Oct 26, 2013

Was Mary Shelley's Frankenstein Just A Work Of Horror Fiction?

For the third installment in our 7 tales in 7 days series, we wanted to depart from the 'fairy tale world' imagined by Charles Perrault and the Brothers Grimm, and take a look at a familiar fiction from the annals of classic horror. Written in 1816 and published in 1818, the tale is Frankenstein by Mary Shelley.

Conceiving The Idea For Frankenstein

Richard Rothwell's portrait of Mary Shelley
courtesy of Wikipedia
Mary Shelley was an English novelist, and wife of poet Percy Bysshe Shelley.  In 1816, they spent the summer in Geneva with their friend - poet Lord Byron - and some other traveling companions.  During their vacation, however, the weather proved inclement, and so the group spent much of their time indoors discussing various topics.

They also read stories to one another - including German ghost stories - long into the nighttime hours.  One night, following a dream, Mary Shelley conceived the idea of Frankenstein.  What became her most well-known work, Frankenstein tells the story of a brilliant, but insane, scientist's attempt to reanimate the dead by bringing the corpse of a convicted criminal back to life.

Who Is "Frankenstein?"
Frankenstein's Monster, courtesy of Wikipedia

Frankenstein has become such a popular story - and the subject of many theatrical and screen adaptations - that, today, we use the book's title to refer, interchangeably, to either Dr. Victor Frankenstein, or more commonly, to the "monster" he brought back to life.

Interestingly, Shelley used the name to refer to the main character, Dr. Victor Frankenstein, not his monster.

Will The Real Dr. Frankenstein Please Stand Up

The fact that Mary Shelley used the name to refer to Dr. Frankenstein entices one question - was there a real Dr. Frankenstein inspiring Mary Shelley's imagination? Surprisingly, the answer may be that there was.  The question is, at least, open to legitimate debate.

During that summer in 1816, for example, the group discussed at length the allegedly successful efforts of 18th century naturalist, Erasmus Darwin, to reanimate dead matter.  Is it possible that Mary Shelley used the work of Erasmus Darwin to develop the character of Dr. Victor Frankenstein?  The answer is unknown, but she certainly knew who he was and about his work.

Similarly, although careful research cannot confirm or deny it, Mary Shelley may have been inspired by the unusual life of "mad scientist" Johann Conrad Dippel, who lived from 1673-1754.  For starters, Dippel was born in Castle Frankenstein in Darmstadt, Germany.  He study theology, philosophy and alchemy, eventually becoming consumed with the idea of creating artificial life.

Johann Conrad Dippel,
courtesy of Wikipedia
Dippel's single-minded consumption led to reputation as a grave robber, and for doing macabre experiments on the ill-gotten cadavers.  Furthermore, there were rumors that he was driven out of town by an angry mob after blowing up a tower at Castle Frankenstein with nitroglycerin.

Sounds familiar does it not?  Was Dippel the inspiration for Mary Shelley's Frankenstein.  The answer remains a mystery, but these coincidences are striking.

Frankenstein:  More Than Just Horror Fiction

Today, we think of Frankenstein as a work in the genre of horror fiction, and it is.  However, Mary Shelley's work represents a significant contribution to other genres such as cultural and social philosophy as well as medical ethics.  You can read more about Mary Shelley, with references to her many other works, by reading this Wikipedia page about her.

Interested in more "fun facts" about Mary Shelley's Frankenstein?  Follow this link to an article which resurrects and re-animates 13 pieces of trivia related to the story and its author.  How lucky is that?

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