Mary Shelley Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley Long Fiction Analysis
by Mary Shelley

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Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley Long Fiction Analysis

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s six novels are written in the gothic tradition. They deal with extreme emotions, exalted speech, the hideous plight of virgins, the awful abuses of charismatic villains, and picturesque ruins. The sins of the past weigh heavily on their plot structures, and often include previously unsuspected relationships.

Shelley does not find much use for the anti-Catholicism of much gothic fiction. Her nuns and priests, while sometimes troublesome, are not evil, and tend to appear in the short stories rather than in the novels. She avoids references to the supernatural so common in the genre and tends instead toward a modern kind of psychological gothic and futuristic fantasy. Like many gothic writers, she dwells on morbid imagery, particularly in Frankenstein and The Last Man. Graphic descriptions of the plague in the latter novel revolted the reading public that had avidly digested the grotesqueries of Matthew Gregory Lewis’s The Monk: A Romance (1796; also known as Ambrosio: Or, The Monk).

With the exception of Frankenstein, Shelley’s novels were written and published after the death of her husband; with the exception of Frankenstein, they appear to be attempting to work out the sense of desolation and abandonment that she felt after his death. In most of her novels, Shelley creates men and particularly women who resign themselves to the pain and anguish of deep loss through the eternal hope of love in its widest and most encompassing sense. Reconciliation became Shelley’s preponderant literary theme.


Frankenstein is Shelley’s greatest literary achievement in every way. In it, she not only calls into the world one of the most powerful literary images in the English tradition, the idealistic scientist Victor Frankenstein and his ironically abominable creation, but also, for the one and only time, she employs a narrative structure of daring complexity and originality.

The structure of Frankenstein is similar to a set of Chinese boxes, of narratives within narratives. The narrative frame is composed of the letters of an arctic explorer, Robert Walton, to his sister, Mrs. Saville, in England. Within the letters is the narrative of Victor Frankenstein, and within his narrative, at first, and then at the end within Walton’s narrative, is the firsthand account of the monster himself. Walton communicates to England thirdhand then secondhand accounts of the monster’s thoroughly unbelievable existence. Here, it would seem, is the seminal point of Joseph Conrad’s much later fiction, Heart of Darkness (1902): the communication to England of the denied undercurrents of reality and England’s ambiguous reception of that intelligence. In Frankenstein as in Heart of Darkness, the suggestion is rather strong that England cannot or will not absorb this stunning new perception of reality. Just as Kurtz’s fiancé almost a century later cannot imagine Kurtz’s “horror,” so Mrs. Saville’s silence, the absence of her replies, suggests that Walton’s stunning discovery has fallen on deaf ears.

The novel begins with Walton, isolated from his society at the North Pole, attempting to achieve glory. He prowls the frozen north “to accomplish some great purpose”; instead, he finds an almost dead Victor Frankenstein, who tells him a story that, in this setting, becomes a parable for Walton. Frankenstein, too, has isolated himself from society to fulfill his great expectations, and he has reaped the whirlwind.

Frankenstein tells Walton of his perfect early family life, one of complete kindness and solicitude. It is a scene across which never a shadow falls. Out of this perfection, Victor rises to find a way of conquering death and ridding himself and humankind of the ultimate shadow, the only shadow in his perfect middle-class life. Like a man possessed, Frankenstein forges ahead, fabricating a full, male, human body from the choicest corpse parts he can gather. He animates the creature and suddenly is overwhelmed by the...

(The entire section is 3,931 words.)