The story of Frankenstein is arguably the first science fiction novel, and was written by a teenage girl. Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, nee Godwin, had eloped to Europe with her lover and their friends – notably Lord Byron – in that mythic Year Without a Summer. In 1816 Mt. Tambora erupted and filled the atmosphere with thick volcanic ash, blotting out the sun, and leading to massive crop failures. As Mary and her group traveled around Europe, they couldn’t fail to notice the tens of thousands of people displaced that year by famine, seeking refuge from town to town.
The story goes that, once they settled in a chateau in Switzerland, Byron challenged the group to come up with ghost stories to alleviate the boredom of being trapped inside by the unseasonably cold and wet weather.
One of those stories, Frankenstein; or The Modern Prometheus, has come down to us as one of the most widely read and recognized horror tales of the modern era. It’s impact lies not in the body horror hidden in some mysterious process of imbuing inert matter with life, but stands as an example of the Other and Outsider in society. Frankenstein’s monster, left unnamed, represents the unknown and unfamiliar of which we are afraid.
We don’t necessarily fear the different, as long as it remains “over there,” but pressed up against our “right here,” it means change, instability, and threat to what we have known and held dear. Whatever comes after, we know for certain that our lives as they have been until now are ended. The monster seeks aid, mercy, shelter, simple human kindness, and is shunned. He does terrible things, and has terrible things done to him.
If he had been welcomed, cared for, loved instead…
But we’ll never know. Everyone dies in the end, and Mary leaves it to us to decide where the lines of right and wrong may fall. Yet she points to the possibility of other outcomes, had circumstance shifted in one way or another.
What are the responsibilities of society to the unloved and the unlovely? Should we – must we – care for the poor and broken and abandoned? The ugly and stupid and friendless? And what responsibility do we bear for the consequences of ignoring them? Left without resource or recourse, what do we expect to become of societies monsters?
Monster comes to us from the Latin monere, which means “a warning.”
Mary Shelley’s turn of the century brought her into the 1800s, the era of Victoria; an era of dramatic social change, technological advancement, population explosion, food shortage, unemployment, political upheaval, strange climate behavior, question, challenge, and doubt. What could an eighteen year old girl have to say to us from a book written two hundred years ago this month?
You can read my story, inspired by Frankenstein, here.
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