The daughter of noted authors Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin, Shelley became widely known as a literary talent of her own right with the 1818 publication of Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus. The story of a scientist who attempts to bring life to a dead body, Frankenstein has become one of the most iconic and recognizable novels of the past two centuries. Though Shelley produced a variety of works throughout her career—including novels, short stories, and essays—the bulk of critical scholarship has focused on Frankenstein. Feminist critics have argued that the novel explores a range of themes, including the repression of women, childbirth and parental responsibility, and gender roles at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Such scholars claim that Frankenstein acts as a manifestation of Shelley's own feelings about motherhood and her role as a wife as well as an early attempt to articulate a feminist position. The most famous assessment of Shelley comes from the poet Leigh Hunt, who called Shelley "four-fam'd," referring to her parents, her husband—poet Percy Bysshe Shelley—and the monstrous creature she created.
Shelley was born August 30, 1797, to two of the foremost intellectuals of the eighteenth century. Wollstonecraft, an outspoken advocate for women's rights, died shortly after Shelley's birth, leaving Shelley in the care of her father. Godwin, a novelist and political philosopher, was by all accounts an undemonstrative and self-absorbed intellectual, but Shelley's attachment to him was powerful. This later became a major theme in her work, particularly in Mathilda (1959; believed to have been written c. 1819). In 1801 Godwin married a widow named Mary Jane Clairmont. Shelley's relationship with her stepmother was strained from the beginning for several reasons, such as Shelley's intense feelings for her father, her idolization of her dead mother, and Clairmont's preference for her own children over Shelley and her half sister. Shelley did not receive any formal education, but instead learned to read at home, having access to her father's extensive library. In 1812 tensions between Shelley and her stepmother prompted Godwin to send his daughter to stay with William Baxter and his family. On her return to London later that year, she met Percy Bysshe Shelley, who had become a disciple and financial supporter of her father. In 1814 the couple declared their love for each other and eloped to France. Although the couple married—following the suicide of Percy's first wife, Harriet— their initial relationship caused a long-term estrangement between Shelley and her father. The Shelleys had four children together, though only one survived to adulthood. Shelley lapsed into a deep depression after the deaths of her children, and her relationship with her husband became strained.
Despite their personal losses as well as considerable financial hardships, the Shelleys devoted a great deal of time and energy to the study of literature, language, music, and art, associating with some of the most noted writers of their day, including Lord Byron and Leigh Hunt. During an evening with her husband, Byron, and Byron's companion John Polidori at Lake Leman, Switzerland, Shelley first conceived the idea for Frankenstein. After reading a selection of Gothic stories, the four challenged each other to create their own horrific tales. Shelley became inspired by a discussion between Byron and her husband regarding the notion of creating life with electricity and that night awoke mesmerized by a vision of a creature animated by such means. She began to write the monster's narrative, which Percy Shelley urged her to expand into a novel. In 1822 Percy drowned while the couple was living in Lenci, Italy. A year later, Shelley returned to England with her son. Her life after her husband's death was marked by melancholy and hardship as she tried to support herself and her child. Her husband's father offered her a meager stipend, but ordered that she keep the Shelley name out of print—thus, all her works were published anonymously. She earned money by contributing biographical and critical sketches to Chamber's Cyclopedia and writing short stories for literary annuals. Her financial situation improved when her father-in-law increased her allowance after her son came of age, and the pair traveled to Europe, where Shelley wrote a number of travel essays. Too ill in her last years to complete her most cherished project, a biography of her husband, Shelley died on February 1, 1851, at the age of fifty-four.
A story steeped with mythic allusions—as suggested by the subtitle The Modern Prometheus—Frankenstein has been characterized variously as either a Gothic, Romantic, horror, or science fiction novel. However, acting in sharp contrast to the rationality of Enlightenment literature, the Gothic atmosphere of Frankenstein rejects the scientific objectivity of modern science fiction in its sense of the strange and the irrational. An epistolary novel told in increasingly tightening circles, or frames, and interspersed with poetry, Frankenstein concerns a driven medical student, Victor Frankenstein, who desires to use science to bypass God and create human life in his laboratory. Piecing together a cadaver from discarded corpses, Victor reanimates the body using electricity, bringing "life" to his horrific creation. After the creature awakens, Victor becomes disgusted and abandons his new offspring, leaving the monster to wander the forests alone. The creature eventually learns language and finds Victor's journal, recounting the details of his creation. Tracking Victor to his family home, the creature demands that Victor take responsibility for his existence and suggests that Victor should build him a mate. When Victor refuses, the creature murders Victor's wife on their wedding night. Victor pursues the creature, who leads him north into the Arctic Circle. Here, Victor meets the captain of a doomed polar expedition, Robert Walton, to whom he narrates his tale—the novel is structured as a letter from Walton to his sister. Victor eventually dies from illness, and the creature appears, explaining to Walton his reasons for seeking vengeance and his remorse at his creator's death. The creature leaves Walton's ship, vowing to destroy himself, so no one else will ever know of his existence.
Although Frankenstein has consistently dominated critical discussions of her oeuvre, Shelley was a prolific author. After Frankenstein, her most recognized work is The Last Man (1826), which describes a post-apocalyptic future. Set in the twenty-first century, the novel depicts a plague that devastates Europe and the efforts of the "last man"—Lionel Verney—to reach Rome in a search for other survivors. The work is noted for its inventive descriptions of the future and is considered an early prototype of contemporary science fiction. Valperga; or, The Life and Adventures of Castruccio, Prince of Lucca (1823) and The Fortunes of Perkin Warbeck (1830) are historical novels that have received scant attention from critics, while Lodore (1835) and Falkner (1837), thought by many to be autobiographical, have frequently been examined by literary historians for their insight into the lives of the Shelleys and their circle of peers. Shelley's posthumously-published novel Mathilda concerns the incestuous attraction between a father and daughter which results in the father's eventual suicide. The daughter, Mathilda, reveals the story to a poet whom she meets while mourning her father in Scotland. Scholars have come to a general consensus regarding Mathilda, suggesting that the characters are largely based on Shelley, her father, and Percy Shelley.
Since Shelley's death, critics have devoted little attention to her range of works, focusing almost entirely on Frankenstein. Early commentators relegated the novel to the Gothic genre, practiced by such popular authors of the era 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 author's imagination and powers of description. Since the latter part of the nineteenth century, critics have reassessed Frankenstein, analyzing the novel's mythic-philosophic theme of Prometheanism, and its expression of Romantic ideals and attitudes. Scholars have also focused on the influence of Percy Shelley's poetry, Godwin's humanitarian social views, and Wollstonecraft's feminism on the text. Critics have noted the influence of John Milton's Paradise Lost, Goethe's Faust, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge's "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" on Shelley's narrative. Criticism on Frankenstein has proliferated since the 1950s, encompassing a wide variety of themes and approaches. Feminist scholars have often viewed Frankenstein's creature as a representation of the repression of women, arguing that the novel expresses Shelley's own feelings regarding her self-identity and her feelings of anxiety as a female writer. Such critics have also noted that Frankenstein, along with Shelley's other works, offers commentary on the social construction of gender, the marginalization of women, and the ways in which women figure into the public world. In recent years, feminist scholars have additionally begun to examine Shelley's other, more neglected writings. In particular, they have explored the themes of incest, familial relationships, and psychological trauma in Mathilda, offering psychobiological interpretations of the work and viewing it as a revelatory text regarding her relationship with her father. Feminist academics have called for a critical reassessment of Shelley's oeuvre, arguing that her prose reveals a writer with a wide range of stylistic abilities and thematic interests. Overall, critics have maintained that Shelley's writing echoes her mother's early feminist views and addresses complex questions of multiple sexualities, gender roles, and the pressures facing female writers in the nineteenth century.