MARY WOLLSTONECRAFT SHELLEY (1797-1851) was born in London, daughter of two eminent figures of the English intellectual circle of that time, in fact her father was the philosopher WILLIAM GODWIN (1756-1836) and her mother, who died ten days after her birth, MARY WOLLSTONECRAFT (1759-1797) had been a writer and a fervent feminist activist who advocated public education as she firmly believed that only a good education could free man from any form of oppression and slavery. Wollstonecraft Shelley’s father remarried two years after her mother’s death and the poor relationship she had with her step-mother troubled her emotionally and somewhat influenced her literary production.
She grew up in a lively cultural environment, strongly affected by the political and social standpoints she heard about her since early childhood as her family home was often a meeting place for many of the most representative English personages of the time with whom she came in contact such as radical thinkers, as W. Blake, Romantic poets as S. T. Coleridge and P. B. Shelley who was to play an extremely relevant role in her life.
The poet Percy B. Shelley was often visiting the Godwin household and he soon fell in love with Mary Wollstonecraft-Godwin despite the fact that he was already married and she only seventeen. The relationship obviously caused great scandal and the two lovers were forced to elope and to leave England to escape from the harsh disapproval they received resulting in social isolation, at first, they went to Switzerland where they set up a house close to Byron who already lived there. In the mean time Shelley’s wife, who couldn’t bear the social consequences that entailed, committed suicide. In 1816 Mary Wollstonecraft-Godwin married P. B. Shelley and moved to Italy where the poet died in an accident at sea near Livorno. When Wollstonecraft Shelley returned to England she continued writing and lived with her son’s family till she died in 1851.
Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (fro a brief Outline, click here) is the author of what is probably considered the most famous gothic novel, Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus, (1818), it was published anonymously when she wasn’t yet twenty. The original idea of the novel, which represents the prose counterpart of Early Romantic poetry, came to her one evening during her Swiss sojourn, while she, Shelley and Byron to pass time entertained themselves by playing a game of story-telling and each was to tell the others a ghost story. Wollstonecraft Shelley’s story was initially taken from a nightmare she had had and that later she developed into the novel.
Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus, (1818), The Plot of the novel
The plot is altogether simple, it’s about a Swiss scientist, Dr. Frankenstein, who creates a human being by assembling different parts of several corpses and to whom he gives life by applying the new theories of chemistry and electricity developed recently, although he painstakingly chooses each part and carefully prepares his experiment the result is hideous and the creature, due to the horror he inspires in others and the ensuing banishment, consequently becomes a murder enraged against society.
If the plot as delineated above is simple the narrative, on the other hand, is quite complex as the author provides the reader with three levels of narrations, therefore with three different points of views and it is written in the epistolary form, as Richardson’s novels were. Walton, a young explorer bound at all costs to reach the North Pole, saves from sure death Dr. Frankenstein during his expedition, the scientist tells him of his experiment and of the creature’s experience. The events recounted do not follow a chronological order because they are related by Walton in his letters to his sister, Margaret Walton Saville, who apparently is the only receiver. Note that the initials of Walton’s sister are the same of the author’s who, as it has been speculated, may have chosen the three narrators to dissimulate her female identity. The structure is, at times, confusing as are some improbable episodes, the novel in fact did not immediately receive praising reviews and Jane Austen, on her part, wrote its parody in Northanger Abbey; nonetheless it is not as simplistic as it was at first thought to have been.
Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley was familiar with all the scientific discoveries and the ethical debate that developed around them and, like many, she was concerned about the consequences that could result, as she shows in her novel, by portraying the terrible sufferings and unhappiness that befall upon the blameless creature disowned by his master and condemned to social isolation and emotional loneliness for his appearance and for being different. This underlines the corrupting elements within society that will push the creature to criminal actions to subdue the pain stemmed by the rage resulting from social rejection based solely on the fact that he looked monstrous. It is only after he is educated through his unbearable experience that he understands other’s reactions at the mere sight of him and even sympathises with them to some extent, yet it doesn’t help him to ease the pain, on the contrary, it strengthens his awareness of being a forlorn error and that he would have been much better off if Dr. Frankenstein’s experiment had failed. It is, in fact, against his creator that he lets out his wrath and he searches revenge by destroying the scientist. It is evident that Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley is on the side of the creature since she sees him as the victim of society’s obtuse inadequacy in dealing with the diverse; but above all she sees him as the victim of the scientist’s arrogant presumptuousness; Dr. Frankenstein, like Prometheus the Titan, believed he could embody the divine by giving life, thus going beyond the unthinkable in challenging nature’s authority without considering the possible consequences of his actions. In this sense Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley on the one side advocated the French Revolution’s instances, as the monster clearly personifies the revolutionary ideas that fascinate the author, but on the other side, she reveals her fears linked to the aftermath that those same ideas could produce in terms of resulting actions.
The literary influences that permeate Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s novel can be traced back to Rousseau since the creature can also be identified with the Swiss philosopher’s good savage who is innocent in his primitive state until he comes in contact with the corrupting civilisation and its limitations. But there’s also a connection with Locke’s philosophical theories regarding the monster’s self-awareness and his education through experience. Finally, the Romantics influence can be detected especially in Coleridge as both Frankenstein’s creation of the monster and the killing of the albatross in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner can be assimilated to crimes against nature. The Greek mythological influence has already been mentioned, yet there’s still one last issue to investigate, that of the double.
The Theme of the Double
All three main characters (Walton, Dr. Frankenstein and the monster) mirror one and the other to some extent, in fact, Walton is Dr. Frankenstein’s double because of his ambition to accomplish the outstanding journey to the North Pole, going towards the unknown to overcome human limits (Prometheus’ Myth) expressing thus his desire and pride in being different than most. At the same time the scientist and the monster are complementary in their good initial intentions even though in the end they are both isolated and consumed by hatred and revenge. The monster, furthermore, represents the scientist’s obscure side which he escapes from but it continues to haunt him incessantly. After all the reason why the creature feels to be an outcast and rebels against society by murdering lays within his creator’s rejection of him.
© L. R. Capuana