How Mary Shelley's Frankenstein Came to Life

A “Modern Prometheus” that left a timeless mark.

boris karloff as mary shelley's frankenstein, 1935
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  • Photo Credit: Public Domain

On January 1st, 1818 Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (née Godwin) published a novel that would spark an immutable bolt of life into a new literature genre. Even those who haven’t yet picked up the book know the classic and chilling tale of Frankenstein—a Gothic horror novel which follows a tragic scientist’s nature-defying experiment to give life to a humanoid creature. But do you know the intriguing story of how this work, which many consider to be the birth of science fiction, came to be?

Two years prior to the famous novel’s publication—on a rainy stretch of Genevan afternoons in 1816—Shelley was tucked away in a house with her husband, the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley; her stepsister, Claire Clairmont; Clairmont's lover, Lord Byron; as well as Byron’s physician, John William Polidori. 

The group had rented a waterfront property in Lake Geneva and spent much of their time writing or out on the water. It was then, while trapped indoors by the unrelenting rains and trading German ghost stories, that Shelley’s incredible tale first began to take root.

Moving on from telling established stories, the vacationing friends challenged one another to spin their own tales—resulting in yet another horror classic, Polidori’s The Vampyre


At first, Mary Shelley struggled to come up with an original story to share. But as the idle yet philosophical chatter of the day had followed the topic of life and its nature, the first stirrings of Frankenstein began to blossom in Shelley’s imagination. 

Though readers are rarely given much insight to the writing process of novelists—especially novelists who lived during the 19th century—the 1831 edition of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein included a preface in which she explained how the monstrous tale came to her in a "waking dream."

"I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together," explained Shelley. "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 endeavour to mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world."

Obsessed with the kernel of an idea that a gruesome corpse might be re-animated, she set to work on what was meant only to be a short story.

"How I, then a young girl, came to think of, and to dilate upon, so very hideous an idea?" — Mary Shelley

Though Mary Shelley was only 18 years old at the time she began to pen her unforgettable story, she had lived a life that was full of grief and complications. Her mother—notable writer and women’s rights advocate, Mary Wollstonecraft—died mere days after giving birth to her, leading Shelley to grow up with a stepmother with whom she had a highly contentious relationship. 

As a young teenager she fell in love with Percy, resulting in one of the most infamous literary romances. Percy was five years older and already married, though this did not stop him from entering into an affair with Mary. The two eventually eloped after Percy's first wife, Harriet, committed suicide. Percy was not faithful to Mary, either, and continued to enjoy the company of other mistresses. 

Additionally, Mary was grieving two terrible losses at the time she wrote Frankenstein—the loss of her firstborn child, who had been born prematurely, and the suicide of her older sister, Franny.

It is no surprise, then, that Frankenstein poses questions of grief, obsession, creation, and life—and considering the loss of her mother, child, and sister, a desire to bring back those who have died. The novel also deconstructs Romantic ideals like beauty and nature’s goodness. 

As Victor Frankenstein turns away in revulsion from his own creation, readers get a look at the deeply human drive to recoil from their mistakes. In a bout of irony, the monster presents himself as even more human—ambling lost with a need for connection, feeling the weight of neglect and abandonment and lashing out to hurt. And through Victor’s glacial trek through the North Pole, reader’s connect to the desperate, raw wish to fix one’s own tragic and corrosive mistakes.

Through several rounds of editing, as well as a collaboration with her husband that academics have yet to agree on the extent of, Mary Shelley fleshed out her hauntingly mad tale. Unfortunately, due to the prejudices of the time, Shelley’s work was initially published anonymously—her name would not be included until the second edition was printed, thanks in part to the success of a play based on her work. And while readers of today know that the frightening tale of Frankenstein sprung forth from Shelley’s mind, she is rarely given all the credit she deserves for opening the door on the science fiction genre.

Related: 14 Groundbreaking Female Science Fiction and Fantasy Authors 

theodor von holst fronstispiece to mary shelley frankenstein, 1831
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  • The Theodor von Holst illustration from the frontispiece for the 1831 edition of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein.

    Photo Credit: Public Domain

While the basis of Shelley’s tale rests indisputably on a foundation of horror, Victor Frankenstein’s detailed and obsessive experiments were the spark that lit science fiction’s fire. Playing on the societal fears of the time regarding scientific hubris and industrial advancement, Shelley laid the groundwork for a genre which also celebrated such breakthroughs. 

Mixing her interest in galvanism and the occult, Shelley also gave birth to the popular trope of the mad scientist, which we see in other literary classics like H.G. Wells’s The Island of Doctor Moreau and even cinema satires like Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.

Though upon writing her macabre tale Shelley received criticism alongside praise (and the occasional backhanded compliment, such as Lord Byron's comment that her story was “a wonderful work for a girl”), Frankenstein was immediately popular with readers. Mary Shelley saw her writing brought to life on stage in 1823 with Richard Brinsley Peake’s Presumption; or, the Fate of the Frankenstein, and since then, her work has been adapted time and time again.

mary shelley miniature portrait by reginald easton, 1857
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  • Miniature portrait of Mary Shelley by Reginald Easton, 1857.

    Photo Credit: Public Domain

Building off of her monstrous story, many authors penned works that acted as sequels or otherwise expanded her story, including the six Frankenstein novels of the 1950s that French screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière produced; the contemporary Dean Koontz Frankenstein series which placed the monster in modern-day New Orleans; and modern interpretations like Poor Things.

Cinema has also seen many of its own adaptations, such as the Universal series of films which began in 1931, and comical retellings like Mel Brooks’s Young Frankenstein. The work is still popular for the stage as well: in 2011, Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller starred in a critically acclaimed adaptation of the novel at the Royal National Theatre.

Few other books have been as influential and enduring as this novel, which has become a cultural staple across the world. This chilling and thrilling read has thematic threads which can be found throughout countless derivative works today.

Featured photo: Boris Karloff as Frankenstein's monster in a promotional photo for Frankenstein, 1931.