If I had planned this better, we’d have started discussing this novel around Halloween. Mary Shelley started the novel in 1816 and published it in 1818. The novel’s context is quite important (but, of course, it isn’t the end of the search for meaning).
1816, The Year without a Summer
Is it possible to have a year without a summer? Sure. And climatologists warn of years with only summers if we don’t curb fossil fuel use, but we’re too self-centered and short-sighted to do anything to change that, so I’ll focus our attention on the warning we’ll most likely ignore from Frankenstein.
Mary Shelley started writing her novel while on vacation to Lake Geneva during the summer of 1816, which has been dubbed “The Year without a Summer.” Let’s consider events prior to this non-summer.
- 1783: American Revolutionary War, which the French monarchy supported, ends with the Treaty of Paris
- 1789: Parisians storm the Bastille prison on July 14th, a beginning of the French Revolution
- 1792: Revolutionaries say no to monarchy on August 10th (not a good for Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette)
- 1792: Mary Wollstonecraft (Shelley’s mother) publishes A Vindication of the Rights of Woman
- 1793: Louis XVI loses his head over the French Revolution on January 21…Marie loses hers October 16th
- 1797: Mary Wollstonecraft dies shortly after giving birth to her daughter, Mary Godwin
- 1809: Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin born on February 12
- 1814: Mary Godwin marries Percy Shelley, a famous English poet and political follower of Mary’s father; he was 21, and she was 16…
- 1815: Waterloo, Napoleon did surrender (in June, ending the Napoleonic Wars)
- 1816: Mary Shelley, Percy Shelley, and Lord Byron “vacationed” in Lake Geneva
- 1818: Mary Shelley publishes Frankenstein
- 1822: Percy Shelley drowns while sailing in his boat…The Don Juan
- 1831: Mary Shelley publishes a revised version of Frankenstein
- 1851: Mary Shelley dies of a suspected brain tumor
- 2020: Dr. Toscano assigns Frankenstein to LBST 2213
And the Volcano… (I don’t know where I’m gonna go / When the volcano blow)
1815: Mt. Tambora in Indonesia erupts on April 10th, killing 90,000 people in the region
- The eruption sends gas and ash into the stratosphere, where winds take the matter around the globe (not to be confused with the Stratosphere in Las Vegas)
- The particulate matter contributes to a 3-6 degree drop in temperature
- The temperature drop causes tremendous amounts of crop failure
- The food shortage leads to famine and civil unrest
- Oak trees in the Northeastern US have a missing ring, signaling zero tree growth
- The US Midwest isn’t as affected and farmers move there for better agriculture
Here are some other discussions of this (not required reading but definitely interesting):
- “The Volcano That Shrouded the Earth and Gave Birth to a Monster”
- “The Epic Volcano Eruption that Led to the ‘Year Without a Summer’”
Anxieties Europeans Felt
Although the volcano affected much of the world, it hit Europe at a time of tremendous political, social, scientific, and technological change. It wasn’t just nature revolting. Citizens felt a dis-ease with the rate of change and worried that their pursuits might be getting out of hand. For instance, the French Revolution started as a small uprising that led to major changes. Once the revolutionary forces were unleashed, they were difficult to contain…many heads rolled.
One could say the Revolution was a golem. Although there are various golem myths, the one associated with Frankenstein is that the monster, created by Victor Frankenstein, was intended for good but gets out of hand, destroying its creator. Nuclear energy and the Hulk are considered golems in popular culture. They serve some purposes for good but can get out of hand and destroy things.
By the way, the Dr. Darwin that Shelley mentions in the first sentence of the letter at the beginning of her book refers to Erasmus Darwin (who died in 1802), grandfather of Charles Darwin.
Mary Shelley’s Fascination with Death
Mary Shelley’s mother died 11 days after she was born, and Shelley herself lost three children and her husband. This article “Mary Shelley’s Obsession with the Cemetery” illuminates Mary Shelley’s early fascination with cemeteries and human relationships with the deceased. The author makes an interesting observation that after Shelley married Percy, she “was ‘almost continuously pregnant, ‘confined,’ or nursing’…and many of the metaphors surrounding Victor’s monster-manufacture are suggestive of pregnancy.” Also, it’s well documented that her husband, the poet Percy Shelley, was in debt and left home to avoid being thrown in debtors prison. Perhaps the confines of marriage and the requirement to be the dutiful wife were monstrous concepts for Mary Shelley.
We’ll continue with Frankenstein next week. I have the two video clips of the 1994 film on our Canvas homepage, so definitely watch them.