Mary Shelley (August 30, 1797 – February 1, 1851) was an English novelist, author of Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus. She is perhaps one of the most prominent figures in the Romantic movement of nineteenth century England. Frankenstein would become one of the most important and popular works of Romanticism ever published, and would go on to influence generations of writers both in and out of the Romantic school. Shelley was married to the equally prominent Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, whose works she would continue to champion after his death, and with whom she formed (however briefly) the nucleus of one of the most productive artistic communities of the Romantic era.
The daughter of two of the most prominent (and controversial) philosophers and activists of the previous generation, Mary Shelley is unique among her contemporaries as a writer of particularly deep and philosophical fiction which is as thought-provoking as it is dramatic. Her work, long underrated by critics, is now recognized as among the greatest literature written in English in the nineteenth century, as well as a continuing source for popular culture and film.
Mary Shelley was born Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin in London, England, the second daughter of famed feminist, educator, and writer Mary Wollstonecraft and the equally famous anarchist philosopher, William Godwin. Her mother died ten days after her birth and her father, left to care for Mary and her older half-sister, Fanny Imlay, quickly married again. Under his tutelage, Mary received an excellent education, unusual for girls at the time.
She met Percy Bysshe Shelley, a political radical and free-thinker like her father, when Percy and his first wife, Harriet, visited Godwin's home and bookshop in London. Percy, unhappy in his marriage, began to visit Mary more frequently (and alone). In the summer of 1814 he and Mary (then only 16) fell in love. They eloped to France on July 27, with Mary's stepsister, Jane Clairmont, in tow. This was the poet's second elopement. He had eloped with Harriet three years before. Upon their return several weeks later, the young couple were dismayed to find that Godwin, whose views on free love apparently did not apply to his daughter, refused to see them.
Mary consoled herself with her studies and with Percy, who would always be, despite disillusionment and tragedy, the love of her life. Percy, too, was more than satisfied with his new partner in these first years. He exulted that Mary was "one who can feel poetry and understand philosophy"—although she, like Harriet before her, refused his attempts to share her with his friend, Thomas Hogg. Mary thus learned that Percy's loyalty to Godwin's "free love" would always conflict with his stated hope for "true love" as expressed in so much of his poetry.
Mary and Percy shared a love of languages and literature. They enjoyed reading and discussing books together, such as the classics, that Percy took to reading upon their return to London towards the end of the year. During this time Percy Shelley wrote "Alastor, or The Spirit of Solitude," in which he counsels against the loss of "sweet human love" in exchange for the activism that he himself was to promote and indulge in for much of his life.
During May of 1816, the couple, again with Jane (now Claire) Clairmont, traveled to Lake Geneva to summer near the famous and scandalous poet, Lord Byron. Byron's recent affair with Claire had left her both pregnant and somewhat obsessed with him. This would prove to be a productive summer on the literary front. Percy began work on "Hymn To Intellectual Beauty" and "Mont Blanc." Mary, in the meantime, was inspired to write an enduring masterpiece of her own.
Forced to stay indoors by the climatic events of the "Year Without a Summer," on one particular evening, the group of young writers and intellectuals, enthralled by the ghost stories from the book Fantasmagoriana, decided to have a ghost-story writing contest. Another guest, Dr. John Polidori, came up with The Vampyre, which later became a strong influence on Bram Stoker's Dracula.
Other guests wove tales of equal horror, but Mary found herself unable to invent one. That night, however, she had a "waking dream" where she saw "the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together." Then she set herself to put the story on paper. In time it would be published as Frankenstein. Its success would endure long after the other writings produced that summer had faded.
Mary had incorporated a number of different sources into her work, not the least of which was the Promethean myth from Ovid. The influence of John Milton's Paradise Lost and Samuel Taylor Coleridge's "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner," the book the "creature" finds in the cabin, is also clearly evident within the novel. Both Shelleys had read William Beckford's Vathek, a Gothic horror novel wildly popular in its time. Frankenstein is also full of references to her mother, Mary Wolstonecraft, and her major work A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, which discusses the lack of equal education for males and females. The inclusion of her mother's ideas in her work is also related to the theme of creation/motherhood in the novel.
Returning to England in September of 1816, Mary and Percy were stunned by two family suicides in quick succession. On October 9, 1816, Mary's older half-sister, Fanny Imlay, left the Godwin home and took her own life at a distant inn. On December 10, Percy's first wife drowned herself in London's Hyde Park. Discarded and pregnant, she had not welcomed Percy's invitation to join Mary and himself in their new household.
On December 30, 1816, shortly after Harriet's death, Percy and Mary were married, now with Godwin's blessing. Their attempts to gain custody of Percy's two children by Harriet failed, but their writing careers enjoyed more success when, in the spring of 1817, Mary finished Frankenstein.
Over the following years, Mary's household grew to include her own children by Percy, occasional friends, and Claire's daughter by Byron. Shelley moved his menage from place to place first in England and then in Italy. Mary suffered the death of her infant daughter Clara outside Venice, after which her young son Will died too, in Rome, as Percy moved the household yet again. By now Mary had resigned herself to her husband's self-centered restlessness and his romantic enthusiasms for other women. The birth of her only surviving child, Percy Florence Shelley, consoled her somewhat for her losses.
Eventually the group settled in Lerici, a town close to La Spezia in Italy, but it was an ill-fated choice. It was here that Claire learned of her daughter's death at the Italian convent to which Byron had sent her, and that Mary almost died of a miscarriage. And it was from here, in July 1822, that Percy sailed up the Adriatic Sea coast to Livorno to plan the founding of a journal with a group of friends. Caught in a storm on his return, he drowned at sea on July 8, 1822, aged 29, along with his friend Edward Williams and a young boat attendant. Percy left his last poem, a shadowy work called "The Triumph Of Life," unfinished.
Mary was tireless in promoting her late husband's work, including editing and annotating unpublished material. Despite their troubled later life together, she revered her late husband's memory and helped build his reputation as one of the major poets of the English Romantic period. But she also found occasion to write a few more novels, including Valperga, The Fortunes of Perkin Warbeck, and Falkner. Critics say these works do not begin to approach the power of Frankenstein; however, The Last Man, a pioneering science fiction novel of the human apocalypse in the distant future, is sometimes considered her best work, as is Maria, a novel published posthumously. Matilda is a short novel which was not published until the 1950's. It is perhaps her most controversial work since it involves the taboo subject of incest. Godwin, Shelley's father, refused to publish the work probably because of its subject matter and its obvious autobiographical undertones.
Mary Shelley died of brain cancer on February 1, 1851, aged 53, in London and was interred at St. Peter's Churchyard in Bournemouth, in the English county of Dorset. At the time of her death, she had become a recognized novelist.
Published in 1818, Frankenstein is easily her most famous novel. Indeed, it is one of the most enduring works of nineteenth century fiction ever written, and the basis for one of history's most enduringly popular cultural phenomena. Frankenstein's story has been adapted for film, television, and theater countless times; yet, the popular culture version of the story clashes strongly with what Mary Shelley actually wrote. Frankenstein is not just a simple horror novel—it is one of the most deeply thought-out and philosophical works of literature written in the nineteenth century. Shelley had been absorbing philosophy and literature all her life, through the influence of her philosopher-father and poet-husband and her own voracious reading habits. Uniquely positioned as one of the most well-educated women of her time, Shelley poured her erudition into the creation of her masterpiece, and Frankenstein shines with meditations on some of the profoundest themes of human existence.
The novel opens with the narrator, Captain Walton, on a ship sailing north of the Arctic Circle. Walton is a restless youth, dreaming of finding a passage through the ice-sheets of the Arctic. His ship becomes ice-bound, and as he contemplates his isolation and paralysis, he spots a huge figure traveling across the ice on a dog sledge. This is Victor Frankenstein's monster. Soon after, he sees the ill Victor Frankenstein himself, pursuing the creature on a sledge of his own, and Walton invites him onto his ship.
After initial reluctance, Victor takes over telling the story at this point. Curious and intelligent from a young age, he learns from the works of the masters of Medieval alchemy, reading such authors as Albertus Magnus and Paracelsus and shunning the modern teachings of natural science. He leaves his beloved family in Geneva, Switzerland to study in Germany, where he is first introduced to modern science. In a moment of inspiration, combining his new-found knowledge of natural science with the alchemic ideas of his old masters, Victor perceives the means by which inanimate matter can be imbued with life. He sets about constructing a man using means that Shelley refers to only vaguely. Subsequent visual interpretations of the story have included the creation of Frankenstein's monster through alchemy, by the piecing together of corpses, or a combination of the two, yet none of this is ever mentioned in the text of the novel. Shelley intentionally pays little attention to how Frankenstein makes his creature, so as to focus our attention on the catastrophe that unravels after it is born.
He intends the creature to be beautiful, but when it awakens he is disgusted. It has yellow, watery eyes, translucent skin, and is of an abominable size. Victor finds this revolting and runs out of the room in terror. That night he wakes up with the creature at his bed side grinning at him with an outstretched arm, Victor flees again whereupon the creature disappears. In shock, Victor takes ill for several months. After recovering, in about a year's time, he receives a letter from home informing him of the murder of his youngest brother, William. He departs for Switzerland at once.
Near Geneva, Victor catches a glimpse of the creature in a thunderstorm among the rocky boulders of the mountains, and is convinced that the creature has killed William. Upon arriving home he finds Justine, the family's beloved maid, framed for the murder. Despite Victor's feelings of overwhelming guilt, he does not tell anyone about his horrid creation and Justine is convicted and executed. To recover from the ordeal, Victor goes hiking into the mountains where he encounters his "cursed creation" again, this time on the Mer de Glace, a glacier above Chamonix.
The creature converses with Victor and tells him his story, speaking in strikingly eloquent language. At this point, in the very center of the novel, the Creature takes over the narrative. He describes his feelings first of confusion, then rejection and hate after being created and abandoned by Victor. He explains how he learned to talk by studying a poor peasant family. He performs in secret many kind deeds for this family, but in the end, they drive him away when they see his appearance. He gets the same response from any human who sees him. The creature confesses to the murder of William and the framing of Justine to exact revenge. But now, the creature only wants one thing; he begs Victor to create a female companion for him so that he may have companionship.
At first, Victor agrees, but later, he tears up the half-made companion in disgust and madness. In retribution, the creature kills Victor's best friend, and later, on Victor's wedding night, his wife. Victor now becomes the hunter: He pursues the creature into the Arctic ice, though in vain. Near exhaustion, he is stranded when an iceberg breaks away, carrying him out into the ocean. Before he dies, Captain Walton's ship arrives and he is rescued.
Walton assumes the narration again. He describes how Victor's health, after having related his story, soon fails, and he dies shortly afterwards. Unable to convince his shipmates to continue north and bereft of the charismatic Frankenstein, Walton is forced to turn back towards England under the threat of mutiny. Finally, the creature boards the ship and finds Victor dead, and greatly laments what he has done to his maker. He vows to commit suicide. He leaves the ship by leaping through the cabin window onto the ice, and is never seen again.
Publication and Criticism
Shelley completed writing the novel in May 1817, and Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus was first published in January 1818 by a small London publishing house. It was issued anonymously, with a preface written for Mary by Percy.
Critical reception of the book was mostly unfavorable, compounded by confused speculation as to the identity of the author, which was not well disguised. Walter Scott wrote that "Upon the whole, the work impresses us with a high idea of the author's original genius and happy power of expression," but most reviewers thought it "a tissue of horrible and disgusting absurdity" (Quarterly Review).
Despite the reviews, Frankenstein achieved an almost immediate popular success. It became widely known especially through melodramatic theatrical adaptations—Mary Shelley saw a production of Presumption; or The Fate of Frankenstein, a play by Richard Brinsley Peake, in 1823. A French translation appeared as early as 1821.
The second edition of Frankenstein was published in August 1823 in two volumes (by G. and W. B. Whittaker), and this time credited Mary Shelley as the author. On October 31, 1831, the first edition in one volume appeared, published by Henry Colburn and Richard Bentley. This edition was quite heavily revised by Mary Shelley, including a number of religious and Christian elements not previously present in the story, and included a new, longer preface by her, presenting a somewhat embellished version of the genesis of the tale. This edition tends to be the one most widely read now, although editions containing the original 1818 text are still being published.
The revised edition was changed in several significant ways: Any indication that Frankenstein's monster was created by vice was removed, and the text details a benevolent creator who creates the monster merely for the purposes of science. Although this version of the story continues to be published, scholars agree that the 1818 version of the text is far more compelling in its moral complexities, and it is the 1818 version which is largely taught in institutions of higher education.
Frankenstein is often read allegorically. The novel was conceived and written during an early phase of the Industrial Revolution, at a time of dramatic change, and a common reading is that the novel is a Faustian allegory of the perils of scientific inquiry. In this reading, Frankenstein and his utter disregard for the human and animal remains gathered in his pursuit of power can be taken as symbolic of the rampant forces of industry and science extant at the time and their basic disregard for human dignity. Moreover, the creation rebels against its creator: A clear message, so the interpretation goes, that the irresponsible use of science can have horrible consequences.
Another popular line of criticism sees the tale as an allegory for childbirth and the common fears of women in Shelley's day of stillborn births and maternal deaths due to complications in delivery. Mary Shelley experienced the horrors of a stillborn birth herself prior to completing the novel. Victor Frankenstein is often fearful of the release of the Monster from his control, when it is free to act independently in the world and affect it for better or worse.
As with all compelling works of literature, and this was one of the most important novels of the nineteenth century, there are numerous layers of the text with numerous possible interpretations. In addition to an allegory of science or maternity, it has also been interpreted as a story of prejudice: The creature, who is thoughtful and kind, only becomes evil because society hates him based on his appearance. One of the most moving characters in English literature, (as opposed to the grotesque character of horror films), the plight of the creature has become one of the most memorable events in the history of the novel. This versatility of the novel reflects the depths of Shelley's genius and her ability, in a short book that is less than 200 pages in length, to present and investigate so many various ideas and philosophical conundrums.
All links retrieved November 7, 2022.
- Works by Mary Shelley. Project Gutenberg.
- Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley Brandeis University].
- Free audiobook of Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus from LibriVox (without prefaces and edition information).
- Frankenstein: A New Reality!.
- Literary Encyclopedia biography.
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