Mary Shelley's iconic novel, Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, has captured the minds and chilled the spines of generations of readers. If the reader looks beyond the novel itself, they can find interesting parallels between Mary Shelley's life and themes that permeate Shelley's notorious work. Gender and nature are subjects that are discussed within Frankenstein that can also pique the interest of the modern day reader.
Dr. Karen Karbiener addresses Mary Shelly's life and connection to her infamous novel in the introduction to the Barnes & Noble Classics edition of Frankenstein. Karbiener notably points out that nothing in Shelley's life seemed to endure, except Shelley's self-proclaimed "hideous progeny," Frankenstein. This statement directly correlates to the feelings that Dr. Frankenstein has towards his own creation.
Mary Shelley's life was riddled with loss, starting with her birth. Mary Shelley's mother, proto-feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, died from complications of giving birth to her. At age 16, Mary eloped with the Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, for which Mary's father, William Goodwin (a prominent anarchist and philosopher), temporarily disowned her. Distraught at her betrayal, Percy's first wife, Harriet (while pregnant with Percy's child), drowned herself in the Serpentine River. Seemingly unperturbed by Harriet's death, Percy and Mary married several days after Harriet's body was discovered.
In 1816, when the Shelley's were still unwed lovers, they moved to Lake Geneva, running in a literary circle that included Lord Byron. The group regularly held discussions on science and the supernatural, beginning in the evening, continuing on until dawn. In one of these sessions of intellectual discourse, Byron suggested the friends have a friendly ghost story competition. Mary, taking inspiration from a dream she had, wrote Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus. The novel was published anonymously in 1818, when Mary was 21 and was a resounding success.
The losses were not over in Mary's life. Of the four children Mary had with Percy, only one, Percy Florence, lived beyond the age of five. Mary nearly died miscarrying their fifth child. A month after that, Percy drowned in a boating accident in the Gulf of Spezia. Mary's later attempts at romance (most notably her attraction to Aubrey Beauclerk) and friendship (such as with Jane Williams), were short-lived and often disastrous. Mary outlived every Romantic writer, and attended nearly all the funerals of her friends. At 26, Mary wrote:
"The last man! Yes I may well describe that solitary being's feelings, feeling myself as the last relic of a beloved race, my companions extinct before me."
This statement is almost a direct parallel to the loneliness that is interwoven through the psyche of the character of the creature in Frankenstein. Unlike the bumbling monstrosity of early cinema, that is unable to communicate except for various groans, the monster in Shelly's classic is eloquent, introspective, and quotes Milton. Upon listening to the poems read aloud by the De Lacey family, The Creature in Frankenstein speaks of himself as an individual that is forever alone, the only member of a race with nary a companion. The Creature goes on to eventually confront his creator, Victor Frankenstein, in agony, howling:
"Accursed creator! Why did you form a monster so hideous that even you turned from me in disgust? God, in pity, made man beautiful and alluring, after his own image; but my form is a filthy type of yours, more horrid even from the very resemblance. Satan had his companions, fellow devils, to admire and encourage him, but I am solitary and abhorred."
Gender roles in Frankenstein are also of interest, particularly with regards to nature being portrayed as a Mother. Author Cynthia A. Freeland discusses these roles in depth in her book, The Naked and the Undead: Evil and the Appeal of Horror. Freeland argues that in Frankenstein, the earth is depicted as vengeful Mother that will exact revenge if her role is usurped by a mortal man. When viewing gender roles through a traditional patriarchal lens, the act of giving birth is the most feminine act an individual assigned female sex at birth can undertake. Victor Frankenstein usurps this natural order, and pays the ultimate price; the destruction of his life and the murder of those that he loves. Freeman compares the "maleness" of science to the "femaleness" of nature, shedding light on dualities that are present in many gender associations.
Mankind also profanes the Creature himself. As Freeland points out, the Creature begins life with a good and innocent nature, and is sensitive to emotions. Yet the Creature is foul and disgusting in appearance, and is rejected by his "father," Victor, and society as a whole. Because of this, Creature becomes frightening and murderous.
Freeland brings up an interesting point in regards to the gender identity of the Creature. Is the Creature truly male? The Creature is described as "he" and seeks a female companion as a comfort in isolation. That being said, the Creature is an outsider to the culture he was created in. The Creature is undoubtedly an "other." The Creature also has an innate desire for family and social bonds. In patriarchal society, this familial longing is an inherently female trait. The Creature can also be viewed as the raging force of female nature incarnate, whether raging in the Alps or on the Arctic ice, seeking to punish the hubris of a male scientist. Victor perishes at the end of the novel, whereas the suicidal monster simply vanishes across the ice.
There is no happy ending in Frankenstein, much as there was no happy ending in Mary Shelley's life. In her final years, Mary Shelley was the target of three separate blackmailers. Shelley was also riddled by illness, suffering from headaches and numbness that was so severe her reading and writing was impaired. Eventually, Mary Shelley passed away on February 1st, 1851 from what her physician at the time claimed was a brain tumor. She was fifty three years old.
Frankenstein is not just a story about an unorthodox scientific experiment that creates a horrific monster. Frankenstein instead is reflections on science's dominion over nature, gender, and isolation. The loneliness of the Creature in Frankenstein was an almost prophetic depiction of Shelley's lack of companionship later in life. Frankenstein is just as relevant to readers today as 1818, as Frankenstein poses the question: "Are individuals born monsters, or are they made into ones?"