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The following paper by Karen Pereira, a student in my Honors British
Literature class, explores the multifaceted autobiographical allusions in Frankenstein
and is presented here as a model of analytical excellence.
Frankenstein as Mary Shelley's Autobiography
by Karen Pereira
In Frankenstein, Mary Shelley presents a novel about Victor Frankenstein, a young man who sets out to make a living creature only to be horrified by the result of his labors. When the monster is repelled by even his creator because of his physical deformities, he seeks to educate himself and to ask Frankenstein to make a mate for him. However, when Frankenstein refuses finish his second creation, the monster avenges himself upon his maker, and Frankenstein seeks to redeem himself by destroying his first creation, pursuing the monster until his own death. Though the novel seems to only follow the purely imaginative horror of a gothic work, Frankenstein may have more autobiographical significance than it may appears; it parallels Shelley's experiences and stems from her preoccupation with abandonment of dependant relationships, whether during creation, maternity, labor, or as a result of death. As demonstrated by Shelley's personal diary, the novel itself, and its Preface, Frankenstein was born out of Shelley's natural fears and connects to not only to the events in the novel, but also to specific names and dates. Throughout the novel, Mary Shelley discusses many issues concerning relationships that dramatize aspects of her own life, namely her birth and childhood, her mother's death, her recent miscarriage and new child, and her experiences of the events that occurred in the summer of 1816.
Shelley didn't have a direct literary goal when writing Frankenstein. Though it is often considered her greatest work, she did not take full credit for the novel's birth but rather attributed it to what was around her at the time. Invention, Shelley says, does not consist in creating out of void, but out of chaos; the materials must, in the first place, be afforded; it can give form to dark, shapeless substances but cannot bring the substance itself (xxvi). Thus, she states that the novel's substance itself is autobiographical. Considering her past, it is not surprising she seized the capabilities of the subject and . . . molding and fashioning ideas suggested by it, (Shelley xxvi) mainly the ideas of creation and abandonment she feared and with which she had experience . Yet, the purpose behind her invention might seem unclear.
Though there were many gothic influences around Shelley in 1816, she wrote Frankenstein as neither finished gothic nor a science fiction novel. Actually, the focus of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein has more to do with everyday relationships than with the misuse of science or how to enjoy a good 'gore fest'. It is horror but its ghoulishness involves the way that we treat each other and how self-centered we can be when chasing our ambitions (Patterson). Shelley was familiar with the horrors of relationships. From her birth, mother's death, and isolated childhood to her marriage, miscarriages, and new child, Shelley probably had more on her conscious mind than creating best gothic or the first sci-fi literature. Frankenstein also differs from much science fiction and Gothic conventions [and] . . . stands in sharp contrast both to Enlightenment rationality and the scientific objectivity of modern science fiction in its sense of the strange and the irrational (Harris-Fain [ed.]). Rather than writing with any motives, Shelley must have created the novel with her own experiences and fears in mind. She states in the 1831 Preface to the novel that, the opinions which naturally spring from the character and situation of the hero are by no means to be conceived as existing always in my own conviction; nor is any inference justly to be drawn from the following pages as prejudicing any philosophical doctrine of whatever kind (xxx). Without the intention of making a statement, Shelley simply wrote to express herself. Thus, in some respects, Frankenstein can be considered more an autobiographical work than anything else.
Yet, the theory that Frankenstein is based on Shelley's life is not simply an idea; it finds its roots in not only the events, but also specific names and dates in the novel. The letters from Walton to Margaret Walton Saville, whose initials like Mary Shelley's were MWS, are written from 11 December 17--to 12 September 17-; Shelley's third pregnancy as well as the period in which she wrote Frankenstein were very similar to the dates. In fact, the Creature was made in 1797, the very year Shelley was born, and the novel follows his journey until its conclusion in the beginning of September 1851. In particular, Mellor uses evidence in the novel to prove that the novel ends just two days before Shelley death, saying that the novel is born out of a 'doubled fear, the fear of a woman that she may not be able to bear a healthy normal child and the fear of a putative author that she may not be able to write . . .the book is her created self as well as her child . . . Mary Shelley thus symbolically fused her book's beginning and ending with her own- . . .all be seen as the consequence of the same creation, the birth of Mary Godwin." (Griffith)
Shelley's birth as was sufficiently traumatic that she herself would have found the idea natural. Ten days after Shelley's birth, her mother Mary Wollstonecraft died of puerperal fever. It's hard to be sure at what point and to what degree Mary felt her own birth had robbed this beautiful, vital woman of her life-her mother was only thirty-eight when she died. Frankenstein's creation of a child he perceives as abhorrent may tell us something dark and troubling about Mary's view of herself (Seymour 33). Consequently, the idea that many of the deaths in the novel, namely Victor Frankenstein's death and the Creature's promised suicide stem from Shelley's first experiences with death at a young age is reasonable. In a way, Shelley was also familiar with translating birth and death into stories because she was the biographer of a whole family of writers who had delegated this task and legacy to her (Barbour) to continue . Like Shelley, Frankenstein also had a tragic life story that is told to Walton; before beginning his tale, he says, Listen to my history and you will perceive how irrevocably it is determined (Shelley 15). In Shelley's life, many things determined by birth or death were out of her control and she was left alone to face fear. She preferred the ghastly image of [her] fancy for the realities around (xxvii).
Mary Shelley channeled this fear of abandonment in one which would speak to the mysterious fears of our nature and awaken thrilling horror-one to make the reader look round, to curdle blood... (Shelley xxv-xxvi). For instance, in Frankenstein, Shelley compensates for lacking her own mother by portraying Victor's mother as ideal; Shelley could easily be the orphaned Elizabeth, the daughter Caroline never had. Yet, it is not any of the women that best parallel Shelley and her mother, but rather Frankenstein and the hurtful way he acts. Shelley's was an age in which heart triumphed over head. Frankenstein's moral failure is his heedless pursuit to know all that he might about life without taking any responsibility for his acts. His 'sin' is not solely in creating the monster, but in abandoning him to orphanhood at his birth . . . Childlike in his innocence, the monster wants only to be loved, but he gets love from neither his 'father' nor from any other in the human community. (Griffith) Ironically, Victor creates the creature in a search for a companion, and in doing so, isolates himself from all whom he loves and becomes more of a monster than his creation. By the end, the Creature is the one still truly searching for love with his head and heart.
Victor cruelly says, 'There can be no community between you and me; we are enemies' not only unveils animus toward his progeny but speaks of humanity's collective rejection . . . The perennial taboo of, not blending categories between living and dead animate and inanimate sets an absolute boundary between the dead and the living. This boundary has been overstepped by Victor Frankenstein (Mary Shelley cited by Patterson). Victor tells the Creature, You are what you are for reasons beyond yourself. You are damned by the human race for it (Shelley 86). However, Victor must have known subconsciously that there was something wrong very early since he says, I had gazed upon the fortifications and impediments that seemed to keep human beings from entering the citadel of nature, and rashly and ignorantly, I had repined. (Shelley 25) Paradoxically, he doesn't fully see that he himself not only brought the Creature into existence and then orphaned him, but also isolated himself in the process. Ironically, Frankenstein saw the nominal as a path to realistic love, but ended up abandoning his earthly relationships for curiosity, earnest research to learn the hidden laws of nature..." (Shelley 22). Strangely enough, Frankenstein took away what he yearned for most in the quest to find it.
Yet, though Victor fails to love and can never be one with the Creature, they play much the same role in the novel. It is possible that Victor fails to connect because the Creature reminds him too much of himself. Walton observes Frankenstein by saying that he had never seen a more interesting creature. His eyes have generally an expression of wildness, and even madness, but there are moments when . . . his whole countenance is lighted up... (Shelley 11). He becomes a victim of his weakness (Shelley, 20) to search for love, but he abandons all his natural relationships and later his creation so that he becomes isolated and unable to love at all . Victor and the Creature, like Walton, are not whole without each other; Victor has the body of a man and loses his heart while the Creature is raw and soulfully compassionate. We are unfashioned creatures, but half made up, if one wiser, better, dearer than ourselves-such a friend ought to be-do not lend his aid to the perfectionate our weak and faulty natures (Shelley 14). The Creature realizes better than Frankenstein that they will never be truly separated. Aldiss finds that this interchange of roles [between Victor and his creation] affords some expression of Mary Shelley's double life, the internal and the external. In her Journals, she speaks of herself as one who 'entirely and despotically engrossed by their own feelings, leads--as it were--an internal life quite different from the outward and apparent one.' While Victor shuns society, his creature craves it. Thus their author dramatizes the two sides of her nature."
It is not surprising that those who have not read the novel think that the monster, not his creator, is named Frankenstein. However, it is clear by Victor and the Creature's last meeting that Victor is the monster of the two. His creature was more imaginative than himself. Frankenstein's tragedy stems from his . . . own moral error, his failure to love; he abhorred his creature, became terrified, and fled his responsibilities (Bloom 6) As Bloom observes, the Creature know this and says, Shall I respect a man when he condemns me? Let him live with me in the interchange of kindness, and instead of injury I would bestow every benefit upon him with tears of gratitude at his acceptance. But that cannot be: the human senses are insurmountable barriers to our union (Shelley 134-135). As a result, they remain alone.
Considering the few relationships that Shelley presents in the novel, it is remarkable how many characters are left as orphan[s] and beggar[s] in one way or another (Shelley 18, 21). Walton by his father, Victor's mother Caroline by her father, his adopted sister Elizabeth, and the Creature all appeared to be loved strongly by their loved ones until abandoned at birth or in death. Why was Shelley so affected by emotional isolation that she felt compelled to write about it at the young age of eighteen? For an answer, it's only logical to look at her childhood to see where the Creature's abandonment and isolation found its foundation. Frankenstein himself states that no human could possess a happier childhood than him." (Shelley 23); Shelley contrasted the tragedy of her own childhood and life with idealism and purity in the novel to show horror. She herself said that she found a need to express herself and account[s] for the origins of the story by reflecting on her experiences as a young girl [to explain how that girl could] come to think of and dilate upon so very hideous an idea (xxiii).
Like Frankenstein's parents, Shelley's had a place of honor in the world she would one day enter; they influenced why she began to write for herself and her own healing. My dreams were entirely my own; I accounted for them to nobody; they were my refuge when annoyed-my dearest pleasure when free (Preface, xxiii). Thus, Frankenstein is clearly an expression of her fears for herself; only then could she release her own horrors that lived within her. Victor's poor patched creature, disowned by its creator, shunned by mankind, embodies many of its author's own orphaned feelings of sorrow, guilt, and rage (Aldiss). Consequently, Shelley associates the creation of good with horror and even death possibly because of the ugly sound of the nightly scream of animals being slaughtered at the candlelit abattoirs under Smithfield. It's easy to imagine how horrified an impressionable young Mary must have been as she learned to connect the sounds of the night to the bloody carcasses hanging . . . is this where we should look for the nightmarish image in Frankenstein of Victor torturing 'the living animal' as he gathered body parts from which to assemble his creature? (Seymour 57)
The Creature is less a monster than Frankenstein himself, yet is given thin, yellow, shriveled skin, lustrous black hair, pearly white teeth, watery eyes in large eye sockets, and straight black lips. Bloom succinctly observes that if the Creature had been made a beautiful 'monster,' or even a passable one, [he] would not have been a monster (6) at all . The Creature says to Victor: You accuse me of murder; and yet you would, with a satisfied conscience, destroy your own creature. Oh, praise the eternal justice of man!. . . . Cursed be the day, abhorred devil, in which you first saw light! 'Thus I relieve thee, my creator, . . .' thus I take from thee a sight which you abhor. Still thou canst listen to me, and grant me thy compassion (Shelley 88). Frankenstein himself doesn't even regret his creation until he looks him in the face; physical revulsion is the basis for Victor's hatred long before the Creature does anything to deserve it.
His bodily appearance is the only reason why he is rejected even by his beloved cottagers the DeLacys. It is theorized by Seymour that the alienated condition of black people must have preyed upon Mary's mind during her lonely weeks, forming a significant contribution to the intention behind the celebrated Creature she brought to life in Frankenstein (137). This idea of humanity in a physically different form eventually led to the 'torturing of living animals' as Shelley saw new African-American struggle to integrate themselves into society. Even Frankenstein has hours of despondency and solitude and persuades himself that they would [be] compassionate [to] me, and overlook my personal deformity. Could they turn from their door one, however monstrous, who solicited their compassion and friendship?" (Shelley 118) Due to his frightful appearance, the DeLacys rebuff the Creature's love and he is once again orphaned and remains isolated.
The Creature's isolation is the conception of the divided self-the idea that the civilized man or woman contains within a monstrous, destructive force-emerges as the creature echoes both Frankenstein's and narrator Robert Walton's loneliness (ed. Mudge). These three men in Frankenstein have their own individual searches for knowledge, companionship, and love, but are only to be left alone and isolated for their labors. Frankenstein yearns to educate himself and make his Creature and, in doing so, forsakes his loved ones. Walton says, these volumes were my study day and night, and my familiarity with them increased the regret which I had felt, as a child, on learning . . .[that I was not allowed] to embark in a sea faring life (Shelley 2). Yet he pursues his dream and leaves behind Margaret in the same manner that Frankenstein leaves Elizabeth for his studies. The Creature is abandoned himself and teaches himself as well only to be isolated by his own creator and the DeLacys.
Again and again, they have the desire to communicate their feelings, saying I bitterly feel the want of a friend. I have no one near me . . . who would have sense enough not to despise me as a romantic, and affection enough for me to endeavor to regulate my mind (Shelley 3). Yet, all subconsciously think that it is still a greater evil to me that I am self educated (Shelley 3) because they yearn to find love through education instead of embracing the relationships around them. In the end, all three wish for a friend or companion. Frankenstein and his monster alternately pursue and flee from one another. Like fragments of a mind in conflict with itself, they represent polar opposites which are not reconciled, and which destroy each other at the end . . . Identities merge, as Frankenstein frequently takes responsibility for the creature's actions. Mudge [ed.])
The three run parallel paths throughout the novel, seeing the hypocrisy in one another and saying there is something as work in my soul which I do not understand. I am practically industrious-painstaking, a workman to execute with perseverance and labor-but besides this there is a love . . . intertwined in all my projects (Shelley 7). By the end of their journey, the Creature knows they are together in this. Frankenstein is just as much a monster as the Creature and Walton because they deny themselves the only thing they want-love. Do you dream? Do you think that I [want] . . . agony and remorse? . . . Frankenstein went to satisfy his desire yet couldn't love. . . For while I destroyed his hopes, I did not satisfy my own desires. They were for ever ardent and craving; still I desired love and fellowship, and I was still spurned. Was there no injustice in this? Am I to be thought the only criminal when all human kind sinned against me? (Shelley 208, 211). What keeps these men from their dreams is the same thing that kept Shelley alone-What can stop the determined heart and resolved will of man? (Shelley 8)-only man himself . In a letter to Percy, she reveals this, saying oh my love you have no friends why then should you be torn from the only one who has affection for you (Bennett).
The Creature's violence stems from the desire to be loved, thus he doesn't hurt his Creator or the DeLacys, those he wishes to connect most with. Rather, he inflicts violence on innocents, seeking justice against the world for how it treated him. Frankenstein is the mind and emotions turned in upon themselves, and his creature of the mind and emotions turned imaginatively outward, seeking a greater humanization through confrontation with other selves" (Bloom 4). The Creature says, I was benevolent and good; misery made me a fiend . . . thus not the tenderness of friendship, nor the beauty of earth, nor of heaven, could redeem my soul from woe: the very accents of love were ineffectual (Shelley 80-87). The Creature is constantly searching for love even though he is polluted by crime and torn by bitterest remorse, where can I find rest, he says, but in death? (Shelly, 83). The same sentiment shared by Frankenstein and the novel was perhaps Shelley's attempt to express that as well. In her diary, she writes that Death will at length come, and in that last moment all will be a dream, (Bennett 80) a hideous dream just like those of her characters.
Nonetheless, Shelley doesn't end up alone, but elopes with Percy Bysshe; this relationship too is manifested in the Frankenstein. Her own parents were married only just before her birth, and shortly thereafter, her mother died. I could not figure to myself that romantic woes or wonderful event would ever be my lot, but I was not confined to my own identity, and I could people the hours with creations far more interesting to me at that age than my own sensations (Shelley xxiv). Nevertheless, when she finally found love, she was pressured by her husband, an aspiring writer himself, to write and live up to her parent's distinctions. Concerning the situation, Shelley writes, at this time he desired that I should write, not so much with the idea that I could produce anything worthy of notice, but that he himself might judge how far I possess the promise of better thing hereafter. Thus, she created a love between Victor and Elizabeth which was much more profound than her own, delineating of human passions more comprehensive and commanding than any which the ordinary relations of existing events can yield (Shelley xxix). This dramatization of love led to Victor's relationship that he believed could be parted by nothing less than death, saying No word, no expression could body forth a kind of relation in which she stood to me-my more than sister, since till death she was to be mine only (Shelley 21).
However, what happens to Victor and Elizabeth later can be interpreted as an expression of a contradictory sense of guilt on her own part and a reproach against her husband for his outright disregard of the emotional and physical needs of a pregnant woman (Bewell). During the pregnancy in which she wrote Frankenstein, Mary Shelley faced uncertainty , seeing as she had already suffered as miscarriage a year before. Ellen Moers was first to argue that Mary Shelley's novel should be read as "a birth myth," expressing its author's painful experience as a young woman pregnant three times between her elopement with Percy Bysshe, in 1814, and the conclusion of the novel three years later. . . Treating the novel as a displaced autobiography, Moers reads the birth of the monster as a metaphor, as a distraught young, middle-class woman's anxiety-ridden personal statement about the horrors of failed motherhood." (Bewell)
With her preoccupation with her role as a mother overwhelming her thoughts, Shelley released her frustrations into the concept of creation in Frankenstein, one of the most haunting aspects of the novel. Another is the revulsion against newborn life, and the drama of guilt, dread, and flight surrounding birth and its consequences (Bewell). This is seen in how Frankenstein deals with the unexpected death of innocent William. I was seized by remorse and the sense of guilt, which hurried me away to a hell of intense tortures, such as no language can describe. . . This state of mind preyed upon my health . . . I shunned the face of man; all sound of joy or complacency was torture to me; solitude was my only consolation-deep, dark, deathlike solitude. (Shelley 77). Shelley describes William as a little darling with sweet laughing blue eyes, dark eyelashes, curling hair, and dimpled cheeks rosy with health (53). Perhaps she is expressing her fears that her son of the same name would perish like her last child.
With the birth of William six months before and a baby daughter only four months after writing Frankenstein, Mary Shelley had the desire to give birth to herself on the page, she needed first to figuratively repeat the matricide that her physical birth all too literally entailed (Bewell). Victor often refers to his creation in these terms, saying I would account to myself for the birth of that passion which afterwards ruled my destiny I find it arise . . . swelling as it proceeding, it became the torrent which, in its course, has swept away all my hopes and joys (Shelley 24). When Victor says, I attributed the failure rather to my own inexperience and mistake than to a want of skill of fidelity (26) of others, it could just have easily been Shelley speaking about her thoughts after the miscarriage. The guilt and isolation that Shelley felt after losing her baby did not stop once she became pregnant again; rather, they intensified. As the novel progresses, this fear is manifested in Victor's thoughts: Remorse extinguished every hope. . . I lived in daily fear, lest the monster whom I had created should perpetrate some new wickedness. I had an obscure feeling that all was not over, and that he would still commit some signal crime, which by its enormity should almost efface the recollection of the past. There was always scope for fear, so long as anything I loved remained behind. (79)
Before her child is born, all of Shelley's worries of another miscarriage and the failure of her marriage culminate in dream that Frankenstein has after seeing his own creation. In Victor's nightmare, he is reunited with Elizabeth and kisses her only to have her turn into the dead corpse of his mother; he awakes to find the demonical corpse to which he had miserably given life standing over him (Shelley 44). Glance argues that Victor's mother's death brought upon his separation from Elizabeth and his labors to create new life. The dream effectively seals Elizabeth's doom; the dream follows the creation of the monster who will later transform his bride into a corpse (Glance). For Shelley, after having been scarred by her mother's death and having left her family for Percy, the only result she has to show is the corpse of her stillborn son. The horrific elements of the novel obscured the way in which it deals with problems of parent-child relationships, families, the usages of power, and justice (Aldiss). This dream is the most horrific because it paints a horrific picture of Shelley's emotions during this time which she channeled into Frankenstein. Walton's daydreams become more fervent and vivid, and Frankenstein's nightmare haunts him for the rest of his life because Shelley could relate her dreams having an impact on how she saw reality" (1).
Just as many of her characters did, Shelley says that she too had a dream that spurred creation, namely the creation of Frankenstein itself. During the summer of 1816 when Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe, and Mary Shelley stayed at Villas in Geneva, Byron apparently proposed that they each write a ghost story. When asked if she had thought of a story each morning, Shelley was forced to reply with a mortifying negative (Shelley xxvii). Then, she says, my imagination, unbidden, possessed and guided me, gifting the successive images that arose in my mind with a vividness far beyond the usual bounds of reverie. . . I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out (Shelley xxvii) . . . From then on, many of that summer's events to even the weather worked its way into Frankenstein. In fact, Frankenstein's creative process as he builds the Creature has many similarities to Shelley's description of that summer. Victor states, I furnished many of my materials; and often did my human nature turn to loathing from my preoccupation, whilst still urged on by an eagerness which perpetually increased, I brought my work near to a conclusion. The summer months passed while I was thus engaged (41).
Florescu concludes that the weather during the summer played an important role in the creation of Frankenstein and thus deserves to be mentioned. (110) Mary Shelley writes to her half-sister Fanny in June that the thunder storms that visit us are grander and more terrific than I have ever seen before. . . One night we enjoyed a finer storm than I had ever before beheld (Bennett). The scenery and weather is also dwelt upon by Frankenstein as he contemplates his creation. While I watched the tempest, so beautiful yet terrific, I wandered on with a hasty step . . . No one can conceive the anguish I suffered during the remainder of the night . . . my imagination was busy in scenes of evil and despair (Shelley 63-64). The environment Shelley was in as she wrote the novel contributed to all of soul-inspiriting fled with sleep, and dark melancholy [that] clouded [her character's] every thought. . . rain was pouring in torrents, and thick mists hid the summits of the mountains (83) all around Frankenstein as he built the Creature .
Shelley had a great deal of time to look outside because she isolated herself from her husband often. In her quiet and undramatic way, Mary had also suffered because of the relationship between Byron and Shelley. Perhaps it hurt her pride to be so intellectually discounted by Shelley, who exhibited a marked preference for Byron's company (113), or perhaps she thought, the energy of my purpose alone sustained me: my labors would soon end, and I believed that exercise and amusement would then drive away incipient disease; and I promised myself both of these when my creation should be complete (Shelley 42). Whatever the reason, Shelley and Frankenstein both abandon their loved ones during the creation of their greatest works.
Often before their elopement, Mary Shelley would write to Percy, I will seal this blessing on your lips dear good creature press me to you and hug your own Mary to your heart (Bennett) in hopes that one day her grief would end and she would get the love she had always desired . Spoken in the words of Frankenstein when discussing death of his mother, the time at length arrive when grief is rather an indulgence than a necessity; and the smile that plays upon the lips although it may be deemed a sacrilege, is not banished (28). The connection between Shelley's letters and those in the novel is undeniable as Elizabeth also uses the same words to convey her desire to be loved. If I see but one smile on your lips when we meet, occasioned by this or any other exertion of mine, I shall need no other happiness (178). Just like Shelley, Frankenstein's mother was dead, but there were things he had to do to move forward; he turned to create new life. Similarly, Shelley was distraught from the loss of her baby but put a smile of her lips and moved through her grief to have another child. Writing Frankenstein was therapeutic for her, and once she had released her feelings into the novel, she said, I bid my hideous progeny to go forth and prosper. . . But this is for myself, my readers have nothing to do with these associations (xxviii).
In conclusion, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein focused on the abandonment of relationships because of creation, labor and death. Rather than a gothic or science- fiction novel, Frankenstein is a dramatized autobiography because the relationships in the novel directly relate to Shelley's experiences. Her emotions about her mother's death, her own birth, childhood, marriage, miscarriage, children, and the summer of 1816 when she wrote the novel are all represented in Frankenstein. Thus, as demonstrated by Shelley's personal diary, the novel itself, and its preface, Frankenstein was born out of Shelley's natural fears and is an autobiographical work.
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