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ClassicsOnline Home » SHELLEY, M.: Frankenstein (Abridged)
The gothic tale of Frankenstein and his construction of a human being who runs amok has, with the help of numerous films, become one of the most vivid of horror stories. But Mary Shelley’s original novel, written in 1816, dealt more sympathetically with ‘the daemon’, showing how an initially beneficent creature is hammered into a daemon by the way he is treated. Her ideas, and her dramatic but poignant story, is brought to life in this sound dramatisation.
or The Modern Prometheus
Mary Shelley was the daughter of the radical feminist Mary
Wollstencraft and the mistress - later the wife - of the poet Percy Bysshe
Shelley. In 1816, she and her half-sister, Claire Claremont, mistress of both
Shelley and Byron, followed Shelley into exile from his native land, where his
frank espousal of a philosophy of ‘free love’ and his outspoken atheism had
been little relished. They spent the summer with Lord Byron (also on the run
from scandal in England) who had taken the Villa Diodati on the shores of Lake
Geneva. The company may even have been joined by the shade of Milton who had
once occupied the house. But the current of creative genius that had produced
the divine spark in Milton had become, in the popular imagination, something
demonic in these two arch-romantic poets.
On June 15, as the lightning flickered across the lake, Mary
listened to the conversation of Byron, Shelley and Dr. Polidori, Byron’s young
amanuensis. They were discussing galvanism (the medical use of electric
current) and the possibility of provoking the very spark of life by its means.
The subject was of particular interest to Shelley who had experimented with
electrical instruments at Oxford. At the same time the company were deeply
engrossed in German horror stories, and the following day they each agreed to
try their hand at writing a ghost story. The published outcome was Polidori’s
The Vampyre, adapted from Byron’s effort, which had in turn been inspired by an
hysterical fantasy from Shelley - and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.
Inspiration had been slow in coming, but when it did her
nightmarish creation broke upon her drowsing consciousness fully-formed. She
“saw the pale student of unhallowed arts” turning in horror from “his odious
handiwork”, the vile assemblage of human remains which he had animated with the
breath of life. And in working out this ghastly fantasy into a full narrative
her inspiration did not desert her.
She was hardly nineteen. Though she lived another
thirty-five years, she never again approached the visionary grandeur of
conception achieved in this, her first literary effort. All her youthful life’s
experience went into it. Above all, it was about Shelley himself, who is both
the idealistic creative spirit and the hounded outcast, both Dr. Frankenstein
and his monster. In a sense, the popular misconception that gives the name
Frankenstein to the monster himself is an appropriate one. Frankenstein’s
creation haunts him like his own evil genius, his own shadow made flesh. For it
is his refusal to take responsibility for the unprepossessing fruit of his
actions that turns it into an avenging angel, destroying all the human
connections that make life meaningful, as it pursues him to the grave.
Frankenstein is a meditation upon the grounds of evil
inspired by the anarchist philosophy of Mary’s father, William Godwin. It is
also a daring development of Milton’s vision of the fallen angel in Paradise
Lost and a critique of the idea of Divine creation itself. But finally, it must
be recognized as quite a new thing for its time: it is the first work of
science fiction in English. And as science fiction, it is about the limitations
of goodwill without wisdom. It is a dire warning against technological hubris,
against the temptation to assume that benevolent intentions are sufficient to
procure beneficent results. Its timely message is that there are matters with
which we tamper at out peril. As such, the novel remains the most powerful
Promethean fable of modern times.
Notes by Duncan Steen
About the Readers
DANIEL PHILPOTT trained at LAMDA and after success in the
prestigious Carlton-Hobbs Award for Radio Drama recorded for BBC Radio 4 and
other broadcast work. His theater work includes productions on the London fringe.
A graduate of Manchester University JONATHAN OLIVER has
theater throughout the UK in works ranging from Julius
Caesar (for the English Shakespeare Company) to Bulgakov’s Master and
Margarita. Widely experienced in television, film and radio, he has, for a
decade, also recorded audiobooks for the Royal National Institute for the
CHRIS LARKIN trained at LAMDA. Among his theater appearances
have been Taste of Honey (Theatr Clwyd), and The Lucky Chance (Derby
Playhouse). His television and film credits include Frank Stubbs Promotes,
Grimsby Last Stop and Angels and Insects.
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SHELLEY, M.: Frankenstein (Abridged)