History 104: Western Civilization since 1648
Lecture: 19th Century Society

Science Gone Mad: Frankenstein (1818)click here for audio

Mary Shelley In 1816, on a dark and stormy night, the daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft visited poet Lord Byron with her lover (later husband), poet Percy Shelley. She was 19. Accepting a challenge to write a ghost story, Mary Shelley created one of the scariest stories of all time, and a fictional representation of the fear of science.

In the story, Dr. Victor Frankenstein creates a monster from dead body parts, reanimating them using electricity. The monster comes to control his creator. Treated badly by society, it becomes a killer. Ultimately, Frankenstein must destroy his own creation.

Many elements of the 19th century are infused in her story. In line with both Locke's theory that people are born tabula rasa (blank slates) and Rousseau's ideas on education, the monster is not born evil. He becomes bad due to his cruel treatment by society. The book also contains references that were the result of Shelley's exposure to literature, poetry, philosophy, and more.

Medical experiments at the time were going on which focused on rescuscitating the dead (some had been used on Percy Shelley's first wife, who had died by drowning). Galvinism Frankenstein's monster, as played in the movie (electrical animation) was being tried.

There have also been more personal interpretations of the book. Shelley herself gave birth to a daughter who died. Dr. Frankenstein is trying to create life without the body of a woman, without a womb. He is mother and father to the creature, and has to kill his own child. There are studies of Victor Frankenstein, who comes to think himself god-like after being raised by a family who treats their only son like a god. It goes on and on.

For the sake of this class, the story can be seen as a cautionary tale. Even before the many advances of 19th century science, Shelley is noting the horrors that can happen when technology goes beyond the ability of humans to control it. There are few issues of more concern today, in a world of atomic weapons, life-prolonging procedures, and interglobal communications.

5. Victorian Values->