- Portrait of Mary Shelley (nee Wollstonecraft), at her writing desk. (1820)
by Samuel John Stump
This image evokes that fateful laudnum-soaked night on Lord Byron’s Swiss estate-in-exile, when the infamous host challeneged his guests (Mary, her poet/natural philosophy enthusiast hubby Percy, and Dr. Polodori- who wrote one of the first notable pieces of vampire literaure) to spin a tale of horrors. Mary Shelley was, hands down, the undisputed winner.
There were several fascinating (and on the personal level, achingly sad) factors of inspiration that lead to the creation of her ‘Modern Prometheus’. Mary shared her husband Percy Byssche’s deep interest in the latest scientific inquiries (or so-dubbed ‘Natural Philosphy’), of the time- namely, exploring the mysteries of electricity. The Shelleys discovered the work of one noted scientist, Luigi Galvani, who lended his name to the phenomena discovered via expieriments attempting to stimulate the nerves of dead frogs with a current, giving the halpless amphibians the illusion of reanimation. That phenomena would come to be known, of course, as ‘Galvanism’.
The character of Viktor Frankenstein himself was likely inspired by one Johan Korad Dippel (1673-1734)- who lived & died well before Mary’s time but posessed indisputible paralells with her fictional ‘mad scientist’. Dippel studied human anatomy, which given the era when the church expressly forbade human dissection meant that Dippel probably employed the services of professional graverobbers (also known as ‘ghouls’ or, more poetically, ‘ressurectionists’). Dippel was also credited with the earliest experimental R&D stage of what would become the modern heart defibrillator. And, most obvious of all the literary paralells, wished to purchase a certain Castle Frankenstein just outside of Darmstadt, Germany.
But it is perhaps the more ephemeral, mystical, and personal inspirations which Mary Shelley spoke about regarding her novel which are the most poignant and telling. She claimed that her dream life came to bear on the creation of her grotesque brainchild. At the time she wrote Frankenstein, she was still mourning the miscarriage of her own child, and one can imagine that undercurrent of grief intersected with her interest in scientific theories that might possibly revive the dead through electricity. The old legend of jewish mysticism, ‘The Golem’, where a kabbalist imbues a clay vessel with the properties of life- with less than positive ethical outcomes- may have also factored into her own story.
This extrapolation of science twined with sentiment and mysticism didn’t nessecarily betray a naivite on her part, given the ultimate moral of ‘Frankenstein’. In the end, Mary Shelley’s was a cautionary morality tale, one of the first to tackle the sticky subject of bioethics. In Franekstein, the flipside of scientific wonderment fueled by the desire to improve the human condition is a dark, brooding monomaniacal obsession to conquer mortality by any means nessecary.