Mary Shelley (1797-1851) was born Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin to two of the most renowned intellectuals of the time. Her mother, a radical feminist, Mary Wollstonecraft (A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, 1792) and her father, William Godwin (Enquiry Concerning Political Justice, 1793) did not believe in the institution of marriage, and Mary was born into a family steeped in intellectual pursuits. Early in her childhood, Mary faced familial displacement. After her mother passed away, Godwin married Mary Jane Clairmont, who brought her own children into the house. Mary had to compete for the affections of her own father, and this, coupled with the intense pedantry of her family, incited in her a sense of alienation.
This alienation was impelled when Mary Jane Clairmont decided to send her away to Scotland for health reasons. However, this allowed Mary a sense of newfound freedom, which fuelled and fostered her creative imagination. It was in November 1812 that she returned home for a short visit and met Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley and his wife Harriet Shelley. In a few years, Shelley abandoned his wife and child and eloped with Mary. They were in Geneva when Mary met Lord Byron, and started to write Frankenstein. This novel, which started out as a short horror story, has its origins in the literary trope of Gothic fiction and elements of horror.
Frankenstein is rooted in the scientific projects of the time, investigations into the states of life and death, and attempts to understand these better. People wondered at the thin line between life and death and how easily this line could be breached.
In 1744, two doctors William Hawes and Thomas Cogan set up the Royal Humane Society in London. This society aimed to publish information so people could resuscitate others who were thought to have drowned, many as attempted suicides. Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary Shelley’s mother, was one such survivor who was resuscitated to life, though unhappily. People were constantly plagued by the idea that death might not be as permanent as it seemed, and that people may seem dead but not be so and thus, “rise from the dead”. There was an underlying uncertainty about the states of life and death, especially after the resuscitations at the Royal Humane Society. Along with this, Luigi Galvani observed that parts of the dead human body could be made to move or twitch upon the application of electric current and he called this process galvanism. All these events were additive to the element of terror in the novel.
Meanwhile, leading up to the publication of Frankenstein was a debate between John Abernethy and William Lawrence, two surgeons of the Royal College of Surgeons. They argued on the differences between the living or organic body and dead or inorganic body. Abernethy believed that life was a ‘superaddition’ to the physical body, a force independent of the physiological existence and state of the human body. Lawrence, on the other hand, viewed life as simply the mechanical functioning driven by the physical processes of the human body.
Speaking of literary categorisations, Frankenstein would probably locate itself as a Gothic and Romantic fiction, seeing as how it has conspicuous elements of both. Gothic fiction tries to bridge the gap between the mortal world and the supernatural plane. Frankenstein’s monster forms a link between the supernatural elements it represents and the mortal world of its creator Victor Frankenstein. The novel’s Romanticism arises from its fascination and obsession with death.
Mary Shelley died on February 1, 1851. Ironically, her most acclaimed novel is, among many things, a comment on art and death. Subtitled “The Modern Prometheus”, Frankenstein invokes ideas of the insidious creation of man against the wishes of God. In Greek mythology, Prometheus was a Titan who created mankind, but more popularly, he stole fire from the gods and gave it to man. In Latin mythology, Prometheus made man from clay and water. However, the common underline in both contexts is the rebellion of man against the laws of nature, who was subsequently punished for his creation.