Mary Shelley’s description of the night during the summer of 1816 at the Villa Diadoti, in which she was encouraged to invent a ghost story, and the dream she had as a result, is generally determined to be the genesis of her novel Frankenstein. However, an incident recorded in her journal, dated 19 March 1815, points to an earlier dream which can more certainly earn the distinction of being the actual birth of the idea that inspired the novel.
Dreamt that my little baby came to life again; that it had only been cold, and that we rubbed it before the fire, and it lived. Awake and find no baby. I think about the little thing all day. Not in good spirits. (MWS, Journal, 70)
Mary Shelley chose not to write a story about a man resurrecting a dead loved one; Victor Frankenstein’s object for resurrection couldn’t have been more impersonal. He attaches random body parts from several strangers and reanimates them. His act was meant to be an unselfish Promethean aid to humankind. This journal entry provokes the question of whether Mary Shelley considered the possibility of her main character reanimating one of his murdered loved ones.
Resurrecting a dead loved one for the sake of alleviating the pain of a profound personal grief would become a familiar theme in 20th century horror literature. From W.W. Jacob’s 1902 short story “The Monkey’s Paw” to Stephen King’s novel Pet Sematary, the theme of resurrecting a dead child or any loved one produces a more complicated personal horror than the incident depicted in Frankenstein. This may have been the inspiration for the resurrecting of Elizabeth scene in Kenneth Branagh’s film version of the novel (Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein) and the resurrection of Justine in Brian W. Aldiss’ novel Frankenstein Unbound.
Mary Shelley never wrote about the link between her dream and the incidents depicted in her novel. However, the psychological implications are very evident to a modern reader. There is also an element of remorse and failure in this journal entry similar to the guilt and feeling of failure expressed by both Justine and Victor in Volume One, Chapters 6 and 7. Victor’s culpability in the events is clear, but like Mary Shelley’s indefinable expression of culpability in the death of her baby, Justine’s feelings of guilt are equally elusive. Justine is innocent of the crime she is charged with, so perhaps it is a lingering guilt brought about by her mother’s accusation that Justine was responsible for the deaths of her siblings.
Both Mary Shelley’s journal entry and the novel suggest that the genesis of guilt is as elusive as a dream.