Why Mary Shelley Wrote Frankenstein: Celebrating Frankenstein Day 2017

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Nearly 200 years after she put quill to paper, the world is still in love with Mary Shelley and her Modern Prometheus. Explore why she wrote this harrowing tale of man's obsession with playing God, and the impact it continues to have on modern readers.

Two Centuries of Terror: Frankenstein and Mary Shelley

Frankenstein or, the Modern Prometheus, published by Mary Shelley in 1818, continues to hold sway with audiences nearly two centuries after its publication. Explore the birth of the creature, the tragedy-filled life of its creator, and its continuing impact on modern culture. Then, pick an activity and celebrate this classic creation on Frankenstein Day, August 30.

A Teenage Dream

In the spring of 1816, in what would come to be known as the year without a summer, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin was vacationing with her lover Percy Bysshe Shelley in Switzerland, with their friend George Gordon Byron (aka Lord Byron). Trapped inside by the unseasonably cold weather, the party entertained themselves by reading German ghost stories. Inspired by their discussions, Lord Byron challenged his guests to write a gothic ghost tale of their own.


That night or one soon following, Mary lay in bed, her mind working feverishly on the tale of a doctor, obsessed with conquering death, who would create a grotesque creature in his own image. Thus Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus was born and would become Mary Shelley's most famous work and perhaps the first science fiction story of its kind.

A Preoccupation with Death?

While it could be said that the challenge - a gothic ghost tale - and Shelley's fascination with the scientific discoveries of the day would be enough to charge the creative writer's mind and deliver such a grim tale, it is also likely that her life - and the many painful losses dealt her - made it easy for Mary Shelley to dream of a technology that could return the dead to the world of the living.

Throughout her life, the pain of loss followed Mary Shelley. Her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft died when she was only ten days old, leaving her in the care of her father. In the years that followed, her father would marry a woman she despised, Mary's first child would be born prematurely and not survive, her half-sister would commit suicide, as would her lover's wife, and Mary would bury three more of her children, as well as her husband - all by the time she was 24.

Hidden Meanings

The story of Frankenstein's monster is one that invites analysis, from the author's reason for writing the work, to the motivations of the characters within.

Mary Shelley

Below, according to the BBC, are some of the popular thoughts about why the author wrote the novel as she did:

  • Fear of newly freed slaves. The novel was written only a decade after the abolition of slavery in Britain and the fear of the havoc those newly emancipated people could cause may have been a motivating factor behind the monster's own journey.
  • A desire to explore the origin of evil. The monster in this story doesn't begin as a violent menace, but continued rejection drives him to sorrow, violence, and eventual destruction at his own hands.
  • A cautionary tale. Frankenstein is seen by many as a tale cautioning against rapidly advancing technology and man's hubris in wanting to replicate the feats of God, both powerful messages in Georgian Britain.

Of course, there are many other possible reasons why Mary Shelley was able to write a tale so dark, including her maternal guilt at the death of her child, and the post-partum depression that surely was a product of the child's early birth.

Continuing Influence

Many works lose their impact over time, as politics and society change. While the language of the original text is slightly dated and may challenge modern readers, the story continues to resonate around the world. From her exploration of the science behind death and resurrection to the mechanics of Victor Frankenstein's madness and his monster's alienation, Mary Shelley moves us, making us ask questions about man's place in the world and whether we are, in our arrogance, the true monsters. It is the depth of her tale, as much as its ground-breaking subject matter, that draws audiences back again and again to a world where the impossible can happen.

Celebrate Mary Shelley's Creation

On August 30, 2017, the world will celebrate the 199th anniversary of the first publication of the novel that would become Mary Shelley's signature work. Whether you're a fan of the movies, a lover of satire, or a devotee of the written word, you too can join in the celebration of one of the most influential stories in science fiction.

Boris Karloff

A few of our favorite suggestions include:

  • Enjoy a good fright. Several versions of the original story have been made into popular films, including the 1931 classic: 'Frankenstein,' starring the great Boris Karloff, and the more modern take on the tale 'I, Frankenstein,' starring Aaron Eckhart.
  • Have a laugh. If you prefer to laugh your way through the tale of a walking reanimated corpse, enjoy the Mel Brooks Classic, 'Young Frankenstein' starring Gene Wilder, or the 1948 classic 'Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein' Starring Bud Abbott and Lou Costello.
  • Get animated. Join up with Scooby and the Gang, go on an epic adventure with Alvin and the Chipmunks, or laugh along with 'Hotel Transylvania' with the kids.
  • Get graphic. Whether you're a fan of strips like 'Zen Pencils,' or you prefer graphic novels, you can get into the story of the monster and the author and enjoy colorful illustrations to boot.
  • See where it began. Of course, if you're a purist with a little time and money to spare, you could visit the lake in Geneva Switzerland where the monster was born in the fevered imagination of 20-year-old Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley.

How will you be celebrating? Let us know in the comment section below how you will celebrate this horror masterpiece and the young woman who brought the monster to life.

By Patricia Willis
November 2017
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