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‘Frankenstein’, Mary Shelley’s gothic novel, was written not only to satisfy her immediate desire to impress Percy Shelley and Lord Byron- but also to issue a warning to the Victorian world about the dangers of playing God. In the company of such Romantics (and self-supposed superiors), she was determined to prove herself. She drew on many influences to construct her novel, most notably early family life, such as the death of her mother- who died of puerperal fever just 10 days after Mary’s birth. Also a factor was the experiments of famous Italian scientist Luigi Galvani. About 40 years earlier he had animated a frog’s leg using a metallic arc (a charge of electricity through two metals).
These discoveries amazed the world and fascinated Mary. To a simple mind he was actually bringing something back from the dead, rather than merely inducing a contraction. Mary Shelley saw this all a different way; he was playing God. She resented the fact she lived in an age where people could do pretty much what they liked in the name of science. She wanted to show the world the perils of such frivolous activities. Another bizarre influence on Shelley’s writing of ‘The Modern Prometheus’ is a waking dream she had. In it she saw “the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together”. She started writing the next day.
The novel took just a year to write (1819-20), and although only 500 copies were published at first, these were widely circulated and critically acclaimed. She decided to publish the book anonymously initially, which reflects the sexist state of Victorian affairs. The novel is rich in description and scientific imagination, and rather ironically considering her closest friends and writing style, very anti-romantic. Mary believed that the Romantics of her time were arrogant and foolish, although this did not stop her marrying one: Percy Shelley.
Without him, Frankenstein would never have been written. He invited Mary to come with him to Lord Byron’s home near Lake Geneva in Switzerland during the notorious ‘summer of darkness’. Switzerland and Geneva are featured in the book, but the story starts at the end; aboard a ship headed for the Arctic Circle. The Captain of the boat, Robert Walton sends a series of letters home to his sister, depicting his journey to her. In his forth letter he describes the moment he first set eyes on Victor Frankenstein; “Good God! Margaret, if you had seen the man who thus capitulated for his safety, your surprise would have been boundless. His limbs were nearly frozen, and his body dreadfully emaciated by fatigue and suffering. I never saw a man in so wretched a condition. We attempted to carry him into the cabin; but as soon as he had quitted the fresh air, he fainted.”
This immediately entices the audience, filling their minds with questions; who is this man? How did he get here? Why is he here? All of these questions are gradually answered as the stranger is invited to tell all. After a fortnight of silence, in which he recovers from his travels, he begins to explain his terrible ordeal to the Captain, who takes everything down in writing. At the beginning of the novel, the monster is presented as just that, an absolute beast. Un-wittingly the audience were introduced to him already, when he is seen from the boat; “A being which had the shape of a man, but apparently of gigantic stature”.
Victor Frankenstein describes him: “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.” This dramatic use of language fully expresses the repulsion Victor feels. It is also meant to make you feel repelled, almost disgusted. His lips are not humanly red, but deathly black. As well as this his shriveled complexion leaves the image of an old, evil being. Yellow skin reminds you of the sick and dieing, and its presence as a description is no coincidence.
You are also made to feel disappointed- this is what Victor Frankenstein had been working for; 2 years hard graft in which he was so “engrossed in his occupation” he barely stepped outside and began to develop severe paranoia. But now that he had finished, “the beauty of the dream vanished, and breathless horror and disgust filled my heart.” This quote shows that Victor is so petrified by what he has created he is breathless with horror. Adjectives like this really shift the empathize onto the verb.
Any person reading this would agree that the monster seems horrid, and when he appears to attack his creator, the “demonic” creature is seen to be pure evil. Victor’s comparisons are less than complementary- “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”.
Dante was an Italian poet who was famous for his vivid illustrations of hell. For a devout society, something worse than hell would have bee unbelievable in its horrendousness. Another striking thing about this passage is how it is implied (“he was ugly then; but when those muscles and joints were rendered capable of motion”) that Frankenstein preferred the monster before he was animate. He wished he were dead the moment he saw him alive.