Celebrating Frankenstein’s 200th Birthday

Mary Shelley, 1840 (source: Robert Rothwell)
Mary Shelley, 1840 (source: Richard Rothwell)

Today is the 200th anniversary of the birth of Frankenstein. For several days in June 1816, the young English writer Mary Godwin and her lover (and future husband), the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, were staying near a mansion, the Villa Diodati, in the village of Cologny on the shores of Lake Geneva, where the poet Lord Byron and a physician, John Polidori, were spending the summer and fall. Unable to venture outside the mansion for long because of the cold stormy weather, they read ghost stories and proposed a challenge: each would write a ghost story of their own. A conference is being held in Cologny to mark this anniversary.

She later reported her experience after going to bed on the night of June 16. Writing in the preface to the third edition of the book she began soon after, she stated:

“Either in a dream, or in some kind of half-trance, 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.”

Villa Diodati, Cologny, Switzerland (source: Robert Grassi)
Villa Diodati, Cologny, Switzerland (source: Robert Grassi)

The book that sprang from this vision is Frankenstein, published in 1818, after the marriage of the author and Shelley. In it, the student of the unhallowed arts was Victor Frankenstein. The phantasm of a man was the monster, nameless in the book, but known in popular culture as Frankenstein. The novel has been celebrated as the first work of science fiction. Many people know if through the film versions, including the classic 1931 version, in which Boris Karloff plays the monster.

Mary Godwin conceived the story of the scientist and the monster he created in June 1816, but it was not until a month later that she and Shelley, traveling through the Alps on foot and on muleback, would see a glacier—the Mer de Glace, the Ice-sea, France’s greatest ice field and one of the largest in the Alps—that would serve as setting for a key scene in the book, an encounter between the scientist and his creation.

Scene on the Mer de Glace, Thomas Henry Graham, 1818 (source: Pforzheimer Collection/NYPL)
Scene on the Mer de Glace, Thomas Henry Graham, 1818 (source: Pforzheimer Collection/NYPL)

Early chapters of the novel related how Victor Frankenstein recognized the creature’s horrifying nature soon after he made him, and rejected him. The monster, angry at Frankenstein for abandoning him, wandered for some time and then killed Frankenstein’s younger brother. The grief-stricken Frankenstein  traveled to the mountains. It was there, in the Mer de Glace, that the monster found him  and begged him to create a female counterpart.

Boris Karloff as the monster in Frankenstein, 1931 (source: Universal Studios)
Boris Karloff as the monster in “Frankenstein,” 1931, dir. James Whale (source: Universal Studios)

The story then moves to lower elevations before returning to a vast expanse of ice. Frankenstein created, and then destroyed, the female companion that the monster requested; the monster killed Frankenstein’s best friend and later his wife. (In popular culture, the confusion between the scientist and the monster is replicated in the confusion over the identity of bride of Frankenstein.) The scientist and the monster both traveled to the Arctic, the scientist to die of pneumonia, the monster to wander off on a real Ice-sea, the Arctic Ocean, heading towards the North Pole.

The conference, titled Frankenstein’s Shadow: A Bicentennial Assessment of the Frankenstein Narrative’s Influence, is being held on June 14 and 15 at the Fondation Bocher in Hermance, near Geneva. Organized to examine the influence of the Frankenstein myth on current views of science, it is being sponsored by the Center for Science and the Imagination and the Center for Nanotechnology in Society at Arizona State University, along with Duke University, the University of Lausanne, and the Fondation Brocher, which specializes in  the study of bioethics.

Poster for conference on Frankenstein, Cologny (source: Fondation Brocker)
Poster for a conference “Frankenstein Today” at Cologny (source: Fondation Brocker)

Elizabeth Denlinger, a librarian and researcher at the New York Public Library who is attending the conference, wrote to GlacierHub,The novel only becomes more significant as technology approaches ever close in reality what was only fantasy in 1816.”  She continues,I, personally, hope that we take away the last words Victor Frankenstein speaks: ‘I have myself been blasted in these hopes, yet another may succeed.’ This, not the idiotic belief that science is dangerous, is what’s worth remembering. But the daring it takes to change ourselves and our world purposely is frightening, and leaves people prey to superstitious fears.”

She noted that a number of talks focused on themes close to the ones in the book–gene therapy, artificial intelligence, assisted reproduction technologies. Her own talk focuses on museums exhibition which have represented the ethical issues in Frankenstein’s experiment.

Carl H. Pforzheimer Collection of Shelley and His Circle (source: NYPL)
Carl H. Pforzheimer Collection of Shelley and His Circle (source: NYPL)

Denlinger commented on the importance of ice in the book. She writes “The crucial scene of the novel is set on the Mer de Glace, which Mary Shelley uses to good purpose to give Victor and the creature privacy; to isolate them in the reader’s imagination; and to echo in the setting the strangeness of the moment. I think it’s important that the Mer de Glace, though a ‘stupendous scene’ and a ‘vast river of ice,’ is still surrounded by familiar European land. The final Arctic scene is meant to be abysmal in a literal sense, endlessly vast.” She noted that the participants in the conference found themselves “talking about shrinking ice in Antarctica … after dinner.”

And one talk at the conference focuses directly on these themes. Dehlia Hannah, director of the research and curatorial project A Year Without a Winter, wrote a talk “The Year Without a Summer/Winter: Frankenstein and Climate Change,” linking present climate concerns with the volcanic eruption of Tambora in Indonesia in 1815, which spewed the vast amounts of ash into the atmosphere that created the cold wet winter which, in turn, contributed to the novel. In an interview with GlacierHub, she described how her project looks back at 1816, the anomalous “‘year without a summer’ in order to rethink the climatic disregulation we face today.” Frankenstein’s experiment and greenhouse gas emissions, she stated, both demonstrate that “when we intervene dramatically in the order ot nature, we risk unforeseeable consequences, ones for which we are not prepared to assume responsibility.”

Mer de Glace (source: Tomislav Medak)
Mer de Glace (source: Tomislav Medak)

Readers of GlacierHub who cannot travel to Switzerland these days will have an opportunity to learn more about Frankenstein through classes at the Carl H. Pforzheimer Collection of Shelley and His Circle at the New York Public Library, where Denlinger is the curator. Denlinger will also serve as guest curator of a special exhibition at the Morgan Library and Museum in New York in 2018, the bicentennial of the book’s publication, focusing on the novel, its author, and what Denlinger terms “its hideous progeny on stage and in film.” This event, like the conference, may well serve as an opportunity for reflection on the great power that glaciers exercised on the human imagination two hundred years ago, and on their new significance in an era of climate change.