Mary Shelley’s fame as a writer rests on a
single novel, Frankenstein. Millions of people
who have never heard of Mary Shelley know
her story through the films and other media
inspired by the novel. The word “Frankenstein”
has become a synonym for monster, and
Shelley’s tragic tale—about a well-intentioned
student of science and his human-like creation—
has been given myth-like status.
Born in 1797, Shelley was the daughter of
two of England’s leading intellectual radicals.
Her father, William Godwin, was an influential
political philosopher and novelist. Her mother,
Mary Wollstonecraft, the author of A Vindication
of the Rights of Woman, was a pioneer in promoting
women’s rights and education. Shelley never
knew her mother, who died ten days after giving
birth, but she was influenced throughout her life
by her mother’s writings and reputation.
When Mary was four, her father remarried.
Mary received no formal education, but Mr.
Godwin encouraged his daughter to read from
his well-stocked library. The Godwin household
was also a place of lively intellectual conversation.
Many writers visited Godwin to talk about
philosophy, politics, science, and literature.
When Mary was nine, she and her stepsister hid
under a sofa to hear Samuel Taylor Coleridge
recite his poem “The Rime of the Ancient
Mariner.” This popular poem later influenced
Shelley as she developed her ideas for
Mary’s future husband, the widely admired
poet Percy Shelley, was one of her father’s frequent
visitors. When Mary was sixteen, she and
Percy eloped to France. They married in 1816
and lived together for eight years, until Percy’s
early death. They spent their time traveling in
Switzerland, Germany, and Italy, visiting with
friends; studying literature, languages, music
and art; and writing. In her journal, Shelley
described her years with Percy as “romantic
beyond romance.” Her life during this period was
also filled with personal tragedy. She gave birth
to four children in five years, three of whom died
as infants. Many critics have pointed out that
thoughts of birth and death were much on
Shelley’s mind at the time she wrote Frankenstein.
Mary Shelley did not put her name on the
novel when it was published in 1818. Many
reviewers and readers assumed it was written by
Percy Shelley because he had written the preface.
Mary Shelley’s name was first attached to the
novel in the 1831 edition for which she wrote the
introduction. Remembering back fifteen years, she
explained in the introduction how an eighteenyear-
old came to write the unusual novel.
After Percy’s death in 1822 in a boating
accident, Mary Shelley returned to England and
supported herself, her son, and her father with
her writings. She wrote four novels, including
The Last Man (1826), a futuristic story about the
destruction of the human race. She also wrote short stories, essays, and travelogues. To preserve her husband’s literary legacy, she collected and annotated Percy Shelley’s poems for publication. She died in 1851.
Introducing the Novel:
In the introduction to the 1831 edition of
Frankenstein, Mary Shelley explains how she came
to write her famous novel. In the summer of 1816,
she and Percy Shelley were living near the poet
Lord Byron and his doctor-friend John Polidori on
Lake Geneva in the Swiss Alps. During a period of
incessant rain, the four of them were reading ghost
stories to each other when Byron proposed that
they each try to write one. For days Shelley could
not think of an idea. Then, while she was listening
to Lord Byron and Percy discussing the probability
of using electricity to create life artificially, according to a theory called galvanism, an idea began to grow in her mind:
Perhaps a corpse would be re-animated;
galvanism had given token of such things:
perhaps the component parts of a creature might
be manufactured, brought together, and
[endued] with vital warmth.
The next day she started work on Frankenstein.
A year later, she had completed her novel. It was
published in 1818, when Shelley was nineteen
Frankenstein is an example of a gothic novel.
This type of novel was popular between 1760 and
1820. The main ingredients of the gothic novel
are mystery, horror, and the supernatural. The
word gothic itself has several meanings. It can
mean harsh or cruel, referring to the barbaric
Gothic tribes of the Middle Ages. It can also
mean “medieval,” referring to the historical
period associated with castles and knights in
armor. In literature the term applies to works with
a brooding atmosphere that emphasize the unknown and inspire fear. Gothic novels typically feature wild and remote settings, such as haunted castles or wind-blasted moors, and their plots involve violent or mysterious events.
While the atmosphere of Shelley’s Frankenstein
is nightmarish, the novel is much more than a
horror story. Shelley’s central characters—a
young student of science and the man-like being
he creates—are both morally complex. Through
their conflict, Shelley poses profound questions
about science and society and about the positive
and destructive sides of human nature. These
questions struck a chord with Shelley’s readers in
the early 1800s—a time of startling breakthroughs
in science and technology and a growing
faith in the power of science to improve human life. Today, in a world where scientific advances such as cloning and genetic engineering seem to be redefining life itself, her questions are no less relevant.
The Time and Place:
The novel takes place in the late 1700s in
various parts of Europe, especially Switzerland
and Germany, and in the Arctic. Frankenstein
was published in 1818 in England at the height
of the Romantic movement. This movement in
art and literature was based in part on the feeling
of optimism about human possibilities that pervaded
Western culture after the American and French revolutions. In England the post-revolutionary period was also a time of economic suffering and social disorder as the new industrialism transformed English
society. Shelley’s readers lived in hopeful, but also
disturbingly turbulent, times. The Romantic movement, which lastedfrom about 1798 to 1832, pulled away from the period known as the Enlightenment, which emphasized reason and logic. English writers of the Romantic period believed in the importance of the individual. They valued subjectivity, imagination, and the expression of emotions over rational thought. The typical Romantic hero, found especially in the poetry of Lord Byron and Percy Shelley, is passionate, uninhibited, and unconventional. Often the hero is an
artist who is a social rebel or a melancholy outcast from society.
The Romantic poets, including William
Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, John Keats, and Percy Shelley, transport their readers to the private worlds of the poets’ imaginations. Often, they isolate themselves in nature and celebrate its beauty or its elemental rawness.They were also attracted to stories and settings from the past. Percy Shelley, for example,
made Prometheus, the symbol of creative striving
in Greek mythology, the hero of his poetic drama
Mary Shelley’s gothic novel Frankenstein was
labeled “romantic fiction” by an early reviewer. It
is a powerful work of imagination that uses exotic
natural settings and emphasizes the emotions of
fear and awe. Many scholars also see her novel as
a critique of Romantic ideals. The “modern
Prometheus” she holds up for readers’ evaluation,
Dr. Frankenstein, is an ambiguous character who
may or may not be worthy of our admiration.
In the early 1800s, scientists were on the verge
of discovering the potential of electricity. At this
time, scientists knew about the existence of static electricity as well as electricity produced by lightning. But they were just beginning to discover that electricity could be produced by a chemical reaction.
In the 1780s, Luigi Galvani, a professor of anatomy in Bologna, Italy, conducted experiments on animal tissue using a machine that could produce electrical sparks. He concluded that animal tissue contained electricity in the form of a fluid. Galvani’s theory of “animal electricity”
was shown to be incorrect, but he had proven that muscles contracted in response to an electrical stimulus. His research opened the way to new discoveries about the operation of nerves and muscles and showed that electrical forces exist in living tissue. In the novel,
Frankenstein learns about the controversial theory of “galvanism” as part of his scientific training at a university in Germany. Today, galvanism refers to a direct current of electricity produced by a chemical reaction.