Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein at 200
and the Immortal Undead Legacy of Mad Science
by Dr. Kathryn Ready
From award-winning film and literature to news headlines, t-shirts, coffee mugs, and breakfast cereal, the mad scientist and mad science are everywhere. While Mary Shelley is generally credited with the invention of this popular character type, the subtitle of her famous novel Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus (1818) gestures immediately to ancient sources of inspiration. Behind the tragic tale of Victor Frankenstein and his monster are in fact many old and familiar stories beyond that of the legendary Titan who stole fire from heaven on behalf of humanity. We find the stories of Satan, Adam, and Eve. Of powerful magicians such as Merlin and Prospero. Of notorious alchemists such as Faust, who reportedly traded his soul away to Mephistopheles in exchange for power and forbidden knowledge. The recognition of these ancient sources of inspiration has helped to fuel ongoing debate concerning the cultural significance of Victor Frankenstein and his many descendants. Is the story of mad science about anything new? Or is its appeal as a modernized retelling of old, familiar stories? As a modern rewriting of ancient warnings against human curiosity and pride? Or did the story of the mad scientist capture the imagination in speaking to the impact of modern science? To a world being newly transformed by science and technology? If so, does the story of mad science offer more than a broad and straightforward warning against the dangers of science? How much did Shelley know about science? What might she be saying about scientific debates in her own day? About the culture of science? What about her own literary descendants?
This lecture is part of our Exploring Victorians series. Admission is $15 or $12 for members. Reserve your spot at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 204-943-2835