Mary Shelley and the Birth of Science Fiction

From The Lecture Series: How Great Science Fiction Works

By Gary K. Wolfe, Ph.D., Roosevelt University’s Evelyn T. Stone College of Professional Studies

Even though Mary Shelley knew about the popular plays based on her novel, she couldn’t possibly have foreseen what Frankenstein would spawn over the next two centuries — but she wasn’t trying to predict the future in Frankenstein anyway; she was thinking about what she thought was possible given the science that was available at the time…

The posthumous miniature portrait of Mary Shelley allegedly painted after a death-mask.
(Images: By Reginald Easton/Bodleian Library and UyUy/Shutterstock)

The Story Begins

It was in 1816 that the English poet Percy Bysshe Shelley brought his 18-year-old wife, Mary, to visit his friend Lord Byron at Byron’s summer home in Switzerland, called the Villa Diodati. Now, since the weather was consistently too rainy to go outdoors because of the bad weather caused by that volcano, Byron suggested an indoor activity. Actually, Byron was famous for suggesting indoor activities, but this isn’t one of those. This time, he thought of a contest. They would each make up a ghost story and read them to each other on the chilly evenings. Byron wrote a fragment of a poem. Another visitor, his personal doctor, John Polidori, wrote a reasonably scary story called “The Vampyre.” which has a history of its own; seventy years later, it would be one of the inspirations for Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula.

Portrait of Mary Shelley by Richard Rothwell.
Mary Shelley (1797-1851) English novelist, short story writer, dramatist, essayist, biographer, and travel writer (Image: By Richard Rothwell/Public domain)

The teenaged Mary based her story on a nightmare that she’d had the night before, and it was scary enough that the others urged her to turn it into a novel, which she did. The creature in Frankenstein is probably the most famous monster in history. And I think it’s neat that the most famous monster in history and the most famous vampire in history may have come about, in part, because of that same evening’s storytelling. But Mary’s monster was created not by magic or alchemy. Victor Frankenstein was a scientist who rejected those old supernatural ideas, but by the application of electricity, in an attempt to reanimate dead tissue. Mary had read about the Galvani experiments on dead frogs, and she wondered, not unreasonably, if electricity might be used to actually reanimate dead tissue.

This is a transcript from the video series How Great Science Fiction Works. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

She was a pretty sharp teenager and was unusually well educated in the sciences, and very possibly, she invented modern science fiction at the age of 18. At least that’s the claim of the British writer Brian W. Aldiss, who, in his history of science fiction, Trillion Year Spree, cited Frankenstein as the first work of actual science fiction and Mary Shelley as the mother of the entire genre.

The Story You Don’t See In Movies

Image of the title page of first edition of Frankenstein, Volume I.
Title page of the first edition of Frankenstein, Volume I. (Image: By Author Mary Shelley; publisher Lackington, Hughes, Harding, Mavor & Jones/Public domain)

Those who’ve never read Mary Shelley’s novel and who come to it with preconceptions from all those movies, may be surprised at a number of key elements that are barely touched upon in the films. For one thing, the novel begins with a series of letters from an adventurer named Robert Walton to his sister. Walton, who has undertaken an arctic journey in hopes of discovering the North Pole, sees himself as something of a scientist:
“I may there discover the wondrous power which attracts the needle and may regulate a thousand celestial observations that require only this voyage to render their seeming eccentricities consistent forever.”
Already we have evidence of the role scientific rationalism is going to play in this novel. Walton hopes to discover the source of the Earth’s magnetism and to clarify some astronomical observations, but instead, after his ship is trapped in the ice, he sees a dogsled off in the distance driven by some huge creature. And the next morning another sled, with only one dog remaining alive, burying the emaciated Victor Frankenstein.

The story that Victor tells to Walton makes up the more familiar part of the novel. But even then it’s not until we get to chapter 5 that Victor brings his famous creation to life. These early chapters in which Victor describes his family history and his early life, his childhood meetings with his lifelong love Elizabeth, and his close friend Henry Clerval, and his student days, are crucial to the claim that Frankenstein might be regarded as the first work of modern science fiction. Elizabeth and Henry will play crucial roles in the melodrama that follows, but it’s Victor’s education I want to talk about for a moment now.

As a teenager, Victor became enamored of what was then called natural philosophy, and in particular, with the work of the 16th-century German alchemist Cornelius Agrippa. But when Victor’s father sees this he says,
“Ah! Cornelius Agrippa, my dear Victor, do not waste your time on this, it is sad trash.”
Victor later wishes he had instead taken the time to explain to him that the principles of Agrippa had been entirely exploded, and that a modern system of science had been introduced which possessed much great powers than the ancient because the latter were chimerical, while those of the former were real and practical.

So, after learning about electricity and galvanism, Victor says,
“I at once gave up my former occupations, set down natural history and all its progeny as a deformed and abortive creation, and entertained the greatest disdain for a would-be science which could never even step within the threshold of real knowledge. In this mood of mind, I betook myself to the mathematics and the branches of study appertaining to that science as being built upon secure foundations, and so worthy of my consideration.”

Learn more about some of the most important names in 19th-century science fiction

A Key Moment

That’s important. That’s Victor’s rejection of alchemy and what he calls natural philosophy in favor of modern science. That’s a key moment in his education, and, I would argue, a key moment in the history of science fiction. Now, we need to understand that natural philosophy was something of a catchall term referring to those branches of philosophy that considered the natural world, but not always in terms of experimental results in the manner of modern scientific methods.

Instead, patterns of quasi-scientific or pseudo scientific thought that had built up over centuries became a kind of dogma. Sometimes resulting in beliefs that, by today’s standards, seem supernatural. Victor abandons all this, and so does Mary Shelley.

Image of The frontispiece to the 1831 Frankenstein by Theodor von Holst, one of the first two illustrations for the novel
Victor Frankenstein becoming disgusted at his creation (Image: By Theodore Von Holst (1810-1844)/Public domain)

“Who shall conceive the horrors of my secret toil as I dabble among the unhallowed damps of the grave?” asks Victor. And when the creature himself is brought to life, he’s described as the demoniacal corpse to which I had so miserably given life. “A mummy again endued with animation could not be so hideous as that wretch.” says Victor. Perhaps inadvertently anticipating another horror movie trend of a century later. And rejected by his creator, the creature flees.

…the creature even learns to read and write, and one of the first books he reads is John Milton’s Paradise Lost, which he takes as a true history…

The monster is ugly all right, but the next surprise for the first-time readers of this novel was that he’s far from inarticulate. For several chapters in the middle of the novel, the creature meets with Victor and tells him of his own experiences, learning that fire can be a source of warmth and also a source of injury, for example, and learning language by eavesdropping on a poor family, the De Laceys. Eventually, the creature even learns to read and write, and one of the first books he reads is John Milton’s Paradise Lost, which he takes as a true history, since he hasn’t mastered the distinction between imagination and reality.

The creature’s hunger for learning makes for an interesting contrast with Victor’s own education, not to mention Victor’s various failures as a father or a teacher of his creation. Having achieved a scientific breakthrough, Victor simply abandons it and all responsibility for it, but when the creature demands that Victor create a companion, not an unreasonable request for a creature which has already learned that he’s fated to be an outcast from society, like Milton’s Satan, Victor at first agrees, but then later reneges on his promise.

…it’s not hard to understand how Shelley at the astonishingly young age of 18 was not only inventing one of the archetypal monsters of science fiction, but one of its central concerns as well…

In the novel it’s not hard to understand why the creature becomes vengeful. More important, it’s not hard to understand how Shelley at the astonishingly young age of 18 was not only inventing one of the archetypal monsters of science fiction, but one of its central concerns as well — that a scientific education divorced from moral education, and that the abandonment or responsibility for one’s creations or achievements could lead to disaster.

Learn more about some of the most poignant portrayals of utopian and dystopian societies and the social contexts that inspired them

The Creature Escapes Into The Mainstream

Of course it wasn’t long before Frankenstein’s creature got entirely out of Mary Shelley’s hands. By the time she returned to England a few years later, her novel was already hit stage play focusing on the horror story and almost entirely overlooking the science. And a century later, one of these stage adaptations by a now forgotten playwright named Peggy Webling gave the name Frankenstein to the creature itself. The creature was never named in the novel, leading to a misunderstanding that persists until this day.

Image of A promotional photo of Boris Karloff, as Frankenstein's monster
The most famous Frankenstein movie was made in 1934 where Boris Karloff, played the famous Frankenstein’s monster (Image: By Universal Studios, NBCUniversal – Dr. Macro/Public domain)

And, unfortunately, it’s been pretty much that way ever since with more than 50 movies and who knows how many comics, spin-off novels, action figures, and even breakfast cereals. Franken Berry? Mary certainly couldn’t have predicted that almost 200 years later her story, distorted almost beyond recognition, and the terrible movie, I, Frankenstein from 2014, would earn a three percent rating on the Rotten Tomatoes movie rating website.

This brings us back to that point I was making earlier about how science fiction movies sometimes oversimplify and even degrade the ideas of science fiction novels. The first Frankenstein movie was actually made by the Edison Studios, a unit of Thomas A. Edison’s manufacturing company, in 1910. But the most famous came 21 years later when Boris Karloff virtually made his career by starring as the creature in James Whale’s 1931 version from Universal Studios which was actually based on that Peggy Webling stage play.

There’s no doubt that this version of Frankenstein is a classic horror film, and a very well made one, but almost no one, either now or in the 1930s, viewed it as a science fiction film despite all that elaborate apparatus in Dr. Frankenstein’s laboratory. And the same is true of almost all the dozens of Frankenstein movies ever since, some estimates put them at 60, and many of these films have reintroduced those very supernatural elements that Shelley so carefully excluded from her novel. Frankenstein meets Dracula or Frankenstein meets the wolf man or demons or gargoyles or whatever.

There’s certainly some irony in how the first science fiction novel in the modern sense, the first novel to introduce a monster created by rational scientific experimentation rather that incantations or the intervention of the gods, should give rise to a whole industry of monsters of the irrational, but that has always been one of the fates of science fiction.

At the same time, a number of actual science fiction movies have taken Shelley’s original idea, the idea of a creation turning on its creator, and produced some of those films I mentioned earlier, like the Terminator series. Technology, not monster tales, is the real heritage of Frankenstein, and it’s telling that the social historian Herbert J. Muller should have titled his 1970 study arguing about how a reliance on technological solutions leads us to neglect human values, “The Children of Frankenstein.”

No, even though Mary Shelley knew about the popular plays based on her novel, she couldn’t possibly have foreseen what Frankenstein would spawn over the next two centuries, but then, like most of the major science fiction writers since, she wasn’t trying to predict the future in Frankenstein anyway; she was thinking about what she thought was possible given the science that was available at the time.

And that, in a nutshell, is the main different between science fiction and fantasy. Science fiction is about the possible given what we actually know, and fantasy is about the impossible.

Learn more about the little-known gems that shaped modern science fiction 

Common Questions About Mary Shelley

Q: When did Mary Shelley write Frankenstein?

Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein at 18 years of age.

Q: How true is the story of Frankenstein?

Frankenstein is a completely fictitious story with limited scientific information.

Q: Does the Frankenstein family actually exist?

Yes. A Frankenstein family exists as the Franconian Dynasts of Breuberg.

Q: Is Frankenstein the scientist or the monster?

Frankenstein is the name of the scientist in the book. The monster has no name.

This article was updated on 8/30/2019

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By Andy Mabbett (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons