Out & About: Lecture Series Celebrates 200th Anniversary of ‘Frankenstein’

  • Morgan Swan is a special collections librarian at the Rauner Library at Dartmouth College. (Courtesy photograph)

  • The frontispiece from the first illustrated edition of "Frankenstein." (Courtesy photograph)

Valley News Correspondent
Saturday, March 03, 2018

When Mary Shelley’s classic horror novel Frankenstein was first published in 1818, there were no such things as cloning, artificial intelligence, genetic engineering or nuclear energy. But somehow, Shelley’s work managed to anticipate the deep anxiety such scientific advancements would create in modern society.

The novel has also been interpreted in other ways, not the least of which is as pure entertainment. Frankenstein’s green monster is a pop culture icon, his image used for Halloween masks and boxes of breakfast cereal. Still, 200 years after Frankenstein’s publication, many feel its greatest power and relevance lies in its portrayal of technology run amok.

This month, the Montshire Museum of Science celebrates Frankenstein’s 200th anniversary with a series of lectures and programs that explore the balance of human creativity, societal responsibility and scientific ethics.

Morgan Swan, special collections education and outreach librarian at the Rauner Library at Dartmouth College, will present a talk about the library’s illustrated first edition of Frankenstein on March 20. In an email Q&A, he discussed the novel’s enduring popularity.

Question: Please share some background about Mary Shelley and how she came to write Frankenstein.


Answer: Mary Shelley was the daughter of political philosopher William Godwin and Mary Wollestonecraft, a famous feminist and author who wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Woman in 1792. Wollestonecraft died soon after Shelley’s birth in 1797, and her father raised her and provided her with a stellar education. She was essentially home-schooled by Godwin, who was an early proponent of both utilitarianism and anarchism. When Shelley was 17, she ran away to the continent with the Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, who was a political adherent of her father and also married to another woman at the time. In 1816, the two spent the summer with Lord Byron in Switzerland, which is when Mary first came up with the idea for the novel.


Q: What were some of the artistic works and themes that inspired her?


A: I’m not sure that there is any one work you can credit with being the creative spark for her novel, although she was well aware of the exciting and groundbreaking experiments with electricity and chemistry that had been conducted by Alessandro Volta only a dozen years or so before she began to write. She was the daughter of an ardent feminist and a controversial political philosopher, so it’s hard to believe that their world views wouldn’t have informed her own philosophical outlook.

I think spending time with Shelley, Byron and other foundational figures of the Romantic period also had a huge influence on her writing. She consistently invokes emotions strongly identified with Romanticism: horror, awe and apprehension, for example. In Frankenstein, Shelley also is grappling with the aesthetic quality of the Sublime, but that might be going down the academic rabbit hole a bit too far for some.


Q: The novel was first published in 1818. When did the first illustrated edition appear?


A: The first illustrated edition was published in November 1831. We have a copy here at Rauner Special Collections Library that anyone can come in and ask to see. It was illustrated by Theodor Von Holst, the son of Russian immigrants to England who was a graduate of the Royal Academy and a protégé of the artist Henry Fuseli. Some people argue that Fuseli’s 1781 painting The Nightmare must have had some influence on Shelley’s novel.


Q: What did Frankenstein’s monster look like at that time? How has the visual depiction of the monster changed since then?


A: If you look at Von Holst’s engraving of the monster in the frontispiece to the 1831 edition, he looks more or less like any other man: he’s sitting naked on the floor, a stunned look on his face as he awakens for the first time. His head is a little off-center from his body, but I would guess that this is more an indication of Von Holst’s struggle with perspective and less some sort of intentionally creepy mutilation or disfigurement.

It’s not hard to see the contrast between that portrayal and the greenish stapled and bolted zombie-like figure that’s popular today. I think today’s monster is more about our visceral response to his disturbing appearance and less about struggling with the consequences of playing God (which is a big part of the original novel, in my opinion). In the novel, the creature refers to himself as Frankenstein’s Adam, which is a fairly overt reference to the biblical narrative of creation. We don’t really focus on that so much nowadays when we think of the monster.


Q: What are some of the films, plays, cartoons, or other creative works have been most responsible for forming our modern conception of Frankenstein’s monster and the story as a whole?


A: I would say that Boris Karloff’s portrayal in the 1931 first sound adaptation of the novel on the big screen has probably had the most significant impact on how we envision Frankenstein’s monster today. Unfortunately, Karloff’s two subsequent movies, Bride of Frankenstein and Son of Frankenstein, were the beginning of a downward spiral into camp or B-movie territory for the character. Young Frankenstein in the 1970s was riffing off those movies, and the 1985 comedy Weird Science was an adaptation of the basic premise. Kenneth Branagh gave it a go in the 1990s, with Robert De Niro as the monster, but I’m not sure anyone remembers that film; we’re still too enamored of the Karloffian version to let it go.


Q: The text has been viewed through numerous lenses, including as a ghost story, a feminist narrative, an abolitionist reading and a cautionary tale for a technological age. Which interpretation(s) do you find most interesting and why?


A: If I can dodge that question a bit, I personally think what is most interesting is that the text can be interpreted in a variety of ways and is still having an impact on people today for all sorts of reasons. I do like the technological angle, but I also find it fascinating how Shelley captured so many aspects of popular culture from her time and wrapped them into a satisfyingly complex and compelling narrative.


Q: Why do you think the popularity of Frankenstein has endured for 200 years?

A: I tend to agree with Susan Tyler Hitchcock, who stated in her book, Frankenstein: A Cultural History (New York: Norton, 2007), that the novel employs two “archetypal myths that are essentially human”: one that rewards people for taking risks and crossing boundaries, and one that punishes those who transgress societal norms and stray too far into the unknown.

There’s a reason that the alternate title is The Modern Prometheus. I think we as humans are fascinated with our capacity for discovery and invention, but we are also fearful of losing control. If you add to the mix the fact that the title character is a scientist who creates artificial life, then Frankenstein seems very prescient, especially given Elon Musk’s recent warnings about the worldwide danger posed by artificial intelligence.

Programs in Montshire’s “Frankenstein200”Series Include...

“Frankenstein and the Philosophy of Science,” a talk by University of Vermont philosophy professor Michael Ashooh, at the Montshire, on Tuesday, March 6, at 6:30 p.m.

A dramatic reading of Finding Frankenstein: In Search of Mary Shelley, a play written by Dawn Brodey and Tim Barrett for the Bakken Museum in Minneapolis, at the Montshire, on Tuesday, March 13, at 6:30 p.m.

“Frankenstein in Text and Image,” a viewing of the first illustrated edition of Frankenstein and an accompanying talk, at Dartmouth’s Rauner Library, on Tuesday, March 20, at 2 p.m. and 6:30 p.m.

A screening of the classic 1931 horror film Frankensteinat the Hopkins Center for the Arts on Friday, March 23, at 7 p.m.

“Artificial Intelligence and Responsible Design,” a talk by Eugene Santos, professor at Dartmouth’s Thayer School of Engineering, at the Montshire, on Tuesday, March 27, from 6:30-7:30 p.m.

For more information on the program series, call the Montshire Museum at 802-649-2200 or visit their website at montshire.org.


Morgan Swan is the special collections education and outreach librarian at the Rauner Library at Dartmouth College. Swan’s title was incorrect in an earlier version of this story.