Conceived and written 200 years ago by the 19-year-old Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley during a dreary summer sojourn to Lake Geneva, Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus is the story of a scientist who, seduced by the lure of forbidden knowledge, creates new life that in the end destroys him.
When the novel debuted, it created a stir for its lurid gothic style and unusual conceit. Early reviewers scolded the then-unknown author, complaining that the slim volume had "neither principle, object, nor moral" and fretting that "it cannot mend, and will not even amuse its readers, unless their taste have been deplorably vitiated."
Yet almost from the moment of its publication, Shelley's narrative has been pressed into service as a modern morality play—a warning against freewheeling scientific experimentation. That reading is pervasive to this day in policy conversations and popular culture alike, cropping up everywhere from bioengineering conferences to an endless string of modern cinematic reboots. There's just one problem with the common reading of Frankenstein as a cautionary tale: It flows from a profound misunderstanding of the original text, writes Reason's Ron Bailey.