Mary Shelley’s famous novel is fully-titled: Frankenstein: A Modern Prometheus. Her novel was published in January of 1818, after experiencing the loss of one child with the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, the suicide of her half-sister, Fanny, and the suicide of Percy Shelley’s wife, Harriet. In the coming two years, Mary Shelley would lose two more children. In October of 1818, Percy Shelley would begin a verse play called Prometheus Unbound, which envisions a race of humans finally free of the bonds of the gods, empowered by love and community.
The story of the writing of the novel Frankenstein is a story in itself. In 1816, Mary Godwin, then nineteen years old, was the mistress of Percy Shelley. They went to Geneva with her half-sister Claire Clairmont and the poet, Lord Byron. Claire was pregnant with Byron’s child, Ada. In June, Byron suggested that everyone write a ghost story.
Mary had met Percy Shelley because he was drawn to the Enlightenment political theories of her father, William Godwin, which expounded the advancement of humanity by abolishing economic and political restrains, such as the aristocracy, religion, government, and marriage. Mary’s mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, published A Vindication for the Rights of Men (1790) preceding Thomas Paine’s text, The Rights of Man, and A Vindication for the Rights of Women (1792). Both Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin were abolitionists and supported the French Revolution’s declarations of human rights, including the abolition of slavery. Before marrying Godwin, Wollstonecraft barely escaped imprisonment in France during the Reign of Terror. She returned to England and married him after becoming pregnant with Mary, and died days after giving birth to her in 1797, a common tragedy before the advent of antibiotics.
There is an apocryphal story that Mary, at sixteen, became pregnant during a tryst with Shelley on her mother’s grave. When it came to his daughter’s entanglement with Percy Shelley, William Godwin lost his free-thinking moral compass, and both Mary and Percy left England in 1814. They passed through post-Revolutionary France, and witnessed the desolation the war had on the peasants. But both held fast to the beliefs espoused by William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft in the freedom and equality of all people.
In a strange footnote, Ada Byron, Mary Shelley’s niece, would become renowned for an addendum she wrote in 1843 on a memoir about an “analytical engine” created by inventor Charles Babbage. Ada’s mother Claire insisted she be educated only in math and science, to avoid the passions of her father. She proved to be a protégée. Her notes reveal her genius in understanding the potential power of a machine to think. Turing references her work, and credits her as a founder of scientific computing.
Why does any of this Romantic drama matter? Novels, like robots, are creatures endowed by the experiences and imaginations of their creators. Consider the losses she experienced, and the desire all of us have, to extend and perfect human life. Consider the revolutionary fervor of her times, as technological advancements of the Industrial Revolution were changing how people saw themselves, and expanded the ideals of personal freedoms for all humans. As they read about her life, students will discuss how Shelley’s experiences permeate Frankenstein. Shelley’s novel is an incredibly insightful warning about what might go wrong when human passions overcome human reason, and when our ideals ignore our human flaws.
When we are looking ahead to our own future creations, we must assess the values we hold that will shape our designs. Will our future creations be used for war, for peace, for the vanity of the wealthy, to sate our desires, or to promote equality? What do we want of them? What will we think of ourselves in comparison to them? Will our superior creations tire of us and eliminate us? Will they confront an existential crisis of their own and eliminate themselves? Will we allow ourselves to be governed by machines? Who will control them?
This thought experiment begins, as many human truths do, in myth.