Excerpts for Annotated Frankenstein

From the Introduction

“Frankenstein” has multiplied in allusive force to label any disturbing development in science and technology, as well as in history and politics, sports and fashion, and just about everything else—with various and sometimes overlapping senses of amusement, alarm, awe, and admonition. Hardly a month passes without some new iteration. “For all we know, we have created a Frankenstein,” murmured one reporter on the horror of Hiroshima, August 1945. A half century on, this power of massive de-creation would be complemented by disturbing new creations. The child in William Blake’s Songs of Innocence who asked back in 1789, “Little Lamb who made thee?” might be stunned by “the creation of Dolly, the lamb formed by cellular biologists in Scotland and fused into life by electric shock, as was the Monster in ...Frankenstein,” to quote William Safire, for whom this event provoked “head-breaking thoughts about good and evil, God and humanity.” If in retrospect this Lab-Lamb seems the inception of now normative science of animal husbandry, the initial template was Frankenstein. “The Frankenstein Myth Becomes a Reality: We have the Awful Knowledge to Make Exact copies of Human Beings” was the tabloid-title of an article in New York Times Magazine in 1972. Anxiety about genetics replacing Genesis was hard to shake off. When President George W. Bush was about to veto federal funding for stem-cell research on the grounds of the blasphemy of playing God, Safire relented a bit but continued to warn “of the real dangers of the slippery slope to Frankenscience.” In 2005 Dr. Stephen Levick turned the tables but kept the myth. In a letter to the New York Times Magazine he asked, “Which is the real monster? chimeric stem-cell science or the political [his italics] use made of it by opponents to all embryonic-stem-cell research? .º.º. to see the researchers as monster-creating Dr. Frankensteins” is to “risk inflaming the public to unthinkingly torch the whole hopeful enterprise.”

No less remarkable than the expansive vitality of the Frankenstein myth is its genesis in the imagination of the brilliant young woman who distilled into her novel her personal traumas, her reading, her attention to current European history (intellectual and political), and her excitement by the poets and the philosophical debates of her day. Her world included the writings of her parents; the death of her mother from complications in her birth; her father’s alternating affection and distance; her infatuation with passionate idealist Shelley; her pregnancies and the deaths of three of her children; her exhilaration and anxiety amidst a company of somewhat older, brilliantly talented men; their extreme commitments to their passions and ideals and their willingness to subordinate family and domesticity to these excitements; and, above all, their speculative conversations about the principle of life, the reanimation of corpses in myth and recent electrical experiment, and the manufacture of a living creature. Mary’s adventurous reading coursed through the Bible, classical authors, Dante, Shakespeare, Milton, novels, ghost stories, as well as political tracts, and accounts of modern science and polar exploration.

All this was in the heady air of an evening’s entertainment during a spell of rainy weather in June 1816, at Byron’s villa on the Alpine shores of Lake Geneva, Switzerland. As Mary Shelley tells the story in the 1831 Introduction, the party—herself, Percy Shelley, Lord Byron, Byron’s personal physician John William Polidori, and Claire Clairmont—had been reading volumes of ghost stories, when Byron proposed they try their own skill. Claire came up dry, Shelley soon gave up; Byron dashed off a fragment of a vampire tale; Polidori jettisoned a tale about a fatal female peeping Tom, then, working on Byron’s idea, eventually “vamped up” (said one of their friends) his own fuller vampire story. Mary, eager to prove herself, jumped at the challenge. “I busied myself to think of a story”; but she was soon tripped up by writer’s block, a “mortifying negative” to the question asked of her each morning, Have you thought of a story? A way of saying “acutely embarrassed,” mortifying is a loaded term, forecasting the dynamic of animation that is the heart of the story to come.