Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley


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Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (1797-1851), English author wrote the Gothic horror story Frankenstein or; The Modern Prometheus (1818);

“I am alone and miserable; man will not associate with me; but one as deformed and horrible as myself would not deny herself to me. My companion must be of the same species and have the same defects. This being you must create.”--Ch. 16

Started as a ghost story and inspired by a conversation Shelley had overheard between her husband Percy Bysshe Shelly and Lord George Gordon Byron talking about galvanism, it soon became one of the first best selling works by a female author. Sir Walter Scott mistakenly thought it had been written by Percy, and it received mixed reviews, but today it is still widely read and has inspired various adaptations to the stage and screen.

The Gothic movement evolved from Romanticism, delving deeper into profound philosophical questions like the quest of man to achieve perfection, and through a character even at first so disturbing as the scientifically created Creature we ultimately see all of humanity’s moral struggles. Shelley adopted much of her father William Godwin’s philosophical ideas and in Frankenstein her conclusion is thus: man’s obsession with perfection can ultimately end in ruin.

Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin was born on 30 August 1797 in London, England, the second daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797), feminist and author of A Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792) and William Godwin (1756-1836) father of philosophical anarchism and author of An Inquiry Concerning Political Justice (1793). Mary’s mother died soon after her birth and she and her half sister Fanny gained a stepsister, Claire, when her father remarried Mary Jane Clairmont. Claire and Mary would remain very close for the rest of their lives.

There were bitter times for Mary growing up with a cruel step mother and emotionally distant father; she consoled herself at her mother’s graveside and spent periods of time in Scotland with friends of the family. She was educated at home by tutors were she studied her parent’s writings and literature and poetry, as well as learning Latin, French, and Italian. She also read the works of the Enlightenment literary figures her unorthodox parents associated with including the poets William Blake, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Charles Lamb.

Mary met her future husband Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822) around the age of sixteen when he became acquainted with her atheist father and his philosophy, which he soon adopted. He spent much time at the Godwin’s household discussing politics and events of the day. Percy was unhappily married to Harriet Westbrook (1795-1816) at the time, and despite Mary’s father forbidding her to see him anymore, he and Mary eloped to France in 1814 with Claire in tow for a six week tour of Europe. Mary’s father’s free love philosophy did not extend to her and they were estranged until she married.

Living in London with Claire and Percy, Mary and Percy’s daughter Clara was born in February of 1815 though she died a few weeks later. Soon after, William was born (1816-1819) and the trio set out again, traveling through France, Germany, and Switzerland. They spent part of the extraordinary ‘year without a summer’ of 1816 at Lake Geneva, where Lord George Gordon Byron also summered and had a scandalous affair with Claire. They had a daughter, Allegra Byron (1817-1822). Mary and Percy Shelley married in 30 December 1816 at St. Mildred’s church in London. They jointly wrote about their travels in History of Six Weeks Tour (1817).

Advocates of vegetarianism and issues of social reform, the Shelley’s were matched on many levels intellectually though Mary did not embrace the idea of an open marriage or ‘true love’ ideals Percy longed for and expressed in so many of his poems. She had started writing Frankenstein in 1816 while in Switzerland, inspired by their many sailing trips on the lake and nights telling each other ghost stories. A second daughter named Clara was born in 1817 but she died a year later.

Now that they were married and Mary was on speaking terms with her father, she and Percy moved back to Italy, staying for a time in various cities including Milan, Pisa, and Venice. Much of their travels in Italy surrounded the issues between Byron and Claire and their daughter Allegra. While living in Florence Percy Florence was born in 1819 (d.1889) the same year William died. After Frankenstein, Mathilda (1819), Prosperpine and Midas (1820) followed.

In 1822, Shelley suffered a miscarriage which almost took her life. The same year, as was one of his favorite past times, Percy was sailing on his schooner ‘Don Juan’ with friend Edward Williams when a sudden storm blew up and it sank. Percy’s body washed ashore and as were his wishes, he was cremated on the beach near Viareggio. Mary soon devoted her energies to the massive undertaking of compiling his poetry and writing extensive notes for them included in The Complete Poetical Works of Percy Bysshe (1824).

Devastated by her loss, in 1823 Mary returned to England with her son Percy. Percy Bysshe’s father Sir Timothy Shelley provided his grandson Percy an annual income whilst he attended school before he inherited the estate and title in 1844 when Sir Timothy died. Mary continued work on her own novels including Valperga (1823) and wrote numerous short stories, essays, poems, and reviews that appeared in various journals and magazines including London Magazine and Westminster Review. Her second most popular novel, The Last Man was published in 1826. Other works to follow include; Perkin Warbeck (1830), Ledore (1835), Falkner (1837), and Rambles in Germany and Italy (1844). Possibly brought on by the strain of her prolific writing career or various travels, by the early 1840’s Shelley often suffered bouts of illness that would plague her for her remaining years.

Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley died at home in London at the age of fifty-four on 1 February 1851. She lies buried in St. Peter’s churchyard in Bournemouth, Dorset, England.

Biography written by C.D. Merriman for Jalic Inc. Copyright Jalic Inc. 2006. All Rights Reserved.

The above biography is copyrighted. Do not republish it without permission.

Recent Forum Posts on Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley

Was Mary Shelley hostile, supportive, or ambivalent toward science?

Was Mary Shelley hostile, supportive, or ambivalent toward science? What are your thoughts. Trying to gather ideas for an essay.


Frankenstein Discussion

I'm reading Frankenstein for a summer assignment for Advanced Placement Senior English. I'm assigned a reading question for each chapter, and i'm not really sure what to put for the chapter 15 answer. Here is the question: How does the creature answer his own questions about life? He asks, "What did this mean? Who was I? Whence did I come? What was my destination?" I really did read the book, and this chapter. I'm not looking to cheat, either. I don't really have access to a teacher, though, since this is a summer assignment. Anyways, I think he might have found the answers to his personal questions through the literature he was reading. I'm not one hundred percent, though. Could you please give me your best guess? Thank you.


Would anyone care to read a detailed study of mine concerning Frankenstein??

Alexander B. Johnson Neva Knott IB Literature of the Americas HL 17 Feb. 2009 A Dual Tragedy C.S. Lewis once said “What can you ever know of other people's souls—of their temptations, their opportunities, and struggles?” (Lewis 22) this is the tale of a creation of Dr. Viktor Frankenstein whose needs were shunned by his creator. It is Viktor’s ultimate wish that he aborted the wretch in the midst of his scientific ambition. Viktor’s self-pity, however, shows not a mastermind who inadvertently created wretch, but a selfish man, playing the role of a god-like creator; refusing responsibility that comes with it. Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein unveils an eloquent being in the Monster, showing that a beautiful mind can be behind the most wretched faces. Chapter 10 marks the first encounter between Viktor and his creation in the sublime summit of Montanvert. The Monster makes it evident that justice will seek out its avoiders—Dr. Frankenstein, if he refuses responsibility for his creation and of the death of William Frankenstein along with the imprisonment and execution of Justine Moritz. Within this excerpt, Dr. Frankenstein and his Creation are characterised as foils through use of juxtaposition as Viktor’s hostile nature juxtaposes with the Monsters eloquence. Viktor’s fate is foreshadowed by his own creation, leaving Viktor in crossroads between survival and demise, functioning as the ultimate turning point in the novel in which all else rests upon. It was Viktor’s desire throughout the primary portion of the novel to uncover secrets of creation through philosophy and modern science. With these desires he created a monster that sparked fear and torture in his being. Viktor continually described his creation as wretch and undeserving of the fruits of life that all enjoy; love. With Viktor’s abandonment, the monster sought revenge and murdered Viktor’s brother, William Frankenstein, framing Justine Moritz. When these acts are committed by the Monster we are able to sympathise with Viktor. However, in this passage, the story transitions into the monster’s point of view and we are able to psychologically accredit the monster for these acts as we see the cruelty that Viktor demonstrated towards the monster in abandoning it. It comes to a surprising revelation in Chapter 10 that the monster breaks free of his desire for revenge and develops desire to let go of the past and develop a meaningful future. Viktor, however, remains statically characterised as the self-pitying man seeking destruction, telling the Monster to “Begone!” and that “I will not hear from you!” (Shelly 87). This attitude demonstrates Viktor’s hostile and static nature juxtaposed with the Monsters eloquence in asking Viktor to “Let your compassion be moved, and do not disdain me.” (Shelly 87) This juxtaposition creates a tension between the two characters’ while starkly contrasting their demeanours; further outlining clash of the characters in the struggle for relief of one another. The characters juxtaposed attitudes are matched by the ultimate effect on the reader in which the Monsters eloquence is highlighted by Viktor’s folly as he turns the other cheek when presented with the demand to finish the job he started and the chance to seek forgiveness for his neglectful mind-set. It is apparent in Shelly’s characterisation of the Monster through dialogue between Viktor and his creation that the Monster merely requests to be a part of humanity. With this desire, the monster moves away from his cliché characteristic as a monster towards an eloquent human; begging Viktor to “Listen to my tale; when you have heard that, abandon or commiserate me,” (Shelly 88). As the Monster repetitively confronts Viktor with his desires and his struggles, Shelly characterises the Monster as static, moving away from monstrosity demonstrated initially and towards a humane creature. Viktor, however, demonstrates immense struggle to change as he constantly informs the monster that “there can be no community between you and me” (Shelly 87) demonstrating how Viktor’s attitude is juxtaposed with the Monsters, creating the clashing of these two main characters in the structure of the plot. Shelly uses this clash to demonstrate how both Viktor and his creation are foil characters, challenging one another to develop. Viktor wants to rid himself of the creation while the monster challenges Viktor to overcome this self-centredness and move towards a humane mind-set. The monster highlights the responsibilities of a creator and the creation, showing that the creator has the responsibility of presenting opportunity to his creation to live harmoniously with his counterpart. Interestingly enough, Viktor, who so largely desired for the status as a creator, refuses to follow through with this. As the monster states in the passage “I ought to be thy Adam, but I am rather the fallen angel, whom thou drivest from joy for no misdeed” it becomes apparent that Viktor has not yet completed his duties as creator. He created a creature with human desires yet he presented no manner in which the monster could achieve them. Instead, Viktor created a creature destined for a tragic nature. Viktor is arrogant and blind to see that “it is in your power to recompense me” (Shelly 87). When we observe Viktor’s blindness towards his responsibilities as creator we are presented with a cruel man who becomes the “real monster.” Perhaps it is in Viktor’s mindset that he is an ultimate being, a life-form who has no responsibility towards his fellow creation. However, it is this arrogance that will prove his demise; reminding the reader that Viktor cannot truly surpass nature nor ignore rules of humanity. As a creator Viktor must not be a barrier to his creatures happiness but an aid; yet Viktor fails to see this and remains hostile, telling his creature that “we are enemies” (Shelly 87). The hostility and unreasoning nature seen in Viktor boldly outlines man’s unfit nature for being a god-like creator. In contrast to Viktor’s refusal to cooperate, we are also presented with the Monster, fully ready to play his part. Ready to accept that Viktor can “destroy the work of hands” (Shelly 88) if he so chooses. All he asks is that Viktor fulfil his duty to allow his creature to “speak in their own defence before they are condemned” (Shelly 88). As we see the two interact through dialogue it becomes established that the Monster, not Viktor is the hero of the story whilst Viktor is the antagonist, who creates conflict for the protagonist. The Monsters eloquence and sense of cooperation as a creation of the creator is juxtaposed with Viktor’s sense of an unrelenting creator who refuses any form of commencement “Listen to me, Frankenstein. You accuse me of murder, and yet you would, with a satisfied conscience, destroy your own creature.” (Shelly 88). As we see the tension between the two characters and their ultimate inability to form compromise we are further reminded of the tragic nature of Frankenstein; when the creator refuses to provide reason for existence to the Monster we see how, despite the monsters eloquence, he will suffer a tragic existence. As we see this harsh reality emerge in the novel we are reminded of the sombre connexion between the two foil characters—knowing that neither Viktor nor the monster will enjoy a peaceful life because of Viktor’s hostile and uncompromising nature. Within this passage, a crossroad is formed for both Viktor and the Monster; it is with this that we realise that one’s actions influence each other and is responsible for the characters development. As we see Viktor, a flat character who refuses to commence responsibilities as the creator paired with the Monster, a dynamic character that is willing to make the changes necessary to achieve happiness their foil nature is unveiled. As juxtaposition vividly demonstrates the characters clashing natures we see the dual tragic nature of Frankenstein. If one refuses to play the game of life, all will suffer.


Frankenstein at 16?

I read somewhere that Merry Shelley wrote Frankenstein when she was only 16. Is there any truth in that little piece of trivia?


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