The bicentennial of Frankenstein started early. While Mary Shelley’s momentous novel was published anonymously in 1818, the commemorations began last year to mark the dark and stormy night on Lake Geneva when she (then still Mary Godwin, having eloped with her married lover Percy Shelley) conceived what she called her “hideous progeny.”
In May, MIT Press will publish a new edition of the original text, “annotated for scientists, engineers, and creators of all kinds.” As well as the explanatory and expository notes throughout the book, there are accompanying essays by historians and other writers that discuss Frankenstein’s relevance and implications for science and invention today.
It’s a smart idea, but treating Frankenstein as a meditation on the responsibilities of the scientist, and the dangers of ignoring them, is bound to give only a partial view of Shelley’s novel. It’s not just a book about science. Moreover, focusing on Shelley’s text doesn’t explore the scope of the Frankenstein myth itself, including its message for scientists.
This is one of those stories everyone knows even without having read the original: Man makes monster; monster runs amok; monster kills man. It may come as a surprise to discover that the creator, not the creature, is called Frankenstein, and that the original creature was not the shambling, grunting, green-faced lunk played by Boris Karloff in the 1931 movie but an articulate soul who meditates on John Milton’s Paradise Lost. Such misconceptions might do little justice to Shelley, but as the critic Chris Baldick has written, “That series of adaptations, allusions, accretions, analogues, parodies, and plain misreadings with follows upon Mary Shelley’s novel is not just a supplementary component of the myth; it is the myth.”