How the mystery of electricity helped 18-year-old Mary Shelley create ‘Frankenstein’

Kathryn Newton and Cole Sprouse put a twist on a classic in ‘Lisa Frankenstein.’Michele K. Short/2024 Focus Features LLC

  • In 1818 Mary Shelley published “Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus.”

  • In the novel, Frankenstein brings a creature to life with a “spark of being.”

  • Grotesque experiments with electricity and the body may have inspired Shelley.

In the new movie “Lisa Frankenstein,” a teenage girl gives makeovers to an animated corpse, spending time in a tanning bed. It’s a modern twist on a 200-year-old story created by 18-year-old Mary Shelley.

In her 1818 novel, Shelley tells the story of Victor Frankenstein, who fashions a creature from various human corpses which he then brings to life. When he’s scared, he abandons his creation, a person who kills (spoiler) everyone Frankenstein loves.

Many film versions of the Frankenstein story, including the latest production that opens Friday in theaters across the U.S., use lightning or some other form of electricity to jolt the creature into consciousness. But Shelley does not specifically specify the animating agent in her novel.

In 1816, when Shelley began writing the book, electricity was still somewhat mysterious. Many students were eager to study it and perhaps learn the secret of life itself.

The scientific atmosphere at home

In the months and years leading up to Shelley’s landmark novel, she was surrounded by some of the world’s leading minds.

Mary Shelley’s father, the novelist William Godwin, socialized with several people with scientific backgrounds. Erasmus Darwin, grandfather of Charles, and Humphry Davy — discoverer of calcium, magnesium, and other elements — were among them.

Both scientists influenced “Frankenstein.” Chile incorporated some of Davy’s writings in his novel, and both the 1818 and 1831 prefaces refer to Darwin.

Black and white image of Mary Shelley wearing a dark dress and writing surrounded by booksBlack and white image of Mary Shelley wearing a dark dress and writing surrounded by books

Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley wrote “Frankenstein” when she was 18 years old.Hulk Archive/Getty Images

The poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, who married Mary Shelley the same year she began “Frankenstein,” was interested in science. He went to anatomy classeshe wrote a poem about hot air balloons, and tried to cure his sister’s skin condition with electricity.

In 1816, the soon-to-be married couple vacationed at Lake Geneva. During this trip, the poet Lord Byron and Percy Shelley discussed Erasmus Darwin’s experiments, galvanism (the idea that animals had their own kind of electricity flowing through them), and the possibility of reanimation.

While pregnant after the recent death of her daughter, Shelley recently had a dream that she had revived her child next to a warm fire.

With this entire visit, Byron challenged herself and the other vacationers to write ghost stories. That was the beginning of what would soon become a literary classic.

The spark

On a rainy night in November, Frankenstein brings his creation – made of bones and organs stolen from corpses – to life.

“Anxiety was a great concern, I gathered the tools of life around me, so that I could put a spark into the lifeless thing,” he explained.

Shelley was purposefully vague about the exact steps Frankenstein took to animate the corpse. “I will not lead you, unguarded and high as I was at the time, to your destruction and undetectable,” Frankenstein tells the narrator of the book.

Some scholars have suggested that the “spark” could be fire or chemical in nature. Since Shelley refused to discuss the details of Frankenstein, it is impossible to know for sure.

But one passage from the first version of the novel could predict the “spark” that gave life to the creature.

Frankenstein 1931Frankenstein 1931

One of the most iconic film versions of “Frankenstein” stars Boris Karloff.Universal

In the novel, Frankenstein recalled his “great surprise” after seeing the lightning split a tree. His father re-enacted Benjamin Franklinand kite experiment connecting lightning and electricity. Frankenstein described it as drawing down “fluid from the clouds.”

Actually, Franklin and others believed that electricity was a flowing fluid between things. When Shelley published her novel, some of the great discoveries about electricity by Michael Faraday and Georg Ohm were still decades away.

“There was great interest in the question: What is the essence that animates life?” the historian Juliet Burba said Atlas Obscura in 2016. “Is it electricity?”

The electrical experiments

In her 1831 revised edition of “Frankenstein,” Shelley removed the part about lightning and instead referred to galvanism.

Although galvanism has a different meaning today, its origins go back to a surgeon who believed he had discovered a new form of electricity.

In 1786, Luigi Galvani noticed that an electric spark caused the frog’s broken leg to bounce. He believed he had just discovered “animal electricity”, a unique substance different from lightning or static electricity.

A few years later, Alessandro Volta argued that the frog was merely acting as a conductor between two metals.

Engraving of several people standing next to an amputated leg with a patient in the backgroundEngraving of several people standing next to an amputated leg with a patient in the background

In 1792, military surgeon Dominique Jean Larrey amputated a leg and tried to repeat Galvani’s experiment.Sepia Times / Universal Image Group via Getty Images

In the early 1800s, this debate led to some shocking experiments by Galvani’s nephew Giovanni Aldini.

Aldini attached an electric battery to the head of a mutilated ox. The eyes opened, the ears shook, the tongue flailed, and the nostrils flared, he write. He then repeated the experiment with a horse, dogs, frogs and other animals.

In 1803, Aldini attached the battery to the body of Thomas Forster, who the authorities hanged for murder. After noticing the various twitches and spasms, Aldini wrote that “perhaps, perhaps, life could be restored, if many circumstances were not impossible.”

Some of them did surprised if such methods could revive a dead or drowned person.

Aldini’s experiments were widely covered at the time, and some scholars suggest that Shelley’s father may have even brought her to a demonstration.

Whether Shelley drew direct inspiration from Aldini or other galvanizers, her novel clearly expresses her thoughts on attempts to control nature.

“Learn from me, if not by my instructions, at least by my example,” Frankenstein tells the narrator, “how dangerous is the acquisition of knowledge, and how happy is that man who believes that he is the the world of his hometown than the wider world. the one who wants to be more than his nature will allow.”

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