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(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...

(The entire section is 36,387 words.)