Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (Essay Date March 1824)

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SOURCE: Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft. "On Ghosts." In London Magazine 9 (March 1824): 253-56.

In the following essay, Shelley treats the subject of belief in ghosts, offering her own thoughts and creative writings, as well as anecdotes and excerpts from others' writings.

     I look for ghosts—but none will force
     Their way to me; 'tis falsely said
     That there was ever intercourse
     Between the living and the dead.

What a different earth do we inhabit from that on which our forefathers dwelt! The antediluvian world, strode over by mammoths, preyed upon by the megatherion, and peopled by the offspring of the Sons of God, is a better type of the earth of Homer, Herodotus, and Plato, than the hedged-in cornfields and measured hills of the present day. The globe was then encircled by a wall which paled in the bodies of men, whilst their feathered thoughts soared over the boundary; it had a brink, and in the deep profound which it overhung, men's imaginations, eagle-winged, dived and flew, and brought home strange tales to their believing auditors. Deep caverns harboured giants; cloud-like birds cast their shadows upon the plains; while far out at sea lay islands of bliss, the fair paradise of Atlantis or El Dorado sparkling with untold jewels. Where are they now? The Fortunate Isles have lost the glory that spread a halo round them; for who deems himself nearer to the golden age, because he touches at the Canaries on his voyage to India? Our only riddle is the rise of the Niger; the interior of New Holland, our only terra in. cognita; and our sole mare incognitum, the north-west passage. But these are tame wonders, lions in leash; we do not invest Mungo Park, or the Captain of the Hecla, with divine attributes; no one fancies that the waters of the unknown river bubble up from hell's fountains, no strange and weird power is supposed to guide the ice-berg, nor do we fable that a stray pick-pocket from Botany Bay has found the gardens of the Hesperides within the circuit of the Blue Mountains. What have we left to dream about? The clouds are no longer the charioted servants of the sun, nor does he any more bathe his glowing brow in the bath of Thetis; the rainbow has ceased to be the messenger of the Gods, and thunder longer their awful voice, warning man of that which is to come. We have the sun which has been weighed and measured, but not understood; we have the assemblage of the planets, the congregation of the stars, and the yet unshackled ministration of the winds:—such is the list of our ignorance. Nor is the empire of the imagination less bounded in its own proper creations, than in those which were bestowed on it by the poor blind eyes of our ancestors. What has become of enchantresses with their palaces of crystal and dungeons of palpable darkness? What of fairies and their wands? What of witches and their familiars? and, last, what of ghosts, with beckoning hands and fleeting shapes, which quelled the soldier's brave heart, and made the murderer disclose to the astonished noon the veiled work of midnight?

These which were realities to our fore-fathers, in our wiser age—

    —Characterless are grated
         To dusty nothing.

Yet is it true that we do not believe in ghosts? There used to be several traditionary tales repeated, with their authorities, enough to stagger us when we consigned them to that place where that is which "is as though it had never been." But these are gone out of fashion....

(This entire section contains 2808 words.)

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Brutus's dream has become a deception of his over-heated brain, Lord Lyttleton's vision is called a cheat; and one by one these inhabitants of deserted houses, moon-light glades, misty mountain tops, and midnight church-yards, have been ejected from their immemorial seats, and small thrill is felt when the dead majesty of Denmark blanches the cheek and unsettles the reason of his philosophic son. But do none of us believe in ghosts? If this question be read at noon-day, when—

    Every little corner, nook, and hole,
    Is penetrated with the insolent light—

at such a time derision is seated on the features of my reader. But let it be twelve at night in a lone house; take up, I beseech you, the story of the Bleeding Nun; or of the Statue, to which the bridegroom gave the wedding ring, and she came in the dead of night to claim him, tall, and cold; or of the Grandsire, who with shadowy form and breathless lips stood over the couch and kissed the foreheads of his sleeping grandchildren, and thus doomed them to their fated death; and let all these details be assisted by solitude, flapping curtains, rushing wind, a long and dusky passage, an half open door—O, then truly, another answer may be given, and many will request leave to sleep upon it, before they decide whether there be such a thing as a ghost in the world, or out of the world, if that phraseology be more spiritual. What is the meaning of this feeling?

For my own part, I never saw a ghost except once in a dream. I feared it in my sleep; I awoke trembling, and lights and the speech of others could hardly dissipate my fear. Some years ago I lost a friend, and a few months afterwards visited the house where I had last seen him. It was deserted, and though in the midst of a city, its vast halls and spacious apartments occasioned the same sense of loneliness as if it had been situated on an uninhabited heath. I walked through the vacant chambers by twilight, and none save I awakened the echoes of their pavement. The far mountains (visible from the upper windows) had lost their tinge of sunset; the tranquil atmosphere grew leaden coloured as the golden stars appeared in the firmament; no wind ruffled the shrunk-up river which crawled lazily through the deepest channel of its wide and empty bed; the chimes of the Ave Maria had ceased, and the bell hung moveless in the open belfry: beauty invested a reposing world, and awe was inspired by beauty only. I walked through the rooms filled with sensations of the most poignant grief. He had been there; his living frame had been caged by those walls, his breath had mingled with that atmosphere, his step had been on those stones, I thought:—the earth is a tomb, the gaudy sky a vault, we but walking corpses. The wind rising in the east rushed through the open casements, making them shake;—methought, I heard, I felt—I know not what—but I trembled. To have seen him but for a moment, I would have knelt until the stones had been worn by the impress, so I told myself, and so I knew a moment after, but then I trembled, awe-struck and fearful. Wherefore? There is something beyond us of which we are ignorant. The sun drawing up the vaporous air makes a void, and the wind rushes in to fill it,—thus beyond our soul's ken there is an empty space; and our hopes and fears, in gentle gales or terrific whirlwinds, occupy the vacuum; and if it does no more, it bestows on the feeling heart a belief that influences do exist to watch and guard us, though they be impalpable to the coarser faculties.

I have heard that when Coleridge was asked if he believed in ghosts,—he replied that he had seen too many to put any trust in their reality; and the person of the most lively imagination that I ever knew echoed this reply. But these were not real ghosts (pardon, unbelievers, my mode of speech) that they saw; they were shadows, phantoms unreal; that while they appalled the senses, yet carried no other feeling to the mind of others than delusion, and were viewed as we might view an optical deception which we see to be true with our eyes, and know to be false with our understandings. I speak of other shapes. The returning bride, who claims the fidelity of her betrothed; the murdered man who shakes to remorse the murderer's heart; ghosts that lift the curtains at the foot of your bed as the clock chimes one; who rise all pale and ghastly from the churchyard and haunt their ancient abodes; who, spoken to, reply; and whose cold unearthly touch makes the hair stand stark upon the head; the true old-fashioned, foretelling, flitting, gliding ghost,—who has seen such a one?

I have known two persons who at broad daylight have owned that they believed in ghosts, for that they had seen one. One of these was an Englishman, and the other an Italian. The former had lost a friend he dearly loved, who for awhile appeared to him nightly, gently stroking his cheek and spreading a serene calm over his mind. He did not fear the appearance, although he was somewhat awe-stricken as each night it glided into his chamber, and,

    Ponsi del letto insula sponda manca.
    [placed itself on the left side of the bed]

This visitation continued for several weeks, when by some accident he altered his residence, and then he saw it no more. Such a tale may easily be explained away;—but several years had passed, and he, a man of strong and virile intellect, said that "he had seen a ghost."

The Italian was a noble, a soldier, and by no means addicted to superstition: he had served in Napoleon's armies from early youth, and had been to Russia, had fought and bled, and been rewarded, and he unhesitatingly, and with deep relief, recounted his story.

This Chevalier, a young, and (somewhat a miraculous incident) a gallant Italian, was engaged in a duel with a brother officer, and wounded him in the arm. The subject of the duel was frivolous; and distressed therefore at its consequences he attended on his youthful adversary during his consequent illness, so that when the latter recovered they became firm and dear friends. They were quartered together at Milan, where the youth fell desperately in love with the wife of a musician, who disdained his passion, so that it preyed on his spirits and his health; he absented himself from all amusements, avoided all his brother officers, and his only consolation was to pour his love-sick plaints into the ear of the Chevalier, who strove in vain to inspire him either with indifference towards the fair disdainer, or to inculcate lessons of fortitude and heroism. As a last resource he urged him to ask leave of absence; and to seek, either in change of scene, or the amusement of hunting, some diversion to his passion. One evening the youth came to the Chevalier, and said, "Well, I have asked leave of absence, and am to have it early tomorrow morning, so lend me your fowling-piece and cartridges, for I shall go to hunt for a fortnight." The Chevalier gave him what he asked; among the shot there were a few bullets. "I will take these also," said the youth, "to secure myself against the attack of any wolf, for I mean to bury myself in the woods."

Although he had obtained that for which he came, the youth still lingered. He talked of the cruelty of his lady, lamented that she would not even permit him a hopeless attendance, but that she inexorably banished him from her sight, "so that," said he, "I have no hope but in oblivion." At length lie rose to depart. He took the Chevalier's hand and said, "You will see her to-morrow, you will speak to her, and hear her speak; tell her, I entreat you, that our conversation tonight has been concerning her, and that her name was the last that I spoke." "Yes, yes," cried the Chevalier, "I will say any thing you please; but you must not talk of her any more, you must forget her." The youth embraced his friend with warmth, but the latter saw nothing more in it than the effects of his affection, combined with his melancholy at absenting himself from his mistress, whose name, joined to a tender farewell, was the last sound that he uttered.

When the Chevalier was on guard that night, he heard the report of a gun. He was at first troubled and agitated by it, but afterwards thought no more of it, and when relieved from guard went to bed, although he passed a restless, sleepless night. Early in the morning some one knocked at his door. It was a soldier, who said that he had got the young officer's leave of absence, and had taken it to his house; a servant had admitted him, and he had gone up stairs, but the room door of the officer was locked, and no one answered to his knocking, but something oozed through from under the door that looked like blood. The Chevalier, agitated and frightened at this account, hurried to his friend's house, burst open the door, and found him stretched on the ground—he had blown out his brains, and the body lay a headless trunk, cold, and stiff.

The shock and grief which the Chevalier experienced in consequence of this catastrophe produced a fever which lasted for some days. When he got well, he obtained leave of absence, and went into the country to try to divert his mind. One evening at moonlight, he was returning home from a walk, and passed through a lane with a hedge on both sides, so high that he could not see over them. The night was balmy; the bushes gleamed with fireflies, brighter than the stars which the moon had veiled with her silver light. Suddenly he heard a rustling near him, and the figure of his friend issued from the hedge and stood before him, mutilated as he had seen him after his death. This figure he saw several times, always in the same place. It was impalpable to the touch, motionless, except in its advance, and made no sign when it was addressed. Once the Chevalier took a friend with him to the spot. The same rustling was heard, the same shadow slept forth, his companion fled in horror, but the Chevalier staid, vainly endeavouring to discover what called his friend from his quiet tomb, and if any act of his might give repose to the restless shade.

Such are my two stories, and I record them the more willingly, since they occurred to men, and to individuals distinguished the one for courage and the other for sagacity. I will conclude my "modern instances," with a story told by M. G. Lewis, not probably so authentic as these, but perhaps more amusing. I relate it as nearly as possible in his own words.

A gentleman journeying towards the house of a friend, who lived on the skirts of an extensive forest, in the east of Germany, lost his way. He wandered for some time among the trees, when he saw a light at a distance. On approaching it he was surprised to observe that it proceeded from the interior of a ruined monastery. Before he knocked at the gate he thought it proper to look through the window. He saw a number of cats assembled round a small grave, four of whom were at that moment letting down a coffin with a crown upon it. The gentleman startled at this unusual sight, and, imagining that he had arrived at the retreats of fiends or witches, mounted his horse and rode away with the utmost precipitation. He arrived at his friend's house at a late hour, who sate up waiting for him. On his arrival his friend questioned him as to the cause of the traces of agitation visible in his face. He began to recount his adventures after much hesitation, knowing that it was scarcely possible that his friend should give faith to his relation. No sooner had he mentioned the coffin with the crown upon it, than his friend's cat, who seemed to have been lying asleep before the fire, leaped up, crying out, 'Then I am king of the cats;' and then scrambled up the chimney, and was never seen more.


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(Born Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin) English novelist, editor, critic, short story and travel writer.

Shelley is best known for her novel Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus (1818), which has transcended the Gothic and horror genres and is now recognized as a work of philosophical and psychological resonance. Critics agree that with the depiction of a seemingly godless universe where science and technology have gone awry, Shelley created a powerful metaphor for the modern age; indeed, the Frankenstein myth, which has been adapted to stage, film, and television, has pervaded modern culture. Shelley's achievement is considered remarkable, moreover, because she completed the book before her twentieth birthday. In addition to Frankenstein, Shelley's literary works include several novels that were moderately successful when published but are little-known today and an edition of poetry by her husband, the Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, which she issued with notes that are now regarded as indispensable. Her reputation rests, however, on what she once called her "hideous progeny," Frankenstein.


Shelley's personal life has sometimes overshadowed her literary work. She was the daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft, the early feminist and author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, and William Godwin, the political philosopher and novelist. Her parents' wedding, which occurred when Wollstonecraft was five months pregnant with Mary, was the marriage of two of the day's most noted freethinkers. While they both objected to the institution of matrimony, they agreed to marry to ensure their child's legitimacy. Ten days after Mary's birth, Wollstonecraft died from complications, leaving Godwin, an undemonstrative and self-absorbed intellectual, to care for both Mary and Fanny Imlay, Wollstonecraft's daughter from an earlier liaison. Mary's home life improved little with the arrival four years later of a stepmother and her two children. The new Mrs. Godwin, whom contemporaries described as petty and disagreeable, favored her own offspring over the daughters of the celebrated Wollstonecraft, and Mary was often solitary and unhappy. She was not formally educated, but absorbed the intellectual atmosphere created by her father and such visitors as Samuel Taylor Coleridge. She read a wide variety of books, notably those of her mother, whom she idolized. Young Mary's favorite retreat was Wollstonecraft's grave in the St. Pancras churchyard, where she went to read and write and eventually to meet her lover, Percy Shelley.

An admirer of Godwin, Percy Shelley visited the author's home and briefly met Mary when she was fourteen, but their attraction did not take hold until a subsequent meeting two years later. Shelley, twenty-two, was married, and his wife was expecting their second child, but he and Mary, like Godwin and Wollstonecraft, believed that ties of the heart superseded legal ones. In July 1814, one month before her seventeenth birthday, Mary eloped with Percy to the Continent, where, apart from two interludes in England, they spent the next few years traveling in Switzerland, Germany, and Italy. These years were characterized by financial difficulty and personal tragedy. Percy's father, Sir Timothy Shelley, a wealthy baronet, cut off his son's substantial allowance after his elopement. In 1816, Mary's half-sister Fanny committed suicide; just weeks later, Percy's wife, Harriet, drowned herself. Mary and Percy were married in London, in part because they hoped to gain custody of his two children by Harriet, but custody was denied. Three of their own children died in infancy, and Mary fell into a deep depression that was barely dispelled by the birth in 1819 of Percy Florence, her only surviving child. The Shelleys' marriage suffered, too, in the wake of their children's deaths, and Percy formed romantic attachments to other women. Despite these trying circumstances, both Mary and Percy maintained a schedule of rigorous study—including classical and European literature, Greek, Latin, and Italian language, music and art—and ambitious writing; during this period Mary completed Frankenstein and another novel, Valperga (1823). The two also enjoyed a coterie of stimulating friends, notably Lord Byron and Leigh Hunt. The Shelleys were settled near Lenci, Italy, on the Gulf of Spezzia in 1822 when Percy drowned during a storm while sailing to meet Leigh and Marianne Hunt. After one mournful year in Italy, Mary returned permanently to England with her son.

Shelley's life after Percy's death was marked by melancholy and hardship as she struggled to support herself and her child. Sir Timothy Shelley offered her a meager stipend, but ordered that she keep the Shelley name out of print; thus, all her works were published anonymously. In addition to producing four novels in the years after Percy's death, Mary contributed a series of biographical and critical sketches to Chamber's Cabinet Cyclopedia, as well as occasional short stories, which she considered potboilers, to the literary annuals of the day. The Shelleys' financial situation improved when Sir Timothy increased Percy Florence's allowance with his coming of age in 1840, which enabled mother and son to travel in Italy and Germany; their journeys are recounted in Rambles in Germany and Italy in 1840, 1842, and 1843 (1844). Too ill in her last few years to complete her most cherished project, a biography of her husband, Shelley died at age fifty-four.


Although Frankenstein has consistently dominated critical discussions of Shelley's oeuvre, she also composed several other novels in addition to critical and biographical writings. Her five later novels attracted little notice, and critics generally agree that they share the faults of verbosity and awkward plotting. After Frankenstein, The Last Man (1826) is her best-known work. This novel, in which Shelley describes the destruction of the human race in the twenty-first century, is noted as an inventive depiction of the future and an early prototype of science fiction. Valperga and The Fortunes of Perkin Warbeck (1830) are historical novels that have received scant attention from literary critics, while Lodore (1835) and Falkner (1837), thought by many to be autobiographical, are often examined for clues to the lives of the Shelleys and their circle. Shelley's stories were collected and published posthumously, as was Mathilda, a novella that appeared for the first time in 1959. The story of a father and daughter's incestuous attraction, it has been viewed as a fictional treatment—or distortion—of Shelley's relationship with Godwin. The posthumously published verse dramas, Proserpine and Midas (1922), were written to complement one of Percy Shelley's works and have garnered mild praise for their poetry. Critics have also lauded Shelley's nonfiction: the readable, though now dated, travel volumes, the essays for Chamber's Cabinet Cyclopedia, which are considered vigorous and erudite, and her illuminating notes on her husband's poetry.


Since Shelley's death, critics have devoted nearly all of their attention to Frankenstein. Early critics, generally with some dismay, usually classified the novel as belonging to the Gothic genre then practiced by such authors as Ann Radcliffe and Matthew Gregory "Monk" Lewis. While most early Victorian reviewers reviled what they considered the sensationalist and gruesome elements in Frankenstein, many praised the anonymous au-thor's imagination and powers of description. In the later nineteenth century and throughout Frankenstein criticism, commentators have focused on Prometheanism in the novel, an aspect that Shelley herself highlighted in the book's subtitle. This line of inquiry, which continues to engage critics, likens Dr. Frankenstein to the Greek mythic figure who wreaks his own destruction through abuse of power. Percy Shelley treated the same mythic-philosophic theme in his poetry, most notably in Prometheus Unbound, and critics have searched for his influence on Frankenstein, particularly in the expression of Romantic ideals and attitudes. Scholars have also debated the value of the additional narratives that Percy encouraged Mary to write. While some have praised the novel's resulting three-part structure, others have argued that these additions detract from and merely pad the story. Nevertheless, most have valued the otherworldly Arctic scenes. Commentators have also frequently noted the influence of Shelley's father, tracing strains of Godwin's humanitarian social views; in addition, some critics have found direct thematic links to his fiction, particularly to his novel, Caleb Williams. Other literary allusions often noted in Frankenstein include those to John Milton's Paradise Lost, the source of the book's epigraph, as well as Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's Faust and Samuel Taylor Coleridge's "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner."

Frankenstein criticism has proliferated since the 1950s, encompassing a wide variety of themes and approaches. The monster, who is often the focus of commentary, has been interpreted as representing issues ranging from the alienation of modern humanity to the repression of women. Many commentators have viewed the monster as Dr. Frankenstein's double, an example of the doppelgänger archetype. In a similar vein, critics have discussed Dr. Frankenstein and the monster as embodying Sigmund Freud's theory of id and ego. Students of the Gothic, supernatural horror, and science fiction novel have adopted Frankenstein as a venerable forebear and have approached it from a historical slant. Alternately, Shelley's life has served as a starting point for those who perceive in the novel expressions of the author's feelings toward her parents, husband, children, and friends. Feminist critics, in particular, have found Shelley and Frankenstein a rich source for study, describing it, for example, as a manifestation of the author's ambivalent feelings toward motherhood.

Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus

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SOURCE: Shelley, Percy Bysshe. "On Frankenstein." The Athenaeum, no. 263 (10 November 1832): 730.

Shelley wrote the following highly favorable review of Frankenstein in 1817, but it was not published until 1832. Unlike most early reviewers, he emphasized the novel's moral aspects. He also traces similarities between Mary Shelley's narrative style and characterization and William Godwin's.

The Novel of Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus, is undoubtedly, as a mere story, one of the most original and complete productions of the day. We debate with ourselves in wonder, as we read it, what could have been the series of thoughts—what could have been the peculiar experiences that awakened them—which conduced, in the author's mind, to the astonishing combinations of motives and incidents, and the startling catastrophe, which compose this tale. There are, perhaps, some points of subordinate importance, which prove that it is the author's first attempt. But in this judgment, which requires a very nice discrimination, we may be mistaken; for it is conducted throughout with a firm and steady hand. The interest gradually accumulates and advances towards the conclusion with the accelerated rapidity of a rock rolled down a mountain. We are led breathless with suspense and sympathy, and the heaping up of incident on incident, and the working of passion out of passion. We cry "hold, hold! enough!"—but there is yet something to come; and, like the victim whose history it relates, we think we can bear no more, and yet more is to be borne. Pelion is heapen on Ossa, and Ossa on Olympus. We climb Alp after Alp, until the horizon is seen blank, vacant, and limitless; and the head turns giddy, and the ground seems to fail under our feet.

This novel rests its claim on being a source of powerful and profound emotion. The elementary feelings of the human mind are exposed to view; and those who are accustomed to reason deeply on their origin and tendency will, perhaps, be the only persons who can sympathize, to the full extent, in the interest of the actions which are their result. But, founded on nature as they are, there is perhaps no reader, who can endure anything beside a new love story, who will not feel a responsive string touched in his inmost soul. The sentiments are so affectionate and so innocent—the characters of the subordinate agents in this strange drama are clothed in the light of such a mild and gentle mind—the pictures of domestic manners are of the most simple and attaching character: the father's is irresistible and deep. Nor are the crimes and malevolence of the single Being, though indeed withering and tremendous, the offspring of any unaccountable propensity to evil, but flow irresistibly from certain causes fully adequate to their production. They are the children, as it were, of Necessity and Human Nature. In this the direct moral of the book consists; and it is perhaps the most important, and of the most universal application, of any moral that can be enforced by example. Treat a person ill, and he will become wicked. Requite affection with scorn;—let one being be selected, for whatever cause, as the refuse of his kind—divide him, a social being, from society, and you impose upon him the irresistible obligations—malevolence and selfishness. It is thus that, too often in society, those who are best qualified to be its benefactors and its ornaments, are branded by some accident with scorn, and changed, by neglect and solitude of heart, into a scourge and a curse.

The Being in Frankenstein is, no doubt, a tremendous creature. It was impossible that he should not have received among men that treatment which led to the consequences of his being a social nature. He was an abortion and an anomaly; and though his mind was such as its first impressions framed it, affectionate and full of moral sensibility, yet the circumstances of his existence are so monstrous and uncommon, that, when the consequences of them became developed in action, his original goodness was gradually turned into inextinguishable misanthropy and revenge. The scene between the Being and the blind De Lacey in the cottage, is one of the most profound and extraordinary instances of pathos that we ever recollect. It is impossible to read this dialogue,—and indeed many others of a somewhat similar character,—without feeling the heart suspend its pulsations with wonder, and the "tears stream down the cheeks." The encounter and argument between Frankenstein and the Being on the sea of ice, almost approaches, in effect, to the expostulations of Caleb Williams with Falkland. It reminds us, indeed, somewhat of the style and character of that admirable writer, to whom the author has dedicated his work, and whose productions he seems to have studied.

There is only one instance, however, in which we detect the least approach to imitation; and that is the conduct of the incident of Frankenstein's landing in Ireland. The general character of the tale, indeed, resembles nothing that ever preceded it. After the death of Elizabeth, the story, like a stream which grows at once more rapid and profound as it proceeds, assumes an irresistible solemnity, and the magnificent energy and swiftness of a tempest.

The churchyard scene, in which Frankenstein visits the tombs of his family, his quitting Geneva, and his journey through Tartary to the shores of the Frozen Ocean, resemble at once the terrible reanimation of a corpse and the supernatural career of a spirit. The scene in the cabin of Walton's ship—the more than mortal enthusiasm and grandeur of the Being's speech over the dead body of his victim—is an exhibition of intellectual and imaginative power, which we think the reader will acknowledge has seldom been surpassed.


SOURCE: Scott, Sir Walter. "Remarks on Frankenstein." Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine 2, no. 12 (March 1818): 612.

In the following excerpt, Scott places Frankenstein in the philosophical, rather than merely sensational, school of supernatural fiction, assessing it as a work of creative and poetic genius, despite its implausible plot.

[Frankenstein] is a novel, or more properly a romantic fiction, of a nature so peculiar, that we ought to describe the species before attempting any account of the individual production….

[The] class of marvellous romances admits of several subdivisions. In the earlier productions of imagination, the poet or tale-teller does not, in his own opinion, transgress the laws of credibility, when he introduces into his narration the witches, goblins, and magicians, in the existence of which he himself, as well as his hearers, is a firm believer. This good faith, however, passes away, and works turning upon the marvellous are written and read merely on account of the exercise which they afford to the imagination of those who, like the poet Collins, love to riot in the luxuriance of oriental fiction, to rove through the meanders of enchantment, to gaze on the magnificence of golden palaces, and to repose by the waterfalls of Elysian gardens. In this species of composition, the marvellous is itself the principal and most important object both to the author and reader….

A more philosophical and refined use of the supernatural in works of fiction, is proper to that class in which the laws of nature are represented as altered, not for the purpose of pampering the imagination with wonders, but in order to shew the probable effect which the supposed miracles would produce on those who witnessed them. In this case, the pleasure ordinarily derived from the marvellous incidents is secondary to that which we extract from observing how mortals like ourselves would be affected,

    By scenes like these which, daring to depart
    From sober truth, are still to nature true.

Even in the description of his marvels, however, the author, who manages this style of composition with address, gives them an indirect importance with the reader, when he is able to describe, with nature and with truth, the effects which they are calculated to produce upon his dramatis persona…. But success in this point is still subordinate to the author's principal object, which is less to produce an effect by means of the marvels of the narrations, than to open new trains and channels of thought, by placing men in supposed situations of an extraordinary and preternatural character, and then describing the mode of feeling and conduct which they are most likely to adopt….

In the class of fictitious narrations to which we allude, the author opens a sort of account-current with the reader; drawing upon him, in the first place, for credit to that degree of the marvellous which he proposes to employ; and becoming virtually bound, in consequence of this indulgence, that his personages shall conduct themselves, in the extraordinary circumstances in which they are placed, according to the rules of probability, and the nature of the human heart. In this view, the probable is far from being laid out of sight even amid the wildest freaks of imagination; on the contrary, we grant the extraordinary postulates which the author demands as the foundation of his narrative, only on condition of his deducing the consequences with logical precision.

We have only to add, that this class of fiction has been sometimes applied to the purposes of political satire, and sometimes to the general illustration of the powers and workings of the human mind. Swift, Bergerac, and others, have employed it for the former purpose, and a good illustration of the latter is the well known Saint Leon of William Godwin. In this latter work, assuming the possibility of the transmutation of metals and of the elixir vito, the author has deduced, in the course of his narrative, the probable consequences of the possession of such secrets upon the fortunes and mind of him who might enjoy them. Frankenstein is a novel upon the same plan with Saint Leon; it is said to be written by Mr Percy Bysshe Shelley, who, if we are rightly informed, is son-in-law to Mr Godwin; and it is inscribed to that ingenious author….

[In Frankenstein] the author seems to us to disclose uncommon powers of poetic imagination. The feeling with which we perused the unexpected and fearful, yet, allowing the possibility of the event, very natural conclusion of Frankenstein's experiment, shook a little even our firm nerves; although such, and so numerous have been the expedients for exciting terror employed by the romantic writers of the age, that the reader may adopt Macbeth's words with a slight alteration:

    We have supp'd full with horrors:
    Direness, familiar to our "callous" thoughts,
    Cannot once startle us.

It is no slight merit in our eyes, that the tale, though wild in incident, is written in plain and forcible English, without exhibiting that mixture of hyperbolical Germanisms with which tales of wonder are usually told, as if it were necessary that the language should be as extravagant as the fiction. The ideas of the author are always clearly as well as forcibly expressed; and his descriptions of landscape have in them the choice requisites of truth, freshness, precision, and beauty. The self-education of the monster, considering the slender opportunities of acquiring knowledge he possessed,… [is] improbable and overstrained. That he should have not only learned to speak, but to read, and, for aught we know, to write—that he should have become acquainted with Werter, with Plutarch's Lives, and with Paradise Lost, by listening through a hole in a wall, seems as unlikely as that he should have acquired, in the same way, the problems of Euclid, or the art of book-keeping by single and double entry…. We should also be disposed, in support of the principles with which we set out, to question whether the monster, how tall, agile, and strong however, could have perpetrated so much mischief undiscovered; or passed through so many countries without being secured, either on account of his crimes, or for the benefit of some such speculator as Mr Polito, who would have been happy to have added to his museum so curious a specimen of natural history. But as we have consented to admit the leading incident of the work, perhaps some of our readers may be of opinion, that to stickle upon lesser improbabilities, is to incur the censure bestowed by the Scottish proverb on those who start at straws after swallowing windlings.

The following lines, which occur in the second volume, mark, we think, that the author possesses the same facility in expressing himself in verse as in prose.

    We rest; a dream has power to poison sleep.
      We rise; one wand'ring thought pollutes the day.
    We feel, conceive, or reason; laugh, or weep,
      Embrace fond woe, or cast our cares away;
    It is the same; for, be it joy or sorrow,
        The path of its departure still is free.
    Man's yesterday may ne'er be like his morrow;
      Nought may endure but mutability!

Upon the whole, the work impresses us with a high idea of the author's original genius and happy power of expression. We shall be delighted to hear that he has aspired to the paullo majora; and, in the meantime, congratulate our readers upon a novel which excites new reflections and untried sources of emotion. If Gray's definition of Paradise, to lie on a couch, namely, and read new novels, come any thing near truth, no small praise is due to him, who, like the author of Frankenstein, has enlarged the sphere of that fascinating enjoyment.


SOURCE: Bloom, Harold. "Frankenstein, or the New Prometheus." Partisan Review 32 (1965): 611-18.

In the following essay, Bloom discusses the image of the double and the Promethean myth in Frankenstein.

The motion picture viewer who carries his obscure but still authentic taste for the sublime to the neighborhood theater, there to see the latest in an unending series of Frankensteins, participates in a Romantic terror now nearly one hundred and fifty years old. The terror is a familiar and a pleasing one, and few figures in contemporary mythology are as universally loved as Frankenstein's once pathetic monster, now a star beaconing from the abode of television, comic strips and the sweatshirts of the young.

"Frankenstein," to most of us, is the name of a monster rather than of a monster's creator, for the common reader and the common viewer have worked together, in their apparent confusion, to create a myth soundly based on a central duality in Mary Shelley's novel.1 As Richard Church and Muriel Spark were the first to record, the monster and his creator are the antithetical halves of a single being. Miss Spark states the antithesis too cleanly; for her, Victor Frankenstein represents the feelings, and his nameless creature the intellect. In her view, the monster has no emotion, and "what passes for emotion … are really intellectual passions arrived at through rational channels." Miss Spark carries this argument far enough to insist that the monster is asexual, and that he demands a bride from Frankenstein only for companionship, a conclusion evidently at variance with the novel's text.

The antithesis between the scientist and his creature in Frankenstein is a very complex one, and to be described more fully it must be placed in the larger context of Romantic literature and its characteristic mythology. The shadow or double of the self is a constant conceptual image in Blake and Shelley, and a frequent image, more random and descriptive, in the other major Romantics, especially in Byron. In Frankenstein, it is the dominant and recurrent image, and accounts for much of the latent power the novel possesses.

Mary Shelley's husband was a divided being, as man and as poet, just as his friend Byron was, though in Shelley the split was more radical. Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus is the full title of Mrs. Shelley's novel, and while Victor Frankenstein is not Shelley (Clerval is rather more like the poet), the Modern Prometheus is a very apt term for Shelley or for Byron. Prometheus best suits the uses of Romantic poetry, for no other mythic figure has in him the full range of Romantic moral sensibility, and the full Romantic capacity for creation and destruction.

No Romantic writer employed the Prometheus archetype without a full awareness of its equivocal potentialities. The Prometheus of the ancients had been for the most part a spiritually reprehensible figure, though frequently a sympathetic one, both in terms of his dramatic situation and in his close alliance with mankind against the gods. But this alliance had been ruinous for man, in most versions of the myth, and the Titan's benevolence toward humanity was hardly sufficient recompense for the alienation of man from heaven that he had brought about. Both sides of Titanism are evident in earlier Christian references to the story. The same Prometheus who is taken as an analogue of the crucified Christ is regarded also as a type of Lucifer, a son of light justly cast out by an offended heaven.

In the Romantic readings of Milton's Paradise Lost (and Frankenstein is implicitly one such reading), this double identity of Prometheus is a vital element. Blake, whose mythic revolutionary named Orc is another version of Prometheus, saw Milton's Satan as a Prometheus gone wrong, as desire restrained until it became only the shadow of desire, a diminished double of creative energy. Shelley went further in judging Milton's Satan as an imperfect Prometheus, inadequate because his mixture of heroic and base qualities engendered in the reader's mind a "pernicious casuistry" inimical to the spirit of art.

Blake, more systematic a poet than Shelley, worked out an antithesis between symbolic figures he named Spectre and Emanation, the shadow of desire and the total form of desire, respectively. A reader of Frankenstein, recalling the novel's extraordinary conclusion with its scenes of obsessional pursuit through the Arctic wastes, can recognize the same imagery applied to a similar symbolic situation in Blake's lyric on the strife of Spectre and Emanation:

My Spectre around me night and day
Like a Wild beast guards my way.
My Emanation far within
Weeps incessantly for my Sin.

A Fathomless and boundless deep,
There we wander, there we weep;
On the hungry craving wind
My Spectre follows thee behind.

He scents thy footsteps in the snow,
Wheresoever thou dost go
Thro' the wintry hail and rain

Frankenstein's monster, tempting his revengeful creator on through a world of ice, is another Emanation pursued by a Spectre, with the enormous difference that he is an Emanation flawed, a nightmare of actuality, rather than a dream of desire.

Though abhorred rather than loved, the monster is the total form of Frankenstein's creative power, and is more imaginative than his creator. The monster is at once more intellectual and more emotional than his maker, indeed he excels Frankenstein as much (and in the same ways) as Milton's Adam excels Milton's God in Paradise Lost. The greatest paradox, and most astonishing achievement, of Mary Shelley's novel is that the monster is more human than his creator. This nameless being, as much a Modern Adam as his creator is a Modern Prometheus, is more lovable than his creator and more hateful, more to be pitied and more to be feared, and above all more able to give the attentive reader that shock of added consciousness which compels a heightened realization of the self. For, like Blake's Spectre and Emanation, or Shelley's Alastor and Epipsyche, Frankenstein and his monster are the solipsistic and generous halves of the one self. Frankenstein is the mind and emotions turned in upon themselves, and his creature is the mind and emotions turned imaginatively outward, seeking a greater humanization through a confrontation of other selves.

I am suggesting that what makes Frankenstein an important book, though it is only a strong, flawed, frequently clumsy novel is that it vividly projects a version of the Romantic mythology of the self, found, among other places, in Blake's Book of Urizen, Shelley's Prometheus Unbound and Byron's Manfred. It lacks the sophistication and imaginative complexity of such works but precisely because of that Frankenstein affords a unique introduction to the archetypal world of the Romantics.

William Godwin, though a tendentious novelist, was a powerful one, and the prehistory of his daughter's novel begins in 1794 with his best work of fiction, Caleb Williams. Godwin summarized the climactic (and harrowing) final third of his novel as a pattern of flight and pursuit, "the fugitive in perpetual apprehension of being overwhelmed with the worst calamities, and the pursuer, by his ingenuity and resources, keeping his victim in a state of the most fearful alarm." Mary Shelley brilliantly reverses this pattern in the final sequence of her novel, and she also takes from Caleb Williams her destructive theme of the monster's war against what Caleb Williams from his prison cell calls "the whole machinery of human society." Muriel Spark, pointing to Shelley's equivocal Preface to his wife's novel, argues that Frankenstein can be read as a reaction "against the rational-humanism of Godwin and Shelley." Certainly Shelley was worried lest the novel be taken as a warning against the inevitable moral consequences of an unchecked experimental Prometheanism and scientific materialism. The Preface insists that:

The opinions which naturally spring from the character and situation of the hero are by no means to be conceived as existing always in my own conviction; nor is any inference justly to be drawn from the following pages as prejudicing any philosophical doctrine of whatever kind.

There are two paradoxes at the center of Mrs. Shelley's novel, and each illuminates a dilemma of the Promethean imagination. The first is that Frankenstein was successful: he did create Natural Man, not as he was, but as the meliorists saw him. Indeed, Frankenstein did better than this, since his creature was more imaginative even than himself. Frankenstein's tragedy stems, not from his Promethean excess, but from his own moral error, his failure to love. He abhorred his creature, became terrified of it, and fled his responsibilities.

The second paradox is the more ironic. This disaster either would not have happened, or would not have mattered anyway, if Frankenstein had been an esthetically successful maker; a beautiful "monster," or even a passable one, would not have been a monster. The creature himself bitterly observes:

Shall I respect man when he contemns me? Let him live with me in the interchange of kindness; and, instead of injury, I would bestow every benefit upon him with tears of gratitude at his acceptance. But that cannot be; the human senses are insurmountable barriers to our union.

As the sensuous horror of his creature was no part of Victor Frankenstein's intention, it is worth noticing how this came about. It would not be unjust to characterize Victor Frankenstein, in his act of creation, as being momentarily a moral idiot. There is an indeliberate humor, to which readers since 1945 are doubtless more sensitive than earlier ones, in the contrast between the enormity of the scientist's discovery, and the mundane emotions of the discoverer. Finding that "the minuteness of the parts" slows him down, he resolves to make his creature "about eight feet in height, and proportionably large." As he works on, he allows himself to dream that "a new species would bless me as its creator and source; many happy and excellent natures would owe their being to me." Yet he knows his is a "workshop of filthy creation," and he fails the fundamental test of his own creativity. When the "dull yellow eye" of his creature opens, this creator falls from the autonomy of a supreme artificer to the terror of a child of earth: "breathless horror and disgust filled my heart." He flees his responsibility, and sets in motion the events that will lead to his own Arctic immolation, a fit end for a being (rather like Lawrence's Gerald in Women in Love) who has never achieved a full sense of another's existence.

It is part of Mary Shelley's insight into her mythological theme that all the monster's victims are innocents. The monster not only refuses actively to slay his guilty creator; he mourns for him, though with the equivocal tribute of terming the scientist a "generous and self-devoted being." Frankenstein, the Modern Prometheus who has violated nature, receives his epitaph from the ruined second nature he has made, the Godabandoned, who consciously echoes the ruined Satan of Paradise Lost, and proclaims "Evil thenceforth became my good." It is imaginatively fitting that the greater and more interesting consciousness of the creature should survive his creator, for he alone in Mrs. Shelley's novel possesses character. Frankenstein, like Coleridge's Ancient Mariner, has no character in his own right; both figures win a claim to our attention only by their primordial crimes against original nature.

The monster is of course Mary Shelley's finest invention, and his narrative (Chapters XI through XVI) forms the highest achievement of the novel, more absorbing even than the magnificent and almost surrealistic pursuit of the climax. In an age so given to remarkable depictions of the dignity of natural man, an age including the shepherds and beggars of Wordsworth, Frankenstein's hapless creature stands out as a sublime embodiment of heroic pathos. Though Frankenstein lacks the moral imagination to understand him, the daemon's appeal is to what is most compassionate in us:

"Oh, Frankenstein, be not equitable to every other, and trample upon me alone, to whom thy justice, and even thy clemency and affection, is most due. Remember, that I am thy creature; I ought to be thy Adam; but I am rather the fallen angel, whom thou drivest from joy for no misdeed. Everywhere I see bliss, from which I alone am irrevocably excluded. I was benevolent and good; misery made me a fiend. Make me happy, and I shall again be virtuous."

The passage I have italicized is the imaginative kernel of the novel, a reminder of the novel's epigraph:

Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay
To mould me man? Did I solicit thee
From darkness to promote me?
—Paradise Lost
, Book X, 743-5

That desperate plangency of the fallen Adam becomes the characteristic accent of the daemon's lamentations, with the influence of Milton cunningly built into the novel's narrative by the happy device of Frankenstein's creature receiving his education through reading Paradise Lost "as a true history." Already doomed because his standards are human, which makes him an outcast even to himself, his Miltonic education completes his fatal growth in self-consciousness. His story, as told to his maker, follows a familiar Romantic pattern "of the progress of my intellect," as he puts it. His first pleasure after the dawn of consciousness comes through his wonder at seeing the moon rise. Caliban-like, he responds wonderfully to music, both natural and human, and his sensitivity to the natural world has the responsiveness of an incipient poet. His awakening to a first love for other beings, the inmates of the cottage he haunts, awakens him also to the great desolation of love rejected, when he attempts to reveal himself. His own duality of situation and character, caught between the states of Adam and Satan, Natural Man and his thwarted desire, is related by him directly to his reading of Milton's epic:

It moved every feeling of wonder and awe that the picture of an omnipotent God warring with his creatures was capable of exciting. I often referred the several situations, as their similarity struck me, to my own. Like Adam, I was apparently united by no link to any other being in existence; but his state was far different from mine in every other respect. He had come forth from the hands of God a perfect creature, happy and prosperous, guarded by the especial care of his Creator; he was allowed to converse with, and acquire knowledge from, beings of a superior nature: but I was wretched, helpless, and alone. Many times I considered Satan as the fitter emblem of my condition; for often, like him, when I viewed the bliss of my protectors, the bitter gall of envy rose within me.

From a despair this profound, no release is possible. Driven forth into an existence upon which "the cold stars shone in mockery," the daemon declares "everlasting war against the species," and enters upon a fallen existence more terrible than the expelled Adam's. Echoing Milton, he asks the ironic question, "And now, with the world before me, whither should I bend my steps," to which the only possible answer is: toward his wretched Promethean creator.

If we stand back from Mary Shelley's novel, in order better to view its archetypal shape, we see it as the quest of a solitary and ravaged consciousness first for consolation, then for revenge, and finally for a self-destruction that will be apocalyptic, that will bring down the creator with his creature. Though Mary Shelley may not have intended it, her novel's prime theme is a necessar y counterpoise to Prometheanism, for Prometheanism exalts the increase in consciousness despite all costs Frankenstein breaks through the barrier that separates man from God and apparently becomes the giver of life, but all he actually can give is death-in-life. The profound dejection endemic in Mar y Shelley's novel is fundamental to the Romantic mythology of the self, for all Romantic horrors are diseases of excessive consciousness, of the self unable to bear the self. Kierkegaard remarks that Satan's despair is absolute, because Satan as pure spirit is pure consciousness, and for Satan (and all men in his predicament) every increase in consciousness is an increase in despair. Frankenstein's desperate creature attains the state of pure spirit through his extraordinary situation, and is racked by a consciousness in which every thought is a fresh disease.

A Romantic poet fought against self-consciousness through the strength of what he called imagination, a more than rational energy by which thought could seek to heal itself. But Frankenstein's daemon, though he is in the archetypal situation of the Romantic Wanderer or Solitary, who sometimes was a poet, can win no release from his own story by telling it. His desperate desire for a mate is clearly an attempt to find a Shelleyan Epipsyche or Blakean Emanation for himself, a self within the self. But as he is the nightmare actualization of Frankenstein's desire, he is himself an emanation of Promethean yearnings, and his only double is his creator and denier.

When Coleridge's Ancient Mariner progressed from the purgatory of consciousness to his very minimal control of imagination, he failed to save himself. He remained in a cycle of remorse. But he at least became a salutary warning to others, and made of the Wedding Guest a wiser and a better man. Frankenstein's creature can help neither himself nor others, for he has no natural ground to which he can return. Romantic poets liked to return to the imagery of the ocean of life and immortality; in the eddying to and fro of the healing waters they could picture a hoped-for process of restoration, of a survival of consciousness despite all its agonies. Mary Shelley, with marvelous appropriateness, brings her Romantic novel to a demonic conclusion in a world of ice. The frozen sea is the inevitable emblem for both the wretched daemon and his obsessed creator, but the daemon is allowed a final image of reversed Promethean-ism. There is a heroism fully earned in the being who cries farewell in a claim of sad triumph: "I shall ascend my funeral pyre triumphantly, and exult in the agony of the torturing flames." Mary Shelley could not have known how dark a prophecy this consummation of consciousness would prove to be for the two great Promethean poets who were at her side during the summer of 1816, when her novel was conceived. Byron, writing his own epitaph at Missolonghi in 1824, and perhaps thinking back to having stood at Shelley's funeral pyre two years before, found an image similar to the daemon's, to sum up an exhausted existence:

The fire that on my bosom preys
Is lone as some volcanic isle;
No torch is kindled at its blaze—
A funeral pile

The fire of increased consciousness stolen from heaven ends as an isolated volcano, cut off from other selves by an estranging sea. "The light of that conflagration will fade away; my ashes will be swept into the sea by the winds," is the exultant cry of Frankenstein's creature. A blaze at which no torch is kindled is Byron's self-image, but he ends his death poem on another note, the hope for a soldier's grave, which he found. There is no Promethean release, but release is perhaps not the burden of the literature of Romantic aspiration. There is something both Godwinian and Shelleyan about the final utterance of Victor Frankenstein, which is properly made to Walton, the failed Promethean, whose ship has just turned back. Though chastened, the Modern Prometheus ends with a last word true, not to his accomplishment, but to his desire:

"Farewell, Walton! Seek happiness in tranquility and avoid ambition, even if it be only the apparently innocent one of distinguishing yourself in science and discoveries. Yet why do I say this? I have myself been blasted in these hopes, yet another may succeed."

Shelley's Prometheus, crucified on his icy precipice, found his ultimate torment in a Fury's taunt: "And all best things are thus confused to ill." It seems a fitting summation for all the work done by Modern Prometheanism, and might have served as an alternate epigraph for Mary Shelley's disturbing novel.


1. Mary Shelley, second wife of Percy Bysshe Shelley and daughter of William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft, was 19 when she wrote the original Frankenstein.


SOURCE: Tillotson, Marcia. "'A Forced Solitude': Mary Shelley and the Creation of Frankenstein's Monster." In The Female Gothic, edited by Julian E. Fleenor, pp. 167-75. Montreal, Quebec: Eden Press, 1983.

In the following essay, Tillotson analyzes how Shelley's personal experience with solitude or loneliness informed her thematic treatment of solitude and loneliness in Frankenstein.

The story of how Mary Shelley came to write Frankenstein usually begins where she herself began it, in Switzerland, in the summer of 1816, when Lord Byron proposed to her, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Claire Clairmont, and John Polidori, "We will each write a ghost story." Shortly thereafter, Shelley had her "waking dream": "I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life."1

This dream may explain how Shelley got the idea for her novel and for its hero, Victor Frankenstein. It does not, however, explain how the monster became the novel's second protagonist. For the plot that the dream suggests requires that only Frankenstein be sympathetic yet awesome, admirable yet pitiful: in trying to benefit mankind, he created a monster. Frankenstein's tragedy was sufficiently horrifying to be the basis for a tale of terror, and Shelley knew that: "Frightful must it be; for supremely frightful would be the effect of any human endeavour to mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world." The second tragedy, the monster's, does not seem to have been part of Shelley's original idea; at least her dream gives no hint that the monster's situation would be as pitiable as the scientist's, and as important to the novel.2 The monster developed into a second hero because Shelley imagined his isolation and his resentment with special vividness.

It has often been pointed out that Shelley shared with the monster a loneliness that began with life itself.3 If a child may see a parent's death as a deliberate desertion, then she had been abandoned by her mother at birth just as the monster was abandoned by Frankenstein: thus, Shelley had Frankenstein do to the monster what she, on some unconscious level, may have felt Mary Wollstonecraft had done to her. But this similarity between Shelley's life and the monster's helps to explain only Frankenstein's desertion of his "baby" on the night he gave it life, not the monster's subsequent behavior or his ability to justify himself. In other words, this similarity may help us understand why Shelley sympathized with the monster but not how she compelled her readers to do the same thing.

Why the novel has two protagonists, and why the monster is so unmonstrous, are questions that no one, from Shelley herself to Ellen Moers, has answered—or even asked. Calling Frankenstein a "birth myth" and attributing much of the novel's originality and power to its author's experience of motherhood, Moers does not deal with the monster's qualities.4 Like Shelley's own comments on her novel, Moers' ideas help us to understand Frankenstein but not the monster. Moers' basic argument, however—that women writers used Gothic mechanisms to express feeling and beliefs and even facts about their existence that they could communicate in no other way—is as enlightening about the monster as it is about Frankenstein. For the experiences women drew on to create the Female Gothic were not all as profoundly affecting as childbirth. Less elemental experiences were still powerful or painful or terrifying enough to be transformed by a woman's imagination into Gothic fiction. From this more ordinary kind of Gothic source material—social neglect and unkindness, and the consequent feelings of exclusion—came the pitiable monster, the novel's second hero; at least, this is how I shall try to account for the monster and his ability to win our compassion. The question I cannot answer is whether Shelley was fully aware of what she was doing: did she deliberately use the monster's self-defense to protest against men's behavior toward women, or did she merely make the monster speak for her without knowing herself that the source of his rage was her own?

In any case, Shelley had been lonely all her life, but there is evidence that at the time she conceived of and began writing Frankenstein, she was subjected to a new and particularly painful isolation: she was excluded from the companionship of Percy Shelley and Lord Byron. A similar exclusion is, of course, the devastating experience that turns the monster into a murderer. For the monster was not innately evil, nor was he driven to crime by a vague and general loneliness. The agony that makes him kill is quite specifically the agony of a creature whose best hopes for himself and others cannot be realized or even communicated. This was how Shelley saw herself by the end of that summer in Geneva: her lover and his brilliant, fascinating friend ate, talked, drank, and sailed together, but she could not join their conversations or share their amusements.

Although she was by no means ugly, her problem, like the monster's, was her appearance: her strong mind was housed in a woman's body. With interests and aspirations resembling those of the men with whom she associated, she was isolated from them by her sex. Her exclusion may not have been as violent or as absolute as the monster's but it was as real. Leslie A. Marchand understood her situation when he told how, in Pisa during the winter of 1821–22, she and Teresa Guiccioli would walk or ride out to meet Byron, Percy Shelley, and their male companions as they were returning from their daily pistol-shooting excursions: "… it was for Mary, strongly attracted by the intellect and charm of Byron, almost the only opportunity to associate in this man's world, for which by temperament and intellectual proclivities she was eminently fitted."5 Writing to Marianne Hunt from Pisa on 5 March 1822, Shelley complained about this exclusion: "Our good cavaliers flock together, and as they do not like fetching a walk with the absurd womankind, Jane [Mrs. Williams] and I are off together, and talk morality and pluck violets by the way."6 Marchand contrasts Shelley's exclusion in Pisa to the closer association with the two poets that she had enjoyed five and a half years earlier in Geneva. But the surviving information about how the two households passed their time during the summer when Frankenstein was begun indicates that she did not always share in the companionship of the two poets. Writing about that summer six years later, on 19 October 1822, three months after her husband's death, she attributed her onlooker's role to her own diffidence:

I have seen so little of Albé [the Shelleys' name for Byron] since our residence in Switzerland, and, having seen him there every day, his voice—a peculiar one—is engraved on my memory with other sounds and objects from which it can never disunite itself…. [S]ince incapacity and timidity always prevented my mingling in the nightly conversations of Diodati, they were, as it were, entirely tête-à-tête between my Shelley and Albé.7

The important fact is not that if she was too shy to intrude her ideas, the men did not ask her for them. The important fact is that even this silent participation in the men's conversations did not last long.

The two poets lived near each other on Lake Geneva for three months, from 25 May 1816, when Byron arrived (the Shelley party had been there since 13 May), to 29 August, when the Shelley party returned to England.8 With Percy Shelley were Mary, who was not yet his wife; Claire Clairmont, who was already Byron's mistress; Percy's and Mary's infant son, William; and a nursemaid. Byron was traveling with Dr. John Polidori and three servants. Soon after the two groups met a routine of afternoon sails and evening conversations began, in which the two poets, the two women, and the doctor all took part. On 3 or 4 June the Shelley party moved across the lake to Montalègre, where they had rented a house. They still saw Byron daily, and on 10 June he moved into the Villa Diodati, a ten-minute walk away. Byron probably suggested the ghost stories on 15 or 16 June, for on the 17th Polidori recorded in his diary that everyone but he had started writing.

The first interruption in the closeness of the group came when they had spent nearly a month together: on 22 June the poets began a sailing trip around Lake Geneva, leaving the women and Polidori behind. After their return on 1 July, the intimacy that all five had shared began to disintegrate. Polidori's foolish vanity had begun to annoy the poets even before their trip together, and when he sprained his ankle, they were both glad to go off without him. Then Madame de Staël, whom Byron had met in England in 1813, arrived at her house across the lake from Diodati, and early in July he began visiting her. Although he occasionally took Polidori there, Byron never brought any member of the Shelley party along. Finally, Clairmont began to be a problem. Byron let her copy the poetry he had been working on since the trip around the lake, but in mid-July he decided he could no longer tolerate her presence, so he got his fellow poet to keep her away from Diodati. Within a few days of this break, Percy, Mary, and Claire went on a tour of Chamonix. They were gone from 21 to 27 July. True, they stopped at Diodati the night they returned, and spent three hours with Byron before going home to see their baby. But the temporary separation did not bring Byron and Clairmont back together. By August her pregnancy as well as her personality were causing more difficulties; Byron agreed to support the child but became more and more determined to have nothing to do with its mother.

But whatever happened to the others, Mary Shelley's closeness to the two poets diminished as the summer of 1816 progressed. Her journal indicates that after 20 July she was no longer included in their sails on the lake, which they took almost daily and often twice a day. After 14 August, when "Monk" Lewis arrived to visit Byron, she never again went to Diodati, although her lover continued to go there most evenings. When Lewis was followed by John Cam Hobhouse and Scrope Davies on 26 August, Percy Shelley passed that evening at Diodati, and he dined, sailed, and talked with Byron and his friends the following day. In the two weeks between Lewis' arrival and the Shelley party's departure on 29 August, Byron occasionally spent an hour or so at Montalègre but he did not bring his guests along, and Mary Shelley never met them. Clairmont went to Diodati three times during this period, but only to copy Byron's poetry and not to participate in supper parties and conversations. Once Hobhouse and Davies were there, she did not go to Diodati at all. The company at Byron's house had become exclusively masculine.

Thus, as far as Mary Shelley was concerned, the last part of the summer at Geneva was very much like the winter at Pisa; she was cut off from the society "for which by temperament and intellectual proclivities she was eminently fitted." The first month or so in Switzerland, when she was included in the poets' pastimes, far from making up for the subsequent neglect, would only make her feel it more. Furthermore, Ernest J. Lovell, Jr., argues persuasively that she was seriously attracted to and fascinated by Byron, but was unconscious of the nature of her interest in him.9 Uncomplicated by guilt, her pain at being excluded from his company would be all the stronger. Byron's dislike of dining with women, his disgust with Clairmont, and his desire to entertain his friends without introducing them to any embarrassingly free females left Shelley more and more out of things. She must have suffered from her isolation—or, more accurately, from her relegation to the company of Clairmont, whom Shelley called "the bane of my life since I was three years old."10 Looking back nearly fifteen years later, when both her husband and Byron were dead, Shelley said that the period in Geneva had been the happiest in her life, and Lovell suggests that this was because Clairmont's infatuation with Byron had at last removed her from rivalry for Percy Shelley's attentions.11 After the first month Byron's presence often meant not that Mary Shelley had her lover to herself but that she had Clairmont.

In order to see how likely it is that the monster's pain and anger express what Shelley went through during the last part of that summer on Lake Geneva, we must remember that she only began the novel in Switzerland. The longest sustained bout of writing took place later, back in England. Her journal shows that she wrote nearly every day from 18 October to 13 December 1816, that she worked irregularly in January and March 1817, and that she corrected and copied her finished manuscript between 10 April and 13 May. She had plenty of time to come to terms with her feelings of exclusion, to comprehend them and give them shape, so that she could draw on them to create first the motivation for the monster's violence and then the arguments with which he justifies himself and wins our compassion. Furthermore, from 6 to 9 December, while she was working daily on Frankenstein, she recorded in her journal that she was reading her mother's Vindication of the Rights of Women. The monster's assertion that his impulses were benevolent until Frankenstein's desertion and other people's cruelty drove him to crime resembles Wollstonecraft's argument that women's education turns potentially virtuous, sensible, and loving creatures into vain, foolish, selfish ones.

To see the similarity between the loneliness and frustration to which an intelligent, educated, serious-minded woman is subjected on account of her sex, we need only remember that both suffer because of the disparity between the nature of their minds and forms of their bodies. The monster regrets having the germs of an intelligence, for his "sorrow only increased with knowledge." He says, "I wished sometimes to shake off all thought and feelings; but I learned that there was but one means to overcome the sensation of pain, and that was death…." The monster insists that he suffers because he has the capacities to think and feel, but cannot use them. He curses the creator who "had endowed me with perceptions and passions, and then cast me abroad an object for the scorn and horror of mankind." Having failed to win companionship by helping people, by learning their language, by asking for their understanding and good will, he turns to his creator. The monster explains that inside he is just like the people who despise him, with the same desires, the same affections: he sympathized with the cottagers he had watched and listened to, and he identified with the feelings in the books he had heard them read. But after developing all these ideas and emotions, he learned that there was no context in which he could express them. The world has no more use for a loving monster than it has for a thinking woman. So the monster asks Frankenstein to make him a mate, justifying this request by saying, "My vices are the children of a forced solitude that I abhor; and my virtues will necessarily arise when I live in communion with an equal."

Percy Shelley had offered Mary "communion with an equal" when she ran off with him in the summer of 1814.12 She expected her lover to treat her as a companion and not just a mistress. Whatever William Godwin's deficiences as a father were, he had brought her up to read and think; she used his library, went with him to lectures and the theater, and met the literary men who came to the house. Certain facts about her education are disputed: some writers see her as neglected by her father, others as indulged by him.13 But one fact emerges clearly: a great part of her childhood misery was caused by her claiming for herself the intellectual stimulation that the men around her took for granted.

Godwin's second wife, however, expected all the girls of the household, including Wollstonecraft's daughter, to sew and cook and clean, not to talk or read or write. There is a story that the girls hid behind a chair one night to hear Coleridge read "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner"; Mrs. Godwin discovered them and would have sent them to bed if Coleridge had not pleaded for them. If this apocryphal story is not true—it appears without any source in most lives of Mary Shelley14—it seems to have been invented to illustrate the conflict about Shelley's education, Mrs. Godwin believing that daughters should be trained to be wives and mothers, Godwin and his friends, admirers of Wollstonecraft, believing that if daughters were not to be brought up like sons—sent away to school and prepared for professional careers—they should at least be allowed to exercise their understanding and expand their imagination.

Because of the influences of her father and her dead mother, Shelley did not accept the intellectual separation between women and men that was the rule in her society. She had always resisted domestic tasks while growing up, and she naturally expected more from her relation with her lover than to keep his house and bear his babies. In the summer of 1816, when Byron was around, she suddenly found herself treated like other women, as an inferior. By the end of August she was not even a silent auditor of the poets' conversations. She came closest to being with the two of them on 24 August, when she wrote in her journal: "Write. Shelley goes to Geneva. Read. Lord Byron and Shelley sit on the wall before dinner; after, I talk with Shelley, and then Lord Byron comes down and spends an hour here. Shelley and he go up [to Diodati] together." This laconic description lets us see not only the two men talking to each other outdoors but also the woman watching them hungrily, unable to hear what they are saying.

For a while that summer there had been none of the customary segregation of the sexes. The women were included in the men's talk about art and politics, science and religion. True, Byron seemed to have taken such segregation for granted when he first met the Shelley party in Geneva: after Clairmont introduced both of her traveling companions to Byron, he invited only Percy Shelley to dine with him and Polidori that night. However, the next day both women began to be included in the daily breakfasts and sailing parties, and the pattern of sexual segregation seemed to be broken. Clairmont knew how universal that pattern was, writing to Byron while on her way to Switzerland "that she had ten times rather be his male friend than his mistress." It was obvious to her that a male friend would enjoy an intellectual intimacy that a mistress, admitted only to physical intimacy, would never know. Polidori is a good example of the difference sex made. He was automatically included in that first dinner party with Percy Shelley although Byron already thought him a fool by the time they got to Geneva. At the end of August, without having improved in anyone's opinion, Polidori was still taking part in the gatherings at Diodati from which the women were excluded.15

We cannot know for certain that Shelley used the monster to express her own pain and resentment. But when a literary character is, against all expectations, as sympathetic and "real" as this monster, we recognize that the author was doing more than mechanically constructing a figure to meet the needs of her plot. The monster's terrifying solitude and frustrated rage, which make him the novel's second protagonist and Mary Shelley's most original and fascinating invention, must have had their source in her own strongest emotions. After all, she made his arguments so convincing that Percy Shelley found "the direct moral of the book" in the monster's defense of himself:

Nor are the crimes and malevolence of the single Being, though indeed withering and tremendous, the offspring of any unaccountable propensity to evil, but flow irresistibly from certain causes fully adequate to their production. They are the children, as it were, of Necessity and Human Nature. In this the direct moral of the book consists.16

Percy did more than accept the monster's ideas. Although Mary Shelley based the character of Frankenstein on Percy, the poet identified not with the scientist but with the monster. Applying the moral he had found, "Treat a person ill and he will become wicked," Percy came to this conclusion:

It is thus that too often in society those who are best qualified to be its benefactors and its ornaments are branded by some accident with scorn, and changed by neglect and solitude of heart into a scourge and a curse.17

While the monster cannot really be described as "best qualified" to benefit society, that is indeed how Percy Shelley saw himself.18 That he found the impulse to identify with the monster so powerful is a sign of Mary Shelley's success in creating him.

If Shelley tried to make her novel a compaint to her husband about her treatment in Geneva, she failed when he saw himself as the victim rather than as the victimizer. In another way, however, she succeeded in using her novel to oppose the intellectual isolation of women. Except for Polidori, the others who were present when Byron made his suggestion put their ghost stories aside almost as soon as they began them. Shelley, unlike Clairmont, wanting to be a writer and not just the mistress or wife or daughter of a writer, went ahead to complete her novel, imitating her mother as well as her father and husband.19Frankenstein should not be seen as an aberration—the grotesque product of the morbid imagination of a woman not yet twenty—but as the first achievement of a professional writer. The publication, the good reviews, and the general success of Franken-steingave her something she wanted, something her husband never achieved in his lifetime. The daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin was only doing the natural thing when she wrote her tale. It was just as natural for her to continue writing: she wrote a travel book, two dramas, a long story, and a second novel before her husband's death, and as a widow she supported herself and her son by her writing. She never produced anything else as good or successful as Frankenstein, but she achieved a small amount of independence in what was, for her as it had been for her mother, the only profession open to women besides governess or schoolmistress.

Naturally diffident, serious, quiet, she was called by her husband, and she has since been called cold by modern students of her works and his.20 She denied the charge: "A cold heart! Have I a cold heart? God knows! But none need envy the icy region this heart encircles; and at least the tears are hot which the emotions of this cold heart force me to shed." But the best refutation is in her first novel and its monster. That monster is finally a collection of ideas. He owes his origin at least as much to books as he does to the experiences Shelley shared with him—the loss of a mother and the experience of motherhood.21 But the monster comes from nowhere but her own imagination. As an abstract conception, he may be related to Adam or Lucifer or the Noble Savage, but when he begins to move and speak, the compelling logic of his demand for understanding and pity proves that he expressed something that Shelley herself felt deeply. And what else could that be if it was not her experience of a similarly unjust, painful, and unremitting isolation?


1. Mary W. Shelley, Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus, ed. K. Joseph, Oxford English Novels (London: Oxford Univ. Press, 1971), Introduction, p. 9. All subsequent quotes are from this text.

2. Not until she wrote the introduction to her tale for its second edition, published in 1831, did Mary Shelley tell how the idea came to her after she had stayed up late listening to the two men, Percy Shelley and Lord Byron, talking about galvanism. In The Mutiny Within (New York: Braziller, 1967), James Rieger questions her story of the dream, arguing on the basis of an entry in Polidori's diary that she overheard him and not Byron discuss galvanism with Percy Shelley (pp. 243-44). If Shelley did indeed invent her dream, then we are more justified than ever in looking elsewhere for the origin of the novel. Rieger does just that, but he finds his answer not in Mary Shelley's mind but in Percy's: "His assistance at every point in the book's manufacture was so extensive that one hardly knows whether to regard him as editor or minor collaborator" (Introduction, Frankenstein, by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley [Indianapolis: Bobbs, Merrill, 1974], p. xviii). Once again, a man is given credit for a woman's achievement.

3. It has long been a critical commonplace to see the monster, Frankenstein, and Walton as expressions of Shelley's lifelong loneliness. See, for example, M.G. Lund, "Mary Godwin Shelley and the Monster," University of Kansas City Review, 28 (1962), 253-58; Elizabeth Nitchie, Mary Shelley: Author of "Frankenstein" (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers Univ. Press, 1953), pp. 13-21; and Sylvia Norman, "Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley," Shelley and His Circle, 1773–1822, ed. Kenneth Neill Cameron, III (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 1970), 399.

4. Ellen Moers, Literary Women (New York: Anchor Books, 1977), pp. 141-51.

5. Leslie A. Marchand, Byron: A Biography (New York: Knopf, 1957), III, 947-48.

6. Mary Shelley, Letters of Mary Shelley, ed. Frederick L. Jones (Norman, Oklahoma: Univ. of Oklahoma Press, 1944), I, 158; the italics are Shelley's.

7. Mary Shelley, Mary Shelley's Journal, ed. Frederick L. Jones (Norman, Oklahoma: Univ. of Oklahoma Press, 1947), p. 184.

8. My sources for the events of the summer of 1816 are Marchand, II, 620-36, 643-46; Richard Holmes, Shelley: The Pursuit (New York: Dutton, 1975), pp. 319-46; Newman Ivey White, Shelley (New York: Knopf, 1940), I, 438-64; John Buxton, Byron and Shelley: The History of a Friendship (London: Macmillan, 1968); and Mary Shelley, Journal, pp. 50-61. Her journal for the period 14 May 1815 to 20 July 1816 is missing. Polidori also kept a diary, but he made only sketchy entries from 25 May to 2 July 1816, and then wrote nothing at all until 5 September (The Diary of John William Polidori, ed. William Michael Rossetti [London: Elkin Mathews, 1911]). Clairmont's journal for this period has not survived. Thus, there is no daily record of the first two months of the Geneva summer, and the letters of the two Shelleys and Byron from that period are not very numerous or very helpful.

9. Ernest J. Lovell, Jr., "Byron and Mary Shelley," Keats-Shelley Journal, 2 (1953), 35-49.

10. W.E. Peck, Shelley: His Life and Work (Boston: Houghton, 1927), I, 401, quoting Mrs. Julian Marshal, The Life and Letters of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (1889), II, 312. Clairmont had come along when Mary and Percy ran off to France in July 1814, and continued to live with them until 13 May 1815, when they found a place for her away from them. She was, however, back with them early in 1816 (White, I, 383-85, 402-4, 434).

11. Lovell, pp. 38-39.

12. Percy's letter to Mary of 28 October 1814 shows how he talked to her about their relationship: "Your thoughts alone can waken mine to energy. My mind without yours is dead and cold as the dark midnight river when the moon is down…. How divinely sweet a task it is to imitate each others excellencies—and each moment to become wiser in this surpassing love…." (Letters of Percy Bysshe Shelley, ed. Frederick L. Jones [Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1964], I 414). He justified his betrayal of his first wife by saying that she could not give him such companionship. On 5 October 1814 he wrote to Harriet Shelley: "I shall watch over your interests, mark the progress of your future life, be useful to you, be your protector, and consider myself as it were your parent; but as friends, as equals those who do not sympathize can never meet" (Shelley, Letters, I, 404).

13. Those who see Godwin as paying a great deal of attention to his daughter's education include Holmes (Shelley, p. 170) and Muriel Spark (Child of Light [Hadleigh, Essex: Tower Bridge, 1951], p. 17). Those who take the opposite view include Rieger (Introduction, Frankenstein, p. xiii) and Richard Church (Mary Shelley [New York: Viking, 1928], p. 32).

14. Nitchie, p. 29; Spark, p. 17; Church, p. 28. R. Glynn Grylls tells the story but calls it a legend in Mary Shelley: A Biography (1938; rpt., New York: Haskell, 1969), p. 17.

15. Holmes, pp. 325, 372, 324-344 passim; Marchand, II, pp. 619-51 passim.

16. Percy Bysshe Shelley, "Review of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein," Shelley's Prose, or The Trumpet of a Prophecy, ed. David Lee Clark (Albuquerque, N.M.: Univ. of New Mexico Press, 1954), p. 307. Apparently this review was never published in Percy's lifetime.

17. "Review of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein," pp. 307-08.

18. Holmes makes this point about Percy's view of Frankenstein, attributing "extraordinary premonition" to Mary because she exploited the theme of exile that would be so important in her husband's poetry several years later (pp. 333-34). Knowing that in Italy the poet saw himself as a social outcast because of his beliefs, Holmes does not recognize that in Switzerland Mary Shelley was an outcast because of her sex.

19. Byron published the fragment of his vampire story with Mazeppa in 1819. Polidori completed not only his own tale, Ernestus Berchtold, which he published in 1819, but also Byron's; Polidori's version of The Vampyre was published as the poet's in April 1819. Nothing is known about Percy Shelley's and Clairmont's attempts. In her introduction to the second edition of her tale Mary talked about how she had always thought of being an author: "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'" (Frankenstein, p. 5).

20. See Percy Shelley's description of his wife in Epipsychidion, 277-307. Among modern writers, Spark (pp. 120-21) and Moers (pp. 143-44) talk about Shelley's coldness, and Rieger says that "Shelley's spiritual dalliances slowly embittered his wife and froze a temperament that had always been cool" (Introduction, Frankenstein, p. xv). As Doris Langley Moore shows in Lord Byron: Accounts Rendered (London: Murray, 1974), pp. 487-95, Percy's dalliances were not always just spiritual, and Mary had a difficult life both with and without him.

21. The most stimulating and enlightening recent studies of the novel concentrate on the similarities between Mary Shelley and Frankenstein, and especially on the fact that both were mothers. See Moers, pp. 141-51, and Robert Kiely, The Romantic Novel in England (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 1972), pp. 155-73.

Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (Story Date 1891)

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SOURCE: Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft. "The Transformation." In Masterpieces of Terror and the Supernatural, selected by Marvin Kaye, pp. 107-21. New York: Barnes & Noble, 1985.

The following excerpt is from a short story written in 1831, but first published in Tales and Stories by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley in 1891.

   "Forthwith this frame of mine was wrenched
      With a woful agony,

   Which forced me to begin my tale;
      And then it left me free.

   "Since then, at an uncertain hour,
      That agony returns:
   And till my ghastly tale is told,
      This heart within me burns."
   —Samuel Taylor Coleridge "The Ancient Mariner"

I have heard it said, that, when any strange, supernatural, and necromantic adventure has occurred to a human being, that being, however desirous he may be to conceal the same, feels at certain periods torn up as it were by an intellectual earthquake, and is forced to bare the inner depths of his spirit to another. I am a witness of the truth of this. I have dearly sworn to myself never to reveal to human ears the horrors to which I once, in excess of fiendly pride, delivered myself over. The holy man who heard my confession, and reconciled me to the Church, is dead. None knows that once—

Why should it not be thus? Why tell a tale of impious tempting of Providence, and soul-subduing humiliation? Why? answer me, ye who are wise in the secrets of human nature! I only know that so it is; and in spite of strong resolve,—of a pride that too much masters me—of shame, and even of fear, so to render myself odious to my species,—I must speak….

The country people were all alive and flocking about; it became necessary that I should conceal myself; and yet I longed to address some one, or to hear others discourse, or in any way to gain intelligence of what was really going on. At length, entering the walks that were in immediate vicinity to the mansion, I found one dark enough to veil my excessive frightfulness; and yet others as well as I were loitering in its shade. I soon gathered all I wanted to know—all that first made my very heart die with horror, and then boil with indignation. Tomorrow Juliet was to be given to the penitent, reformed, beloved Guido—tomorrow my bride was to pledge her vows to a fiend from hell! And I did this!—my accursed pride—my demoniac violence and wicked self-idolatry had caused this act. For if I had acted as the wretch who had stolen my form had acted—if, with a mien at once yielding and dignified, I had presented myself to Torella, saying, I have done wrong, forgive me; I am unworthy of your angel-child, but permit me to claim her hereafter, when my altered conduct shall manifest that I abjure my vices, and endeavour to become in some sort worthy of her. I go to serve against the infidels; and when my zeal for religion and my true penitence for the past shall appear to you to cancel my crimes, permit me again to call myself your son. Thus had he spoken; and the penitent was welcomed even as the prodigal son of Scripture: the fatted calf was killed for him; and he, still pursuing the same path, displayed such open-hearted regret for his follies, so humble a concession of all his rights, and so ardent a resolve to reacquire them by a life of contrition and virtue, that he quickly conquered the kind old man; and full pardon, and the gift of his lovely child, followed in swift succession.

Oh, had an angel from Paradise whispered to me to act thus! But now, what would be the innocent Juliet's fate? Would God permit the foul union—or, some prodigy destroying it, link the dishonoured name of Carega with the worst of crimes? To-morrow at dawn they were to be married: there was but one way to prevent this—to meet mine enemy, and to enforce the ratification of our agreement. I felt that this could only be done by a mortal struggle. I had no sword—if indeed my distorted arms could wield a soldier's weapon—but I had a dagger, and in that lay my hope. There was no time for pondering or balancing nicely the question: I might die in the attempt; but besides the burning jealousy and despair of my own heart, honour, mere humanity, demanded that I should fall rather than not destroy the machinations of the fiend.

The guests departed—the lights began to disappear; it was evident that the inhabitants of the villa were seeking repose. I hid myself among the trees—the garden grew desert—the gates were closed—I wandered round and came under a window—ah! well did I know the same!—a soft twilight glimmered in the room—the curtains were half withdrawn. It was the temple of innocence and beauty. Its magnificence was tempered, as it were, by the slight disarrangements occasioned by its being dwelt in, and all the objects scattered around displayed the taste of her who hallowed it by her presence. I saw her enter with a quick light step—I saw her approach the window—she drew back the curtain yet further, and looked out into the night. Its breezy freshness played among her ringlets, and wafted them from the transparent marble of her brow. She clasped her hands, she raised her eyes to heaven. I heard her voice. Guido! she softly murmured—mine own Guido! and then, as if overcome by the fulness of her own heart, she sank on her knees;—her upraised eyes—her graceful attitude—the beaming thankfulness that lighted up her face—oh, these are tame words! Heart of mine, thou im-agest ever, though thou canst not portray, the celestial beauty of that child of light and love.

I heard a step—a quick firm step along the shady avenue. Soon I saw a cavalier, richly dressed, young and, methought, graceful to look on, advance. I hid myself yet closer. The youth approached; he paused beneath the window. She arose, and again looking out she saw him, and said—I cannot, no, at this distant time I cannot record her terms of soft silver tenderness; to me they were spoken, but they were replied to by him.

"I will not go," he cried: "here where you have been, where your memory glides like some heaven-visiting ghost, I will pass the long hours till we meet, never, my Juliet, again, day or night, to part. But do thou, my love, retire; the cold morn and fitful breeze will make thy cheek pale, and fill with languor thy love-lighted eyes. Ah, sweetest! could I press one kiss upon them, I could, methinks, repose."

And then he approached still nearer, and methought he was about to clamber into her chamber. I had hesitated, not to terrify her; now I was no longer master of myself. I rushed forward—I threw myself on him—I tore him away—I cried, "O loathsome and foul-shaped wretch!"

I need not repeat epithets, all tending, as it appeared, to rail at a person I at present feel some partiality for. A shriek rose from Juliet's lips. I neither heard nor saw—I felt only mine enemy, whose throat I grasped, and my dagger's hilt; he struggled, but could not escape. At length hoarsely he breathed these words: "Do!—strike home! destroy this body—you will still live: may your life be long and merry!"

The descending dagger was arrested at the word, and he, feeling my hold relax, extricated himself and drew his sword, while the uproar in the house, and flying of torches from one room to the other, showed that soon we should be separated. In the midst of my frenzy there was much calculation:—fall I might, and so that he did not survive, I cared not for the death-blow I might deal against myself. While still, therefore, he thought I paused, and while I saw the villainous resolve to take advantage of my hesitation, in the sudden thrust he made at me, I threw myself on his sword, and at the same moment plunged my dagger, with a true, desperate aim, in his side. We fell together, rolling over each other, and the tide of blood that flowed from the gaping wound of each mingled on the grass. More I know not—I fainted.

Again I return to life: weak almost to death, I found myself stretched upon a bed—Juliet was kneeling beside it. Strange! my first broken request was for a mirror. I was so wan and ghastly, that my poor girl hesitated, as she told me afterwards; but, by the mass! I thought myself a right proper youth when I saw the dear reflection of my own well-known features. I confess it is a weakness, but I avow it, I do entertain a considerable affection for the countenance and limbs I behold, whenever I look at a glass; and have more mirrors in my house, and consult them oftener, than any beauty in Genoa. Before you too much condemn me, permit me to say that no one better knows than I the value of his own body; no one, probably, except myself, ever having had it stolen from him.

Incoherently I at first talked of the dwarf and his crimes, and reproached Juliet for her too easy admission of his love. She thought me raving, as well she might; and yet it was some time before I could prevail on myself to admit that the Guido whose penitence had won her back for me was myself; and while I cursed bitterly the monstrous dwarf, and blest the well-directed blow that had deprived him of life, I suddenly checked myself when I heard her say, Amen! knowing that him whom she reviled was my very self. A little reflection taught me silence—a little practice enabled me to speak of that frightful night without any very excessive blunder. The wound I had given myself was no mockery of one—it was long before I recovered—and as the benevolent and generous Torella sat beside me, talking such wisdom as might win friends to repentance, and mine own dear Juliet hovered near me, administering to my wants, and cheering me by her smiles, the work of my bodily cure and mental reform went on together. I have never, indeed, wholly recovered my strength—my cheek is paler since—my person a little bent. Juliet sometimes ventures to allude bitterly to the malice that caused this change, but I kiss her on the moment, and tell her all is for the best. I am a fonder and more faithful husband, and true is this—but for that wound, never had I called her mine.

I did not revisit the sea-shore, nor seek for the fiend's treasure; yet, while I ponder on the past, I often think, and my confessor was not backward in favouring the idea, that it might be a good rather than an evil spirit, sent by my guardian angel, to show me the folly and misery of pride. So well at least did I learn this lesson, roughly taught as I was, that I am known now by all my friends and fellow-citizens by the name of Guido il Cortese.

Principal Works

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History of a Six Weeks' Tour through a part of France, Switzerland, Germany, and Holland, with Letters descriptive of a Sail around the Lake of Geneva, and of the Glaciers of Chamouni (nonfiction) 1817
Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus. 3 vols. (novel) 1818; revised edition, 1831
Valperga: or, The Life and Adventures of Castruccio, Prince of Lucca. 3 vols. (novel) 1823
Posthumous Poems [editor] (poetry) 1824
The Last Man. 2 vols. (novel) 1826
The Fortunes of Perkin Warbeck. 3 vols. (novel) 1830
Lodore. 3 vols. (novel) 1835
Falkner. 3 vols. (novel) 1837
The Poetical Works of Percy Shelley [editor] (poetry) 1839
Rambles in Germany and Italy in 1840, 1842, and 1843 (travel essays) 1844
The Choice: A Poem on Shelley's Death (poetry) 1876
Tales and Stories by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (short stories) 1891
Proserpine and Midas [first publication] (plays) 1922
Mathilda [edited by Elizabeth Nitchie] (novella) 1959
Collected Tales and Stories (short stories) 1976
The Journals of Mary Shelley (journals) 1987
The Letters of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley. 3 vols. (letters) 1988

∗ Originally titled The Fields of Fancy, Mathilda is believed to have been written c. 1819.

Fred Botting (Essay Date 2000)

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SOURCE: Botting, Fred. “Reflections of Excess: Fran-kenstein, the French Revolution, and Monstrosity.” In Frankenstein: Complete, Authoritative Text with Biographical, Historical, and Cultural Contexts, Critical History, and Essays from Contemporary Critical Perspectives, edited by Johanna M. Smith and Ross C. Murfin, pp. 435-49. Boston and New York: Bedford—St. Martin’s Press, 1993.

In the following essay, Botting views the monster and monstrosity as a metaphor in Frankenstein within a cultural, historical, and literary context.

This essay examines the appearance and effect of monsters in British political positions immediately after the French Revolution and analyses some of their reverberations in Frankenstein. The project, however, is not one that simply tries to identify Frankenstein’s meaning in terms of British exchanges concerned with the French Revolution, it also regards Frankenstein as a novel that provides reflections on, as much as reflections of, revolutionary and counter-revolutionary texts. Focusing on the repeated appearances of the monster metaphor, the essay attempts to identify some of the implications of the monster’s diverse and prolific animations within different political and literary positions.

At once necessary and terribly dangerous, the figure of the monster takes on a multitude of different forms and functions. Its effects are multiple also: it defines the limits of a position as a threat to the continued existence of that position. Constructed as a figure of transgression, an other that marks out the boundaries of discourse, the monster also begins to disclose internal contradictions within discursive frameworks. Produced by positions that cannot contain them, monsters activate an excessive force which continually poses a challenge to unity, singularity and stability, a threat that demands repeated attempts to reconstitute boundaries from within. The friction involved in this internal and external confrontation, however, engenders a proliferation of monsters, an excess that encourages interrogations and transformations which upset the stability and unity of yet more limits and distinctions. The excess marked by various forms of monstrosity can be described loosely, and perhaps monstrously, as a force of difference between opposed poles that questions the privileged status one pole attempts to sustain by disclosing its dependence on its other. Undermining the system which holds distinctions in place, the tension poses further questions and releases further movements of difference. Monsters are thus produced by and also reveal inherent instabilities: refusing to remain in a fixed space of exclusion or to be contained at the margins of any one position, they pose a permanently shifting challenge and produce the possibility of significant transformations. The excess that is constructed by various positions in order to define their limits also works upon and within them, inhabiting and undermining the fixity of their boundaries.

Frankenstein is not only about the manufacture of a monster. It is, as many critics have noted, a monster itself. Like the natural and unnatural inhuman human life created by Frankenstein out of pieces from various corpses, the novel is composed from an extensive literary corpus: direct citations of Romantic poetry, Paradise Lost and myths of Prometheus, references to many literary, philosophical and historical texts, events and figures, as well as traces of many others, all distinguish the novel as an “assemblage” of fragments, a disunified text that subverts the possibility and implications of textual and semantic coherence. Indeed, the phrase “my hideous progeny” (p. 25 in this volume) which the author’s 1831 Introduction to the novel uses to describe both book and monster, not only equates the two, but draws the author into the scene of commentary and repetition by suggesting a parallel between the writer’s and Frankenstein’s projects, as well as injecting a note of difference. Unlike Frankenstein, who tries to subject his creation to his will, Mary Shelley makes no such tyrannical gesture: she bids her text-monster farewell and hopes it might “go forth and prosper” (p. 25). Ironically her creation obeys, engendering a multitude of monsters and mythical monstrosities on the stage, in cinemas and in books.

Many of these reappearances and reproductions of Frankenstein are conservatively recuperated in popular culture and mythology, especially in their silencing of the monster, as Chris Baldick argues in his book, In Frankenstein’s Shadow. For Baldick (62), the “eloquent invisibility” of the monster ensures its more radical survival in the liberal confines of literary criticism. Yet, even in the profusion of literary meanings that give form and identity to the monster, strategies of limitation and exclusion still seem to function to contain the interrogative excess of monstrosity as it reflects on all institutions, literary criticism included.

Frankenstein, distinguished by Baldick from its reproductions by means of an opposition of literary tradition and popular culture, does not, however, respect such boundaries since, for many, it is hardly “literature” at all. Sensational Gothic

fiction or a clumsy Romantic novel (Bloom 613), a “minor work” (Norman 408) that is “not one of the living novels of the world” (Grylls 320), Fran-kenstein occupies an unstable place on the boundaries that separate “literature” and its values from second-rate fiction. It is a monstrous space, itself subject to the excessive effects of monstrosity. For Deleuze and Guattari (50) literature is also a kind of monster, an “assemblage.” Composed of disjunctive parts and fragments, “literature” forms an amalgam of multiplicitous and heterogeneous positions, a form of writing that combines elements and upsets their autonomy, blurring and questioning the artificial distinctions that construct its meaning.

In this context of excess and transgression, it would be presumptuous indeed to adopt a position outside the play of those forces, a position that refuses to acknowledge its own investments, involvements and interests in the texts it reads. It would also be foolish since it would mark another attempt to restrict or recuperate the excessive and dangerous movements of difference that it analyses and is affected by, another Frankensteinian attempt at mastery perhaps. Instead, the theoretical position adopted here, a product of a different French revolution—the revolutions of structuralism and post-structuralism, forms something of a monster itself. As an amalgam or “assemblage” of disparate elements drawn from a number of French theorists, this paper is situated along lines of intersection and divergence between several theoretical positions. Partially formed in the diverse conjunctions of and differences between various theories, the project attempts, not to restrict or to confine, but to open up possibilities and inhabit a frictional position that both resists closure and produces, in its engagements with revolutions and monsters, questions concerning the differences and power relations involved in politics, literature, theory and reading itself.

Of the multiple and diverse theoretical utterances that have informed this paper, a few can be specified for their direct bearings upon this account of Frankenstein and the French Revolution. In the essays “Preface to Transgression” and “Language to Infinity,” Michel Foucault considers the way that language displays its monstrous potential to both set and transgress limits and engender a dangerous profusion of self-reflection and doubling. There are certain similarities between Foucault’s account of writing and Derrida’s description of deconstruction, in “Signature Event Context,” as a “double gesture, a double science, a double writing.” The doubling effects of deconstruction demand a transgression of the limits imposed on writing by hierarchical binary oppositions: deconstruction must “put into practice a reversal of the classical opposition and a general displacement of the system” (Derrida 195). Double gestures thus disturb the stability of oppositions by activating the differences between one pole and its other.

For Jacques Lacan, the construction of subjectivity in language also involves relations of doubling: identifying with its specular image in the mirror, identifying with the Other of language, the subject exists only in relations of difference and desire. Determined by the laws of the symbolic order, the subject is constructed by the effects of signification and is also subject to the shifts, the displacements of desire, within the system of differences that is language. Constituting the limits of subjectivity and meaning, the differences and desires at work in language also transgress and exceed those limits. In and between language and theory, then, a space of reflections appears in a fragmented, mirrored, doubled and interrogative form, a space from which meanings multiply. A similar position is disclosed by the monsters that appear in revolutionary controversies and in Frankenstein. From this space of reflections, this position of doubling and monstrosity, it becomes possible to generate different readings of Burke’s Reflections, radical responses to it and Frankenstein’s monsters and doubles.

Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790) exemplifies the diffractions involved in processes of reflection: his text casts its rather partial light on events in France and reflects back on the situation in England and upon its own modes of representation. Monsters proliferate among these reflections. Already a conventional image of the enraged and riotous mob, monsters are also used to signify the French National Assembly’s destructive capacity and the Constitution of Republican France (see Burke 279-80, 313). This written document is opposed to the unwritten “constitution” of 1688, which Burke sets up as the guardian of English liberty, tradition and good order. Indeed, everything in France is constructed as England’s other: “out of nature,” irrational, ir-religious and illegitimate, the affairs of France form a “monstrous fiction” that displays the rightness of English “good order” as well as the obvious truth of Burke’s case (Burke 124).

This is a most traditional deployment of monstrosity, one which, as Chris Baldick (10-11), following Foucault, observes, stages vice in order to vindicate virtue, presenting a cautionary tale that warns against the horrors of transgression. The “monstrous tragi-comic scene” performed in France describes a state of chaos, of revolving and uncontrollable extremes. In Burke’s words, “the most opposite passions necessarily succeed, and sometimes mix with each other in the mind; alternate contempt and indignation; alternate laughter and tears; alternate scorn and horror” (Burke 92-93). Revolutionary France, moreover, exists as a monstrous fiction in several other senses. It is the invention of “literary caballers and intriguing philosophers,” revolutionary alchemists whose evil imaginations conjure up and attempt to realize their own extreme and perverse ambitions (Burke 93). Exposing the deceptions of such conspirators in France and England, Burke attempts to forestall revolution in Britain, a revolution advocated publicly in the monstrous fictions of radicals, like Richard Price, that identify with the revolutionary slogans of France.

The monsters constructed in Burke’s text as figures that affirm the presence and value of good order in England betray a certain anxiety. Instead of affirming good order they expound the need for, and thus lack of, good order. Burke’s final metaphor is telling in this respect. His book, he humbly admits, comes from one who “when the equipoise of the vessel in which he sails, may be endangered by overloading it upon one side, is desirous of carrying the small weight of his reasons to that which may preserve its equipoise” (Burke 377). The ship of State in which he sails is already unstable, however, already under threat from forces which are beginning to exceed the bounds of liberal reason. To follow Stephen Blakemore’s 1988 analysis of Burke’s texts as writings deeply concerned about the maintenance of linguistic propriety and decorum within traditional orders of meaning, the ship might also be interpreted as a figure of conventional discourse upset by radical and revolutionary contestations and appropriations of meaning. These struggles raise the danger of the ship being cast adrift in chaotic seas of signification. In the name of good order, reason, nature, liberty and tradition, Burke’s text becomes another monstrous fiction engaged in, and seriously affected by, the “revolution in sentiments, manners and moral opinions” that it sets out to control (Burke 175).

Furthermore, the project of preserving “equi-poise” has the opposite effect. Instead of quelling resistance and dissent, the Reflections provoked a great many vigorous and diverse responses, responses that extended, rather than contained, the dangerous proliferation of monsters. In his reply to Burke in The Rights of Man (1792), Paine attacks the former’s “marvellous and monstrous” method and goes on to criticize the system Burke defends, describing, in the process, the aristocracy as a monster (see Paine 202, 229). From radical perspectives, it is the social system that bears the responsibility for creating monsters. In her response to Burke in A Vindication of the Rights of Men (1790), Mary Wollstonecraft castigates the system of hereditary property for making monsters of humans: “man,” she states, “has been changed into an artificial monster by the station in which he was born” (quoted in Butler 72-73). For William Godwin, writing a few years later, the “monstrous edifice” of government by courts and ministers “will always be found supported by all the various instruments for perverting the human character” (Godwin 439).

The system that defines its own limits in the construction of monsters thus has its terms challenged and reversed. Burke, a maker of monsters and a supporter of the system that creates them, is made monstrous himself. In this battle of meanings, the monster functions as a double-edged weapon and continues to reproduce at an enormous rate. The New Annual Register for 1794 stated that “the whole system of insurrection lay in the monstrous doctrine of the Rights of Man, and the Corresponding Society composed of the meanest and most despicable of people.”1 Later, the followers of Godwin and Wollstonecraft were described by the Anti-Jacobin Review as the “spawn of the monster.”2 As an awful threat that was still at large, disseminating among radical writings, the designation of monsters legitimates their exclusion or suppression as figures dangerously opposed to national unity.

The excessive threat of the French Revolution appears in its capacity to engender other revolutions. Indeed, the word “revolution,” Ronald Paulson argues, underwent a significant change to mean an inversion, a half, or 180 degree, turn (Paulson 49-50). These turns initiate a momentum that shifts meanings from one pole to the other in a similar manner to the way that the monsters created by Burke challenged the authority of his order of meaning and appropriated and transformed his terms: monster-makers become monstrous in the very act of creating monsters or in the resistance of the monsters they create. In turn, systems of authority attempt to return defiant radicals to their monstrous place. Like the Revolution in France which, in the name of liberty, overthrew tyranny only to repeat tyrannical practices, the revolving momentum of monsters and monster-makers releases forces that exceed the determining limits of binary oppositions and raise the possibility of other positions.

Godwin, for example, rejects the need for any form of government other than rational and individual responsibility in the same text in which he rejects revolution as a useful means of establishing a free, benevolent and just society: “revolutions,” he contends, “are the produce of passion, not sober and tranquil reason” (Godwin 252). But, unable to escape the violent and repressive logic of opposition that produces the polarizations of revolution in the name of some fixed and transcendent principle, Godwin’s argument returns to bellicose binary distinctions: “truth will bring down all her forces, mankind will be her army, and oppression, injustice, monarchy and vice, will tumble into a common ruin” (Godwin 462). The sober and tranquil language of reason cedes to the passionately rhetorical mode of prophetic and apocalyptic vision. Truth constitutes the authority and promise of victory as well as the cause of conflict, the ultimate booty as well as the bugle that begins the battle. Passion returns within the discourse of divine reason and revolutions rotate still more.

The monster, a figure constructed to legitimate the exclusion or suppression of others, betrays their necessity and fecundity. Demarcating the limits of a position, monsters, at the same time, possess the power to interrogate and transgress all limits.

The excessive momentum of revolution and monster-making powerfully affects and is also transformed by Frankenstein. This focus on monstrosity and excess necessarily precludes detailed consideration of other readings of the novel’s relation to the French Revolution by Ronald Paulson, Lee Sterrenburg and Chris Baldick. Offering many important insights into the relationship between Frankenstein and the French Revolution, these critics, particularly Paulson and Sterrenburg, seem to identify a unity too firmly in the conjunction of text, history and biography through recourse to the name of the author. Divided between Burkean conservatism and her family’s radicalism, between love and political differences, it is the personal pole that is privileged in Paulson’s and Sterrenburg’s accounts. These readings are thus forced to contain or exclude the many excesses that surround Frankenstein’s production. The multiplicitous impact of the French Revolution, its polarization and dispersion of political positions, as well as the fascinating but complicated biographical archive surrounding Mary Shelley, all contribute to an overdetermined set of pretexts for the novel and its interpretations.

Frankenstein does not resolve these contradictions and intricate interconnections, but extends and entangles them. Echoes of British Revolutionary debates abound. Victor Frankenstein is educated at Ingolstadt, a town that is also the birthplace of the Illuminati, the secret society founded by Adam Weishaupt. The Illuminati, the Abbé Barruel argues in his conservative account of the French Revolution, were the conspirators responsible for revolutionary agitations. Frankenstein also embodies Burke’s fear of revolutionary alche-mists or Enlightenment philosophers whose dangerous experiments upset all order by releasing dark and chaotic forces of evil. The monster forms the hideous result, a revolutionary mob that cuts a wake of terror across Europe.

But the monster also speaks, not only to challenge his creator’s authority and question unjust human practices, but to claim recognition and human kindness. His argument, that “misery made me a fiend” (p. 94), echoes the radical descriptions of monsters as socially produced creatures. In opposing Frankenstein, then, the resistance of the monster constructs a relationship that doubles the polemics of Burke and the radicals, and invites a reading in which Frankenstein can be seen, not as a dangerous radical philosopher, but as a pastiche, or even a parody, of paranoid Burkean fictions. Frankenstein’s heterogeneous assembly of political positions makes many identifications possible, but refuses to specify a single, recognizable and dominant viewpoint. This is the significant and divergent aspect of Frankenstein’s account of the French Revolution. Replaying and extending the structures of reversal that emerge in revolutionary polemics, the novel also represents their totalizing desires, their invocations of some transcendent unity, whether it be Burkean good order or Godwinian rational truth.

Robert Walton, the explorer whose letters begin the novel, sets out to discover the North Pole and the “wondrous power that attracts the needle” so that he “may regulate a thousand celestial observations” and “render their seeming eccentricities consistent for ever” (p. 28). The imagined unity of this world of “eternal light” excites Walton’s aspirations. Victor Frankenstein, similarly, aspires to metaphysical knowledge and imagines he can attain the unity and presence of a singular and privileged pole of significance beyond the bounds of binary oppositions:

Life and death appeared to me ideal bounds, which I should first break through, and pour a torrent of light into our dark world. A new species would bless me as its creator and source; many happy and excellent natures would owe their being to me. No father could claim the gratitude of his child so completely as I should deserve theirs.

(p. 58)

Transcending human constraints, the superhuman creator envisages a world beyond difference in which his “new species” exists only to adore the master.

But the others—death, darkness, women, bodies—on which Frankenstein depends in order to steal the secrets of nature and succeed in his illumination of life in full, are not effaced: “to examine the causes of life,” Frankenstein comments, “we must first have recourse to death” (p. 56). In conjunction with many of the others Victor’s project aimed to efface, like women, bodies, sexuality and darkness, death returns with a vengeance in the dream that follows the animation of the monster. As he wakes from his disturbing sleep of dreams, the creator sees the horrible form of his creation approaching him and he flees from this inverted image of his aspirations.

Frankenstein has not achieved the fullness of life and illumination that he projected: he has revitalized the forces of otherness which he hoped to efface. The creature he designed to be beautiful is realized as an ugly and repulsive being. But then how could anything have lived up to the exorbitant ideals of the creator’s imagination? Frankenstein’s totalizing dream discovers its dependence on systems of difference as the human creator encounters the necessity of monstrosity when, waking from his dream, he repeats the convulsive physical agitations that announced the first stirrings of life in the monster. One turns into other; dreams become nightmares: “dreams that had been my food and pleasant rest for so long a space were now become a hell to me; and the change was so rapid, the overthrow so complete!” (p. 61). This subjective upheaval is described in terms of a revolution: it is Frankenstein’s first revolution.

The momentum inaugurated by this overturning is not arrested, but rolls on through the course of the novel in an excessive play of differences that blurs all distinctions and questions all limits. In the next encounter between Frankenstein and monster, in the sublime setting of the Alps, more reversals occur: forced to be a listener, the creator is subjected to the monster’s demands for a mate that conclude the latter’s story. The shift in their relationship is declared, after Frankenstein has destroyed the half-finished female creature, when the monster exclaims: “you are my creator, but I am your master;—obey!” (p. 146). Ironically, the creator has just performed an act of resistance.

The ensuing struggle involves both figures in a tense dialectic in which they both try negatively to affirm their lost authority: Frankenstein vows to kill his creation, while the monster destroys almost all the creator’s friends and relations. The subsequent confused and mutually sustaining pursuit speeds the novel to an end in which the life-giver attempts to persuade Walton to continue his destructive quest but fails and dies, while the creation announces his intention to kill himself on a funeral pyre at the pole in the only act of self-possession available to him. Fire amid ice, light in darkness, with this promised extinction of the first and last of a new species the novel ends in an entangled assembly of opposites. The hopes of discovering a world of “eternal light” that began the novel have been overturned by the end, as Walton, reluctantly and disappointedly returning home, gazes at the monster becoming “lost in darkness and distance” (p. 189).

Yet the novel does not simply describe the collapse of one pole of significance into its other, light into dark, life into death, creation into destruction; it also questions the tensions between oppositional limits and engenders different positions, positions that can criticize and subvert, challenge and transform. From his position as a voyeur on the De Lacey family, the monster learns about the arbitrary system of differences called language; he learns about gender differentiation and learns that humans have more than one identity, since signifiers have different effects. From this position, within and yet outside human orders, he is able to expose the inhumanity of human codes and values since they are the very things that define him as a monster.

An artificial yet natural man, alive yet composed of dead bodies, benevolent and destructive, the monster shifts along the margins of many distinctions. His shifting and excluded situation produces the critical faculty that engenders an excessive array of disturbing effects. For example, when the monster frames the Frankenstein family servant, Justine, for the murder of William Fran-kenstein, she is found guilty and sentenced to death despite her, and others’, testimonies to her innocent character. The verdict, however, for the reader who is aware of the existence of the monster, reflects upon the inadequacy and injustice of judicial institutions. Furthermore, the behaviour of Justine’s confessor extends the reflections of monstrosity since he forces her to confess a lie: “he threatened and menaced,” Justine tells Elizabeth, “until I almost began to think I was the monster that he said I was” (p. 83). The confessor’s actions reflect less on Justine than the clerical institutions that make her a monster.

The proliferation of monsters and the challenging and critical interrogations they provoke extend still further. Elizabeth, Frankenstein’s adopted sister and fiancée, deeply upset by Just-ine’s ordeal, learns that vice and injustice are not the “imaginary evils” she thought they were. In her words, “misery has come home, and men appear to me as monsters thirsting for each other’s blood” (p. 88). A critique of masculinity as much as human inhumanity, Elizabeth echoes some of the monster’s own sentiments and goes on to question the possibility of making any distinctions at all in a world in which the limits and authority of any order seem so arbitrary. She exclaims: “alas! Victor, when falsehood can look so like the truth, who can assure themselves of certain happiness? I feel as if I were walking on the edge of a precipice, towards which thousands are crowding, and endeavouring to plunge me into the abyss.” Swept up by the monstrous momentum of interrogative doubt, no bonds are secure and no position is safe.

The uncontainable excess of monstrous otherness transgresses the limits set by any order as it operates along a position’s lines of demarcation and resistance. Structurally too, Frankenstein opens itself up to the forces of critical reflection that operate in its own fraught bipolar momentum. As a set of broken frames, the narrative encloses the monster’s story within Frankenstein’s, the latter’s being surrounded by Walton’s letters, letters that are addressed to his sister on the edges of the text: the reader is at once moved inward to a presumed center, the monster’s account of the De Lacey family, and outwards, to the absent addressee on the margins. But the story at the center fragments, dispersed by the rage of the monster, while the monster, neither wholly inside and contained by the structure, nor completely outside and excluded from it, appears at the end to confront Walton directly. Inside and outside, center and margin, have their distinctions subverted by a novel in which the different speakers and writers also occupy the positions of readers and listeners. But, in its refusal of a dominant, authorial overview, the novel does not necessarily equivocate or compromise between the poles it identifies and confuses. Walton’s final situation, suspended uneasily between departure and return, success and failure, light and darkness, is divided in such a way that it perpetuates doubts and dilemmas and engenders further questions: the ship may be returning home, but his gaze still attempts to penetrate the darkness into which the monster disappears.

The direction of the monster’s disappearance itself engenders doubled effects. Moving in an opposite direction to the middle-class reader to whom Walton is returning, the monster approaches another place on the fractured margins of the text, a position which contrasts with the comfortable and domestic situation in which the text’s absent reader, Mrs Saville, is constructed. Dividing the marginal and uncertain identity of the reader, the movement of the monster turns that position into a critical space of reading. Reading thus becomes dangerous and excessive. A space of passive reception, it is also a space from which resistance and transformation can begin. Readers, indeed, become monsters. As one alarmed critic of the enormous popularity of Gothic novels wrote:

The class of readers, for whom this kind of entertainment is provided, as if no longer capable of deriving pleasure from the gentle and tender sympathies of the heart, require to have their curiosity excited by artificial concealments, their astonishment kept awake by a perpetual succession of wonderful incidents, and their very blood congealed with chilling horrours.3

Upsetting the bounds of literary propriety with their insatiable appetites, readers of Gothic fiction eschew taste and decorum with their demands for more and more awful thrills.

Novels were constructed in a similar manner to readers—as monsters. In 1796, a brief review of Matthew Lewis’s The Monk lamented the waste of the author’s talents on the production of a text so irredeemably devoted to excess:

Lust, murder, incest, and every atrocity that can disgrace human nature, brought together, without the apology of probability, or even possibility, for their introduction. To make amends, the moral is general and very practical; it is, ‘not to deal in witchcraft and magic, because the devil will have you at last!’ We are sorry to observe that good talents have been misapplied in the production of this monster.4

Patently exceeding the bounds of literary propriety and taste, The Monk displayed its monstrosity and reflected that of the readers of Gothic romances.

The origin for the threatening proliferation of those figures of excess—Gothic tales and their readers—was identified as Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto. One commentary noted how “Otranto Ghosts have propagated their species with unequalled fecundity. The spawn is in every novel shop.”5 Like the phrase “the spawn of the monster” that was used to describe the followers of Godwin and Wollstonecraft, the “new species” of fiction created by Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto reproduced at an alarming rate (Walpole 12). Frankenstein, too, imagines the creation of a “new species.” But his own “hideous progeny” resists, subverts and exceeds his control. Like Burke who, Paulson argues, constructed the French Revolution as a Gothic novel, and like Walpole, Frankenstein cannot limit the effects of his monstrous creation. Indeed, the demand for greater thrills and more excessive pleasures subjected authors and the literary establishment to the desires of their readership in a similar manner to the way that radicals demanded liberty and equality from the systems that ruled them. More than passive consumers, readers begin to possess, in their function within the necessary and dangerous conditions of production, a certain power. Consuming, constructing and demanding, they form significant others, figures of difference crucial to the work of creation even as they exist beyond the determinations of authority.

Reading positions, glimpsed and activated among Frankenstein’s unstable frames, betray their monstrous power. Neither inside nor outside the novel, necessary yet unknown, absent addressees that produce powerful effects, readers cannot be contained by the limits of a single text. Inhabiting and generating textual contradictions, readers can identify and recognize themselves in parts of the text as passive addressees, but they can also resist such constructions and produce readings that attempt to decide Walton’s disturbing dilemma: they can privilege Frankenstein or the monster. Furthermore, as the monstrous and marginal space engenders a surplus of meanings that cannot be limited by the novel’s broken frames, so reading positions might multiply and challenge the terms and patterns prescribed in textual representations to interrogate and reactivate issues of difference and power.

Not merely subjected to or positioned by the effects of writing, the construction of readers within the text allots a certain power and resistance to acts of reading and offers subject positions which can be refused, adopted or, even, transformed. Who knows? The writer, for sure, does not. The possibility of adopting different positions, always available in the frictions of textual oppositions and differences, is the partial and yet powerful prerogative of that figure of potential excess, the reader. Readers always might, like the monsters of Gothic fiction and the French Revolution, follow the exciting and unknown lines of excess that operate within the limits in which they are partially constructed, since reading always involves some differences and thus entails the possibility of monstrous literary and political transgressions.


1. Cited by Kramnick, “Introduction” to Godwin 40.

2. The Anti-Jacobin Review, V (1800): 427; quoted in Sterrenburg 147.

3. Review of Count Roderic’s Castle; or, Gothic Times, Analytical Review 20 (1794): 489; cited by Napier vii.

4. Review of The Monk, a Romance, The British Critic, 7 June 1796: 677.

5. T. J. Matthias, The Pursuits of Literature: A Satirical Poem in Four Dialogues, London, 1797: 87, n. iii; cited by Napier viii.

Works Cited

Baldick, Chris. In Frankenstein’s Shadow, Oxford: Clarendon, 1987.

Blakemore, Steven. Burke and the Fall of Language, Hanover: UP of New England, 1988.

Bloom, Harold. “Frankenstein, or the new Prometheus,” Partisan Review 32 (1965): 611-18.

Bouchard, Donald F., ed. Language, Counter-Memory, Practice. Trans. Bouchard and Sherry Simon. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1977.

Burke, Edmund. Reflections on the Revolution in France. Ed. Conor Cruise O’Brien, Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin, 1968.

Butler, Marilyn, ed. Burke, Paine, Godwin, and the Revolution Controversy, Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1984.

Deleuze, Giles, and Guattari, Felix. “Rhizome,” Ideology and Consciousness 8 (1981): 49-71.

Derrida, Jacques. “Signature event context,” Glyph 1 (1977): 172-97.

Foucault, Michel. “Language to infinity.” Bouchard 53-67.

_______. “Preface to transgression.” Bouchard 29-52.

Godwin, William. Enquiry Concerning Political Justice. Ed. Isaac Kramnick, Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin, 1985.

Grylls, Rosalie Glynn. Mary Shelley: A Biography. London: Oxford UP, 1938.

Lacan, Jacques. “Desire and the Interpretation of Desire in Hamlet.Yale French Studies 55/56 (1977): 11-52.

_______. Ecrits. Trans. Alan Sheridan. London: Tavistock, 1977.

_______. “Seminar on ‘The Purloined Letter.’” Yale French Studies 48 (1972): 38-72.

Napier, Elizabeth R. The Failure of Gothic, Oxford: Clarendon, 1987.

Norman, Sylva. “Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley.” Shelley and his Circle 1773-1822. 8 vols. Ed. Kenneth Neill Cameron. London: Oxford UP, 3:397-422.

Paine, Thomas. The Rights of Man. 1791-92. The Thomas Paine Reader. Ed. Michael Foot and Isaac Kramnick. Harmondsworth: UK: Penguin, 1987. 201-364.

Paulson, Ronald. Representations of Revolution 1789-1820. New Haven: Yale UP, 1983.

Sterrenburg, Lee. “Mary Shelley’s Monster: Politics and Psyche in Frankenstein.The Endurance of Frankenstein. Ed. George Levine and U. C. Knoepflmacher. Berkeley: U of California P, 1979. 143-71.

Walpole, Horace. The Castle of Otranto. 1764. Ed. W. S. Lewis, London: Oxford UP, 1964.



Frank, Frederick S. “Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein: A Register of Research.” Bulletin of Bibliography 40, no. 3 (September 1983): 163-88.

A bibliography of twentieth-century research on Frankenstein published through 1982.


Mellor, Anne K. Mary Shelley: Her Life, Her Fiction, Her Monsters. New York and London: Routledge, 1988, 275 p.

Draws on unpublished material and Shelley’s fiction to present an analysis of Shelley’s life.

Seymour, Miranda. Mary Shelley. New York: Grove Press, 2000, 672 p.

Utilizes feminist scholarship to present a balanced picture of Shelley’s life.

Sunstein, Emily W. Mary Shelley: Romance and Reality. Boston and Toronto, Ontario: Little, Brown, and Co., 1989, 478 p.

Defines Shelley as an exemplary Romantic, and seeks to provide an authoritative biography that dispels common myths surrounding Shelley’s life and those of her contemporaries.

Williams, John. Mary Shelley: A Literary Life. London: Pal-grave, 2000, 222 p.

Provides an overview of Shelley’s life.


Birkhead, Edith. “Later Developments of the Tale of Terror.” In The Tale of Terror: A Study of the Gothic Romance. 1921. Reprint edition, pp. 157-84. Russell & Russell, Inc., 1963.

Chapter in what is considered one of the first significant studies of the Gothic tradition. Offers a thoughtful overview of Frankenstein, and briefly considers Valperga, The Last Man, and some of Shelley’s short stories.

Botting, Fred, ed. New Casebooks: Frankenstein. London: Macmillan, 1995, 271 p.

Compilation of essays representing the different critical approaches commonly employed in analyses of Frankenstein.

Clery, E. J. “Mary Shelley.” In Women’s Gothic: From Clara Reeve to Mary Shelley, pp. 117-46. Horndon, Tavistock, Devon: Northcote House in Association with the British Council, 2000.

Studies Shelley within the tradition of Gothic literature written by women.

Clifford, Gay. “Caleb Williams and Frankenstein: First-Person Narratives and ‘Things as They Are.’” Genre 10, no. 4 (winter 1977): 601-17.

Outlines the artistic and philosophical viewpoints of the first-person narratives in Caleb Williams and Frankenstein and compares Shelley’s narrative techniques with those of her father.

Eberle-Sinatra, Michael, ed. Mary Shelley’s Fictions: From Frankenstein to Falkner. New York: Macmillan—St. Martin’s Press, 2000, 250 p.

Collection of essays on Shelley’s works, arranged in sections titled “The Craft of Writing,” “Gender,” “The Contemporary Scene,” and “The Parental Legacy.”

Garbin, Lidia. “The Fortunes of Perkin Warbeck: Walter Scott in the Writings of Mary Shelley.” Romanticism On the Net 6 (May 1997):

Argues “that we cannot understand Perkin Warbeck unless we see that it stands in Scott’s shadow and that Mary Shelley is deeply sympathetic to the tenor of Scott’s works.”

Gilbert, Sandra M. and Susan Gubar. “Horror’s Twin: Mary Shelley’s Monstrous Eve.” In The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination, pp. 213-47. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1979.

Views Frankenstein in terms of Shelley’s relationship to the general patriarchy of literature as figured in John Milton’s Paradise Lost. Noting that Shelley read Milton’s

General Commentary

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SOURCE: Hoeveler, Diane Long. "Mary Shelley and Gothic Feminism: The Case of 'The Mortal Immortal.'" In Iconoclastic Departures: Mary Shelley after Frankenstein: Essays in Honor of the Bicentenary of Mary Shelley's Birth, edited by Syndy M. Conger, Frederick S. Frank, and Gregory O'Dea, pp. 150-63. Madison, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1997.

In the following essay, Hoeveler discusses the "Gothic feminism"—characterized by women engaging in passive-aggressive, self-negating behavior—in Shelley's works, particularly in the short story "The Mortal Immortal."

During the month of May 1794, the most popular drama in London, playing nightly to packed houses at Covent Garden, was Henry Siddons's The Sicilian Romance; or The Apparition of the Cliff, loosely based on Ann Radcliffe's second novel, published in 1790. One of the more interesting changes in the play concerns the villain of the Siddons piece, who keeps his inconvenient wife chained to solid stone in a rocky cave in the forest, a place he visits only to feed her and blame her for inflicting wounds of guilt on his heart. Although the Gothic villain would later metamorphose into the Byronic hero consumed by unspeakable guilt over illicit sins, the villain of the Siddons drama is a bit more prosaic. He simply desires to marry a younger and more beautiful woman, one who will further improve his social and political status, because his first wife, the mother of his children, has become redundant. The young woman he desires, whom we would recognize as a future trophy wife, is pursued from castle to convent to cavern, aided by the hero, the villain's son-turned-outlaw. As the above synopsis makes obvious, female Gothic novels like Radcliffe's Sicilian Romance provided the subject matter, techniques, and melodramatic formulae that, first on the stage in England, later on the French stage, and much later in the Hollywood "women in jeopardy" films such as The Silence of the Lambs, have continued to promulgate the primal Gothic tradition of "good" or femininity triumphing over "evil" or masculinity.

The typical female Gothic novel presents a blameless female victim triumphing through a variety of passive-aggressive strategies over a male-created system of oppression and corruption. The melodrama that suffuses these works is explicable only if we understand that, as Paula Backscheider has recently demonstrated, a generally hyperbolic sentimentalism was saturating the British literary scene at the time, informing the Gothic melodramas that were such standard fare during the popular theater season.1 But melodrama, as Peter Brooks has demonstrated, is also characterized by a series of moves or postures that made it particularly attractive to middle-class women. Specifically, Brooks lists as crucial to melodrama the tendency toward depicting intense, excessive representations of life that tend to strip away the facade of manners to reveal the primal conflicts at work, leading to moments of intense confrontation. These symbolic dramatizations rely on what Brooks lists as the standard features of melodrama: hyperbolic figures, lurid and grandiose events, masked relationships and disguised identities, abductions, slow-acting poisons, secret societies, and mysterious parentage. In short, melodrama is a version of the female Gothic, while the female Gothic provides the undergirding for feminism as an ideology bent on depicting women as the innocent victims of a corrupt and evil patriarchal system.

If husbands can routinely chain their wives to stone walls and feed them the way one feeds a forsaken pet that will not die, then what sort of action is required from women to protect and defend themselves against such abuse? Demure, docile behavior is hardly adequate protection against a lustful, raving patriarch gone berserk. According to Brooks, the Gothic novel can be understood as standing most clearly in reaction to desacralization and the pretensions of rationalism.2 Like melodrama, the female Gothic text represents both the urge toward resacralization and the impossibility of conceiving sacralization other than in personal terms. For the Enlightenment mentality, there was no longer a clear transcendent value to which one could be reconciled. There was, rather, a social order to be purged, a set of ethical imperatives to be made clear. And who was in a better position to purge the new bourgeois world of all traces of aristocratic corruption than the female Gothic heroine? Such a woman—professionally virginal, innocent, and good—assumed virtual religious significance because, within the discourse system, so much was at stake. Making the world safe for the middle class was not without its perils. Gothic feminism was born when women realized that they had a formidable external enemy—the lustful, greedy patriarch—in addition to their own worst internal enemy—their consciousness of their own sexual difference, perceived as a weakness.

A dangerous species of thought for women developed at this time and in concert with the sentimentality of Samuel Richardson and the hyperbolic Gothic and melodramatic stage productions of the era. This ideology graphically educated its audience in the lessons of victimization.3 According to this powerful and socially coded formula, victims earned their special status and rights through no action of their own but through their sufferings and persecutions at the hands of a patriarchal oppressor and tyrant. One would be rewarded not for anything one did but for what one passively suffered. According to this paradigm, women developed a type of behavior now recognized as passive aggression; they were almost willing victims not because they were masochists but because they expected a substantial return on their investment in suffering. Whereas Richardson's Clarissa found herself earning a crown in heaven for suffering rape by Lovelace, the women in female Gothic texts were interested in more earthly rewards. The lesson that Gothic feminism teaches is that the meek shall inherit the Gothic earth; the female Gothic heroine always triumphs in the end because melodramas are constructed to suit this version of poetic justice. The God we call Justice always intervenes and justice always rectifies, validates, and rewards suffering. Terrible events can occur, but the day of reckoning invariably arrives for Gothic villains. This ideology fostered a form of passivity in women, a fatalism that the mainstream feminist would be loathe to recognize today. Yet Gothic feminism undergirds the special pleading of contemporary women who see themselves even today as victims of an amorphous and transhistorical patriarchy. When the contemporary feminist theorist Naomi Wolf identifies what she calls "victim feminism"—characterized by a loathing of the female body and a reification of victimization as the only route to power—we can hardly be faulted for hearing the echo of Mary Shelley's literary visions.4

As the daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin Shelley was destined to be an overdetermined personality. A heavy intellectual burden rested on her slight shoulders, and for the most part she fulfilled that expectation not only by marrying extravagantly but by writing well. In fact, her union with Percy Shelley may have been her greatest literary performance—her real and imagined victimization on his account, first as wife, then as widow, being only slightly less painful than the sufferings experienced by her fictional heroines. And although her husband's presence haunts all of her works, the real heroes or hero-villains of Mary's life were always her parents, who also recur obsessively in various mutated forms in everything she wrote. Mary Wollstonecraft may have left us only two inadequately realized fictions and two vindications, but she also left us Mary Shelley, in many ways destined to complete and fulfill her mother's aborted philosophical and literary visions.5 If Wollstonecraft failed to understand the full implications of her suggestions for women—that they effectively "masculinize" themselves and shun "feminine" values as weak and debilitating—her daughter understood all too well the consequences of such behavior for both men and women. Mary's major work, Frankenstein (1818), stands paradoxically as the Gothic embodiment of the critique of Gothic feminism. If Wollstonecraft could barely imagine a brave new world for women inhabited by sensitive Henrys, Mary Shelley puts her fictional women into that world and reveals that the sensitive male hero is a mad egotist intent on usurping feminine values and destroying all forms of life in his despotic quest for phallic mastery. Her other two works most clearly in the Gothic mode, Mathilda (1819) and the short story "The Mortal Immortal" (1833), also critique the female Gothic formulae as they had evolved by the time she was writing. For instance, Mathilda rewrites Frankenstein, turning the prior text inside out, revealing the incestuous core of the Gothic feminist fantasy as she experienced it. Everyone in Mary Shelley's corpus is a victim, but her female characters are the victims of victims and thus doubly pathetic and weak.

We do not think of Mary Shelley as a feminist by contemporary standards, nor did she think of herself as one. She once stated: "If I have never written to vindicate the rights of women, I have ever befriended women when oppressed—at every risk I have defended and supported victims to the social system. But I do not make a boast." But she understood all too well what her mother failed to grasp—that woman's protection was in her studied pose of difference and weakness. In fact, she went so far as to observe that "the sex of our [woman's] material mechanism makes us quite different creatures [from men]—better though weaker."6 But Mary's notion of the social system—the legal, financial, class, religious, and educational super-structure that undergirded nineteenth-century British culture—was finally codified and symbolized by her in the patriarchal bourgeois family. Her fathers are not simply demigods of the family hearth, they are representatives of a larger, oppressive, patriarchal system. They inherit and bequeath wealth because they represent and embody that lucre themselves, in their very persons.7 The body of the male in Mary Shelley's fiction is always a commodity of worth, an object to be valued, reconstructed, reassembled, and salvaged, while the bodies of the women in her texts are always devalued, compromised, flawed, and inherently worthless.

At the core of all of Mary Shelley's works, however, is the residue of what Freud has labeled in "A Child Is Being Beaten" (1919) as variations on the beating fantasy that children generally experience between the ages of five and fifteen. In these repeated scenarios of desire and repression a girl will typically move through three psychological positions. In the first and third positions, her stance is sadistic and voyeuristic—"another child is being beaten and I am observing the act"—but in the second psychic position her posture is masochistic, erotic, and deeply repressed: "I am the child being beaten by my father." For the boy, the psychic transformation is less complex due to the elimination of one stage. For him, the first position, "I am loved (or beaten) by my father," is transformed into the conscious fantasy "I am being beaten by my mother." According to Freud, the roots of the phallic mother (the all-powerful mother in possession of the father's phallus) can be located precisely in this early fantasy,8 but for Mary Shelley, the psychic terrain is complicated by the fact that she, as a woman writer, typically seeks to elide gender by assuming the position of a male protagonist. The basic beating fantasies we see throughout her works—the attacks the "creature" makes on various members of Victor Frankenstein's family, the incestuous attack on Mathilda by her father, the attack on the body of the idealized female icon in "The Mortal Immortal"—all represent variations on the beating fantasy, expressing the child's ambivalence and impotence when confronted with the power and mystery of the parental figures.

Why does incest hover so blatantly over Mary (not to mention Percy) Shelley's Gothic works in ways that do not occur quite so self-consciously in the works of other female Gothic writers? Why are her heroines always defined and self-identified as daughters first, wives second, mothers only briefly? Why would she send the text of Mathilda, a shockingly graphic (for its time) portrayal of a father's incestuous love for his daughter, to her own father? And why would she then be surprised when he failed to arrange for its publication?9 Writing on the very margins of her unconscious obsessions, Mary Shelley played the role of dutiful daughter to the end, leaving the ashes of Percy in Rome and having herself buried with her parents and son in England. In many ways, Percy was as ephemeral a presence in her life as she was in his. It would appear from a reading of their letters and journals that both of them were playacting at love with ideal objects of their own imaginary creation. Unfortunately, as Mary learned too late, the real loves in both their lives were their parents, both real and imagined.

"The Mortal Immortal: A Tale" (1833),10 one of the many short stories Mary wrote for money in her later life, plays in its oxymoronic title with ambiguity and impossibility, suggesting that there may be a way to make mortals immortal, just as Mary desperately wanted to believe that there may be a way to equalize women with men. Note, however, that the fear and loathing of the female body that activated Frankenstein and Mathilda recur as dominant motifs in a majority of Mary's short stories, not simply in this one. Frankenstein punished every female body in that text, scarring and disfiguring all female attempts to rewrite the generative body as sacred and whole. It replaced the maternal womb with chemical and alchemical artifice, only to blast masculine attempts at procreation as futile and destructive. In Mathilda, the male principle once again would appear to be the only effectual parent; but, as in the earlier work, the father produces his progeny only to consume it, feeding on his daughter as a vampire feeds on victims in order to sustain a perverse form of death-in-life.

"The Mortal Immortal" situates the reader within the same psychic terrain, and, like the other works, it plays with variations of beating fantasies, with sometimes the male protagonist as victim, sometimes the female. But we begin this narrative initially within the frame of legendary discourse, this time of the Wandering Jew. We learn early in the text that the narrator defines himself in negative terms, in terms of what he is not. He tells us that he is not the Jew because he is infinitely younger, being only 323 years old ("TMI," 314). "The Mortal Immortal" actually reads as if it were inspired not by that particular old legend but by E. T. A. Hoffmann's "The Sandman" or "The Devil's Elixirs," the latter reviewed in Blackwood's in 1824 (16:55-67). Mary Shelley does not record in her journal having read "The Sandman" in either a French or Italian translation, and her knowledge of German was certainly not strong enough for her to have read it in the original, but the tale was well-known in England by 1833, the year she wrote and published "The Mortal Immortal."11

Like the Hoffmann tale, "The Mortal Immortal" is told by a naive narrator attempting to decode the scientific experiments of a quasi crank and supposed quack, Cornelius Agrippa, the famous German alchemist whose assistant supposedly "raised the foul fiend during his master's absence, and was destroyed by him" ("TMI," 314). A deep fear of death and its association with the father's phallic power motivate Hoffmann's "Sandman," while they occur in more muted form in the Shelley tale. The invocation of the name of Cornelius Agrippa, the association of Agrippa and Satan, both of whom figured so prominently in Frankenstein as the inspiration of Victor's dabbling in reanimating the base metal of the human body, suggest that masculine, scientific, and phallic powers are as dangerous as they are crucial to the development of human civilization. Once again, the human body is the obsessive focus of this tale, as it was in the two earlier Gothic works by Mary Shelley. Now, however, the issues are not only clear but very clearly delineated: the female body is decayed and fraudulent; it is a pale and inadequate copy of the prior and superior male body. The tale is predicated on the decline of the body of the beauteous Bertha, whose fading is contrasted to the continuing phallic power of the immortal Winzy, her body rotting while his flourishes over the course of their marriage.

Mary Shelley constructs her tale over the body of Bertha, but before she gets to Bertha, the narrator, Winzy, introduces the reader to his own desperate state of mind. He is a man who has lived for 323 years and fears that he may indeed be immortal. He is a man who feels "the weight of never-ending time—the tedious passage of the still-succeeding hours" ("TMI," 314). Traditionally read as a slightly veiled autobiographical statement expressing Mary Shelley's own repugnance at having survived her husband, parents, and three of her children, the fear of time in this text actually expresses a fear of death, a terror about the nonexistence of an afterlife.12 Life at least prolongs the uncertainty that there may indeed be an afterlife where one will be reunited with the souls of one's beloveds. Death will bring the final and unequivocal answer, and that is something that Mary Shelley was as unprepared to face in 1833 as she was in 1818.

Like a fairy tale, this short fiction begins with the poor. young assistant—"very much in love"—working for the notorious "alchymist" Cornelius Agrippa, who keeps killing all of his assistants because of the inhuman demands he makes on them. One need not search far to see Winzy as the victim of a beating fantasy at the hands of this father substitute. Thwarted in his efforts to persuade his recently orphaned childhood sweetheart Bertha to live "beneath [his] paternal roof," Winzy suffers greatly when Bertha goes off to live with "the old lady of the near castle, rich, childless, and solitary" ("TMI," 315). Rather than have a child herself, this wealthy woman "buys" (or, as we might more euphemistically say, "adopts") a beautiful adult woman and then tries to barter her off to the highest bidder. Bertha is dramatic and self-dramatizing. She begins to dress in "silk," pose in her "marble palace" ("TMI," 315), and generally amuse herself by taunting and tormenting the frustrated Winzy. Bertha wants Winzy to prove his love by accepting the risky job of working for Agrippa: "'You pretend to love, and you fear to face the Devil for my sake!'" ("TMI," 315). Accepting a "purse of gold" from Agrippa makes Winzy feel "as if Satan himself tempted me" ("TMI," 315). Bertha wants to put her would-be lover through a test, and she can think of no better one than to subject him to the ultimate evil father, the ultimate beater. No simple coquette, Bertha specializes rather in psychic and emotional abuse of her lover, continually subjecting him to anxiety and jealousy: "Bertha fancied that love and security were enemies, and her pleasure was to divide them in my bosom" ("TMI," 316). Notice, however, that everything Bertha metes out to Winzy is later delivered to her. She plays the role of Gothic villainess and later Gothic victim in this work.

If Cornelius Agrippa as the masculine and phallic aspect of the narrator is identified with the fires of Satan, Bertha as the feminine principle is associated with water and the fountain, "a gently bubbling spring of pure living waters" ("TMI," 315). While ordered to work overtime stoking the furnaces of Agrippa, Winzy loses the favor of Bertha, who rejects him in favor of the rich suitor Albert Hoffer. Consumed with frustrated jealousy, Winzy decides to drink the magical elixir that Agrippa is preparing because he has been told that the brew is "'a philter to cure love; [if] you would not cease to love your Bertha—beware to drink!'" ("TMI," 317). But that is precisely what Winzy wants—he wants to be free of his attachment to the feminine, or to put it another way, Mary Shelley wants to be free of her tie to the female body. Once again, her male narrator expresses Mary Shelley's own ambivalence and repugnance toward not only the female body but female sexuality and the chains of love. Listen to these revealing words from Winzy about his state of mind and motivations:

False girl!—false and cruel!… Worthless, detested woman! I would not remain unrevenged—she should see Albert expire at her feet—she should die beneath my vengeance. She had smiled in disdain and triumph—she knew my wretchedness and her power. Yet what power had she?—the power of exciting my hate—my utter scorn—my—oh, all but indifference! Could I attain that—could I regard her with careless eyes, transferring my rejected love to one fairer and more true, that were indeed a victory!

                                    ("TMI," 317)

What power had she indeed? Questioning the source and the power of the female body stands as the central query of Mary Shelley's corpus. The answer she discovers suggests that the female body has only as much power as the male chooses to allot to it. But the focus in this passage is on the male response to the female body, running the gamut from hate to scorn to indifference. Notice the progression of emotions. Only when one reaches indifference is one free of the obsessive hold of the other on one's consciousness. Mary Shelley throughout her works strives to escape just exactly this—the corrosive effect of the passions on her heart and body, seeking the cool indifference, the frigidity, the stark embrace of reason that she represented in the climactic presentation of the Arctic Circle in Frankenstein.

Grabbing the elixir and drinking, Winzy declares his intention to be cured "of love—of torture!" He finds himself sinking instead into a "sleep of glory and bliss which bathed [his] soul in paradise during the remaining hours of that memorable night," only to awake and find his appearance "wonderfully improved" ("TMI," 317, 319). When he ventures out to Bertha's neighborhood, he finds himself the amorous object not only of Bertha but also of her rich old protectress, the "old high-born hag," "the old crone." The ugly old woman represents a standard feminine archetype, the double-faced goddess motif that Mary and Percy would have been familiar with through their readings in classical mythology. Blake (in "The Mental Traveller"), Keats (in "Lamia" and "La Belle Dame Sans Merci"), and Percy himself (in "Prince Athanase") had used the duplicitous female figure. The old hag in this text represents not simply what Bertha will become, a sort of humanized foreshadowing element, but also a version of the phallic mother as class avenger. Now conceiving a lecherous attraction to Winzy, the old hag aggressively pursues him, sending Bertha back to the castle with the peremptory command, "Back to your cage—hawks are abroad!" ("TMI," 319). Ironically, the only hawk is the old hag, seeking to feast on her prey, the masculine flesh of Winzy.

But Winzy is now free of the earlier "respect" he had for the old hag's "rank." Now he boldly runs after Bertha, only to discover that he is as much in love with her as ever: "I no longer loved—Oh! no, I adored—worshipped—idolized her!" ("TMI," 319). The two triangles operating here—Winzy/Bertha/old hag and Winzy/Bertha/false suitor—place the young lovers in the two varieties of oedipal rivalry that recur throughout Mary Shelley's fiction. The prior and more powerful association for her heroes and heroines is always the paternal and maternal home. The old hag represents the child-consciousness's (re)construction of the father and mother as one potent figure, all-powerful and all-consuming. This father/mother monad has been traditionally understood within psychoanalytical discourse as the phallic mother, the mother with the father's phallus, the fearful composite of maternity with power.13 If Ann Radcliffe was finally able by the conclusion of her novels to kill the phallic mother, Mary Shelley is able to flee only temporarily from her. Rather, Bertha decides to reject the old hag's wealth and power and to run away to an alternate maternal abode: "'O Winzy!' she exclaimed, 'take me to your mother's cot.'" But not only does Bertha gain a new mother-figure, Winzy's father also "loved her" and "welcomed her heartily" ("TMI," 320). Winzy is not so much gaining a wife as Bertha is gaining new parents. Or, to put it another way, Winzy is not so much gaining a wife as a new sibling.

Five years of bliss pass quickly, and one day Winzy is called to the bed of the dying Cornelius, who finally explains that his elixir had been not simply "a cure for love" but a cure "for all things—the Elixir of Immortality" ("TMI," 321). Love is here presented as another form of disease, a weakening and debilitating condition that leaves one prey to the ravages of mortality. To be "cured of love" is to be made immortal, impregnable, godlike, because to be human is to embody all the opposite qualities ("TMI," 321). Love here is also presented as something that feminizes or weakens the masculine self, but the narrator is hardly a realistic presentation of a male character. His consciousness, his sensibility is feminine. He loves; therefore, he is as vulnerable as Mary Shelley found herself. He seeks to escape the ravages to which the flesh is prone, the never-ending pregnancies that Mary endured for six years, the repeated processions to the cemetery to bury babies. Winzy is the idealized masculine component of Mary Shelley—her reason and her intellect—that she desperately wants to believe will provide a means of escape for her. If she can be like a man—free from the biological curse—she would be like a god, immortal, inhabiting a world of the mind.

But the feminine aspect of Mary Shelley lives in the figure of Bertha, the female body that rots and decays before the saddened eyes of Winzy. Years pass and Bertha is now fifty, while Winzy appears to be her son. The two are "universally shunned" ("TMI," 322) by their neighbors, largely because they embody the most pernicious incestuous dream of all—the tabooed love of a mother and son. Winzy has finally married the old crone, much to his dismay. Fleeing to a new country, the two decide to "wear masks," although Bertha's mask is infinitely less successful than Winzy's. Resorting to "rouge, youthful dress, and assumed juvenility of manner," Bertha is a parody of her former self. A desperate caricature of femininity, she has become a "mincing, simpering, jealous old woman." In other words, she has become another phallic mother, guarding her son Winzy with a "jealousy [that] never slept" ("TMI," 323). The female body—once so beautiful and perfect—has become a flawed and diseased artifice, a shell fitted over a mass of stinking corruption. The male body, in stark contrast, continues to exist as statuesque and youthful, a perfect emblem of the triumph of masculinity and masculine values over the feminine. The female body has become the target and object of the beating given to it by the ultimate Nobodaddy—life, time, and mortality.

The years pass until Bertha is finally bedridden and paralytic and Winzy functions as her nurse: "I nursed her as a mother might a child" ("TMI," 324). The wheel has come full circle. The mother is the child, while the husband/son has become a "mother." All gradations in the family romance have been tried in much the same way that Blake depicted them in "The Mental Traveller." Confined within the bourgeois domicile, the sexes feed on each other parasitically until they have consumed themselves in the process of playing all their gendered and ungendering roles to a limited audience. When Bertha finally dies, Winzy decides to escape the family romance. He lives alone in melancholy depression, contemplating suicide, until he decides to "put [his] immortality" to the test by journeying to the Arctic Circle. Like Victor Frankenstein, he decides to seek his destruction in the embrace of the "elements of air and water" ("TMI," 325). This desire to reconcile opposites, to bathe and immerse himself in mutually exclusive physical elements, represents Mary Shelley's attempt to depict the catastrophic merging of masculine and feminine elements in the human psyche. If men are associated with the realm of air, the intellect, reason, and the mind, then women are identified with water, the physical, and the body and its fluids. Winzy's seeking oblivion in the extremely gender-coded landscape of the Arctic Circle suggests that the apocalypse Mary Shelley imagined for herself and her characters involved an escape from all polarities, or rather a freezing and holding of the two elements in a static situation. We do not know what becomes of Winzy, just as we never know what becomes of the creature at the conclusion of Frankenstein.

But the dream of desire is the same at the end of all of Mary Shelley's texts: to escape the body and live in the realm of pure mind. Like her mother, Mary Shelley was a reluctant sensualist. She needed, philosophically, to embrace free love and open marriage, but her disappointments in her philandering husband could not be concealed. Claiming to support free love is easy as long as one does not have a husband who has a history of collecting pretty young things and bringing them home. Finally a deep revulsion toward the female body emerges as clearly in Mary Shelley's works as it does in Wollstonecraft's.

Gothic feminism for Mary Shelley entailed the realization that women would always be life's victims, not simply because social, political, economic, and religious conventions placed them in inferior and infanticizing postures, but because their own bodies cursed them to forever serve the wheel of physical corruption. Being a mother, bringing to life a child who would die, and perhaps would die soon, condemned women to serve a merciless god—the cycle of generation, birth, and death—in a way that men did not. The nightmare haunting Mary Shelley's life was not simply that she caused the death of her mother but that she recapitulated a reversed version of the same tragedy with three of her own children. She experienced her life as a sort of curse to herself and the ones she loved, and why? She understood that her life, her very physical being, fed on her mother's body parasitically, cannibalistically consuming it. Later she watched her children wither, unable to be sustained by her. These recurring nightmares fed her fictions, but they also spoke to a deeper fear that has continually plagued women.

Gothic feminism seeks to escape the female body through a dream of turning weakness into strength. By pretending that one is weak or a passive victim, one camouflages oneself in a hostile terrain, diverting attention from one's real identity. Mary Shelley knew that on some level she was no victim; she knew her strength and intelligence were more than a match for anyone's. But she also sensed danger in that strength, or at least experienced it ambivalently, fearing that it caused the deaths of others. The grotesque freakishness of the creature in Frankenstein, made material in the description of "his" oddly assembled body and his continual rejection by everyone he seeks to love, trope Mary Shelley's own sense of herself and all women as diseased, aberrant, and freakish composites of the hopes and dreams of other people. Gothic feminism for Mary Shelley is embodied in the sense of herself and the female body as a void, an empty signifier, a lure into the cycle of painful birth and disappointing death. Railing against the female body—sometimes disguised as male and sometimes blatantly presented as female—is finally the only position that Mary Shelley can take. She can laud the bourgeois family, she can valorize community and what we now label "family values," but she ultimately cannot escape the mortality that gives the lie to everything she seeks to praise. She inhabits a female body, she bleeds and causes bleeding in others, and those unfortunate facts define for her and her fiction the Gothic feminist nightmare in its starkest terms.


1. See the suggestive discussion of "Gothic Drama and National Crisis" in Paula R. Backscheider, Spectacular Politics: Theatrical Power and Mass Culture in Early Modern England (Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993), 149-234.

2. For the best discussion of the stock tropes of melodrama, see Peter Brooks, The Melodramatic Imagination (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1976), 3, 16-17. Brooks acknowledges the importance on his thinking of Eric Bentley's "Melodrama" in The Life of the Drama (New York: Athenaeum, 1964), 195-218.

3. The best discussion of the development of sentimentality (also known as "sensibility") as a change in consciousness can be found in Jean Hagstrum's Sex and Sensibility: Ideal and Erotic Love from Milton to Mozart (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980). On the same subject, also see the valuable collection of essays titled Sensibility in Transformation: Creative Resistance to Sentiment from the Augustans to the Romantics, ed. Syndy McMillen Conger (Totowa, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1990). On weakness as a central component of sentimentality, see R. W. Brissenden, Virtue in Distress: Studies in the Novel of Sentiment from Richardson to Sade (New York: Barnes and Noble, 1974) and Janet Todd, Sensibility: An Introduction (London: Methuen, 1986).

4. Naomi Wolf, Fire With Fire: The New Female Power and How It Will Change the 21st Century (New York: Random House, 1993), 136-37.

5. The relationship, real and imagined, between Mary Shelley and her dead mother and flawed father is explored most revealingly in William St. Clair's The Godwins and the Shelleys: The Biography of a Family (New York: Norton, 1989). Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar's Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1979) discusses Mary Shelley's relationship with her mother and its influence on her works (213-47), as does Janet M. Todd's "Frankenstein's Daughter: Mary Shelley and Mary Wollstonecraft," Women and Literature 4 (1976): 18-27. On the influence of Godwin on her works, see Katherine Powers, The Influence of William Godwin on the Novels of Mary Shelley (New York: Arno, 1980), and on Mary's relationship with her father, see U. C. Knoepflmacher, "Thoughts on the Aggression of Daughters," in The Endurance of Frankenstein, ed. George Levine and U. C. Knoepflmacher (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1979), 88-119. Several recent biographies of Mary Shelley explore the parental influence on her writings. In particular, see Anne K. Mellor, Mary Shelley: Her Life, Her Fiction, Her Monsters (London: Routledge, 1988); Emily Sunstein, Mary Shelley: Romance and Reality (Boston: Little, Brown, 1989); and Muriel Spark, Mary Shelley (1951; rprt., London: Constable, 1987).

6. The full text of Mary's well-known journal confession reads:

With regard to "the good Cause"—the cause of the advancement of freedom & knowledge—of the Rights of Woman, & c.—I am not a person of opinions…. Some [people] have a passion for reforming the world:—others do not cling to particular opinions. That my parents and Shelley were of the former class, makes me respect it…. I was nursed and fed with a love of glory. To be something great and good was the precept given me by my Father: Shelley reiterated it. Alone & poor, I could only be something by joining a party—& there was much in me—the woman's love of looking up & being guided, & being willing to do anything if any one supported & brought me forward, which would have made me a good partizan—but Shelley died & I was alone…. If I have never written to vindicate the Rights of women, I have ever befriended women when oppressed.

                          (21 October 1838)

(The Journals of Mary Shelley, ed. Paula R. Feldman and Diana Scott-Kilvert [Oxford: Clarendon, 1987] 2:553-54)

The second Shelley quotation is taken from her letter of 11 June 1835 (Selected Letters of Mary W. Shelley, ed. Betty T. Bennett [Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995], 257).

7. Analyzing fathers and mothers in Mary Shelley's fiction has been a persistent focus in the literary criticism of her work. A useful overview of the critical history on this topic can be found in Jane Blumberg, Mary Shelley's Early Novels: 'This Child of Imagination and Misery' (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1993). See also Marc A. Rubinstein, "'My Accursed Origin': The Search for the Mother in Frankenstein," Studies in Romanticism 15 (1976): 165-94; James B. Carson, "Bringing the Author Forward: Frankenstein through Mary Shelley's Letters," Criticism 30 (1988): 431-53; and Kate Ellis, "Mary Shelley's Embattled Garden," in The Contested Castle: Gothic Novels and the Subversion of Domestic Ideology (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1989), 181-206.

8. See Sigmund Freud, "'A Child is Being Beaten': A Contribution to the Study of the Origin of Sexual Perversions," in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, trans. and ed. James Strachey et al., 24 vols. (London: Hogarth Press, 1953–74), 17:175-204. The fullest attempt to apply the beating fantasy motif to female Gothic fiction can be found in Michelle Massé, In the Name of Love: Women, Masochism, and the Gothic (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1992). In particular, see her chapter "'A Woman Is Being Beaten' and Its Vicissitudes," 40-106.

9. Mary Shelley sent the manuscript of Mathilda to Godwin via their mutual friend Maria Gisborne in May 1820. After almost two years of fruitless inquiry, she finally concluded that Godwin would not help see the manuscript into publication, so she began trying to recover it. She never succeeded, and the novella was not published until Elizabeth Nitchie prepared an edition for press in 1959 (Mathilda [Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1959]). Terence Harpold explores the incestuous core and motivation of Mathilda in his article "'Did you get Mathilda from Papa?': Seduction Fantasy and the Circulation of Mary Shelley's Mathilda," Studies in Romanticism 28 (1989): 49-67. Harpold concludes that the novel "represents a fantasy of seduction," and that the submission of the novel to Godwin "signals Mary's effort to engage him in the seduction fantasy, but to acknowledge the authority of his desire in the primal scene which determines her understanding of herself and her relations with each of her parents" (64).

10. All quotations from "The Mortal Immortal" are taken from text reprinted in The Mary Shelley Reader, ed. Betty Bennett and Charles E. Robinson (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990), 314-26, hereafter cited in the text as TMI. The first printing of "The Mortal Immortal" was in The Keepsake (1834), 71-87.

11. Although I have been unable to document Mary Shelley's reading of the Hoffmann tale through her own record of her readings in the journal, I believe she may at least have been familiar with the story's rough plotlines through the text's circulation in British literary circles by 1833. E. T. A. Hoffmann's "The Sandman" is itself a seminal literary source in psychoanalytic discourse systems. Freud developed his theory of the uncanny while reading the story, and it has inspired a number of French feminist meditations on "the phallic gaze," most notably Hélène Cixous's fruitful "Fiction and Its Phantoms: A Reading of Freud's 'The Uncanny,'" New Literary History 7 (1976): 525-48. An overview of the psychoanalytic history of the Hoffmann story can be found in Sarah Kofman, Freud and Fiction, trans. Sarah Wykes (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1991), while its status within the Romantic tradition is examined by Marianne Thalmann, The Literary Sign Language of German Romanticism, trans. Harold Basilius (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1972).

12. Like Mathilda and the other novels besides Frankenstein, the short stories of Mary Shelley are now the focus of critical interest. For a very different reading of the female body in this text, see Sonia Hofkosh, "Disfiguring Economies: Mary Shelley's Short Stories" in The Other Mary Shelley: Beyond Frankenstein, ed. Audrey A. Fisch, Anne K. Mellor, and Esther H. Schor (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), 204-19.

13. For useful overviews and summaries of the theoretical and psychoanalytical background on the phallic mother, see Marcia Ian, Remembering the Phallic Mother: Psychoanalysis, Modernism, and the Fetish (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1993); and Dana Birksted-Breen, ed., The Gender Conundrum: Contemporary Psychoanalytic Perspectives on Femininity and Masculinity (New York: Routledge, 1993).

Further Reading

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Frank, Frederick S. "Mary Shelley's Frankenstein: A Register of Research." Bulletin of Bibliography 40, no. 3 (September 1983): 163-88.

A bibliography of twentieth-century research on Frankenstein published through 1982.


Mellor, Anne K. Mary Shelley: Her Life, Her Fiction, Her Monsters. New York and London: Routledge, 1988, 275 p.

Draws on unpublished material and Shelley's fiction to present an analysis of Shelley's life.

Seymour, Miranda. Mary Shelley. New York: Grove Press, 2000, 672 p.

Utilizes feminist scholarship to present a balanced picture of Shelley's life.

Sunstein, Emily W. Mary Shelley: Romance and Reality. Boston and Toronto, Ontario: Little, Brown, and Co., 1989, 478 p.

Defines Shelley as an exemplary Romantic, and seeks to provide an authoritative biography that dispels common myths surrounding Shelley's life and those of her contemporaries.

Williams, John. Mary Shelley: A Literary Life. London: Palgrave, 2000, 222 p.

Provides an overview of Shelley's life.


Birkhead, Edith. "Later Developments of the Tale of Terror." In The Tale of Terror: A Study of the Gothic Romance. 1921. Reprint edition, pp. 157-84. Russell & Russell, Inc., 1963.

Chapter in what is considered one of the first significant studies of the Gothic tradition. Offers a thoughtful overview of Frankenstein, and briefly considers Valperga, The Last Man, and some of Shelley's short stories.

Botting, Fred, ed. New Casebooks: Frankenstein. London: Macmillan, 1995, 271 p.

Compilation of essays representing the different critical approaches commonly employed in analyses of Frankenstein.

Clery, E. J. "Mary Shelley." In Women's Gothic: From Clara Reeve to Mary Shelley, pp. 117-46. Horndon, Tavistock, Devon: Northcote House in Association with the British Council, 2000.

Studies Shelley within the tradition of Gothic literature written by women.

Clifford, Gay. "Caleb Williams and Frankenstein: First-Person Narratives and 'Things as They Are.'" Genre 10, no. 4 (winter 1977): 601-17.

Outlines the artistic and philosophical viewpoints of the first-person narratives in Caleb Williams and Frankenstein and compares Shelley's narrative techniques with those of her father.

Eberle-Sinatra, Michael, ed. Mary Shelley's Fictions: From Frankenstein to Falkner. New York: Macmillan—St. Martin's Press, 2000, 250 p.

Collection of essays on Shelley's works, arranged in sections titled "The Craft of Writing," "Gender," "The Contemporary Scene," and "The Parental Legacy."

Garbin, Lidia. "The Fortunes of Perkin Warbeck: Walter Scott in the Writings of Mary Shelley." Romanticism On the Net 6 (May 1997).

Argues "that we cannot understand Perkin Warbeck unless we see that it stands in Scott's shadow and that Mary Shelley is deeply sympathetic to the tenor of Scott's works."

Gilbert, Sandra M. and Susan Gubar. "Horror's Twin: Mary Shelley's Monstrous Eve." In The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination, pp. 213-47. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1979.

Views Frankenstein in terms of Shelley's relationship to the general patriarchy of literature as figured in John Milton's Paradise Lost. Noting that Shelley read Milton's poem before writing her novel, Gilbert and Gubar assert that Shelley adopted the misogyny of Paradise Lost into her own "pained ambivalence toward mothers."

Goldberg, M. A. "Moral and Myth in Mrs. Shelley's Frankenstein." Keats-Shelley Journal 8 (winter 1959): 27-38.

Investigation of the themes of isolation and knowledge in Frankenstein that is considered one of the first comprehensive assessments of the novel and a milestone in Frankenstein scholarship.

Hill-Miller, Katherine C. "My Hideous Progeny": Mary Shelley, William Godwin, and the Father-Daughter Relationship. Newark, Del.: University of Delaware Press, 1995, 249 p.

Devotes attention to Godwin's influence on Shelley, particularly as her literary predecessor.

Hoeveler, Diane Long. "Fantasy, Trauma, and Gothic Daughters: Frankenstein as Therapy." Prism(s): Essays in Romanticism 8 (2000): 7-28.

Argues that Frankenstein's "power resides … in its unconscious working out and through the author's own intense sense of victimization, and her increasingly desperate struggle for love and family."

Hogle, Jerrold E. "Frankenstein as Neo-Gothic: From the Ghost of the Counterfeit to The Monster of Abjection." In Romanticism, History, and the Possibilities of Genre, edited by Tilottama Rajan and Julia Wright, pp. 176-210. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

Contends that "Frankenstein turns out to be one major apogee of the Gothic's development from the Walpolean ghosts of older ghosts to the ghost-like representation and sequestering of the abject."

Johnson, Barbara. "My Monster/My Self." Diacritics 12, no. 2 (summer 1982): 2-10.

A landmark essay in which Johnson presents Frankenstein as a both a complex fictionalization of Shelley's autobiography and a commentary on the nature of female autobiography, contending that "Frankenstein can be read as the story of the experience of writing Frankenstein."

Kaplan, Morton, and Robert Kloss. "Fantasy of Paternity and the Doppelgänger: Mary Shelley's Frankenstein." In The Unspoken Motive: A Guide to Psychoanalytic Literary Criticism, pp. 119-45. New York: Free Press, 1973.

Offers a classic psychoanalytic approach to Frankenstein, employing Freudian paradigms and methods of dream analysis.

Kiely, Robert. "Frankenstein: Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley." In The Romantic Novel in England, pp. 155-73. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1972.

Examines and elaborates upon what he considers to be two dominant themes in Frankenstein: "the monstrous consequences of egotism" and "the virtue of friendship."

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

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.

Miyoshi, Masao. "The Logic of Passion: Romanticism." In The Divided Self: A Perspective on the Literature of the Victorians, pp. 47-106. New York: New York University Press, 1969.

Suggests that the characters Walton, Clerval, and the Monster in Frankenstein serve to illuminate various aspects of Victor Frankenstein's personality. According to Miyoshi, Walton mirrors Frankenstein in his Faustian striving, while Clerval and the Monster represent the good and evil extremes, respectively, of the scientist's nature.

Poovey, Mary. "My Hideous Progeny: Mary Shelley and the Feminization of Romanticism." PMLA 95, no. 3 (May 1980): 332-47.

Explores the pressures faced by Shelley, who was expected to be both an original writer and a conventional feminine model of propriety.

――――――. "'My Hideous Progeny': The Lady and the Monster." In The Proper Lady and the Woman Writer: Ideology as Style in the Works of Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary Shelley, and Jane Austen, pp. 114-42. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984.

Depicts Shelley as torn between the desire for self-expression and the desire to conform.

Rauch, Alan. "The Monstrous Body of Knowledge in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein." Studies in Romanticism 34, no. 2 (summer 1995): 227-53.

Reads Frankenstein as "Shelley's critique of knowledge"—specifically of scientific knowledge as a discourse owned, shaped, and frequently misused by men.

Rieger, James. Introduction to Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus: The 1818 Text, by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, edited by James Rieger. 1974. Reprint edition, pp. xi-xxvii. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1982.

Disputes the notion that Frankenstein is either Gothic romance or early science fiction, and discusses it as an example of mythic fiction.

Rubenstein, Marc A. "'My Accursed Origin': The Search for the Mother in Frankenstein." Studies in Romanticism 15, no. 2 (spring 1976): 165-94.

Utilizes Shelley's biography and psychoanalytic methodology to analyze Frankenstein as a struggle with "the problem of motherhood."

Schoene-Harwood, Berthold. Mary Shelley: Frankenstein. New York: Columbia University Press, 2000, 208 p.

Surveys the major critical approaches to Frankenstein, as well as film adaptations and other works that have been influenced by the novel.

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

Written in 1818. 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.

Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. "Frankenstein and Devi's Pterodactyl." In Empire and the Gothic: The Politics of Genre, edited by Andrew Smith and William Hughes, pp. 56-68. New York and Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003.

Argues that focusing on Frankenstein "in terms of English cultural identity," reveals "that, although Frankenstein is ostensibly about the origin and evolution of man in society, it does not deploy the axiomatics of imperialism for crucial textual functions."

Thomas, Ronald R. "Demons and Disease in Frankenstein." In Dreams of Authority: Freud and the Fictions of the Unconscious, pp. 81-99. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1990.

Asserts that "Frankenstein is an extended, elaborate account of its author's remarkable dream," and contends that "[t]he gothic novel Mary Shelley called the 'transcript' of her dream may be read as a symptom—a text that expresses the desire for an adequate language to describe the mysterious forces that produced it."

Twitchell, James B. "Frankenstein and the Anatomy of Horror." The Georgia Review 37, no. 1 (spring 1983): 41-78.

Discusses Frankenstein and its popular culture legacy as part of an effort to define "horror" as a genre and discern the source of its audience appeal.

Veeder, William. Mary Shelley and Frankenstein: The Fate of Androgyny. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986, 277 p.

Applies the concepts of "androgyny" and "bifurcation" to an examination of the presence of aggression in Shelley's work, considering in particular its relation to gender identity.

Walling, William A. Mary Shelley. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1972, 173 p.

Full-length study of Shelley's life and works.

Williams, John. "Translating Mary Shelley's Valperga into English: Historical Romance, Biography or Gothic Fiction?" In European Gothic: A Spirited Exchange, 1760–1960, edited by Avril Horner, pp. 147-60. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2002.

Investigates the genre classification of Valperga by discussing its roots in the traditions of Gothic fiction, the historical novel, and the Victorian biography.

Yousef, Nancy. "The Monster in a Dark Room: Frankenstein, Feminism, and Philosophy." Modern Language Quarterly 63, no. 2 (June 2002): 197-226.

Maintains that "Frankenstein contends with ideals of autonomy and self-sufficiency not only by narrating the unnatural fashioning of a creature in an act of solitary conception but, perhaps more important, by narrating the unnatural development of the creature after it has been abandoned to its solitary fate."

Zimmerman, Lee. "Frankenstein, Invisibility, and Nameless Dread." American Imago: Studies in Psychoanalysis and Culture 60, no. 2 (summer 2003): 135-58.

Contends that Victor Frankenstein's claims to have lived a happy childhood with kind and indulgent parents are "idealized and defensive," and asserts that "just as the monster suffers from parentlessness, so too does Victor, who is his double. The monster's story of emotional abandonment is Victor's story."


Additional coverage of Shelley's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Thomson Gale: Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Vol. 20; Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction: Biography & Resources, Vol. 3; Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults, Vol. 5; British Writers, Vol. 3; British Writers: The Classics, Vol. 2; British Writers Supplement, Vol. 3; Concise Dictionary of British Literary Biography, 1789–1832; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 110, 116, 159, 178; DISCovering Authors; DISCovering Authors: British; DISCovering Authors: Canadian; DISCovering Authors Modules: Most-studied Authors and Novelists; DISCovering Authors 3.0; Exploring Novels; Feminism in Literature: A Gale Critical Companion; Literary Movements for Students, Vols. 1, 2; Literature Resource Center; Nineteenth-Century Literature Criticism, Vols. 14, 59, 103; Novels for Students, Vol. 1; Reference Guide to English Literature, Ed. 2; St. James Guide to Horror, Ghost & Gothic Writers; St. James Guide to Science Fiction Writers, Ed. 4; Science Fiction Writers, Eds. 1, 2; Something about the Author, Vol. 29; Twayne's English Authors; World Literature and Its Times, Vol. 3; and World Literature Criticism.


Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft