Frankenstein; Or, The Modern Prometheus

Frankenstein; Or, The Modern Prometheus
Title: Frankenstein; Or, The Modern Prometheus
Release Date: 2013-03-13
Type book: Text
Copyright Status: Public domain in the USA.
Date added: 26 March 2019
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[Transcriber's Note: This text was produced from a photo-reprint of the1831 edition.]




The Publishers of the Standard Novels, in selecting "Frankenstein" forone of their series, expressed a wish that I should furnish them withsome account of the origin of the story. I am the more willing tocomply, because I shall thus give a general answer to the question, sovery frequently asked me—"How I, when a young girl, came to think of,and to dilate upon, so very hideous an idea?" It is true that I am veryaverse to bringing myself forward in print; but as my account will onlyappear as an appendage to a former production, and as it will beconfined to such topics as have connection with my authorship alone, Ican scarcely accuse myself of a personal intrusion.

It is not singular that, as the daughter of two persons of distinguishedliterary celebrity, I should very early in life have thought of writing.As a child I scribbled; and my favourite pastime, during the hours givenme for recreation, was to "write stories." Still I had a dearer pleasurethan this, which was the formation of castles in the air—the indulgingin waking dreams—the following up trains of thought, which had fortheir subject the formation of a succession of imaginary incidents. Mydreams were at once more fantastic and agreeable than my writings. Inthe latter I was a close imitator—rather doing as others had done,than putting down the suggestions of my own mind. What I wrote wasintended at least for one other eye—my childhood's companion andfriend; but my dreams were all my own; I accounted for them to nobody;they were my refuge when annoyed—my dearest pleasure when free.

I lived principally in the country as a girl, and passed a considerabletime in Scotland. I made occasional visits to the more picturesqueparts; but my habitual residence was on the blank and dreary northernshores of the Tay, near Dundee. Blank and dreary on retrospection I callthem; they were not so to me then. They were the eyry of freedom, andthe pleasant region where unheeded I could commune with the creatures ofmy fancy. I wrote then—but in a most common-place style. It was beneaththe trees of the grounds belonging to our house, or on the bleak sidesof the woodless mountains near, that my true compositions, the airyflights of my imagination, were born and fostered. I did not make myselfthe heroine of my tales. Life appeared to me too common-place an affairas regarded myself. I could not figure to myself that romantic woes orwonderful events would ever be my lot; but I was not confined to my ownidentity, and I could people the hours with creations far moreinteresting to me at that age, than my own sensations.

After this my life became busier, and reality stood in place of fiction.My husband, however, was from the first, very anxious that I shouldprove myself worthy of my parentage, and enrol myself on the page offame. He was for ever inciting me to obtain literary reputation, whicheven on my own part I cared for then, though since I have becomeinfinitely indifferent to it. At this time he desired that I shouldwrite, not so much with the idea that I could produce any thing worthyof notice, but that he might himself judge how far I possessed thepromise of better things hereafter. Still I did nothing. Travelling, andthe cares of a family, occupied my time; and study, in the way ofreading, or improving my ideas in communication with his far morecultivated mind, was all of literary employment that engaged myattention.

In the summer of 1816, we visited Switzerland, and became the neighboursof Lord Byron. At first we spent our pleasant hours on the lake, orwandering on its shores; and Lord Byron, who was writing the third cantoof Childe Harold, was the only one among us who put his thoughts uponpaper. These, as he brought them successively to us, clothed in all thelight and harmony of poetry, seemed to stamp as divine the glories ofheaven and earth, whose influences we partook with him.

But it proved a wet, ungenial summer, and incessant rain often confinedus for days to the house. Some volumes of ghost stories, translated fromthe German into French, fell into our hands. There was the History ofthe Inconstant Lover, who, when he thought to clasp the bride to whom hehad pledged his vows, found himself in the arms of the pale ghost of herwhom he had deserted. There was the tale of the sinful founder of hisrace, whose miserable doom it was to bestow the kiss of death on all theyounger sons of his fated house, just when they reached the age ofpromise. His gigantic, shadowy form, clothed like the ghost in Hamlet,in complete armour, but with the beaver up, was seen at midnight, bythe moon's fitful beams, to advance slowly along the gloomy avenue. Theshape was lost beneath the shadow of the castle walls; but soon a gateswung back, a step was heard, the door of the chamber opened, and headvanced to the couch of the blooming youths, cradled in healthy sleep.Eternal sorrow sat upon his face as he bent down and kissed the foreheadof the boys, who from that hour withered like flowers snapt upon thestalk. I have not seen these stories since then; but their incidents areas fresh in my mind as if I had read them yesterday.

"We will each write a ghost story," said Lord Byron; and his propositionwas acceded to. There were four of us. The noble author began a tale, afragment of which he printed at the end of his poem of Mazeppa. Shelley,more apt to embody ideas and sentiments in the radiance of brilliantimagery, and in the music of the most melodious verse that adorns ourlanguage, than to invent the machinery of a story, commenced one foundedon the experiences of his early life. Poor Polidori had some terribleidea about a skull-headed lady, who was so punished for peeping througha key-hole—what to see I forget—something very shocking and wrong ofcourse; but when she was reduced to a worse condition than the renownedTom of Coventry, he did not know what to do with her, and was obliged todespatch her to the tomb of the Capulets, the only place for which shewas fitted. The illustrious poets also, annoyed by the platitude ofprose, speedily relinquished their uncongenial task.

I busied myself to think of a story,—a story to rival those which hadexcited us to this task. One which would speak to the mysterious fearsof our nature, and awaken thrilling horror—one to make the reader dreadto look round, to curdle the blood, and quicken the beatings of theheart. If I did not accomplish these things, my ghost story would beunworthy of its name. I thought and pondered—vainly. I felt that blankincapability of invention which is the greatest misery of authorship,when dull Nothing replies to our anxious invocations. Have you thoughtof a story? I was asked each morning, and each morning I was forced toreply with a mortifying negative.

Every thing must have a beginning, to speak in Sanchean phrase; and thatbeginning must be linked to something that went before. The Hindoos givethe world an elephant to support it, but they make the elephant standupon a tortoise. Invention, it must be humbly admitted, does not consistin creating out of void, but out of chaos; the materials must, in thefirst place, be afforded: it can give form to dark, shapelesssubstances, but cannot bring into being the substance itself. In allmatters of discovery and invention, even of those that appertain to theimagination, we are continually reminded of the story of Columbus andhis egg. Invention consists in the capacity of seizing on thecapabilities of a subject, and in the power of moulding and fashioningideas suggested to it.

Many and long were the conversations between Lord Byron and Shelley, towhich I was a devout but nearly silent listener. During one of these,various philosophical doctrines were discussed, and among others thenature of the principle of life, and whether there was any probabilityof its ever being discovered and communicated. They talked of theexperiments of Dr. Darwin, (I speak not of what the Doctor really did,or said that he did, but, as more to my purpose, of what was then spokenof as having been done by him,) who preserved a piece of vermicelli in aglass case, till by some extraordinary means it began to move withvoluntary motion. Not thus, after all, would life be given. Perhaps acorpse would be re-animated; galvanism had given token of such things:perhaps the component parts of a creature might be manufactured, broughttogether, and endued with vital warmth.

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 notsleep, nor could I be said to think. My imagination, unbidden, possessedand guided me, gifting the successive images that arose in my mind witha vividness far beyond the usual bounds of reverie. I saw—with shuteyes, but acute mental vision,—I saw the pale student of unhallowedarts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideousphantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of somepowerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half vitalmotion. Frightful must it be; for supremely frightful would be theeffect of any human endeavour to mock the stupendous mechanism of theCreator of the world. His success would terrify the artist; he wouldrush away from his odious handywork, horror-stricken. He would hopethat, left to itself, the slight spark of life which he had communicatedwould fade; that this thing, which had received such imperfectanimation, would subside into dead matter; and he might sleep in thebelief that the silence of the grave would quench for ever the transientexistence of the hideous corpse which he had looked upon as the cradleof life. He sleeps; but he is awakened; he opens his eyes; behold thehorrid thing stands at his bedside, opening his curtains, and looking onhim with yellow, watery, but speculative eyes.

I opened mine in terror. The idea so possessed my mind, that a thrill offear ran through me, and I wished to exchange the ghastly image of myfancy for the realities around. I see them still; the very room, thedark parquet, the closed shutters, with the moonlight strugglingthrough, and the sense I had that the glassy lake and white high Alpswere beyond. I could not so easily get rid of my hideous phantom; stillit haunted me. I must try to think of something else. I recurred to myghost story,—my tiresome unlucky ghost story! O! if I could onlycontrive one which would frighten my reader as I myself had beenfrightened that night!

Swift as light and as cheering was the idea that broke in upon me. "Ihave found it! What terrified me will terrify others; and I need onlydescribe the spectre which had haunted my midnight pillow." On themorrow I announced that I had thought of a story. I began that daywith the words, It was on a dreary night of November, making only atranscript of the grim terrors of my waking dream.

At first I thought but of a few pages—of a short tale; but Shelleyurged me to develope the idea at greater length. I certainly did not owethe suggestion of one incident, nor scarcely of one train of feeling, tomy husband, and yet but for his incitement, it would never have takenthe form in which it was presented to the world. From this declaration Imust except the preface. As far as I can recollect, it was entirelywritten by him.

And now, once again, I bid my hideous progeny go forth and prosper. Ihave an affection for it, for it was the offspring of happy days, whendeath and grief were but words, which found no true echo in my heart.Its several pages

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