Shelley used to sit up at nights talking ghosts with his wild young sister-in-law till they scared themselves into hysterics, and rushed into Mrs. Shelley's room for protection from the horrors they had created. When the household moved abroad, and Shelley and Byron became close friends, there were then two poets to help each other into nervous excitement. Rainy weather set in, and confined everyone to the house, where they set to work to read to each other some volumes of ghost stories translated from German into French. The outcome of this was that Byron, Shelley, his wife, and Polidori all undertook to write a ghost story. The two poets soon forsook theirs, but Polidori got so far as to invent a lady with a skull instead of a head; then he did not know what to do with her, so he shut her up in a tomb and left her.
The Result of a Dream Only Mrs. Shelley racked her brains for a theme. At first she could think of nothing, but one night, when Shelley and Byron had been talking about the principle of life, with that mixture of science and imagination in which they both excelled, Mrs. Shelley went late to bed, and forthwith had such a fearful nightmare that when she woke she had no further to look for her ghost story.
The result was "Frankenstein," the only one of her books which has any life left in it. It teems with impossibilities, partly because she did not make sufficiently clear the supernatural quality of the principal figure, and consequently his supernatural powers appear like utter impossibility. The style is stilted, unnatural, and affected, according to our ideas, but the central idea of the book is thoroughly gruesome and horrible.
Creating: a Body
A young student of science discovers the exact nature of life; he even obtains the power of giving life. He can animate lifeless matter, but he cannot animate a body which has once lived. Consequently, he must make the body himself. After years of hard work, he succeeds in making a creature after the human pattern, but of great size. Then, on a wild night of November, he imparts the spark of life to the clay. The thing opens its eyes and looks at him.
Seized with horror at the ugliness of the creature he has made, at the life he has given, he rushes away and flings himself on his bed. In the middle of the night he looks up. The monster is standing by him, holding aside the curtain, looking at him with watery, yellow eyes.
There are many stories in classic mythology, and in later times also, of men who have given life. Pygmalion fashioned Galatea, and then the statue came to life. But it was a lovely and gracious being. What a difference between the beautiful work of the artist's brain and hands and Frankenstein's monster! It is eight feet high, of such a dreadful aspect that people faint at the very sight of it. It has life, which Frankenstein has given; he is responsible for it as no father is responsible for his child. But he is filled with repugnance for the thing he has done. He is a weak and cowardly character; he dare not face the consequences of his own act. All through the book he is fleeing and cowering, hesitating, yielding; being firm, but all in the wrong place. Meanwhile, the monster, which Frankenstein (who is supposed to tell the tale himself) rather unkindly dubs "the demon" and "the fiend," has wandered away in a dazed manner, and is not heard of for two years. We hear its story afterwards.
At first it is filled with the kindliest feelings; it yearns for love and sympathy; it loves humankind. But whenever it appears, people shriek and fly, or try to kill it. It lives in hiding, and gradually all its good turns to evil; it vows vengeance on Frankenstein, who has created it, a being alone, without friend or mate, with every man's hand against it. The unfortunate man who has made it next hears that it has murdered his little brother. No one save himself knows who the assassin is, but he sets out to track the horrible being.
A Pathetic Monster
When they meet, he consents to hear the monster's tale, for he is not yet absolutely sure that the murder was done by it. The story told is really very pathetic. If one can imagine a child eight feet high, ugly and deformed beyond all imagination, wanting as much sunshine and happiness as any ordinary child, and being treated as a loathsome, fearful, dangerous monster, till all its thoughts turn to bitterness, one can conceive the utterly hopeless case of this being. But Frankenstein has no pity; he is consumed with remorse for what he has done, but he has absolutely no pity for the creature he has made. He should have tended it from the first, or killed it; but he is too selfish, too weak, and even at the end of the book says he cannot blame himself. Mrs. Shelley, by the way, seems to have thought Frankenstein rather a fine and lovable fellow. As a matter of fact, he was almost as inhuman as his own monster in his treatment of it.
From the painting by Richard Rothwell
The Final Tragedy
It asks him to make another of its own kind as a mate. After long hesitation, Frankenstein agrees; but when he has started on the work, and reflects that by doing so he may be about to populate the world with these dreadful beings, he decides to break his agreement.
Then, instead of hunting the creature down and killing it, or setting humanity on its track to exterminate it, he wanders about being miserable, while the enraged monster murders one after another of Frankenstein's friends. His wife, on their wedding night, his great friend - all he holds dear are sacrificed; but Frankenstein alone holds the secret of the perpetrator. But he will not speak, because he is afraid of being thought mad! When he does tell his story, it is to the most useless person he can find, who, of course, does not believe him, naturally supposing that he would have mentioned it before the whole of his family had been exterminated if it had been true. The idea of killing the monster does occur to him at last, and he sets off on its tracks. It lures him northward, ever northward, to the regions of Arctic snow, but he does not kill it. He dies himself, and then we are given a glimpse of the better nature in the monster. It ends its own life. The great flaw in the book is the character of Frankenstein, which is of inconceivable stupidity. Mrs. Shelley calls him "the select specimen of all that is worthy of love and admiration among men." He strikes the modern reader as a select specimen of a very dangerous kind of fool. But this weakness does not alter the horror of the story, nor the powerful argument it contains against meddling with those mysteries which convince us of the existence of a Being infinitely greater than man.