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In Search of the Novel: Ten Novels


by Mary Shelley


Rescued from the polar wastes by Robert Walton, an obsessed young English explorer, Victor Frankenstein tells him his terrible life story. As a brilliant student growing up in Switzerland, he excelled as a student of natural science. After discovering the terrible secret of creating life, the young scientist assembled the necessary parts from local butcher shops and dissecting rooms to create a living, eight-foot-tall creature. As Victor questioned his actions, he became sick with fright at the sight of the creature and fled. Soon, news came that his brother William had been strangled. Justine, a family servant, was convicted of the crime. Victor later learned that it was the creature, whose hideousness had separated him from human friendship and kindness, who had killed William. The creature demanded that Victor create a companion for him. Victor reluctantly agreed, but he later reneged. A second and then a third murder followed—Victor’s friend and, later, Victor’s bride. Racked by guilt and grief Victor travels to the polar north, where he dies in pursuit of the creature he created.


On an evening in Switzerland in 1816, there had been a philosophical discussion about science and the beginnings of life with Lord Byron and Percy Bysshe Shelley. There had been a challenge: a horror-writing contest. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is the result. Written when she was only nineteen, Frankenstein has entered the language and culture as a tale of warning to the modern world and its unthinking faith in science. Dr. Frankenstein attempts to satisfy his ambitions and to broaden human knowledge, but he brings only a curse. In her 1910 essay, Clara H. Whitmore writes that “the monster created by Frankenstein is closely related to our own human nature. ‘My heart was fashioned to be susceptible of love and sympathy,’ he says, ‘and, when wrenched by misery to vice and hatred, it did not endure the violence of the change without torture.’ There is a wonderful blending of good and evil in this demon, and, while the magnitude of his crimes makes us shudder, his wrongs and his loneliness awaken our pity.”

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