Little Bits of History

March 11

Posted in History by patriciahysell on March 11, 2017

1818: Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus is first published. Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin was born in 1797 to a political philosopher and women’s rights activist. Her mother died less than a month after her birth and her father gave her a comprehensive although informal education. She married one of her father’s followers, Percy Bysshe Shelley in 1816 and during the summer spent time in Geneva, Switzerland with Lord Byron, John William Polidori, and Mary’s stepsister Clair Clairmont. It was there Mary began to get her idea for her most famous work. The couple had four children, three of them dying in infancy before their son was born, their only surviving child. Shelley drowned in a boating accident in 1822.

On this day, Lackington, Hughes, Harding, Mavor, & Jones published Frankenstein anonymously. A preface was written by Percy Bysshe Shelley and a dedication was made to William Godwin. Only 500 copies of the “triple-decker” work were issued. As a standard practice of the time, the book was broken up into three volumes. A new publisher put out a second printing, this time in just two volumes, after a successful play had been presented, Presumption; or, the Fate of Frankenstein. A third edition, in one volume, came out in October 1831. It was heavily revised by Mary to tone it down a bit and contained a larger preface, written by her. While the first popular version is this latter one, many scholars prefer the original work when choosing a version.

In the book, Frankenstein creates a being and his rejection of this entity begins with his refusing to name it. He calls it, instead, all sorts of vile names like: wretch, monster, creature, demon, devil, fiend, and simply it. The book has been adapted to plays and movies over the ensuing years and it is only in these later versions of the story where the creature is described as whole body parts cobbled together and animated by lightning. This idea was first popularized in a 1931 film version of the tale produced by James Whale. Earlier versions have Dr. Frankenstein discovering the elemental principle of life and animating his creature with whatever it was he had discovered.

One of the most popular misconceptions surrounding the tale is the name of the monster. Frankenstein is the man who created the unnamed beast, not the name of the beast itself. The subtitle is often ignored today. The mythological reference to Prometheus, the Titan who created mankind at Zeus’s request, is left out, but is the point of the story. The fight between Prometheus who wanted the best for his creatures and Zeus who wanted to remain in control ends badly for Prometheus who was tied to rock and had his liver eaten out by eagles every day, only to regenerate during the night because of his god status. He was eventually rescued by Hercules. The story of Frankenstein has a moral tale to tell.

I do not wish women to have power over men; but over themselves.

Nothing contributes so much to tranquilize the mind as a steady purpose – a point on which the soul may fix its intellectual eye.

Elegance is inferior to virtue.

What terrified me will terrify others; and I need only describe the spectre which had haunted my midnight pillow. – all from Mary Shelley