Origin of Frankenstein

Instructor: Liz Breazeale
Pop-culture Frankenstein comes in a big, dumb, greenish package. But that isn't the real Frankenstein. Learn the story behind the modern-day monster and test yourself with a quiz.

Who is Frankenstein?

Here comes Frankenstein: square head, torn clothes, full on zombie shuffle, throaty moan. What some people may not realize is that this interpretation is a crazy harsh picture of our beloved Frankenstein. Really, the creep we know and love began as something much more human and much less villainous. Frankenstein's monster was actually born long, long before the monster flicks of the 1930s, before Boris Karloff, before Scooby Doo--in the village of Geneva, Switzerland, during the miserably cold summer of 1816.

Writing Horror Stories: Origin of Frankenstein

Since the weather of that June was horrible and cold, a group of creative writers on vacation decided to hold a contest to see who could write and tell the creepiest ghost story. Like people do on vacation.

There was Mary Shelley (then Godwin), eighteen-year-old daughter of famous author and feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, and her lover and future husband, the famous poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. They were joined by fellow author John Polidori and another well-known poet, Lord Byron, as well as Byron's lover, Claire Clairmont.

Polidori and Byron wound up writing vampire tales, but the clear winner of the contest turned out to be Mary Shelley for the story that came to her as a 'waking dream,' in which she saw '…the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out...' and the creator of said creature 'would hope that, left to itself, the slight spark of life which he had communicated would fade; that this thing…would subside into dead matter…' (Shelley 21).

Supposedly, this waking nightmare occurred to her after hearing Percy Shelley and Byron talking about the possibility of reanimating the dead, or bringing the dead back to life. After her dream, a sincerely creeped out Mary Shelley began writing in earnest, intending to craft a short story based on this horrific creation and the disgusted reaction of its creator.

It's important to note that, while today, the monster itself is generally called by the name 'Frankenstein,' that was actually the original name of the doctor who gave life to the creature, the tortured, brilliant Victor Frankenstein. He's immediately disgusted by the terrifying, monstrous appearance of the poor, pieced-together thing.

Frankenstein's creation, though never given a name in the book, shows himself to be more human than his creator. He shows genuine emotion and is often tortured by his own monstrous looks and his extreme loneliness. Really, the poor creature just wants someone to love, and he pleads with Frankenstein repeatedly to create a wife for him so they can live together in complete isolation. By the end of the novel, it's Frankenstein the reader sees as the heartless monster.


Upon hearing this new ghost story, Percy Shelley encouraged Mary to lengthen her work and fashion it into a novel. It was published in 1818 as a novel in three parts, titled Frankenstein: Or, The Modern Prometheus.

The novel was then adapted into a play, which had a successful run; after this, a second edition of the novel was published in 1822, this time in two parts. Mary Shelley was actually credited as the author this time around. She had not been stated as the author of the first edition, as it was published anonymously, though it did have a preface written by Percy Shelley.

Finally, years later, the first one-volume edition of Frankenstein was published. But this 1831 edition was heavily edited and rewritten because Mary Shelley was severely pressured to make it much less violent and much less sensational. This is actually the most commonly read version of the book, even to this day. But you can still find a few copies of the 1818 original out there if you look hard enough.

Frankenstein book cover
Frankenstein book cover

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