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The Origin of a Myth:
Mary Shelley's Novel
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Portrait of Mary Shelley

The life of a monster creator:
Mary Shelley's biography

Even before she was born, Mary Shelley (1797-1851) was destined to become one of the most prominent figures in English literature. Both her parents were revolutionaries and writers: Her father William Godwin (1756-1836) was an English journalist and novelist and one of the major proponents of anarchist philosophy. His most famous works were An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice, an attack on political institutions, and The Adventures of Caleb Williams, which attacks aristocratic privilege.
Mary's mother Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797), one of the earliest feminists, was equally radical. In her book A Vindication of the Rights of Women Wollstonecaft argues that the inferior role of women in society was not natural, but rather a consequence of miseducation. She called for equality of women and men, the women's right to work and proper education for girls. Although she died ten days after giving birth to her daughter Mary, her works continued to influence Mary Shelley.

Mary grew up surrounded by intellectual minds and she was educated and tutored by her father, who  married his second wife Mary Jane Clairmont in 1801.
In 1812 Mary Wollstonecroft Godwin met Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822), who visited her father at his bookshop. Percy Shelley, a poet and radical free-thinker, fell in love with Mary, despite being still married to his first wife Harriet. Mary and Percy both shared a love for literature and they used to discuss literary classics and philosophy. In the summer of 1814 they eloped to France, together with Mary's step sister Jane Clairmont. Mary's father, who had always proclaimed free love, did not approve of this relationship and did not talk to his daughter for more than a year.
In 1816 Mary and Percy travelled to Switzerland, where Mary conceived Frankenstein. They got married on December 30, after Percy's first wife Harriet had comitted suicide.
This was followed by a period of constant moving, first in England, later in Italy, which was overshadowed by the death of Mary's children Clara and Will. On 8 July 1822 - the Shelleys had moved to Pisa earlier - Percy Shelley died in a sailing accident. Mary was left with her only surviving child Percy Florence Shelley and spent the rest of her life in England promoting her late husband's work. She also continued her own literary career. In 1826 she published The Last Man, a science fiction novel about a post-apocaclyptic world ravaged by a terrible plague, which became her second-best known book.
Mary Shelley continued to be surrounded by prominent figures of literature and art, but at the same time was met with hostility and disapproval from more conventional circles. She died on 1 February 1851.

Mary Wollstonecraft                                  William Godwin                                 Percy Bysshe Shelley


Creating a legend: The summer of 1816

The origin of Frankenstein is almost as mysterious and exciting as the novel itself. It all began back in the summer of 1816 at the famed Villa Diodati on the shores of Lake Geneva, Switzerland, where Mary Shelley spent most of that summer together with her future husband Percy Bysshe Shelley, her stepsister Claire Clairmont, Lord Byron and Dr. John Polidori, Byron's physician. Inspired by a reading of the Fantasmagoriana, a collection of German ghost stories, on June 16 they decided to try their hands on supernatural stories themselves.
The first one to come up with a story was Polidori, who began his now famous tale The Vampyre. Its main protagonist Lord Ruthven was supposedly modeled on Lord Byron. However, Mary Shelley was not that quick in creating her first piece of literature. Initially, she suffered from some kind of writer's block and produced nothing so far until one day she had (or claimed to have) a sort of vision that finally inspired her to write Frankenstein. She described this vision in the preface of the novel: 

"I placed my head on my pillow, I did not sleep, nor could I be said to think. My imagination unbidden, possessed and guided me.. I saw with shut eyes, but acute mental vision, - the pale student of unhallowed arts standing before the thing he had put together, I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life and stir with an uneasy, half vital motion... frightful must it be; for supremely frightful would be the effect of any human endeavour to mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world. His success would terrify the artist; he would rush away from his odious handiwork, horror stricken.... He (the artist) sleeps but he is awakened; he opens his eyes; behold, the horrid thing stands at his bedside, opening his curtains and looking on him with yellow, watery, but speculative eyes."

A couple of days later, Mary Shelley finally began to write her own ghost story that would then become chapter IV of Frankenstein. She completed the novel in 1817 and the first edition was published anonymously in 1818, with a preface by Percy Shelley. (A brief summary is available here.) Only 500 copies were printed and the novel was split in three parts. Although historical novelist Walter Scott, author of Ivanhoe, liked Frankenstein and wrote "the work impresses us with a high idea of the author's original genius and happy power of expression", most reviews at the time were rather unfavourable. The Quarterly Review wrote the following in 1818:

"Our taste and our judgement alike revolt at this kind of writing, and the greater the ability with which it may be executed the worse it is -- it inculcates no lesson of conduct, manners, or morality; it cannot mend, and will not even amuse its readers, unless their taste have been deplorably vitiated"

Still, the novel had already become quite popular and had even spawned several theatrical adaptations, the best known of them Brinsley Peake's Presumption.
A second edition (this time credited to Mary Shelley) was published in 1823 in two volumes.
In October 1831 a revised edition of Frankenstein was published in one volume. Mary Shelley had made several changes to this version: She added a longer preface, Victor Frankenstein was portrayed as a more benevolent character and indications of an incestuous relationship between Victor and Elizabeth were removed by clearly marking her as the adopted child of the Frankensteins.

Frontispiece illustration to 1831 edition of Frankenstein

When Mary Shelley composed Frankenstein, she was influenced by several literary classics she had read with her future husband Percy. She references these works in Frankenstein, among them Ovid's Metamorphoses and John Milton's Paradise Lost.
At one point in the novel, the monster says, after reading Paradise Lost, he sympathizes with Satan's role in the story:

"But  Paradise Lost excited different and far deeper emotions.
[...] Like Adam, I was apparently united by no link to any other being
in existence; but his state was far different from mine in every
other respect. He had come forth from the hands of God a perfect
creature, happy and prosperous, guarded by the especial care
of his Creator; he was allowed to converse with, and acquire
knowledge from, beings of a superior nature: but I was wretched,
helpless, and alone. Many times I considered Satan as the fitter
emblem of my condition; for often, like him, when I viewed
the bliss of my protectors, the bitter gall of envy rose within me.

The name Frankenstein was probably taken from a castle near the German town of Darmstadt, where Mary and Percy had travelled through on their way from Basel. According to a highly disputed theory by German historian Walter Scheele, Mary had heard of Johann Konrad Dippel, a German alchemist, who had lived at Burg Frankenstein in the early 18th century. Legend has it that Dippel experimented with dead bodies and was able to create an artificial monster, just like Victor Frankenstein.
Additionally, alchemy and galvanism were popular topics at the time and Mary knew about them.

One particularly interesting influence is the Swiss painter Henry Fuseli, who once had a relationship with Mary's mother, that lasted four years. Fuseli's painting The Nightmare
inspired the description of Elizabeth's dead body flung across her bridal bed just after her murder by the creature in chapter 23:

"She was there, lifeless and inanimate, thrown across the
bed, her head hanging down, and her pale and distorted features
half covered by her hair. Everywhere I turn I see the same
figure--her bloodless arms and relaxed form flung by the
murderer on its bridal bier."

The Nightmare by Henry Fuseli (1781-82)


What to do with a monster: Interpreting Frankenstein

           But what exactly was it that Shelley wanted to express with Frankenstein ? Does she condemn the protagonist Victor Frankenstein for his hubris or does she approve of his deeds? Due to the fact that throughout the novel Frankenstein, Mary Shelley never explicitly comments on her position, Frankenstein is an open invitation for all sorts of theories and interpretations. The following section is dedicated to these questions and presents a number of possible different interpretations of Frankenstein based on the work of several critics.

These different readings of Frankenstein, on the one hand conservative criticism on science, on the other hand the Promethean believe in the unlimited progress of science, are based on the three different narrators of the novel. Two contradicting points of view are expressed in the narratives of Frankenstein and the Monster, whereas Walton's frame narrative basically supports Victor Frankenstein's point of view. Therefore the value of Mary Shelley's novel lies not in presenting a clear morale but in encouraging the readers to make up their own.

            Victor Frankenstein's original reasons for creating life from dead parts are noble. His driving force is the desire to help mankind conquer death and diseases. But when he finally reaches the goal of his efforts and sees his creature and its ugliness, he turns away from it and flees the monstrosity he has created. From that moment on he tries to suppress the consequences of his experiments and wants to escape them by working in other sciences. Victor even withdraws from his friends and psychological changes are visible.
Mary Shelley seems not to condemn the act of creation but rather Frankenstein's lack of willingness to accept the responsibility for his deeds. His creation only becomes a monster at the moment his creator deserts it (1). Thus Frankenstein warns of the careless use of science - the book was written at an early stage of the Industrial Revolution, a period of dramatic scientific and technological advance. This is still an important issue, even 200 years after the book was written. Taken into consideration what many inventions of the last 50 years brought upon mankind, one must assume that many scientists still do not care much. (E.g. the splitting of the atom was turned into nuclear bombs and the invention of the computer resulted in an eerie dehumanisation of our society). Most scientists seem to be like Victor Frankenstein, who finished his work in the prospect of achieving fame. Only when he realizes the repulsiveness of his creation, Victor comes to senses. Intended as a warning, Victor tells his story to the polar explorer Walton:

"I will not lead you on, unguarded and ardent as I then was, to your destruction and infallible misery. 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." (Shelley: 51-52)(2)

            In his corrupting pursuit for knowledge Victor Frankenstein is compared to Prometheus, as the novel's subtitle "The Modern Prometheus" suggests. In Greek and Roman mythology, the Titan Prometheus creates mankind as an image of the Gods. Later he steals the precious fire form Olympus and gives it to mankind. He is punished by Zeus, who has him chained to Mount Cauasus, where day by day an eagle would eat out his liver, which would then grow back. It is a typical example of "hubris", where a character is doomed because he transgresses his limits and rises up against some sort of authority, in Greek mythology usually a divine authority. The mythological Prometheus rebelled against the Gods when he gave fire to humankind; Frankenstein is a rebel against nature when he tries not only to find the secret of life but also to remove life's defects (3).
But even more so, in Victor Frankenstein both aspects of the Prometheus myth are embodied: the transgressive (hubris/rebellion against authority) and the creative (Prometheus also molded mankind from pieces of clay). Therefore Frankenstein is truly a drama of the romantic promethean hero who fails in his attempt to help mankind.

            Feminist literary theory claims that Frankenstein's act of creation is not only a sin against God/nature. It is also an act against the "female principle", which includes natural procreation as one of its central aspects. The Monster, the result of male arrogance, is the enemy and destroyer of the eternal female principle (4). The Monster is the child of an unnatural act of procreation in which woman has become unnecessary. The male, who is the executive power in a patriarchal system, has deprived woman of her most natural function because he is now able to create children without female participation. The present discussion about genetic engineering and human cloning shows that this is not a far-fetched utopia.

At least in his subconscious Frankenstein must have realised his crime against the "female principle", which becomes clear in the following symbolic dream. In the night after the reanimation of the Monster Victor has a nightmare in which he kills his mother and his fiancée:

Frankenstein creates the fiend - illustration by
Bernie Wrightson (© 1977)

"I thought I saw Elizabeth, in the bloom of health, walking in the streets of Ingolstadt. Delighted and surprised, I embraced her; but as I imprinted the first kiss on her lips, they became livid with the hue of death; her features appeared to change, and I thought that I held the corpse of my dead mother in my arms; a shroud enveloped her form, and I saw the grave-worms crawling in the folds of the flannel. " (Shelley: 57) (2)

At the same time Frankenstein is not willing to fully take the role of the mother of his "child". Immediately after its birth he leaves his child and thereby evades his parental duty to care for the child.

          Walton, constructed as a parallel to Frankenstein, is kept from continuing his dangerous journey by Frankenstein's cautionary tale. But in contrast to Walton Frankenstein's character remains somehow ambivalent. Although he feels remorse for his deeds he ends his tale with a rather strange statement:

"Farewell, Walton!  Seek happiness in tranquillity and avoid ambition, even if it be only the apparently innocent one of distinguishing yourself in science and discoveries. Yet why do I say this? I have myself been blasted in these hopes, yet another may succeed." (Shelley: 210) (2)

Victor Frankenstein has given up his attempts to create artificial life. But he still hopes that someone else may successfully continue his works. This last sentence makes all his warnings look like a farce. And it also brings up the assumption that Mary Shelley really did not condemn the Promethean striving of her hero. Probably she was not against scientific progress but only wanted to warn of carelessness in science.

          A totally different position is represented in the Monster's narrative, the central part of the novel. If only this narrative is considered, the Monster appears to be an almost perfect creation (apart from his horrible appearance), who appears often more human than the humans themselves. He is benevolent (he saves a little child; he helps the De Lacey family collecting firewood), intelligent and cultured (he learns to read and talk in a very short time; he reads Goethe's Werther, Milton's Paradise Lost and Plutarch's works). The only reason why he fails is his repulsive appearance. After having been rejected and attacked again and again by everyone he encounters only because of his horrible physiognomy, the Monster, alone and left on his own, develops a deadly hatred against his creator Frankenstein and against all of mankind. Therefore only society is to blame for the dangerous threat to mankind that the Monster has become. If people had adopted the Monster into their society instead of being biased against him and mistreating him he would have become a valuable member of the human society due to his outstanding physical and intellectual powers.

Mary Shelley's husband, the romantic poet Percy B. Shelley, saw Frankenstein as a summing up of one of the central ideas of the enlightenment movement. The moral qualities and faults of a human being are mainly the products of his/her private and social environment (5). Everything we become is simply a question of nature vs. nurture. In his review "On Frankenstein" (1818) Percy B. Shelley wrote:

"Nor are the crimes and malevolence of the single Being, though indeed withering and tremendous, the offspring of any unaccountable propensity to evil, but flow irresistibly from certain causes fully adequate to their production. They are the children, as it were, of Necessity and Human nature. In this the direct morale of the book consists, and it is perhaps the most important and of the most universal application of any morale that can be enforced by example - Treat a person ill and he will become wicked. Requite affection with scorn; let one being be selected for whatever cause as the refuse of his kind - divide him, a social being, from society, and you impose upon him the irresistible obligations - malevolence and selfishness. It is thus that too often in society those who are best qualified to be its benefactors and its ornaments are branded by some accident with scorn, and changed by neglect and solitude of heart into a scourge and a curse."

For Percy Shelley the problem does not seem to be Frankenstein's promethean transgression because danger for mankind is not rooted in science but in society itself. In this context Frankenstein's final words become quite clear: Someone else should continue his experiments and remove the creature's visible defects, in other words assemble a creature with a more beautiful appearance, which would be accepted by society more easily. If this could be achieved, the result would be the perfect artificial human being.

          At this point other critics continue and read Frankenstein in a different context. To them the book works as a harsh criticism on religion. (6) The horrible physiognomy of the Monster is only a result of Frankestein's hurry and anxiety caused by his awareness of committing a sin against God. Because of this unrest he uses inadequate materials and assembles them too quickly. It implies that a scientist can only work for the benefit of mankind if he breaks with the church and its values. This reading of Frankenstein may have been influenced by Percy Shelley's pamphlet "The Necessity of Atheism" (1810), where he states that a reasoning human being has to deny the existence of God due to a lack of proofs. However, one might easily share my opinion that this interpretation of Frankenstein is a bit far-fetched. Since Victor Frankenstein is not at all a professional surgeon he cannot be expected to create a perfect human being out of partly rotten body parts, especially not with the kind of instruments, assistance and funding he uses.

In her preface to Frankenstein Mary Shelley admits that her main goal was simply to write a ghost story. She got the idea for what she later called her "hideous progeny" during the legendary summer of 1816, which she spent at Lake Geneva in Switzerland together with Percy Shelley, Lord Byron and Dr. John Polidori. Inspired by Fantasmagoriana, a French translation of German Gothic tales, they held some kind of ghost story competition where Mary Shelley invented her story of Frankenstein.

But the classification of Frankenstein as a ghost story, Gothic novel or horror novel is not fully adequate, considering the following facts: It contains no supernatural apparitions such as ghosts, witches, devils, demons or sorcerers. In Frankenstein all "diabolical agency has been replaced by human, natural and scientific powers" (7). Other typical Gothic elements, e.g. ruined castles, graveyards and charnel houses, appear only briefly or in the distance. And unlike most Gothic novels Frankenstein is set in the 18th rather than in the 15th century. Shelley also abandoned the simple good-evil scheme of the Gothic novel. Neither Frankenstein nor the Monster are one hundred percent good or evil. Instead they are both highly ambivalent characters. Frankenstein is rather a kind of novel German literary critics call "Entwicklungsroman", a form of the novel showing the development of an individual's character. Both Victor and his creation change during the novel as a consequence of their relationship. Furthermore, one could argue that it shows the Monster's development from earliest childhood to adulthood. And by making its protagonist hero as well as victim Frankenstein is clearly set in the context of Romanticism.

The Frankenstein monster as a symbol for cloning: Cartoon on stem cell research by Dick Wright (© 2001)

But since one of its main topics is a scientific discovery, Frankenstein could equally be called a precursor of the science fiction novel. The artificially created Monster is often seen as a foreshadowing of recent scientific developments like test-tube babies, robots and organ transplantation. The Monster may also be interpreted as "a symbol of the ambiguous nature of the machine" (8) or as a symbol of modern technology.

© 2000-2007 Andreas Rohrmoser



1 cf. Weber, Ingeborg, "Doch einem mag es gelingen". Mary Shelley's “Frankenstein“: Text, Kontext, Wirkung; Vorträge des Frankenstein-Symposiums in Ingolstadt (Juni 1993). Ed. Günther Blaicher (Essen: Verlag Die Blaue Eule, 1994) 24
2 Page numbers in quotations from Mary Shelley's Frankenstein refer to the following edition:
Shelley, Mary: Frankenstein. (London: Penguin Books, 1992)
3 cf. Gassenmeier, Michael, "Erzählstruktur, Wertambivalenz und Diskursvielfalt in Mary Shelleys Frankenstein". Mary Shelley's “Frankenstein“: Text, Kontext, Wirkung; Vorträge des Frankenstein-Symposiums in Ingolstadt (Juni 1993). Ed. Günther Blaicher (Essen: Verlag Die Blaue Eule, 1994) 42
4 cf Markus, Manfred, "Mary Shelleys Frankenstein aus biographischer Sicht". Mary Shelley's “Frankenstein“: Text, Kontext, Wirkung; Vorträge des Frankenstein-Symposiums in Ingolstadt (Juni 1993). Ed. Günther Blaicher (Essen: Verlag Die Blaue Eule, 1994) 61
5 cf Gassenmeier 1994: 28
6 cf Gassenmeier 1994: 43
7 Botting, Fred, Gothic (London: Routledge, 1996) 103
8 Baldick, Chris. In Frankenstein's Shadow: Myth, Monstrosity, and Nineteenth-Century Writing. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990) 7