Life and works
Mary Shelley, born in 1797, was the only child of Mary Wollstonecraft, the famous feminist, and William Godwin, a philosopher and novelist. Mary’s parents were instrumental in shaping the Romantic sensibility and the revolutionary ideas of the time and from an early age she was surrounded by famous philosophers, writers, and poets. She met Coleridge when she was only two years old. Mary’s early years were influenced by a macabre Gothicism. Almost every day she would go with her father to ‘St. Pancras churchyard where her mother was buried. Godwin taught Mary to read and spell her name by having her trace her mother’s inscription on the stone. At the age of sixteen Mary ran away to live with the twenty-one-year-old poet Percy Shelley. Although she was banished from society, even by her father, this inspirational liaison helped her to produce her masterpiece, Frankenstein, when she was only nineteen. The idea for the book was conceived during one of the most famous house parties in literary history when staying at Lake Geneva in Switzerland with Byron and Shelley.
Later, the couple decided to get married. Fierce public hostility drove them to Italy where they were initially happy but where their two young children died. Mary never fully recovered from this trauma, and when she was only twenty-four, Percy Shelley drowned, leaving her penniless with a two-year-old son. Poverty forced her to live in England which she despised because of the conformism and social system. She was ignored by conventional circles and worked as a professional writer to support her father and her son. Her milieu, howewer, included literary and theatrical figures, artists, and politicians. Her other works included The Last Man (1826) which tells the story of the end of humanity, wiped out by a plague, and of the only survivor. Mary became an invalid at the age of 48. She died in 1851 of a brain tumour.
Focus on the text: Frankenstein
The story concerns a brilliant scientist, Victor Frankenstein, who believes he has discovered the secret of generating life and decides to create a living being from parts of dead bodies. However, the creature he generates turns out to be a destructive and homicidal monster who is beyond his control. The novel can be seen as a critique of male rationalism and of the idea that science can reveal all the secrets of the universe.
Through the figure of the mad scientist, Frankenstein, Mary Shelley shows us the irrational desires which lie behind supposedly rational scientific enquiry. Frankenstein gives us the first indication of the repressed side of the 19th century. The novel is subtitled The Modern Prometheus, referring to the myth of Prometheus who stole fire from the Gods and gave it to mankind. As a punishment, he was chained to a rock where an eagle ate his liver.
Frankenstein is structured as an epistolary novel and also includes aspects of Chinese-box narration. The narrator is an explorer who meets the scientist Frankenstein, now a mad and dishevelled figure, shortly before he dies. He is, Frankenstein explains, hunting the monster he has created, chasing it around the earth. But the novel is much more sophisticated than an ordinary Gothic romance. At a certain point the perspective shifts to that of the monster and we gain an insight into how an ostensibly innocent creature is corrupted by a hostile society to the point where he swears revenge.
Above all, Frankenstein is a novel about the mystery of creation in all its forms and warns of the dangers of interfering with the natural order.
Source: Thomson – Maglioni, Literary Links. Literature in time and space, Cideb, an old Italian book 2000.