Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley World Literature Analysis

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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

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or to the future of the human race inThe 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.

Frankenstein

First published: 1818

Type of work: Novel

A young scientist discovers the secret of animating dead tissue, with hideous consequences.

Frankenstein: Or, The Modern Prometheus is the work for which Shelley is remembered by the general public. The story unfolds in a series of letters from Robert Walton, an enterprising arctic explorer, to his sister in England. Walton reports the sighting of a giant manlike creature driving a dogsled in the icy distance. This scene is followed by the rescue of a man whose sled had become stranded in the ice floe. This man is Victor Frankenstein.

As he recovers his health, Frankenstein relates his story. He tells of his warm family life in Geneva and of his early enthusiasm for the speculative natural philosophy of alchemists such as Cornelius Agrippa. At the age of twenty-one, he leaves to study science at Ingolstadt. There, he learns the difference between modern science and mysticism. He embraces scientific method but holds onto one of the dreams of his former models—the creation of life. Ultimately, he completely embraces this goal, assembling a being of huge scale in order to simplify its construction. When his creature gains life, Frankenstein is instantly revolted. He exits the flat and wanders about, hoping that the spark of life in the creature will expire spontaneously. The following day, the creature has disappeared, and Victor is visited by his best friend, Henry Clerval, who, unaware of the creature’s existence, helps Victor to regain his composure over the next several months. In early May, Victor’s younger brother William is murdered outside Geneva. A servant is accused of the crime. Upon his return home, Victor catches a brief sight of the creature, whose existence has nearly slipped Victor’s mind. He senses that the creature is responsible for his brother’s murder, but he remains silent as the servant is convicted of the crime. After the trial, while vacationing in the Alps, Victor meets the creature on a glacier. There, he learns of the creature’s cruel rejection by humankind, its self-education (the creature is easily the most articulate character in the book), and its subsequent revenge on its creator. Though the creature did indeed murder William, Victor is torn between hatred and sympathy. Reluctantly, he agrees to animate a female companion for the creature.

After months of indecision, Victor retires to the Orkney Islands (north of Scotland) to begin the work that he has promised. Midway through, in sight of the creature himself, he becomes fearful of the havoc that might be caused by a race of such fiends. He destroys the lifeless torso over which he stands. The creature vows to be with Victor on Victor’s wedding night (he is engaged to a cousin) and departs. After murdering Victor’s friend Clerval, a crime of which Victor is briefly accused, the creature disappears. Victor is wed in Geneva and awaits his confrontation with the creature. Instead, the creature slips into his bedroom, murders his bride, and escapes. Finally, Victor goes to the authorities. Finding no hope there, he pursues the creature himself, winding up on Walton’s ship. There, he dies from the exhaustion of the hunt. The novel closes with a visit to Walton’s ship by the creature. The creature laments the death of his creator and departs, vowing to take his own life.

As is clear, Shelley’s novel is not quite the grave-robbing horror story associated with the original Hollywood version starring Boris Karloff. Instead, the book exemplifies all the characteristics of Shelley’s work noted previously. Stylistically, Shelley moves the narrative along at a rapid pace, avoiding weighty details or intricate plotting. The result is a book that is easily read and in which the geographic settings are striking, in part because they have so little with which to compete in the way of description. On the other hand, there is only one well-realized character, the creature himself, which, in this case, happens to be enough. In addition, Frankenstein is—to put it frankly—hopelessly contrived, with coincidence appearing as a law of nature. Indeed, one reason for the distortions of the film and dramatic versions of the story has been the need for a narrative that makes a little more sense than the novel does when held up to critical scrutiny.

Frankenstein is also autobiographical. For one thing, with the exception of the arctic wastelands, the book’s geographic settings come right out of the author’s various travels. For another, the creature’s reading list, including John Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667, 1674) and Plutarch’s Bioi paralleloi (c. 105-115 c.e.; Parallel Lives, 1579), closely mirror Shelley’s own reading fare at the time that she wrote the novel. On a more profound level, the novel reflects Shelley’s experience with the traumas of birth and rejection.

This discussion raises the issue of family. Victor Frankenstein turns his back on an idyllic family life in favor of an unsavory scientific quest. Yet the creature aches for the nurturing affection and guidance that can be provided by a loving family. Finally, the novel can be seen as a tale of what happens when women are omitted from the process of procreation. The result is a creature who is unnatural and unloved. This last omission is the direct cause of the creature’s hideous crimes.

Larger philosophical themes also abound in Frankenstein. One might begin with the reference to Prometheus in the subtitle and the references to Paradise Lost in the text. Prometheus is best known as the mythic figure who stole the secret of fire from the gods and gave it to humanity, an act for which he was severely punished. This association suggests that Victor is a victim of his own hubris in seeking the divine power of creation. Less well known is the myth in which Prometheus creates the human race, providing a clear parallel with Victor. Milton’s work poetically examines the fall from grace in Eden according to the Old Testament. Frankenstein’s creature expressly compares himself to Adam. In this case, paradise is not lost; it was never part of the bargain according to Victor’s foggy conception of his task.

Frankenstein also suggests the dangers of amoral science or unrestrained rationality, the imperfection of civil justice, and the superficiality of human judgment. It is perhaps most basically a book about the concurrent limits and limitlessness of human nature and human knowledge. It encourages one to remember that the power to create may produce consequences that cannot be foreseen or controlled.

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