Contents Index

The British Critic, New Series, Vol. 9, April 1818, pp. 432-8.

Art. XII. Frankenstein: or the Modern Prometheus. 3 vols. 12mo. 16s. 6d. Lackington and Co. 1818.

{432} THIS is another anomalous story of the same race and family as Mandeville; and, if we are not misinformed, it is intimately connected with that strange performance, by more ties than one. In the present instance, it is true, we are presented with the mysteries of equivocal generation, instead of the metaphysics of a bedlamite; but he who runs as he reads, might pronounce both novels to be similis farinæ. We are in doubt to what class we shall refer writings of this extravagent character; that they bear marks of considerable power, it is impossible to deny; but this power is so abused and perverted, that we should almost prefer imbecility; however much, of late years, we have been wearied and ennuied by the languid whispers of gentle sentimentality, they at least had the comfortable property of provoking no uneasy slumber; but we must protect against the waking dreams of horror excited by the unnatural stimulants of this later school; and we feel ourselves as much harassed, after rising from the perusal of these three spirit-wearing volumes, as if we had been over-dosed with laudanum, or hag-ridden by the night-mare.

No one can love a real good ghost story more heartily than we do; and we will toil through many a tedious duodecimo to get half a dozen pages of rational terror, provided always, that we keep company with spectres and skeletons, no longer than they maintain the just dignity of their spiritual character. Now and then too, we can tolerate a goule, so it be not at his dinnertime; and altogether, we profess to entertain a very due respect for the whole anierarchy of the dæmoniacal establishment. Our prejudices in favor of legitimacy, of course, are proportionably shocked by the pretensions of any pseudo-diabolism; and all our best feelings of ghostly loyalty are excited by the usurpations of an unauthorized hobgoblin, or a non-descript fee-fa-fum.

It will be better, however, to say what little we mean to add on this point, by and by, when our readers are fairly put in procession of the subject, and enabled to form their own estimate of our promise. In a sort of introduction, which precedes the {433} main story of this novel, and has nothing else to do with it, we are introduced to a Mr. Walton, the Christopher Sly of the piece, with whose credulity the hero of the tale is afterwards to amuse himself. This gentleman, it seems, has had his imagination fired by an anticipation of the last number of the Quarterly Review, and is gone out to the North Pole, in quest of lost Greenland, magnetism, and the parliamentary reward. In justice to our author, we must admit that this part is well done, and we doubt whether Mr. Barrow, in plain prose, or Miss Porden herself, in more ambitious rhyme, can exceed our novelist in the description of frozen desarts and colliding ice-bergs. While employed in this pursuit, and advancing into a very high latitude, one day,

"About two oclock the mist cleared away, and we beheld, stretched out in every direction, vast and irregular plains of ice, which seemed to have no end. Some of my comrades groaned, and my own mind began to grow watchful with anxious thoughts, when a strange sight suddenly attracted our attention, and diverted our solicitude from our own situation. We perceived a low carriage, fixed on a sledge and drawn by dogs, pass on towards the north, at the distance of half a mile: a being which had the shape of a man, but apparently of gigantic stature, sat in the sledge, and guided the dogs. We watched the rapid progress of the traveller with our telescopes, until he was lost among the distant inequalities of the ice.

"This appearance excited our unqualified wonder. We were, as we believed, many hundred miles from any land; but this apparition seemed to denote that it was not, in reality, so distant as we had supposed. Shut in, however, by ice, it was impossible to follow his track, which we had observed with the greatest attention.

"About two hours after this occurrence, we heard the ground sea; and before night the ice broke, and freed our ship. We, however, lay to until the morning, fearing to encounter in the dark those large loose masses which float about after the breaking up of the ice. I profited from this time to rest for a few hours.

"In the morning, however, as soon as it was light, I went upon deck, and found all the sailors busy on one side of the vessel, apparently talking to some one in the sea. It was, in fact, a sledge, like that we had seen before, which had drifted towards us in the night, on a large fragment of ice. Only one dog remained alive; but there was a human being within it, whom the sailors were persuading to enter the vessel. He was not, as the other traveller seemed to be, a savage inhabitant of some undiscovered island, but an European. When I appeared on deck, the master said, Here is our captain, and he will not allow you to perish on the open sea.

"On perceiving me, the stranger addressed me in English, although with a foreign accent. 'Before I come on board your {434} vessel,' said he, 'will you have the kindness to inform me whither you are bound?'

"You may conceive my astonishment on hearing such a question addressed to me from a man on the brink of destruction, and to whom I should have supposed that my vessel would have been a resource which he would not have exchanged for the most precious wealth the earth can afford. I replied, however, that we were on a voyage of discovery towards the northern pole.

"Upon hearing this he appeared satisfied, and consented to come on board." Vol I. p. 22.

After proper applications, the stranger is recovered, and of course a strong attachment, takes place between him and his preserver; and, in due season, after much struggling with melancholy and sullenness, he prevails upon himself to tell his own story.

Frankenstein was a Genevese by birth, of honorable parentage, and betrothed, from his earliest years, to an orphan cousin, with whom he had been brought up, Elizabeth Lavenza. In his youth, he manifested a strong bent for natural philosophy, at first, indeed, a little perverted by an accidental acquaintance with the early masters of this science, and an initiation into the mystical fancies of Cornelius Agrippa, Albertus Magnus, and Paracelsus; a short residence at the University of Ingolstadt, however corrected this bias, and he soon distinguished himself among the students, by his extraordinary proficiency in the various branches of chemical knowledge. One of the phænomena which particularly engrossed his attention, was no less than "the principle of life" [1.3.3];to examine this, he had recourse to death, he studied anatomy, and watched the progress of decay and corruption in the human body, in dissecting rooms and charnel-houses; at length, "after days and nights of incredible labour and fatigue, I succeeded in discovering the cause of generation or life: nay, more, I became myself capable of bestowing animation upon lifeless matter" [1.3.4].

When once in possession of this power, it is not to be supposed that he could long leave it unemployed; and, as the minuteness of parts formed a great hindrance to the speedy execution of his design, he determined to make the being which he was to endow with life, of a gigantic stature, "that is to say, about eight feet in height, and proportionably large" [1.3.5]. We pass over the months which he employed in this horrible process, and hasten to the grand period of consummation.

"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 {435} 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 cloths, 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 Ingoldstadt. 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 down stairs. I took refuge in the court-yard 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. Vol. I. P. 97.

While in this state of horror, he is agreeably surprized by the arrival of the friend of his youth, Henry Clerval, who had been dispatched by his family, under some alarm at the long silence {436} which his genethliacal studies had occasioned. We shall not pretend to trace this story through the remainder of its course, suffice it to say, that the being whom he has created, pursues his steps, and operates, like his evil genius, upon every subsequent event of his life. His infant brother is murdered by the hands of this anonymous androdæmon; the servant girl, who attended the child, is executed upon circumstantial evidence; and Frankenstein himself, suspecting the real author of this foul deed, and stung with remorse, that he should have been it primary cause, commences a life of wandering, to throw off, if possible, the agony which haunts him. In the glacier of Montanvert, he has an interview with his persecutor, who succeeds, by threats, promises, and intreaties, in obtaining a hearing. The narrative which he relates, has some ingenuity in it; it is the account of a being springing at one bound into the full maturity of physical power, but whose understanding is yet to be awakened by degrees; this manhood of body, and infancy of mind, is occasionally well contrasted. Some of the steps in his intellectual progress, we confess, made us smile. He learns to read by accidentally finding Paradise Lost, a volume of Plutarch's Lives, the Sorrows of Werter, and Volney's Ruins; and his code of ethics is formed on this extraordinary stock of poetical theology, pagan biography, adulterous sentimentality, and atheistical jacobinism: yet, in spite of all his enormities, we think the monster, a very pitiable and ill-used monster, and are much inclined to join in his request, and ask Frankenstein to make him a wife; it is on the promise of this alone, that he consents to quit Europe for ever, and relieve his undutiful father from the horrors of an interminable pursuit.

In order to perform this promise, our hero is under the necessity of making a journey to England, for "he has heard of some discoveries made by an English philosopher," (and we wish he had revealed his name,) "the knowledge of which was material" [3.1.1]; accordingly, in company with Harry Clerval, he sets off for London. By the way, they ["]saw Tilbury Fort, and remembered the Spanish Armada," (how came they to forget Whiskerandos?) "Gravesend, Woolwich, and Greenwich, places which they had heard of, even in their own country" [3.1.9]. After collecting such information as could be obtained at Surgeon's Hall, the Royal Institution, and the new drop, on the subject of his enquiry, he determines to fix his workshop of vivification in the Orkneys, packing up all the medical skills that was to be learnt at Edinburgh, en passant. Here he labours many months, not very agreeably it seems, on what he tells us is but, at best, a "filthy work" [3.2.8]; the woman is almost completed, and wants only the last Promethean spark to enliven her, when, one evening, as he is moulding the body to its final shape, he is suddenly struck {437} by the thought, that he may be assisting in the propagation of a race of dæmons; and, shuddering at his own fiendish work, he destroys the creature upon which he is employed. The monster is at hand, and, fired by this unexpected breach of promise of marriage, "wrinkles his lip with a ghastly grin," and "howls devilish despair and revenge" [3.3.2], bidding him remember that he will be with him on his wedding-night [3.3.4].

Henry Clerval is found dead on the coast of Ireland, to which we are next conveyed, with marks of violence. Frankenstein is thrown into prison on suspicion of the murder, and his knowledge of the perpetrator, joined to the inability of clearing himself, produces a paroxysm of lunacy. His father succeeds in proving his innocence; and they return in peace to Geneva, with no farther mishap by the way, than a fit of the night-mare at Holyhead. He is married to Elizabeth Lavenza; the monster is true to his promise, and murders her on their wedding-night; in his despair, Frankenstein devotes himself to revenge, and resolves to track the steps of the destroyer of his peace, for the remainder of his days: he pursues him successively through, Germany, the Mediterranean, the Black Sea, Tartary, and Russia, and appears to have been gaining upon his flight, at the time the ground sea split the island of ice upon which both were travelling, and separated them for ever.

In a few days after he has finished his tale, Frankenstein dies, and Mr. Walton is surprized by a visit from the monster, who, most unceremoniously climbs in at his cabin window. We fear it is too late to give our arctic explorers the benefit of his description; mais le voila.

"I entered the cabin, where lay the remains of my ill-fated and admirable friend. Over him hung a form which I cannot find words to describe; gigantic in stature, yet uncouth and distorted in its proportions. As he hung over the coffin, his face was concealed by long locks of ragged hair; but one vast hand was extended, in colour and apparent texture like that of a mummy. When he heard the sound of my approach, he ceased to utter exclamations of grief and horror, and sprung towards the window. Never did I behold a vision so horrible as his face, of such loathsome, yet appalling hideousness. I shut my eyes involuntarily, and endeavoured to recollect what were my duties with regard to this destroyer. I called on him to stay." P. 179.
After a short conversation, which Mr. Walton was not very anxious to protract, he takes his leave, with the very laudable resolution of seeking the northern extremity of the globe, where he means to collect his funeral pile, and consume his frame to ashes, that its remains may afford no light to any curious and unhallowed wretch who would create such another. We cannot {438} help wishing, that our ships of discovery had carried out the whole impression of his history, for a similar purpose.

We need scarcely say, that these volumes have neither principle, object, nor moral; the horror which abounds in them is too grotesque and bizarre ever to approach near the sublime, and when we did not hurry over the pages in disgust, we sometimes paused to laugh outright: and yet we suspect, that the diseased and wandering imagination, which has stepped out of all legitimate bounds, to frame these disjointed combinations and unnatural adventures, might be disciplined into something better. We heartily wish it were so, for there are occasional symptoms of no common powers of mind, struggling through a mass of absurdity, which well nigh overwhelms them; but it is a sort of absurdity that approaches so often the confines of what is wicked and immoral, that we dare hardly trust ourselves to bestow even this qualified praise. The writer of it is, we understand, a female; this is an aggravation of that which is the prevailing fault of the novel; but if our authoress can forget the gentleness of her sex, it is no reason why we should; and we shall therefore dismiss the novel without further comment.