by Mary Shelley
Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley was the daughter of two of England’s most nonconformist thinkers, William Godwin, the radical philosopher, and Mary Wollstonecraft, the author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (also covered in Literature and Its Times). At age seventeen, Mary fell in love with renowned English poet Percy Bysshe Shelley and fled with him to Europe. Under the influence of her husband and Lord Byron, Mary’s literary talents began to flourish. After Byron issued a challenge for each of the three writers to create a ghost story, Mary began her most famous novel, Frankenstein. It is a product of the Romantic era and deals with several of the Romantic movement’s most crucial ideas, including isolation, alienation, and the destruction that can result from man’s selfish desires.
Events in History at the Time the Novel Takes Place
The Industrial Revolution in England
In the mid-1700s, Great Britain experienced a surge in population that helped initiate the Industrial Revolution. The population of England in 1700 was 6 million; by 1800 it had climbed to more than 9 million people. Advances in agriculture—which played the most significant role in the increase in population—provided a greater supply of food and better overall health for the nation’s inhabitants.
Population also soared because of developments in medicine and hygiene. Beginning in 1760, inoculations for smallpox became available; the number of deaths from the terrible disease greatly decreased as a result. Another sickness that had decimated the population for centuries was typhus. Originating among rats, the disease was transmitted by fleas and lice, which thrived in the warm woolen clothing of preindustrial times. The rise of the cotton industry provided inexpensive clothing and bedding that could be washed and boiled, a process that killed the typhus louse.
Several of her factors—such as growth in real incomes, a subsequent increase in demand for goods, and technological advances—also stimulated the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. This, in turn, played a significant role in the development of the Romantic movement, of which Mary Shelley and her circle were a part. The Romantics, who focused on the individual, the emotional, and the imaginative in life, considered many of the effects of industrialism as a threat to their system of beliefs. Members of the Romantic movement generally viewed many aspects Page 116 | Top of Articleof the fast-developing industrial society with alarm. They harshly criticized less desirable social developments such as the exploitation of labor, which was commonplace in the new industries in England.
The emerging textile factories, iron mills, and coal mines exacted a heavy toll on their workers. In some cities, almost 20 percent of the labor force was made up of children nine years old or younger. Furthermore, the demands for a stable labor force created a system of bonding that forced workers to remain with a company for a set period of time; in some cases cotton mills forced workers to sign five-year bonds. To the Romantics, who believed in individual liberty for the human spirit, this exploitation of the labor force was intolerable. Even the smoking chimneys of industrial plants stood in opposition to Romantic ideals. The Romantics valued natural beauty, an appreciation that is present throughout Frankenstein in Shelley’s scenes amid the mountains and lakes of Switzerland and on the frozen seas of Siberia.
Science and technology in the Romantic period
The late 1700s were rife with new scientific theories and technological advances. Less than one hundred patents were issued in 1750, but by 1780 the number had jumped to more than four hundred. One of the greatest inventions of this period was the steam engine. There was also a growth in scientific discoveries during this period. One scientist who embodied both the technological and scientific advancements of the time was Erasmus Darwin. Considered the finest doctor of his time in England, Darwin produced numerous inventions, including a speaking machine and a horizontal windmill. His major scientific achievements included his recognition and description of biological evolution, his analysis of plant nutrition and photosynthesis, and his explanation of cloud formation processes.
Not limited to scientific subjects, Darwin was also influential in literary circles. He became immediately famous for a poem entitled “The Botanic Garden.” Darwin’s writings had a profound effect on the Romantics, influencing Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s famous poems “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” and “Kubla Khan.” Mary Shelley’s husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley, was one of Darwin’s keenest disciples, and he took from the scientist his ideas of infusing science into nature poetry. He also admired Darwin for his radical political beliefs and skepticism about religion. Percy Shelley’s admiration for Darwin has led many scholars to credit him as an influence on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. The specific idea for the story arose from a discussion between Byron and Shelley about Darwin’s notions on the generation of life. This connection is confirmed by the first sentence of Mary Shelley’s introduction to Frankenstein, “The event on which this fiction is founded has been supposed, by Dr. Darwin and some of the physiological writers of Germany, as not of impossible occurrence” (Shelley, p. xiii).
Echoes of the French Revolution in Frankenstein
The French Revolution of 1789 greatly influenced the early Romantic writers. Mary Shelley’s mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, was a fervent supporter of the Revolution even after its excesses of murder and oppression began to disenchant many of its first backers. Wollstonecraft died eleven days after giving birth to Mary, but the Revolution continued to exert a strong influence on writers into her daughter’s adult years. It instilled in young Romantic poets such as Lord Byron and Percy Shelley the idea that they lived in an age of new beginnings, and that everything was possible if inherited customs and procedures were discarded.
Since Shelley’s mother, whom she had never known but strongly idealized, and her intimate companions were so strongly influenced by the French Revolution, it seems probable that Mary Shelley incorporated aspects and thoughts on the Revolution into her first novel. The most evident parallel between the French Revolution and the novel appears in the guise of the monster itself. The monster is an incredible, unprecedented achievement; but because it is not given careful attention and direction by its creator, Doctor Frankenstein, it becomes a monstrous murderer who torments the doctor.
This idea ties in smoothly with the prevalent thinking of English radicals during the period. Most of these revolutionary thinkers, Lord Byron and Percy Shelley among them, believed that the French Revolution offered great hope but felt that the excessive and bloody reprisals it inspired were major faults. For this reason, the conception of the French Revolution as a “monster” became a common idea at the time. Another aspect of Frankenstein that links the novel with the revolution is one of its crucial settings. Ingolstadt, Germany, the city in which Victor Frankenstein is educated, was also the birthplace of the Illuminati, a secret society that introduced revolutionary ideas believed by many to have helped foment the revolution in France.
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The Novel in Focus
The novel begins aboard the ship of Captain Robert Walton. Walton is searching the Arctic seas for the North Pole and for a passage to the Pacific Ocean. He discovers Dr. Victor Frankenstein, a Swiss gentleman, floating on a piece of ice amid the frigid waters. Frankenstein tells Walton his story.
Frankenstein had spent his childhood in Geneva. Interested in the sciences, he travels to Ingolstadt in Germany to pursue a university education. Through his study of the natural sciences, Frankenstein becomes interested in the mysteries of life. He spends several years in study and ultimately discovers how to create a living creature. After months of exhausting labor, the experiment succeeds and the monstrous creature made from a collection of corpses comes to life. Frankenstein shrieks in horror at his creation, which prompts the monster to flee. At this point, Henry Clerval, Frankenstein’s childhood friend, arrives in Ingolstadt to pursue his own studies. Frankenstein receives a letter from his father with the news that his young brother, William, has been murdered. Frankenstein rushes home to Geneva and finds that Justine, a servant and friend of his family, has been apprehended as the boy’s murderer. From the details of the murder, Frankenstein realizes that his monster is responsible for the crime. The doctor watches helplessly as Justine is condemned and executed for a murder she did not commit. Disconsolate, Frankenstein wanders in the nearby mountains and is confronted by the creature.
The creature explains to Frankenstein that he has tried to live among men but that his good intentions were rewarded with hatred and abuse. Due to these experiences, he has vowed to wreak vengeance on his creator and the human species. The monster tells Frankenstein that he will cease his crime spree if Frankenstein will create a mate for him. Frankenstein finally agrees and plans a trip to England with Henry Clerval to begin the project. Before they leave, Frankenstein becomes engaged to his cousin and childhood companion, Elizabeth. He promises to return in a year.
In England, Frankenstein constructs a female counterpart for the creature. He reconsiders, though, realizing that he has been wrong in attempting to control life and death, and destroys the figure before giving it life. The monster, who has followed Frankenstein to England, witnesses the destruction and threatens to visit Frankenstein on his wedding night. The next day Clerval’s body is found strangled, and Frankenstein is accused of the crime. He is eventually acquitted.
Frankenstein returns to Switzerland to marry Elizabeth, even though he believes the monster plans to kill him on his wedding night. After the wedding, Frankenstein stays away from Elizabeth in the hope of protecting her, only to belatedly realize that the monster has targeted her as his victim. Frankenstein finds her strangled body and vows revenge on the monster. He pursues the monster across Europe and finally into the frozen wastes, where the explorer Walton finds him. After completing his narration, Frankenstein dies of exhaustion. Shortly afterward, Walton finds the monster standing over the corpse. The creature tells Walton that he has realized his wrongs and that he now intends to destroy himself at the North Pole; after this declaration the creature flees the ship and disappears into the surrounding snow and ice.
Responsibility and blame in Frankenstein
In her novel, Mary Shelley spends a great deal of time tracing the paths of blame and responsibility. According to the beliefs of the story’s characters, one does not need to be directly responsible for an incident to receive the blame for its occurrence. An example of this indirect blame manifests itself in Frankenstein’s fiancée, Elizabeth, shortly after the death of his brother William. William had asked Elizabeth to let him wear a valuable necklace for a while, and this necklace is believed to be the temptation that occasioned his murder. Because Elizabeth allowed him to wear the necklace, she feels entirely responsible for his death, wailing “Oh God! I have murdered my darling child!” (Shelley, Frankenstein, p. 70). Her reaction seems to be excessive. Instead of recognizing her small role in the alleged events that led to the boy’s death or fastening blame on the murderer, Elizabeth views herself as the “murderer.”
This concept of indirect blame also appears throughout the novel in the relationship between Frankenstein and the monster he has created. When Frankenstein visits the falsely accused Justine as she awaits execution, he realizes that she has peacefully resigned herself to her fate because she knows she is innocent. Of himself, Frankenstein says, “But I, the true murderer, felt the never-dying worm alive in my bosom, which allowed of no hope or consolation” (Frankenstein, p. 84). Although Frankenstein had created the monster, he did not commit the crime. Yet he, like Elizabeth, believes himself to be a “murderer” as a result of indirect blame and responsibility.
In its treatment of responsibility and blame, the novel focuses on the feelings of its characters, Page 119 | Top of Articlewhich was a typical concern in Romantic stories. This concern was a reaction, in part, to the preoccupation with reason and intellect that characterized the era before the Romantic movement. The novel builds on the focus of this previous era. Both of the characters who blame themselves, Elizabeth and Frankenstein, use their intellect to deduce that they bear responsibility for a crime. The emphasis, though, is on their emotional reaction, the feeling of guilt that accompanies their deductions.
Mary Shelley wrote the novel Frankenstein by tapping into countless literary, personal, scientific, and psychological sources. A voracious reader, Shelley found many of the central themes for her novel in works such as Goethe’s Sorrows of Werther, which the monster reads in the novel, and Milton’s Paradise Lost. Two literary works written by Mary’s father, William Godwin, also seem probable sources. The first, Caleb Williams, is the story of a man bound to and haunted by another man through his knowledge of a secret crime. The second, St. Leon, is the story of a restless seeker of knowledge who receives the secrets of immortality, wealth, and knowledge from a mysterious stranger. This gift becomes a curse that dooms him to perpetual solitude and wandering. Both of these novels have obvious connections to Shelley’s Frankenstein.
Percy Shelley and Lord Byron also served as inspirations for the novel. Without Byron’s story-writing challenge and information gleaned from the discussions of the two men, Mary Shelley might never have created her most famous novel. Many of its characters are believed to have their origins in Percy Shelley’s descriptions of actual people, and Frankenstein’s professors are allegedly based on Percy Shelley’s professors at Eton College. Henry Clerval is believed to be modeled after Percy’s good friend Thomas Jefferson Hogg, with some hints of Byron also synthesized into the character.
Some scholars suggest that a psychological source for the monster can be found in Mary’s own loneliness and in the bitterness she felt toward William Godwin, who had created her and then denied her love when she was unable to take the place of his prestigious lost love, her mother. Scholars have also speculated that Mary’s stepsister, Jane Clairmont, may have been the model for the monster. “Claire” followed Mary and Percy Shelley to mainland Europe and constantly lived with them. Like the monster, she was present on the Shelleys’ wedding night. Finally, the scientific discoveries of the period probably had an impact on the novel, as seen in the influence exerted by Erasmus Darwin’s writings. While their connection to the story cannot be verified, it seems likely that such discoveries played some role in the conception of the novel.
Events in History at the Time the Novel Was Written
The Luddite Movement
The industrial growth experienced in England in the early nineteenth century was not without opposition. The Luddite movement came into being between 1811 and 1816, a period of unemployment, low wages, and high prices. The movement began in northern England, sparked by increases in the price of grain and potatoes without an equivalent rise in wages. In March 1811, in Nottinghamshire, the Luddites took action against an underpaying textile manufacturer by smashing weaving frames and other factory machines. Machinery was the object of Luddite violence because it was employed in areas of manufacturing that workmen wanted to ban or because it was owned by employers who did not pay fair wages or provide decent working conditions.
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The machines of the industrial age, while increasing output, drastically reduced the number of workers needed, with some machines reportedly doing the work of twenty men. This lessened the need for workers and gave employers their choice of job-seekers. Operating from this position of strength, employers often paid lower wages and demanded more labor from their employees. The new machines were also frightening for reasons other than their unparalleled production rate; they threatened the way of life of thousands of craftsmen, such as handloom weavers, who were forced to shift from a comparatively independent mode of living into an anonymous position in a crowded factory.
As conditions worsened for these craftsmen and workers, the targets of their frustrations expanded beyond machines. In April 1812, William Horsfall was assassinated by Luddites, allegedly because of the great improvements he made in shearing frames. Peter Marsland, a factory owner who had made improvements on steam-weaving machines, had his life threatened and his factory burned to the ground by Luddites. As time passed, the Luddites increasingly turned to attacks against people in recognition of the impossibility of destroying the large establishments of the industrial movement. As incidents of violence spread and fears of a large-scale uprising grew, the government increasingly used the military against Luddite unrest. The Luddite movement declined after 1813, when seventeen Luddite rioters were convicted and hanged for the murder of William Horsfall, the attack on the Rawfolds woolen mill, and the theft of arms and money for the Luddite cause.
There are some possible connections from the Luddite movement to Mary Shelley and her novel, for the members of the Romantic movement shared some of the same concerns expressed by the Luddites. Lord Byron even spoke to the House of Lords in defense of the Luddites, telling of men “sacrificed to improvements in mechanism” (Byron in Thomis, p. 50). In Shelley’s case, her beliefs concerning the dangers of man’s technological advancements were presented through her depiction of the murderous rage of Frankenstein’s monster. During the years preceding the writing of Frankenstein, the Luddite movement was growing. The novel’s warning about the dangers of man’s experimentation with technology may well have been inspired by the Luddites’ fear of new industrial technology and its effects on their lives.
The resurrection men
The advancement of the sciences in England, particularly in the areas of anatomy, medicine, and biology, began a horrifying Page 121 | Top of Articleperiod in British social history: the age of the resurrection men. In the beginning of the nineteenth century, London surgeons and students bought and mutilated thousands of dead bodies that had been stolen by the lowliest members of society. During this period, the midnight quiet of graveyards could suddenly erupt in gun-fire and confrontation between the “resurrection men” (as these grave robbers were called) and authorities.
The strange career of the resurrection men came about as a result of the severe lack of cadavers available for study and dissection. In France bodies for dissection were provided from those that went unclaimed in public hospitals. In Germany, the bodies of prostitutes and suicides were taken. In Britain, the only legal supply of cadavers came from the bodies of murderers executed within the country. After being cut down from the gallows, corpses were hauled to the College of Surgeons, where they would be dissected and given to lecturers at teaching hospitals. Because this practice provided very few bodies, resurrection men were enlisted to acquire corpses for teaching hospitals, whose students would take their tuition elsewhere unless there were enough bodies to examine. Although more stringent laws were passed as incidents of body-snatching increased, punishments were generally not enforced. This lack of enforcement was attributed to English authorities’ desire to have surgeons and physicians that were as well trained as those on the European mainland.
Despite the outrage of families of the stolen dead, the resurrection men continued their morbid trade, acquiring a reputation that was known to Mary Shelley and most people in England during the period. Her acquaintance with the resurrection men and their nocturnal diggings may have been heightened by Percy Shelley’s interests in anatomy and biology. In addition, she may have read about the resurrection men in the poetry of a fellow Romantic, Robert Southey, who wrote “The Surgeon’s Warning,” a poem that describes a dying doctor’s plans to safeguard his body against the resurrection men with whom he was so well acquainted. Mary Shelley’s familiarity with this practice may have been an influence on her conception of a monster made from a collection of corpses.
Critical response to Frankenstein
The critics greeted Mary Shelley’s novel with a combination of praise and disdain. First published anonymously, the book had critics wondering at the identity of the deranged genius who had created such a tale. “Our readers will guess … what a tissue of horrible and disgusting absurdity [Frankenstein] presents,” wrote John Wilson Croker, a principal contributor for the Quarterly Review. “It cannot be denied that [it] is nonsense—but it is nonsense decked out with circumstances and clothed in language highly terrific” (Croker in Abbey, p. 249). Another attack on the story, this time without praise for the language, was published in the Monthly Review: “An uncouth story... setting probability at defiance and leading to no conclusion either moral or philosophical. A serious examination is scarcely necessary for so eccentric a vagary of the imagination as this tale presents” (Summers, p. 94).
Despite the critical attacks, Frankenstein caused a literary sensation in London. The novel fit smoothly into the popular gothic genre, the style of fiction known for its aspects of horror and macabre details. The work was also considered innovative because of its introduction of a synthetic human character. Less obviously, the novel became one of the triumphs of the Romantic movement due to its themes of alienation and isolation and its warning about the destructive power that can result when human creativity is unfettered by moral and social concerns.
For More Information
Abbey, Cherie D., ed. Nineteenth-Century Literature Criticism. Vol. 14. Detroit: Gale Research, 1987.
Cole, Hubert. Things for the Surgeon: A History of the Resurrection Men. London: William Heinemann, 1964.
Coleman, D. C. Myth, History, and the Industrial Revolution. London: Hambledon, 1992.
Haining, Peter. The Man Who Was Frankenstein. London: Frederick Muller, 1979.
King-Hele, Desmond. Doctor of Revolution: The Life and Genius of Erasmus Darwin. London: Faber and Faber, 1977.
Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein. New York: Penguin, 1983.
Spark, Muriel. Mary Shelley. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1987.
Summers, Montague. The Gothic Quest. New York: Russell and Russell, 1964.
Thomis, Malcolm I. The Luddites: Machine Breaking in Regency England. Newton Abbot, England: David & Charles, 1970.