Novel Introduction: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein Activity

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Novel Introduction: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein


There are at least eight main themes that Shelley presents in Frankenstein, and these themes include but are not limited to: beauty, revenge, pursuit of knowledge, ambition, science, conflict with parent and child, friendship, and nature. 1.You will each be assigned a theme to ponder and write about. Begin by free writing/brainstorming for three minutes. Start with “Revenge is…” and go from there. Write down anything that comes to mind; words, phrases, thoughts about your theme. Then reflect on your personal experiences with the topic, telling a story of your personal encounter with the theme. Finally, decide if the theme/idea is good, bad, or a combination of both, and explain why you judge it as so. Be prepared to discuss your thoughts with the class.

2. You will get into groups of 3 or 4with all of your classmates who have been assigned the same theme. Your job is to come to a consensus about whether the theme is good, bad, or a combination of both. Use examples to defend your group’s opinion. You will then present your findings to the class.
The Author:

Mary Shelley’s fame as a writer rests on a

single novel, Frankenstein. Millions of people

who have never heard of Mary Shelley know

her story through the films and other media

inspired by the novel. The word “Frankenstein”

has become a synonym for monster, and

Shelley’s tragic tale—about a well-intentioned

student of science and his human-like creation—

has been given myth-like status.

Born in 1797, Shelley was the daughter of

two of England’s leading intellectual radicals.

Her father, William Godwin, was an influential

political philosopher and novelist. Her mother,

Mary Wollstonecraft, the author of A Vindication

of the Rights of Woman, was a pioneer in promoting

women’s rights and education. Shelley never

knew her mother, who died ten days after giving

birth, but she was influenced throughout her life

by her mother’s writings and reputation.

When Mary was four, her father remarried.

Mary received no formal education, but Mr.

Godwin encouraged his daughter to read from

his well-stocked library. The Godwin household
was also a place of lively intellectual conversation.

Many writers visited Godwin to talk about

philosophy, politics, science, and literature.

When Mary was nine, she and her stepsister hid

under a sofa to hear Samuel Taylor Coleridge

recite his poem “The Rime of the Ancient

Mariner.” This popular poem later influenced

Shelley as she developed her ideas for


Mary’s future husband, the widely admired

poet Percy Shelley, was one of her father’s frequent

visitors. When Mary was sixteen, she and

Percy eloped to France. They married in 1816

and lived together for eight years, until Percy’s

early death. They spent their time traveling in

Switzerland, Germany, and Italy, visiting with

friends; studying literature, languages, music

and art; and writing. In her journal, Shelley

described her years with Percy as “romantic

beyond romance.” Her life during this period was

also filled with personal tragedy. She gave birth

to four children in five years, three of whom died

as infants. Many critics have pointed out that

thoughts of birth and death were much on

Shelley’s mind at the time she wrote Frankenstein.

Mary Shelley did not put her name on the

novel when it was published in 1818. Many

reviewers and readers assumed it was written by

Percy Shelley because he had written the preface.

Mary Shelley’s name was first attached to the

novel in the 1831 edition for which she wrote the

introduction. Remembering back fifteen years, she

explained in the introduction how an eighteenyear-

old came to write the unusual novel.

After Percy’s death in 1822 in a boating

accident, Mary Shelley returned to England and

supported herself, her son, and her father with

her writings. She wrote four novels, including

The Last Man (1826), a futuristic story about the

destruction of the human race. She also wrote short stories, essays, and travelogues. To preserve her husband’s literary legacy, she collected and annotated Percy Shelley’s poems for publication. She died in 1851.

Introducing the Novel:

In the introduction to the 1831 edition of

Frankenstein, Mary Shelley explains how she came

to write her famous novel. In the summer of 1816,

she and Percy Shelley were living near the poet

Lord Byron and his doctor-friend John Polidori on

Lake Geneva in the Swiss Alps. During a period of

incessant rain, the four of them were reading ghost

stories to each other when Byron proposed that

they each try to write one. For days Shelley could

not think of an idea. Then, while she was listening

to Lord Byron and Percy discussing the probability

of using electricity to create life artificially, according to a theory called galvanism, an idea began to grow in her mind:

Perhaps a corpse would be re-animated;

galvanism had given token of such things:

perhaps the component parts of a creature might

be manufactured, brought together, and

[endued] with vital warmth.

The next day she started work on Frankenstein.

A year later, she had completed her novel. It was

published in 1818, when Shelley was nineteen

years old.

Frankenstein is an example of a gothic novel.

This type of novel was popular between 1760 and

1820. The main ingredients of the gothic novel

are mystery, horror, and the supernatural. The

word gothic itself has several meanings. It can

mean harsh or cruel, referring to the barbaric

Gothic tribes of the Middle Ages. It can also

mean “medieval,” referring to the historical

period associated with castles and knights in

armor. In literature the term applies to works with

a brooding atmosphere that emphasize the unknown and inspire fear. Gothic novels typically feature wild and remote settings, such as haunted castles or wind-blasted moors, and their plots involve violent or mysterious events.

While the atmosphere of Shelley’s Frankenstein

is nightmarish, the novel is much more than a

horror story. Shelley’s central characters—a

young student of science and the man-like being

he creates—are both morally complex. Through

their conflict, Shelley poses profound questions

about science and society and about the positive

and destructive sides of human nature. These

questions struck a chord with Shelley’s readers in

the early 1800s—a time of startling breakthroughs

in science and technology and a growing

faith in the power of science to improve human life. Today, in a world where scientific advances such as cloning and genetic engineering seem to be redefining life itself, her questions are no less relevant.
The Time and Place:
The novel takes place in the late 1700s in

various parts of Europe, especially Switzerland

and Germany, and in the Arctic. Frankenstein

was published in 1818 in England at the height

of the Romantic movement. This movement in

art and literature was based in part on the feeling

of optimism about human possibilities that pervaded

Western culture after the American and French revolutions. In England the post-revolutionary period was also a time of economic suffering and social disorder as the new industrialism transformed English

society. Shelley’s readers lived in hopeful, but also

disturbingly turbulent, times. The Romantic movement, which lastedfrom about 1798 to 1832, pulled away from the period known as the Enlightenment, which emphasized reason and logic. English writers of the Romantic period believed in the importance of the individual. They valued subjectivity, imagination, and the expression of emotions over rational thought. The typical Romantic hero, found especially in the poetry of Lord Byron and Percy Shelley, is passionate, uninhibited, and unconventional. Often the hero is an

artist who is a social rebel or a melancholy outcast from society.

The Romantic poets, including William

Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, John Keats, and Percy Shelley, transport their readers to the private worlds of the poets’ imaginations. Often, they isolate themselves in nature and celebrate its beauty or its elemental rawness.They were also attracted to stories and settings from the past. Percy Shelley, for example,

made Prometheus, the symbol of creative striving

in Greek mythology, the hero of his poetic drama

Prometheus Unbound.

Mary Shelley’s gothic novel Frankenstein was

labeled “romantic fiction” by an early reviewer. It

is a powerful work of imagination that uses exotic

natural settings and emphasizes the emotions of

fear and awe. Many scholars also see her novel as

a critique of Romantic ideals. The “modern

Prometheus” she holds up for readers’ evaluation,

Dr. Frankenstein, is an ambiguous character who

may or may not be worthy of our admiration.

In the early 1800s, scientists were on the verge

of discovering the potential of electricity. At this

time, scientists knew about the existence of static electricity as well as electricity produced by lightning. But they were just beginning to discover that electricity could be produced by a chemical reaction.

In the 1780s, Luigi Galvani, a professor of anatomy in Bologna, Italy, conducted experiments on animal tissue using a machine that could produce electrical sparks. He concluded that animal tissue contained electricity in the form of a fluid. Galvani’s theory of “animal electricity”

was shown to be incorrect, but he had proven that muscles contracted in response to an electrical stimulus. His research opened the way to new discoveries about the operation of nerves and muscles and showed that electrical forces exist in living tissue. In the novel,

Frankenstein learns about the controversial theory of “galvanism” as part of his scientific training at a university in Germany. Today, galvanism refers to a direct current of electricity produced by a chemical reaction.

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