The 1818 edition of Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus by Mary Shelley was published anonymously, although many believed the novel to have been written by her poet lover as the name "Shelley" appeared on the spine of the book. The words of the preface describing the circumstances of the story's conception are rather flat, matter of fact and stir no particular emotions upon reading.
"It is a subject also of additional interest to the author, that this story was begun in the majestic region where the scene is principally laid, and in society which cannot cease to be regretted. I passed the summer of 1816 in the environs of Geneva. The season was cold and rainy, and in the evenings we crowded around a blazing wood fire, and occasionally amused ourselves with some German stories of ghosts, which happened to fall in our hands. These stories excited in us a playful desire of imitation. Two other friends (a tale from the pen of one of whom would be far more acceptable to the public than any thing I can ever hope to produce) and myself agreed to write each a story, founded on some supernatural occurrence."
In contrast, the preface to the 1831 edition draws a much more intense portrait of the creation of her famous monster and his creator.
"I saw—with shut eyes, but acute mental vision—I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life and stir with an uneasy, half-vital motion. Frightful must it be, for supremely frightful would be the effect of any human endeavor to mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world."
Frankenstein kneels before his creation that he senses to be powerful but somehow unnatural, a "hideous phantasm." And the author introduces the theme of what may happen when the natural order is defied, and man values knowledge for its own sake without respect for the power it wields. A Spiderman moment in which it is acknowledged that with great power comes great responsibility. The author respects the frightening aspects of both the process of creation and the product it yields. When I look back at the preface for the original publication of the novel, I sense a distance from the text, a formality that is not present in the later preface. It is a reminder that a very young woman conceived and wrote this story, a woman in awe of her companions Byron and Shelley and doubting the value of her own contribution to the tales started on a dark and stormy night, June 16, 1816. A tale that has outlasted anything else created that evening.
This novel presents so many opportunities for discussion as evidenced by the frequency with which it is taught to students and the many different art forms it has inspired. I will be taking today and tomorrow to explore some of its facets that interest me most in a series of short posts similar to this one. Bear with me as I gather my thoughts on these crazy last two days of the school year?
The image above was created for the new Restless Books edition of the novel by the Mexican cartoonist, engraver and painter Eko.