Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley World Literature Analysis
Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley produced a multitude of correspondence, novels, and other sundry works. Criticizing her work as a whole is difficult for a number of reasons. First, the range of her work—from historical romance (The Fortunes of Perkin Warbeck) to horror (Frankenstein) and futuristic tragedy (The Last Man)—is extremely broad. No two of Shelley’s novels are of precisely the same genre. Second, she does not fit neatly into the literary categories of her time. Though Frankenstein is sometimes mistaken for a gothic novel, it eschews that genre’s love of the supernatural and is uncharacteristically cerebral. Finally, literary analysis of her work as a whole is still at a relatively underdeveloped stage.
Despite these problems, several common threads emerge as basic to Shelley’s work. The first of these has to do with style. For her time, Shelley was a highly economical and dispassionate writer. Her works are rarely overwhelmed with weighty details or convoluted language. On the other hand, she often sacrificed characterization and plot for the sake of narrative flow.
Thematically, Shelley’s work is characterized by a strong autobiographical tendency, a consistent concern with the apparent and real nature of family life, and a sophisticated treatment of larger philosophical and social questions. The geographical settings of Shelley’s novels reflected her own travels, and many of the characters in her later novels, especially, were said to be based on literary celebrities whom she had known. In The Last Man, for example, Shelley herself is represented by both Lionel Verney (the narrator and “last man” of the title) and his sister Perdita. The utopian Adrian would seem to be modeled after Percy Bysshe Shelley, while the egotistic Lord Raymond represents Lord Byron. Shelley’s penchant for basing her fiction on real-life models is probably best illustrated by Mathilda. In this tale, a young woman resembling Shelley herself experiences an incestuous relationship with her father and is saved from her own guilty depression by a young man again resembling Percy Bysshe Shelley. That the novel was suppressed, partly by Shelley and partly by her father, is an indication not that such an incestuous relationship took place but that Shelley’s readers were conditioned to see her work as autobiographical in a more literal way than she or her father wished.
As the topic of incest suggests, Shelley often treated the question of family ties in greater depth than was usual for her time. No doubt this reflected her own disappointments in this regard. Birth and death were inextricably linked for Shelley. Her own birth had resulted in the death of her mother, and she had lost three of her own children in infancy. In addition, her husband had died while still a young man, and her father was distant, distracted at different points in his life by Shelley’s stepmother and by persistent money problems. These concerns are reflected in a number of Shelley’s novels—perhaps, in one way or another, in all of them. Lodore, for example, presents the story of a mother who sacrifices everything for her daughter, arriving at the conclusion that all of life’s rewards are illusory except for the honest affection felt for a loved one. In Falkner, Shelley provides an apology for her husband’s first marriage, attempting to absolve him of the blame for Harriet’s suicide.
Shelley’s concerns were not limited to real and ideal versions of hearth and home. She could apply her art to a much broader canvas—to the formation of the English monarchy in The Fortunes of Perkin Warbeck or to the future of the human race in The Last Man. Set in the twenty-first century, the latter novel presents an image of broad social progress. Yet all is not well in the world. Freedom has not quashed the seeds of conflict in human nature. The use of a new weapon lets loose a tragic plague, one that ultimately brings an end to the human race. Shelley describes a future in which humanity’s moral progress lags sadly behind its technological capacity for destruction.
First published: 1818
Type of work: Novel
A young scientist discovers the secret of animating dead tissue, with...
(The entire section is 1778 words.)