Did Mary Shelley really write Frankenstein; The Modern Prometheus in response to a parlor game to pass the time during inclement weather at Lord Byron’s home? Her gothic romance novel was published to mixed reviews in 1818, a year in which the scientific theory of galvanism was a popular topic of discussion among the elite. It’s plausible that when faced with such a challenge, she did indeed dream about a scientist bringing the dead back to life through the use of electrical currents. If so, she took that topic and that dream and turned it into a most beautifully written tale of tragedy and humanity explored to the brink of insanity. Her story breathes and pulses with every anguish uttered by Frankenstein, by his monster, by Elizabeth. The torment of the characters is so rich and vivid that it brings the reader to the edge of their seat, turning pages faster and holding their breath until the very end.
In a letter to his sister, Captain Robert Walton recounts the story told him by scientist Victor Frankenstein whom he has rescued during an Arctic exploration. Young Frankenstein grew up in a happy household where he discovered and nurtured a love of philosophy and sciences. It isn’t until he goes off to university that he learns his studies have been old fashioned and is redirected to the modern study of chemistry, physiology and biology – the studies that lead him to create life from death.
His creation terrifies him, its horrific features come to life, with “dull yellow eyes” and no distinguishable words, but rather groans of agony or torture emerging from his “straight black lips”. Frankenstein frantically runs from the laboratory in disgust at “the demoniacal corpse to which I had so miserably given life”.
And his creation, locked in himself with no ability to connect, no words or comprehension, so decidedly rejected by his maker, runs away in despair. In starvation, he attempts contact with humans who react with screaming and terror at his enormity, his ugliness. Again he is violently rejected by the human world and seeks solace in the woods.
Frankenstein suffers a mental breakdown while his creation hides away in the unused pig sty of a poor village family and attempts to learn to speak their language, to understand what it is to be human, to copy their behaviors. Again he attempts to connect with humankind and approaches the family who he has surreptitiously been living with and again, he is repelled with hurtful violence and reactions of disgust and horror at the sight of him.
He himself turns to violence out of desperation to make his creator pay for his wretched life, to force him to take responsibility for bringing him to life, and he kills a small child.The tragic murder of his youngest brother brings Frankenstein home where he slowly reckons with the possibility that is his own creation that is responsible for this murderous act and the ensuing grief of his family.
He entreats his maker to own up to what he has done, to acknowledge the agony of his loneliness and create another so he isn’t cast to this life of despair alone. Frankenstein refuses and the being vows vengeance and destruction. In the wake of it he pursues his creation, determined to destroy him and we find him in the icy tundra where the story began, beyond exhaustion and committed to this path of destruction of them both – creator and creation.
If Shelley told this story that dark, wintry night in Geneva to her fellow poets they too would have been deflated of every possible emotion, left stunned and silent, murmuring under their breath, “oh my God” at its end. For this is to read Shelley’s Frankenstein, to be pulled into the depths of human despair, of guilt, of wretchedness, of torment, of yearning, of love and loneliness and forever “lost in the darkness”.