Two hundred years ago, on 1 January 1818, the novel Frankenstein was first published. The author was a young English woman, Mary Shelley. She had come up with the idea for the novel two years previously, when she was 18 years old and spending the summer in Switzerland with some friends. The weather was unusually cold and miserable because of an extraordinary event: half a world away, in Indonesia, the volcano Tambora had erupted. It was the largest volcanic eruption in human history. The ash and gas spewed by the volcano blocked the sun’s rays and cooled temperatures around the globe. Mary and her friends found the weather that year, which came to be known as ‘the year without summer’, to be perfect for sitting indoors and reading ghost stories. They even decided that each of them should write one. For days Mary didn’t know what to write about. Then, one night, a vision struck her imagination: in it she saw a crazy scientist giving life to a monstrous creature. Mary’s vision became the novel Frankenstein.
In the novel, the scientist Victor Frankenstein is obsessed by the idea of creating life. He builds a human-like creature, but becomes horrified by it. The creature, rejected by his creator, turns against him. The two engage in a battle to the death. Frankenstein was one of the first horror novels in history. It became the starting point of a specific horror genre: monster literature. The creature in Frankenstein is the first in a series of ‘monsters’ that populated 19th century British literature and that are still incredibly famous today. Here are two examples: Dracula, invented by Bram Stoker and Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, by Robert Luis Stevenson. Another monster that was directly inspired by Frankenstein’s creature was the Mummy. After reading Shelley’s novel, another very young lady, Jane C. Loudon, wrote the novel The Mummy! Or a Tale of the Twenty-Second Century. Like Frankenstein before it, The Mummy contained not only elements of horror, but also of another genre: science fiction.
Frankenstein is also widely considered to be the first science fiction novel. Although Shelley makes reference to ancient stories such as Greek myths (the subtitle of her novel is The Modern Prometheus), her protagonist, Victor Frankenstein, is a scientist, not a god or a classical hero. Victor is the first ‘mad scientist’ – a staple of science fiction – who uses the powers of science and technology to complete his overly ambitious and dangerous experiments. Frankenstein’s monster himself is the first of a long line of artificial creatures in science fiction; he is the forefather of modern robots, cyborgs and androids. Like monster literature, science fiction also found fertile ground in 19th century Britain. One of the most important authors of the genre was British writer H. G. Wells who penned such classics as The Time Machine and The War of the Worlds.
Popular literature with a message
Although today Frankenstein’s monster is one of the most recognizable figures of popular culture, one must not forget that Shelley’s novel was not just a genre novel. Like many other horror and science fiction works, it offers a deep reflection on culture and progress. When Frankenstein was written, science and technology were advancing quickly and many believed that soon anything would be possible. This, though, was also raising many fears, because progress without a moral direction can be dangerous and destructive. Frankenstein encapsulates these aspirations and fears: Victor uses science and technology to play god, but ends up creating a creature he fails to control and who turns against him. Frankenstein also suggests that the monster in the story might be Victor, because of his reckless ambition and his irresponsible actions. The endurance of Frankenstein, as well as that of the genres it helped create, lies in the successful use of adventurous thrills to convey a deep moral message.
1) Learn more about author Mary Shelley:
2) Here’s a video summary of the novel Frankenstein:
3) Watch this other video to learn more about Frankenstein, its author and its themes (you can add subtitles in English):
4) What is Frankenstein’s monster really like? Learn how Shelley imagined him:
5) Would you like to know more about science fiction?
6) Learn about the incredible eruption of Mount Tambora that caused “the year without summer”:
1) Read the article and complete the sentences with the right alternative.
1. Mary Shelley invented the character of Victor Frankenstein when she was in
2. The novel Frankenstein talks about
- a year without summer.
- a volcano.
- a scientist who creates a monster.
3. Dracula and Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde are the protagonists of
- horror novels.
- science fiction novels.
- the novel Frankenstein.
4. Frankenstein’s monster
- directly inspired the Mummy.
- was inspired by the Mummy.
- was Jane C. Loudon’s creation.
5. A recurrent character in science fiction is
- an overly ambitious scientist.
- a god.
- a classical hero.
6. 19th century England produced
- both horror and science fiction classics.
- very little science fiction.
- novels about robots and cyborgs.
7. Two important genre authors are
- Stoker and H. G. Wells.
- Hyde and R. L. Stevenson.
- G. Wells and Dr Jekyll.
8. Science and technology are central to
- science fiction.
- horror literature.
- genre literature.
9. Frankenstein’s monster
- is a friend of Victor.
- becomes an enemy of Victor.
- is controlled by Victor.
10. Good science fiction
- is based on cheap thrills.
- offers a moral message.
- can be destructive.
2) Complete the sentences with the following words.
to convey * to encapsulate * staple * endurance * to come up with * thrill * to pen * indoors * to spew * overly
1. I don’t have the ______ to run a marathon – I’m out of breath after only one mile!
2. A ______ of English food is fish and chips.
3. In the past, authors used to ______ their novels, now they type them on a computer!
4. Authors often use metaphors to ______ complex ideas.
5. You can ______ all his philosophy in three words: ‘Do no harm’.
6. He was really, really angry. He shouted and ______ insults at us.
7. You can’t play with a football ______, you’ll end up breaking something!
8. He ______ lots of ideas for how we should organize the party.
9. He’s ______ confident: he thinks he’s the best at this game, but he’s not.
10. Something cold gives you a chill; something exciting gives you a ______.
GRAMMAR – Adjectives of nationality
3) Write the correct adjective of nationality to complete the following text.
Mary Shelley was ______ (Britain). She was inspired by the ______ (Germany) ghost stories she read during a holiday spent in a ______ (Switzerland) villa. This happened during the ‘year without summer’ caused by the eruption of an ______ (Indonesia) volcano.
The protagonist of Shelley’s novel is Victor Frankenstein. He is born in Naples, but he is not ______ (Italy): his family is ______ (Switzerland). The novel has many settings: Germany, Switzerland, England, a ______ (Scotland) island, and even the North Pole!
Frankenstein was a success. A ______ (France) translation was published a couple of years after the first ______ (England) edition. Today you can find Mary Shelley’s book translated in many different languages, including ______ (Spain) ______ (Turkey), ______ (China) and ______ (Japan), to name but a few.
Frankenstein was re-imagined by Hollywood. ______ (USA) films often set the story of Victor and his creature in the ______ (Romania) province of Transylvania.
4) Why do you think Frankenstein is still famous today, 200 years after it was first published? Do you think that this novel is still relevant to a modern audience? (60-80 words)
5) Do you like genre literature or do you prefer mainstream novels? Explain why you prefer one over the other. (60-80 words)