On Mary Shelley's Frankenstein

Mary Shelley (1797-1851) was the only child of William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft, two outspoken radicals inspired by the egalitarian ideals of the French Revolution.  Godwin was a minister who turned atheist and anarchist: he wrote influential philosophical works suggesting that the power of human reason would enable people to live in harmony if they could only escape the shackles of law and social tradition.  Mary Wollstonecraft, the mother of modern feminism, argued with passion and reason for the political, economic, and legal equality of women in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), for which she was vilified by contemporaries as "an unsex'd female," a "whore," and "a hyena in petticoats."  Mary Wollstonecraft died giving birth to Mary Shelley.

The death of her mother haunted Mary Shelley all of her life, and legend has it that she spent spent countless hours in her youth reading on her mother's grave.  When she was sixteen, Mary was disowned by her father for "living in sin" with the married radical poet, Percy Bysshe Shelley.  In the two years she worked on Frankenstein, Mary gave birth to two children who soon died; in these same two years, her half-sister, Fanny Imlay, and Percy's wife, Harriet, both committed suicide.  Then Mary became pregnant with a third child who died in infancy.  Naturally, she was hit hard by all five of these deaths.  It is no wonder that the deaths of children and their mothers form a central motif in Frankenstein.

Frankenstein, completed when she was a mere nineteen years old, is the only one of Mary Shelley's novels read today, but she made her living as a professional writer of fiction long after her husband, Percy, died in 1822.

The Origin of Frankenstein: Confined to their Swiss mountain home by rainy weather, Mary, Percy, Lord Byron (England's most celebrated poet at the time), and Byron's doctor, Polidori, passed the time indoors telling ghost stories and discussing such things as the possibility of discovering the "principle of life."   They decided that for fun—this was long before Nintendo and cable—each of them would write an original ghost story to entertain the others.  One night's discussion of  "reanimating  corpses" caused Mary to have a "waking dream" of the monster that would become the famous Frankenstein in oh so many bad movies.  Mary was the only one of the four to complete her story.  Percy edited her manuscript and wrote a preface for the novel, which was first published in 1818.

The Myth of Prometheus: The full title of the novel is Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus.  In Greek mythology Prometheus was one of the Titans, a race of giants who ruled the earth before the all-powerful Zeus conquered and eradicated them.  Prometheus (whose name means "foresight") stole fire from Olympus and gave it to humankind, hoping to save them from annihilation by Zeus.  Prometheus took from the gods and gave to the humans—he was a sort of a mythological Robin Hood.

As punishment for his transgression, Zeus chained Prometheus to a rock, and each day for eternity Prometheus's liver was to be eaten by a huge bird and then magically restored so it could be devoured anew the next day.  Later myths say that Prometheus created man.

Significantly, perhaps, Zeus sought to counteract the blessing Prometheus had given mortals by having a woman made from clay and adorned with gifts from all the gods.  Her name was Pandora ("all-giving"), and when she opened her mysterious jar, "All human ills and evils flew out and covered the world."

Themes and ideas in Frankenstein to consider as you read:

Education—good and bad
Science and technology—good or bad
A world abandoned by its Creator
Birth and childbirth
Prometheus, the champion of humankind
Importance of family and social relations
Isolation/alienation
Guilt
Characters as doubles/twins/halves of one whole
Masculinity and femininity
Concentric narrative structure (frame tale)
Emotion vs. Intellect
The conscious vs. the unconscious mind
Sexuality vs. asexuality or anti-sexuality
The power of the imagination
Rousseau's "noble savage"
Ambition and pride—consider especially Milton's Paradise Lost or the story of Lucifer/Satan
 
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