Mary Shelley, Frankenstein
Frankenstein is considered to be the greatest Gothic Romantic novel. It is also generally thought of as the first science fiction novel.  Mary Shelley wrote this novel when she was eighteen years old. What experiences and powers of imagination led to such an innovative and disturbing work?

The idea for the novel arose in the summer of 1816 when Mary Shelley was staying at Lord Byron's villa in Geneva Switzerland. Not only did Shelley incorporate experiences from that summer into her novel, she also utilized the sources that she had been reading and studying. Two in particular were the Metamorphoses by Ovid and Paradise Lost by Milton.

It is believed that Shelley studied Ovid in April and May of 1815. The major element that Ovid supplied to the theme of Frankenstein, was his presentation of the Prometheus legend. This is acknowledged in the subtitle: "Or the Modern Prometheus."  The creation of the monster is similar to this passage from Ovid:

                Whether with particles of heav'nly fire,
                The God of Nature did his soul inspire;
                Or earth, but new divided from the sky,
                And, pliant, still retain'd th' ethereal energy;
                Which wise Prometheus temper'd into paste,
                And, mix't with living streams, the godlike image cast...
                From such rude principles our form began;
                And earth was metamorphos'd into man.

Lines from Frankenstein that reflect the above passage are:

        "I collected the instruments of life around me, that I might
        infuse a spark of being into the lifeless thing that lay at my feet." (p.51)

        "...that I may extinguish the spark which I so negligently bestowed."
        (Frankenstein p.101)

The second important literary influence was Paradise Lost by Milton.  The influence of Milton's Paradise Lost can be seen directly from the epigraph of the 1818 edition of Frankenstein:

                "Did I request thee, Maker from my clay
                 to mould me man?
                 Did I solicit thee,
                 from darkness to promote me?"

The spirit of Paradise Lost permeates Frankenstein throughout the novel. On page 240 the monster says,

                "The fallen angel becomes a malignant devil.  Yet even that enemy of God
                and man had friends and associates in his desolation; I am alone"

Three parallel themes from the two works arise from these quotations:

It is easy to establish Mary Shelley's knowledge of Paradise Lost. The work was admired in the Godwin household. Mary and Percy read it in 1815 and again in November 1816. Her journal states that Shelley read it aloud while she was writing Frankenstein. She even incorporated Paradise Lost into the novel by having it be one of the three works that the monster studied. The monster found a correlation between his condition and and an aspect of the novel and stated;

        "Like Adam, I was apparently united by no link to any other
        human being . . . I was wretched, helpless and alone.  Many times I
        considered Satan as the fitter emblem of my condition (pg. 135-136)

Other echoes of Paradise Lost are:

Frankenstein hopes to be the source of a new species, but ironically his creature evolves into a self-acknowleged Satan who swears eternal revenge and war upon his creator and all the human race. The monster reflects that hell is an internal condition which is produced and increased through loneliness. His only salvation is the creation of a mate, his Eve.

In the later part of the book, Frankenstein refers to the monster in terms used in Paradise Lost; the fiend, the demon, the devil, and adversary. Both master and creature are torn by their internal conflicts from misapplied knowledge and their sense of isolation.

An interesting web site:

As we read the novel we often forget that it is actually an epistolary novel, that it is made up of a series of letters in this case from a sea captain to his sister.  Why might Shelley have chosen this form to present her story?  Does the form make a difference in the way we read (or should read) the novel?  What is Walton's function in the novel?

Frankenstein is considered a landmark novel in two areas--Romanticism and the Gothic.  What elements in the novel are particularly "Romantic"?  What elements are "Gothic"?  The subtitle of the novel is "A Modern Prometheus."  What is Shelley referring to?  What insights does the subtitle add to our reading?

Frequently Romantic literature incorporates a Byronic hero.  Do any of the characters fit this category?  Why?

In Romanticism and Gender, Anne K. Mellor discusses the definition of Romanticism. She reclassifies traditional Romanticism as "masculine romanticism" and adds the new classification, "feminine romanticism." In Mellor's scheme, since masculine romanticism does not focus on "the recognition and appreciation of the beloved woman as an independent other but rather the assimilation of the female into the male (or the annihilation of any other that threatens masculine selfhood), the woman must finally be enslaved or destroyed" (26).  How might this apply to Frankenstein?

Frankenstein is also a favorite among feminists.  Why would they be attracted to the novel?  Are women's concerns an element in the novel?   Many elements in Mary Shelley's life that are tied to being a woman occur while she is working on the novel.  How do the issues of birth, death, and illegitimacy tie into some of the novel's themes?

One of the most obvious themes is that of scientific responsibility.  Where do we see this played out?  How does Walton's story add to this reading?  How is this reading releveant today?

Ever since its publication, Frankenstein has enthralled readers and inspired imitation (e.g., movies such as The Bride, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and Edward Scissorhands).  What is it about the novel that continues to attract readers?  What is its appeal for the modern reader and/or writer?

For a working bibliography (selected articles and books) about Frankestein click here.

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