FRANKENSTEIN; OR, THE MODERN PROMETHEUS (1818)
MARY SHELLEY (17971851)
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is part of the tradition of the radical ‘philosophical romance’ developed by the circle around her father William Godwin. As an active member of that circle, she was intrigued by the new sciences emerging at the turn of the century electricity, magnetism, galvanism and the image of the ‘mad scientist’, as in Godwin’s novel about alchemy, St. Leon, and in Rosicrucian novels about the search for hidden knowledge. Frankenstein is the finest tale to have emerged from the sharing of ghost stories at the Villa Diodati in 1816 (see Tales of the Dead and
The Vampyre), and many critics consider it to have laid the cornerstone for the new genre of science fiction. The metaphysical theme of the novel, as indicated by its subtitle, focuses upon the Romantic image of the over-reacher, as in Prometheus Unbound, which her husband Percy Bysshe Shelley was working on at the same time, and whose themes they debated together. Despite all these factors that place Mary Shelley firmly within the tradition of ‘the male Gothic’, most critics have placed it at the heart of ‘the female Gothic’. This is due primarily to the interpretation of the novel as a birth myth, and the presence of dreams and images suggesting that Mary Shelley may have felt herself to be ‘monstrous’ for having caused the death in childbirth of her mother Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin. The nineteenth-century view of Mary Shelley as an appendage to her more famous father and husband has been superseded by the feminist–psychoanalytical view of Mary Shelley as mother and daughter, both views being reductive in their different ways.
(Copyright 2000, 2013 Rictor Norton)
It was on a dreary night of November that I beheld the accomplishment of my toils [writes Victor Frankenstein]. With an anxiety that almost amounted to agony, I collected the instruments of life around me, that I might infuse a spark of being into the lifeless thing that lay at my feet. It was already one in the morning; the rain pattered dismally against the panes, and my candle was nearly burnt out, when, by the glimmer of the half extinguished light, I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open; it breathed hard, and a convulsive motion agitated its limbs.
How can I describe my emotions at this catastrophe, or how delineate the wretch whom with such infinite pains and care I had endeavoured to form? His limbs were in proportion, and I had selected his features as beautiful. Beautiful! Great God! His yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath; his hair was of a lustrous black, and flowing; his teeth of a pearly whiteness; but these luxuriances only formed a more horrid contrast with his watery eyes, that seemed almost of the same colour as the dun white sockets in which they were set, his shrivelled complexion and straight black lips.
The different accidents of life are not so changeable as the feelings of human nature. 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 bed chamber, 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 downstairs. I took refuge in the court-yard 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.
Oh! no mortal could support the horror of that countenance. A mummy again endued with animation could not be so hideous as that wretch. I had gazed on him while unfinished; he was ugly then, but when those muscles and joints were rendered capable of motion, it became a thing such as even Dante could not have conceived.
I passed the night wretchedly. Sometimes my pulse beat so quickly and hardly, that I felt the palpitation of every artery; at others, I nearly sank to the ground through languor and extreme weakness. Mingled with this horror, I felt the bitterness of disappointment: dreams that had been my food and pleasant rest for so long a space, were now become a hell to me; and the change was so rapid, the overthrow so complete!
Morning, dismal and wet, at length dawned and discovered to my sleepless and aching eyes the church of Ingolstadt, its white steeple and clock, which indicated the sixth hour. The porter opened the gates of the court, which had that night been my asylum, and I issued into the streets, pacing them with quick steps, as if I sought to avoid the wretch whom I feared every turning of the street would present to my view. I did not dare return to the apartment which I inhabited, but felt impelled to hurry on, although drenched by the rain which poured from a black and comfortless sky.
I continued walking in this manner for some time, endeavouring, by bodily exercise, to ease the load that weighed upon my mind. I traversed the streets, without any clear conception of where I was, or what I was doing. My heart palpitated in the sickness of fear; and I hurried on with irregular steps, not daring to look about me:
Like one who, on a lonely road,
Doth walk in fear and dread,
And, having once turn’d round, walks on,
And turns no more his head;
Because he knows a frightful fiend
Doth close behind him tread.
(Coleridge’s ‘Ancient Mariner.’)
Continuing thus, I came at length opposite to the inn at which the various diligences and carriages usually stopped. Here I paused, I knew not why; but I remained some minutes with my eyes fixed on a coach that was coming towards me from the other end of the street. As it drew nearer I observed that it was the Swiss diligence: it stopped just where I was standing; and on the door being opened, I perceived Henry Clerval, who, on seeing me, instantly sprung out. ‘My dear Frankenstein,’ exclaimed he, ‘how glad I am to see you! How fortunate that you should be here at the very moment of my alighting!’
Nothing could equal my delight on seeing Clerval; his presence brought back to my thoughts my father, Elizabeth, and all those scenes of home so dear to my recollection. I grasped his hand, and in a moment forgot my horror and misfortune; I felt suddenly, and for the first time during many months, calm and serene joy. I welcomed my friend, therefore, in the most cordial manner, and we walked towards my college. Clerval continued talking for some time about our mutual friends, and his own good fortune in being permitted to come to Ingolstadt. ‘You may easily believe,’ said he, ‘how great was the difficulty to persuade my father that all necessary knowledge was not comprised in the noble art of bookkeeping; and, indeed, I believe I left him incredulous to the last, for his constant answer to my unwearied entreaties was the same as that of the Dutch schoolmaster in The Vicar of Wakefield: “I have ten thousand florins a year without Greek, I eat heartily without Greek.” But his affection for me at length overcame his dislike of learning, and he has permitted me to undertake a voyage of discovery to the land of knowledge.’
‘It gives me the greatest delight to see you; but tell me how you left my father, brothers, and Elizabeth.’
‘Very well, and very happy, only a little uneasy that they hear from you so seldom. By the bye, I mean to lecture you a little upon their account myself. But, my dear Frankenstein,’ continued he, stopping short, and gazing full in my face, ‘I did not before remark how very ill you appear; so thin and pale; you look as if you had been watching for several nights.’
‘You have guessed right; I have lately been so deeply engaged in one occupation, that I have not allowed myself sufficient rest, as you see: but I hope, I sincerely hope, that all these employments are now at an end, and that I am at length free.’
I trembled excessively; I could not endure to think of, and far less to allude to the occurrences of the preceding night. I walked with a quick pace, and we soon arrived at my college. I then reflected, and the thought made me shiver, that the creature whom I had left in my apartment might still be there, alive, and walking about. I dreaded to behold this monster: but I feared still more that Henry should see him. Entreating him therefore to remain a few minutes at the bottom of the stairs, I darted up towards my own room. My hand was already on the lock of the door before I recollected myself. I then paused; and a cold shivering came over me. I threw the door forcibly open, as children are accustomed to do when they expect a spectre to stand in waiting for them on the other side; but nothing appeared. I stepped fearfully in: the apartment was empty; and my bedroom was also freed from its hideous guest. I could hardly believe that so great a good-fortune could have befallen me; but when I became assured that my enemy had indeed fled, I clapped my hands for joy and ran down to Clerval.
We ascended into my room, and the servant presently brought breakfast; but I was unable to contain myself. It was not joy only that possessed me; I felt my flesh tingle with excess of sensitiveness, and my pulse beat rapidly. I was unable to remain for a single instant in the same place; I jumped over the chairs, clapped my hands, and laughed aloud. Clerval at first attributed my unusual spirits to joy on his arrival; but when he observed me more attentively, he saw a wildness in my eyes for which he could not account; and my loud, unrestrained, heartless laughter frightened and astonished him.
‘My dear Victor,’ cried he, ‘what, for God’s sake, is the matter? Do not laugh in that manner. How ill you are! What is the cause of all this?’
‘Do not ask me,’ cried I, putting my hands before my eyes, for I thought I saw the dreaded spectre glide into the room; ‘he can tell. Oh, save me! save me!’ I imagined that the monster seized me; I struggled furiously and fell down in a fit.
Poor Clerval! what must have been his feelings? A meeting, which he anticipated with such joy, so strangely turned to bitterness. But I was not the witness of his grief; for I was lifeless and did not recover my senses for a long, long time.
[SOURCE: Mary Shelley, Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, 3 vols (London: Lackington, Hughes, Harding, Mavor, & Jones, 1818), vol. 1, pp. 97109]
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