Between Life and Death: 8 Quotes from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein

Mary Wollstonecraft  Shelley

Editor's Note:

If you’re stirred by these literary words, be sure to amble down our archive of inspiring author quotes.

This week in history, mother of science fiction Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley was born on August 30, 1797.

Mary Shelley is, of course, most remembered for penning Frankenstein (which is ironic since she originally had to publish it anonymously), but the story of how her culture-shifting monster came to be is less well known.

At the age of eighteen, Mary, then Mary Godwin, was travelling Europe with her lover and future husband, Percy Shelley. Along the journey, the pair met up with friends Lord Byron and a writer by the name of John Polidori at Lake Geneva in Switzerland. As documented in Mary’s journals and letters, this literary group with a distinctly liberal bent spent hours talking about (and debating) the borders between cutting edge science and occultism. Not long into their stay, the foursome decided to have a competition to see who could write the best horror story. And it was a competition eighteen-year-old Mary was sure she was losing:

Have you thought of a story? I was asked each morning, and each morning I was forced to reply with a mortifying negative.” (Introduction to Frankenstein, 1831)

But eventually inspiration struck. Prompted by the group’s discussion of galvanism (movement of muscle tissue by way of electric current), Mary had a vision of a young, ambitious, and misguided medical student standing over his hideous imitation of a man. In a fervor she stayed up through the night composing the short story that would become the novel Frankenstein.

Fascinatingly, out of this same competition came one of the earliest, if less famous, vampire novels by one of the competitors John Polidori. But Frankenstein struck a chord with readers, particularly when it came to light that the gruesome details of a reanimated corpse were thought up by a delicate young lady. Her literary triumph — revealing that which is human in the most inhuman of things — is one she could not have foreseen when she set out to write a simple ghost story, setting a standard revered by readers and writers of genre work to this day.

Now, in honor of her birthday and her great work, we’ve pulled some of Mary Shelley’s most thoughtful and exploratory quotes from Frankenstein, and from her extended introduction to the 1831 edition.

1. “My dreams were all my own; I accounted for them to nobody; they were my refuge when annoyed — my dearest pleasure when free.”(Introduction to Frankenstein, 1831)

2. “I busied myself to think of a story, — a story to rival those which had excited us to this task. One which would speak to the mysterious fears of our nature, and awaken thrilling horror—one to make the reader dread to look round, to curdle the blood, and quicken the beatings of the heart. If I did not accomplish these things, my ghost story would be unworthy of its name.” (Introduction to Frankenstein, 1831)

3. “Nothing contributes so much to tranquillize the mind as a steady purpose — a point on which the soul may fix its intellectual eye.” (Frankenstein, 1818)

4. “We are unfashioned creatures, but half made up, if one wiser, better, dearer than ourselves — such a friend ought to be — do not lend his aid to perfectionate our weak and faulty natures.” (Frankenstein, 1818)

5. “Life and death appeared to me ideal bounds, which I should first break through, and pour a torrent of light into our dark world.” (Frankenstein, 1818)

6. “Live, and be happy, and make others so.” (Frankenstein, 1818)

7. “I desired love and fellowship, and I was still spurned. Was there no injustice in this? Am I to be thought the only criminal, when all humankind sinned against me?” (Frankenstein, 1818)

8. “My heart was fashioned to be susceptible of love and sympathy, and when wrenched by misery to vice and hatred, it did not endure the violence of the change without torture such as you cannot even imagine.” (Frankenstein, 1818)