Frankenstein is the first novel of Mary Shelley's and was first published in 1818. It's one of those books that practically everyone has read, making writing a review of it a somewhat daunting task! Nevertheless I'll give it a go.
The idea for the novel was conceived when Mary Shelley (or Godwin was she was then) was on holiday in Switzerland with her future husband Percy Bysshe Shelley, Lord Byron, John William Polidori, and Claire Clairmont. She described that summer of 1816 in the preface to the 1831 edition of Frankenstein as "a wet, ungenial summer, and incessant rain often confined us for days to the house". She goes on to describe how they came to read German and French ghost stories, and how later Lord Byron said, "We will each write a ghost story". She adds,
I busied myself to think of a story - a story to rival those which had excited us to this task. One which would speak to the mysterious fears of our nature and awaken thrilling horror - one to make the reader dread to look round, to curdle the blood and quicken the beatings of the heart. If I did not accomplish these things, my ghost story would be unworthy of its name. I thought and pondered - vainly. I felt that blank incapability of invention which is the greatest misery of authorship, when dull Nothing replies to our anxious invocations.
Later, however, an idea came to her -
Night waned upon this talk, and even the witching hour had gone by, before we retired to rest. When I placed my head on my pillow, I did not sleep, nor could I be said to think. My imagination, unbidden, possessed and guided me, gifting the successive images that arose in my mind with a vividness far beyond the usual bounds of reverie. I saw—with shut eyes, but acute mental vision,—I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half vital motion. Frightful must it be; for supremely frightful would be the effect of any human endeavour to mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world. His success would terrify the artist; he would rush away from his odious handiwork, horror-stricken. He would hope that, left to itself, the slight spark of life which he had communicated would fade; that this thing, which had received such imperfect animation, would subside into dead matter; and he might sleep in the belief that the silence of the grave would quench for ever the transient existence of the hideous corpse which he had looked upon as the cradle of life. He sleeps; but he is awakened; he opens his eyes; behold the horrid thing stands at his bedside, opening his curtains, and looking on him with yellow, watery, but speculative eyes.
I opened mine in terror. The idea so possessed my mind, that a thrill of fear ran through me, and I wished to exchange the ghastly image of my fancy for the realities around. I see them still; the very room, the dark parquet, the closed shutters, with the moonlight struggling through, and the sense I had that the glassy lake and white high Alps were beyond. I could not so easily get rid of my hideous phantom; still it haunted me. I must try to think of something else. I recurred to my ghost story,—my tiresome unlucky ghost story! O! if I could only contrive one which would frighten my reader as I myself had been frightened that night!
Swift as light and as cheering was the idea that broke in upon me. "I have found it! What terrified me will terrify others; and I need only describe the spectre which had haunted my midnight pillow." On the morrow I announced that I had thought of a story. I began that day with the words, "It was on a dreary night of November," making only a transcript of the grim terrors of my waking dream.
|Illustration from the 1831 edition.|
I had worked hard for nearly two years, for the sole purpose of infusing life into an inanimate body. For this I had deprived myself of rest and health. I had desired it with an ardour that far exceeded moderation; but now that I had finished, the beauty of the dream vanished, and breathless horror and disgust filled my heart. Unable to endure the aspect of the being I had created, I rushed out of the room, and continued a long time traversing my bedchamber, unable to compose my mind to sleep. At length lassitude succeeded to the tumult I had before endured; and I threw myself on the bed in my clothes, endeavouring to seek a few moments of forgetfulness. But it was in vain: I slept, indeed, but I was disturbed by the wildest dreams. I thought I saw Elizabeth, in the bloom of health, walking in the streets of Ingolstadt. Delighted and surprised, I embraced her; but as I imprinted the first kiss on her lips, they became livid with the hue of death; her features appeared to change, and I thought that I held the corpse of my dead mother in my arms; a shroud enveloped her form, and I saw the grave-worms crawling in the folds of the flannel. I started from my sleep with horror; a cold dew covered my forehead, my teeth chattered, and every limb became convulsed: when, by the dim and yellow light of the moon, as it forced its way through the window shutters, I beheld the wretch—the miserable monster whom I had created. He held up the curtain of the bed; and his eyes, if eyes they may be called, were fixed on me. His jaws opened, and he muttered some inarticulate sounds, while a grin wrinkled his cheeks. He might have spoken, but I did not hear; one hand was stretched out, seemingly to detain me, but I escaped, and rushed down stairs. I took refuge in the courtyard belonging to the house which I inhabited; where I remained during the rest of the night, walking up and down in the greatest agitation, listening attentively, catching and fearing each sound as if it were to announce the approach of the demoniacal corpse to which I had so miserably given life.
The monster disappears and Frankenstein returns home to Geneva learning his young brother has been brutally murdered. When he again encounters the monster, the monster asks him to create him a companion, someone he may love and will love and understand him in return. At first he agrees, but then destroys the creature he made and so Frankenstein's monster vows revenge.
|Prometheus by Gustave Moreau (1868).|
The subtitle of Frankenstein is very revealing - "Frankenstein, or 'the modern Prometheus'. Victor Frankenstein is the Prometheus figure: Ovid tells of how Prometheus created man:
So Man came into the world. Maybe the great artificer
made him seed of divine in a plan for a better universe.
Maybe the earth that was freshly formed and newly divorced
from the heaven ether retained some seeds of its kindred element -
earth, which Prométheus, the son of Iápetus, sprinkled with raindrops
and moulded into the likeness of gods who govern the universe.
Where other animals walk on all fours and look to the ground,
man was given a towering head and commanded to stand
erect, with his face uplifted to gaze on the stars of heaven.
Thus clay, so lately no more than a crude and foolish substance,
was metamorphosed to assume the strange new figure of Man.
[Book I of Ovid's Metamorphoses]
When Prometheus stole fire from Zeus and gave it to mankind he was punished - Aeschylus tells (in Prometheus Bound) of how he was chained to a rock, and that an eagle ate his liver each day (Percy Bysshe Shelley would, a few years later in 1820, write Prometheus Unbound). As the Greek Prometheus stole lightening, Frankenstein uses electricity to galvanise his monster and so creates a 'new' man, and his horror and guilt torture him from that moment; he suffers, and he is punished. His experiment has gone badly wrong - a warning to scientists that a thirst for knowledge is not necessarily a good thing.
It is, above all, a fantastic and frightening Gothic science fiction, much loved by those who have read it. It also very complex; it's one of those books I read, enjoyed, and felt I understood, but the more I read other people's takes on it the less confident I am! This era and the Romantics is yet another one of my reading blind-spots, but I do always think Frankenstein is an excellent place to start.