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Author: Carolyn Turgeon
Date: 2001
World Literature and Its Times: Profiles of Notable Literary Works and the Historical Events That Influenced Them
From: World Literature and Its Times: Profiles of Notable Literary Works and the Historical Events That Influenced Them(Vol. 3: British and Irish Literature and Its Times: Celtic Migrations to the Reform Bill (Beginnings-1830s). )
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Work overview
Pages: 9
Content Level: (Level 4)

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by Mary Shelley

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A novel set in Switzerland, Germany, Russia, and Britain in the late eighteenth century; first published in England in 1818.


Determined to creàte human life, a scientist named Frankenstein produces a monstrous man and then abandons him. Desperate for love and guidance, the rejected creature turns violent, killing those closest to Frankenstein and haunting his creator until his death.

Born in London in 1797, Mary Shelley was the daughter of William Godwin and Mary Wollestonecraft, both of them writers and revolutionaries famous for their radical ideas. Godwin was primarily a political philosopher, and Wollstonecraft was an early feminist who died 11 days after Mary Shelley’s birth (see A Vindication of the Rights of Woman , also in WLAIT 3: British and Irish Literature and Its Times). Raised by Godwin and his new wife, Mary grew up in an intellectual, open environment, where ideas and the arts flourished and idealistic admirers crowded around the family table. One of her father’s admirers, the Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, fell in love with the beautiful young intellectual, and the two eloped in 1814, when Mary was 16, despite the fact that Shelley was already married. The next decade of Mary’s life was marked by tragedy: her first child was born in 1815 and died shortly after; Mary’s half-sister, Fanny Imlay, and Percy’s wife, Harriet, both committed suicide the following year; Mary and Percy’s second child, William, died as a young boy. Mary lost her third child as well, and, after giving birth to the one child who would survive, Percy Florence, went on to suffer a dangerous miscarriage. Then, in 1822, Percy Shelley, whom Mary had married in 1816, drowned in the Gulf of Spezia. Mary, who was not yet 25 at the time, would spend her 30 remaining years living modestly. Indeed, Mary’s greatest success would be Frankenstein, written when she was only 19 and conceived after a night of telling ghost stories in the Alps with Percy, the poet Lord Byron, and Byron’s doctor, John Polidori. The resulting tale of an overly ambitious scientist and his monstrous creation has come to be known as one of the greatest horror stories ever written and continues to be relevant today because of the questions it raises about science’s dangerous potential.

Events in History at the Time of the Novel

The French Revolution

Part of the enduring importance of Frankenstein can be seen in the way it tapped into the concerns of its age, combining the central dualities of a culture in which reason and science were “displacing religion as centers of value” (Levine and Knoepflmacher in Crook, p. 59). The late eighteenth century (when the novel is set) and early nineteenth century

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(when it was written) were times of momentous change and upheaval in Europe; between 1770 and 1830 Europe’s link to its feudal past was severed, and the continent moved decisively into the modern age. The French Revolution was only the most dramatic of these changes, inspiring people around the world with its rhetoric of freedom and liberty—of overthrowing the old guard in order to create a new, more just world. In the first few years of the Revolution, between 1789 and 1791, everything seemed to have changed in France, and much of Europe celebrated. As described in 1824 by the English poet Robert Southey “Nothing was dreamt of but the regeneration of the human race” (Southey in Travers, p. 1).

In retrospect, the French Revolution was the first major political event in what historians call the modern period. Ancient structures of power were torn down, feudal rights diminished, the relationship between the church and state was renegotiated, and groups long denied any political representation became empowered. The implications of the Revolution were even more farreaching; the revolutionary concepts of “the people” and their rights set off a vigorous optimism outside France, and the replacement of traditional state-sanctioned religious power established the tone for an age that would increasingly find its main source of moral values in patriotism and democracy rather than in religion. More than anything, however, the French Revolution provided the example of a society completely undone and then refashioned in a newer, brighter hue. Though the Revolution ultimately ended violently, disintegrating into the infamous Reign of Terror and the continual upheavals of the Napoleonic Wars, its possibilities colored the imagination of an entire age—for better or for worse.

The Industrial Revolution

The Industrial Revolution was as utterly transforming as the French Revolution, restructuring society in ways irreversible and profound. Industrialization in general has altered how people live, where they live, what they value, and how they define their lives; indeed, it was “the most fundamental force in world history in both the nineteenth and the twentieth centuries” (Stearns, p. 1). The Industrial Revolution began, more or less, in the eighteenth century in western Europe, and in Britain in particular. Before 1700 Western technology was firmly anchored in agricultural modes of production, despite advancements in such fields as metallurgy, textile manufacturing, and the harnessing of energy. During the eighteenth century, those developments began to take a shape that would eventually lead to a complete overhaul of society.

In Britain, agricultural advances took place at the same time that huge strides in science allowed for a variety of new technologies. By the 1730s a string of inventions had begun to shift the cotton industry towards a more efficient factory system. More inventions followed, including the perfection of the steam engine by James Watt in the 1760s. By the end of the century the production of cotton was rapidly increasing. The new machines required workers to cluster in factories rather than work in their homes, contributing to the larger trend of urbanization that was changing the face of Britain in the late eighteenth century. Britain’s cotton capital, Manchester, grew from a town of roughly 25,000 in 1772 to a city of 367,232 in 1851. Cities all over Britain exploded as people became less reliant on large farms and estates, and more dependent on industry. Families were forced into the cities in increasing numbers, but the lives they found Page 147  |  Top of Articlethere were not always pleasant. The early revolution was fueled by the labor of men, women, and children who were often severely underpaid and mistreated. Tremendous hardships seemed inevitable given the massive restructuring of society along lines so untested and uncharted. Never before had so much seemed possible; yet never before had the future of mankind seemed so bleak and unsure.

Science at the turn of the nineteenth century

The dual sense of possibility and dread that characterizes Frankenstein and the age in which it was written owed much to the scientific advances of the time. Though the so-called Scientific Revolution had begun in the late seventeenth century, it was only in the later eighteenth that science began to take on the prestige and value in popular culture that made it an important part of people’s lives. Indeed, public awareness of developments in science increased steadily in this period. The Frenchman Bernard de Fontenelle helped to popularize scientific progress with a series of publications, while in England a wide market opened up for scientific textbooks and scientific books geared towards the general reader. Museums specializing in scientific apparatus or natural history appeared, and lectures devoted to scientific topics became increasingly popular. Though science became fashionable and lent a sense of optimism and excitement to the age, only rarely was the layman’s knowledge profound. With the increasing specialization of subject areas, and the growing use of mathematics in scientific study, advanced knowledge was becoming more difficult to acquire. Instead, phenomena—in areas such as stargazing, mesmerism, and electricity—attracted the public’s attention more than the actual scientific processes behind them.

Especially captivating were the advances made in the study of electricity, a topic that would greatly influence the writing of Frankenstein. The eighteenth century saw a number of developments in this field of study, from the construction of the first machine to generate electricity in 1706 to the invention of the dry pile and battery of cells in 1800. A multitude of theories, many of them wrong, were put forward to explain electrical phenomena; in 1791, for instance, Luigi Galvani came out with the results of his long study of “animal electricity,” or “galvanism,” the orizing that electricity is intrinsic to animal tissues. Galvani made headlines when, in 1802, one of his disciples applied a Voltaic pile connected by metallic wires to the head of a recently killed ox.

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At the same moment the ox’s “eyes were seen to open, the ears to shake, the tongue to be agitated, and the nostrils to swell, in the same manner as those of the living animal” (Aldani in Mellor, p. 105). In 1803 a more lurid demonstration took place, in which galvanic electricity was applied to the corpse of a recently hanged criminal, whose “jaw began to quiver … adjoining muscles … horribly contorted, and … left eye actually opened” (Aldani in Mellor, p. 105). Events like these were widely reported and discussed throughout Europe in the early nineteenth century.

The most popular science of the early nineteenth century, however, appears to have been that of Erasmus Darwin (1731-1802), Charles’s grandfather, who wrote two encyclopedic technical works—Zoonomia; or The Laws of Organic Life and Phytologia—as well as the two long poems The Botanic Garden and The Temple of Nature. While most scientists had viewed the universe as perfect, fixed, and divinely ordered well into the eighteenth century, Erasmus Darwin and Page 148  |  Top of Articleothers began weakening this view by the beginning of the nineteenth. By 1803 Darwin accepted that the earth must once have been covered by water, and that all life must therefore have evolved from the sea. One of the earliest theorists of evolution, Erasmus Darwin believed that life was spontaneously being generated at every moment, and that sexual reproduction was the most advanced method of creation; as he wrote in The Temple of Nature, “the most perfect orders of animals are propagated by sexual intercourse only” (Darwin in Mellor, p. 98). This idea has a great resonance in Frankenstein; Victor Frankenstein substitutes paternal, solitary propagation for sexual reproduction, thus “[reversing] the evolutionary ladder described by Darwin” (Mellor, p. 100).

Another scientist who heavily influenced the writing of Shelley’s novel was Sir Humphry Davy, who, like Darwin, was a poet as well as a scientist. In 1802 Davy gave a famous introductory lecture to a chemistry course at the newly founded Royal Institution. This lecture was published almost immediately afterwards and titled A Discourse, Introductory to a Course of Lectures on Chemistry, from which many of the reasons for Victor Frankenstein’s fascination with chemistry seem to have been derived. In a celebratory tone, Davy argues that chemistry is the basis for most of the other sciences; “the phenomena of combustion, of the solution of different substances in water, of the agencies of fire; the production of rain, hail, and snow, and the conversion of dead matter into living matter by vegetable organs, all belong to chemistry” (Davy in Mellor, p. 92). Chemistry, Davy goes on to say, has acquainted the scientist with the different ways in which the external world relates, thus endowing him with the power to change and modify nature, “not simply as a scholar, passive and seeking only to understand her operations, but rather as a master, active with his own instruments” (Davy in Mellor, p. 93). It is this optimism that characterizes many of the general attitudes toward science and industry in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries; and, as Anne Mellor argues, it is this optimism that Mary Shelley, in Frankenstein, sees as profoundly dangerous (Mellor, p. 93).

Science and religion

The scientific changes that began taking place during the latter part of the eighteenth century had serious implications for religious thought and practice. Typically, the modern period is seen as, among other things, a process of increasing secularization, greatly promoted by the scientific discoveries that so in flamed the population during the Romantic period. Indeed, during this period any comfortable alignment between science and religion was undermined by the proliferation of new fields and specialties, as well as by discoveries that displaced Isaac Newton’s conception of the universe as perfectly mirroring God’s order.

By the time of Newton’s death in 1727, an easy alliance between science (called “natural philosophy” until the early nineteenth century) and the Anglican Church had been well established. Newton’s natural philosophy had supported the design argument of natural theology, delineating the order and laws of nature, God’s “second book,” and so had been sanctioned by the Church (Yeo, p. 320). This vision was of a world made up of inert corpuscles of matter that moved only as a result of divine forces. The advances in science during the Romantic period—often called a second scientific revolution, one to rival the revolution associated with Newton and other seventeenth-century scientists—created a variety of fields and disciplines that could no longer support, in total, this unified Newtonian vision. Furthermore, attitudes were shifting steadily. The influential theologian and scientist Joseph Priestley, for instance, did not regard matter as passive and inert, but, rather, as containing its own inherent force. This was a view the Newtonians had always feared, for it either equated God with nature, or excluded God from it entirely.

Despite the fact that the alliance between natural philosophy, the Church, and the Royal Society, which had dominated scientific study in Newton’s day, was weakened by the scientific advancements of the Romantic period, religion and science remained intricately linked throughout this period. Religious orthodoxy declined some what, and the advancements made less sure the grounds for belief, but actual atheism was very uncommon during this time. Even those most critical of the Newtonian universe were by no means atheists. Priestley’s books on science and theology were shelved side by side at the Bristol library.


Romanticism is typically seen as a movement that started roughly at the time of the French Revolution. While somewhat difficult to define, the movement was inextricably linked to the political changes and revolutionary fervor of its age. Romantic thinkers objected to traditional ideas and artistic practices, rejecting the Enlightenment philosophies that had characterized most of the eighteenth century with their Page 149  |  Top of Articleunshakable faith in human reason and the ability of men to grasp the reality of the world. To those attempting to define the world in the wake of this extreme optimism and rationalism, such reliance on human reason seemed too reductive, too uninterested in the transcendent and the otherworldly. Romanticism instead emphasized emotion and sensation over abstract reason, the subjective and personal over the objective, and the irrational over the rational. In relation to Shelley’s novel, Romanticism can be seen as a rejection of the kind of eighteenth-century rationalism and materialism that characterize Victor Frankenstein’s science. Indeed, Victor Frankenstein can be viewed as an example of eighteenth-century optimism carried too far. Romanticism, on the other hand, took issue with this commitment to science and materialism; at odds with this vision of the world, the Romantic protagonist both raged against the confines of his society and transcended them.

Part of the Romantic project was to point to the limitations of science, and to illuminate those aspects of experience that an overly reasoned science tended to neglect. Intuition and imagination were just as important as reason, the Romantics argued, and yet were excluded from scientific analysis—as were inner experiences like the appreciation of nature or beauty. Indeed, the misery accompanying the Industrial Revolution demonstrated to many Romantic writers the limitations of science as a means to salvation and happiness.

The Novel in Focus

Plot summary

Frankenstein opens with a frame story, told in a series of letters written by Robert Walton, an ambitious young explorer aboard a polar expedition sailing Arctic waters in the hope of finding either a passage to the North Pole or the secret of the magnet. Walton’s ambition for glory and his faith in humanity’s potential for discovery are unchecked; he is the scientist filled with his own power, asking “what can stop the determined heart and resolved will of man?” (Frankenstein, p. 8). His enthusiasm for the great venture is marred only by his lack of a friend. He finds that friend in Victor Frankenstein.

One day the sailors, making their way through the waters north of Russia, are forced to wait for the ice surrounding them to break. In the distance they catch sight of a shape being pulled across the ice in a dogsled. The shape disappears, but the next morning Robert Walton goes on deck to find his sailors convincing a bedraggled, paranoid man to leave another sled and come aboard the ship. Walton is surprised to see that the man is a fellow European. Once the stranger, Victor Frankenstein, is nursed back to health, he agrees to tell Walton how he ended up in his near-death state; this story makes up the rest of the novel.

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Since the late 1500s, when explorers set out to find a trade route across the North Pole, until April 6, 1909, when Robert Peary, his assistant Matthew Henson, and four Inuit completed a final sprint across the ice, the North Pole eluded explorers and adventurers. An obsession that cost many their ties to family and even their lives, the search for a passage to the North Pole occupied men of all kinds. In 1607 Henry Hudson of Britain’s Muscovy Company sought passage over the North Pole to Asia, only to be stopped by a wall of ice. In 1773 the Phipps expedition, mounted by Britain’s Royal Society and Admiralty, and also stopped by ice, determined that no simple sea route existed. Around the time Frankenstein was written, Britain’s secretary of the Admiralty, John Barrow, began a series of naval expeditions to find a route to China that would pass between the islands of Arctic Canada—a search that continued until Sir John Franklin, leading an expedition in 1845, disappeared without a trace. Robert Walton’s passion in the novel, then, is reflected in countless tales of real men who sacrificed everything in search of the same passage.

Victor Frankenstein begins his narration with the story of his childhood: how his family was distinguished and loving, and how they lived in Geneva, where they formed a stable part of established society. Victor’s closest companions were Elizabeth—his adopted sister, whom, it was understood, he would one day marry—and his best friend, Henry Clerval. While Elizabeth fills her days with the “aerial creations of the poets,” and Henry immerses himself in tales of chivalry and romance, Victor delights in investigating the causes of things; “the world was to me a secret which I desired to divine” (Frankenstein, p. 22). At age 13 Victor discovers the work of the medieval alchemists, which opens an entire new world to him. Though his father disparages this study, carefully explaining to Victor that modern Page 150  |  Top of Articlescience possesses far greater powers than the medieval, Victor’s enthusiasm is not dampened. He proceeds to become a passionate disciple of the alchemists and occultists of old. Then, at age 15, Victor witnesses a violent thunderstorm, during which the oak in front of his house is utterly destroyed by lightning. It happens that a natural philosopher is visiting the family, and he explains to them his ideas on electricity and galvanism. These ideas throw Victor into a fresh passion and course of study that eventually leads him to a German university, where he immerses himself in this new science that can “penetrate into the recesses of nature and show how she works in her hiding-places” (Frankenstein, p. 33).

In Ingolstadt, Germany, Victor does little but read, with passion, books on natural philosophy and chemistry. For the first two years Victor does not even visit Geneva—being too “engaged, heart and soul, in the pursuit of discoveries which I hoped to make” (Frankenstein, p. 35). More and more the question haunts him: “Whence, I often asked myself, did the principle of life proceed?” (Frankenstein, p. 36). As his studies turn more in this direction, he begins spending nights in the churchyard examining dead bodies. Then, suddenly, in the middle of all this darkness “a sudden light” breaks in on him and he discovers the secret of “bestowing animation on lifeless matter” (Frankenstein, p. 37). From dissecting rooms and slaughterhouses Victor gathers up his materials, then locks himself into his solitary chamber to create a living man. It is on a dreary night in November that, with a jolt of electricity, Victor finally infuses life into the painstakingly formed man lying at his feet. After all his work, by the “glimmer of the half-extinguished light,” Victor beholds the “yellow eye of the creature open” (Frankenstein, p. 42).

The scientist’s reaction is one of horror as he sees that his beautiful creation, now filled with life, is wretched and monstrous to behold—the yellow skin barely covering veins and muscle, the eyes watery, the lips straight and black. “Now that I had finished,” Victor narrates, “the beauty of the dream vanished, and breathless horror and disgust filled my heart” (Frankenstein, p. 42). Victor flees the room, and in his feverish wanderings runs into his old friend Henry Clerval, who has come to Ingolstadt to study Oriental literature and languages. Clerval notes how thin and wasted Victor has become, but Victor does not reveal the reason for his sickness. When he returns to his chamber, Victor finds, to his intense relief, that the creature has vanished. A nervousfever possesses Victor for many months, during which time Clerval nurses him back to health.

During his recovery, Victor once again enters into contact with Elizabeth and his family, and makes plans to return to Geneva. What finally draws him there is grim news indeed. A letter from his father arrives detailing the murder of Victor’s young brother, William. There is a suspect—Justine Moritz, a kind young woman who has been adopted by the Frankenstein family. She appears to be the murderer because a possession of William’s has been found in her pocket. In the midst of his grieving, Victor catches sight of a horrible figure running through the trees and realizes instantly that the creature is the one responsible for the murder of William and the framing of Justine. Fearing that no one will believe his wild tale, and convincing himself that Justine could not possibly be convicted anyway, Victor does not speak up. He remains silent even as the evidence points more and more towards Justine’s guilt, and even when she is convicted of William’s murder and executed. In anguish, Victor blames himself for both deaths.

It does not take long for the creature to approach Victor, revealing himself one day at the base of Mount Blanc. Victor reacts with rage and hatred at the sight of the “vile insect” and “abhorred monster,” but the monster implores Victor to hear his story. Finally, Victor agrees, and the creature begins to speak (Frankenstein, p. 83). His tale is a sad one.

The monster speaks of waking in Victor’s apartment with no language or knowledge of the world, then retreating into the woods to wander helplessly, searching for food and warmth, and finally taking shelter in a shack alongside a little cottage. Realizing that his appearance provokes only hatred and fear wherever he goes, he hides in his shelter, observing the family who lives in the cottage, learning their language and reading from a stack of books he comes upon. The monster waits one year before revealing himself to this family, whom he has grown to love, hoping that he can appeal to the blind father’s sympathy. But once again he is reviled and rejected. When the children walk in upon their father conversing with such a monstrous figure, the son attacks the creature and the entire family flees. Full of despair, the creature longs desperately for someone to love. Realizing he will never find such a person in normal society, he determines to hunt down his creator and request that a female companion be made in the same mold as he. The creature finds some of Victor’s papers in Page 151  |  Top of Articlehis clothing, which help lead him to Victor’s family. In his travels he is again unfairly rebuffed by those he encounters. The creature begins to grow bitter and to seek “a deep and deadly revenge” that would “compensate for the outrages and anguish I had endured” (Frankenstein, p. 126). It is in this mood that he comes across beautiful little William, who shrieks at the sight of the creature and threatens that his father will punish the “hideous monster” (Frankenstein, p. 127). Thus begins the creature’s murderous hatred of mankind and of his creator, leading him to kill William and then frame the innocent Justine for his murder.

Now, says the creature, all he wants is what is due him: a companion with whom he can flee society forever. Feeling he has no other choice, Victor agrees, and the creature leaves. Victor does not begin on this venture immediately, however. He journeys to England, then takes a long tour of the country with Henry Clerval before setting up a laboratory in Scotland to begin his project. Finally, having almost completed the creature’s female companion, Victor looks up to catch sight of the creature grinning at the window. In horror, and vowing not to repeat his first mistake, Victor destroys his own work as the creature looks on in rage and grief. The creature promises revenge: “Your hours,” he tells Victor, “will pass in dread and misery”; also he warns his creator, “I shall be with you on your wedding-night” (Frankenstein, pp. 152-53). Victor leaves the is land and learns that the creature has murdered Clerval, but still the scientist does not take his creature’s words seriously enough to delay getting married to Elizabeth. Victor returns to Geneva and makes the arrangements. Despite his precautions, Elizabeth is murdered on the night of their wedding.

In grief and frenzy, Victor now vows his own revenge, and thus begins a cat-and-mouse game between the creator and his creation in which Victor pursues the creature and the creature enables his pursuit, leading Victor towards the North Pole. It is here that Victor, near death, is rescued by Robert Walton. Having finished his strange, long story, Victor finally dies. Walton hears a noise, then leaves; when he returns to his cabin, he finds the creature standing over the body of Frankenstein, heartbroken and filled with remorse. “Once,” the creature says, “I falsely hoped to meet with beings who, pardoning my outward form, would love me for the excellent qualities which I was capable of unfolding.… But now crime has degraded me beneath the meanest animal.… It is even so; the fallen angel becomes a malignant devil. Yet even that enemy of God and man had friends and associates in his desolation; I am alone” (Frankenstein, p. 204). The creature tells Walton that he will travel north and ascend a funeral pile, exulting “in the agony of the torturing flames”; with these words he jumps from the ship and onto an ice raft lying close by, soon to be “borne away by the waves and lost in darkness and distance” (Frankenstein, pp. 205-206).

Gravediggers, corpses, and anatomists

Victor Frankenstein’s midnight prowlings in “unhallowed damps of the grave,” where he “disturbed, with profane fingers, the tremendous secrets of the human frame,” might seem merely the product of a Gothic imagination or classic horror novel (Frankenstein, p. 39). The truth is, however, that bodysnatching was widespread in Mary Shelley’s time, and, what is more, the graveyard in which Shelley’s mother was buried, the St. Pancras parish churchyard, was a “well-known haunt of bodysnatchers” (Richardson, p. xiii). The bodysnatching era, as it has come to be known, can be seen as a dark underside to the wild scientific discoveries and expansion of the Romantic age. Before this time, the scientist’s legal access to corpses had been limited to the gallows, from which the bodies of executed murderers would be turned over to science as an extension of the criminal’s punishment. Because execution was a fairly common punishment for an assortment of crimes, this promise of bodily mutilation and dissection made the murderer’s punishment that much more severe.

In the eighteenth century, rising interests in human anatomy, physiology, and medicine increased the demand for corpses. This demand led almost inevitably to a thriving black market in corpses and the widespread practice of grave robbing. Around the time of the novel, all medical education was private, and surgeons and anatomists had to take it upon themselves to procure the corpses needed for instruction. These scientists often paid good money for stolen corpses and, after dismembering them, even sold them to their students for a profit. Historically, it seems likely that the first bodysnatchers were anatomists or surgeons and their students. In the late seventeenth century, for instance, an observer commented that the disappearance of an executed gypsy’s body was probably due to some surgeon “to make anatomical dissection on” (Richardson, p. 54). In the early eighteenth century a clause for surgeon trainees at the Edinburgh Page 152  |  Top of ArticleCollege of Surgeons forbade students’ involvement in grave exhumation, and later students were known to accompany professional bodysnatchers to the graveyards. By the early nineteenth century, it appears that bodysnatching was almost solely performed by professionals—those doing it only for purposes of money—rather than by the scientists themselves, mostly because of public outrage over body and corpse stealing.

In Mary Shelley’s time, no buried corpse in the country was secure from the bodysnatcher. These bodysnatchers—or, as they were also known, “resurrectionists”—almost always worked in small gangs, with one person standing lookout while the rest dug open the graves. Freshly filled graves made digging easy, and the bodysnatchers’ tools were usually simple: shovels, a sack, perhaps a hook. The most accessible graves were the mass graves that held the urban poor. As one bodysnatcher explained in 1828 before the Select Committee on Anatomy, “I like to get those [bodies] of poor people buried from the workhouses, because, instead of working for one subject, you may get three or four” (Richardson, p. 60). These paupers’ graves were often left open, the corpses in them exposed, until they were completely filled, thus making the bodysnatcher’s job relatively simple.

Bodysnatchers bore the brunt of public scorn and punishment for these acts, but, eventually, anatomists too would be convicted for their participation. In 1831 a new bill, known as the Anatomy Act, was introduced to Parliament, recommending that the government itself procure the bodies of paupers and criminals for scientific use. This new bill, which remains the basis of modern law on the subject, effectively ended the bodysnatching era.

Sources and literary context

The story of Frankenstein’s origin is famous: during an 1816 vacation to the Alps and after a night of reading ghost stories aloud, the Shelleys and their friends, Lord Byron and his doctor, Polidori, each agreed to write a story of his or her own. While the three men promptly began their tales, all of which were quickly abandoned, Mary struggled to think of a story that would “rival those which had excited us to this task” and “make the reader dread to look round, … curdle the blood, and quicken the beatings of the heart” (Frankenstein, pp. xxiii-xxiv). Day after day passed with no result. Then one night, after listening to Byron and Shelley discuss the work of Erasmus Darwin and the possibility of animating corpses, Mary could not sleep. Instead, as she writes in her introduction to Frankenstein,

My imagination unbidden, possessed and guided me.… I saw—with shut eyes, but acute mental vision—I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside 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 easy, 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.… The idea so possessed my mind that a thrill of fear ran through me.… On the morrow I announced that I had thought of a story. I began that day with the words “It was a dreary night of November.”

(Frankenstein, p. xxv)

Percy Shelley encouraged Mary to develop the story into a longer tale, on which she worked steadily throughout the summer and following fall. Her work was disrupted that winter by the suicides of both Fanny Imlay, Mary’s half-sister, and Percy’s wife Harriet. Taking up the work again in early 1817, Mary finished the book by April.

Frankenstein had many literary and intellectual influences. Its original title, Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus, shows the influence of Greek myths about the god Prometheus, who supposedly shaped human beings from clay and brought them fire. Various Romantic writers invoked the Prometheus image, Shelley uniquely by tying it to the scientist-creator. Also influential on Frankenstein were the works of individuals such as William Godwin, John Milton, Jean Jacques Rousseau, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge and the other Romantic poets. The novel was most heavily situated within the Gothic tradition said to have begun with Horace Walpole’s 1765 novel, Castle of Otranto. This influence is not surprising: In the two years before writing Frankenstein, Mary Shelley read Anne Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho (also in WLAIT 3: British and Irish Literature and Its Times) and The Italian, in addition to numerous other Gothic novels. Their influence is clear, even though the “mouldering abbey is transformed into Victor’s laboratory,” the ghost into Victor’s creature, and the villain’s pursuit of the heroine into the creature’s pursuit of Victor (Crook, p. 58). Traditional Gothic conventions include creaking castles, evil aristocratic villains, and images of death and decay, including rotting chains, corpses, graveyards, Page 153  |  Top of Articleand suggestions of the supernatural. Despite its lack of ghosts and haunted mansions, Frankenstein shares the spookiness and thrilling darkness definitive of the genre. It shares also the sense of crossing lines or boundaries and of otherworldliness. The enormous popularity of the Gothic novel had actually passed by 1816, but the genre, with its emphasis on darkness, madness, the supernatural, and strange passions, has never been fully dead.


The first edition of Frankenstein was published anonymously, though it included a dedication to William Godwin that provided a clue to the author’s identity. This first edition received a mixed reception. Out of the nine journals to evaluate the novel in 1818, four gave it overwhelmingly negative reviews. The Quarterly Review, for instance, announced that “taste and judgment alike revolt at this kind of writing … the greater the ability with which it is executed the worse it is—it inculcates no lesson of conduct, manner or morality; it cannot mend, and will not even amuse its readers, unless their tastes have been deplorably vitiated” (The Quarterly Review in Baldick, p. 57). Despite the severity of such criticism, the book was almost immediately a popular success. It also received some critical acclaim from the eminent novelist Walter Scott, who complimented the author’s “uncommon powers of poetic imagination” (Scott in MacDonald and Scherf, p. 35). The novel inspired its first stage adaptation only five years later with the production of Richard Brinsley Peake’s Presumption; or The Fate of Frankenstein. By 1826, 14 more dramatizations had been based on Shelley’s story. Subsequent generations would continue to receive the novel enthusiastically. In 1931 Universal Studios’ film version of Frankenstein, starring Boris Karloff, cemented the image of the mad scientist and his hideous progeny. Along with numerous other retellings, the film has ensured Frankenstein’s enduring fame.

—Carolyn Turgeon

For More Information

Baldick, Chris. In Frankenstein’s Shadow: Myth, Monstrosity and Nineteenth-Century Writing. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1987.

Barbour, Ian G. Religion and Science. San Francisco: Harper SanFrancisco, 1997.

Black, Jeremy. Eighteenth-Century Europe. 2nd ed. New York: St. Martin’s, 1999.

Capelotti, P. J. By Airship to the North Pole. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1999.

Crook, Nora. “Mary Shelley, Author of Frankenstein.” In A Companion to the Gothic. Ed. David Punter. Oxford: Blackwell, 2000.

MacDonald, D. L., and Kathleen Scherf. “Introduction.” Frankenstein; or The Modern Prometheus, by Mary Shelley. Orchard Park, N.Y.: Broadview Press, 1994.

Mellor, Anne K. Mary Shelley: Her Life, Her Fictions, Her Monsters. New York: Routledge, 1988.

Richardson, Ruth. Death, Dissection and the Destitute. New York: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1987.

Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein. New York: Bantam, 1991.

Stearns, Peter N. The Industrial Revolution in World History. Second edition. Boulder, Colo.: Westview, 1998.

Travers, Martin. An Introduction to Modern European Literature. New York: St. Martin’s, 1998.

Yeo, Richard. “Natural Philosophy (Science).” In The Romantic Age: British Culture 1776-1832. Ed. Iain McCalman. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX2875500027