Mary Shelley and Frankenstein

Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley was the daughter of literary parents –– Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin –– both of whom courted controversy.

Wollstonecraft, the author’s mother, had sexual affairs with men, a child before Shelley out of wedlock; she criticized women’s conventional roles and femininity, and advocated for equality for women. Wollstonecraft is often cited by modern feminists and is considered a pioneer in feminist thought. Wollstonecraft died eleven days after giving birth to Shelley. Her writings remained a lasting influence on her daughter.

William Godwin was a political philosopher, a novelist and an early advocate of anarchism, and an advocate for the abolition of marriage. Godwin is said to have given Shelley a thorough but unorthodox education, encouraging her to pursue her own liberal ideals.

Frankenstein: or, the Modern Prometheus is a monumental work of Gothic fiction, published in 1818. The novel appeared at a time when churches were being built in great numbers to consolidate the dominance of Christianity, especially in Britain, Shelley crafted a tale where a man desecrates graves and collected body parts of the dead in an effort to reconstruct and resurrect a human — effectively assuming the role of God.

Secular views existed; however, they were not welcomed with the same temper as we see in the 21st century. And even though Shelley explored how tampering with nature and what secrets lie beyond the grave led to Dr. Frankenstein’s downfall, she was still a woman in a man’s world, tackling a subject that may have been perceived by many as blasphemous.

Though Mary Shelley’s novel was dismissed by some critics simply because she was a woman, and by others who claimed she was riding on the coattails of her famous parents, Frankenstein quickly grew in popularity, segueing into other media, and foreign translations by 1821.

Shelley herself was ostracized throughout her life, from her unorthodox and politically charged parents, to her own affair with a married man, whom she would later marry, parts of society found her wanting.  Three of Mary’s four children died, one from a premature birth. Her husband died from drowning. Some people have suggested that Frankenstein’s theme of resurrection was inspired by Mary Shelly’s many losses.

Frankenstein touched on many engaging themes: abandonment, science, language and communication, revenge, responsibility, parenting and metaphysics… As the monster grew in intelligence and awareness, it sought acceptance –– its place in society – and a mate. Even its creator, Victor Frankenstein, refused to accept responsibility for his own creation. Cast to the shadows, its already fragile psyche shattered by loneliness and rejection, the monster turned to revenge and to flight.

That we can reject and fear people for their appearance, or the light they cast upon weaknesses or faults we’d rather not see as our own, is not one of our best impulses. In all of us there is also a part of the monster that asks the best in others for love and acceptance.

Kaja Blackley is the author of Maggie MacCormack and the Witches’ Wheel Wheel is on sale now:

Portrait by Richard Rothwell