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Mary Shelley received her inspiration for the epic horror story Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus while visiting with Lord Byron, the brother of her future husband, Percy Byron Shelley, at his Swiss villa in 1816. At the tender age of eighteen, she experienced an extraordinary nightmare following a “ghost story” session in which she had participated with Shelley, Byron, his mistress, and a local doctor. Byron, inspired by the stories shared in the group, suggested that all present should attempt to write a horror story. Mary Shelley had a nightmare that night that she recalled vividly enough to use as the basis for her novel. The following is part of her account of that nightmare.
My imagination, unbidden, possessed and guided me, gifting the successive images that arose in my mind with a vividness far beyond the usual bounds of reveries…. I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together—I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half-vital motion…. He would hope that, left to itself, the slight spark of life which he had communicated would fade; that this thing which had received such imperfect animation would subside into dead matter, and that he might sleep in the belief that the silence of the grave would quench forever the transient existence of the hideous corpse which he had looked upon as the cradle of life…. Swift as light and cheering was the idea that broke in upon me. “I have found it! What terrifies me will terrify others; and I need only describe the specter that had haunted my midnight pillow.” On the morrow, I announced that I had thought of the story.
Frankenstein was published in 1818. The novel is based, in part, on Luigi Galvani, a scientist who concluded through a series of experiments that electricity was the secret of life. He believed it was actually possible to reanimate a corpse by using an electrical stimulus.
In the story, Shelley tells a tale of scientific terror in which Victor Frankenstein creates a living being out of the parts of decomposing corpses. The Frankenstein monster in the original version of the story was an intelligent being who was not only able to speak but also reason. He possessed sophisticated reading capabilities and knowledge; the objectionable irrationality of his temperament was his one significant negative characteristic. Shelley describes the monster as being a living travesty of death, comprised of the pieces of the recently buried dead.
The monster’s struggle with Victor parallels, in some ways, the biblical struggle of the demons and God. When, in the end, the monster is triumphant he exhibits feelings of remorse, regret, and self-hatred. His acknowledgement of the emptiness of retribution shows a sense of human compassion that is absent in most villains. In the end, the creature vows to destroy itself, but the story concludes with it disappearing into the snowy darkness.