The Life of Mary Shelley

Mary Shelley, born on 30 August, 1797, was a prominent, though often overlooked, literary figure during the Romantic Era of English Literature.

She was the only child of Mary Wollstonecraft, the famous feminist, and William Godwin, a philosopher and novelist. She was also the wife of the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. Mary's parents were shapers of the Romantic sensibility and the revolutionary ideas of the left wing. Mary, Shelley, Byron, and Keats were principle figures in Romanticism's second generation. Whereas the poets died young in the 1820's, Mary lived through the Romantic era into the Victorian.

Mary was born during the eighth year of the French Revolution. From infancy, Mary was treated as a unique individual with remarkable parents. High expectations were placed on her potential and she was treated as if she were born beneath a lucky star. Godwin was convinced that babies are born with a potential waiting to be developed. From an early age she was surrounded by famous philosophers, writers, and poets.

A peculiar sort of Gothicism was part of Mary's earliest existence. Most every day she would go for a walk with her father to the St. Pancras churchyard where her mother was buried. Godwin taught Mary to read and spell her name by having her trace her mother's inscription on the stone.

At the age of sixteen Mary ran away to live with the twenty-one year old Percy Shelley, the unhappily married radical heir to a wealthy baronetcy. To Mary, Shelley personified the genius and dedication to human betterment that she had admired her entire life. Although she was cast out of society, even by her father, this inspirational liaison produced her masterpiece, Frankenstein.

She conceived of Frankenstein during one of the most famous house parties in literary history when staying at Lake Geneva in Switzerland with Byron and Shelley. Interestingly enough, she was only nineteen at the time. She wrote the novel while being overwhelmed by a series of calamities in her life. The worst of these were the suicides of her half-sister, Fanny Imlay, and Shelly's wife, Harriet.

After the suicides, Mary and Shelley, reluctantly married. Fierce public hostility toward the couple drove them to Italy. Initially, they were happy in Italy, but their two young children died there. Mary never fully recovered from this trauma. (Their first child had died shortly after birth early in their relationship.) Nevertheless, Shelley empowered Mary to live as she most desired: to enjoy intellectual and artistic growth, love, and freedom.

When Mary was only twenty-four Percy drowned, leaving her penniless with a two year old son.

For her remaining twenty-nine years she engaged in a struggle with the societal disapproval of her relationship with Shelley. Poverty forced her to live in England which she despised because of the morality and social system. She was shunned by conventional circles and worked as a professional writer to support her father and her son. Her circle, however, included literary and theatrical figures, artists, and politicians.

She eventually came to more traditional views of women's dependence and differences, like her mother before her. This is not a denial of her courage and integrity but derived from socialization and the conventions placed on her by society.

Mary became an invalid at the age of forty-eight. She died in 1851 of a brain tumour with poetic timing. The Great Exhibition, which was a showcase of technological progress, was opened. This was the same scientific technology that she had warned against in her most famous book, Frankenstein.

The "Birth" of a Monster

Anne K. Mellor, Mary Shelley: Her Life, Her Fiction, Her Monsters (New York: Methuen, 1988)

Frankenstein can be read as a tale of what happens when a man tries to create a child without a woman. It can, however, also be read as an account of a woman's anxieties and insecurities about her own creative and reproductive capabilities. The story of Frankenstein is the first articulation of a woman's experience of pregnancy and related fears. Mary Shelley, in the development and education of the monster, discusses child development and education and how the nurturing of a loving parent is extremely important in the moral development of an individual. Thus, in Frankenstein, Mary Shelley examines her own fears and thoughts about pregnancy, childbirth, and child development.

Pregnancy and childbirth, as well as death, was an integral part of Mary Shelley's young adult life. She had four children and a miscarriage that almost killed her. This was all before the age of twenty-five. Only one of her children, Percy Florence, survived to adulthood and outlived her. In June of 1816, when she had the waking nightmare which became the catalyst of the tale, she was only nineteen and had already had her first two children. Her first child, Clara, Franken1160.jpg (29130 byte)was born prematurely February 22, 1815 and died March 6. Mary, as any woman would be, was devastated by this and took a long time to recover.

Mary's second child, William, was born January 24, 1816. (William died of malaria June 7,1819). Thus, at the time that Mary conceived of the story, her first child had died and her second was only 6 months old. There is no doubt that she expected to be pregnant again and about six months later she was. Pregnancy and child-rearing was at the forefront of Mary's mind at this point in her life.

Frankenstein is probably the first story in Western literature that expresses the anxieties of pregnancy. Obviously male writers avoided this topic and it was considered taboo and in poor taste for a woman to discuss it. Mary's focus on the birth process allowed men to understand female fears about pregnancy and reassured women that they were not alone with their anxieties. The story expresses Mary's deepest fears; What of my child is born deformed? Could I still love it or would I wish it were dead? What if I can't love my child? Am I capable of raising a healthy, normal child? Will my child die? Could I wish my own child to die? Will my child kill me in childbirth? Mary was expressing her fears related to the death of her first child, her ability to nurture, and the fact that her mother died having her. All of this is expresses in Victor Frankenstein's complete failure in parenting.

Victor Frankenstein laboured on the creation of his "child". Finally on a "dreary night in November: he witnesses the "birth":

"I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open; it breathed hard, and a convulsive motion agitated its limbs."

Instead of reaching out to his child, Victor rushes out of the room disgusted by the abnormality of his creation. When the creature follows after him, Victor runs away in horror completely abandoning his child.

While creating his child, Victor never considered whether this creature would even want to exist. He also didn't take enough care with the creature's appearance. He could not take the time to make small parts so he created a being of gigantic size. Victor never considered how such a creature would be able to exist with human beings. He did not take time with the features either and created a being with a horrifying appearance. Unable to accept his creation, Victor abandons his "child" and all parental responsibility. He even wishes that his "child" were dead.

"I gnashed my teeth, my eyes became inflamed, and I ardently wished to extinguish that life which I has so thoughtlessly bestowed"

From the moment of the creature's birth, Victor thought of it as demonical and abused it. Frankenstein represents the classic case of an abused and neglected child growing up to be a abuser. The monster's first murder victim is a small child that he wished to adopt. As Mary Shelley wrote the novel, she began to focus more closely on the plight of the abandoned child. The heart of the novel is the creature's discussion of his own development.

The creature, himself, realizes that a child that is deprived of a loving family becomes a monster. The creature repeatedly insists that he was born good but compelled by others to do evil. Mary Shelley bases this argument in Rousseau's Emile and Second Discourse. Mary's account of the creature's mental and moral development follows the theories of David Hartley and John Locke.

Mary Shelley read Rousseau's Emile in 1816. Rousseau stated that:

God makes all things good; man meddles with them and they become evil."

Rousseau specifically attributed moral failings to the lack of a mother's love. Without mothering and a loving education " a man left to himself from birth would be more of a monster that the rest."

Thus, Mary Shelley is suggesting that a rejected and unmothered child can become a killer, especially a killer of its own family.

Even without the proper nurturing the creature manages to get an education. Mary alludes to Rousseau's theory of the natural man as a noble savage, born free but in chains and corrupted by society. In the battle of nature vs. nurture for development, Mary definitely sides with nurture. The creature is Rousseau's natural man, a creature no different from the animals responding only to physical needs. It is only later through contact with the DeLaceys (society) that the creature develops a consciousness and realizes that he is a societal outcast. While alluding to a couple of Rousseau's ideas, in particular the natural man, Mary Shelley utilized the theories of Hartley and Locke for the development and education of the creature.

The creature's moral development follows David Hartley's theories in Observations of Man, His Frame, His Duty, and His Expectations(1749) and Locke's Essay Concerning Human Understanding(1690). David Hartley argued that early sensitive experience determines adult behaviour and John Locke argued that man is neither innately good nor innately evil but is rather a "blank slate" on which sensations creates impressions which later become conscious experience. The creature first experiences the physical sensations of light, dark, heat, cold, hunger, and pain. This was his period of infancy where he felt the sensations but had no conscious expression of them. Through time and experience the creature eventually learns to distinguish the various sensations and how to remedy them. He learns to gather food, clothe himself, and acquire shelter. In other words, his sensitive experiences cause him to learn for them and provide for his basic necessities. The creature obtains a moral and intellectual education through his observation of the DeLacey family, who lived in the cottage adjoining his hovel. The DeLacey's provide the creature with an example of a loving, kind, and virtuous family. They stimulate his emotions and inspire him to do good deeds for others (he secretly collects firewood for the family). Through the creature's observation of the DeLacey family, the creature is also stimulated intellectually and is introduced to spoken and written language. Mary Shelley traces the linguistic development of the creature from his earliest acquisition to his ability to grasp abstract concepts and eventually read and write.

Not only does the creature learn morality and virtue from the DeLacey family but also acquires a small library, which enlarges his knowledge of human vice and virtue. From Plutarch's Lives of the Noble Romans he learns about human virtue, heroism, and civil justice. In his reading of Milton's Paradise Lost, he learns the origins of good and evil as well as the roles of the sexes. Finally, in Goethe's The Sorrows of Werther he learns of the range of emotions, from love to depression and despair. The creature also read and received moral lessons from Aesop's Fables and The Bible.

The creature received an excellent education but unfortunately this caused greater distancing from his previous state of "natural man". Once the creature left the state of nature and learned the language and laws of society, he gained a self-consciousness; a self-consciousness of his own isolation from humanity.

I learned that the possessions most esteemed by your fellow-creatures were, high and unsullied descent united with riches...but...I possessed no money, no friends, no kind of property. I was, besides, endowed with a figure hideously deformed and loathsome;...When I looked around, I saw and heard of none like me... I cannot describe to you the agony that these reflections inflicted upon me; I tried to dispel them, but sorrow only increased with knowledge. Oh, that I had ever remained in my native wood, nor known or felt beyond the sensations of hunger, thirst, and heat! p. 115

After being rejected by Victor Frankenstein, his father, the DeLacey family, and society, the creature abandons all good and lives out a course of vengeance against Frankenstein. He murders those close to Frankenstein and eventually leads Victor on a journey that will destroy both of them. Even though the creature received a moral and intellectual education, the lack of a nurturing and loving parent as well as companionship and acceptance from society led him to reject morality and instead destroy. The creature as well as the reader realized that he would have been better off without the education. If he wasn't going to have love and acceptance, it would have probably been best for him to live in an animal like state without a developed consciousness that made him realize how alone he was. Victor never realizes that his lack of parental love and guidance is what led to the creature's murderous path. He only felt guilt from having created the creature. If Victor had only been a loving parent, the creature could have probably overcome all other obstacles and remained moral.

Mary Shelley and the Desire to Acquire Knowledge: As Demonstrated in the Novel Frankenstein

Through the study of Mary Shelley's journals and her biography, one becomes aware of how important study and research were to her. Her biography tells how the influence of her literary parents and husband provided her with a unique educational experience and how she was encouraged to conduct research. She had a great love of research and knowledge and used her studies in her creative output.

The voice of Victor Frankenstein provides evidence that Mary Shelley did not believe that all knowledge was "good" knowledge and instead thought that there were some areas that were beyond human understanding and should not be pursued. Obviously, Victor Frankenstein's desire to explore the mystery of biological creation belonged to the realm of knowledge that should not pursued and that can only lead to dire consequences. Walden was also following the same quest in his search for a passage through the Arctic regions. Only by hearing the tale of Frankenstein is he dissuaded from his pursuit and turns back toward home rather than placing his crew members in mortal danger.

Many of the works that Mary Shelley studied are evident in the voice and character of Frankenstein's monster and through this character the reader is given a demonstration of the pursuit of knowledge as related to one's search for his origins.

The most significant mark of the monster's alienation from society was his lack of a name. The absence of a name denies the monster the knowledge of who he is, his familial origins, and a connection to successive generations (Duyfhuizen, 480). The monster's lack of a name and place in society, which caused him such distress, is shown in the following passage when he his narrating his experiences to Victor.

Mary may have also felt, at times, as the monster does in the above passage. She was human, like all others, but had parents who were political radicals, had a singular educational experience, had the origin of her own creation published for the entire world to read, and ran off with a married man. The combination of the above experiences set Mary apart from society and caused her to feel the isolation and alienation of an outcast; an outcast like her monster and Milton's Satan. She differs from the monster in that she is notorious for her name, not her appearance, while the monster has no name and is instead an outcast due to the differences in the way he appears to others. In many ways Mary Shelley saw herself as the monster that she created and identified further with the monster by having him read the same works that she did.