by Mary Shelley


You will have a set of notes which comment on the text, chapter by chapter and which should give you the basic ideas about how the text is constructed but it is also important that we look carefully at the background to the novel and, in particular, at the lives of both the young author and the people who shaped her thoughts and ideas.

"Frankenstein" was written between the summer of 1816 and April 1817, when Mary Shelley was only eighteen years of age. At the time of writing, she was engaged in a turbulent relationship with the poet, Percy Bysshe Shelley, who had abandoned his wife, Harriet and two young children, to run away to Europe with her. She had also borne two children to Shelley, one having died at two weeks of age and the other, a boy named William, being fifteen months old at the time the novel was finished. Her third child, Clara, was born the same year, on September 2nd 1817, but died at three weeks of age, in Italy. Her only surviving child, was a son, Percy Florence Shelley, who was born in 1819, three years before she was left a widow after the boating accident, which killed her husband in 1822. (William or "Willmouse" died in Rome in 1819 and a fifth child was miscarried in 1822, just before Shelley’s accident.) The couple did marry, after Shelley’s wife, Harriet committed suicide in 1816, drowning herself in the Serpentine while pregnant with a child who was not the poet’s. Their decision to marry was probably so that Shelley’s reputation could be established sufficiently for the courts to grant him custody of his two children, after his wife’s death. As radicals, neither Mary nor Percy Shelley believed in the validity of marriage, so their decision was very probably made because of expediency.

Mary Shelley, nee Godwin, was the child of a famous 18th century feminist scholar called Mary Wollstonecraft and a radical free-thinking political writer and philosopher called William Godwin. Her father’s political work "Enquiry Concerning Political Justice" was a radical denunciation of the evils of government which he wrote in 1793, just after the French Revolution and which made him a significant figure in those revolutionary times. Her mother’s major work was "A Vindication of the Rights of Women", which examined, as the title suggests, the status and position of females in the society of the time. The marriage between William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft was a commitment that came late to both of them and after two disastrous affairs, on the part of Mary Wollstonecraft, had left her with an illegitimate child, Fanny, born in 1794. Fanny’s father was an American adventurer and Revolutionary called Gilbert Imlay, with whom Mary W. had a long and very turbulent relationship, which included two suicide attempts, one with an overdose of laudanum (opiate-based and very easily available) and the second by drowning. On each occasion, Mary W. was rescued and "inhumanly brought back to life and misery". After her association with Imlay ended, she became involved with Godwin, whom she had known by reputationfor some time and their affair finally ended in marriage only five months before the birth of her second and last child, Mary. Although their relationship was short, it was, by all accounts, a very loving and tender one. The birth of their daughter, Mary, was a long and very painful experience and her mother lingered for eleven days, before dying from a puerperal fever, caused by the retention of the placenta. Her brutal and lingering death traumatised Godwin and undoubtedly caused much distress to her child, who grew up without a mother and the knowledge that her own existence was the cause of her parent’s death.

Godwin struggled to bring up his infant daughter and her half sister, Fanny for four years before remarrying a neighbour, Mary Jane Clairmont. She was a widow with two children, Charles and Jane (who later became Claire). Both Fanny and Mary felt ostracised in the new household and Mary was sent away to Scotland from 15 to 17 years of age, because her relationship with her stepmother was so tense. She stayed with friends of Godwin’s near Dundee. When she returned to London, she was an intellectually awakened and very beautiful seventeen year old, who found that her father’s house attracted many intellectuals of the time. One notable visitor was the emerging poet, Percy Bysshe Shelley, married and with two small children. Shelley had attached himself to Godwin as a young disciple and over the next few months Mary and Shelley became more than friends, beginning an affair, which caused them to elope in the summer of 1814, for six weeks, to the continent. Claire Clairmont went with them and continued to be part of an extraordinary "menage a trois" on and off for many years. It is entirely likely that she also had a sexual relationship with Shelley. After a brief return to England, the three of them returned to Europe, travelling to escape the censure, which their behaviour had caused among their contemporaries. May 1816 found them in Geneva, in Switzerland, installed in a house called "Maison Chapuis" on the shore of Lac Leman. Claire Clairmont had begun a love affair with the older and very famous (notorious) poet, Lord Byron and she was at the time pregnant with his child. Although Byron had cooled in his regard for her, she was determined to rekindle the attachment. Shelley saw that the friendship of Byron could prove advantageous to his career and was more than happy to make contact with the famous Lord and Mary was quite happy to be wherever Shelley was and so the summer of that year, the "Frankenstein Summer", began. Byron had a house nearby, the Villa Diodati, and the two households kept company. Byron was on holiday with his Italian doctor, John Polidori and the five young people (although Byron was, in fact older than the others) spent a great deal of time together.

On a rainy June evening, they were gathered in Byron’s villa, discussing some German horror stories which they had read in French translation (Les Fantasmagoriana). Byron suggested they each write a ghost story. Mary’s idea, which came to her as she was lying near sleep, was inspired by many conversations which she had heard between her husband and Byron, about the nature of the principle of life and whether there was any probability of its being discovered and communicated. In her introduction to the revised 1831 edition of "Frankenstein", Mary Shelley recounts the "donnee" or idea, which came to her for her story.


"I saw, with shut eyes but acute mental vision – I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together….the horrid thing stands at his bedside, opening his curtains and looking on him with yellow, watery, but speculative eyes. I opened mine in terror

The story was written over the next twelve months despite the tragic events of Harriet Shelley’s suicide and the death, also by suicide (a laudanum overdose), of Mary’s half sister, Fanny Imlay. On its anonymous publication, in March 1818, the book was reviewed reasonably, but with some harshness. Blackwood’s Magazine admired the fiction but damned it with faint praise when it became known that the author was a woman. "For a man it was excellent, but for a woman, it was wonderful." The Quarterly Review, however, detested it, calling it "a tissue of horrible and disgusting absurdity."

The years between 1818 and 1822, which should have seen Mary Shelley enjoying her considerable literary reputation, were marred by terrible tragedy. Her son William died, her stepsister, Claire’s illegitimate daughter, Allegra, (Byron’s child) died and Mary came close to death when she miscarried her fifth baby. The culmination of suffering came with the death of her husband, Percy, who was drowned while sailing in a storm at sea off the Gulf of Spezia, in July 1822. The poet’s body was cremated on the beach by Byron and two other friends, one of whom, Leigh Hunt, kept Shelley’s unburned heart as a souvenir. Mary Shelley was forced to plead for its return by letter, as she was in England at the time of the tragedy.

It is not surprising, then, that in this remarkable novel, there is, despite its immaturity of style, a very considerable passion. Associating as she did with some of the most fertile minds of the day, Mary Shelley was a remarkable woman. The fact that she carried with her the knowledge that her own existence was responsible for the death of the one who had given her life, it is not surprising that one of the central themes of "Frankenstein" deals with the responibilities of creation. It is tempting to consider the novel as science fiction – an allegory of the dangers of science, but in fact, science is hardly visible in the novel. The author is influenced very obviously by the scientific achievements of her day, but there is almost no attempt made to give any versimilitude to them. Victor Frankenstein is a semi-chemist or anatomist, who, after two years at college, is able to discover the secret of life! There is almost no scientific matter of any substance in the writing. The novel touches the reader not only because Frankenstein is a scientist, but because his creature is born ugly and Victor abandons him. The creature’s life is spent in a long pilgrimage towards his father’s or mother’s love. The issue here is not the scientist’s laboratory, but the "workshop of filthy creation" in which love and birth and their consequences – death – take place.

There is, however, a dark statement about science implicit in the novel. Mary Shelley intuitively realised that the direction in which civilisation moves, is determined by what it understands of the nature of power. The power or force of sexual energy is fundamental in the novel – the force toward fecundity, toward wholesome life as expressed by love and responsible parenthood, distorted by a life-offending egotism.

Another contributory factor to the novel’s startling examination of life and its fragility must be found in the devastating deaths of four of Mary’s five babies, perhaps most significantly the first, which died within days of its birth. She wrote in her journal in February 1815

"Dream 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."

There are several instances of restoration to "life" in the narrative, apart from the central one of the making of the Creature.

Later we find in the journals and letters she wrote home during the summer of 1816 exhilarating descriptions of her surroundings, which must have prompted the beautiful descriptive writing of the Creature’s "newborn" encounters with the world when he experiences his first Spring in the forest.




It may be interesting here to consider an extract from "A Vindication of the Rights of Men", by Mary Wollstonecraft, a work which her daughter was very familiar with and which has obvious bearing on the Creature’s thoughts in the central chapters of the novel.


"there are rights which men inherit at their birth, as rational creatures, who were raised above the brute creation by their improveable faculties; and that, in receiving these, not from their forefathers but, from God, prescription can never undermine natural rights."

She argues that "true happiness" can only arise "from the friendship and intimacy..enjoyed by equals". We see how this is woven into the fabric of the story. Victor (surely a sardonic name for such a craven character) is mother and father to the Creature, but rejects his creation at "birth". He creates a rational sentient being, then deprives him of his "God given" rights – refuses even to stay in the same room and ends up by believing him to be a "brute". The poor Creature longs for what he believes are basic human rights. His observation of the De Lacey family encourages him to believe that he can be as they are – that he can be equal and intimate – that he can experience happiness, but again he is rejected and his sensitive nature turns to hatred and a desire for revenge on his creator, Victor.

The literary sources, which influence any author, are, in Mary Shelley’s case, very important. Because she was the daughter of such intellectual parents, it was inevitable that her own tastes would be inclined towards

radical literature. She was, by all accounts formidably intelligent and her father’s contemporaries – almost all men like himself, who believed in the revolutionary ideal, had a profound effect on her own ideas. She heard, for example, the poet Coleridge read his "Rime of the Ancient Mariner", when she was very young. Milton’s epic poem of the fall of man, "Paradise Lost" was also a seminal text for her. Politically, she was a radical reformer, like her father. Her association with Shelley and Byron influenced her religious beliefs towards atheism and of course, the Romantic and Gothic literary traditions. Like her husband, she was sexually liberated, too. It comes then as little surprise to find that she incorporates many of the sociological, political and literary ideas of the time into her first major novel.

To appreciate the novel, we must look at the context of Romanticism, although we must not regard it solely as a "Romantic" novel.

The Romantic movement spans the latter part of the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th. The most significant event in that period was the French Revolution (1789) which was seen by many as the beginning of a new, more just and hopeful era of human history. The revolutionaries, in the name of reason and nature, removed corrupt institutions and there was a very vigorous body of like-minded people in the rest of Europe, who wanted to do the same. This was not only in politics, but in all aspects of human experience, including the Arts and Science. The English poet Wordsworth sought to make poetry itself more natural by sweeping away the mannered and archaic diction of early 18th century poetry in favour of " a selection of language really used by men". In addition he thought that an ideal way of life was to be found in the rustic inhabitants of his Lake District. What seems to have been sought by the revolutionary cause was the creation of a new and perfect Man, but the means adopted, especially in France, were bloody and disgusting. Ironically, the noblest of causes brought out the basest instincts in practice. Victor Frankenstein attempts to produce an improved version of man, but the result of his quest – begun from splendid motives – is the creation of a monster which becomes uncontrollable and turns on its creator.

Because radical sympathies were dangerous in England (where the Establishment was determined to prevent a revolution), those who held them were isolated. This was especially true of the Romantic Poets, who saw themselves as isolated from and in opposition to, their society. This feeling of alienation is apparent in many of the works of the time – a feeling of alienation from the poet’s fellow men. The important consequence of this, though, is the artistic inspiration, which comes from solitude (read Wordsworth’s "Daffodils" with this in mind and it becomes much more than doggerel about pretty flowers!) The poet feels he is an unheeded prophet – someone with a true message of liberation, but who is ignored by the very society he is trying to liberate. The Romantics, it is said, tried to take on the heroic task of reforming everything. Percy Shelley wrote, "To cleanse the fevered world as with an earthquake’s spasm". (Nothing like a mammoth task to while away the hours!!) He also wrote that, "poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world". The practical result of all this turmoil, was to change the rules by which poetry was written and to become exploratory in all aspects of artistic life. In a sense, the poet rivals God in terms of artistic creation (except that God was subsumed into Nature, by many of the Romantics. Shelley himself was a confirmed atheist.) The artist saw himself as a Promethean figure, prepared to rival and defy God himself. It is no accident that Mary Shelley uses this motif in her novel, whose alternative title is "The Modern Prometheus". What, after all, is Victor Frankenstein doing but rivalling and defying God in his creation of the Creature? In his act, he deliberately isolates himself and has a belief in his own genius, which is unbounded. The twist, of course, is that his action results in unimaginable suffering – the "pangs of hell" – until he is released by death.

The Romantics were also dedicated to the contemplation of nature – both the natural world and the inner nature of the mind and spirit. In the natural world, Romantics differentiated between the "beautiful" – that which is small, ordered and pretty and the "sublime" – gigantic, wild and incomprehensible. The pursuit and understanding of the "sublime" was more attractive to Romantic tastes, so we see a great deal of sweeping prose in "Frankenstein" which describes vast glaciers, rivers, thunderstorms, lightning, precipices and gigantic mountains. The inner nature (within the mind) involved "the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings" (Wordsworth), while Byron spoke of the "lava of imagination bursting forth from deep within the self". Such passion did tend to make the poets of the time uncover the more sinister side of their unconsciousness, as did the regular use of large quantities of opiate based drugs! The pursuit of the sublime in this area tended towards writing of thrilling terror, although it must be noted here that from the blasé perspective of the Quentin Tarantino age of film making we do not experience a great deal of "terror" from Mary Shelley’s fairly tame prose. We need to keep in mind that the ingredients of Romantic fiction are present, even if our more sophisticated palates find them a trifle tame in the latter part of the 20th century!



These Romantic criteria – wild and exotic scenery and the exploration of the darker side of the subconscious self – spawned a literary genre called the Gothic novel, which contained the exotic, the mysterious, the extraordinary and always attempted o make the flesh creep, by means of ghosts, charnel-houses and a great deal of gore. Mary Shelley’s "Frankenstein" is not in the strictest sense, Gothic, but it does have Gothic elements, especially in the sense that it explores the psychological hell into which Victor is plunged. In the pre-Freudian age, much of what was written about in Gothic fiction was, literally, indescribable, dealing as it did with sexual desires and forces, which could not be openly articulated. "Frankenstein" can be read as a novel about incestuous sexuality, especially the section when Victor dreams of Elizabeth in his arms and realises that she has turned into the corpse of his dead mother. When he wakes up, it is to gaze into the "dead" eyes of the Creature, who stretches out his hands to Victor almost as a lover would do. (The Creature has already been described, by Victor, as a "child") Think also about the relationship, which Clerval and Victor enjoy, and also about how Walton feels about Victor. Elizabeth is variously described as Victor’s "sister" and "cousin" and Victor’s mother extracts the promise that they will be married. (Worth noting is the subject matter of Mary Shelley’s second novel "Mathilda", which deals with father-daughter incest and which Godwin forbade her to publish. It was not printed until the 1950’s) Incest also figures largely in Shelley’s work and Byron did have an affair with his half-sister. Remember that the Romantic ideal of reform and exploration dealt with all aspects of life!

How, then, does Mary Shelley refine the Gothic novel into a unique work of her own? Perhaps it is because she takes the subject matter out of the absurd and into the realms of the possible. Victor Frankenstein creates a creature such as nature never intended should exist and he does it by tapping into the secret powers of nature. Scientific research at the beginning of the 18th century was concerned with exploration of the nature of life and what Victor does is to create something with no thought as to the moral responsibility of the act. Science can provide man with power over nature (Dolly the Sheep, for example) and what can be created can also destroy. (When Oppenheimer made the bomb, he is supposed to have said " I am become death") Victor’s achievement turns out to be monstrous and physically repulsive and he is destroyed mentally and physically as he struggles, first to escape and then to destroy his creation.

How, then, can we define "Frankenstein"? It could be classed as science fiction; as a Gothic romance; as "Romantic" writing; as a socio-political work, or as an early attempt at a realist novel. In the person of the Creature, we have a being,which the world rejects and betrays. Despite the far-fetched plot, the issues examined are concerned with the people, ideas and events of the real world. Victor Frankenstein is thoughtless and his punishment for achieving the creation of life is his destruction not by God, but by his own nature and the consequences of his own interaction with the world around him.

Copyright© 2000 Val Pope