Mary Shelley, a brilliant novelist, created one of the most fascinating novels of the 19th century. She has had to endure many obstacles and trials in her life leading up to the creation of Frankenstein. The events that transpired during her life have left a lasting impression that can be seen in her novel. Frankenstein was inspired by a waking dream that ended her blight of writer’s block. In her wakeful dream, she sees the vestige of a pale students that later becomes the protagonist in her surgery. Then she sees a man laid out and connected to some type of machinery with, yellow speculative eyes, that later becomes the monstrous foil to her protagonist. It is fascinating to think how the first work of science fiction came about from a ghost-writing competition. In the end, Shelley won the contest where her fellow romantics stood no chance. Before Shelley began writing Frankenstein, she gave birth to a daughter, Clara, who unfortunately died six weeks later of what is believed to be sudden infant death syndrome. Distraught, Shelley would dream about her baby coming back to life again with a little warmth. Coupled with the ever-present pain of the loss of her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, Shelley’s life is darkened by the tragedy that could have been translated into her novel, Frankenstein. During Mary Shelley’s life leading up to the creation of Frankenstein, she has gone through a series of overwhelming tribulations that would drastically alter the state of any man, but did those life-altering events have any effect on the themes such as family, alienation, and creation that are centered throughout Frankenstein?
Family is one of the most important thematic ideas found in Frankenstein. Family is scattered throughout the novel from the relationship between Robert Walton and his sister Margaret Saville, to Victor’s family, and even the Creature’s desire for a female companion. There is not a moment where the family does not play a pivotal role in the action of the novel.
The same can be said for the author herself, family has played a pivotal role in the upbringing of her life. Mary Shelley was the daughter of two well renowned romantic authors, the philosopher William Godwin and prominent feminist Mary Wollstonecraft. However, Jane Clairmont was the only mother that Mary ever knew. Jane Clairmont married Godwin after the death of Mary Wollstonecraft, Shelley never got along with her mother. As a young child, she only craved the love of her mother but was denied that love by Ms. Clairmont who only cared for the welfare of her own children. Eventually, Shelley leaves her family to travel around Europe with Percy Shelley and her stepsister, Claire Clairmont. Even though her relationship with her stepmother is estranged it is interesting how Claire and Mary could still be companionable. Sibling comradery is seen throughout Frankenstein.
An example of this is the commitment that Walton has for his sister who he tells about all his adventures. However, familial strain is also seen when Victor abandons his family for his desire for knowledge of creation. The motherly love that was withheld from Shelley grew to manifest into one of Victor’s many flaws, abandonment. Or could the effects were seen in her novel be the complicated feelings of motherhood, as she just recently lost a child. An interesting point is presented by Barbara D’Amato in her research on Mary Shelley, “…Mary may have believed any child she produced would inherit the repressed, hated, and destructive parts of herself”. These maternal thoughts could have been what lead Shelley to write the Creature as an unlovable child that could only be abandoned by Victor. Likewise, to the way that Claire abandoned Shelly when she needed her maternal ministrations the most.
There are multiple orphans present in the novel, both the Frankenstein family and the De Lacey family take in outsiders like Elizabeth and Safie. However, these characters come into stark contrast with the Creature. Elizabeth and Safie take on matriarchal roles that fill the void of an absent mother figure. Throughout the novel, a family full of potential for loss, suffering, and hostility is portrayed in both novels and in real life. The Frankenstein family is desecrated by revenge and ambition, while the De Lacey family is marred by poverty, the absence of a mother, and their merciless treatment of the creature as they turn it away. Shelley has experienced most of these feelings of woe, the absence of a mother, loss, suffering, and hostility in pertinence to her family.
Examining the relationship between Victor and the creature another pair appears from their shadows, Shelley and Ms. Clairmont. Victor resembles the stepmother while Shelley the Creature. All the Creature desires are paternal love from Victor but are denied for its hideous looks. Shelley only craves love and acceptance from her stepmother as any child would but is denied it, because of Clairmont’s jealousy. Can the creature really be seen as the monster of this novel, especially when his only fault was wanting to be loved by his creator? The true monsters in this tale or both Victor and Ms. Clairmont deny love to a poor vulnerable child who only craved consolation and love.
Alienation, a theme that interlaces itself with the familial theme of the novel. Alienation is mostly seen through the protagonist, Victor. Victor begins the novel with the abandonment of his family for his pursuit of knowledge. Then he abandons his creation because of its hideous nature, even though Victor was there for every step of its creation. Alienation has caused a multitude of grief for both the characters in Frankenstein and Mary Shelley. For Mary Shelley, alienation came early in her life with issues stemming from the relationship with her stepmother. This alienation contributed to some of the thematical issues present in the family, but it goes beyond that. Shelley was also socially alienated by the time, being the daughter of Godwin who didn’t abide by what was politically correct at the time.
Her place in society never settled, especially with her affair with, married at the time, Percy Shelley. Shelley was alienated from everything but her studies and writing and her isolating life can be compared to the Creature. The creature like Shelley losses their parent and is cast aside to their own devices. The only option left for the Creature and Shelley is learning, which is what they both do when raising themselves. Yet, you can also visualize Shelley in Victor and how they both lost their mothers, the memory of their mothers cast a shadow on their lives with their legacies hanging in the balance. Victor’s mother’s last wish, “On her deathbed…She joined the hands of Elizabeth and myself: ‘My children,’ she said, ‘my firmest hopes of future happiness were placed on the prospect of your union” (Shelley). Victor’s mother leaves him with the desire for him to marry his cousin Elizabeth, to keep the family together. Shelley’s mother who was named after her left her the insecurity to live up to everything that her mother accomplished in her life. A statement brought up by Anthony F. Badalamenti brings a different perspective on the alienation felt by Mary Shelley, Mary saw her stepmother as distancing her father from her and as coming between them, adding to the hurt Mary already felt by her father favoring her half-sister Fanny, born of Mary’s natural mother”. Again, the source of alienations is sourced back to the family, specifically her stepmother who seems to be the cause of a lot of Shelley’s strife.
Creation, a central theme, is present inside and outside Frankenstein. Creation is the job of the all-powerful, God, not mere mortals like Victor Frankenstein. Victor plays at being a god as did the titan Prometheus. Prometheus stole fire from the gods to give to the mortals and because of that was punished by Zeus to have his entrails picked at by an eagle for all eternity. Fire is what sparked the evolution of mankind into the intelligent species we are today, but why did Shelley name Frankenstein after Prometheus? The answers might lie in Victor’s endeavors to create, to give life to the lifeless, to animate the inanimate- maybe it was not an attempt at mocking the gods but from a desire to seek and acquire knowledge. This desire is shared with Victor’s creator Mary Shelley, who sought to write just as well as her parents. Was Victor’s desire for knowledge over creation pushed along by something or is it the author’s own desire manifesting through Victor?
After the death of Victor’s mother, he escapes to university where he spends two years in his quest to make life. Coincidentally, it took two years for Shelley to complete her writings of and birth, Frankenstein, through publication. An article by Rose Lucas brings up a new observation of the birth of the creature, “This creature, formed, a little like the goddess Athene, out of Victor’s conscious will and scientific intellect…”. The Creature’s creation is being compared to the birth of the goddess of wisdom and war, who was birth from the head of her father, Zeus. The creature is born asexually just like Athena and Shelley’s Frankenstein. Maybe the asexual birth present in the novel where a result of Shelley’s feelings toward birth and creation. As she is writing Frankenstein, Shelley deals with the loss of her two-moth-year-old baby who died in its sleep. Shelley could feel inadequate in her powers of creation like a mother, unable to revive the child she still weeps milk for.
A theme as dangerous as any hero’s hubris, ambition has great potential to sour and become evil. Victor’s ambition is what drives him to create the Creature. In his ambition, he gives no pause to the consequences his actions might incur. Ambition is Victor’s fatal flaw and leads to the downfall of everyone around him, but how does ambition tie in with Shelley? Shelley isn’t viewed as someone greatly ambitious such as Victor. However, Shelley has had moments of ambition that have altered the course of her life for the better or worse. An example of this ambition is her pursuit of the married Percy Shelley. Shelley perused her love for Percy even though she knew he was married and even went against the wishes of her father who forbade her from seeing him. Yet, nothing could stop the ambitious love that overwhelmed Shelley. Similarly, nothing could stop Victor’s ambitions from creating life. Although Victor and Shelley’s ambitions bore fruit it was not in the way they would have expected.
Victor’s ambitions lead him to his monstrous creation and the downfall of her family. Shelley’s ambitions lead her to pregnancy and eventual marriage to the love of her life Percy, all for the price of poor Harriet, Percy’s first wife. Ambition is a double edge sword that cuts from both ends. Shelley’s ambitious pursuit of her lover Shelley leaves only fates retribution, “Poor Harriet, to whose sad fate I attribute so many of my heavy sorrows, as the atonement claimed by fate for her death”. This quote was written twenty years after the death of Harriett with Shelley’s sorrowful life in reflection. One can only ascertain that Shelley blames the harsh events on her life on herself, because of Harriet’s suicide. When Harriett committed suicide, she was pregnant along with Shelley. Could the horror of her husband’s ambitious mistress being pregnant at the same time as she, been the catalyst that lead to her demise. Still, all forms of ambition cannot be considered evil. Walton is just as ambitious as Victor, but Walton chooses to abandon his ambitions for the safety of his crew. Unlike, Victor who threw caution in the wind and got crushed under the consequences. Just as Shelley’s ambition to complete her novel bore no bad intent.