||About the author
Mary Shelley was born in London in 1797, the daughter of two accomplished writers, Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin. Her mother died when Mary was born and her father remarried and had more children. Mary did not get on well with her stepmother, and spent much of her childhood living in Scotland with friends. She visited her family in London on occasion, and it was during one of these visits that she met the poet, Percival Bysshe Shelley, who was the son of a British nobleman. Mary was in the habit of going to her mother's grave every day to read poetry. She invited Shelley to go along with her, and much of their courting was done in a graveyard. Shelley used to read his poetry to Mary and encouraged her to write poetry herself.
Mary and Percival Shelley were married in 1816 and set out for Switzerland to spend the summer near Lake Geneva. There is a story told that on their way they ran out of money in Paris and could not afford the coach fare, so they bought a donkey. The idea was that he would carry their luggage and they would walk beside him. The donkey was very small, however, and got tired, so they ended up carrying him, luggage, and all.
The Shelleys kept moving around from one country to another. They had four children, two girls and two boys but only one of them, Percival Florence, (so named because he was born in Florence, Italy) survived infancy. They rented a house on the bay of Lerici in Italy in 1822. Mary's husband was drowned in the bay while sailing his schooner back from a visit with his friend, Lord Byron. When his body was washed up on the shore they found a copy of Keats' poetry in his pocket. As he was being cremated on the beach, his friend Edward Trelawny plunged his hand into the flames to cut out the heart of Shelley. (You get a good idea of what a human heart looks like when you view the segment on the video where we visit the prop manager of the theatre.) After her husband's death, Mary returned to England with her son to oversee his education.
Frankenstein is probably the best known of Mary Shelley's works although she also wrote several other novels, and wrote a number of short stories and biographies. One of her novels, The Last Man, is about the destruction of the world by a plague in the year 2100, and only one man is left to tell the tale. She went with her son on hiking tours in Germany and Italy, and since she had traveled so much, she wrote travel books. She also collected together the poetry and letters of her husband for publication. She died in 1851 when she was 53 years old.
About the time and place
Switzerland is a beautiful, mountainous country in the middle of Europe and is bordered by Germany, Italy and France. Frankenstein was written in Switzerland in the summer of 1816. This was an exciting time in which to be living. It was the beginning of what we now call the Romantic movement. There had been two major revolutions at the end of the previous century, the American and the French revolutions, when all accepted standards had been overturned. Until that time, kings held all the power, and it was generally believed that people were born evil and had to be frightened into behaving well. Writers had concerned themselves with lofty subjects like heaven and hell and the deeds of the kings and heroes who had lived a long time ago. But the romantic writers didn't go along with that. They wrote about common things and about ordinary emotions and feelings. They believed that man was essentially good. Jean Jacques Rousseau, a French writer who lived in the eighteenth century, had written a book about how to educate a child. He said "God makes all things good; man meddles with them and they become evil."
At this time, science was still very mysterious and primitive. Scientists were involved in trying to capture electricity and put it to a useful purpose. Medicine was also primitive. In this play the mother of the family died because there were no medicines to cure her. Mary Shelley lost three children to diseases which are easily curable today.
When Mary lived, it was most unusual for women to be writers. Women were considered useful only for doing housewifery things and were thought to be incapable of intellectual endeavors. But the nineteenth century would produce some great women writers like Jane Austen and the Bronte sisters. Some writers, fearful that their work would not be taken seriously because they were women, wrote under pseudonyms. George Eliot and George Sands were two of these famous writers who were really women.
It was also a time when novels were beginning to be accepted as a new form of writing. So Mary Shelley was right in the forefront of everything. She wrote this science fiction novel and it has fascinated people for almost two hundred years.
About the play
The play Frankenstein is adapted from a novel written in 1816 by Mary Shelley. The Shelleys had taken a house near Lake Geneva in Switzerland. Nearby lived the poet, Lord George Gordon Byron, who had taken a house, and visited them often. In their rented house, they found several German ghost stories and amused themselves by reading them. It was a rainy summer and on one particularly dreary day, the three had a competition as to who could write the best ghost story. The two men did not produce a story but Mary began her story, Frankenstein, which is in fact the first science fiction novel of which we are aware.
The story involves a family, the Frankensteins, living in Geneva. When the mother of the family dies, the oldest son, Victor, who is about to enter the university to study science, determines that he will discover how to overcome death and to live forever. Some people think that Mary Shelley had always felt deprived of a mother and that is one reason why she wrote about this subject.
Victor Frankenstein, with help from a fellow student, Peter Krempe, succeeds in producing artificial life. But his creation is a far cry from what he had hoped. He had thought he was creating something beautiful and wondrous but instead he has produced an ugly monster. He is immediately sorry for having brought it into existence. The monster (he is never given a name) has no father or mother to nurture, love and instruct him. He reaches out to Victor, searching for help, but Victor is repulsed by him and refuses. The monster, since he has not been taught a sense of right or wrong, has no conscience and kills many of the people that Victor loves. Eventually, Victor himself is killed, along with the monster, in order to prevent further destruction.
You will notice at the end of the play that Victor stretches out his hand to grasp the hand of his creation just before they are both destroyed. On the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in Rome, the artist Michelangelo painted God stretching out his hand in exactly the same way to give life to his creation. Throughout the play we see this symbolism repeated: when Victor first approaches the monster and when William first meets the monster are two examples.
About the themes
The major theme of this work is the creation of artificial life. This is a relevant moral question today. Scientists have succeeded in cloning a sheep, and it is only a matter of time before humans too can be cloned. Yet in the play, Dr. Waldham says, "Science is not a plaything young man. The scientist is responsible for what he creates and its effect on the whole human race."
? Do you think that just because science can do something, that it should be done?
A sub-theme is that of prolonging life indefinitely. There is an ancient Greek myth about a man called Tithonus who asked the gods to make him immortal. The gods granted his wish, but Tithonus had forgotten to ask for eternal youth. So he kept growing older and older and more and more weary and feeble. He began to envy those who could die. Eventually he melted away and became a grasshopper.
? What do you think would be the benefit of living forever?
?What would be the disadvantage of living forever?
Another theme is the romantic idea of the treatment and development of people. Psychiatrists tell us that we must be loved in order to develop properly. If we are not given love, then we will not develop a moral sense.
? Do you feel the monster would have behaved differently had he been loved?
Another theme is the function of women. Mary Shelley's mother had been a writer and a fighter for the equality of women. At that time in history, women were not encouraged to do anything intellectual. Mary Shelley had been encouraged in her writing by her husband. The play addresses the oddity of a woman pursuing intellectual development and also addresses the question of women as nurturers of society. Elizabeth suggests helping the monster in the play, when all Victor wants to do is destroy it.
? How do you think it would have turned out had Elizabeth known about the monster from the beginning?
You are now engaged in what is called, "critical thinking." Don't stop here!
Hunt for the picture of Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel ceiling and find the outstretched hands of God and Adam.
Look up the very cool poem, Ode to a Grecian Urn, written by Keats, and memorize the last two lines.
Write your own poem about living forever. your poem to us!
Have a ghost story writing competition with your friends.