Autobiographical Elements in Frankenstein
Table of Contents
Mary Shelley’s Novel, Frankenstein is imbued with many autobiographical elements of Mary Shelley’s childhood days as well as her teenage.
In the long eloquent address of the monster we can find Mary Shelley’s own tragic experience as a child. After the death of her mother, William Godwin married again- an already married woman who had children of her own. Mary was not sent to any school, the step mother being averse to women’s education, her father yields to her wishes. Much that Mary learnt at home, especially the library of her father. Completely neglected as she was, the relation between her and her step-mother became more and more edgy. As a result she was sent to Scotland to stay with the Baxter family with which she had a pleasant understanding and where she found love, peace and harmony. She spent several months with this family on each of the two occasions of her visit. Finally, when she returned home, she found a set of intellectuals with her father and she then eloped with an already married poet Percy Shelley. Much later her father’s neglect led to the tragic suicide of her step-sister. We can read much of Mary’s own life in various embedded narratives of her novel, Frankenstein.
The Monster’s Self-Education, A Parallel To Mary Shelley’s Self-Education
The creature’s discovery of the satchel of books is one of the most significant events in the novel. The Sorrows of Young Werther and Paradise Lost are arguably two of the greatest books in the history of world literature : they thus serve as examples of the highest beauty which mankind is capable of producing. Similarly, Plutarch’s Lives exalts the work of heroes, thereby providing another illustration of human virtue and accomplishment :
“One night during my accustomed visit to the neighbouring wood where I collected my own food and brought home firing for my protectors, I found on the ground a leathern portmanteau containing several articles of dress and some books. I eagerly seized the prize and returned with it to my hovel. Fortunately the books were written in the language, the elements of which I had acquired at the cottage; they consisted of Paradise Lost, a volume of Plutarch’s Lives, and the Sorrows of Werter. The possession of these treasures gave me extreme delight: I now continually studied and exercised my mind upon these histories, whilst my friends were employed in their ordinary occupations.”
The catalogue of books to which the monster refers to during his dialogue with Victor forms part of Mary Shelley’s library of books. Mary Shelley’s self-education through her own reading finds a parallel in the monster’s self-education in the novel, Frankenstein. The sense of alienation and isolation felt by Victor and the monster also reflects the sense of alienation and isolation felt by the author Mary Shelley during her childhood as she has been ill-treated by her step-mother.
- Frankenstein as an Enduring Cultural Myth
- Themes of Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
- Historical Background of Frankenstein
- Frankenstein Characters List
- Narrative Techniques in Frankenstein
- Frankenstein as a Gothic Novel
Resemblance Between The Story Of Frankenstein And Mary Shelley’s Biography
Mary Shelley is haunted by birth and death. This ambivalent attitude of the author towards her work mirrors the turmoil of her own experiences with procreation. Significantly, in both her life and fiction, every birth manifests itself as potential catastrophe, with the body of the newborn shockingly transfigured into the monstrous corpse awaiting resuscitation in its mother’s dream. Following the death of her first, prematurely born daughter in February 1815, Mary Shelley noted in her journal
“Dream that my little baby came life again that it had only been cold and that we rubbed it by the fire and it lived -I awake and find no baby- I think about the little thing all day.”
With the above documentary evidence, it is not difficult to trace pertinent resemblance between the story of Frankenstein on the one hand and Mary Shelley’s biography on the other. Haunted by her baby’s death and vainly conjuring possibilities of reviving her, Mary Shelley was also deeply shocked by the knowledge of her own mother’s death in giving birth to her. It seems important to note here that all her life, Mary Shelley felt responsible for causing the demise of her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, who was a woman of strong political convictions and the author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), which became the conceptual corner stone of the nineteenth century British feminist movement.
Frankenstein’s central vision of an artificial reanimation of the dead may well find its roots in the author’s painful loss of her mother and her firstborn child. This may also explain the novel’s intensity of feeling as well as its sudden mood swings from parental love to guilt and disgust and from filial subservience to anger and resentment. However, it took a casual story. writing competition between Mary, her husband Percy, Lord Byron and Byron’s friend Polidori for her wilful fantasy to surface and take narrative shape.
In Frankenstein, we find embedded references to abortion. Victor calls his monster an abortion”. Further after making elaborate preparations for creating the female monster, he aborts the attempt by tearing the parts of the would-be female monster to pieces and later takes them to a lake and throws it there. In view of this some critics even approach Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein as an allegory of childbirth. Just as Mary Shelley was deeply affected by the death of her mother in the process of giving birth to her, in the novel, Victor Frankenstein is deeply affected by the death of his mother. This makes him probe the secret of life. He feels that in order to animate life, he must study death. After elaborate experimentation, he animates the monster out of the parts of the dead collected from various charnel-houses.
However, not only the scientific themes and the pressing emotional issues that inform Frankenstein are inspired by the author’s real-life experiences and circumstances. According Chris Baldick in Frankenstein Shadow : Myth Monstrosity and Nineteenth Century Writing, the autobiographical dimension of Frankenstein is perhaps the most conspicuous in the novel’s manifold references to Mary Shelley’s immediate family and friends. Pointing out that the names of some of the character of the novel are drawn from Mary Shelley’s acquaintances, Baldich write
“Elizabeth was the name of Percy Shelley’s sister and his mother, and Victor was a name adopted in boyhood by Percy himself a fact which has encouraged some commentators to identify him too hastily with Victor Frankenstein when his portrait is given more clearly in the character of Henry Clerval. William was the name just not of Mary Shelley’s father but also her half-brother and of the son she was raising while writing the novel.”
In Victor’s discarding his own creation, there is a double edged critique of William Godwin’s concept of Utopia, where children would be produced by what he calls social engineering and rules out the need of sexual intercourse between man and woman as well as Mary Shelley’s criticism of parental neglect (Godwin’s neglect of Mary is on record). When the creature stretches its hands towards his creator, the scene is full of pathos. Mary Shelley is appearing to be parodying the world-famous fresco on the Sistine Chapel executed by Michelangelo.
Victor is a modern scientist unleashed upon an unsuspecting society. Not fully aware of the consequences of his creating a new race of humans, he spends his entire life trying to destroy the same creation. Victor is also the unbridled ego who must satisfy his urge to know all and use that learning to create a new race of man. His excesses ultimately destroy him. Victor represents the id, the part of the psyche that is governed by the instinctive impulses of sex or aggression.
Mary Shelley’s Lifelong Interest In Science Reflected In Her Hero Frankenstein
Mary Shelley had a lifelong interest in science and kept current with the leading theories and experiments of the nineteenth century. Although Victor Frankenstein’s method of making the creature is not detailed in the novel, Shelley describes Victor’s fascination with electricity and refers to his infusion of a spark of being into the lifeless thing.”
“Perhaps a corpse would be reanimated,” she writes in the 1831 preface to the novel. “Galvanism had given token of such things: perhaps the component parts of a creature might be manufactured, brought together, and endued with vital warmth.” During the summer of 1816, she, Byron, and Shelley speculated about Darwin and his search for the origins of cellular life, and “the nature of the principle of life, and whether there was any probability of its ever being discovered and communicated.”
In the nineteenth century, scientific probing of the limits of life and death belied optimism about discovering the secrets of immortality. “The possibility itself was much more pleasing than I think it would be for people at the end of the twentieth century,” says Lederer.
When it was first published, critics held that Frankenstein presented a negative view of science. According to Betty Bennett, the exhibition’s literary consultant, the interpretation of the book’s use and treatment of science has since changed. “The book is not a warning against science at all,” she says. “Mary Shelley used science as a metaphor for any kind of irresponsible action and what she really was concerned with was the politics of the era and the way the monarchy was operating in the interest of relatively few people.”