Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley - Essay

Mary Shelley


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley

The following entry presents criticism of Shelley's novel Frankenstein (1818). See also, Mathilda Criticism.

When Mary Shelley wrote of Victor Frankenstein and his monster, she brought to life a story that would fascinate audiences through the ensuing centuries. Although the story seems "classic" to readers and movie-goers at the end of the twentieth century, Shelley's novel was something of an anomaly when she published it anonymously in 1818. The genre of science fiction did not yet exist, and novels themselves were often looked upon as "light" reading that did not rank with serious literature. In the twentieth century, however, Frankenstein has gained recognition as a pioneering effort in the development of the novel and as a progenitor of science fiction.

Biographical Information

Frankenstein was Shelley's first major literary production, completed when she was not yet twenty. Her life up to that point had been shaped by the presence of powerful intellectual figures: her father, political philosopher and novelist William Godwin; her mother, one of the earliest advocates of women's rights, Mary Wollstonecraft; and her husband, Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. Mary grew up without a formal education—a situation typical for girls in her era—but with the formidable training of her parents' writings and the many classics available to her in her father's library. Because Wollstonecraft had died ten days after Mary's birth, Godwin raised her and her half-sister alone at first, then with a stepmother who apparently cared very little for the two girls. Mary escaped her home life in July 1814, when she eloped with Percy Shelley, who deserted his wife in order to be with her. With little money at their disposal, the pair travelled the continent, living primarily in Switzerland, Germany, and Italy. At the time Mary began writing Frankenstein in 1816, the couple's financial difficulties were exacerbated by personal loss: there were suicides in both of their families, and three of their children died in infancy. The one child who would survive was born in 1819, just three years before Percy Shelley drowned in Italy.

After her husband's death, Shelley struggled to support herself and her son, Percy Florence, often writing in order to earn money. A small stipend from Percy Shelley's father, Sir Timothy, brought with it some financial security, but also the condition that Shelley not publish under her married name. Consequently, her five novels and other publications all appeared anonymously. Sir Timothy increased the allowance again in 1840, enabling Shelley and Percy to live with a greater degree of comfort. Shelley died in 1851, after several years of illness.

Plot and Major Characters

Shelley wrote Frankenstein as a series of framing narratives: one narrator's story told within the framework of another narrator's story. The events described by the creature (which Shelley composed first) appear within Victor Frankenstein's narrative, which in turn appears in a letter written by Captain Robert Walton—an explorer who met Frankenstein in the North Pole—to his sister. Consequently, the reader's experience begins at the end of the drama, when Frankenstein and his monster have removed themselves from human society and are pursuing each other in perpetuity across the tundra. Walton then relates Frankenstein's story, which returns to his childhood, when Victor developed his initial interest in science. Some years later, Victor's planned departure for University is delayed when his mother dies; Frankenstein's interest in science simultaneously turns to the possibility of reanimating the dead. Working in comparative isolation at the University, Frankenstein pursues his obsession until he succeeds—bringing to life a pieced-together body. He immediately flees his creation in horror.

Entirely isolated, fully grown but without any guidance in its social and intellectual development, the creature makes its own way in the world; his story, told in the first-person as related to Victor some time later, occupies the center of the novel. The reader witnesses the gradual degradation of what began as an apparently good and loving nature. Because the creature's monstrous appearance inspires horror wherever he encounters humans, his potential for goodness falters, especially when Frankenstein fails to supply him with the companionship of a mate. Turning vindictive, the creature sets out to recreate for Victor the isolation of his own circumstances, gradually killing the members of his family, including Elizabeth, the beloved adopted sister who has just become Victor's wife. The two characters finish "wedded" to one another, or to the need to destroy one another, in the emptiness of the arctic tundra.

Major Themes

The issue that occupies Frankenstein most prevalently and explicitly is that of creation, manifested in a variety of forms. Shelley signalled the significance of this to her reader from the start with her subtitle and her epigraph: the one referring to the classical myth of Prometheus, and the other, taken from Book Ten of Milton's Paradise Lost, referring to the Genesis story: "Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay / To mould me Man? Did I solicit thee / From darkness to promote me?" (Paradise Lost X, 11.743-45). The three characters invoked by these allusions—Prometheus, Lucifer, and Adam—share a history of rebellion, of a desire to "steal" some of the godly fire of life or knowledge for themselves. Shelley reflects the many layers of this mythology in her own rendering with the temptation and power Frankenstein finds in knowledge, as well as the danger that surfaces once it becomes apparent that he has either misused his knowledge or overstepped his bounds in acquiring it.

With the rise of feminist and psychoanalytic literary criticism late in the twentieth century, another aspect of the creation theme surfaced: reproduction. Viewed in this light, Frankenstein has usurped the prerogative of creation not from god, but from woman, and has thus tampered with the laws of nature and social organization. Generally, this approach to the novel critiques traditional gender roles and the bourgeois family as depicted in Frankenstein. The novel abounds in depictions of different familial relationships, particularly when read in light of Shelley's family history: woman's relationship to childbirth, daughter's relationship to mother, daughter's relationship to father. Fundamental to the novel's two main characters, despite the extreme differences in family relationships, are the stories of their intellectual and emotional development, which resonate deeply within the era in which Shelley wrote. The nature of the human individual, the nature of that individual's development, the basic issue of inherent goodness or evil, concerned many artists and thinkers of the Romantic age.

Critical Reception

Frankenstein immediately became popular upon its publication, when it fit neatly into the current fashion for the Gothic novel, a genre abounding in mystery and murder. It would be some time before critics would look at Shelley's novel—or any novel—as a serious work of literature; initial critical attention often reduced Frankenstein to an aside to the work of her husband and the other Romantic poets. The first significant shift in critical reception occurred in the middle of the twentieth century, when major critics like Harold Bloom and M. A. Goldberg took it up with enthusiasm, exploring its Promethean and Miltonic echoes. Readers generally understood the novel as an evocation of the modern condition: man trapped in a godless world in which science and ethics have gone awry.

While most Frankenstein criticism has stressed the importance of Shelley's biography as a reflection upon the work, the approach has been central to psychoanalytic and feminist critics. The latter led a resurgence in Shelley criticism in the early 1980s, discovering in her work not only one of the earliest literary productions by a woman author, but also a source of rich commentary on gender roles and female experience at the beginning of the nineteenth century. At first, the biographical emphasis tended to reduce Shelley's creative and intellectual achievement to an effect of postpartum depression, experienced when she lost one of her babies immediately after giving birth. Later critics explored more and more aspects of Shelley's familial relationships, often considering her novel as a reflection of complex oedipal conflicts, or finding in her an early and rich feminist voice.

Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (essay date 1831)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Appendix A," in Frankenstein or the Modern Prometheus: The 1818 Text, edited by James Rieger, The University of Chicago Press, 1982, pp. 222-29.

[When a third edition of Frankenstein was produced in 1831, Shelley wrote a new introduction, reprinted below with James Rieger's notes. Shelley briefly recounts her biography, with an emphasis on her intellectual development and the events that led to the "waking dream" in which she first envisioned Victor Frankenstein and his creature.]

The Publishers of the Standard Novels,1 in selecting Frankenstein for one of their series, expressed a wish that I should furnish them with some account of the origin of the story. I am the more willing to comply, because I shall thus give a general answer to the question, so very frequently asked me—"How I, then a young girl, came to think of, and to dilate upon, so very hideous an idea?" It is true that I am very averse to bringing myself forward in print; but as my account will only appear as an appendage to a former production, and as it will be confined to such topics as have connection with my authorship alone, I can scarcely accuse myself of a personal intrusion.

It is not singular that, as the daughter of two persons of distinguished literary celebrity, I should very early in life have thought of writing. As a child I scribbled; and my favourite pastime, during the hours given me for recreation, was to "write stories." Still I had a dearer pleasure than this, which was the formation of castles in the air—the indulging in walking dreams—the following up trains of thought, which had for their subject the formation of a succession of imaginary incidents. My dreams were at once more fantastic and agreeable than my writings. In the latter I was a close imitator—rather doing as others had done, than putting down the suggestions of my own mind. What I wrote was intended at least for one other eye—my childhood's companion and friend;2 but my dreams were all my own; I accounted for them to nobody; they were my refuge when annoyed—my dearest pleasure when free.

I lived principally in the country as a girl, and passed a considerable time in Scotland. I made occasional visits to the more picturesque parts; but my habitual residence was on the blank and dreary northern shores of the Tay, near Dundee. Blank and dreary on retrospection I call them; they were not so to me then. They were the eyry of freedom, and the pleasant region where unheeded I could commune with the creatures of my fancy. I wrote then—but in a most common-place style. It was beneath the trees of the grounds belonging to our house, or on the bleak sides of the woodless mountains near, that my true compositions, the airy flights of my imagination, were born and fostered. I did not make myself the heroine of my tales. Life appeared to me too common-place an affair as regarded myself. I could not figure to myself that romantic woes or wonderful events would ever be my lot; but I was not confined to my own identity, and I could people the hours with creations far more interesting to me at that age, than my own sensations.

After this my life became busier, and reality stood in place of fiction. My husband, however, was from the first, very anxious that I should prove myself worthy of my parentage, and enrol myself on the page of fame. He was for ever inciting me to obtain literary reputation, which even on my own part I cared for then, though since I have become infinitely indifferent to it. At this time he desired that I should write, not so much with the idea that I could produce any thing worthy of notice, but that he might himself judge how far I possessed the promise of better things hereafter. Still I did nothing. Travelling, and the cares of a family, occupied my time; and study, in the way of reading, or improving my ideas in communication with his far more cultivated mind, was all of literary employment that engaged my attention.

In the summer of 1816, we visited Switzerland, and became the neighbours of Lord Byron. At first we spent our pleasant hours on the lake, or wandering on its shores; and Lord Byron, who was writing the third canto of Childe Harold, was the only one among us who put his thoughts upon paper. These, as he brought them successively to us, clothed in all the light and harmony of poetry, seemed to stamp as divine the glories of heaven and earth, whose influences we partook with him.

But it proved a wet, ungenial summer, and incessant rain often confined us for days to the house. Some volumes of ghost stories, translated from the German into French, fell into our hands. There was the History of the Inconstant Lover,4 who, when he thought to clasp the bride to whom he had pledged his vows, found himself in the arms of the pale ghost of her whom he had deserted. There was the tale of the sinful founder of his race,5 whose miserable doom it was to bestow the kiss of death on all the younger sons of his fated house, just when they reached the age of promise. His gigantic, shadowy form, clothed like the ghost in Hamlet, in complete armour, but with the beaver up, was seen at midnight, by the moon's fitful beams, to advance slowly along the gloomy avenue. The shape was lost beneath the shadow of the castle walls; but soon a gate swung back, a step was heard, the door of the chamber opened, and he advanced to the couch of the blooming youths, cradled in healthy sleep. Eternal sorrow sat upon his face as he bent down and kissed the forehead of the boys, who from that hour withered like flowers snapt upon the stalk. I have not seen these stories since then; but their incidents are as fresh in my mind as if I had read them yesterday.

"We will each write a ghost story," said Lord Byron; and his proposition was acceded to. There were four of us.6 The noble author began a tale, a fragment of which he printed at the end of his poem of Mazeppa. Shelley, more apt to embody ideas and sentiments in the radiance of brilliant imagery, and in the music of the most melodious verse that adorns our language, than to invent the machinery of a story, commenced one founded on the experiences of his early life. Poor Polidori had some terrible idea about a skull-headed lady, who was so punished for peeping through a key-hole—what to see I forget—something very shocking and wrong of course; but when she was reduced to a worse condition than the renowned Tom of Coventry,7 he did not know what to do with her, and was obliged to despatch her to the tomb of the Capulets, the only place for which she was fitted.8 The illustrious poets also, annoyed by the platitude of prose, speedily relinquished their uncongenial task.9

I busied myself to think of a story,—a story to rival those which had excited us to this task. One which would speak to the mysterious fears of our nature, and...

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U. C. Knoepflmacher (essay date 1979)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Thoughts on the Aggression of Daughters," in The Endurance of Frankenstein: Essays in Mary Shelley's Novel, edited by George Levine and U. C. Knoepflmacher, University of California Press, 1979, pp. 88-119.

[In the essay that follows, Knoepflmacher contends that "Frankenstein is a novel of omnipresent fathers and absent mothers," a situation he relates explicitly to Shelley's own family history and the repressed anger at her father that appears to surface in the novel.]

Parental affection, indeed, in many minds, is but a pretext to tyrannize where it can be done with impunity.

—Mary Wollstonecraft,...

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Kate Ellis (essay date 1979)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Monsters in the Garden: Mary Shelley and the Bourgeois Family," in The Endurance of Frankenstein: Essays on Mary Shelley's Novel, edited by George Levine and U. C. Knoepflmacher, University of California Press, 1979, pp. 123-42.

[In the essay that follows, Ellis reads Frankenstein alongside the paradigms of the bourgeois familyits idealized structure, its separation of public and private, and its division of social roles according to gender difference.]

Nature has wisely attached affections to duties, to sweeten toil, and to give that vigour to the exertions of reason which only the heart can give. But, the affection which...

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Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar (essay date 1979)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Horror's Twin: Mary Shelley's Monstrous Eve," in The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination, Yale University Press, 1979, pp. 213-47.

[In the following excerpt, Gilbert and Gubar view Frankenstein not so much in terms of Shelley's relationship to her own father as in her relationship to literary patriarchy in general, figured in John Milton's Paradise Lost. Noting that Shelley read Milton's poem before writing her novel, the critics assert that Shelley adopted the misogyny of Paradise Lost into her own "pained ambivalence toward mothers."]

Many critics have noticed that...

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