Mary Shelley’s cautionary tale Frankenstein turned two hundred years old this year, accompanied by essays, conferences, and celebrations of its enduring influence. Many of these have focused on what is most often taken as the book’s main theme: a warning against pursuing scientific progress and invention heedless of social cost or ethical responsibility. While ambition channeled through “natural philosophy” (the term for physical science in 1818) indeed sparks the plot and animates the main character, Victor Frankenstein, science is neither the villain nor the foundation of Frankenstein. Shelley uses the possibilities of human scientific achievement as one lens through which to assess the human condition and the estate of man, and to express and weigh the Enlightenment-Romantic estimate of the power and place of human reason and ambition. She gathers up a host of religious, philosophical, and scientific concerns—concerns that still haunt the imagination of Western man—and fashions them into a new myth.

Shelley, born Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin in 1797, was a child of Romanticism. Her parents, William Godwin—political radical, socialist, proto-anarchist, and utilitarian philosopher—and the writer and feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, were at the center of the second wave of the English Romantic response to the European Enlightenment, expressing in politics and social theory the same worldview of the Romantic poets and artists. Mary Godwin would be educated and steeped in this familial and cultural milieu. 

At seventeen she became the lover and eventually the wife of the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, with whom she fled England after her father disapproved of the relationship. They led an unsettled and peripatetic life, traveling through Europe and lodging with friends, including the poet Lord Byron. It was at his villa on Lake Geneva that Byron challenged his company to write and share ghost stories to relieve the tedium of a wet, gloomy summer. Mary, only nineteen years old, would contribute the story of a “student of unhallowed arts” whose obsession culminates in the creation of an unnatural life, pieced and patched together from the spoils of grave-robbing and the cast-offs of the “dissecting room” and the “slaughterhouse”. With the encouragement of Percy Shelley, Mary would expand and publish the story two years later as her first novel, Frankenstein.

Shelley gathered and expressed many of the concerns and sensibilities that Romanticism brought to the era of the Enlightenment: the centering of human subjectivity and feeling, the solitary and heroic Romantic “genius” struggling with the world and his own inner turmoil, the sense of sublime nature, beautiful yet terrifying, whose infinite depths could only be grasped by the imagination. The Romantic movement was not at odds with the aims of the Enlightenment; both sought liberation, particularly for the consciousness and desires of the individual, from the strictures of authority, tradition, and the dead hand of history. And both saw in natural science the emblem of the aspirations of the human race to “come of age” and grasp the instruments and goals of its own destiny. Shelley herself acknowledges influences from Erasmus Darwin (the grandfather of Charles Darwin), a doctor and poet who developed his own ideas of evolution and the animation of inanimate matter, and from Luigi Galvani, the discoverer of galvanism, the contraction of muscles—even dead ones—by electrical stimulation.

A master of the genre himself, Brian Aldiss considers Frankenstein the “first real science fiction novel,” because it combines “social criticism with new scientific ideas” (in Billion Year Spree: The True History of Science Fiction). Yet Aldiss also recognizes the predominance of “the religious theme” in Shelley’s “Gothic” novel, focused on a retelling of (or, more aptly, a reply to) Goethe’s revision of the Faustus legends, and combined with elements of the Greek myth of Prometheus. Both tales hinge on the aspirations of mortals to be like God, or the gods, knowing good and evil. The original full title of Shelley’s creation is Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, and Goethe’s presence, through references and allusions, is both felt and told.

The story of Dr. Faustus, a scholar who sells his soul to the devil to gain supernatural powers and forbidden knowledge, grew out of medieval Germanic legends, and was the subject of numerous retellings. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe wrote the most well-known version. Goethe’s play is nearly comic opera, and his Faust more a misguided hero than a usurper of divine prerogatives. In Goethe’s hands, human pride and disobedience are slight weaknesses and barely hindrances to human ambition and greatness. Faust is ultimately, and easily, forgiven his deal with the Devil and borne to heaven with angel choruses singing his praises, as Roger Shattuck puts it, “for conduct more proud and defiant than what earned the original Adam banishment from Paradise” (in Forbidden Knowledge from Prometheus to Pornography).

Mary Shelley certainly read the first version of Goethe’s play, Faust, Part 1 (1808), but she is not so sanguine in her estimate of Victor Frankenstein’s Faustian bargain. In the introduction to the 1831 edition of Frankenstein, she tells us that the kernel of her story came to her in a dream, after listening to a long evening’s conversation between Percy Shelley, and Lord Byron, about the “nature of the principle of life” and the possibility of reanimating a corpse. At night, she dreamed of a “hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the workings of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half-vital motion.” But rather than a cause for celebrating human greatness, Shelly exclaims how “supremely frightful would be the effect of any human endeavor 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.”

Neither does Shelley buy into the Promethean conceits of the Romantic coterie surrounding her husband and his fellow poets. Prometheus was the Titan who stole fire from the gods to benefit humanity, and who is condemned by Zeus to be forever chained to a rock, where an eagle eats his liver each day. In some versions of the myth, Prometheus fashions the first humans from clay. Goethe’s short poem Prometheus (ca. 1772) is as fine a piece of misotheism as you’ll find, thinly disguised as the Titan’s disdain for Zeus, but with clear signals that Goethe has the God of Christianity in mind. Percy Shelley’s lyrical drama, Prometheus Unbound, celebrates Prometheus as a romantic-revolutionary hero fighting against the oppression of authority and tradition, exemplified in the god Jupiter. In Percy Shelley’s retelling, Jupiter is overthrown and Prometheus finally freed. In Frankenstein, it is Prometheus—Victor Frankenstein—who is overthrown, the final victim of his own hubris.

What is remarkable about Frankenstein is how Mary Shelley, a teenager when she first put the story to paper, uses Romantic themes and tropes to subvert Romanticist presumptions.  “She was the ultimate Romantic groupie,” writes Shattuck, “But she also perceived so vividly the vanity and selfishness of this existence that she produced a narrative account of it already halfway to myth.” And more than halfway to satire. Victor Frankenstein—fictional and Faustian, yet no doubt partially based on Percy Shelley and Lord Byron—comes across as utterly self-absorbed, obsessed with his own scientific achievement and fame, whatever the cost, as his own interior dialogue reveals: “So much has been done, exclaimed the soul of Frankenstein—more, far more will I achieve … and unfold to the world the deepest mysteries of creation.” If Mary Shelley was aware of what she was doing—and it seems that she was—her portrait of Victor’s overweening pride, his self-obsession passing as inward sensitivity, and his ultimate refusal to own the consequences of his actions, is a high parody of the bold Romantic “genius” who, struggling valiantly at great personal cost, seeks to free himself from the strictures of traditional society and conventional morality.

On the other hand, Mary makes of Frankenstein’s creature a serious tragic figure. Unlike the grunting, stumbling invention of Hollywood cinema, Shelley’s monster, though hideous in appearance, is articulate, introspective, and physically adept. Though abandoned in disgust by Frankenstein at the moment of his awakening, the creature survives and gradually comes to self-awareness, wandering the nearby forest. Watching a peasant family in secret, he learns to speak and read. He finds a lost book satchel, and studies John Milton’s Paradise Lost, Plutarch’s Lives, and Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther. These are books Shelley herself had read recently and, though her plot device is somewhat a deus ex machina, it allows her creature to express himself in references and allusions that unfold her own moral and theological vision.

That vision turns on Shelley’s unfolding of the Fall, and on the longing of the creature, in a fallen world, to know our Creator. Her “monster” is a modern Adam, but one whose wretchedness and loss of innocence stem from the original conceit and presumption of his creator. Shelley begins with Miltonian themes. The epigraph on the title page of Frankenstein, from Paradise Lost, elicits already a sense of resentful anguish:

Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay
To mould me man, Did I solicit thee
From darkness to promote me?

The monster sees similarities between himself and Milton’s Adam, but also the terrible differences: “He came forth from the hands of God a perfect creature, happy and prosperous . . . but I was wretched, helpless, and alone.” At times he considers Milton’s Satan a “fitter emblem of my condition,” for the bitterness and envy that well up within him. The fall of Frankenstein’s creature occurs because of the revulsion and rejection he experiences in his every attempt at human contact and fellowship, beginning with his own creator. “I had feelings of affection,” he laments, “and they were requited by detestation and scorn.” When he openly seeks the friendship and compassion of the peasant family he has secretly watched for weeks, their horrified and violent rebuff finally breaks him: “For the first time the feelings of revenge and hatred filled my bosom … The mildness of my nature had fled, and all within me was turned to gall and bitterness.” The creature becomes the “fiend,” and he murders in turn Frankenstein’s young brother, his best friend, and his new bride.

But despite the thread of Milton’s theology running through Frankenstein, Shelley turns away from Milton’s appropriation of the felix culpa, the “Fortunate Fall” that leads to an even greater redemption. At the end of Paradise Lost, Adam exclaims,

O goodness infinite, goodness immense!
That all this good of evil shall produce,
And evil turn to good; more wonderful
Than that which by creation first brought forth
Light out of Darkness!

But there is no redemption in Frankenstein; not for Frankenstein, whose hubris not only leaves a path of destruction, but which also leaves him narcissistically unrepentant. Shelley’s “stern and unyielding” condemnation, Shattuck comments, “of the presumptuous and selfish actions of Frankenstein in creating and then abandoning a new form of life is nowhere softened. She minces no words to tell us that for all his striving, her Modern Prometheus deserves not the glory he seeks but the humiliating death he finds in the barren wastes of the Arctic.” And not for Frankenstein’s misbegotten progeny. Aldiss offers his tragic epitaph, “Instead of hope and forgiveness, there remain only the misunderstanding of men and the noxious half life of the monster.” Frankenstein ends with the creature, determined in his self-loathing to end his existence, “lost in darkness and distance.”

“The beauty of the dream vanished, and breathless horror and disgust filled my heart”; Shelley expresses Victor Frankenstein’s immediate reaction when at last he is able to “infuse a spark of being into the lifeless thing” he had patched together from the cast-off materials of the grave, the dissecting room, and the slaughterhouse. Far from the sense of “delight and rapture” that first accompanied his hard-won discovery of the “cause of generation and life” and the capability of “bestowing animation upon lifeless matter,” Victor now recoils from the ugliness of the creature he has fashioned, a “thing such as Dante could not have conceived.”

The beauty of the dream vanished. It works as the epitaph—and it is easy to believe that Shelley might have meant it as such—of Romanticism itself, whose dream of delight and rapture in the inward depths of human imagination turned to visible nightmare twenty-five years before Frankenstein. That is, in the Terror of the French Revolution, whose inner rationale and moving force were Romantic to the core. At any rate, Shelley saw through the pretensions to the inner contradictions and corruptions of Romanticism, as it was espoused and practiced by those she knew so well. And though not a systematic treatment, she gives a sense and expression of the tragic consequences of the stubborn human failure to accept our frailties and fallen nature that still resonate today. As Shattuck writes, “We have not yet exhausted her remarkable fiction that flies in the face of the Romantic and utopian themes that spawned it.”