it only in a more expensive format that made it less accessible to a broader public. It was not revived until the 1880s, when the book was no longer in copyright. Even then, when the novel was reissued in an inexpensive paperback version, editor Hugh Reginald Haweis stated his hesitation to publish it because "the subject is somewhat revolting" and "the treatment of it somewhat hideous." While sales were never robust, the story remained popular in large part because of many stage adaptations, and the ominous specter of Frankenstein's monster was employed by thinkers throughout the Victorian age to warn against any reform or change that they deemed potentially destructive.


In the 21st century, Frankenstein is regarded as a classic of romantic, gothic fiction. It is also recognized as one of the first science fiction novels. The work's influence extends far beyond the world of literature, however. Frankenstein and the Monster are firmly embedded in popular culture, having sparked an entire genre of novels, films, and Halloween costumes. In 2016 a ballet based on the book premiered in London.

The most famous film adaptation remains the 1931 version, in which Boris Karloff plays the Monster. Sequels include The Bride of Frankenstein (1935), starring Elsa Lanchester as the title character, and The Ghost of Frankenstein, starring Lon Chaney Jr. The character of the Monster and the novel have inspired many parodies as well, including the butler Lurch in The Addams Family (a television show from the 1960s that later inspired films and a Broadway play), Young Frankenstein (1974), The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975), and even episodes of the children's television program Sesame Street.

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