Mary Shelley (1797-1851)
Anne K. Mellor
WHEN MARY WOLLSTONECRAFT died of puerperal fever on 10 September 1797, she left her newborn daughter with a double burden: a powerful need to be mothered, which was never to be fulfilled, together with a name, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, that proclaimed this small child the fruit of the most famous radical literary marriage of eighteenth-century England. As we trace the growth of this baby girl into the author of Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus (1818), we can never forget how much her desire for a loving and supportive family defined her character, shaped her fantasies, and structured her fictional idealizations of the nuclear family—idealizations so exaggerated that their impossibility is always apparent.
LEFT with two infant daughters to raise, the austere philosopher William Godwin immediately hired a nanny, Louisa Jones, to care for Mary and her half sister Fanny Imlay (Wollstonecraft’s daughter by Gilbert Imlay). For three years, Mary enjoyed a happy childhood, beloved both by Louisa and by Fanny. But when Louisa fell in love with George Dyson, one of Godwin’s more tempestuous and irresponsible disciples, Godwin strongly objected; when she decided to live with Dyson, Godwin in July 1800 forbade her ever seeing the girls again. Thus, at the age of three, Mary lost the only mother she had ever known. Godwin, desperate to find a wife to care for his family, soon married Mary Jane Clairmont, the unmarried mother of two children, who deeply resented the special attention paid by visitors to Wollstonecraft’s and Godwin’s only daughter. She favored her own children, refused to provide any special lessons for Mary, and quarreled frequently with her. The tension between Mary Godwin and her stepmother was so severe that Mary suffered from psychosomatic skin boils at the age of thirteen, boils that disappeared when she and her stepmother were separated. Godwin then decided to send Mary away indefinitely, shipping her to Dundee, Scotland, to stay with the family of a near stranger, William Thomas Baxter, in June 1812.
An outsider in the happy home of the Baxters, Mary nonetheless learned to enjoy the bleak but beautiful landscape of the Tay estuary and gradually became close friends with the Baxter daughters. Nevertheless, she continued to yearn for her father, for whom she had developed by the age of twelve, as she later confessed to Maria Reveley Gisborne, an “excessive & romantic attachment” (letter to Gisborne, 30 October 1834). At the age of sixteen, she returned to London to discover that Godwin had acquired a new disciple, one whom she saw as a youthful incarnation of all she most admired in her father. Within two months, she and the married Percy Shelley had become lovers; on 28 July 1814, they eloped to Paris, taking Mrs. Godwin’s daughter Jane Clairmont with them.
The Godwins were furious at this elopement; William Godwin refused to speak to Mary (although he continued to borrow money from Percy Shelley), especially after Jane insisted on living with Mary and Percy. The trio traveled across Europe to Lake Lucerne; Mary and Percy later published their letters describing the sublime landscapes they encountered on this trip in History of a Six Weeks’ Tour Through a Part of France, Switzerland, Germany, and Holland: With Letters Descriptive of a Sail Round the Lake of Geneva, and of the Glaciers ofChamouni (1817). During this trip Mary became pregnant, Jane and Percy probably became lovers, and all three converted to Percy’s fervent belief in free or nonpossessive love and Page 356 | Top of Articleuniversal benevolence as the solution to every social and political evil.
When they returned to England, Mary gave birth to a baby girl, christened Clara, who lived for only two weeks. After Clara’s death on 6 March 1815, Mary had a recurrent dream that she recorded in her journal: “Dream that my little baby came to life again—that it had only been cold, and that we rubbed it before the fire, and it lived—I awake and find no baby— I think about the little thing all day—not in good spirits” (Journal, 19 March 1815). Increasingly resentful of Jane’s presence in her household, Mary insisted that she leave; Jane then decided to find her own poet and set her cap for the most famous young poet of the day, Lord Byron. By April 1816, Jane (having changed her name to the more romantic Claire) had become Byron’s lover, despite his obvious lack of affection for her. She then persuaded Percy (who wanted to meet Byron) and Mary to accompany her to Switzerland in pursuit of Byron. The four spent the summer of 1816, the coldest summer for a century, on the shores of Lake Geneva, engaging in intense conversation and reading ghost stories out loud. On the memorable night of 15 June, they decided to compete in writing the most frightening story each could imagine. The next day, Mary Godwin, as she later reported in her introduction to the 1831 edition of Frankenstein, having experienced a “reverie” or waking nightmare in which she saw “the pale student of unhallowed arts” create a living being from dead parts, began to write one of the most powerful horror stories of modern times.
FRANKENSTEIN; OR, THE MODERN PROMETHEUS
MARY Shelley’s story of a scientist who creates a monster he cannot control can claim the status of a myth, so profoundly resonant are its implications for our understanding of the modern world. Of course, the media and the average person often mistakenly assign the name of Frankenstein not to the maker of the monster but to his creature. But as we shall see, this “mistake” derives from an intuitively correct reading of the final identity of the creator with his creation.
From the feminist perspective, which has dominated critical discussions of the novel since 1975, Frankenstein is in part a book about what happens when a man tries to have a baby without a woman. As such, the novel is concerned with natural as opposed to unnatural modes of reproduction. In 1976, in her Literary Women, Ellen Moers drew our attention to the novel’s emphasis on birth and “the trauma of the after-birth.” Since this is a novel about giving birth, let us first ask why the eighteen-year-old Mary Godwin gave birth to this novel on that night in 1816, the question so frequently put to her, “How I, then a young girl, came to think of, and to dilate upon, so very hideous an idea?” In her author’s introduction to the revised edition of Frankenstein (1831), she tells us that the night before her dream, she had heard Byron and Shelley discussing certain scientific experiments by Erasmus Darwin, in which he was said to have animated a piece of vermicelli by sending an electrical current though it.
Mary’s reverie of creation, which followed this discussion, also drew upon far more personal knowledge. More than fifteen years later, she claimed she could still see vividly the room to which she woke and feel “the thrill of fear” that ran through her. Why was she so frightened? Remember that she had eighteen months earlier given birth to a baby girl whom she had dreamed she had “rubbed … before the fire” and brought back to life. Here once again she dreamed of reanimating a corpse by warming it with “a spark of life.” Only six months ago this night, Mary had given birth a second time, to a boy named William. And while she wrote out her novel, she was pregnant a third time, with a daughter, again named Clara, who was born in September 1817. Mary’s waking dream unleashed her deepest subconscious anxieties, the anxieties of a very young, frequently pregnant mother.
The dream that gave birth to her novel also gave shape to what we might imagine to be her deepest fears: “What if my child is born deformed, a freak, a ‘hideous’ thing? Could I still love it, or would I be horrified and wish it were dead again (as the “pale studenf does)? What will happen if I cannot love my child? Am I capable of raising a normal, healthy child? Will my child die (as my first baby did)? Could I wish my own child to die, to destroy itself? Could I kill it? Could it kill me (as I killed my mother, Mary Wollstone-craft)?” One reason Mary Shelley’s story reverberates so strongly is that it articulates, for perhaps the first time in Western literature, the most powerfully felt anxieties of pregnancy, a topic avoided Page 357 | Top of Articleby male writers and considered improper for women to discuss in public. Mary Shelley’s focus on the birth process both educates a male readership about the ways in which pregnant women or new mothers may not desire their own babies, even as it reassures female readers that their fears and hostilities are shared by other women.
Her dream thus generates that dimension of the novel’s plot that has been much discussed by feminist critics, Victor Frankenstein’s total failure as a parent. Even though he has labored nine months to give birth to his Creature, Frankenstein flees from his child the moment it opens its eyes with the “convulsive motion” of birth. And when like a child, his Creature follows him, grinning, arms open to embrace him, Frankenstein can see his creation only as a devil, a wretch, whom he violently abandons. Throughout the novel, Frankenstein’s inability to accept responsibility for his son, his Adam, is contrasted with the examples of two loving fathers, Alphonse Frankenstein and the father in the De Lacey family. Mary Shelley’s ideal family, a community of equals joined by love and mutual respect, is represented in the novel especially by the De Laceys: Felix (whose name connotes happiness), Agatha (goodness), and Safie (Sophia or wisdom, a portrait of the liberated woman modeled on Mary Wollstonecraft).
As the novel develops, the author’s attention focuses less on the feelings and experiences of Victor Frankenstein and more on those of his Creature, the abandoned child. Mary Shelley powerfully identified with this rejected child. The Creature spends two years peering in on the De Lacey family, just as Mary peered in on the Baxters; the Creature reads the same books as did Mary in 1814 and 1815 (Paradise Lost, The Sorrows of Young Werther, Plutarch’s Parallel Lives, Volney’s Ruins of Empires, the poetry of Coleridge and Byron); both lack a mother and suffer from distant fathers. The novel powerfully evokes the Creature’s pain at the recognition that he will be alone, forever alone; equally powerfully, the novel evokes the anger and desire for revenge that such abandonment and isolation can produce. When the Creature finally loses his last hope of joining the De Lacey family, he commits his first act of violence and burns down their cottage.
Mary Shelley recognized that the experience of parental rejection can produce a desire to retaliate: it is no accident that the Creature’s first victim is a young boy named William whom he wished to adopt. By naming this child William Frankenstein, Mary Shelley invoked her father William Godwin, her stepbrother William Godwin, Jr., who displaced her in her father’s affections, and her own son William Shelley (of whom William Frankenstein is a portrait, possessing the same blue eyes and blond curls). At the psychological level, the Creature’s murder of William Frankenstein manifests Mary Shelley’s repressed patricidal, fratricidal, and even infanticidal urges, revealing her horrified recognition of her own capacity for aggression.
Mary Shelley’s anxiety about her capacity to give birth to a normal, healthy child that she could mother lovingly surfaces in the novel in another way. In her introduction to the revised edition of Frankenstein (1831), she identifies the novel itself as her child, her “hideous progeny.” For Mary Shelley, this metaphor of the book-as-baby articulates a double anxiety. In giving birth to a book, she has given birth to herself as an author, and specifically to herself as the author of horror. She is reinforcing the literary tradition of the female Gothic, the association of women with the expression of desire that might better remain hidden, repressed. She is thus defying the decorum of the “proper lady,” the domestic ideology that insists that women should remain silent in public.
Mary Shelley’s guilt at writing an “improper” book led to extensive self-censorship in her novel. Not only did she repress the female authorial voice, assigning her tale to three male narrators (Walton, Frankenstein, and the Creature), but she also gave her tale to a man, Percy Shelley, to “edit” and “correct.” Percy Shelley made numerous changes to the manuscript of Frankenstein, changes that both improved and damaged the novel. He corrected occasional factual errors and misspellings, he substituted technical terms for Mary Shelley’s less precise ones, and he sometimes improved the continuity of and clarified her text. Everywhere he “heightened” her diction and style, substituting polysyllabic, Latinate words and Miltonic inversions for her vernacular, Anglo-Saxon words and sentence constructions. He is thus responsible for that ornate, Ciceronian prose style employed by Frankenstein and his Creature, a style that many readers have found distancing and stilted, not to say improbable for a Creature who is only two years old!
Percy also distorted Mary Shelley’s intentions in two important ways. He tended to see Victor Page 358 | Top of ArticleFrankenstein more sympathetically than did Mary. He called Victor an “author” and regarded him as a tragic hero, whereas Mary saw the scientist as an agent of evil and identified him with the hubristic overreachers Faust, Satan, and Prometheus. Similarly, Percy Shelley regarded the Creature more negatively and introduced the Creature as an “abortion.” Finally, he changed the last line of the novel, from Mary Shelley’s “I soon lost sight of him in the darkness and distance” to “[he was] lost in darkness and distance.” Mary Shelley’s ending leaves open the possibility that the Creature is still alive, the more so because his promise to build a funeral pyre at the North Pole is inherently incredible, given the lack of wood for such a pyre. Percy Shelley’s ending gives a false sense of closure to the novel. Feminist critics have suggested that Mary Shelley’s willingness to accept all of Percy’s emendations reflected her sense of psychological and literary inferiority to her older, already published, mentor, father figure, and now husband (Percy and Mary were married on 30 December 1816, after his first wife, Harriet, committed suicide).
As its subtitle suggests and many critics have noted, Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus functions as a political critique both of Romantic Prometheanism and of the ideology of the French Revolution. By naming her scientist a modern Prometheus, Mary Shelley called into question the fundamental project of the Romantic poets and philosophers she knew best (Godwin, Coleridge, Byron, Percy Shelley): their attempt to perfect mankind, to transform mortals into godlike creatures, to locate the divine in the human. Victor Frankenstein’s quest, to “bestow animation upon lifeless matter” and thereby “renew life where death had apparently devoted the body to corruption,” is in fact a quest to become God, the creator of life and the gratefully worshiped father of a new species of immortal beings. This quest parallels Godwin’s theory of perfectibility through unfettered rationality, Coleridge’s claim that the primary human imagination is an “echo of the Infinite I AM,” Blake’s vision of the human form divine, Wordsworth’s insistence that the “higher minds” of poets “are truly from the Deity,” and Percy Shelley’s image of the poet as the savior and “unacknowledged legislator of the world.”
Invoking the myths both of Prometheus plasticator (the maker of man) and of Prometheus pyrphoros (the fire stealer), Mary Shelley identified her modern Prometheus explicitly with Byron and Percy Shelley. In 1816 she had copied out for his publisher Byron’s poem “Prometheus” and verse-drama Manfred, in which the Faustian Manfred, who cannot escape his incestuous guilt, nonetheless defies the gods and insists that
The mind, the spirit, the Promethean spark,
The lightning of my being, is as bright,
Pervading, and far-darting as your own,
And shall not yield to yours, though coop’d in clay!
More immediately, she identified Victor Frankenstein with her husband. Percy Shelley had published his first volume of poems under the pen name Victor; like Frankenstein, he had a “sister” named Elizabeth; he had received the same education as Victor, reading Paracelsus, Albertus Magnus, Pliny, and Buffon, and specializing in alchemy, chemistry, and foreign languages; he shared Frankenstein’s revolutionary ideals, which are signaled in the novel by Frankenstein’s attending the University of Ingolstadt, home of the leading German Jacobin thinker, Adam Weishaupt. Most important, Frankenstein shared Percy Shelley’s relative indifference to his children: Shelley had abandoned his first wife and their children and had not grieved for the death of Mary’s first child, Clara.
Mary Shelley also included a positive portrait of her husband through the character of Clerval, Victor’s other “self.” Clerval is a poet who loves nature, is capable of empathy, of parenting others (he nurses Victor when Victor is sick), and does not disobey his father. But this positive image of an altruistic Percy Shelley is torn from the novel when Clerval is murdered, leaving behind only the egotistical, self-absorbed Victor.
As a modern Prometheus, Victor Frankenstein is a fire stealer, someone who usurps nature’s “spark of life” to animate a dead corpse, but then refuses to accept responsibility for the Creature he has created. Mary Shelley rejected the Romantic dream of progressing ever upward to human perfection and immortality because she recognized that a commitment to a Utopian, future ideal too often entailed an indifference to the responsibilities of the present. She concluded that a Romantic poetics that valued the creative process above the created product too often failed to acknowledge the predictable consequences of that product, Page 359 | Top of Articleonce created—for example, the suffering caused by the political and social revolutions that the passionate words of the poet might inspire.
Imbedded in Frankenstein is an allegory of the French Revolution and the Terror. Mary Shelley encourages us to see the Creature as the embodiment of the entire progress of the French Revolution. The Creature first invokes Rousseau’s noble savage, born free but everywhere in chains: “I was benevolent and good; misery made me a fiend,” he claims (p. 95). Were he incorporated into the family of man, he would be entirely virtuous, he insists. But the Creature does not get the female companion he craves and is driven to violence. Just so the French Revolution was driven out of the hands of the well-intentioned Girondists (Mirabeau, Lafayette, Talleyrand) by the September massacres and the execution of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, and into the bloodthirsty arms of Marat, Saint-Just, and Robespierre. The identification of the French Revolution as a “monster” had been made by Edmund Burke and Abbé Bar-ruel, both of whom Mary Shelley had read and admired; in his Reflections on the Revolution in France (1789), Burke had defined the Revolution as a “vast, tremendous, unformed spectre.”
With this allegory, Mary Shelley offers a subtle political argument, crudely stated as “the end does not justify the means.” An abstract cause can never be separated from its historical embodiment in events, nor can an ideology be separated from the class interests it serves. If Victor Frankenstein had loved and cared for his child, the Creature might never have become a monster; similarly, if the early leaders of the French Revolution had found a place for the aristocrats, clergy, and king and queen in their new republic, the Terror and the devastations of the Napoleonic campaigns might not have occurred. Mary Shelley sums up her political credo in a central passage in Frankenstein:
A human being in perfection ought always to preserve a calm and peaceful mind and never to allow passion or a transitory desire to disturb his tranquillity. I do not think that the pursuit of knowledge is an exception to this rule. If the study to which you apply yourself has a tendency to weaken your affections, and to destroy your taste for those simple pleasures in which no alloy can possibly mix, then that study is certainly unlawful, that is to say, not befitting the human mind. If this rule were always observed; if no man allowed any pursuit whatsoever to interfere with the tranquillity of his domestic affections, Greece had not been enslaved; Caesar would have spared his country; America would have been discovered more gradually; and the empires of Mexico and Peru had not been destroyed.
Mary Shelley was a political reformist, rather than a revolutionary. She believed that the nation-state ought to be modeled upon the “domestic affections,” upon a loving family in which each member is valued and cared for equally. She shared this concept of “family politics” with other women writers of her day, with Mary Wollstonecraft, Maria Edgeworth, and Jane Austen, a concept of the ideal state as a socialist community grounded in an ethic of care that serves the needs of all the community’s members.
Frankenstein offers a powerful critique both of scientific thought and of the psychology of the modern scientist. Mary Shelley may have been the first to question the commitment of science to the search for objective truth irrespective of the consequences. What science did Mary Shelley know? Clearly, she had no personal experience with scientific research; she envisioned Frankenstein’s laboratory as a small attic room lit by a single candle! Nonetheless, she had a sound grasp of the concepts and implications of some of the most important scientific research of her day, namely the work of Sir Humphry Davy, Erasmus Darwin, and Luigi Galvani.
At the University of Ingolstadt, Victor Frankenstein chooses to specialize in the field of “natural philosophy,” or chemical physiology, the field defined by Humphry Davy in his A Discourse, Introductory to a Course of Lectures on Chemistry (1802), the source for Professor Waldman’s lecture in the novel. In this pamphlet, Davy insisted that modern chemistry had bestowed upon the chemist “powers which may be almost called creative; which have enabled him to modify and change the beings surrounding him, and by his experiments to interrogate nature with power, not simply as a scholar, passive and seeking only to understand her operations, but rather as a master, active with his own instruments” (p. 16). Gendering nature as female, Davy defined two scientific ways of dealing with her. A “descriptive” science would try to understand the workings of Mother Nature. An “interventionist” science, on the other hand, would be an effort to change the operations of nature. Davy clearly preferred the latter and Page 360 | Top of Articlehailed the scientist who modified nature as a “master.” Similarly, Professor Waldman urges Victor Frankenstein to “penetrate into the recesses of nature, and show how she works in her hiding places” (p. 42), an effort Victor undertakes so that he might discover the “principle of life” (p. 46) and use it to his own ends. In Mary Shelley’s view, such interventionist science is bad science, dangerous and self-serving.
In contrast, good science is that practiced by Erasmus Darwin, the first theorist of evolution and the grandfather of Charles Darwin. In The Botanic Garden (1789, 1791) and Zoonomia; or, The Laws of Organic Life (1794, 1801), Darwin had described the evolution of more complex life-forms from simpler ones and argued that dual-sex propagation is higher on the evolutionary ladder than single-sex propagation. From Darwin’s perspective, Victor Frankenstein’s experiment would reverse evolutionary progress, both because Frankenstein engages in single-sex propagation and because he constructs his new species from both human parts (collected from cemeteries and charnel houses) and animal parts (collected from slaughterhouses). Moreover, he defies the entire concept of evolution by attempting to create a “new” species all at once, rather than through the random mutation of existing species.
The scientist who had the most direct impact on Shelley’s representation of Frankenstein’s experiment was Luigi Galvani, who argued that electricity was the life force and who had performed numerous experiments conducting electrical currents through dead animals in order to revive them. His most notorious experiment was performed in public in London on 17 January 1803, by his nephew Giovanni Aldini. On that day Al-dini applied galvanic electricity to the corpse of a human being. The body of the recently hanged criminal Thomas Forster was brought from Newgate Prison, where it had lain in the prison yard for one hour at thirty degrees Fahrenheit, to Mr. Wilson’s Anatomical Theatre, where live wires attached to a pile composed of 120 plates of zinc and 120 plates of copper were connected to the ear and mouth of the dead man. At this moment, Aldini reported, “the jaw began to quiver, the adjoining muscles were horribly contorted, and the left eye actually opened.” When the wires were applied to the dissected thumb muscles they “induced a forcible effort to clench the hand”; when applied to the ear and rectum, they “excited in the muscles contractions much stronger. … The action even of those muscles furthest distant from the points of contact with the arc was so much increased as almost to give an appearance of re-animation.” When volatile alkali was smeared on the nostrils and mouth before the galvanic stimulus was applied, “the convulsions appeared to be much increased … and extended from the muscles of the head, face, and neck, as far as the deltoid. The effect in this case surpassed our most sanguine expectations,” Aldini exulted, and he concluded remarkably that “vitality might, perhaps, have been restored, if many circumstances had not rendered it impossible” (Giovanni Aldini, An Account of the Late Improvements in Galvanism, 1803, pp. 54, 193-194). Here is the scientific prototype for Victor Frankenstein, restoring life to dead human corpses.
By grounding her literary vision of a scientist animating a corpse upon the cutting-edge scientific research of her day, Mary Shelley initiated a new literary genre, what we now call “science fiction.” As Brian Aldiss in Billion Year Spree: The History of Science Fiction (1973) and Robert Scholes and Eric Rabkin in Science Fiction: History, Science, Vision (1977) have argued, Frankenstein possesses the three characteristics essential to the genre of science fiction: (1) it is based on valid scientific research; (2) it gives a persuasive prediction of what science might achieve in the future; and (3) it offers a humanistic critique of the benefits and dangers of either a specific scientific discovery/invention or of the nature of scientific thought.
Frankenstein is notable both for its grasp of the nature of the scientific enterprise and for its searching analysis of the dangers inherent in that enterprise. Victor Frankenstein is our first literary portrait of what we might now call the “mad scientist,” but it is a far more subtle portrait than that provided by such films as Dr. Strangelove. Mary Shelley recognized that Victor Frankenstein’s passion for scientific research is a displacement of normal emotions and healthy affections. Significantly, when Victor is working on his experiment, he cannot love—he ignores his family, even his fiancee Elizabeth, and he takes no pleasure in the beauties of nature. Moreover, he becomes physically and mentally ill, subject to nervous fevers.
Mary Shelley also offers a critique of the nature of scientific thought. Inherent in the concept of science is a potent gender identification, as Sir Humphry Davy assumed: nature is female, the Page 361 | Top of Articlescientist is male. Therefore the scientist who analyzes, manipulates, and attempts to control nature is engaging in sexual politics. In his essay “Tem-poris Partus Masculus,” Francis Bacon heralded the seventeenth-century scientific revolution with the words, “I am come in very truth leading to you Nature with all her children to bind her to your service and make her your slave.” By constructing nature as female, the scientist feels entitled to exploit her to gratify his own desire for power, money, and status. Frankenstein’s scientific quest is nothing less than an attempt to “penetrate into the recesses of nature, and show how she works in her hiding places,” to penetrate the womb of nature and to appropriate that womb, to usurp the process of female biological reproduction. In effect, Frankenstein wishes to rape nature in order to gratify his own lust for power. Frankenstein fantasizes, “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. 49). If Frankenstein were to succeed in stealing the power of female biological reproduction, he would eliminate the biological necessity for females; the human race of males could survive by cloning. For women readers, this is perhaps the greatest horror of Mary Shelley’s story: the implicit threat to the social and biological survival of the human female.
By constituting nature as female, Frankenstein participates in a gendered construction of both physical and social reality. Feminist critics have argued that his scientific endeavor to clone human males and eliminate human females reinforces the general devaluation of women in the nineteenth-century European society to which he belongs. The society of Geneva depicted in Shelley’s novel is based on the doctrine of the separate spheres, the assumption that men should work outside the home in the public sphere, while women are confined in the private sphere within the home. Notably, the male characters in Shelley’s novel all leave home, to go to university (Victor), to explore the planet (Walton), to work as businessmen (Clerval and his father), and to work as public servants (Alphonse Frankenstein). In contrast, the women are kept at home; as much as she would like to, Elizabeth is not permitted to attend university or travel. Inside the home, the women function as housewives (Caroline Beaufort, Margaret Saville), as nurses, caregivers for children, servants (Justine), or as “pets” (Elizabeth).
Shelley’s novel makes it clear that this division of labor on the basis of gender is destructive for both sexes. All of the women associated with Victor Frankenstein die: his mother sacrifices herself to nurse Elizabeth’s scarlet fever, Justine is executed for a crime she did not commit, and Elizabeth is killed by Victor’s Creature on her wedding night. Similarly, Victor, his father, and his best friend all die, killed by the results of Victor’s reckless experiment. In contrast to this mutually destructive construction of gender is the egalitarian family of the De Laceys, in which both son and daughter contribute equally to the welfare of the family and hold all property in common. But this socialist, egalitarian community is wrenched from the novel, as it was from Mary Shelley’s own life: in her view, such a social ideal could not survive in the nineteenth-century England she knew.
Why have women been oppressed, in Mary Shelley’s view? She offers a particularly subtle answer to this question in the scene where Victor Frankenstein decides to destroy the female creature. His male Creature has begged him for a female companion. Acknowledging the justice of the Creature’s claim that, as Adam, he deserves an Eve, Victor Frankenstein collects his instruments together on a desolate island off the coast of Scotland and proceeds to construct a female body. But halfway through his endeavor, he destroys this body and throws it away. He rationalizes his action thus:
I was now about to form another being, of whose dispositions I was alike ignorant; she might become ten thousand times more malignant than her mate, and delight, for its own sake, in murder and wretchedness. He had sworn to quit the neighbourhood of man, and hide himself in deserts; but she had not; and she, who in all probability was to become a thinking and reasoning animal, might refuse to comply with a compact made before her creation. They might even hate each other; the creature who already lived loathed his own deformity, and might he not conceive a greater abhorrence for it when it came before his eyes in the female form? She also might turn with disgust from him to the superior beauty of man; she might quit him, and he be again alone, exasperated by the fresh provocation of being deserted by one of his own species.
Even if they were to leave Europe, and inhabit the deserts of the new world, yet one of the first results of those sympathies for which the daemon thirsted would be children, and a race of devils would be propagated Page 362 | Top of Articleupon the earth, who might make the very existence of the species of man a condition precarious and full of terror. Had I a right, for my own benefit, to inflict this curse upon everlasting generations?
What Frankenstein truly fears is that the female he will construct might be independent, that she might refuse to obey laws she did not make. She might be aggressive, ugly, and lustful. Worse, given that she too would be eight feet tall, she would have the physical strength to realize her sexual desires, perhaps even upon Victor Frankenstein himself. Most frightening, she would have the capacity to procreate. Frankenstein’s deepest fear is of female sexuality. He evinces traditional patriarchal womb envy, which stems in part from the fact that a child’s paternity can be called into question, whereas a female always knows that the child she carries is hers. In reaction to this masculine fear of an independent, uncontrollable female sexuality, Frankenstein rips up the female creature in an act that echoes a violent rape: “trembling with passion, [I] tore to pieces the thing on which I was engaged” (p. 164). Later, he remarks, “I almost felt as if I had mangled the living flesh of a human being” (p. 167).
In Mary Shelley’s feminist novel, however, Victor Frankenstein does not succeed in creating a new race of supermen because nature fights back. She begins by plaguing Frankenstein with bad health. As he engages in his two experiments, he is tormented by fevers, heart palpitations, nervous fits, depression, and paranoia. His physical exhaustion is finally so great that he dies at the age of twenty-five. Nature further punishes Victor by preventing him from creating a normal child: his lack of empathy first causes him to create a giant (simply because the “minuteness of the [normal-sized] parts formed a great hindrance to my speed”) and then leads to a series of disasters that prevent him from normal procreation with his bride Elizabeth. Finally, nature pursues Victor Frankenstein with the very electricity and fire he has stolen from her. The lrghtning, thunder, and rain that surround Victor as he carries on his experiments are not just the conventional atmospheric effects of the Gothic novel but also a manifestation of nature’s elemental powers. Like the Furies, nature pursues Victor to his hiding places, destroying not only Victor but his family, friend, and servant. Finally, the penalty of violating nature is death.
Encoded in Frankenstein is an alternative to Victor’s and Walton’s view of nature as female and to be penetrated or as dead matter to be reassembled at will. Significantly, the only member of the Frankenstein family still alive at the end of the novel is Ernest, who, rather than becoming a lawyer like his father, wished to become a farmer. His survival, together with Clerval’s enthusiastic love of the changing beauty of the seasons, reveals Mary Shelley’s view of the appropriate relationship between human beings and nature: an ecological vision of nature as a person with rights and responsibilities who must be treated with respect, even reverence.
Frankenstein persistently raises the two philosophical questions that haunted all the Romantic writers of the period: What is being? And how do we know what we know? These are the ontological and epistemological questions David Hume and Immanuel Kant had tried to answer, and these are the questions with which both Victor Frankenstein and his Creature are wrestling. Victor sets out to answer the question “whence did the principle of life proceed?” And the Creature insistently demands, “Who was I? What was I? Whence did I come? What was my destination?” (p. 124).
As Shelley’s characters struggle with these questions, the novel presents two diametrically opposed answers. The Creature, echoing Jean-Jacques Rousseau, insists that human nature is innately good: “I was benevolent and good; misery made me a fiend” (p. 95). On the other hand, Victor Frankenstein insists that the Creature is innately evil: “Abhorred monster! fiend that thou art!” (p. 94). Insofar as the Creature is frequently referred to in the text as “Being,” his very existence poses this problem: is human nature innately good or evil?
This question is emphasized in the emblematic scene when the Creature first sees himself, in a forest pool: “At first I started back, unable to believe that it was indeed I who was reflected in the mirror; and when I became fully convinced that I was in reality the monster that I am, I was filled with the bitterest sensations of despondency and mortification” (p. 109). This scene suggests that in this novel, knowing (re-cognition) is a matter of seeing (perception)—the Creature is at first unable to believe that he is what he perceives himself to be. He then decides that he is “in reality” what he appears to be, what his mirror shows him to be, Page 363 | Top of Articlenamely, a “monster.” The Creature is as he is seen; he functions in the novel as the sign of the unknown, as that which does not exist until it is read or linguistically named. All the characters impose such names upon him; all immediately read this giant with yellow skin and black lips as the monstrous. The creature insists that such a reading is arbitrary; “Thus I relieve thee, my creator,’ he said, and placed his hated hands before my eyes” (p. 96), as if to suggest that when Victor ceases to see the Creature, he may be able to read him more correctly. Similarly, the father in the De Lacey family can interpret the Creature as “sincere” because he is blind. Walton also covers his eyes when he finally encounters the Creature, refusing to impose a single interpretation upon him, but even Walton then “lost sight” of him in “darkness and distance.”
By refusing to tell us whether the Creature is innately good and driven to violence by social rejection, or innately evil, Mary Shelley constructs the Creature as the Kantian noumenon, the forever unknowable “thing-in-itself.” She thus equates her Creature with the terror of the Romantic or Burkean sublime, that ultimate power in nature which overwhelms human cognition and consciousness. But, unlike Kant or Burke, or such Romantic poets as Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Percy Shelley, Mary Shelley does not represent the sublime as a moment when the mind of the (male) poet or philosopher comes to know its own creative, shaping powers.
Rather, she represents the sublime as posing an ethical problem. The way we read or interpret the Creature determines the way we treat him. Human beings typically construe the unique, the unfamiliar, and the abnormal as frightening, threatening, and evil. As Michel Foucault argues in Madness and Civilization, we use language to fix the boundaries between the acceptable and the unacceptable. Linguistic definitions of evil thus create evil. Because Victor Frankenstein reads his newborn child as a “miserable monster,” he interprets the Creature as evil and thus becomes the author of evil.
In effect, Victor Frankenstein becomes the monster he constructs. By the end of the novel, Victor and his creature have been fused into one consciousness, each the hunter and the hunted, each driven equally by revenge and remorse. In their chase across the North Pole, both are identified with the fallen Adam and with Satan, until Victor in his nightmares experiences the Creature as “my own vampire” (p. 72)—”I felt the fiend’s grasp in my neck” (p. 181), not “around” his neck, as we might expect. The Creature and Victor now inhabit the same body. This is the sense in which popular culture is correct in confounding the Creature with his creator.
Mary Shelley wants us to see that in a world created by linguistic constructions that code the unfamiliar as evil, we create the evil and injustice that we imagine. She is here criticizing the male Romantic poets’ celebration of the imagination as divine. A promiscuous imagination is more likely to generate readings based on fear than on love, as Theseus says in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Her answer to the philosophical questions posed in Frankenstein is a radical skepticism. Since we can never know the thing-in-itself, we must consciously control our interpretations of almighty nature with a nurturing love that can embrace even freaks and monsters. For as the Creature reminds Victor, “You are my creator but I am your master—obey!”
SHORTLY after mary shelley completed Frankenstein, her second daughter, Clara Everina, died, on 24 September 1818, as a result of Percy Shelley’s refusal to obtain adequate medical care for her; less than a year later, on 7 June 1819, her only surviving child, William, died in Rome of malaria. Mary Shelley entered a prolonged period of profound depression, blaming Percy (in part correctly) for both these deaths and refusing to be reconciled to him. She was roused from this depression only by the writing of her long novella Mathilda, which she began in August 1819, and by the birth of her second son, Percy Florence, on 12 November 1819. Mathilda is a powerful tale of incestuous father-daughter love and death in which Mary Shelley articulates her deepest and most ambivalent feelings toward both her father and her husband.
Her hostility to her father was immediately aroused by his failure to understand her despair at William’s death. In a letter that may rank among the crudest ever sent by a father to a bereaved daughter, Godwin had written on 9 September 1819:
I cannot but consider it as lowering your character in a memorable degree, and putting you among the commonality and mob of your sex, when I had thought you to be ranked among those noble spirits that do honour to our nature. Oh! What a falling off is here! … you have lost a child; and all the rest of the world, all that is beautiful, and all that has a claim upon your kindness, is nothing, because a child of three years old is dead!
(quoted in Shelley and Mary, ed. by Jane Shelley, 1882, 1:104A)
In her novella, Shelley writes the story of a young man whose adored wife Diana dies in childbirth; he then abandons his baby daughter Mathilda for sixteen years, returning only to fall passionately in love with the girl who exactly resembles his dead wife. When he confesses his incestuous passion, Mathilda is horrified and immediately dreams of his suicide, only to awaken to find him gone. This novella thus uncovers Mary Shelley’s deepest desire: to be passionately loved by the father who had rejected her, and at the same time to reject and even kill him.
Unlike representations of father-daughter incest by men, like Percy Shelley’s The Cenci, in which incest is a trope for the domination of the tyrant-father over the rights of both his daughters and his sons (whose appropriate “brides” he usurps), Mary Shelley recognizes that in a relationship of incest the daughter may deeply love her father. Mathilda cannot survive her father’s suicide; she stages her own suicide and then retires to live like a hermit, dressed as a nun, in a forsaken wood in Scotland. She regards herself as “the bride of death.”
There she is found by an idealistic but lovelorn poet, Woodville (modeled on Percy Shelley), who urges her to rejoin the living but fails to understand the depths of her suffering. When she offers Woodville a drink of total communion, a poison, he refuses it, claiming that he must remain alive to give his poetry to the world. He abandons her, as Percy had emotionally abandoned Mary in her suffering. Mathilda then wanders in a storm at night until she becomes ill—she soon expires from self-induced consumption, penning the story of her life as she dies.
THE LAST MAN
MARY Shelley’s sufferings were to continue. Her husband’s sudden death by drowning on 8 July 1822, off the coast of Livorno, Italy, was a devastating blow to Mary Shelley and left her widowed at the age of twenty-five with a two-year-old son to raise. Worse, Percy Shelley’s death followed a long period of emotional estrangement between the couple caused by Mary Shelley’s conviction that Percy had been in part responsible for the prior deaths of both her daughter, Clara Everina, and her son, William. As Mary Shelley wrote bitterly to her good friend Marianne Hunt on 29 June 1819: “We came to Italy thinking to do Shelley’s health good—but the Climate is not any means warm enough to be of benefit to him & yet it is that that has destroyed my two children” (Letters, vol. 1, p. 101). Confronted with his wife’s depression and resentment, Percy Shelley had in the months prior to his death found consolation in the company of other women, of Maria Gisborne, Claire Clairmont, and Jane Williams. His death thus occurred at the worst possible time for Mary Shelley, when there was a great deal of emotional turmoil between them.
Overwhelmed by love, guilt, and remorse, blaming herself for having made his final months unhappy, Mary attempted to make reparation to her dead husband by giving him a posthumous life. She immediately collected his manuscripts and published texts for a complete edition of his works and began to write a hagiographic biography. When her father-in-law forebade its publication, she instead appended long biographical notes to her 1824 and 1839 editions of Percy Shelley’s poems, notes in which she deified the poet and revised their past history together, asserting that his last two months on earth were “the happiest he had ever known” (1824). She used her fiction to present idealized portraits of Percy Shelley, first and most tellingly as Adrian in The Last Man (1826). In financially straitened circumstances, she managed to give her only surviving child the education and upbringing of a future baronet (he inherited his grandfather’s title and estate in 1844) by writing novels, essays, and encyclopedia articles, by translating, and by living as economically as possible on her meager inheritance and allowance from Percy’s father, Sir Timothy Shelley.
Published in 1826, The Last Man is a brilliantly prophetic novel. It draws on Mary Shelley’s personal experiences of abandonment and isolation after the deaths of her husband and of Lord Byron, who died on 19 April 1824. At the same time, it articulates a profound critique of the dominant gender, Page 365 | Top of Articlecultural, and political ideologies of the Romantic era. Equally important, The Last Man explores the social significance of a worldwide plague that relentlessly annihilates the entire human race, leaving only one last man to tell the story.
At the biographical level, The Last Man is a román á clef in which Mary Shelley projected and tried to come to terms with both Percy Shelley and Lord Byron, in the figures of Adrian, Earl of Windsor, and of Lord Raymond. Adrian, the “hero” of the novel, shares Percy Shelley’s democratic principles as well as his face, form, and voice; he arouses universal affection, even among his enemies. But like the poet of Percy Shelley’s “Alastor,” he is driven mad by despair when his beloved Evadne rejects him, a madness from which he recovers only after a severe fever has permanently impaired his health.
Despite his physical weakness, Adrian ardently supports the cause of freedom, fights for a year with the Greeks against their Turkish oppressors, and urges his countrymen “to introduce a perfect system of republican government into England” (p. 30). But he refuses to use his position as Earl of Windsor to gain personal political power. Not until England is ravaged by the deadly plague does he determine to “sacrifice himself for the public good” (p. 182) and to accept the position of Lord Protector. With courage and unflagging energy, he then comforts the sick, takes what preventive measures he can against the unstoppable epidemic, and when factions develop among his followers, heroically hurls himself between their armed forces, eloquently reminding them that the plague is their common enemy and that each human life is sacred. Like “an angel of peace” (p. 277), he reunites and governs his countrymen.
Even as Mary Shelley lovingly portrays Adrian as a paragon of benevolence, idealism, courage, and self-sacrifice, her underlying resentment toward her husband cracks this perfect facade. Adrian never marries, never accepts responsibility for a family: “the sensitive and excellent Adrian, loving all, and beloved by all, yet seemed destined not to find the half of himself, which was to complete his happiness” (p. 65). Thus Mary Shelley alludes to the narcissistic egoism of her husband, his insatiable demand for that perfect soul mate who could only be his own self.
Moreover, Adrian is incapable of working pragmatically to achieve his political ideals. Only after the plague has brutally eliminated all distinctions of wealth and class can he assume leadership over a leveled, egalitarian society. As Hugh Luke has observed, he is subtly associated with Merrival, the old astronomer who is “too long sighted in his view of humanity to heed the casualties of the day” (p. 209) and who remains oblivious to the sufferings of his wife and children until poverty, hunger, and the plague have killed them all.
This oblique criticism of Percy Shelley’s insensitivity to the needs of his wife and children is also expressed in the final fate of Adrian. After war, disease, and the plague have destroyed all but three of the human race, Adrian urges the reluctant Verney to accede to his niece Clara’s request that the three of them sail to Greece to visit the tomb of her parents. Verney warns against the dangers of a storm at sea, but Adrian insists that they can easily make the journey. In the ensuing tempest, Adrian and Clara are both drowned, leaving only Verney alive on earth. Here Mary Shelley vividly focuses her persistent anger at her husband’s irresponsibility concerning his family’s welfare. Despite her overt celebration of her husband’s genius and “angelic” character, Mary Shelley had not forgiven him for contributing to Clara Everina Shelley’s death, or to his own.
This critique of male egoism also informs Shelley’s characterization of Lord Raymond, in which she comes to terms with her fascination with Lord Byron. After the death of Percy Shelley, Mary had expected Byron to become her protector and eagerly welcomed his offers of help. But Byron disappointed her. Caught up in his plans to fight for Greek independence, Byron could not long be bothered with the distraught widow and abruptly withdrew his financial and emotional support. Nonetheless, Mary Shelley’s emotions toward Byron remained charged. When she learned of his death at Missolonghi, she cried out to her journal (15 May 1824):
Byron has become one of the people of the grave—… Can I forget his attentions & consolations to me during my deepest misery?—Never.
Beauty sat on his countenance and power beamed from his eye—his faults being for the most part weaknesses induced one readily to pardon them. Albe [the Shelley circle’s pun on L. B.]—the dear capricious fascinating Albe has left this desart [sic] world.
(Journals, vol. 2, p. 478)
Lord Raymond is presented as the antithesis of Adrian: a proud man of personal ambition, practical Page 366 | Top of Articleworldly knowledge, and intense sexual passions. After fighting heroically in the Greek wars of independence and successfully scheming to restore the British monarchy, Raymond throws over his worldly ambitions to marry the woman he loves, the impoverished Perdita Verney. Mary Shelley, who has given many of her own personality traits to Perdita, reveals through this character her own half-conscious fantasies: that Byron would give up his mistress Teresa Guiccioli and his dreams of military glory in order to marry her. Nevertheless, Raymond cannot long be content with a retired life of intellectually stimulating companionship and the domestic affections; drawn back into politics as Lord Protector (with Perdita as a successful hostess at his side), for three years he rules wisely and well.
But when Raymond falls half in love with the impoverished Evadne, he cannot acknowledge his feelings to his wife. Their perfect communion is destroyed, the foundation of their marriage wrecked. Still in love with Perdita but too proud to apologize, Raymond turns to dreams of military glory instead, heroically conquering Constantinople, only to die in a fatal explosion when he courageously enters its streets silenced by plague. In her portrait of Raymond, Mary Shelley reiterated the judgment of masculine political ambition she had earlier attributed to her protagonist, Castruccio, in her novel Valperga (1823): military and civic glory is too often won at the expense of family relationships and the suffering of the innocent. At the same time she exorcised her fascination with Byron: his pride and lack of control over his personal passions tainted even his most noble achievements.
The failures of both Adrian and Raymond to protect either their own or their children’s lives again expresses Mary Shelley’s political criticism of her contemporary society’s division of labor on the basis of sex. Mary Shelley again suggests that the domination of such masculine values as ambition, competition, and heroism in the public realm can extinguish human life in both the public and the private sphere and even extinguish the human race itself. Implicit is the political argument that she had made earlier in Frankenstein: only if men as well as women define their primary personal and political responsibility as the nurturance and preservation of all human life, even abnormal monsters, will humanity survive.
In The Last Man, Mary Shelley further explores the specific consequences for women of the gender ideology of her day. The female characters in The Last Man register her perception that the social roles assigned by her culture to women both cripple and destroy them. Perdita and Idris, both in part self-portraits of Mary Shelley, confine their lives to the domestic sphere; they thereby reveal the results of a society that defines women primarily as members of family units, as daughters, wives, or mothers.
Perdita, whose name is drawn from the outcast and “orphaned” child of Shakespeare’s Winter’s Tale, can conceive of herself only as a part of her husband’s self: “Her whole existence was one sacrifice to him” (p. 84). When she discovers Raymond’s secret visits to Evadne, she knows that they are no longer one. Mary Shelley explicitly denies her husband’s self-serving declaration in “Epipsychidion” that “True Love in this differs from gold and clay / That to divide is not to take away” (pp. 160-161). As Perdita insists, the unique love between a devoted husband and wife cannot be shared without destroying the very intimacy and trust on which it is grounded.
Perdita cannot tolerate the sham of living a lost love and leaves Raymond, but her unwavering passion for him forces her back to his side, first to nurse him when he is wounded and then to die and be buried in his tomb in Greece. Perdita’s suicide by drowning imaginatively realizes Mary Shelley’s own guilt-ridden desire to rejoin her dead husband in a final act of atonement. But it also embodies her recognition that the role of devoted wife within the bourgeois family is inherently suicidal: the wife submerges her identity into that of her husband, sacrificing herself for his welfare.
Idris, Mary Shelley’s second self-portrait in this novel, is portrayed almost exclusively as a mother. She is so idealized in her highborn beauty, sensitivity, and loyalty as to be almost an abstraction of female perfection. Idris becomes a rounded character only in her relationships with her children. Here she embodies the overriding maternal anxiety experienced by the very young Mary Shelley, who had been pregnant five times. As the plague advances, Idris is slowly destroyed by this maternal anxiety: “she compared this gnawing of sleepless expectation of evil, to the vulture that fed on the heart of Prometheus” (p. 219). Shelley identifies the modern Prometheus, not with the scientist/creator Victor Frankenstein, but with the biological creator, the mother. By implying that Page 367 | Top of ArticleIdris’ maternal suffering is as intense and unending as that of Prometheus, Shelley underlines the heroic but self-destructive dimensions of motherhood. Because Idris identifies so closely with her children, she has no life of her own—her sons’ deaths annihilate her as well.
In The Last Man, women can find fulfillment neither within the family nor outside it. In contrast to Perdita and Idris, who define themselves entirely as wives and mothers, the Countess of Windsor has strong political ambitions—she wishes to restore the monarchy and to rule over England. But she is defeated by her gender. The English would never accept her, a foreign woman, as monarch. Hence she must channel her ambitions through her son or her daughter’s husband. Blocked by her husband’s decision to abdicate, her son’s republicanism, her daughter’s rejection of Raymond, and Raymond’s own desire for Perdita, she can never achieve her desires. After Idris’ death, she acknowledges that her political ambition has been both futile and counterproductive and has cut her off from the love and nurturance of her children. While Mary Shelley makes it clear that the Countess of Windsor would have been a tyrannical ruler, she also emphasizes that a woman cannot even gain access to the corridors of political power: the countess is notably absent from the parliamentary debates concerning the protectorship.
Mary Shelley thus suggests that in both the future (the novel is set in the years 2073-2100) and the present, a rigid division of sex roles denies women full satisfaction in life. In the public realm, her female characters must depend on and serve men. In the private domestic realm, they again must depend on others, whether their children or their husbands, to gratify their emotional needs. Both in the public and the private spheres depicted in The Last Man, women have only a relational identity, as wife or mother. They are never self-centered or self-sufficient. And while this relational identity contributes positively to the welfare and survival of the family, it is also extremely precarious. It is easily destroyed by infidelity (the betrayal of Raymond) or by the greater power that rules over all human experience, that of chance, accident, and death. Mary Shelley here undermines the very ideology of the egalitarian family that she celebrated in her earlier novels (Frankenstein, Valperga) by acknowledging that it can oppress and even finally destroy the women who practice it.
This pessimistic assessment of the future of the family and domestic affection is summed up in the fate of Clara, a portrait of the ideal daughter that Mary Shelley desired. Sensitive, loving, exuberant, intelligent, devoted to her uncle, a second mother to her younger cousins, Clara suddenly becomes sad and withdrawn at the age of puberty. Clara’s transformation is never explained but we can speculate as to its cause. With her dawning sexuality, Clara may have realized that her future—and the future of the human race—demanded her involvement in a sexual liaison and motherhood. With her choices limited to an incestuous union with her uncle or her cousin, or a legitimate union with Adrian, her inability to contemplate the latter with pleasure is final testimony to Mary Shelley’s ambivalence toward Percy. She cannot imagine a satisfying relationship between Adrian and a woman, not even with her ideal future self. When she insists on visiting her parents’ tomb, Clara shows that she feels more bonded to death than to Adrian. Significantly, our last glimpse of Clara is as a half-drowned virgin clasped to Adrian’s breast (p. 323). But Adrian cannot support her; Lionel last sees Adrian alone, clinging not to Clara but to an oar. Clara’s death is Mary Shelley’s final comment in this novel on the possibility of female fulfillment and even survival in a family unit to which men do not make an equal commitment.
To the ideology of the domestic affections that sustained her earlier fiction, which she so effectively explodes in The Last Man, Mary Shelley offers but one alternative: a stoical solipsism rendered endurable by an optimistic imagination. We must look closely at the way Mary Shelley depicts the creative imagination in this novel, for she gives a far more devastating critique of Romantic poetics than she did in Frankenstein. When he loses his family, Lionel Verney becomes a writer, the narrator of the tale we read.
The last man, Lionel Verney, is also the last woman, Mary Shelley—she so identified herself in her journal on 14 May 1824: “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” (Journals, vol. 2, pp. 476-477). There are numerous parallels between Verney’s situation and Mary Shelley’s. Both were “outcasts” in childhood, both possessed a scholarly temperament, a literary imagination, and a preference for domestic pleasures and affections. Page 368 | Top of ArticleBoth were in love with Adrian/Shelley and credited him with their salvation from intellectual ignorance and emotional misery. Both find themselves at last enduring an almost unimaginable experience of isolation and loneliness. As Mary Shelley recorded in the journal she addressed to her dead husband: “At the age of seven & twenty in the busy metropolis of native England I find myself alone—deserted by the few I knew—disdained—insulted” (3 December 1824; Journals, vol. 2, p. 487). Deprived of human companionship, Lionel Verney and Mary Shelley both turn to creative composition for comfort. Lionel Verney, inspired by the monuments of Rome and a desire to celebrate the “matchless specimens of humanity” that created such grandeur, receives momentary satisfaction from his decision to write an account of the end of mankind.
Significantly, Verney consciously works within a female literary tradition; he invokes both Ann Radcliffe’s The Italian and Madame de Staél’s Corinne as models. In the author’s introduction to The Last Man, we are told that the author functioned merely as the collector and arranger of the fragmentary leaves of a prophecy found in the cave of the Cumaean Sibyl. Mary Shelley thus invokes the ultimate female literary authority, the oracle of the Sibyl, to authenticate her prophetic vision. Of course, the novel also identifies Verney with a male-authored literary tradition that focuses on the isolated hero: Charles Brockden Brown’s egocentric Arthur Mervyn, Shakespeare’s dying Macbeth, Defoe’s stranded Robinson Crusoe, Coleridge’s guilt-ridden and blasted Ancient Mariner. In contrast to these prototypes, Lionel Verney cannot even hope for human communication; he can dedicate his tale only to “the illustrious dead.”
Explicit in Mary Shelley’s account of the last man is the assertion that her tale has no living readership, no audience. Even as she constructs a female literary tradition, from the Sibyl through her own editorship, she terminates that tradition. Shelley’s novel posits the end of writing. It is a manuscript left on the tombs of Rome for no one to read by a writer who has abandoned authorship in order to voyage aimlessly, an ancient mariner encountering no wedding guest but only life-in-death. Shelley thus implies that the female writer—like Lionel Verney—will not be read, her voice will not be heard, her discourse will be silenced forever.
Shelley further suggests that the products of the creative imagination so glorified by the male Romantic poets may be worthless. At best their consolation is temporary, if delusive, as Verney finds when he enters Constantinople, seeking the deceased Raymond: “For a moment I could yield to the creative power of the imagination, and for a moment was soothed by the sublime fictions it presented to me. The beatings of my human heart drew me back to blank reality” (p. 145).
Insubstantial dreams, such fictions become “tales of sound and fury, signifying nothing” when they can reach no living ear or mind. Here Shelley’s philosophical skepticism becomes visible. She first posits the idealist epistemology endorsed by Berkeley, Kant, and Percy Shelley. If to be is to be perceived, if the human mind can never know the thing itself but only its own linguistic constructions of it, then reality exists only in the collective minds of all perceivers. As Percy Shelley had put it in “Mont Blanc,” “The everlasting universe of things / Flows though the mind.” Unlike Bishop Berkeley, Kant, or her husband, Mary Shelley posits no overarching mind of God, no transcendental subject, no eternal power, to guarantee the truth or endurance of mental things. Once all human perceivers are dead, history ends. The death of the last man is the death of consciousness. It is moreover the death of the universe, since the Cumaean Sibyl prophesies a point in the future, “2100 Last Year of the World,” when time and space—as experienced duration and extension—terminate. Since reality is a set of language systems, the death of Lionel Verney is the death of narration, the final period.
Underlining her critique of Romantic idealism, Mary Shelley sets the final scene of the plague’s devastation on the very banks of the Arve River in the valley of Chamonix where Percy Shelley wrote “Mont Blanc” and raised the epistemological question of whether the universe could have an existence not constituted by human thought:
And what were thou, and earth, and stars, and sea,
If to the human mind’s imaginings
Silence and solitude were vacancy?
(“Mont Blanc,” II.142-145)
When Adrian and his few remaining followers cross into Switzerland, they are confronted with one of nature’s most sublime Alpine landscapes. Overcome by the sheer grandeur of nature’s Page 369 | Top of Articlebeauty, many in the group are moved to tears and one cries out, “God reveals his heaven to us; we may die blessed” (p. 305). But Mary Shelley’s allusions here to both Christian heavens and pagan naiads serve paradoxically to highlight the fact that no deity presides over this plague, only an indifferent nature. Human efforts to fit their experiences into a preexisting providential design or ontological moral absolutes are here rendered nugatory.
Mary Shelley’s conception of the last man thus stands in deliberate contrast to her contemporaries’ treatments of the same theme, all of which used the trope of the end of civilization to point to either an ethical or religious moral. Byron’s “Darkness” (1816; itself derived from Alexander Pope’s vision of chaotic night in “The Dunciad,” 1728) and Thomas Hood’s “The Last Man” (1826) had satirized mankind’s greed, aggression, and cowardice as forceful enough to compel even the last two men on earth to turn against each other. In a more optimistic vein, the paintings of The Deluge and The Last Man by John Martin and Philippe de Loutherbourg, Cousin de Grainville’s novel The Last Man; or, Omegarious and Syderia, a Romance in Futurity (1806), and Thomas Campbell’s poem “The Last Man” (first published in 1823 and probably the immediate inspiration for Mary Shelley’s 14 May 1824, journal entry and title) all invoke a Judeo-Christian framework and the possibility of a finer life elsewhere, either on earth or in heaven. Mary Shelley explicitly denies such theological or millennial interpretations of her plague. In her novel, the illiterate man who insists that the plague is God’s punishment for human sin and that he and his followers constitute an “Elect” that will be saved is explicitly condemned as an “Imposter” who is finally driven to suicide and whose deceived followers perish along with everyone else.
Moreover, Shelley’s intentions go far beyond satire. Implicit in Frankenstein is a belief in the primacy of the domestic affections and in the restorative power of a maternal, “beautiful” nature. But in The Last Man, all pastoral idylls—whether set among the woods of Windsor or on the shores of Lake Como—are abruptly shattered by the advent of the plague. Even though nature continues to provide scenes of sublime grandeur and beautiful delight that give pleasure to the human senses, it remains indifferent to the preservation of human life.
Therefore all human values must be engendered out of the human imagination. But such values, including the value of the domestic affections that Lionel Verney celebrates throughout The Last Man, finally depend entirely on individual commitment. And since individuals are mutable, often unable to control their passions (as in the case of Lord Raymond) and always unable to control their final destiny, such values are necessarily temporal and mutable. As Verney says at the very beginning of his tale, “My fortunes have been … an exemplification of the power that mutability may possess over the varied tenor of man’s life” (p. 5). Mary Shelley’s novel recognizes only one controlling power, death.
Moreover, when Mary Shelley defines nature (the plague) as the final arbiter of human destiny in The Last Man, she undercuts another fundamental Romantic assumption that she had endorsed in Frankenstein: the belief that nature can be the source of moral authority, a belief asserted by Wordsworth in The Prelude (1805, 1850). Mary Shelley explicitly denies Wordsworth’s assertion by portraying her “child of nature,” her orphaned narrator Lionel Verney, as an aggressive, embittered outcast, much like the rejected Creature in Frankenstein. Deliberately alluding to Wordsworth’s celebrations of the life of the shepherd, Shelley portrays her Cumberland sheep boy as a savage whose only law “was that of the strongest” and whose only concept of virtue “was never to submit” (pp. 8-9). Verney eagerly abandons his lonely shepherd life to participate in the social pleasures offered by Adrian—friendship, learning, gamesmanship, military struggle, and politics. But all such social interactions terminate in the destructions of the plague. Verney ends in the solitude in which he began, but he bears it less well, since he has learned to appreciate the value of those social relationships that he can never know again.
Mary Shelley also undercuts the Romantic concept of nature as a source of cultural meaning. The nature imaged in The Last Man is closer to Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s trope of “Nature, red in tooth and claw” in In Memoriam (1850) than to Mary Shelley’s earlier image in Frankenstein of nature as a sacred female life force that man penetrates and violates at his peril. Here female nature is indifferent to mankind; her agent, the female plague, now “Queen of the World” (p. 252), is a juggernaut: “she proceeds crushing out the being of all who strew Page 370 | Top of Articlethe high road of life” (p. 289). In a passage that explicitly refutes Percy Shelley’s invocation of nature (in the shape of the west wind) as both destroyer and preserver in his “Ode to the West Wind” (1820), Lionel Verney addresses the omnipotent power of nature: “when any whole nation becomes the victim of the destructive powers of exterior agents, then indeed man shrinks into insignificance, he feels his tenure of life insecure, his inheritance on earth cut off” (pp. 166-167). In this central passage, Mary Shelley undercuts the Romantic assumption that language constructs and communicates meaning. If the human race can be eliminated, as it is in The Last Man, then the very concept of meaning is, finally, meaningless. Where human discourse cannot occur, linguistically constituted meaning cannot exist and human consciousness is annihilated. This is Mary Shelley’s sweeping critique of the masculine Romantic poetic ideology promoted by Percy Shelley, Blake, Coleridge, and Wordsworth: the constructions of the imagination cannot transcend the human mind, which is inherently finite, mutable, and mortal.
From this position of radical skepticism, The Last Man generates a powerful political criticism. The first half of the novel pits Mary Shelley’s earlier belief in the domestic affections as the model of good government and the source of human fulfillment against the forces that destroy it: the forces of male egotism, female masochism, and plague-induced death. In undermining the family as the preserver of cultural value and social stability, Shelley does more than undercut her own beliefs. She also reveals the failure of all the dominant political ideologies of her day—both radical (republican and democratic) and conservative (monarchical and theocratic). Ultimately, she denies the authority of all ideologies and systems of belief.
Both her father, the radical philosopher William Godwin, and his disciple Percy Shelley believed that mankind might be perfected through the improvement of reason and love under a democratic government or benevolent anarchy. This belief is tested by Mary Shelley in The Last Man through the actions of both Ryland, leader of the people’s party, and Adrian, the ardent espouser of republican principles. Ryland, whose appearance and character are based on the radical British journalist and politician William Cobbett, eloquently defends the rights of the common man against Lord Raymond’s attempts to restore the monarchy. But equal freedoms mean equal responsibilities, sacrifices, and limitations. In the period of economic expansion celebrated by Ryland, an egalitarian society can provide adequately for all its members. But in a time of scarcity, of restricted resources, all its members must be equally deprived. Mary Shelley subtly unmasks the inability of Ryland’s democratic ideology to confront the necessity of distributing the burden of disaster equally. When the limited resource is life itself, freedom from plague, who is to be saved? Initially the wealthier members of English society willingly share their lands and goods with the refugees fleeing from the plague in Europe, even taking up the hoe and plow to till their own fields (p. 172). The plague thus brings about the social leveling advocated by democratic theory, but it also demands that all must die equally. When confronted with the brute reality that, in a classless society, all must suffer as well as benefit equally, Ryland abdicates the Lord Protectorship and barricades himself within his own estate in a futile attempt to save his own life. Ryland’s frantic abdication of political responsibility expresses Mary Shelley’s skeptical view of the excessive optimism inherent in a democratic ideology: a socialist government succeeds only if there is enough for every individual. In a scarcity economy, she implies, the equal distribution of resources may not be the best way to protect and preserve the human race.
Inherent in Godwin’s and Percy Shelley’s political ideology were more extreme Utopian concepts that Mary Shelley’s novel specifically challenges. Adrian repeats the visionary ideas that Godwin had propounded in his Enquiry Concerning Political Justice (1793) and that Percy Shelley had endorsed in his epic verse-drama Prometheus Unbound (1820): the conviction that the improved powers of the rational mind could conquer disease and even death. As Godwin argued, “we are sick and we die … because we consent to suffer these accidents.” When the rational mind has achieved its full powers, Godwin claimed, “there will be no disease, no anguish, no melancholy and no resentment.” At that point, he speculated, man “will perhaps be immortal” (II: 869, 872, 871).
Adrian endorses these Utopian beliefs when he cries out to Verney: “the will of man is omnipotent, blunting the arrows of death, soothing the bed of disease, and wiping away the tears of agony” (pp. 53-54). But Mary Shelley shows that the powers of the human mind are feeble in comparison to those of all-controlling nature. In this Page 371 | Top of Articlenovel, no one can determine the cause, the mode of transmission, or the cure of the fatal plague that sweeps across the earth.
Mary Shelley similarly undercuts the conservative political ideology most powerfully articulated during her lifetime by Edmund Burke. Initially, she invokes Burke’s arguments for a constitutional monarchy and a traditional class system with approval, assigning them both to the successful politician Lord Raymond (p. 43) and to her narrator Lionel Verney (p. 165). Gazing on the playing fields of Eton, the source of “the future governors of England” (p. 165), Verney explicitly endorses Burke’s view in Reflections on the Revolution in France that the human race is an organism in “a condition of unchangeable constancy” and “moves on through the varied tenors of perpetual decay, fall, renovation, and progression” (pp. 107-108). Mary Shelley clearly has more sympathy for Burke’s vision of an organic society developing naturally toward an ever-higher form of being, guided by enlightened and benevolent rulers who institute gradual reforms in pragmatically effective ways, than she has for the impractical utopianism of Godwin and Percy Shelley.
Nonetheless, she recognizes that Burke’s conservative ideology also rests on a heuristic fiction, a trope: the image of the body politic as a natural organism. If society is an organism, then it is subject to disease. Burke had defined this disease as the “plague” of revolution currently festering in France, a plague which “the precautions of the most severe quarantine ought to be established against” lest it infect that “course of succession [which] is the healthy habit of the British constitution” (Burke, pp. 107-108). In The Last Man, Mary Shelley takes Burke’s metaphor literally. Even the healthy British constitution cannot long resist the ravages of a deadly plague that can be neither confined nor cured. The body politic, like all living organisms, can die as well as grow.
By taking Burke’s figure of the plague and the body politic literally, Mary Shelley implies that human consciousness functions within a linguistic universe in which the figural and the literal are but differing signs or linguistic markers. Since in Shelley’s radically skeptical view, there is no ontological distinction between the literal and the figurative, between the thing and the word, conscious experience can occur only within the prison house of language. Therefore the destruction of language—or of all speakers of language and recorded texts—is the destruction of human life. In place of the metaphor put forth by both Godwin and Burke, of history as progress toward perfection, Mary Shelley offers the alternative metaphor of human history as a motion that can suddenly stop. By the end of her novel, only one human being remains alive on earth. She thus introduces a powerful image that has increasingly dominated our cultural consciousness: the image of history as a narrative that reaches an abrupt and final conclusion, whether by biological epidemic, chemical warfare, invasion from outer space, or nuclear holocaust. Since this metaphor denies any ultimate significance to all human events, Shelley’s novel is on the deepest level an-tipolitical and anti-ideological. Echoing the radical skepticism of David Hume, she suggests that all conceptions of human history, all ideologies, are grounded on metaphors or tropes that have no referent or authority outside of language.
The Last Man thus foreshadowed twentieth-century existentialism and nihilism. It anticipates the assertion in Albert Camus’s The Plague (1947) that all meaning resides, not in an indifferent universe, but in human relationships that are inherently temporal and doomed to end. But The Last Man went further than Camus in extending this claim to language itself: it is the first literary text to base itself on the philosophical concept we now call deconstruction. It is the first text to demonstrate that all cultural ideologies and human interactions rest on nonreferential signs, signs written as literal but nonetheless inherently figural, signs no more stable or enduring than the mortal mind.
IN the novels she wrote to support herself and her son— Perkin Warbeck (1830), Lodore (1835), and Falkner (1837)—Mary Shelley continued to explore the themes that had long obsessed her: the relation of the individual to history and the relationship of daughters to fathers. She details the ways in which daughters fail to escape their dependence on their fathers, marrying father figures and submitting to the demands of powerful men. Again and again, she uncovers the hierarchy implicit in the bourgeois family even as she idealizes the family as the only location in which a woman could find the love and companionship she craved.
Mary Shelley believed the egalitarian family to be the only social context in which both men and women could achieve emotional satisfaction, through powerful husband-wife and parent-child bonding. Such a loving family embodies an ethic of disinterested care that is in her view the necessary foundation of a healthy body politic. It is critical to recognize that, most explicitly in Frankenstein and Lodore, Shelley insisted that the role of the mother must also be filled by men if the family is to survive. Nevertheless, even as her novels celebrate the egalitarian bourgeois family and an ethic of care, they reveal the limits of her ideology. They consistently show that a woman who defines herself totally in terms of her family relationships is unhappy: either she is cruelly abandoned, or lacks any sense of autonomy or self-esteem, or loses those she loves to disease and death. Even as she overtly celebrates the egalitarian bourgeois family, Mary Shelley acknowledges that it has never existed. There are no detailed examinations of such a family in her novels.
Her lifelong search for a fulfilling family life was never successful. Her surviving son was devoted to her, but she found him dull. In 1848 she found him a satisfactory wife, Jane St. John, a young widow. She moved with them into Field Place, the Shelley estate in Bournemouth, Sussex, in 1849, ensured that a shrine to Percy Shelley would always be kept there, and soon after died of nervous attacks that had produced a partial paralysis, on 1 February 1851.
I. BIBLIOGRAPHY. “Current Bibliography,” Keats-Shelley Journal (1952-present), an exceptionally complete annual and indexed bibliography to all publications on the Shelley circle; W. H. Lyles, Mary Shelley: An Annotated Bibliography (New York, 1975).
II. SEPARATE WORKS. History of a Six Weeks’ Tour Through a Part of France, Switzerland, Germany, and Holland: With Letters Descriptive of a Sail Round the Lake of Geneva, and of the Glaciers of Chamouni (London, 1817), travel writing; Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus (London, 1818; rev. ed. 1831), novel; Mathilda (1819), repr. ed. by Elizabeth Nitchie (Chapel Hill, N.C., 1959), novella; Valperga; or, The Life and Adventures of Castruccio, Prince of Lucca (London, 1823), historical novel; The Last Man (1826), repr. ed. by Hugh J. Luke, Jr. (Lincoln, Nebr., 1965, repr. 1993), novel; The Fortunes of Perkin Warbeck (London, 1830), historical novel; Lodore (London, 1835), novel; Falkner, 3 vols. (London, 1837); Lives of the Most Eminent Literary and Scientific Men of France, for Lardner’s Cabinet Cyclopedia, ed. by Rev. Dionysius Lardner (London, 1838-1839), encyclopedia entries; notes to The Poetical Works of Percy Bysshe Shelley (London, 1839), repr. in The Complete Poetical Works of Percy Bysshe Shelley, ed. by Thomas Hutchinson (London, 1905, 1960), biography; Rambles in Germany and Italy in 1840, 1841, and 1843 (London, 1844), travel writing; The Choice: A Poem on Shelley’s Death, ed. by H. Buxton Forman (London, 1876); Proserpine and Midas: Two Unpublished Mythological Dramas by Mary Shelley, ed. by Andre Koszul (London, 1922); Mary Shelley, Collected Tales and Stories, ed. by Charles E. Robinson (Baltimore and London, 1976).
III. LETTERS AND JOURNALS. Betty T. Bennett, ed., The Letters of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, 3 vols. (Baltimore, 1980, 1983, 1988); Paula R. Feldman and Diana Scott-Kilvert, eds., The Journals of Mary Shelley, 1814-1844, 2 vols. (Oxford, Eng., 1987).
IV. BIOGRAPHICAL STUDIES. Elizabeth Nitchie, Mary Shelley: Author of Frankenstein (New Brunswick, N.J., 1953); Emily W. Sunstein, Mary Shelley: Romance and Reality (Boston, 1989).
V. CRITICAL STUDIES. General: Jean de Palacio, Mary Shelley dans son oeuvre (Paris, 1969), phenomenological approach to Shelley’s work; Mary Poovey, The Proper Lady and the Woman Writer: Ideology as Style in the Worfcs of Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary Shelley, and Jane Austen (Chicago and London, 1984), thoughtful and perceptive analysis of Shelley’s thought and style; Anne K. Mellor, Mary Shelley: Her Life, Her Fiction, Her Monsters (New York and London, 1988), feminist approach to life and works; Meena Alexander, Mary Shelley (New York, 1993), intelligent, brief overview; Audrey Fisch, Anne Mellor, and Esther Schor, The Other Mary Shelley: Beyond Frankenstein (New York, 1993), important collection of essays on Shelley’s less familiar works.
On Frankenstein: Robert Kiely, The Romantic Novel in England (Cambridge, Mass., 1972), on Frankenstein as a tragic hero; Ellen Moers, Literary Women (Garden City, N.J., 1976), brilliant discussion of birth myth in Frankenstein; Marc A. Rubenstein, “”My Accursed Origin’: The Search for the Mother in Frankenstein,” in Studies in Romanticism 15 (1976), the best of the psychoanalytic readings of the novel; Martin Tropp, Mary Shelley’s Monster (Boston, 1976), useful collection of historical documents; Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, The Madwoman in the Attic (New Haven, Conn., 1979), excellent feminist discussion; David Ketterer, Frankenstein’s Creation: The Book, the Monster, and the Human Reality (Victoria, B.C., 1979), on Frankenstein as a tragic hero; George Levine and U. C. Knoepflmacher, eds., The Endurance of Frankenstein (Berkeley, Calif., and London, 1979), extremely influential collection of essays; Jerrold E. Hogle, Page 373 | Top of Article“Otherness in Frankenstein: The Confinement/Autonomy of Fabrication/’ in Structuralist Review 2 (1980), interesting deconstructionist analysis; Barbara Johnson, “My Monster/Myself,” in Diacritics 12 (1982), seminal feminist analysis; Franco Moretti, Signs Taken for Wonders: Essays in the Sociology of Literary Forms (London, 1983), interesting Marxist analysis; Paul A. Cantor, Creature and Creator: Myth-making and English Romanticism (New York, 1984), excellent analysis of Rousseau’s influence; William Veeder, Mary Shelley and Frankenstein: The Fate of Androgyny (Chicago, 1986), Freudian and Lacanian approach; Chris Baldick, In Frankenstein’s Shadow: Myth, Monstrosity, and Nineteenth-Century Writing (Oxford, 1987), fine study of the text and its impact on later works.
On The Last Man: A. J. Sambrook, “A Romantic Theme: The Last Man,” in Forum for Modern Language Studies 2 (1966), useful treatment of other texts; Lee Sterrenburg, ”The Last Man: Anatomy of Failed Revolutions,” in Nineteenth-Century Fiction 33 (1978), superb analysis of politics in the novel; Morton D. Paley, “Mary Shelley’s The Last Man: Apocalypse Without Millennium,” in Keats-Shelley Review 4 (1989), excellent discussion of Romantic millenarian thought; Jane Aaron, “The Return of the Repressed: Reading Mary Shelley’s The Last Man,” in Susan Sellers, ed., Feminist Criticism: Theory and Practice (New York and London, 1991), on the role of nature; Anne Mellor, introduction to The Last Man (Lincoln, Nebr., 1993), overview of the novel.