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What Inspired Mary Shelley to Write Frankenstein?

Instructor: Meredith Spies

Meredith has studied literature and literary analysis, holding a master's degree in liberal arts with a focus on depictions of femininity vs masculinity in literature and art.

This lesson explores what inspired Mary Shelley to write her pioneering work of science fiction, ''Frankenstein''. The lesson will discuss social as well as personal influences in Shelley's life and how those were applied to her writing.

Where Frankenstein Began

1816 was referred by many in Europe as the year without summer. During the summer months, continental Europe was subject to near-incessant rain, overcast skies, and lower-than-normal temperatures due to a volcanic eruption in Asia earlier in the year. On Lake Geneva, at Villa Diodati, Mary Godwin (she was not yet Shelley), her lover Percy Shelley, her stepsister Claire Clairmont, Lord Byron, and Byron's traveling companion Doctor John Polidori settled in for a six week holiday at the Villa leased by Byron, who hosted soirees and salons in the house.

The rain and gloomy weather kept them indoors more often than not. In a fit of boredom, Byron proposed a contest. They would each write a horror story and read it to the group. The group had partaken in wine and opiates over the preceding days (the original twenty-four hour party people), read German ghost stories, discussed popular scientific theories, something in which Mary was well-versed having grown up in a household with a liberal view on the education of females and attending her father's own parties for intellectuals known as salons.

Villa Diodati
Villa Diodati

The Birth of Frankenstein

Polidori often regaled the group with contemporary medical and scientific theories on reanimating the dead with the use of electrical currents, and theories on the soul and what makes a person truly alive. Mary was fascinated, as many of the theories had grown from things she learned of in her father's home as a girl, where her parents hosted numerous intellectual salons featuring luminaries in scientific and philosophical thought. Mary was fixated on these theories as well as the horror stories they had been reading, the combination leading to nightmares over the course of the summer until, finally, she could not ignore them and committed them to paper. She was the last one to complete the dare of writing a horror story.

While Polidori wrote a story called The Vampyre, which would heavily influence Stoker's Dracula, Mary found herself consumed by the idea of a mad scientist who created life from death, using galvanic electricity, a scientific theory which would later lead to the development of batteries. A popular idea at the time, galvanic electricity was often considered the best possibility for reanimating dead tissue. She incorporated elements of German ghost stories, contemporary Romantic theories on life force, the meaning of existence, self awareness, and what makes a person whole.

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