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Mary Shelley's Frankenstein
Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin Shelley conceived her well-known novel, "Frankenstein," when she, her husband Percy Bysshe Shelley and their friends were at a house party near Geneva in 1816 and she was challenged to come up with a ghost story (Malchow 1993). Mary, then only 18 years old, produced the plot, largely drawn from her own experiences, perceptions and the personalities of the members of her family. These impressions are embedded in a Gothic horror romance woven through the letters of the Arctic explorer, Robert Walton, to his sister about the life of Victor Frankenstein and the monster he creates out of a desire to uncover the spark of being (James 1994). Most literature readers know the story about the monster's loneliness and rage, his victims and the guilt and torment of his creator. While terrifying in appearance, Mary also brings out the innocence, depth and longings of the hideous creature, such as by urging for a female companion and for relationship with human beings. Readers of the novel and spectators of the film version know that the narrative ends in death and sorrow, something that characterized the actual life of Mary itself and which she interpreted as an 18-year-old of the time (Malchow).
Victor Frankenstein, the major character, is a young Swiss man from Geneva, endowed a passion to uncover the fire that sparks the origin of life, to the point of creating his own idea of that origin, but out of imperfection and distortion (Shelley 1818). Victor draws his formula both from ancient alchemy and modern science out of a rage and conceit that lead to overwhelming suffering for himself and those he loves. Victor's passion, lamentations and questions about the meaning of existence parallel those of Mary's husband Percy, her mother-feminist Mary Wollstonecraft and father William Godwin.
Percy came from a conservative and aristocratic family and was well-educated like Mary's major character, Victor. Both raised questions about life's meanings and devoted themselves to the answers to those questions. Percy dedicated himself to the fight against injustice and oppression in and by society and perceived religion and codified religion as the roots of social evil (Hamberg 2003). He was a fiery disciple of Mary's father, William Godwin, who was first a minister and later became a convinced atheist. Percy's (and William Godwin's) rejection of theism comes out in Victor's inquiry into the source of being, which leads the latter to assume the role of creator of life, and in the process, distorts it. Mary, in an early age, expresses her father's and Percy's denial of a Supreme Being in the character of Victor. She illustrates Percy's horror of being an outcast, who was avoided and rejected by human society. It is precisely the monster's groaning. Mary simply supplies him with a horrifying appearance for people to behold and shun him for. Percy's and Mary's anguish and despair over the death of two of their children spill over to Victor's questioning mind over the meaning of life and the meaning of death. Victor's experiment comes from Percy's bitterness and her father's rejection of social institutions. Victor's nonconformist attitude derives from Percy's and Godwin's own. Percy eloped with Mary despite his existing marriage to Harriet Westbrook, who was also pregnant with his child when she committed suicide in reaction to the infidelity. On the other hand, William Godwin declared his belief in human perfection and ability to reason and believed that no man should restrict another. He also opposed established institutions, such as marriage, and favored the redistribution of property. The two men so influenced Mary that her main character Victor's character is basically drawn from theirs but she also names the youngest and favorite brother of Victor, William, after her father. This youngest brother is killed by Victor's monster out of vengeance and the brutal murder may be paralleled with the painful deaths of Percy's and Mary's children and her half-sister, Mary Wollstonecraft's first daughter (Hamberg).
Mary's very strong personality spills into her characters Victor and his ogre themselves in different ways. Her mother Mary came from a troubled home headed by a father who was a heavy drinker who oppressed her mother, his wife. Mary Wollstonecraft often had to intrude into the abuses of his father. The gruesomeness of her mother Mary's and her grandmother's sufferings poured into the ugliness of Victor's handiwork. Mary Wollstonecraft wrote about the disabilities, indignities and other travails of women in the English lower classes in her famous work, "A Vindication of the Rights of Woman." It also describes the agony of her abandonment by her first husband after the birth of their daughter. Mary Wollstonecraft got so depressed that she attempted suicide two times. This despair and self-destruction are reflected and ingrained in Victor's monster when Victor refuses to give him a female companion and then dies without doing so. The pangs of loneliness experienced by Mary's grandmother from the cruelty of her abusive grandfather, her mother Mary when abandoned, and her own in the hands of a stepmother, Jane Clairmont are exemplified by the confusion and isolation of Victor's monster. Mary's sense of that isolation leads her to brave an immoral reputation by eloping with a married man, something that her own mother Mary Wollstonecraft greatly suffered from in her own life. The hideousness of the combined tragedies in her grandmother's, her mother's and her own lives finds expression in Victor's monster.
Elizabeth Lavenza typifies Mary herself as the submissive woman or the tragic Harriet Westbrook who drowns herself or her oppressed grandmother. Despite her mother Mary Wollstonecraft's ferocity as a feminist, Mary's female characters are passive.
Her character, the Arctic seafarer Robert Walton, with his caring behavior towards Victor, hints at the personalities of both William Godwin and Percy who took her and her mother in and married them despite Godwin's and Percy's rejection of the social institution of marriage. William Godwin married Mary Wollstonecraft despite that rejection and her feminism and declared that nothing but his regard for his wife's happiness could have induced him to submit to the institution of marriage (Hamberg 2003). On the other hand, Percy chose Mary over his wife, Harriet, and was not moved by the latter's pregnancy. Instead, he married Mary after the death of Harriet, and shared Mary's joys and sorrows and despite his persisting sense of seclusion and senselessness in society. The union and love between her and Percy reverberates in the devotion between Victor and Elizabeth, who can afford to trust and patiently wait for Victor to come to her. Percy's acceptance of her and Godwin's acceptance of her mother Mary become more pronounced than the deprivations, grief and deaths that surround her, her grandmother, and her mother.
Mary's and Percy's comforting friendships are also reflected in the novel. Alphonse, Victor's supportive father, and Henry Clerval resound the bond that the Shelleys had with their group of friends that gathered that summer of 1816 beside Lake Geneva. Those friends were the renowned poet Lord Byron, her half-sister Claire and Byron's personal physician John William Polidori (James 1994). Byron suggested that everyone should present a ghost story, based on the fantastic or supernatural but not ghosts. The evening produced Mary's "Frankenstein" and Byron and Polidori's "The Vampyre."
The horrifying deaths of youngsters William, Victor's youngest and beloved brother, and Justine Moritz, the adopted little girl and her being accused of William's death, hint at the anguish the Shelleys went through with the deaths of their two children and those of Mary's half-sister and mother. A connection is drawn between Mary Shelley's personal and tragic circumstances and the novel's tale of creation and destruction (Tomalin 1998). What she went through without her real mother and what the Victor's monster goes through without human relationships are similarly drawn. Mary's sense of confusion, helplessness, lack of identity and direction and sense of deprivation are all experienced by Victor's creature whose only monstrosity is external. In Mary's case, the monstrosity is also internal, real and beyond control. The monster's search for company and for Victor himself resound Mary Shelley's search for her dead mother and Mary decides the search as painful and horrifying like Victor's monster.
Victor also parallels Percy and Godwin in their similar search for dangerous knowledge of the universe and of the source and basis of being (Spark Notes 2005). This ambitious activity is also shared by Robert Walton who dares cross the North Pole in the same pursuit. Mary silently suggests that this unrelenting but senseless pursuit can end only in distortion and destruction. In the novel, Walton catches the weak and sick Victor who has been stalking the monster who has destroyed his loved ones. Although Walton and Victor develop a strong friendship, that friendship is short-lived. Mary adequately expresses the repulsion and horror of Victor towards his creation, which she consciously or unconsciously uses to represent the horrors and sufferings of her grandmother and mother. Meanwhile, Walton learns from Victor's huge mistake of arrogantly trying to learn…[continue]
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