The Science of the First Science Fiction Novel: Why We Get the “Monster” So Wrong

The Frakenstein’s Monster you are familiar with is not the one Mary Shelley envisioned on that stormy night in 1816. The green, groaning patchwork of limbs is a stitched-together “Frankenstein” of a century’s worth of artistic license, formed by the illustrators, directors, and screenwriters who reanimated the novel over the last two centuries.

The vision of Frankenstein’s Monster presented in the novel is not notably very monstrous. In the frontispiece illustration of the 1831 edition of “Frankenstein,” personally overseen by Mary Shelley, the Monster is massive but fully formed. The engraving depicts a large, somewhat androgynous figure, close to the book’s description of a man with “watery eyes…shrivelled complexion, and straight black lips,” more of a “a mummy again endued with animation” than a mishmash of graverobbing spoils. Although this description of the Monster is undeniably unsettling, most of the classic “Frankenstein” imagery of sewn-up limbs and corpse-green skin is absent. Shelley’s choice to have the Monster described as a fully developed adult is not just based on artistic vision. The entire conception of the Monster is founded on an early 19th-century understanding of chemistry, biology, and the origin of life.

In the introduction of the 1831 edition of “Frankenstein,” Shelly explores the potential reality of reproducing Victor’s experiment: “perhaps the component parts of a creature might be manufactured, brought together, and endued with vital warmth.” The concept of “manufacturing” life may seem well out of the reach of early-19th century science, but for Shelly and her contemporaries, the secrets of life seemed just on the horizon of science. Enlightenment thinkers like Erasmus Darwin, a known influence on Shelley and her constituents, was a proponent of the ancient theory of spontaneous generation, or the idea that life could reproduce itself from nonliving matter (think of maggots “appearing” from a seemingly sterile piece of meat.) Shelley alludes to an experiment that Erasmus Darwin conducted where a piece of “vermicelli” (a likely misspelling of protozoa “vorticellae”) seems to come to life after appearing to be dead.

Shelley was then perhaps indicating that rather than enduing life into the disparate parts of corpse, Victor Frankenstein was “manufacturing” life in the manner that Darwin described: a soup of chemicals that sprouts multicellular life. She describes Victor’s experiments as, “succeed[ing] in discovering the cause of generation and life…myself capable of bestowing animation upon lifeless matter.” The creation of life here seems closer to a spontaneous, chemical process that “generates” animation, rather than a visceral, surgical one that reconstitutes it. Shelley also references the experiments of Luigi Galvani in the introduction, who had grotesquely used electricity to “reanimate” corpses for an audience, making them contort as if alive. By the contemporary science of the early 19th century, if there was a way to reanimate matter, it was through some vital substance that caused “generation of life,” something that could be harnessed to “manufacture” life.

In the 1831 frontispiece illustration, there is no sign of a surgical table or stitches. Instead, the Monster lays on the ground, against some sort of barrel-shaped vat, pooled in light upon the ground. Perhaps that vat contained Darwin’s primordial soup, capable of “enduring vital warmth” and manufacturing life, while the lightning recalls Galvani’s gruesome demonstration of temporary re-animation.

This backdrop of early 19th century science is vital not only to understanding how “Frankenstein” functions as science fiction, but also to how it has endured in popular culture. Through centuries of reinterpretation, the public perception of the Monster has adapted as new theories have presented themselves, showing the remarkable resilience, endurance, and malleability of such an iconic story. Modern portmanteaus like “Frankenfood” exemplify the adaptability of Shelley’s creation to reflect our modern anxieties around burgeoning technology But, to truly appreciate what Shelly had done, we must contextualize her work within the burgeoning science she based her novel off. The creation of the Monster was not feverishly dreamed up from ghoulish fantasies, but the result of an imagination that synthesized contemporary understanding of life and creation. That same keen curiosity and creative flexibility continue to reappear again and again in reinterpretations of Frankenstein. Hence, even as the appearance of the Creature changes, the essence of Shelley’s vision stays true.


Diedrich, Lisa. “Being-becoming-monster: Mirrors and Mirroring in Graphic Frankenstein Narratives.” Literature and Medicine, vol. 36 no. 2, 2018, pp. 388-411. Project MUSE, doi:10.1353/lm.2018.0020

Johnson, Jeffrey Allan. “Dr. Frankenstein, I Presume? Revising the Popular Image of Frankenstein.” Literature and Medicine, vol. 36 no. 2, 2018, pp. 287-311. Project MUSE, doi:10.1353/lm.2018.0015

Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft. Frankenstein: or, the Modern Prometheus: The Original 1818 Text. 3rd ed. Edited by D. L. Macdonald and Kathleen Scherf. Peterborough, Canada: Broadview Press, 2012.

Published by darkacademian

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