British and Irish Literature Mary Shelley's Frankenstein
Miranda Butler
  • LAST REVIEWED: 22 September 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 22 September 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846719-0175


Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley conceived of the central idea for Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus—most often referred to simply as Frankenstein—during the summer of 1816 while vacationing on Lake Geneva in Switzerland. It is her first and most famous novel. Although the assertion is debatable, some scholars have argued that Frankenstein is the first work of modern science fiction. Shelley was inspired to write Frankenstein in response to a “ghost story” writing contest between herself, Percy Shelley, Percy Shelley’s physician and friend John Polidori, and Lord Byron, who were trapped indoors reading German ghost stories as the result of inclement weather. Polidori’s contribution to this contest, “The Vampyre: A Tale” (1819), influenced the development of Gothic literature. According to Shelley, she drew inspiration from a nightmare she had, which she attributed to discussions she overheard between Percy and Byron regarding experiments with electricity and animation. Shelley began working on the novel when she returned home to England in September, and the book’s first edition was published anonymously in 1818. Shelley’s father William Godwin made minor revisions for a second edition in 1821; and Shelley herself made more substantial changes for the third edition in 1831. The story is told through an epistolary frame, and follows Victor Frankenstein, a university student of the “unhallowed arts” who assembles, animates, and abandons an unnamed human-like creature. The creature goes on to haunt his creator both literally and metaphorically. Over the past two hundred years, the story has been widely influential, and re-interpreted in various forms of culture and media. In literary studies, scholars have discussed which edition of the text is the “truest” to Mary Shelley’s intended vision. The novel has been analyzed for its messages about human pride and hubris, the pursuit of knowledge, the nature/nurture question, as put forth by Rousseau, ethical questions in medicine and science, and family, gender, and reproduction, among other topics.

General Overviews

Morton 2002 offers a thorough yet accessible overview of Frankenstein. To examine Frankenstein in the broader context of Mary Shelley’s life, Garrett 2002 provides a chronology, and Schor 2003 provides select critical perspectives. Smith 2016 also offers an inclusive collection of new essays by influential scholars of Shelley, reflecting on current directions in Frankenstein scholarship.

  • Garrett, Martin. A Mary Shelley Chronology. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave, 2002.

    DOI: 10.1057/9781403913623

    This chronology of Mary Shelley’s life presents the poet’s experiences in three stages: her childhood, her romance and travels with Percy Shelley—which led her to write and publish Frankenstein—and her long widowhood.

  • Morton, Timothy. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein: A Sourcebook. London: Routledge, 2002.

    An overview of Frankenstein and its contexts, including excerpts by scientists John Abernethy and William Lawrence, who represent the two sides of the “vitalist” versus “materialist” debate in 19th-century science; contemporary reviews of the novel; a variety of criticism; and key passages.

  • Schor, Esther, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Mary Shelley. Cambridge Companions to Literature. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

    Part 1, “The Author of Frankenstein,” provides five essays examining Shelley’s relation to her most famous work.

  • Smith, Andrew, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Frankenstein. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2016.

    Sixteen essays by leading 19th-century scholars take a variety of theoretical and disciplinary approaches to Frankenstein. Topics range from publication history to ecocriticism, posthumanism, and queer theory.

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