On Frankenstein; or, the modern Promotheus

By Percy Bysshe Shelley

[This review was unpublished until some months after the third edition of Frankenstein appeared in 1831, when P.B. Shelley’s cousin Thomas Medwin saw to its printing in the Athenaeum for 10 November 1832.]

NB: Students in high school, online colleges and universities often study this essay when they read Frankenstein.

The novel of “Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus,” is undoubtedly, as a mere story, one of the most original and complete productions of the age. We debate with ourselves in wonder as we read it, what could have been the series of thoughts, what could have been the peculiar experiences that awakened them, which conducted in the author’s mind, to the astonishing combination of motives and incidents and the startling catastrophe which compose this tale. There are perhaps some points of subordinate importance which prove that it is the Author’s first attempt. But in this judgement, which requires a very nice discrimination, we may be mistaken. For it is conducted throughout with a firm and steady hand.

The interest gradually accumulates, and advances towards the conclusion with the accelerated rapidity of a rock rolled down a mountain. We are held breathless with suspense and sympathy, and the heaping up of incident on incident, and the working of passion out of passion. We cry “hold, hold, enough” — but there is yet something to come, and like the victim whose history it relates we think we can bear no more, and yet more is to be borne. Pelion is heaped on Ossa, and Ossa on Olympus. We climb Alp after Alp, until the horizon is seen, blank, vacant and limitless, and the head turns giddy, and the ground seems to fail under the feet.

This Novel thus rests its claim on being a source of powerful and profound emotion. The elementary feelings of the human mind are exposed to view, and those who are accustomed to reason deeply on their origin and tendency, will perhaps be the only persons who can sympathise to the full extent in the interest of the actions which are their result. But, founded on nature as they are, there is perhaps no reader who can endure any thing beside a new love-story, who will not feel a responsive string touched in his inmost soul. The sentiments are so affectionate and so innocent, the characters of the subordinate agents in this strange drama are clothed in the light of such a mild and gentle mind. — The pictures of domestic manners are every where of the most simple and attaching character. The pathos is irresistible and deep. Nor are the crimes and malevolence of the single Being, tho’ indeed withering and tremendous, the offspring of any unaccountable propensity to evil, but flow inevitably from certain causes fully adequate to their production.

They are the children, as it were, of Necessity and Human Nature. In this the direct moral of the book consists; and it is perhaps the most important, and of the most universal application, of any moral that can be enforced by example. Treat a person ill, and he will become wicked. Requite affection with scorn; — let one being be selected, for whatever cause, as the refuse of his kind — divide him, a social being, from society, and you impose upon him the irresistible obligations — malevolence and selfishness. It is thus that, too often in society, those who are best qualified to be its benefactors and its ornaments, are branded by some accident with scorn, and changed, by neglect and solitude of heart, into a scourge and a curse.

The Being in “Frankenstein” is, no doubt, a tremendous creature. It was impossible that he should not have received among men that treatment which led to the consequences of his being a social nature. He was an abortion and an anomaly, and tho’ his mind was such as its’ first impressions formed it, affectionate and full of moral sensibility, yet the circumstances of his existence were so monstrous and uncommon, that when the consequences of them became developed in action, his original goodness was gradually turned into the fuel of an inextinguishable misanthropy and revenge. The scene between the Being and the blind de Lacey in the cottage is one of the most profound and extraordinary instances of pathos that we ever recollect. It is impossible to read this dialogue — and indeed many other situations of a somewhat similar character — without feeling the heart suspend its pulsations with wonder, and the tears stream down the cheeks! The encounter and argument between Frankenstein and the Being on the sea of ice almost approaches in effect to the expostulations of Caleb Williams with Falkland. It reminds us indeed somewhat of the style and character of that admirable writer to whom the Author has dedicated his work, and whose productions he seems to have studied.

There is only one instance however in which we detect the least approach to imitation, and that is, the conduct of the incident of Frankenstein’s landing and trial in Ireland. — The general character of the tale indeed resembles nothing that ever preceded it. After the death of Elisabeth, the story, like a stream which grows at once more rapid and profound as it proceeds, assumes an irresistible solemnity, and the magnificent energy and swiftness as of a tempest.

The church yard scene, in which Frankenstein visits the tombs of his family, his quitting Geneva and his journey thro’ Tartary to the shores of the Frozen Ocean, resembles at once the terrible reanimation of a corpse, and the supernatural career of a spirit. The scene in the cabin of Walton’s ship, the more than mortal enthusiasm and grandeur of the Being’s speech over the dead body of his victim, is an exhibition of intellectual and imaginative power, which we think the reader will acknowledge has seldom been surpassed.