Frankenstein by Mary Shelley


Portrait of Mary Shelley by Richard Rothwell

Portrait of Mary Shelley by Richard Rothwell, 1840

[Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons]

The Frankenstein legend now saturates our culture, so it is illuminating to look back to the moment when this short work of teenage fiction sold 500 copies, and was widely attributed to a male writer. The first edition was published anonymously in 1818 as Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus.

Stage adaptations of the story in the 1820s brought growing fame, and in 1831 Mary Shelley published an expanded version under her own name and with a preface that situates Frankenstein in the Gothic tradition of “thrilling horror” which she had done so much to revolutionise. The dreamlike moment of artistic creation she describes echoes Victor’s account of his moment of perverse creation in the extract here.

Mary Shelley (1797–1851) was only eighteen when she wrote the novel that would give her lasting fame. She had already lived an extraordinary life. She was the daughter of the radical political philosopher William Godwin and the pioneering feminist philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft who died giving birth to her. Educated in the advanced scientific and intellectual culture of her day, she eloped with the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley in 1816, and spent that overcast, chilly summer with him, Lord Byron and her step-sister on the shore of Lake Geneva. It was there that, stimulated by their efforts to entertain themselves with a ghost story-writing contest, she experienced a waking dream in which, as she later wrote, she saw a “pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together” who beholds a “horrid thing” that looks upon him “with yellow, watery, but speculative eyes”. She awoke and started to write a tale that began with the words “It was on a dreary night of November”. Victor Frankenstein had started to narrate his terrifying story.

The novel contains many depictions of happy domesticity, but those scenes make outsiders of both Victor and the monster. The monster feels agonisingly excluded from domestic happiness and Victor excludes himself by drawing away into his work. The Creature blames his murderous behaviour on the exclusion brought about by his otherness, and his unacceptable, hideous appearance: “I was benevolent and good”, he cries, but “misery made me a fiend”. This Promethean tale of daring and reckless scientific over-reaching is also one of unbearable alienation from human community, loneliness (like Shelley’s contemporary, Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner whose “soul has been/Alone on a wide sea”) and, above all, remorse. Both Victor and the Creature are ultimately consumed by remorse, that profoundly self-isolating emotion that paradoxically shows in both of them remnants of reflective humanity.

—Karen O’Brien


Some themes and questions to consider 

  • The possibilities, responsibilities and dangers of science

  • Making monsters: how can we understand our society through the monsters we make?

  • “Thrilling horror”: why do we love to read about things that appal and frighten us?

This excerpt comes from Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein, or, The Modern Prometheus, written in 1818, when she was a teenager. Victor Frankenstein, obsessed with natural philosophy, has been toiling over many months to create artificial life. At last he succeeds, and is horrified by the results.

Frankenstein, or, The Modern Prometheus

Chapter 5

It was on a dreary night of November that I beheld the accomplishment of my toils. With an anxiety that almost amounted to agony, I collected the instruments of life around me, that I might infuse a spark of being into the lifeless thing that lay at my feet. It was already one in the morning; the rain pattered dismally against the panes, and my candle was nearly burnt out, when, by the glimmer of the half-extinguished light, I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open; it breathed hard, and a convulsive motion agitated its limbs.

How can I describe my emotions at this catastrophe, or how delineate the wretch whom with such infinite pains and care I had endeavoured to form? His limbs were in proportion, and I had selected his features as beautiful. Beautiful! Great God! 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.

The different accidents of life are not so changeable as the feelings of human nature. I had worked hard for nearly two years, for the sole purpose of infusing life into an inanimate body. For this I had deprived myself of rest and health. I had desired it with an ardour that far exceeded moderation; but now that I had finished, the beauty of the dream vanished, and breathless horror and disgust filled my heart. Unable to endure the aspect of the being I had created, I rushed out of the room and continued a long time traversing my bed-chamber, unable to compose my mind to sleep. At length lassitude succeeded to the tumult I had before endured, and I threw myself on the bed in my clothes, endeavouring to seek a few moments of forgetfulness. But it was in vain; I slept, indeed, but I was disturbed by the wildest dreams. I thought I saw Elizabeth, in the bloom of health, walking in the streets of Ingolstadt. Delighted and surprised, I embraced her, but as I imprinted the first kiss on her lips, they became livid with the hue of death; her features appeared to change, and I thought that I held the corpse of my dead mother in my arms; a shroud enveloped her form, and I saw the grave-worms crawling in the folds of the flannel. I started from my sleep with horror; a cold dew covered my forehead, my teeth chattered, and every limb became convulsed; when, by the dim and yellow light of the moon, as it forced its way through the window shutters, I beheld the wretch—the miserable monster whom I had created. He held up the curtain of the bed; and his eyes, if eyes they may be called, were fixed on me. His jaws opened, and he muttered some inarticulate sounds, while a grin wrinkled his cheeks. He might have spoken, but I did not hear; one hand was stretched out, seemingly to detain me, but I escaped and rushed downstairs. I took refuge in the courtyard belonging to the house which I inhabited, where I remained during the rest of the night, walking up and down in the greatest agitation, listening attentively, catching and fearing each sound as if it were to announce the approach of the demoniacal corpse to which I had so miserably given life.

Oh! No mortal could support the horror of that countenance. 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.

I passed the night wretchedly. Sometimes my pulse beat so quickly and hardly that I felt the palpitation of every artery; at others, I nearly sank to the ground through languor and extreme weakness. Mingled with this horror, I felt the bitterness of disappointment; dreams that had been my food and pleasant rest for so long a space were now become a hell to me; and the change was so rapid, the overthrow so complete!

Morning, dismal and wet, at length dawned and discovered to my sleepless and aching eyes the church of Ingolstadt, its white steeple and clock, which indicated the sixth hour. The porter opened the gates of the court, which had that night been my asylum, and I issued into the streets, pacing them with quick steps, as if I sought to avoid the wretch whom I feared every turning of the street would present to my view. I did not dare return to the apartment which I inhabited, but felt impelled to hurry on, although drenched by the rain which poured from a black and comfortless sky.

I continued walking in this manner for some time, endeavouring by bodily exercise to ease the load that weighed upon my mind. I traversed the streets without any clear conception of where I was or what I was doing. My heart palpitated in the sickness of fear, and I hurried on with irregular steps, not daring to look about me:

Like one who, on a lonely road,
Doth walk in fear and dread,
And, having once turned round, walks on,
And turns no more his head;
Because he knows a frightful fiend
Doth close behind him tread.
[Coleridge’s “Ancient Mariner.”]

Continuing thus, I came at length opposite to the inn at which the various diligences and carriages usually stopped. Here I paused, I knew not why; but I remained some minutes with my eyes fixed on a coach that was coming towards me from the other end of the street. As it drew nearer I observed that it was the Swiss diligence; it stopped just where I was standing, and on the door being opened, I perceived Henry Clerval, who, on seeing me, instantly sprung out. “My dear Frankenstein,” exclaimed he, “how glad I am to see you! How fortunate that you should be here at the very moment of my alighting!”

Nothing could equal my delight on seeing Clerval; his presence brought back to my thoughts my father, Elizabeth, and all those scenes of home so dear to my recollection. I grasped his hand, and in a moment forgot my horror and misfortune; I felt suddenly, and for the first time during many months, calm and serene joy. I welcomed my friend, therefore, in the most cordial manner, and we walked towards my college. Clerval continued talking for some time about our mutual friends and his own good fortune in being permitted to come to Ingolstadt. “You may easily believe,” said he, “how great was the difficulty to persuade my father that all necessary knowledge was not comprised in the noble art of book-keeping; and, indeed, I believe I left him incredulous to the last, for his constant answer to my unwearied entreaties was the same as that of the Dutch schoolmaster in The Vicar of Wakefield: ‘I have ten thousand florins a year without Greek, I eat heartily without Greek.’ But his affection for me at length overcame his dislike of learning, and he has permitted me to undertake a voyage of discovery to the land of knowledge.”

“It gives me the greatest delight to see you; but tell me how you left my father, brothers, and Elizabeth.”

“Very well, and very happy, only a little uneasy that they hear from you so seldom. By the by, I mean to lecture you a little upon their account myself. But, my dear Frankenstein,” continued he, stopping short and gazing full in my face, “I did not before remark how very ill you appear; so thin and pale; you look as if you had been watching for several nights.”

“You have guessed right; I have lately been so deeply engaged in one occupation that I have not allowed myself sufficient rest, as you see; but I hope, I sincerely hope, that all these employments are now at an end and that I am at length free.”

I trembled excessively; I could not endure to think of, and far less to allude to, the occurrences of the preceding night. I walked with a quick pace, and we soon arrived at my college. I then reflected, and the thought made me shiver, that the creature whom I had left in my apartment might still be there, alive and walking about. I dreaded to behold this monster, but I feared still more that Henry should see him. Entreating him, therefore, to remain a few minutes at the bottom of the stairs, I darted up towards my own room. My hand was already on the lock of the door before I recollected myself. I then paused, and a cold shivering came over me. I threw the door forcibly open, as children are accustomed to do when they expect a spectre to stand in waiting for them on the other side; but nothing appeared. I stepped fearfully in: the apartment was empty, and my bedroom was also freed from its hideous guest. I could hardly believe that so great a good fortune could have befallen me, but when I became assured that my enemy had indeed fled, I clapped my hands for joy and ran down to Clerval.

We ascended into my room, and the servant presently brought breakfast; but I was unable to contain myself. It was not joy only that possessed me; I felt my flesh tingle with excess of sensitiveness, and my pulse beat rapidly. I was unable to remain for a single instant in the same place; I jumped over the chairs, clapped my hands, and laughed aloud. Clerval at first attributed my unusual spirits to joy on his arrival, but when he observed me more attentively, he saw a wildness in my eyes for which he could not account, and my loud, unrestrained, heartless laughter frightened and astonished him.

“My dear Victor,” cried he, “what, for God’s sake, is the matter? Do not laugh in that manner. How ill you are! What is the cause of all this?”

“Do not ask me,” cried I, putting my hands before my eyes, for I thought I saw the dreaded spectre glide into the room; “he can tell. Oh, save me! Save me!” I imagined that the monster seized me; I struggled furiously and fell down in a fit.

Poor Clerval! What must have been his feelings? A meeting, which he anticipated with such joy, so strangely turned to bitterness. But I was not the witness of his grief, for I was lifeless and did not recover my senses for a long, long time.

Full text

Find the full text of Frankenstein, or, The Modern Prometheus at the Oxford Text Archive.

Themes and allusions

The first 1816–17 draft of her dream novel, with some suggestions and annotations from P. B. Shelley, survives in the Bodleian Library. The first edition was published anonymously in 1818 as Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus. Like the fire-stealing Prometheus of ancient Greek legend, Victor brings forbidden knowledge into the human world. As student in Bavaria, he masters not only the newer experimental areas of life sciences and electricity, but also the occult secrets of Renaissance alchemists. He is also likened to the creator God of Milton’s Paradise Lost, who fabricates and then swiftly rejects his disappointing Adam, and yet who also refuses to allow Adam a procreating Eve. The fallen Adam’s reproach to God forms the epigraph to the novel (“Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay/To mould Me man?”), a quotation that eloquently voices the nameless Creature’s cry of reproach to his human maker whose family and life he vengefully destroys. By giving the monster the capacity for remorse, Shelley allows him redemptively human characteristics (like Adam). By contrast, after being cast out by God, Milton’s Satan renounces the remorse that he can never feel (“Farewell remorse; all good to me is lost;/Evil be thou my good”).


The 1816–1817 draft manuscript

Read the 1816–1817 draft in its original Bodleian manuscript (MS Abinger c.56) using a digital manuscript viewer.

“Frankenstein Revisited at the Bodleian Libraries”

Read about the Abinger Papers in this Bodleian blogpost by Rachael Marsay

Audio reading from the first draft

Read by Christopher Adams, on Great Writers Inspire

“Masterclass: the Frankenstein notebooks at the Bodleian Libraries”

A video discussion with Miranda Seymour (biographer of Mary Shelley), Richard Ovenden (Bodley's Librarian), and Stephen Hebron (curator and author of Shelley's Ghost).

“Why Read Frankenstein in 2018”

A video talk by Nick Groom, on Great Writers Inspire

The real story of Frankenstein (BBC World Service)

Listen to an interview with Karen O’Brien.

Frankenstein on Stage

An article by Matt Pickles discussing the casting of Dr Victoria Frankenstein as a woman in 2017 (Northern Stage, Newcastle)

Excerpt from “The Last Man”, by Mary Shelley

Performed as part of the Contagion Cabaret.

About the Contributor

Karen O’Brien is Professor of English Literature and Head of Humanities at the University of Oxford. She has written extensively on eighteenth and early nineteenth-century ideas and literature, including Narratives of Enlightenment (Cambridge, 1997) which won the British Academy’s Rose Mary Crawshay Prize, Women and Enlightenment in Eighteenth-Century Britain (Cambridge, 2009), and (as co-editor) the 1750-1820 volume of The Oxford History of the Novel (2014) and The Cambridge Companion to Edward Gibbon (2018). She is also a regular contributor to Radio 4’s “In Our Time” programme, including the programme on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein broadcast in March 2020.