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Frankenstein and the Spark of Being

How did Regency period ideas about science and electricity influence Mary Shelley's tale of an infamous creation. Frank A.J.L. James and J.V. Field explain.

The story of Frankenstein has now become a myth. That is, it has taken on a life of its own independent of Mary Shelley's text, and indeed even independent of certain parts of her narrative. Modern versions of the myth, from the film starring Boris Karloff (1931) to the television advertisements for the denationalisation of National Power (1990), show electricity being used to bring the monster to life.

The electricity comes from generators of a kind unknown at the time of the novel's first publication, in 1818. It is interesting to note that at the time of the Karloff film, as at that of the television advertisement, the question of electricity supply was an important matter of public debate. Thus in both cases the images from the myth were expressive of elements embedded in the general culture of the time.

The amazing plasticity of the Frankenstein story is no doubt partly to be explained by its author's youth. At the time she wrote the novel, Mary Shelley (1797-1851) was only nineteen. It is hardly to be expected that one so young would impose on the story a rigorously personal interpretation of the scientific and social theories which it retails. Moreover, a marked degree of distancing is provided by the story's being told by means of letters, and in the form of three narratives one inside the other – the outermost narrator, Walton, being a sea captain who picks up Frankenstein as a passenger, and passes on Frankenstein's account of his adventures, which includes the Being's account of his own.

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