The Annotated Frankenstein

The Annotated Frankenstein

by Mary Shelley, Susan J. Wolfson, Ronald Levao

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First published in 1818, Frankenstein has spellbound, disturbed, and fascinated readers for generations. One of the most haunting and enduring works ever written in English, it has inspired numerous retellings and sequels in virtually every medium, making the Frankenstein myth familiar even to those who have never read a word of Mary Shelley’s


First published in 1818, Frankenstein has spellbound, disturbed, and fascinated readers for generations. One of the most haunting and enduring works ever written in English, it has inspired numerous retellings and sequels in virtually every medium, making the Frankenstein myth familiar even to those who have never read a word of Mary Shelley’s remarkable novel. Now, this freshly annotated, illustrated edition illuminates the novel and its electrifying afterlife with unmatched detail and vitality.

From the first decade after publication, “Frankenstein” became a byword for any new, disturbing developments in science, technology, and human imagination. The editors’ Introduction explores the fable’s continuing presence in popular culture and intellectual life as well as the novel’s genesis and composition. Mary Shelley’s awareness of European politics and history, her interest in the poets and philosophical debates of the day, and especially her genius in distilling her personal traumas come alive in this engaging essay.

The editors’ commentary, placed conveniently alongside the text, provides stimulating company. Their often surprising observations are drawn from a lifetime of reading and teaching the novel. A wealth of illustrations, many in color, immerses the reader in Shelley’s literary and social world, in the range of artwork inspired by her novel, as well as in Frankenstein’s provocative cinematic career. The fresh light that The Annotated Frankenstein casts on a story everyone thinks is familiar will delight readers while deepening their understanding of Mary Shelley’s novel and the Romantic era in which it was created.

Editorial Reviews

The Washington Post
…brings scholarship to life for the lay reader…Every geographical, biographical and literary allusion is explained; themes are highlighted; and obscure words are defined.
—Ron Charles
Publishers Weekly
Starred Review.

Wolfson and Levao, professors of English at Princeton and Rutgers, respectively, revivify the original 1818 version of Shelley's classic in this illuminating annotated text. Beginning with a thoroughly researched introduction to the author's life and the "life" of Frankenstein, Wolfson and Levao draw parallels between the novel's themes and the losses and turmoil that plagued Shelley. Moving along, their commentary draws from an abundance of criticism, focusing primarily on the novel's allusions to Paradise Lost, Coleridge's "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner," and the myth of Prometheus. At a more local level, the duo dutifully notate Shelley's ingenious use of language and her husband's edits. All this, plus historical and literary contextualization, revised passages from the 1831 edition, and reproductions of relevant artworks and movie stills make this version of the canonical classic an impressive addition to the study of Frankenstein. While ideal for students of English, this book is accessible enough for anyone desiring a deeper reading of the novel, and does just what a well-annotated work should do, shedding a bright light not only on the text in question, but also on its historical moment and literary forebears. 98 color illus.
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Garrett Stewart
This is a splendid production, a happy convergence of topic and talent. Frankenstein could easily have been prey to a more sentimental and gossipy treatment; instead what emerges is thorough, spirited, and searching. The net effect is a downright moving portrait of author and novel both.
Anne K. Mellor
This is a superb edition. The annotations provide extensive guidance to the basic themes of the novel, the significance of the names of the characters, the geography of the text, historical dates and allusions, and textual revisions.
The Washington Post - Ron Charles
The Annotated Frankenstein, edited by Susan J. Wolfson and Ronald L. Levao, brings scholarship to life for the lay reader. This latest volume in the irresistible 'annotated' series from Harvard University Press presents the 1818 edition on oversize, creamy-white pages divided into two columns. While the story runs down the inside columns, helpful commentary runs alongside. Every geographical, biographical and literary allusion is explained; themes are highlighted; and obscure words are defined. A hundred color illustrations sprinkled throughout reproduce manuscript pages, works of art, medical etchings, portraits of Shelley and her friends, and scenes from movie treatments of this deathless tale.
Globe and Mail
First published in 1808, Frankenstein, Or, the Modern Prometheus, has fascinated, horrified, alarmed and even enchanted us ever since. In fact, as the editors of this usefully and delightfully annotated and illustrated edition make clear, almost as soon as the book was published, the word 'Frankenstein' (so often wrongfully ascribed to the monster and not his creator) became synonymous with anything new, especially disturbing developments in science and technology. This edition will improve greatly one's understanding of the book's provenance and its era.
Christian Science Monitor - Molly Driscoll
Mary Shelley's classic tale of the doctor who awakened a monster gets an expanded treatment in the edition edited by Wolfson and Levao. This new treatment includes notes on Shelley's life and highlights literary allusions within the book.
Globe and Mail - Joyce Carol Oates
First published in 1818, very possibly the most famous debut novel in English, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein: Or, The New Prometheus has never been out of print. Far fewer people have read this somewhat difficult and didactic novel than know, or think that they know, who "Frankenstein" was; long ago, the grotesque figure of Dr. Frankenstein's Monster became detached from its literary context, as from its creator. Highly recommended is The Annotated Frankenstein, edited by Susan J. Wolfson and Ronald Levao, who seem to know, between them, all that there is to know about Frankenstein, including his myriad cinematic metamorphoses over the decades.
Choice - J. T. Lynch
This is a serious work of interpretation. Wolfson and Levao offer the most extensively annotated edition of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein in print, a book that serves the educated but nonspecialist reader.
Times Literary Supplement - Michael Saler
The Annotated Frankenstein...should appeal to scholars familiar with the novel as well as those exploring it for the first time. The editors, Susan J. Wolfson and Ronald Levao, situate the novel in its philosophical, literary, biographical and historical contexts, and provide apt illustrations and useful appendices (including examinations of the revised edition of 1831 and a timeline which juxtaposes the novel's episodes with concurrent historical events). Its expansive, cream-coloured pages and generous margins render the volume a world unto itself, while emphasizing the worldly issues Shelley addressed in her uncanny tale.
Library Journal
Annotated editions of literary works are deservedly popular with readers of literature, whether or not those readers are enrolled students. This new edition of Shelley's nearly 200-year-old novel is replete with supplements—explanatory notes, scholarly introductions, and other special features—that enhance the text itself. Wolfson (English, Princeton Univ.) and Levao (English, Rutgers Univ.) provide useful information on the author's milieu, including details about her parents, friends, and husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley, focusing on the latter's contributions to the novel's birth and development. The edition uses the original 1818 text, and the updated scholarship, time line, and color illustrations make it preferable to The Essential Frankenstein, edited by Leonard Wolf, which is now out of print. VERDICT The large format of Harvard's annotated editions of novels from the canon, with notes alongside the text rather than in the back, together with the copious illustrations, result in handsome volumes that make up in research value what they lose in portability. Recommended for public and academic libraries, as well as any reader who has never read the novel or wants to reread it, this time with the enriched extras of an annotated edition.—Morris Hounion, NYC Technical Coll. Lib., CUNY, Brooklyn

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From the Introduction

“Frankenstein” has multiplied in allusive force to label any disturbing development in science and technology, as well as in history and politics, sports and fashion, and just about everything else—with various and sometimes overlapping senses of amusement, alarm, awe, and admonition. Hardly a month passes without some new iteration. “For all we know, we have created a Frankenstein,” murmured one reporter on the horror of Hiroshima, August 1945. A half century on, this power of massive de-creation would be complemented by disturbing new creations. The child in William Blake’s Songs of Innocence who asked back in 1789, “Little Lamb who made thee?” might be stunned by “the creation of Dolly, the lamb formed by cellular biologists in Scotland and fused into life by electric shock, as was the Monster in ...Frankenstein,” to quote William Safire, for whom this event provoked “head-breaking thoughts about good and evil, God and humanity.” If in retrospect this Lab-Lamb seems the inception of now normative science of animal husbandry, the initial template was Frankenstein. “The Frankenstein Myth Becomes a Reality: We have the Awful Knowledge to Make Exact copies of Human Beings” was the tabloid-title of an article in New York Times Magazine in 1972. Anxiety about genetics replacing Genesis was hard to shake off. When President George W. Bush was about to veto federal funding for stem-cell research on the grounds of the blasphemy of playing God, Safire relented a bit but continued to warn “of the real dangers of the slippery slope to Frankenscience.” In 2005 Dr. Stephen Levick turned the tables but kept the myth. In a letter to the New York Times Magazine he asked, “Which is the real monster? chimeric stem-cell science or the political [his italics] use made of it by opponents to all embryonic-stem-cell research? .º.º. to see the researchers as monster-creating Dr. Frankensteins” is to “risk inflaming the public to unthinkingly torch the whole hopeful enterprise.”

No less remarkable than the expansive vitality of the Frankenstein myth is its genesis in the imagination of the brilliant young woman who distilled into her novel her personal traumas, her reading, her attention to current European history (intellectual and political), and her excitement by the poets and the philosophical debates of her day. Her world included the writings of her parents; the death of her mother from complications in her birth; her father’s alternating affection and distance; her infatuation with passionate idealist Shelley; her pregnancies and the deaths of three of her children; her exhilaration and anxiety amidst a company of somewhat older, brilliantly talented men; their extreme commitments to their passions and ideals and their willingness to subordinate family and domesticity to these excitements; and, above all, their speculative conversations about the principle of life, the reanimation of corpses in myth and recent electrical experiment, and the manufacture of a living creature. Mary’s adventurous reading coursed through the Bible, classical authors, Dante, Shakespeare, Milton, novels, ghost stories, as well as political tracts, and accounts of modern science and polar exploration.

All this was in the heady air of an evening’s entertainment during a spell of rainy weather in June 1816, at Byron’s villa on the Alpine shores of Lake Geneva, Switzerland. As Mary Shelley tells the story in the 1831 Introduction, the party—herself, Percy Shelley, Lord Byron, Byron’s personal physician John William Polidori, and Claire Clairmont—had been reading volumes of ghost stories, when Byron proposed they try their own skill. Claire came up dry, Shelley soon gave up; Byron dashed off a fragment of a vampire tale; Polidori jettisoned a tale about a fatal female peeping Tom, then, working on Byron’s idea, eventually “vamped up” (said one of their friends) his own fuller vampire story. Mary, eager to prove herself, jumped at the challenge. “I busied myself to think of a story”; but she was soon tripped up by writer’s block, a “mortifying negative” to the question asked of her each morning, Have you thought of a story? A way of saying “acutely embarrassed,” mortifying is a loaded term, forecasting the dynamic of animation that is the heart of the story to come.

Meet the Author

Susan J. Wolfson is Professor of English at Princeton University.

Ronald Levao is Associate Professor of English at Rutgers University.

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