9 more Frankenstein facts (like #5: how did Darwin get into the book?)

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Halloween is nearly upon us... and there's no better time to take a look at one of the most famous horror stories in literary history: Frankenstein!

In this two-part article, we'll discover some truths (and dispel some myths) about Dr. Frankenstein and The Monster. Yesterday, in Part I, we reviewed the story's influence in movies, TV, music, and pop culture. Today, in Part II, we'll focus on Mary Shelley's original novel.

THE BOOK:

Q: What event halfway around the world helped spawn Frankenstein?

A: The eruption of Mount Tambora in present-day Indonesia. The atmospheric dust the volcano spewed out blocked the Sun's rays, resulting in unseasonably cold weather during the summer of 1816. Mary went to Switzerland along with poet (and husband-to-be) Percy Shelley that May, as houseguests of fellow poet Lord Byron. Unable to enjoy outdoor activities due to the conditions, the group thought it would be fun to challenge each other to write the scariest ghost story imaginable. While Percy and Byron abandoned the project early on, Mary was so struck by a nightmare she'd had that she kept writing. She finished the book the following year, and it was first published in 1818.

Q: How did a book about the creation of a living being manage to escape the wrath of the religious?

Lots more after the jump...

Mary ShelleyA: Initially, the book was published anonymously. The fact that it was dedicated to William Godwin led most to assume it had been written by Percy Shelley, his son-in-law. Some people still believe that it was.

Even after the author's identity was revealed, it would have been difficult to accuse her of heresy. After all, the story came from a dream and was written with the obvious intent of being, well, spooky. Plus, the perspective of the book was so twisted that it was a tale of a tale of a tale. The content was compiled from letters written from Robert Walton to his sister, Margaret Saville. These letters contained Walton's recollections from the story he had been told verbally by Victor Frankenstein. Who's to say how the story changed in the translation, or if Dr. Frankenstein was just a madman with a vivid imagination? Or, perhaps it was Walton himself. He reveals feelings of isolation and profound loneliness in his letters to his sister, so he could have written the story to give himself something to do.

Q: The book is subtitled The Modern Prometheus. Why? And who's Prometheus?

A: It's a reference to Prometheus Unbound: A Lyrical Drama in Four Acts, written in 1818 by Mary's lover, Percy Bysshe Shelley. His work was a reinvention of a long-lost, fifth-century BCE play by dramatist Aeschylus, known as "the father of Greek tragedy."

Now, to answer the question, Prometheus was a Greek mythological character "“ a Titan "“ who was said to have designed and created mortal humans. He "borrowed" fire from the gods and gave it to the humans to help them along. This displeased Zeus, who chained the Titan to a rock where he was preyed upon by an eagle until Hercules came along to rescue him.

So "The Modern Prometheus" referenced Dr. Frankenstein, who created his own human being.

Q: Does Shelley mention Charles Darwin in the book's preface?

A: No. (He was born in 1809, several years after the events in the book.) The preface text reads: "The event on which this fiction is founded has been supposed "¦ by Dr. Darwin "¦ as not of the impossible occurrence." But the reference here is to British physiologist Erasmus Darwin, Charles' grandfather. Although Charles' work was inspired by Erasmus' early writings on evolution, the elder Darwin approached the topic much more carefully, treading a line between fiction and non-fiction by penning some of his theories in prose and even poetry.

Q: Per Shelley's novel, in what region of Europe is The Monster brought to life?

University of IngolstadtA: No, not Transylvania. Bavaria. More specifically, in a lab at the University of Ingolstadt. Frankenstein is set in the 1700s, according to the dates of the letters within. An advanced laboratory was constructed near the college grounds in 1778, which could well coincide with the novel's timeline.

The school had been closed nearly 20 years when Shelley's book was published in 1818, giving her license to use it as the setting of the Monster's creation (and perhaps injecting a bit of reality into an otherwise quite unbelievable story).

Q: What character's background was changed after the original publication of Frankenstein?

A: Elizabeth Lavenza, Victor's bride-to-be. In the first printing, she was his first cousin (the daughter of his father's sister). In 1831, the text was revamped to introduce her as an Italian orphan who had been living with foster parents. Victor's mother found her in Milan, and was so enraptured by her that she took the child home as a "gift" for Victor, who described her as "a distinct species, a being heaven-sent."The Frankenstein family adopted the girl.

Q: Who's alive at the conclusion of Frankenstein: Dr. Victor Frankenstein or The Monster?

A: The Monster. Remorseful after the death of his creator, he leaves to lose himself in the frozen arctic wasteland. His death is presumed, but not specified.

Q: In all, how many deaths was The Monster directly (or indirectly) responsible for?

A: Six. William Frankenstein (Victor's brother), Justine Moritz (mistakenly executed for killing William), Henry Clerval (Victor's friend), Elizabeth Lavenza (Victor's fiancée), Alphonse Frankenstein (Victor's father, heartbroken over the recent deaths), and Victor.

And all but one of Victor's sled dogs also perished in the arctic, worked to death in his vain attempt to catch up to The Monster.

Q: How tall is The Monster in the original book?

A: Eight feet. That means only one living man "“ Ukraine's Leonid Stadnykm "“ could look down on him. At eight feet, five inches tall (and still growing!), Stadnykm's extreme height came about in a fashion similar to The Monster: under the knife of a surgeon. He owes his extreme height to a brain operation he underwent as a teenager, which stimulated his pituitary gland and led to his incredible growth.

Q: And was he green, with bolts on his neck and such?

A: No. Victor had designed the creature carefully, making sure the proportions were correct and that his features would be attractive. But when he saw the living Monster for the first time, he was horrified, describing him as having yellowish eyes and long, flowing black hair. Victor noted how his pearly-white teeth contrasted with his "shriveled complexion and straight black lips." And the creature's yellow skin "scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath."

-end-

October 30, 2007 - 5:56am
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