Her 'Midnight Pillow': Mary Shelley and the Creation of Frankenstein

In keeping with the latest cinematic adaptation of 'Frankenstein,' we examine the metaphysical, scientific, and literary inspirations behind the creation of Mary Shelley's world-famous monster.
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In keeping with the latest cinematic adaptation of 'Frankenstein,' we examine the metaphysical, scientific, and literary inspirations behind the creation of Mary Shelley's world-famous monster.
Portrait of Mary Shelley. (Photo: Culture Club/Getty Images)

Portrait of Mary Shelley. (Photo: Culture Club/Getty Images)

On a quiet, cold night in June of 1816, a group of friends were gathered around a fire in a villa located in Lake Geneva, Switzerland. The host of the gathering was Lord Byron, the devil-may-care poet and aristocrat; his guests included his friend and physician John Polidari, his poet pal Percy Shelley, and Percy’s new girlfriend, a clever 18 year-old named Mary Godwin. Mary was accompanied by her stepsister Jane, who, as it turned out, already had intimate familiarity with the charming rogue who was their host.

Despite a surplus of interesting personalities, this Romantic-era party of five were not having a very lively summer. The year 1816 has been called the “year without a summer” since a volcanic explosion in the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia) was so violent that ash in the air created a year-long winter for much of the world. New York in May had sub-zero temperatures, and the situation in Switzerland was not much more congenial. At its best, the weather was foggy and chill; at worst, it was freezing and rainy. The “summer that never was” dragged on the spirits of the friends and limited what they could do outdoors.

One of the ways the company passed the time was to stay up late talking, drinking, and reading ghost stories aloud. Out of sheer boredom, they decided to start a competition. Shelley, a big fan of the fantastic and occult, proposed that each member of the party write a horror story along the lines of the German tales they had been reading. The assembled group would read the stories aloud and then judge a winner. Being a creative and imaginative bunch, the others agreed it was a great idea and set to work.

Watch a mini bio of Mary Shelley, female fright writer:

That night, or during a night soon after, Mary Godwin had a dream. The dream was a morbid one about the creation of a new man by a scientist with the hubris to assume the role of god. History is quiet on whether or not Mary Godwin (soon to become Mrs. Shelley) won the competition at the villa with the tale that “haunted her midnight pillow,” but her story became more than a fireside bit of entertainment. Properly developed, it became a successful novel in 1818, one of the firsts in a new genre of fiction that would eventually be branded “science fiction.” In time, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein would make a cultural impact that still reverberates even now, almost two hundred years later.

In keeping with the latest cinematic adaptation of Frankenstein, which opens in theaters this Friday, we examine the metaphysical, scientific, and literary inspirations behind the creation of Mary Shelley's world-famous monster.

What’s in a Dream?

Making definitive statements about what dreams do and how they work is all but impossible, but it is generally accepted that what we experience and encounter in our waking lives has a tendency to reappear in our sleep, usually in a different form. When Mary Shelley was dreaming her dream about Frankenstein, her mind was synthesizing a diverse mixture of information, speculation, and fancy. Undoubtedly, the talks that she and her friends were having at Lord Byron’s villa had a lot to do with the form her dream took.

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One of the topics of the day that the friends were talking about was the theory of galvanism. Named for the scientist Luigi Galvani, galvanism postulated that the human body contained a type of electricity that traveled from the brain to stimulate muscles in the rest of the body. During experiments conducted 30 years previous, Galvani discovered that a dead frog’s leg muscles were stimulated by electric current, and he drew the conclusion that animals created their own kind of electricity. Talk of galvanism had an obvious impact on Mary Shelley’s creation: Dr. Frankenstein’s “creature” is animated by a “spark” of electricity.

So much for the spark that gave Frankenstein’s “creature” life. But where did the gruesome idea of the the creature’s assembled parts come from?

Mary and her fellow writers were children of the so-called Age of Enlightenment, a movement that focused on reason and the scientific method rather than faith or tradition. A by-product of this movement was a rise in the number of anatomy schools, in which doctors of all stripes learned the secrets of the human body through dissection of cadavers. A doctor like Mary’s Dr. Frankenstein would be very familiar with the methods of obtaining cadavers in a time when demand exceeded supply. The most common method involved collecting criminals after executions. When there weren’t enough executions, even respectable anatomists would resort to paying grave robbers to unearth usable material. Aware of this trend, Mary Shelley would only need to make a small leap to imagine Frankenstein “dabbling among the unhallowed damps of the grave” to build his creature.

The Prometheus Myth

Modern editions of Frankenstein tend to drop the book’s second title, or sub-title, when presenting the novel to readers. The full title of the book is Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus. In Greek myth, Prometheus

An illustration from Shelley's manuscript. (Getty)

An illustration from Shelley's manuscript. (Getty)

was the god who molded the human race from clay, taught it how to live, and gave it fire, much to the displeasure of the gods. His punishment for doing so was to be bound to a rock for eternity, his liver eaten out by eagles over and over.

As poetry scholars, and as poets themselves, the group at Lord Byron’s would have read the myth of Prometheus in its many different forms, from the earliest version set down by the Greek epic poet Hesiod through Roman poet Ovid’s version in The Metamorphoses. Greek playwright Aeschylus wrote a cycle of plays based on the myth, and the one that survived, Prometheus Bound, was a great favorite of Byron’s. The myth was so influential in the circle that Mary Shelley’s husband Percy composed a sequel to the Aeschylus play called Prometheus Unbound.

Mary herself was clearly inspired by the myth. Dr. Frankenstein is “the modern Prometheus,” a man who has created a new man out of the “clay” of robbed graves and given it a “spark.” What he doesn’t anticipate, much like Prometheus himself, is that his creation will be imperfect and ill-equipped for handling the new life bestowed upon it. Instead, the creature creates destruction in its wake, eventually destroying its creator.

The Shadow of Paradise Lost

The epigraph on Frankenstein’s title page is a quote from the English poet Milton:

Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay To mould me man? Did I solicit thee From darkness to promote me?

It comes from Milton’s blank-verse epic Paradise Lost, which tells the story of Satan’s fall from heaven and the fall of man in the Garden of Eden. It’s difficult to overstate the influence of Milton’s poem on the writers that followed him, and Frankenstein owes a great debt to Paradise Lost. Mary Shelley makes this debt obvious when she shows her creature discovering the book and learning from it, as if it were a true tale. The creature identifies not only with Adam, whose speech bewailing his fallen state serves as the novel’s epigraph, but also with Lucifer, the fallen angel, abandoned by God:

An advertisement for the play 'Presumption; or The Fate of Frankenstein' by Richard Brinsley Peake, 1823. (Getty)

An advertisement for the play 'Presumption; or The Fate of Frankenstein' by Richard Brinsley Peake, 1823. (Getty)

Like Adam, I was apparently united by no link to any other being in existence; but his state was far different from mine in every other respect. He had come forth from the hands of God a perfect creature, happy and prosperous, guarded by the especial care of his Creator; he was allowed to converse with, and acquire knowledge from, beings of a superior nature: but I was wretched, helpless, and alone. Many times I considered Satan as the fitter emblem of my condition.

In this passage and in passages like it, Mary Shelley makes explicit how her reading of this classic inspired her own lost creature of clay, as well as the “Creator” who formed and abandoned it. Other literature would also play a part in influencing the course of Frankenstein, such as Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (Coleridge was a friend of her father's), but Paradise Lost supplies a large share of the novel’s conceptual heft.

An Ever-Burning Fire

Mary Shelley worked hard to transform a macabre dream borne of a night’s chatter around a fireplace into a compelling narrative. She worked on it for almost two years, her husband encouraging her and helping her to edit the manuscript. Once published, the novel was a hit and started a fad for stories about other monstrous creations and scientific aberrations. Critically, the work was not universally praised, some referring to it as “feeble,” “absurd,” and “disgusting.” Typical of its era, much of the criticism had more to do with the fact that the author was a woman than with the quality of the story. Time has been kind to the book, however, and it has come to be viewed as a forerunner of the genre of science fiction. Its unique combination of scientific theory and Gothic horror has inspired many, and innumerable adaptations have been made of its story through the years, including many plays and films.

Bela Lugosi as The Monster in 'Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man,' 1943. (Photo: Universal Pictures/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Bela Lugosi as The Monster in 'Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man,' 1943. (Photo: Universal Pictures/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Incidentally, Frankenstein was not the only tale with staying power created because of that night’s entertainment in Switzerland. Byron started a story based on pagan Slavic legends that John Polidari, his comrade around the fire, turned into The Vampyre, published three years later. This would be the beginning of an equally long-lasting interest in vampire stories, a fascination that also continues to this day. How different our cultural lives might be today if the summer of 1816 had been sunny and bright!