Mary Shelley: life and works

Mary Shelley: life and works A cura di Teresa Bosica.

Text in English about life and works of Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein or the Modern Prometheus. Plot, main themes, narrative style

1Mary Shelley: biography

Mary Shelley
Mary Shelley — Fonte: getty-images

Mary Shelley was born in London in 1797. She was the daughter of two radical thinkers: William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft, who died after her birth. This event shaped her life and when her father later remarried, this caused her great suffering.

Mary did not receive any formal education, but from an early age, she received great intellectual stimulus, in fact her father’s house was a meeting point of famous philosophers, writers and poets, such as William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. There is an anecdote about her as a young girl; it seems that she used to hide behind a sofa while Coleridge read aloud his poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, which exercised a great influence on her novel Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus.

In 1814 Mary met the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley and the two began a relationship even though he was married and had two children, for this reason Godwin strongly opposed their relationship. Eventually the two lovers eloped to France and then Switzerland, but they had to return to England due to financial problems. Because of these actions, Mary was banished by society, even by her own father who refused to speak to her for some time. Later Mary and Percy Shelley returned to Switzerland with Claire, Mary’s stepsister who at the time had a relationship with Lord Byron. 

Samuel Taylor Coleridge
Samuel Taylor Coleridge — Fonte: ansa

In Switzerland Percy Shelley rented a country house on the shores of Lake Geneva near Villa Diodati, where Lord Byron used to stay. It was here that Mary conceived the idea for the book that would make her famous, Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus. One rainy day the group of friends, including John Polidori, an English writer and physicist, entertained themselves by reading ghost stories; at one point Byron suggested they each write a horror story and this was the spark that led Mary to write Frankenstein, that was published anonymously in 1818

In the meantime, Percy Shelley’s wife Harriet committed suicide and later he married Mary. The two moved to Italy where Mary gave birth to a son, Percy Florence, their only child to survive infancy.

In 1822 her husband drowned during a storm while sailing near Livorno. Mary Shelley returned to England with her son, where she continued to write novels, among them Valperga (1823), a historical novel set in Medieval Italy, and The Last Man (1826), a story about the destruction of mankind by a plague until only one last surviving man is left. She also published an edition of Percy Shelley’s Poetical Works in 1839. She died in London in 1851

2Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus

Frankenstein
Frankenstein — Fonte: getty-images

Mary Shelley started to write Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus in 1816 while she was in Switzerland with Percy Shelley and other friends among whom Lord Byron, who challenged them  to write a horror story, so Mary wrote Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus in the tradition of the Gothic Novel

Several factors, such as Mary Shelley’s sense of guilt for the death of her mother, her anxieties, the strain of the difficult relationship with her father, the reading of ghost stories, scientific speculations, all came together at one point creating that nightmarish dream that horrified her so much.

Many were the influences on the novel, for example The Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Samuel T. Coleridge, in which the mariner, the protagonist of Coleridge’s masterpiece, commits a crime against nature when he kills an albatross, a creature of God, without a reason, and Frankenstein also oversteps human limits when he creates life in an unnatural way thus committing a crime against nature himself

Elle Fanning is Mary Shelley in the 2018 movie by Haifaa al-Mansour
Elle Fanning is Mary Shelley in the 2018 movie by Haifaa al-Mansour — Fonte: getty-images

The novelist was also influenced by the latest scientific theories on chemistry, electricity and evolution and philosophical ideas such as the theory of the “noble savage” of Jean Jacques Rousseau, in fact we can consider the monster the embodiment of Rousseau’s primitive man, the man close to nature, hence innocent because he is not corrupted by civilization, and the monster stays good until it comes in touch with society and is rejected by everybody because of its horrible appearance. 

3Mary Shelley's Frankenstein: plot

The story, introduced to us by a series of letters written by Captain Walton to his sister, is about a brilliant and overly ambitious Swiss scientist, Victor Frankenstein, who creates life by assembling together parts from various corpses. The creature he generates has a monstrous appearance, but despite this it is endowed with human feelings. The creature is rejected by society and feeling lonely and miserable, asks Frankenstein to create a female companion for him, he agrees, but when it is almost completed, he destroys it disgusted by his own creation.

The monster turns to evil and murders Frankenstein’s wife, Elizabeth, on their wedding night and then runs away. Frankenstein follows him to the Arctic to destroy him and here he meets Captain Walton. This brings us to the beginning of the story when Walton finds Frankenstein mortally wounded by the creature and is captivated by the doctor’s powerful story. A few days later Walton finds the monster crying over his creator’s dead body repented of his actions. He then disappears on an ice raft in the Arctic sea.

4Main themes

As we can see the novel is subtitled The Modern Prometheus referring to Prometheus, a mythical figure, who stole the fire from the Olympian Gods and gave it to man. So, in order to punish him, Zeus chained him to a rock, and every day a vulture came to eat his liver which was regenerated every night. Frankenstein is like a modern Prometheus, like him he is an overreacher that tries to go beyond human limits when he gives life to the monster and for this reason he is punished with death.

Another important theme is the double, in fact Walton is the double of Frankenstein, like him he has the desire to go beyond human limits by exploring the North Pole and is punished with the rebellion of his crew. 

Social injustice towards difference is another fundamental theme of the novel. At first the monster has good disposition, but when he is rejected by society because of his terrifying appearance, he becomes an outcast and a murderer.

5Narrative Technique

The form of the novel is epistolary and the letters are written by Walton, the captain of a ship directed to the North Pole, to his sister who lives in England. Walton is not the only narrator of the story; there are other two narrators: Doctor Frankenstein, who tells the story of his life to Walton, and the monster himself, who explains to Walton the reasons for his behaviour. 

Hence the story is narrated in the first person from three different points of view

No man chooses evil because it is evil; he only mistakes it for happiness, the good he seeks.

Mary Shelley