Mary W. Shelley and her novel Frankenstein

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The Life of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley

Born in London on the 30th August 1797, Mary was the only daughter of the two great intellectual rebels of that time, William Godwin, a political theorist, novelist, and publisher and of Mary Wollstonecraft, a writer and one of the first feminists, who unfortunately died eleven days after giving birth to her daughter. From infancy, Mary was raised as the very unique creature she was and with high expectations placed upon her. She was often surrounded by eminent intellectual writers and poets like Coleridge and Charles Lamb. Godwin, who believed every child was born with a potential to be developed encouraged her to educate herself among his circle of brilliant acquaintances and her youthful efforts as a writer and at the age of ten, Mary published her first work of art, a poem called Mounseer Nongtonpaw: or, The Discoveries of John Bull in a Trip to Paris.

In 1801 William Godwin took the widow Mary Jane Clairmont as his second wife who brought two children into their marriage; six-year-old Charles and four-year-old Jane. Mary’s sufficient childhood took an awful turn. Mary Jane didn’t share Williams’s interest in writing or his love of reading and nor did she support Mary in that matter. Often did Mary Jane trespass on Mary’s privacy and kept her at a remote distance from her father. Luckily, Mary had access to her father’s excellent library. In the summer of 1812 Godwin sent Mary away to live in Dundee with a friend of his, William Baxter. There she became close friend with Baxter’s daughters, Isabel and Christina. Mary, for the first time in her life, got to know how it was to live in a loving family full of harmony. Six months later she returned home and met the very wealthy and young Percy Bysshe Shelley, one of her father’s new friends, and his wife Harriet. Percy, educated at Eton and Oxford University, was the son of the rich Sir Timothy Shelley.

In 1814 Percy became an almost everyday visitor and went on long walks with Mary and on 26th June they proclaimed their love for each other and eloped to France accompanied by Jane Clairmont. There from they continued to Switzerland, Holland, and Germany. Later that year Percy and a pregnant Mary returned home to England and got cast out of both society and her father. In 1815, after Percy’s wife committed suicide they got married and moved to Venice where Mary gave birth to their first child, a girl, who died scarcely three weeks later. She got pregnant again not soon, but still she dreamed of her lost baby girl restored to life. On January the 26th in 1816 Mary delivered their second child, a son she named after her father. Meanwhile Mary’s stepsister Jane, also known as Claire, had her own poet wrapped around her finger, Lord George Byron who was in the middle of a divorce with his wife. In the spring of 1816 Lord Byron fled country accompanied by the now pregnant Claire Clairmont to Villa Diodati by the Lake Geneva in Switzerland where they were joined by Mary, Percy, William and John Polidori, a friend of theirs.

One night they all sat down by the fire due to a big storm and read aloud from a volume of German ghost stories whereupon Lord Byron challenged them all to write their own horror story. Lord Byron, Shelley and Polidori began immediately write, but Mary, who still was uninspired, was unable to start writing. She explained she wanted to write a story which would “speak to the mysterious fears of our nature and awake thrilling horror--one to make the reader dread to look round, to curdle the blood, and quicken the beatings of the heart”. One night at Villa Diodati after a nightly discussion concerning galvanism (dead muscles which twitch when stimulated by electricity) Mary had a waking dream. A dream about a feeble young student kneeling beside his creation with the most obnoxious and formidable body mother earth had ever seen. Next morning she started writing on her novel which she finished in May 1817 and got published in March 1818.

In 1817 she also gave birth to their third child, little Clara Everina who died the following year, and in 1819 they moved to Italy where three-year-old William died from malaria; afterwards Mary suffered from nervous breakdowns. Mary, sorrowful and depressed couldn’t welcome her fourth child, Percy Florence, more. In 1822 she nearly died due to a dangerous miscarriage, and her husband Percy drowned while sailing during a storm. Mary, now widow, moved back to England with her only child determined not to remarry but devote her life to writing and her son’s welfare and education. Mary had to struggle to support herself and Percy Florence until Sir Timothy Shelley’s death in 1844 when Percy Florence inherited his grandfather’s baronetcy and money. Four years later Percy Florence married one of Mary’s admirer, Jane St. John. On the 1st of February in 1851 Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley died only fifty-four years old due to, many think a brain tumour.

Works of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley

Mounseer Nongtongpaw; or, The Discoveries of John Bull in a Trip to Paris (1808)
History of a 6 Weeks'''' Tour Through a Part of France, Switzerland, Germany & Holland, with Letters Descriptive of a Sail Round the Lake of Geneva, & of the Glaciers of Chamouni, with contributions by Percy Bysshe Shelley (1817)
Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus (1818)
Valperga; or, The Life and Adventures of Castruccio, Prince of Lucca (1823)
(Editor) Posthumous Poems of Percy Bysshe Shelley (1824)
The Last Man (1833)
The Fortunes of Perkin Warbeck (1834)
Lodore (1835)
Falkner (1837)
(Editor) The Poetical Works of Percy Bysshe Shelley (1839)
(Editor) Essays, Letters from Abroad, Translations and Fragments by Percy Bysshe Shelley (1840)
Rambles in Germany and Italy in 1840, 1842, and 1843 (1844)
The Choice: A Poem on Shelley''''s Death (1876)
The Mortal Immortal (1910)
Proserpine and Midas: Two Unpublished Mythological Dramas (1922)
Mathilda (1959)

Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein nearly 2 centuries ago, and it still inspires directors. The first film was directed by James Whale in 1931 with Boris Karloff as the monster,
And the latest movie was published in 1994 directed by Kenneth Branagh. With at least 50 movies on the list, Shelley sure did strike gold.

Frankenstein-Main Characters

Viktor Frankenstein

Frankenstein, born into a home of wealth with a traditional family structure, couldn’t have anything less than an idyllic and loving childhood. As a child he developed his craving for knowledge which starts with poems and then accelerates further onto science. He is the only child until his parents adopt Elizabeth an orphan whom he promises to love and protect as his sister. At the age of seventeen Frankenstein enters the University of Ingolstadt where his thirst of science exaggerates into a desire to master nature and unlock its secrets. He changes drastically from this sweet and kind Victor into a selfish and sick man who becomes totally absorbed with his scientific obsession() and neglects his family and friends. At the night of his endeavours triumph, his senses catch up with his reasons and afterwards he suffers from vicious nightmares, nervous breakdowns and seems to be almost paranoid. He tries to forget the fact that he indeed created life and it walks on earth among mankind. The silence of the creature’s existence during Justine’s trial, just to save himself and his reputation shows his lack of self-sacrifice. As the creator he doesn‘t feel the slightest responsible until he listens to the creatures story and his request. Victor refuses to create another being, the creature’s “Eve” and jeopardize the life of his family and friends whom he love and saves the race of man. I can’t decide whether he is brave, noble or just very foolish. After the murder of his beloved Elizabeth, his hunting for the creature becomes his obsession and dies trying.

The Creature

A handcrafted product of Frankenstein’s attempt on playing God, who grow evil and revengeful in the absence of his creator. Its features are only described by Victor and the creature itself, whose name we never get to know. He is indeed, like any other infant, innocent and looks upon the world with eyes full of wonder. Deserted and formidable -looking he tries to make contact with other people though keeps being rejected. He takes refuge into the forests near Ingolstadt trying to analyse his environments and learning the language of his own body. When the winter comes, it is to cold to live outside so he inhabits a little shed belonging to the De Lacey family. There he develops his speech only by imitating the family, although he was quite bewildered in the beginning. We also learn about the benevolent and kind side of him. They know nothing of his presence until he talks to the old, blind man whereupon he gets rejected, once again, and curse mankind and his creator. In the end, we get to know that he didn’t enjoy the murders he committed, and that he was fond his creator after all.

Structure and narrative techniques

At first we’re introduced to Robert Walton, the adventure sailor on his way to explore the North Pole, who will be Frankenstein’s audience and the reader’s stand-in. Frankenstein will be the primarily narrator telling us about his destruction, which has already occurred. Frankenstein starts with telling him about his family and childhood and shows the importance of love, kindness and unselfishness. Gradually he tells us events leading to his downfall.
In chapter 11-17 the creature is narrating with Victor as the listener, a sharp move by Shelley, showing us that this creature do possess a “good” side.
There from Victor is the narrator until the middle of chapter 24 when Frankenstein dies, Robert Walton finishes off the book with some letters. By this narrative technique, Frankenstein telling Walton, who is somewhat resembling Frankenstein in his search of knowledge and success, his story we may conclude that I, the reader, are suppose to learn something from this novel as well, where I can only speculate in what I was to be taught. Without doubt I can say that this powerful and timeless gothic horror-novel, portraying Frankenstein also contains segments of Shelley’s life.

Theme and its context

Did Shelley want to teach me the consequence of lack of forethought?
-Perhaps she was, but I don’t think that was the main message, although it plays a big part in this novel. Frankenstein in his obsession of creating life, don’t think once about the eventually consequence in giving birth to a being without a woman or how this child will pursue living whilst looking so hideous and deformed.

Is this a proof of how shallow and superficial man can be?
-Looking at page 137 containing the incident when the creature accidentally kills William; when this little child calls him hideous monster, we see that even this little boy, presumably taught by his family, is shallow, which is the main reason of him being constantly rejected, but not the main message in this novel.

Is this a literature-evidence in what bad parenting and lack of love can result in?
-Indeed! If Frankenstein gave the creature an ounce of love or consideration, I think, the outcome would have been somewhat altered. I may also infer that Shelley’s dreads are reflected in the novel. Her fears of not being a sufficient parent or not being able to love the child. Following quote is picked from s. 136, when a little girl falls into a rapid streamed river;

“I rushed from my hiding-place and with extreme labour from the current, saved her and dragged her to shore. She was senseless and I endeavoured by every means in my power to restore animation…”

He had been rejected many times but still, he saved the girl, an evidence that he truly is a loving creature who later, in agony and despair, perform mean deeds he didn’t intend to do.

Does Shelley want to tell me that I should be happy with myself?
To quote words of wisdom from Frankenstein/Shelley;

“Learn from me, if not by my precepts, at least by my example, how dangerous is the acquirement of knowledge, and how much happier that man is who believes his native town to be the world, than he who aspires to become greater than his nature will allow.” (Page 81, Frankenstein)

Is this the actual main message or just a reaction to the enlightenment?
Either way, it’s a beautiful quote, though its content doesn’t appeal to me. He who wants to know reality in its entirety, must also explore the laws of his imagination. Where would humanity be today if we never took a little step further?


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