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Frankenstein | Study Guide

Mary Shelley

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Professor Regina Buccola of Roosevelt University provides an in-depth summary and analysis of the prefatory matter of Mary Shelley's novel Frankenstein.

Frankenstein | Prefatory Matter | Summary


This study guide provides a summary and analysis of the 1818 edition of Frankenstein.


The title page contains the subtitle The Modern Prometheus and an epigraph taken from John Milton's epic poem Paradise Lost, which recounts the story of the creation of man and woman, the fall from the Garden of Eden, and the earlier fall of Satan from heaven and his role in bringing about the fall of Adam and Eve. The epigraph, quoting Adam, reads, "Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay/To mould me man, Did I solicit thee/From darkness to promote me?" The Dedication "respectfully" offers the book in honor of William Godwin, the philosopher and writer who was also Mary Shelley's father.

An anonymous brief preface connects the novel to the research into the origin of life by British physician Erasmus Darwin (1731–1802) and German scientists. While presenting the novel as a complete fiction, the preface explains that the supernatural tale gives the author an opportunity for "delineating human passions" that would not have been possible in a more realistic story. The preface also has a sketchy account of the visit to Geneva and storytelling contest that caused Mary Shelley to write the novel.

The 1831 edition has a more extensive introduction written by Mary Shelley, in which she declares her authorship and gives a fuller account of the writing of the book. She describes the rainy weather that forced her, Percy Shelley, Lord Byron, and John Polidori to stay inside and read ghost stories to one another. This pastime led to the idea of each of them writing a similar story. After a conversation about galvanism, she had a vivid dream of a scientist who had brought a horrible "phantasm of a man" to life and quickly recoiled at this "odious handy-work." Awakened by the nightmare, Mary began writing Frankenstein. She explains that she saw the tale as only a short story at first but that Percy encouraged her to expand it and explore the matter further. She closes the introduction by explaining that, while Percy encouraged her in many ways, the novel and its execution are hers alone and owe nothing to him in detail.


The prefatory matter of Frankenstein, which includes the subtitle, epigraph, and dedication, as well as Percy's anonymous 1818 preface and Mary's introduction to the 1831 edition, provide insight into the text and its themes. The subtitle introduces the perspective of the creator, referring to the Greek god Prometheus, who created humanity. The epigraph introduces the perspective of the created with a plaintive call pointing out that the created life has no choice in coming into existence. Paradise Lost, published in 1667, describes the fall of man, according to the Old Testament account in Genesis, as filtered through the thinking of Milton, a 17th-century Puritan. Milton describes Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, the temptation by Satan, and their expulsion. The epic also tells the story of Satan's fall from heaven. The two elements thus introduce the ideas of creator and created, responsibility and power. Because Prometheus, Adam, and Satan were all punished for their actions, these elements also introduce the ideas of sin and guilt.

The Monster can be seen as Adam, a sinner thrown out of the Garden of Eden and forced to make his way in the world. Victor is God, the Monster's maker, but he is also Satan, as he has brought evil into the world. The quotation can also be read as the Monster's cry of anguish at his state. After all, he never asked Victor to create him. Because Victor—like all humanity—is descended from Adam and Eve, this is his lament as well. In this reading, he regrets being created because it set him on the path to his sin of creating the Monster and unleashing evil.

The dedication connects the novel to the ideas of Godwin, a major liberal thinker and writer who was considered dangerous by conservative thinkers who dominated the cultural scene. The dedication no doubt gave fuel to the conservative critics who objected to the morality of the novel.

While the preface was presented anonymously, it became known that Percy had written it, contributing to the idea that he had penned the novel itself. His preface also draws a Godwinian moral from the novel: "Treat a person ill, and he will become wicked." While that made sense to Godwin, Mary, and Percy, to conservative critics such as John Wilson Croker this view was outrageous and immoral. They believed that "wicked" behavior was absolutely and without exception blameworthy and should be censured and punished.

Mary uses the 1831 Introduction to clarify the identity of the book's author because there had been some speculation that her husband, Percy, had written it. Beyond pride of authorship, survival no doubt had something to do with her decision. Percy had died in 1822. While Mary would work on editing and publishing his poems, she had her own literary ambitions. Establishing herself as the true creator of Frankenstein could help convince publishers to bring out other works of hers in the future.

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