How Frankenstein Came to Life

The Wilson Quarterly, Winter 2008 | Go to article overview
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How Frankenstein Came to Life


THE SOURCE: "Who Wrote Frankenstein?" by Jonathan Gross, in The Common Review, Fall 2007.

YOU'VE HEARD THE ARGUMENT before: How could a Stratford grain hoarder and a tube who didn't own books possibly be the real Shakespeare? The answer, according to some, is that Shakespeare is merely the nom de plume of a writer with a proper pedigree: Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford, schooled at Cambridge at age eight. Most scholars disagree.

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Now the authorship question is being applied with a misogynistic twist to Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (1797-1851). How could an 18-year-old girl possibly have written the soaring prose of Frankenstein? How could she have conceived its homoerotic themes? How could she have conjured a plot so deep and enduring? How could she have recognized the danger inherent in creating life, of usurping both God's and women's role? The answer, coming from a new klatch of critics, is that she didn't. They say the author of the most famous horror story of all time was a man, her husband: Percy Bysshe Shelley.

The dispute over the authorship of Frankenstein might never have emerged were it not for the extraordinary revival of interest in the novel in academic and popular circles that has resulted from the sometimes-frightening advances in genetic engineering and other fields. Though "rarely considered literature for a century and a half," writes Jonathan Gross, an English professor at DePaul University, Frankenstein has become the subject matter of entire college courses. The book is available in no fewer than 53 editions.

The story goes that Frankenstein appeared to Mary Shelley in a nightmare after Lord Byron issued a challenge to write a horror story during a summer holiday in Switzerland.

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