“When I placed my head upon the pillow, I did not sleep…. My imagination, unbidden, possessed and guided me…. 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. … On the morrow I announced that I had thought of a story….”
In her poem The Choice Mary Shelley talks of the “strange Star” that had been “ascendant at [her] birth”, in a reference to the comet that had then been seen in the skies. Whatever “influence on earth” that particular celestial phenomenon might have exercised, I doubt any novel was ever conceived under a stranger star than her own “hideous progeny”, Frankenstein. And how familiar the tale of this tale now is.
We are on the banks of Lake Geneva, in the summer of 1816. Wild storms have been raging about the Villa Diodati (shown below), and after a night telling ghost stories with Lord Byron, his doctor, and Percy Bysshe Shelley, the young poet who was soon to become her husband, the 18-year-old Mary Godwin has been disturbed by a chilling vision of a scientist destroyed by his own presumptuous ambition. It is a vision which will evolve eventually into Frankenstein, one of the most enduring novels of the 19th century, and the source of a terrifying modern myth. Mary’s account of its inception is so convincing that modern-day researchers have even attempted to date the precise hour of her vision by the appearance of the moon (between two and three in the morning of 16th June, according to one astronomer).
Frankenstein certainly generated one new species, a whole new genre of literature which we now call ‘science’ fiction, but the text itself is not much possessed by science. There is no attempt – not even much interest – in imagining how Frankenstein actually makes his monster. The novel concentrates instead on the moral and metaphysical consequences of such an act, and most particularly the responsibilities of the creator to the created, and the ties that bind them together which are “only dissoluble by the annihilation of one of [them]”. Indeed the plot is driven by Frankenstein’s attempt to escape, repudiate or destroy those ties, and the power and terror of the novel lies in the fact that the more he struggles to do so, the more inexorably he and his creature begin change places: the hideous monster becoming through the acquisition of language a “sensitive and rational animal”, while the honourable and gifted scientist degenerates into a “self-devoted” monster of egotism who either cannot or will not take responsibility for the murderous consequences of his own hubris. The irony here is incisive: Frankenstein rejects his creation as a “monstrous image… endued with the mockery of a soul”, but we perceive only too clearly that, like Adam fashioned in the image of God, this creature is indeed a “filthy type” of its creator, but one where the resemblance lies, in Spenser’s words, “not in outward shows, but inward thoughts“.
Creature and creator alike become at the last outcasts, wandering the frozen northern wastes, and the monster that once pursued Frankenstein becomes in its turn the pursued. It is impossible, for me at least, to ignore the parallels here with Percy Bysshe Shelley – Percy Bysshe Shelley who described himself as “an exile & a Pariah” and “an outcast from human society”; Percy Bysshe Shelley who was obsessed by the idea of pursuit from an early age, and whose poetry is pervaded by what his biographer Richard Holmes calls “ghostly following figures” and dark demonic antitypes of the self.
Frankenstein is not without its (many) defects, and it may be worth pointing out that Percy Bysshe Shelley’s own youthful attempts at fiction are without exception deplorable. In Frankenstein, the insert narrative of Felix and the ‘Arabian’ is over-long, slows the pace, and adds very little; much of the language is ponderous; and the characters of Elizabeth and Frankenstein’s father little more than ciphers. The monster’s ability to acquire language to such a pitch of eloquence strains belief, and the construction of the plot relies far too heavily on improbable coincidence (as the writer Scott Pack’s publisher’s letter to Mary Shelley wittily observes).
It is flawed, yes, but it is also forceful and unforgettable. Because there are images and ideas here that will stay with you forever. The frozen plains of ice where Frankenstein hunts down his monster and sees “the print of his huge step on the white plain”; the creature’s awakening on that dreary November night when it first opens its “dull yellow eye”; the monster’s painful coming to consciousness and self-consciousness, and the tale it tells of how its natural “ardour for virtue” and desire for love is corrupted by the treatment it receives, and its brutal rejection by the one man who ought to have “render[ed] him happy”. And last, and above all, the way the book captures and articulates for the very first time what has since become perhaps the ultimate terror of the modern age: the power over life itself.
As a book Frankenstein may falter, but as a myth it is magnificent.
This post was originally written for the Writers’ Choice series run by the late Norman Geras. It also appears on the Wordsworth Grasmere blog