How Mary's monster became today's myth

From the moment of publication it struck a chord. Dr Frankenstein represents many of our deeper beliefs about scientists - in fact he forms these beliefs
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This month marks the two hundredth anniversary of the birth of Mary Shelley, the author of Frankenstein, a novel that has proved astonishingly influential and effective, having all the qualities of a genuine myth.

Mary Shelley was the daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin. Mary Wollstonecraft is now best known as the writer of A Vindication of the Rights of Women and the founder of modern feminism, but in her own day she was as notorious for her support of the French Revolution and her unconventional lifestyle. Godwin was a leading rationalist, a significant political philosopher, and a libertarian Jacobin. Much was expected of their child: particularly as Wollstonecraft died in childbirth.

At 16 Mary fell in love with the young Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, a disciple of her father's who had been expelled from Oxford for writing The Necessity of Atheism and, although he was married with two children, ran off with him: at which point her father rejected her entirely - despite his previous advocacy of Free Love.

The young couple lived an itinerant life over the next two years, during which Mary suffered a miscarriage and the death of her premature daughter. The couple were clearly very close but Shelley, who was both intellectually brilliant and emotional volatile, was demanding to live with. The summer of 1816 found them living near Geneva with Lord Byron (by whom Mary's half-sister was pregnant) and their surviving child. Byron and Shelley had formed a friendship of extraordinary intensity, which always contained a strong element of competition.

In this highly charge atmosphere Mary Shelley conceived and wrote Frankenstein: a macabre Gothic tale of a brilliant and talented young man who starts out with a proper desire for learning and knowledge, but gets too ambitious. He withdraws from the world and normal human contact into his laboratory and pulls off the greatest victory of all scientific imagination - he constructs a body out of bits of dead flesh, and galvanises it. Far from this turning out to be an exciting and hopeful breakthrough for humanity, the consequences are horrendous.

Frankenstein's creation is horribly botched: unlike nature's creation, it is neither beautiful nor lovable. It is destructive, vengeful, and very dangerous. (Interestingly, the piece of the story that is least prominent in all the retellings is Mary Shelley's central question - is the monster evil because it is unloved, or unlovable because it is evil?) The monster brutally destroys everything its creator loves - friends, and family, and sanity. Finally, Frankenstein has to sacrifice his life to destroy his own creation. Nothing good comes of this supremely creative act.

Although it is written with an enormous emotional power, Frankenstein was not the first Gothic horror novel, and it was not the first science fiction novel either, but from the moment of its first publication in 1818 it struck a chord, whose reverberations seem to increase still. It is unusual for a novel so to escape from its origins. Almost every eight-year-old in this country now knows the name and something of the story - however botched, confused and reinterpreted - of the hero of a radical, literary, intellectual novel written over 150 years ago. (Although Boris Karloff may have something to answer for, the fame of this story is not based simply on a film version. The name "Frankenstein" has a cultural reference way beyond the cinematic.) It is unusual for any pervasive cultural myth to have a known and named author. It is even more unusual for such an author to be a teenage girl.

Why did it work so well? What nerve is it that Frankenstein touched and still touches?

The French Revolution destabilised Europe. It raised hopes that reason could perfect humanity and then dashed those hopes. It also led directly to the devastating Napoleonic Wars - which ended only the year before Frankenstein was written. And it left Europe with a profound tension between the liberating, life-enhancing capacities of human knowledge and the dangers (moral, practical and imaginative) of "interfering with nature".

It is a conflict which has not been resolved in the subsequent two centuries and is seen most clearly in the life sciences, particularly medicine: will reducing pain in childbirth undermine maternal devotion? Will organ transplants change personality? Is cloning a new chance at eternal life, or a fundamental corruption of our individuality? Reproductive technologies continually stir up moral terrors and media controversies - on the one hand it is "natural" (even a right) to have children; on the other hand we should not go to "unnatural" lengths to get them.

Robots, cyborgs and clones (artificial people) are the "baddies" of popular science fiction - from the film Bladerunner (where it is taken as a given that it is essential to work out who is a "real" human and who is not, even though it is well nigh impossible to discover any difference whatsoever) right down to the crassest children's TV cartoon, in which human heroes can take on the characteristics of robots, while the villains are technological constructions which take on the appearance of humanity.

Because of such fears, scientists have become what priests and wizards were - they are different from "us". In exchange for their enormous power, they are required to sacrifice certain sorts of normality, whether simple practical skills (professors are "absent-minded" just as saints often were) or more profound satisfactions (like normal human relationships). But these sacrifices make them even more alarming. Scientists are also under the suspicion of being more on the side of their inventions than they are on the side of the common man. (Hence the present popular belief that "science is too important to be left to scientists" - they cannot have normal human ethics).

These are precisely the issues that Frankenstein addresses. The character of Dr Frankenstein carries great psychological conviction, which is far more important than factual credibility. He is a true tragic hero, noble but flawed. He represents many of our deeper beliefs about what scientists are like; in fact he forms these beliefs. But more importantly, Mary Shelley created a powerful narrative: myths are not just symbols or metaphors or abstract theories; they are always stories. Stories that put in order what we want to think.

One of the problems with myths is that you never know they are myths until you don't need them any longer. Frankenstein is a story. Mary Shelley made it up. She despised convention, and conventional thinking. Perhaps we should celebrate this bi-centenary by recognising how useful her novel has been, by accepting we have made a mythology out of it, and by treating it as we do earlier myths - by demythologising it, and setting ourselves free from some of our fears. Easier said than done.