Understanding Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein’, Part 1

The Truth about Frankenstein


Frankenstein, or, The Modern Prometheus is victim to a whole host of misconceptions. As we began this year with the 200th anniversary of the first publication of the novel (which took place on January 1st, 1818), and as today, February 1st, is the anniversary of Mary Shelley’s (1797 – 1851) death, what better time to debunk the false facts that creep into every casual conversation on the novel?

The only true way to develop an understanding of the text is to read it for yourself; I hope that the following encourages that in those who have not yet read Frankenstein, and provides a little interesting insight for those who have. Whilst it is impossible to write this without revealing some facts of the novel, I have considered those less familiar with this narrative and have avoided discussing the ending entirely. If you haven’t yet read the novel, I sincerely suggest that you do. You can pick up a cheap copy here/by clicking on any instance of the novel’s title.

 “My husband […] was from the first, very anxious that I should prove myself worthy of my parentage, and enrol myself on the page of fame.”

– From preface to 1831 ed. Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein (London: Alma Classics, Ltd., 2010) p4.

Mary Shelley was daughter to two literary and philosophical greats: early anarchist, William Godwin (1756 – 1836) and women’s rights advocate, Mary Wollstonecraft (1759 – 1797), and wife to another: Romantic poet, Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792 – 1822). She began writing Frankenstein at the age of 18 (it was published two years later) on a culturally prolific holiday at Villa Diodati, near Lake Geneva, Switzerland. (This trip became a landmark event in literary history, and will be the sole subject of a future post.)

The year before this trip, Shelley (by which I mean, and will continue to mean throughout this piece, always Mary and never Percy) visited Bristol, and attended the lectures of Sir Humphrey Davy (1776 – 1829). Davy was a chemist, an inventor, the creator of a scientific field known as ‘electrochemistry’ (the chemistry of electricity), and the one who gave nitrous oxide its nickname ‘laughing gas’ – but that’s another story.

“Perhaps a corpse would be re-animated; galvanism had given token of such things: perhaps the component parts of a creature might be manufactured, brought together, and endued with vital warmth.”

– From preface to 1831 ed. Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein (London: Alma Classics, Ltd., 2010) p6.

In addition to Davy’s electricity experiments, Shelley was familiar with galvanism, which was discovered by and named for Luigi Galvani (1737 – 1798) in the late 1700’s. In biological science, galvanism refers to the application of electricity to a muscle in order to stimulate a contraction. Galvani’s nephew, Giovanni Aldini (1762 – 1834), performed a public demonstration of galvanism on the corpse of an executed convict in 1803 in London. Contemporary professor and author, Mary Evans, confirms that “[i]n all likelihood, Shelley was aware of these headlining developments in science” in her text Feminism Volume 1: Feminism and the Englightenment (London: Routledge, 2001) p425.

– ‘Le docteur Ure galvanisant le corps de l’assassin Clydsdale’ or ‘Dr. Ure galvanizing the body of the murderer Clydsdale’, in Louis Figuier’s Les Merveilles de la Science (Paris, 1867), p. 653

  As you can see in Louis Figuier’s (French scientist and writer, 1819 – 1894) illustration, above, the most prominently (almost centre of the scene) depicted reaction to a public galvanisation is of that of horror, which leads us on to the first common misconception, that:

 Frankenstein is the ultimate horror story.

Yes, Frankenstein is a gothic novel. And yes, it fits fellow gothic author Ann Radcliffe‘s (1764 – 1823) definition of horror…

– Image from Charles Darwin‘s (1809 – 1882) The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, 1872.

“Terror and horror are so far opposite […] that the first expands the soul, and awakens the faculties to a high degree of life; the other contracts, freezes, and nearly annihilates them.”

– Radcliffe, Ann. ‘On the Supernatural in Poetry’ in New Monthly Magazine volume 16, no. 1 (1826) p145-152.

…but what tends to be ignored, is that Frankenstein  is also science fiction. It is, in fact, arguably the first science fiction novel in existence. In Billion Year Spree (1973), Brian Aldiss (English author, 1925 – 2017) refers to the novel as “the first seminal work to which the label SF can be logically attached.” This crossing of genres is of no surprise to Aldiss, who claims that the conventions of science fiction are generally derived from those of the gothic.

Shelley was an intelligent woman born to academics of the Enlightenment – a time when science and medicine were advancing drastically, and becoming of widespread interest. It follows then, considering the lectures that Shelley attended, and the company that she kept, that this fashionable interest may inform her writing. In the preface to the 1836 edition of the novel, Shelley admitted that she found no interest in writing about herself…

“I did not make myself the heroine of my tales. Life appeared too commonplace an affair as regarded myself.”

– From preface to 1831 ed. Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein (London: Alma Classics, Ltd., 2010) p4.

It was this lack of interest in writing sentimentally about herself and abundance of interest in the work of Davy, Galvani and Aldini, and the battle of vitalism versus materialism (as fought by the colleague of her husband, doctor John Abernethy (1764 – 1831) and the family physician, Sir William Lawrence (1783 – 1867)) that led Shelley to create characters far larger than herself. Or, “people the hours with creations far more interesting” (p4) as she put it. One such creation was the figure of the mad scientist – a now common trope, or subgenre of science fiction, that again was brand new at the time of Shelley’s writing – which leads us to the second common misconception of the novel…


© Hannah Sinclair Emadian and Generally Gothic, 2018. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Hannah Sinclair Emadian and Generally Gothic with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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APA Style

Emadian, H. S. (2018, January 19). The Gothic: Novel| ‘Frankenstein’. Generally Gothic. Retrieved from https://generallygothic.wordpress.com/2018/02/01/the-gothic-novel-frankenstein-1/

Chicago Style

Emadian, Hannah S. “The Gothic: Novel| ‘Frankenstein’.” Generally Gothic. 2018. https://generallygothic.wordpress.com/2018/02/01/the-gothic-novel-frankenstein-1/

MLA Style

Emadian, Hannah S. “The Gothic: Novel| ‘Frankenstein’” Generally Gothic. Generally Gothic, 01 Feb 2018. Web. [Date Accessed]

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