What were the intentions of Mary Shelly when she was writing her classic novel Frankenstein? Did she aim to write one of the best Gothic novels or the first science fiction novel of all times? These are indeed the highly debatable topics regarding Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. But Frankenstein is not merely a Gothic horror or science fiction novel, rather, it is an autobiographical novel.
When Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein in 1818, there were many Gothic influences around her. Moreover, the era was specifically marked with scientific discoveries and inventions. But Mary was not merely influenced by the ideas of her time. Although the Enlightenment philosophy, Gothicism, Romanticism, and scientific discoveries had an equal impact on her, she wrote Frankenstein mainly to express herself. She created the novel with her own experiences and fears in mind. There is no doubt that Frankenstein is an autobiographical novel.
The Autobiographical Nature of Frankenstein
Frankenstein is an autobiography as it reflects the life of its author. Let’s probe into the autobiographical nature of the book.
Mary Shelly was a self-educated woman. Her motherless childhood, her marriage with P.B. Shelley, her miscarriages, her abandonment by patriarchal society, in fact, every experience of her life had taught her a significant lesson. Also, in Frankenstein, we see that self-education is an apparent theme. The characters learn through their experiences, either good or bad.
Victor realizes his mistake after creating a hideous monster. It is the realization of his mistake that actually prevents him from fulfilling the monster’s wish of creating another monster, but this time a female one. Furthermore, the creature, after coming into life, is left alone to face the fears of life and learn everything by himself. By observing the life of the French family, he teaches himself the art of speaking and reading. Similarly, Mary Shelley was left alone when her mother died. Like her monster, she had to face all of her fears alone.
The books (Milton’s “Paradise Lost,” Plutarch’s “Lives,” and Goethe’s “The Sorrows of Young Werther”) that the monster finds while wandering alone and then reads are, in fact, the books that Mary herself “read and reread most often”.
Moreover, just as Victor Frankenstein pieced together his creature from various parts of corpses, Mary Shelley’s name was an assemblage of different parts. Her mother’s name: Mary Wollstonecraft, her father’s name: William Godwin, and her husband’s name: Percy Bysshe; all assembled together to make the author’s real name, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin Shelley.
If we go further deep down the novel, we come to realize that Frankenstein actually deals with the horrors of Mary Shelley’s relationships.
The Motherless Characters in Frankenstein
The autobiographical nature of Frankenstein is evident through the characters who populate it. Mary Shelley reveals her unpleasant motherlessness through the lives of her characters. Victor Frankenstein, Elizabeth, the monster, Justine; they all are motherless like the author of the novel. But Mary has indicated her motherlessness more specifically through the character of the monster, around which the action revolves.
Like Mary Shelley, her monster is motherless and, soon after his creation, abandoned by his creator. He questions his identity when he asks, “(N)o mother had blessed me with smiles and caresses….What was I?”. Later, in the novel, the monster recalls his loneliness by asking, “Where was [my creator]?.”
Similarly, Mary’s mother died only eleven days after giving birth to her daughter. The death of her mother developed a never-ending guilt in her. Likewise, at the end of the novel when Victor Frankenstein dies, the monster reveals his guilt and blames himself for his creator’s death. Moreover, Victor created his Creature in 1797 which is also the year of Mary Shelley’s birth. This fact further claims the autobiographical nature of the book.
Moreover, all the daughters in the novel are motherless in some way or another. Victor’s mother Caroline was a motherless child. Elizabeth’s mother also dies in her childhood and Victor’s mother adopts her, but she also dies later. The mother of Justine, a favorite maidservant of the Frankenstein family, also dies in the novel. All these daughters are without a mother, thus, reflecting the motherlessness of Mary Shelley.
Mary Shellay’s Fictionalization of Her Dear Ones
Every character in Frankenstein is a fictionalization of someone Mary Shelley knew. The protagonist, Victor Frankenstein is a reflection of Shelley’s father. Just as the creator leaves alone his Creature in the novel, Mary Shelley’ father also abandoned her when she married and eloped with P.B. Shelley against her father’s wishes. Moreover, like Mary Shelley’s father, William Godwin, Victor Frankenstein is also a patriarch who brings into life a motherless child and then abandons his creation.
Victor Frankenstein is also a fictionalization of Mary Shelley’s husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley. She borrowed the name of her protagonist, Victor, from the pseudonym of her husband. While Elizabeth whom Victor Frankenstein loves was the name of P.B. Shelley’s real sister.
Another inspiration for her protagonist, Victor Frankenstein, was Lord Byron. Like Victor, he “followed his imagination, indulged his passions, and abandoned his children”. While in Victor’s case, he left his family in pursuit of his goals.
The Fear of Motherhood
The death of Mary Shelley’s mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, created in her a vision of motherhood as a fatal endeavor. This is depicted in the novel as well. Although Victor Frankenstein successfully brings his creature to life, it eventually becomes the cause of his death.
Moreover, Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein when she was expecting her third child. She had given birth to two children before who died soon after their birth. The deaths of her children convinced her to think of motherhood as a dreadful attempt. Her experience as a failed mother left her open to all sorts of fears about motherhood.
Frankenstein is also an autobiographical novel in the sense that it depicts Mary Shelley’s personal statement about the horrors of failed motherhood. She has released her frustrations of failed motherhood into the concept of creation in Frankenstein, which is, no doubt, one of the most haunting aspects of the novel.
The dread surrounding birth is also visible in her characters. Her Protagonist, Victor, being anxious of his two creations mating and propagating, destroys the female creature thus ending the cycle of motherhood. Similarly, the monster kills Victor’s wife, Elizabeth, who might have someday borne Victor’s children, and by doing so also closes the cycle of motherhood.
Namelessness As Another Autobiographical Element
By the time Mary Shelley was writing Frankenstein, she had given birth to three children who died even before they were given names by their parents. This fact also contributes to the autobiographical nature of the novel. The monster is not given any name by his creator. Throughout the book, the characters call him ‘the creature’, ‘the demon’, ‘the devil’, and ‘the monster’.
Moreover, soon after coming to life, the monster becomes the source of his creator’s miseries and leaves him. While his creator chases him till the end of his life. This part of the story is also parallel to the author’s life. Her children died, thus making her life miserable. Her another attempt of being a mother led her to a severe miscarriege.
Leaving The Loved Ones
The main characters in Frankenstein abandon their loved ones only to fulfil their desires. Victor Frankenstein wants to educate himself and make his Creature and, in doing so, forsakes his loved ones. Captain Walton, on the other hand, also leaves behind his family in pursuit of his goals. In pursuance of their desires both these men are left alone. This part of the story is also autobiographical in nature. For instance, Mary Shelley in pursuit of her love eloped with P. B. Shelley despite her father’s wishes, and thus abandoned her family. Thus, another autobiographical element in Frankenstein is the abandonment of relationships because of creation, desires and love.
Patriarchy in Frankenstein
Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein with an intention to use science to question the male dominated society of the time. The male is the supreme power ruling the society while the females in the novel are socially inferior and dependent on male figures.The novel describes the male’s attitude towards females as passive and subordinate. The women are victims of patriarchal rejection and abandonment.
By infusing life into his creature through unconventional means, Victor denies the role of females in the creation of new life and thus resists the natural mode of reproduction. Moreover, Victor’s success at creation further cements that the necessity of females is in fact false. But, unfortunately, the product of such an effort only brings suffering, death and the total destruction of the family. Here, Mary wants the readers to know that when the supreme male authorities of society take charge of everything neglecting the role of females in their lives, the result of such an attempt is outrageously dangerous and leads to ultimate suffering.
Patriarchy – The Cause of Mary’s Suffering
The patriarchy was the sole cause of Mary’s sufferings during her life. The patriarchs around her had denied the significance of her role in their lives. After her mother’s death, Mary came closer to her father and developed great affections for him. But her father remarried and didn’t give her the attention she needed. When she grew up, her family sent her to live with the Baxter family in Scotland against her wishes. Moreover, her wish to marry her beloved P. B. Shelley was also rejected by her patriarch. The result was disastrous as she eloped with him and, in response, disowned by her father.
After her marriage, Mary was neglected by another patriarch, her husband. Her marriage with P. B. Shelley was far from being one of perfect harmony. A few months after their marriage, her husband began an affair with Claire Clairmont, Mary’s step sister whom she took with her while eloping with P.B. Shelley. He preferred Claire’s company even in the most terrible moments of Mary’s life, such as after the death of her first child. Mary Shelley deeply resented her husband’s behavior and lack of sensibility towards her.
Thus, Frankenstein analyses the disastrous consequences of denying the role of females in the development of society. The deaths of passive and male-dominated women in the novel show that the women ruled by patriarchs do not survive in the world.
The Summer of 1816
Mary Shelley created the story of her novel in 1816 in Geneva. There she was staying with her husband P.B. Shelley, and their friends Lord Byron and Dr. John Polidori. One day, due to the harsh weather outside, they were trapped indoors. Then Lord Byron suggested passing the time writing ghost stories. Hence, the weather during the summer played an important role in the creation of Frankenstein. Later on, she elaborated her story by adding further details to it.
Mary Shelley has used Geneva as the first setting of her novel. She has further used the harsh weather, she once experienced in Geneva, to set her scenes in the novel. The thunderstorms grandeur yet terrific, rain pouring in torrents, and thick mists hiding the summits of the mountains; Mary Shelley had personally experienced all these weather inclements during her stay in Geneva.
Mary Shelley never intended for Frankenstein to be merely a novel of Gothic horror or Science fiction. She wrote solely to express herself.
The novel is a dramatized autobiography because the relationships depicted in the novel directly relate to Mary Shelley’s own experiences. Her emotions about her mother’s death, her own birth, isolated childhood, marriage with P.B. Shelley, miscarriages, deaths of her children, and the summer of 1816 when she wrote the novel are all represented in Frankenstein.
Thus, there is no doubt that Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is an autobiographical novel.
Sources: Elif Notes | The New Yorker | Scholar Commons