Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin was the daughter of two illustrious parents, William Godwin, a pioneer of philosophical radicalism, and Mary Wollstonecraft, whose A Vindication of the Rights of Women launched the feminist movement. Mary was born August 30, 1797; her mother died eleven days later. Raised by her father and his second wife Mary Jane Clairmont, Mary met the elite of England’s intellectuals including Erasmus Darwin, Charles Lamb, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and eventually, the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. Shelley was already married, but a year and a half after his first meeting Mary, they scandalized society by eloping to France in July 1814. Their eight-year relationship (they married after Shelley’s wife committed suicide in 1816) produced four children, only one of whom survived. Her husband drowned July 8, 1822, and Mary dedicated the rest of her life to caring for their son Percy, editing her husband’s works and doing her own writing. Her works include History of a Six Weeks’ Tour (1817), a journal written jointly with her husband, Frankenstein (1818), Valperga (1823), The Last Man (1826), Perkin Warbeck (1830), Lodore (1835), Falkner (1837), and Rambles in Germany and Italy (1844). She died February 1, 1851.
Few works of fiction have captured the public’s imagination as Frankenstein has. Several plays, numerous movies, television shows, and even comic strips have been based on it, and generations of children have dressed up as the monster for Halloween. Although originally published over 150 years ago, the book is still in print in almost every major language. According to Janet Harris, “since the first year of its publication there has always been, somewhere in the world, a printing press at work turning out still another copy or version of Mary’s immortal story.” The monster indeed has a life of his own apart from the book, as perhaps only Sherlock Holmes and Scrooge out of all the characters originally in novels do. Each generation adds its own characteristics to the monster.
The setting of the novel ranges all over Europe, emphasizing places with which Shelley herself was familiar: Italy, Switzerland, Germany, France, England, Scotland, Ireland, and even the Arctic. The tale begins and ends in the Arctic with the explorer Robert Walton seeking a northwest passage. On his journey he first meets Victor Frankenstein and then the monster himself. The arctic atmosphere itself is a fitting symbol for the scientific enterprise on which Frankenstein has embarked and Walton is embarking. The landscape is barren and white: it is human beings who turn the landscape and scientific creation into colorful creation or black horror.
Victor Frankenstein is a brilliant, rational, and self-centered man who comes to understand the importance of friendship, family, and love. His monster is brutal and destructive but also rational and eloquent and longs for affection and companionship. Although these two at times seem antithetical, their characters also complement one another.
Shelley uses an important literary technique-the story-within-a-story-within-a-story. Walton tells the whole story of Frankenstein and his monster as related to him by Frankenstein, with the addition of his own meeting with the monster after Frankenstein’s death within the context of his arctic exploration. Within Frankenstein’s account is the monster’s own tale of what he did after fleeing from Frankenstein: how he watched the De Laceys and came to understand human speech, emotion, and history. Each of the stories presents comparisons and contrasts to the others. For example, Walton’s exploration of the Arctic is a scientific discovery similar to Frankenstein’s creation of the monster, but Walton’s expedition fails when his men force him to turn back, whereas Frankenstein does succeed in creating the monster, although the results are questionable.
In a tale of a murderous and revengeful monster, there are, of course, scenes of violence and terror; three murders, an execution and a cottage burned by arson, as well as three more deaths. Like classical Greek dramatists, Shelley to some extent mitigates the horror of these scenes by having the violence take place “offstage.” That is, she never directly presents the monster strangling his victims. In each case she describes how the body is found and the sorrow the family members, friends, and community feel at the death. She emphasizes the grief rather than the grisly details of the murder or the horrible condition of the body. In no sense does she linger over gory details. The monster’s victims are all innocent. If the monster had killed only his creator for cruelly abandoning him, the reader’s judgment of the monster might be less harsh. The impact of the violence is further diminished because Frankenstein is reporting to Walton each murder long after the deed was done.
1. Why is the novel subtitled The Modern Prometheus?
2. Why does Frankenstein create such a large, ugly monster rather than a normal-sized, good-looking man?