Mary Shelley and ‘monstrous’ science

By Dr Keith Williams


Mary Shelley (1797–1851) published Frankenstein in 1818 when she was barely out of her teens. Earlier, she lived with the family of radical industrialist William Baxter in Dundee for nearly two years. Her imaginative basis as a writer was effectively laid down here, as recalled in her 1831 'Author’s Introduction': 'my habitual residence was on the blank and dreary northern shores of the Tay, near Dundee .... they were not so to me then. They were the eyry of freedom, and the pleasant region where unheeded I could commune with the creatures of my fancy.' [1]

Shelley created a template for examining the relationship between science and technology, bioethics and hypermasculine hubris. Frankenstein raises fundamental questions about whether scientific discoveries will enhance or endanger our humanity. Its topical relevance has been reanimated – like the creature itself – with afterlives in film, TV, theatre, comics, digital games, and so on. Shelley also set the precedent for 'scientising' ancient myth – Frankenstein’s alternative title was The Modern Prometheus, alluding to the Greek titan who stole fire to benefit humankind and in return was punished by the gods. With its reanimation of dead body parts by electricity, Frankenstein effectively constitutes a secular 'resurrection' myth. It also features a plotline about Victor Frankenstein’s attempts to shape a mate for his creature, highlighting his perverse ambition to bypass female biology in creating life. The episode underscores his misogyny and sexual Angst. He destroys this mate at the panicked thought the pair may breed a new superhuman species to render ours extinct. Denied a significant other to validate him, the creature exacts murderous revenge on Victor’s own intimate partner: 'I shall be with you on your wedding night.' [2]

Shelley and science

Shelley lived at a time when even women of privilege were denied access to education, authoring one of the first science fiction pieces with virtually no chance of studying science at university herself. A revealing detail comes in a letter from Frankenstein’s fiancée, stuck at home while Victor secretly assembles his creature at Ingolstadt. Elizabeth debates options for her brother Ernest’s profession with her adoptive uncle, Frankenstein senior. She argues against studying law because it 'meddle[s] with the dark side of human nature'. At which, 'My uncle ... said that I ought to be an advocate myself.' [3] His apparent compliment (women could no more become lawyers than scientists) is an irrefutable put-down. We can virtually hear Shelley’s personal protest against the unfairness and waste of ability through Elizabeth.

Frankenstein is not anti-scientific, per se. Shelley was fascinated by new discoveries and their potential for revolutionary transformation. [4] However, she envisioned the costs of divorcing this new thing called ‘science’ from considerations of gender, emotional intelligence and social responsibility. Etymologically, science is Latin for knowledge in general, rather than the narrowing connotations it developed in replacing the term 'natural philosophy'. 

The influence of Dundee

In her writing, Shelley responded to Dundee as a whaling port and shipyard for icebreakers. Her narrative begins aboard an exploration vessel on a mission to find the fabled North-West passage through the Arctic, which parallels Frankenstein’s hubristic project to discover life’s animating principle. Captain Walton learns the lesson Victor cannot from hearing his tragic backstory, changing course before it is too late to save his crew. Frankenstein remains in denial about what he unleashes. His refusal to recognise his own responsibilities and the creature’s needs prompts its murderous rampage. The word 'monster' comes from Latin 'monstrum', meaning not a hideous or alien being, but a portent or warning. Prometheus (used in the book’s alternative title), ironically means 'foresight' in Greek. But Victor fails to see the future and is appalled as his creation comes to life, immediately abandoning it. He lacks the empathy to understand that we all require nurture to become fully human. His neglect as 'absent father' spawns a monstrously delinquent son.

Shelley also left a profound mark on Dundee, culminating when William Baxter’s relative, Mary Ann, endowed 'University College' in 1881. Baxter intended a progressive, gender-blind and polymathic university, promoting 'education of persons of both sexes and the study of Science, Literature, and the Fine Arts'. [5] She was effectively responding to Frankenstein’s imaginative lesson regarding skewing of knowledge and access. She also heeded its warning about cutting the common stem between science and the arts as ways of understanding ourselves and our world. Victor’s reanimation method involves the mysterious 'wonder force' of the nineteenth century (Andrew Ure’s Galvanic experiments in Glasgow, which caused a corpse to sit bolt upright, were conducted in the same year as Frankenstein was published), making the creature a metaphor for unleashing the potential of technology without careful reflection about consequence. Victor is obsessive and solitary, contrasting with science for the benefit of the community, rather than self-aggrandisement or profit for the few.

Future Frankenstein

Shelley gave her blessing to the remediation of her text: 'once again, I bid my hideous progeny go forth and prosper.' [6] Science fiction’s critiquing of new discoveries and applications is a key means by which it continues to prosper. Educational prioritisation of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) threatens renewed marginalisation of humanities. Hence, writers have updated Shelley’s warning about 'monstrous science'. Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy (2003–13) reimagines Frankenstein as a dystopian future, in which ecological catastrophe and genetic engineering all but destroy humanity due to corporatised science and institutional segregation from disciplines that might challenge its values.




  1.  Mary Shelley, 'Author’s Introduction to The Standard Novels Edition' (1831); repr. as 'Appendix A' In Frankenstein: The Dundee Edition, ed. Daniel Cook (Dundee: UniVerse, 2018), pp.182–7 (182–3).
  2. Frankenstein: The Dundee Edition, p.134.
  3. Ibid., p.44.
  4. See for example, The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science by Richard Holmes (2009)
  5. Founding Deed quoted on the University of Dundee website: https://www.dundee.ac.uk/50/podcasts/philanthropy/
  6. Shelley, 'Introduction' (1831); repr. In Frankenstein: The Dundee Edition, p.187

Further Reading

A Dundee edition of the novel, specially created for the bicentenary of its publication (with introduction, notes, and illustrations by some of Scotland’s leading comic artists), can be downloaded for free as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein: The Dundee Edition, ed. Daniel Cook (Dundee: UniVerse, 2018): Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein: The Dundee Edition — Discovery - the University of Dundee Research Portal

Comics telling the story of Mary Shelley and Dundee (created for the 2015, 2018 and 2019 'Being Human Festival' programmes through Dundee’s Comics Creative Space by various artists and writers) can also be downloaded for free from: https://scottishcomicstudies.com/being-human/


Monographs and Essay Collections 

Baldick, Chris, In Frankenstein’s Shadow: Myth, Monstrosity and Nineteenth-Century Writing (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987)

Bloom, Harold (ed.), Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (New York: Chelsea House, 2007)

Botting, Fred (ed.), Frankenstein: Mary Shelley (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1995)

Levine, George, and Ulrich Knoepflmacher (ed.), The Endurance of Frankenstein: Essays on Mary Shelley’s Novel (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979)

Schor, Esther (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Mary Shelley (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003)

Smith, Andrew (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Frankenstein (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016)

Wright, Angela, Mary Shelley (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2018)


Mary Shelley’s Life and Biographical Approaches to Frankenstein

Gilbert, Sandra M., and Susan Gubar, 'Horror’s Twin: Mary Shelley’s Monstrous Eve', in The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination (Newhaven: Yale University Press, 1979), pp. 213–47

Mellor, Anne K., Mary Shelley: Her Life, Her Fiction, Her Monsters (New York: Methuen, 1988)

Sampson, Fiona, In Search of Mary Shelley: The Girl Who Wrote Frankenstein (London: Profile Books, 2018)

Seymour, Miranda, Mary Shelley (London: John Murray, 2000)

Spark, Muriel, Mary Shelley (London: Cardinal, 1987)

Todd, Janet, 'Frankenstein’s Daughter: Mary Shelley and Mary Wollstonecraft', Women and Literature, 4.2 (1976): 18–27


Gender Studies and Frankenstein

Haggerty, George E., 'What is Queer about Frankenstein?', in The Cambridge Companion to Frankenstein, ed. Smith, pp. 116–27

London, Bette, 'Mary Shelley, Frankenstein, and the Spectacle of Masculinity', PMLA, 108(2) (1993): 253–65

Mellor, Anne K., 'Possessing Nature: The Female in Frankenstein', in Romanticism and Feminism, ed. Anne K. Mellor (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1988), pp. 220–32

Poovey, Mary, The Proper Lady and the Woman Writer (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984), pp. 121–31

Wright, Angela, 'The Female Gothic', in The Cambridge Companion to Frankenstein, ed. Smith, pp. 101–15


Frankenstein and Science 

Butler, Marilyn, 'Frankenstein and Radical Science', in Frankenstein, ed. J. Paul Hunter (London: Norton, 2012), pp. 404–16

Knellworth, Christa, 'Geographic Boundaries and Inner Space: Frankenstein, Scientific Explorations and the Quest for the Absolute', in Frankenstein’s Science: Experimentation and Discovery in Romantic Culture, 7780–7830, ed. Christa Knellworth and Jane Goodall (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2008), pp. 49–69

Mellor, Anne K., 'Frankenstein: A Feminist Critique of Science', in One Culture: Essays in Science and Literature, ed. George Levine (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1987), pp. 287–312

Sha, Richard C., 'Volta’s Battery, Animal Electricity, and Frankenstein', European Review, 23(1), (2012): 21–41

Smith, Andrew, 'Scientific Contexts', in The Cambridge Companion to Frankenstein, ed. Smith, pp. 69–83


The Global Contexts of Frankenstein 

Brantlinger, Patrick, 'Race and Frankenstein', in The Cambridge Companion to Frankenstein, ed. Smith, pp. 128–42

Lew, Joseph W., 'The Deceptive Other: Mary Shelley’s Critique of Orientalism in Frankenstein', Studies in Romanticism, 30 (1991): 255–83

Malchow, H. L., 'Frankenstein’s Monster and Images of Race in Nineteenth-Century Britain', Past and Present, 139 (1993): 90–130

Mellor, Anne K., 'Frankenstein, Racial Science, and the Yellow Peril', Nineteenth Century Contexts, 23(1) (2001): 1–28

Young, Elizabeth, Black Frankenstein: The Making of an American Metaphor (New York: New York University Press, 2008)


Adaptations of Frankenstein

Hoeveler, Diane Long, 'Nineteenth-Century Dramatic Adaptations of Frankenstein', in The Cambridge Companion to Frankenstein, ed. Smith, pp. 175–89

Glut, Donald F., The Frankenstein Archive: Essays on the Monster, the Myth, the Movies and More (North Carolina: McFarland & Company, 2002)

Gooderham, D., 'Children’s Fantasy Literature: Toward an Anatomy', Children’s Literature in Education, 26(3) (1995): 171–183

Murray, Christopher, 'Frankenstein in Comics and Graphic Novels', in The Cambridge Companion to Frankenstein, ed. Smith, pp. 219–240

Tudor, Andrew, Monsters and Mad Scientists: A Cultural History of the Horror Movie (Cambridge, MA: Basil Blackwell, 1989)




Keith Williams

University of Dundee

Keith Williams’s publications include H.G. Wells, Modernity and the Movies. He is co-editing a collection of stories by 'lost' Scottish-American SF writer, Robert Duncan Milne- forthcoming with Bloomsbury Academic in 2024.