As we begin to compare Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley, it is interesting to see the observations once made by William Godwin. As Shelley’s father and Wollstonecraft’s husband, few knew both figures as well as he did. Godwin noted that his time spent with Shelley was different as it was bright and joyful, and he would ‘never anticipate the evil day’ (Marshall 183). While Shelley’s mother passed away almost immediately after she was born, Shelley was impacted by her mother’s beliefs and influence, especially in issues involving women’s education and feminism. Multiple scholars have noticed how much influence Wollstonecraft had on Shelley, and many attribute this to Shelley’s desire to learn about the mother she never met. Many of Wollstonecraft’s literary elements were woven into Shelley’s works, reflecting some of the psychological need to know and understand who her mother was. In fact, Shelley first learned to read and write at her mother’s tombstone, revealing the kind of connection she yearned for. Looking into the works of both Wollstonecraft and Shelly, while there are definite similarities, there are also definite differences, despite how much Wollstonecraft influenced Shelley’s writing.
Wollstonecraft was well known in the literary world during her time. As the daughter of an esteemed author, there is no doubt that Shelly was born into a literary legacy. However, it is astonishing that, as much as Wollstonecraft is renowned as a feminist critic, who many regard as the original pioneer for women’s rights, Shelley wrote her first novel without considering any development concerning the female characters. At first glance, the roles of the female characters in Shelley’s Frankenstein, her first novel, went against all the advancements in society that Wollstonecraft had hoped and fought for. According to Wollstonecraft, women were supposed to intelligent, educated, and independent.
In Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Women, she argues for women and provides counters regarding the stereotypes that they faced. Wollstonecraft also fought to establish the fundamental notion that both men and women were equal and thus, deserved equal rights. However, in Shelley’s literary work, Frankenstein, she portrayed women as uneducated people who were not only passive and lacked quality characteristics, but also seemingly satisfied with how the society looked at and treated them. By the time the novel came to an end, the women in Frankenstein were either driven out or killed. This kind of contradiction between the two writers has prompted a long discussion among various writers and critics.
Considering that Wollstonecraft advocated for women’s rights as well as education, her daughter’s critics and scholars often look at her works keenly and cautiously with the hope that they will find Wollstonecraft’s work in that of her daughter, Shelley. Shelley did not know her mother, but she grew up with the beliefs and voice in her writings and all the teachings that Wollstonecraft had left behind. According to Florence Marshall, Shelley had internal thoughts concerning her mother and the works that she wrote. Marshall mentioned this aspect in her analysis, The Life and Letters of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, and she noted that Shelley was “proud of her parentage, [idolized] the memory of her mother…” (Marshall 36). Marshall depicted Shelley as someone who treasured all the information that she obtained concerning her mother. Additionally, as someone who was also in the literature field, she began to understand about the message that Wollstonecraft conveyed. As much as Wollstonecraft was never present in Shelley’s life, Shelley’s lifestyle, as well as her writings, demonstrated the impact from that of her mother.
One other argument that Wollstonecraft and Shelley are nearly identical is because Shelley supposedly treated the women characters in her literary work the same way Wollstonecraft would have treated them. As such, Shelley did not denounce feminism and undermine the teachings that her mother left concerning female characters. However, most critics are not sure whether they should consider Wollstonecraft as an imperative influence in the work of Shelley. Most of them have suggested that the works of these two women should not be associated but rather, treated as two isolated and separate writers. The arguments of these critics are that Shelley drew her inspiration from the experiences that she gained as a female writer during her time rather than directly from Wollstonecraft. According to Vanessa Dickerson, much of Shelley’s personal experiences stemmed from the fact that she grew up in the 19th century, a time when women were looked down upon by society and considered as the weaker sex. From Dickerson’s argument, the societal perception of women during that time shaped the literary skills of Shelley, as she depicts the women in the works of Shelley as ‘present but absent’ (Dickerson 80). Dickerson expresses the struggles that Shelley went through as a woman in the 19th century and maintains that these ordeals are distinct in the literary works of Shelley.
Linda Gill also upholds the argument of Dickerson. However, she differs slightly in the argument because, according to her, Shelley, through her work, shows that “women are right to be paranoid, that women are killed by patriarchs and the power structure they perpetuate” (Gill 93). Shelley uses her literary work to twist the formula of Gothic Romance and highlight the concern that women are not safe in this world because of societal perceptions on at the time. The world that Shelley portrayed on women was full of violence, both social and physical, and women died in the male-dominated surrounding that they had to navigate through (Taniyan 6). Just like Dickerson, Gill does not show any indication that Shelley was influenced by Wollstonecraft. Rather, Shelley got the influence from the kind of notion that women experienced from society during her time. Therefore, both Wollstonecraft and Shelley got similar experiences from society, which pushed them to engage in feminist writings. It is the method of portrayal in which their styles differ.
In “A Mother’s Daughter: An Intersection of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman” by Charles E. Robinson, each of the two writers present the same literary themes. According to Robinson, “if we look with care… we can find Mary Wollstonecraft lurking in the corners of Mary Shelley’s most famous novel” (Robinson 132). Therefore, Robinson depends on the literary works of the two writers to bring about the textual evidence that concerns them both. Primarily, the most visible connection between Wollstonecraft and Shelley is obvious in the relationship that Safie’s and her mother depict in Shelley’s Frankenstein. The same role that Wollstonecraft played in the life of Shelley is the same one portrayed in Safie’s mother, who does not appear directly in the text. In the same way, Shelley did not get to see her mother.
The theme of education is imperative in the literary works of these two writers. Shelley grew up reading the literary works of Wollstonecraft, and she ‘could not have failed to notice that her mother’s overtly didactic and argumentative Vindication… addressed the same issues that […] Shelley herself was addressing’ (Robinson 133). Shelley reflects the elements in the beliefs of Wollstonecraft concerning the education of women in her work. According to Wollstonecraft, extreme private or extreme public schooling was never a suitable education (Buss et al.). She argued that public schooling sends children away from their homes while private schooling advocated for education, which isolated children from their homes (Davis 307). Wollstonecraft argued that parents were better placed to support the education of their children in the safety and comfort of their homes. Getting an education from home was supposed to be thorough and considered to be very important. Wollstonecraft stated that a mother plays an essential role in the education of her children.
She said that for women to be great mothers, they should use their common senses and have an independent mind. This aspect was rarely attainable because women were essentially forced to depend on their husbands. Wollstonecraft insisted that people and society should seek to understand women and their characters perceived as a firm by governing their conduct on their own. Otherwise, they would never have enough command or sense to manage their children accordingly (Wollstonecraft 184). According to Wollstonecraft, mothers play a crucial role in their children’s education, and they help in the developmental process of their minds. In her work, Shelley touches on her mother’s image of a parent who doubles up as a teacher and twists this aspect to show what would happen to children if their suitable instructors failed them.
Despite the medium of literature, its representation shifts and adapts with time. Shelley wrote Frankenstein in the 1818. Wollstonecraft wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Women twenty years earlier. The argument of Wollstonecraft brought about a feminist agenda, and the reason for her work was to enlighten the society that by considering her arguments and guidelines, women will be better people (Gilbert, Sandra and Susan 221). This agenda was ideal for the society of both women during their time. As the years went by, and the world experienced technological innovations and confronted social issues through more aggressive methods. The feminist agenda, which both women pushed for fit in the atmosphere of the next centuries, 20th, and 21st.
Shelley was the daughter of Wollstonecraft and William Godwin and was born into a family that had literary fame. Moreover, Shelley also grew up into a world that desperately needed female empowerment as well as feminism. Her literary work, particularly Frankenstein, paved the path for both female novelists and horror sci-fi. The upbringing of Shelley revolved around the teachings that Wollstonecraft left behind, and her father did not follow any strict curriculum to raise her. The presentation of women in Shelley’s literary works was the embodiment of all the things that Wollstonecraft scorned, and this indicates that Shelly drew her inspiration from her mother. Moreover, she continued the conversation of Wollstonecraft and brought them indirectly, though clearly, and this shows the link between the literary works from these two people. In the recent times, the need for feminism does not relate to women being better mothers and wives, but the fact that the contemporary society should acknowledge the rights of women and advocate for the equal rights to men in both social and political capacities. Wollstonecraft and Shelley, through their literary works, portrayed female representation in a positive way during their time, and this concept has been significant with time.