Last weekend I was driving home from Florida and on the radio I heard some talk about the novel Frankenstein, written by Mary Shelley and published in 1818. The next day, I heard someone else on the radio read from Shelley’s notes on how she came to write the book. Because this year is the 200th anniversary of her thinking up the idea for the novel, perhaps it’s no great coincidence that I’d hear these radio reports.
The following day, however, I was reading a modern novel that out of the blue made a reference to Frankenstein, and still the day after that I was listening to some language exercises while studying Spanish, when a speaker used the sentence (in Spanish), “Oh, it’s the Frankenstein monster! Run!” I think using the word “run” was the actual point of the exercise.
The cultural impact of Mary Shelley’s novel is so enormous that it’s impossible to calculate. I pause for a moment to note that she was 18 years old when she thought of it and began writing it. Are there novels by any men at that age that have had such an impact?
Shelley tells us that her purpose was just to write a horror story, some entertainment during a rainy summer for her husband, herself, Lord Byron, and another friend. We can now see the book in two very different ways, however. There is the “Grrrrrr!!!” monster way, which she was after, and in the 20th century we have certainly pursued this line, with movies and pop culture that celebrated the “monstrousness” and nothing else, leading in fact to parodies like the song “Monster Mash” and Mel Brook’s utterly wonderful movie “Young Frankenstein”.
Whether Shelley intended to make a cultural statement or not, I don’t know. Maybe she did intend it. Both of her parents, Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin, were influential thinkers and writers, concerned with the state of society (you can look them both up on Wikipedia), so Mary Shelley was probably influenced by this background. And there is obviously a second way to look at her book.
In Frankenstein, she picked up on trends happening in her time, including current scientific knowledge, such as electricity (remember, the year was 1818), and captured a growing cultural uneasiness with how that knowledge and technology were affecting people. At the same time that Shelley was close to writing Frankenstein, for instance, textile workers in England were destroying weaving machines from fear that the machines would take away their jobs (does that fear of being replaced by machines sound somewhat familiar?).
Clearly, in the early 1800s some people were beginning to feel that knowledge and technology were moving beyond human control. It was at that moment that Mary Shelley produced this novel, which embodied those fears. The book is actually about a man who creates a living creature that he is then afraid of. The creature of the novel, by the way, is not the cartoon character of our movies (in Shelley’s book the monster reads John Milton’s Paradise Lost).
Of course, after Shelley, both our knowledge and our technology have increased astronomically, and our fear of them has continued. A very good example of fearing our own creations came exactly 100 years later, with the Czech play R. U. R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots) in 1920, where the word “robot” was first created. In that play, the artificial creatures eventually turn on their human masters and kill them.
In the late 20th century, I’d cite two movie examples of this same theme. In “Blade Runner” artificially created people come into conflict with the humans who made them, and in “2001: A Space Odyssey”, the anthropomorphic ship computer turns on the humans who are supposed to control the space ship.
From our vantage point 200 years later, the time of Mary Shelley seems quaint and bucolic. Most people then lived in villages. Everyone rode horses. Not one thing on the earth ran on electricity. And yet part of the reason for the success of Shelley’s novel is that is wasn’t just a horror story. Other people have written horror stories, but we don’t hear about them.
Even 200 years ago, people were beginning to worry about whether humans were acquiring knowledge beyond our capacity to use it. And look at us now. We have nuclear weapons. We have cell phones that tell people where we are, even when we don’t realize it. We are developing the capacity to change the very DNA that makes us who we are. Writers struggle now to deal with such changes and threats to our humanity. A teen-aged girl 200 years ago captured the anxiety of her own time, something we still understand.