Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (30 August 1797 – 1 February 1851), was a British writer, editor and biographer, the author of the famous classical Gothic novel Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus (1818), and the wife of Percy Bysshe Shelley, a well-known Romantic poet.
Her most recognized book Frankenstein has always been seen as controversial and has stirred dispute from the time it was first published to this day.
The novel is composed epistolary form, or in the form of letters exchanged between two characters – a captain of the ship Robert Walton and his sister, Margaret Walton Saville. Their correspondence form a so-called frame story, which opens and closes the book. The middle section of the book in narrated by the ill-fated protagonist Victor Frankenstein. And finally, there is the point of view of the Monster, who is the third narrator in the book.
The events of the book are taking place in some time during the 18th century.
The novel includes a frame story, where Captain Walton exchanges letters with his sister, Mrs. Margaret Walton Saville. Captain Walton and his crew are exploring the North Pole. At first they see a figure of a gigantic man in the distance, and then discover and rescue another man, almost frozen to death. This man’s name is Victor Frankenstein, and after he partially recovers, he tells the Captain the story of his life.
Victor Frankenstein’s Story
First of all, Victor tells about his childhood. He was born in Naples and was one of three sons of a wealthy family. The children, Victor, Ernest and William, were encouraged since their childhood to study natural sciences, especially chemistry, and Victor becomes literally obsessed by these studies. Meanwhile, when he is 5 years old, his parents adopt an orphan girl Elisabeth Lavenza, who will later become Victor’s bride. Then they also adopt Justine Moritz, who eventually starts working as a nanny for William.
The grown-up Victor enters the University of Ingolstadt, further deepening his knowledge with the help of University professors. Soon he discovers how to make the inanimate matter alive. He starts constructing a humanoid creature from parts of animal and human bodies, and due to technical difficulties of obtaining small details makes it large, about 8 feet tall. The creature turns out to be very ugly and when Victor manages to bring it to life, he is scared and flees in terror.
In the town he meets his long-time friend Henry Clerval, and when they return to Victor’s home, the monster is no longer there, having ran away when Victor was absent.
Victor suffers a nervous breakdown and falls ill. He recovers only after 4 months. When he arrives to his parent’s home, he learns his brother William has been killed. Then he sees the Monster running away from the crime scene and makes a conclusion that the Monster was the killer. However, Justine Moritz is found guilty in this murder, and sentenced to death. Victor can do nothing to prevent it, because nobody will ever believe the story about the Creature.
Desperate, Victor goes away and meets the Monster. To his surprise, Monster can speak very well, and Victor has to listen to his story. After the Monster fled to the woods, he had to live there alone because people were afraid of him. However, he discovered a poor family living in a cottage amidst the woods, and became attached to them. While he secretly lived alongside them, he leant how to speak and then learnt to read after he found some books. When he once saw his reflection in the water, he realized his ugliness. He tried to befriend the family anyway, but they run away in terror. The feeling of injustice and rage made the Monster burn their house down and want revenge upon Victor who created him to live in misery. So he went back to Victor’s home and killed his brother.
The Monster asked Victor to create a wife for him, to let him have some companion. He threatens that if Victor disagrees, the Monster will kill his remaining family members and friends.
Victor has to agree. He and his friend Henry Clerval arrive to England, and Victor starts his work. Soon he becomes afraid that the new Creature will be even more malicious than the original Monster, or than they will breed and pose a danger to humankind. After one more meeting with the Monster, believing that more evil will come of it, Victor destroys the female Creature. The Creature then swears revenge and tells he will be with Victor “on his wedding night”. Victor believes that the Creature promised to kill him on his wedding night.
Then Victor goes to Ireland to meet his friend. However, the Monster strangles Henry to death, and Victor is accused of it. He manages to prove not guilty and later return home to his father.
After some time, he prepares to marry Elizabeth Lavenza. On their wedding night, he prepares for a deadly fight with the Monster, takes weapons and asks his bride to wait for him in her room, while he checks the house. While he is away, the Monster attacks Elisabeth and kills her. Victor shoots at him, but fails to kill him. The Monster escapes, and Victor aims to pursue him to the North Pole, but freezes and falls unconscious on his way. There Victor is found by Captain Robert Walton.
Captain Walton’s Concluding Story
Soon after the Captain’s ship gets caught in the pack ice; some of the crew members die because of the cold weather, and the Captain decides to return to the warmer regions as soon as it is possible. Soon Victor dies, and the Monster is found on the ship mourning over him. The Monster speaks to the Captain and tells he does not feel peaceful after Victor has died, but feels completely lonely because he has killed all the people somehow connected to him. The Monster regrets his actions, swears to commit suicide and drifts away of a piece of ice, until he disappears from view.
The book’s conflicts center around the controversial relations between the creator and his creation, responsibility, and revenge. It also questions the idea if a man has a right to follow his ambition and create living creatures in an unnatural way, or will he be punished for this. The first trouble arises when Victor does not want to be responsible for the living being he made and just leaves it alone. Then, there is a conflict in human society when people don’t want to accept anyone who looks ugly or frightening, no matter his intentions. There is also the question of free will, as the Monster did not ask Victor to make him live and was forced to exist without his consent. The lack of understanding and the immature emotional actions of the characters bring tragedy to them and to the unwitting people around.
The conflict in the book reaches its climax when the Monster kills Elisabeth, the protagonist’s bride.
Victor Frankenstein, the protagonist, the scientist who studied the ways to bring life to inanimate matter and eventually created and brought to life a nameless Creature, or the Frankenstein’s monster. For his ability to create a living being and challenge the existent state of things he is compared in the book subtitle to Prometheus, a rebellious Titan from Ancient Greek mythology.
The Monster, or Creature, a semblance of man created by the inventor Victor Frankenstein from the materials he gets from “the dissecting room and the slaughter-house” and then brought to life using some scientific process – it is not specified in the book what exactly the process involves; it could have been the use of electricity, chemistry, galvanism, or alchemy. The monster is ugly and people flee in terror when seeing him; however, he is not evil at first, but seeks company and sympathy of people, helps a poor family and learns how to speak and read books. Later, when he understands that people hate him and he would remain alone for the rest of his life, he starts hating his creator, Victor Frankenstein, and turns against him, killing his friend and family members in revenge. People often mistakenly call the monster “Frankenstein” while he is nameless in the book.
William – Victor’s young brother murdered by the Monster.
Elizabeth Lavenza – Victor Frankenstein’s bride, killed by the Monster on her and Victor’s wedding night.
Henry Clerval – Victor’s best friend since their childhood age. Another victim of the Monster.
Captain Walton – the captain of the ship which rescued Victor on the way to the North Pole.
Mrs. Margaret Walton Saville – Captain Walton’s sister, to whom he writes letters where he tells the story.
Other characters include Justine Moritz, accused of killing Williams, De Laceys’ family, the university professors M. Krempe and M. Waldman and a number of other people.
The book deals with a number of problems, such is whether a man is allowed to create living beings in an unnatural way, or he and his creation will both suffer punishment from God or Nature. The author also questions and doubts the ideas of both Romanticism and Enlightenment.
Some other important themes of the novel deal with relations between people both inside a family and inside the society. Family was important for Mary Shelley, and Victor Frankenstein can be actually considered the “father” of his Monster, since he created him. However, Victor is not responsible for his actions and decides to flee instead of taking responsibility for his “child”. So the Monster feels lonely when all people he meets fear him and he has nobody to support him; even his creator ultimately refuses to create a wife for him. This is the theme of loneliness, cruelty and misunderstanding.
In its turn, this situation leads to revenge of the Monster who feels injustice and despair and wants cruel people to suffer with him. This leads to him attacking Victor’s friends and relatives and becoming the object of revenge himself, which ends in even more deaths.
There is a number of spot-on quotes dealing with various important subjects of the book.
Quotes about science and what price can be paid for it
“One man’s life or death were but a small price to pay for the acquirement of the knowledge which I sought, for the dominion I should acquire and transmit over the elemental foes of our race.”
Related Characters: Robert Walton (speaker), Mrs. Margaret Walton Saville
Explanation and Analysis: Captain Walton explains his scientific ambitions and the price his is ready to pay for scientific discoveries in a letter to his sister.
“If, instead of this remark, my father had taken the pains to explain to me that the principles of Agrippa had been entirely exploded and that a modern system of science had been introduced which possessed much greater powers than the ancient, because the powers of the latter were chimerical, while those of the former were real and practical, under such circumstances I should certainly have thrown Agrippa aside and have contented my imagination, warmed as it was, by returning with greater ardour to my former studies.”
Related Characters: Victor Frankenstein (speaker)
Explanation and Analysis: Victor compares the ancient science (alchemy) which promised great but impossible things, to the modern science of his time, which is more practical and provides real results. For this reason he chooses to concentrate on modern scientific research rather than wasting any more time on useless ancient philosophy.
Quotes about life and its meaning
“I was dependent on none and related to none. The path of my departure was free, and there was none to lament my annihilation. My person was hideous and my stature gigantic. What did this mean? Who was I? What was I? Whence did I come? What was my destination? These questions continually recurred, but I was unable to solve them.”
Related Characters: the Monster (speaker)
Explanation and Analysis: The Monster is intelligent enough to ask himself questions about who is he, what is his origin and destiny and meaning of his life. This shows him as a smart creature equal to humans, because only humans are interested in such philosophic things.
Quotes about Revenge
“When I reflected on his crimes and malice, my hatred and revenge burst all bounds of moderation. I would have made a pilgrimage to the highest peak of the Andes, could I when there have precipitated him to their base.”
Related Characters: Victor (speaker)
Explanation and Analysis: Victor feels regret and guilt because of actions of the Monster he created, who has already killed two innocent people dear to Victor. Now Victor hates the Monster and wants to do anything to destroy him.
“Cursed, cursed creator! Why did I live? Why, in that instant, did I not extinguish the spark of existence which you had so wantonly bestowed? I know not; despair had not yet taken possession of me; my feelings were those of rage and revenge. I could with pleasure have destroyed the cottage and its inhabitants and have glutted myself with their shrieks and misery.
Related Characters: The Monster (speaker)
Explanation and Analysis: The Monster feels that people treat him with injustice, although initially he did not mean anything evil; so he wants to make them suffer to feel as miserable as he felt.
The book uses some Christian imagery, referring to Victor Frankenstein as the “Creator”, thus comparing him to God, and comparing the Creature to Adam, the first man whom God created. Victor is also compared to Prometheus, a rebellious Titan from Ancient Greek mythology, and Prometheus, in his turn, shares many common features with Satan or Lucifer from Milton’s “Paradise Lost”, which was one of the novel’s sources.
The book’s primary source was its author’s dream, where she saw a scientist, a practitioner of “unhallowed arts” to create a living creature resembling a man.
The book uses the Promethean Myth by Ovid as its source (seen from its subtitle, The Modern Prometheus) and its central character also resembles Satan from Milton’s book Paradise Lost. Mary Shelley also knew the ancient play Prometheus Bound by Aeschylus. It is clear, too, that the author drew her inspiration from Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.
The novel also contains references to the French Revolution, the memories of which were still fresh in its time. There are also several possible prototypes of the protagonist: researchers name the French inventor Frankenstein as well as the scientist Giovanni Aldini known for his experiments with electricity and galvanism and attempts to reanimate people using it, and Johann Konrad Dippel, a chemist and alchemist trying to use chemistry to extend the length of people’s life.
The novel has long become classical and the Frankenstein’s Monster (often mistakenly called Frankenstein himself) is widely recognized in popular culture. The book has been adapted into a movie for numerous times, as well as inspired many derivative works. The first film adaptation took place as early as in 1910. The first sound film was produced in 1931. This movie is now considered classical and there is a number of sequels and other adaptations by different studios. The novel and its villain has since inspired many writings, comics, TV adaptations, stage plays, songs and even parodies.
Mary Shelley was a novelist, an author of biographical writings, poems, short stories and travelogues, as well as the editor of her husband’s writings, which she edited and promoted after his death. She is most known to the wider audience as the author of “Frankenstein”. However, there is a significant number of her other writings which are becoming popular both among scholars and readers.
A short list of her most important writings is the following:
– Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus (1818)
– Mathilda (1819)
– Valperga: Or, the Life and Adventures of Castruccio, Prince of Lucca (1823)
– The Last Man (1826)
– The Fortunes of Perkin Warbeck, A Romance (1830)
– Lodore (1835)
– Falkner. A Novel (1837)
– History of a Six Weeks’ Tour through a Part of France, Switzerland, Germany, and Holland: with Letters Descriptive of a Sail round the Lake of Geneva, and of the Glaciers of Chamouni (1817)
– Rambles in Germany and Italy in 1840, 1842, and 1843 (1844)
– From Frankenstein: or The Modern Prometheus (1818)
– Valerius: The Reanimated Roman (1819)
– A Tale of the Passions, or, the Death of Despina (1822)
– The Bride of Modern Italy (1824)
– Lacy de Vere (1827)
– The Convent of Chailot
– Ferdinando Eboli. A Tale (1828)
– The Mourner (1829)
– The Evil Eye. A Tale (1829)
– The False Rhyme (1829)
– The Swiss Peasant (1830)
– Transformation (1831)
– The Dream, A Tale (1831)
– The Pole (1832)
– The Brother and Sister, An Italian Story (1832)
– The Invisible Girl (1832)
– The Mortal Immortal (1833)
– The Elder Son (1834)
– The Trial of Love (1834)
– The Parvenue (1836)
– The Pilgrims (1837)
– Euphrasia: A Tale of Greece (1838)
– Roger Dodsworth: The Reanimated Englishman (1863)
– The Heir of Mondolfo (1877)
– Proserpine (no exact date of publication)
– Midas (1922)
– Maurice; or, The Fisher’s Cot (1998)
– Contributions to Lives of the most Eminent Literary and Scientific Men of Italy, Spain, and Portugal, Vol. I –III (1835-1837)
– Contributions to Lives of the most Eminent Literary and Scientific Men of France, Vol. I-II (1838-1939) – part of Lardner’s Cabinet Cyclopaedia
– Life of William Godwin (unfinished)
— “Relation of the Death of the Family of the Cenci”. The Poetical Works of Percy Bysshe Shelley. Ed. Mrs. Shelley. 2nd ed. London: Edward Moxon, 1839.
– Shelley, Percy Bysshe. Posthumous Poems of Percy Bysshe Shelley (1824)
– Trelawny, Edward John. Adventures of a Younger Son (1831)
– Godwin, William, Jr. Transfusion; or, The Orphan of Unwalden (1835)
– Shelley, Percy Bysshe. The Poetical Works of Percy Bysshe Shelley (1839)
– Shelley, Percy Bysshe. Essays, Letters from Abroad, Translations and Fragments, by Percy Bysshe Shelley (1840)
Mary Shelley also wrote a number of poems, articles, reviews, letters and journals.