How Frankenstein was Born- Mary Shelley’s Brilliant, Famous, Tragic Parents
Updated: Oct 12, 2022
Inventing the Sci-Fi genre at age 18 required a radical upbringing.
This all started because my sister bought me a stunning, green and gold-leafed, vintage-inspired copy of Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman for my birthday. With whispers in the press of Roe v. Wade about to be overturned, the topic felt timely. But I didn’t even get past the forward before having my mind thoroughly blown.
In it, I read that Wollstonecraft, arguably one of the first true Western feminists as we define the term today, was the mother of Mary Shelly, the 18-year-old author of Frankenstein and founder of the genre of science fiction.
I hadn’t known they were related.
…Maybe you knew that, but I didn’t.
And BOOM! goes the hyper-fixation. Because when you think about it — really consider the circumstances and the topics and philosophies at play here — it makes so much sense.
Wollstonecraft, the first woman in the Western world to publish such radical ideas as, “I do not wish women to have power over men, but over themselves”, and, “All the sacred rights of humanity are violated by insisting on blind obedience”, was villainized after her death in 1796. A commentator even insisted, rather overdramatically, that Wollstonecraft’s life and works be read,
“With disgust by every female who has any pretensions of delicacy; with detestation by everyone attached to the interests of religion and morality, and with indignation by anyone who might feel any regard for the unhappy woman, whose frailties should have been buried in oblivion.”
Yeesh. What a thing to say at the tragic death of a woman who’s just died in childbirth. But take a look at that word choice- “disgust”, “detestation”, “indignation”. Now imagine that baby girl growing up reading these things about a mother she never got to know.
Mary Godwin Wollstonecraft
Imagine how strange it must have felt to long for the motherly embrace of someone who “should have been buried in oblivion”. Imagine her father, deist philosopher and free love radical, William Godwin, teaching that little girl to spell her own name by tracing the letters on her mother’s tombstone. Meanwhile, he’s working on a proposal for the first-ever official registry of the burial places of people of historical import, because,
“The Dead are gone, beyond all the powers of calculation to reach. But I can never separate my idea of (her) peculiarities and (her) actions, from my idea of (her) person.” — William Godwin
This was an atheist man admitting that, though he knew full well his wife wasn’t in there anymore, he still could not seem to let go of, or discontinue mild worship of, her physical body in the form of turning the ground where it rested into consecrated land. His work reveals someone who was both conflicted with and consumed by the concept of death, never quite able to integrate his grief with his philosophy.
Full disclosure — He had originally said “his peculiarities”, “his actions”, and “his person” in the quote above, and had been referring to those famous (mostly male) names that made it onto his list. But I think (and Thomas W. Laqueur, author of The Work of the Dead: A Cultural History of Mortal Remains also suggests) that he was always thinking about her, and that the whole endeavor, combined with his years-long work on her biography, was his way of keeping her memory alive.
“It appears to me impossible that I should cease to exist, or that this active, restless spirit, equally alive to joy and sorrow, should only be organised dust — ready to fly abroad the moment the spring snaps, or the spark goes out, which kept it together. Surely something resides in this heart that is not perishable — and life is more than a dream.” ― Mary Wollstonecraft
What sort of topics might bubble to the surface when the child of these people and these circumstances grows up to become a writer herself? What might she feel the need to say, in her mother’s stead, to those “attached to the interests of religion and morality”? To those who would not take her father’s work seriously unless he was doing it for the universal, generalized “he”?
We can’t understand that without reading her work.
Behind the Halloween Masks
Full FULL disclosure — I had never read Frankenstein before I became fascinated with Mary Shelley and her parents. The combination of reading both Woolstonecraft’s book and a giant (thicc) tome about the history of dead bodies had me convinced that I’d learned everything I needed to know about her.
I mean, Frankenstein is Frankenstein, right? It’s so ingrained in our culture, so overdone. We’ve seen it over and over again in movies, Halloween specials, plays, etc.
Therefore, I was going to call it a day and declare Historical Context Accomplished when I happened to meet fellow literature nerd, PHD candidate, and writer for Modern Language Studies, Elizabeth Laughlin, who called me out the minute she found out I had an interest in (but had never actually read) Frankenstein itself.
“Ahhh. You gotta read it,” she wrote to me on LinkedIn. “I’ve read it six times. It’s actually my favorite book ever. I wrote my master’s thesis on it. What do you think you know about it?”
Easy. Mad scientist doctor pulls dead body out of ground, reanimates it with the help of his hunchbacked lab assistant. He invokes thunder, lightning, and super intense monologuing to the heavens to bring life to this bolted-together monstrosity, which is then somehow loosed upon the town. There’s also a Mrs. Frankenstein — not the doctor’s wife, the monster’s. She’s there for sexist reasons, no doubt. Probably something about satisfying the monster’s violent urges by giving him something to sex up instead. Anyway, it’s a morality tale about not messing with the laws of nature even if you really really want to because death is shitty but inevitably comes for us all. Done.
But wait… now that I knew Mary Shelley’s parental background, this interpretation didn’t make sense. Would the daughter of a seminal feminist (oxymoronic phrase) actually do the Bride of Frankenstein that dirty? And as I learned more about Shelley and all the loss she endured, I began to wonder… would she have really given a shit about respecting the laws of nature that had forsaken her so?
My new friend Liz was adamant:
“Yeah, you gotta read it. 1818 edition. Not 1831. It’s best if you read it alongside other Gothic texts, but please read Frankenstein and do yourself a favor. It will change your life.”
I read it.
And it did change my life.
The True Story of Frankenstein
What I learned is that everything I thought I knew about Frankenstein was a lie. Everything. From what the monster actually looked like to the moral of the story. Major spoilers ahead but let’s be real — are you really ever going to read it or are you reading this article specifically so you don’t have to?
Let’s get the big ones out of the way:
It’s a story within a story that Victor Frankenstein tells to a seafaring captain on an expedition to the North Pole.
Not where you’ve always pictured Frankenstein to take place, is it?
Victor Frankenstein (the man, not the monster) is dragged out of the water by a young, ambitious sea captain who’s invested his life savings into exploring places unknown and making a name for himself. You could say they’re similar in that way, which is why they grow close. Victor may have been on the run but is hesitant to reveal why. He’s given shelter by the Captain and adopted by the crew, eventually becoming comfortable enough to tell his tragic, unbelievable story. With permission, the Captain writes this story down in letters to his beloved sister.
I swear, it feels like some sort of fanfiction, but it’s the original.
Victor Frankenstein — not a doctor
We learn, as if we’re in some alternate universe, that Frankenstein was not a doctor, just a student of science from a loving Swiss family with a need to prove himself to a particularly disrespectful mentor. His childhood is based off of Mary Shelley’s husband Percy, who became interested in science as a young boy, was mercilessly bullied for it, and would chase his sisters around with pyrotechnics and acid.
In the book, though? There's no flash of lightning or clash of thunder. There's no hunchbacked lab assistant, either, so it really doesn’t matter whether it’s pronounced Eye-gor or Ee-gor. Sorry, Marty.
Victor’s just a young guy attempting to bring a body to life in what’s essentially his dorm room. And when he manages it, he races out of the place in shocked horror at what he’s done, abandoning his Creation to go hang out with his visiting friend for a few days. When he comes back, he’s relieved to see the thing has somehow escaped and hopes he never has to deal with it again.
Not only is Victor Frankenstein himself not the arrogant, much older doctor I’ve always seen him depicted as, but the thing he creates is not green and has no bolts. In fact,
“His limbs were in proportion, and I had selected his features as beautiful. Beautiful! Great God! His yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath; his hair was of a lustrous black, and flowing; his teeth of a pearly whiteness; but these luxuriances only formed a more horrid contrast with his watery eyes, that seemed almost of the same colour as the dun-white sockets in which they were set, his shrivelled complexion and straight black lips.” — Frankenstein monologue from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein
What he’s saying is that the creation was made from beautiful parts, but the creator didn’t account for the fact that death itself is still so ugly.
Themes of Frankenstein
I could easily go off on a tangent about what it means that we’ve shifted even the fundamental aesthetic of “Frankenstein’s monster” (who was never given a name in the book), but there are far more important thematic differences between the book and the adaptations that I want to discuss.
The adaptations are all about morbid curiosity, testing limits, and legacy. The monster seeks revenge against the world on behalf of his creator. Very traditionally “masculine” concepts. The book, on the other hand, is about birth and child-rearing, abandonment and responsibility, trauma and longing.
Much like the author herself — who was 16 when she met a 22-year-old married man, ran off with him, and became pregnant with his child — Victor Frankenstein has no real concept of what he’s gotten himself into. He’s created a life and finds himself suddenly, utterly responsible for it. In some ways, the idea of that is more terrifying than the monster’s appearance.
It’s important that he’s young.
I don’t know why this has gotten so warped in the adaptations. Even Gene Wilder, supposedly the Young(-est) Frankenstein, was 41 when that parody came out.
It’s important that Victor makes the sort of choice an ignorant young man with no resources and no life experience would make. It’s the same choice Mary’s then-lover, Percy Shelley, made when he left his pregnant wife, Harriet, to be with Mary. He then made that choice over and over again as they fled homes to escape debtors, as they dragged Mary’s sister into the mix, as he had multiple babies by multiple women.
Percy declared his love for Mary in the cemetery where her mother was buried — an abandoner courting the abandoned. Mary didn’t consciously blame her mother for her abandonment and she didn’t initially blame Percy for abandoning his wife, but her longing for her mother and her eventual regret over Percy’s decisions aren’t the least bit veiled in the book.
The Tragedy of Frankenstein
The Shelleys would be forced to travel across Europe, writing all the time to Percy’s abandoned wife and their respective estranged fathers to implore them to send money. One of Mary’s sisters kills herself. The other becomes pregnant by the famous poet, Lord Byron, then starts an affair with Percy. Shelley’s first wife kills herself while pregnant with his child. Mary loses her first daughter to premature childbirth, loses her second daughter to illness while traveling, loses an adopted daughter (Percy’s by birth, not Mary’s) while the parents are away on a trip. Finally, they lose their firstborn son to malaria.
And that’s all of Mary’s children, dead. All of them.
But it doesn’t stop there…
Her sister’s daughter to Lord Byron dies of typhoid. Mary becomes pregnant again and almost dies in childbirth just like her mother. Despite all of her own pain and grief, Mary spends much of her time and effort consoling her husband through his regular hallucinations of being attacked by “living corpses”. All of this takes place in the seven years they’re together before Percy himself dies in a shipwreck.
She started writing Frankenstein after the death of her first child, if you’re wondering. She wrote it for a ghost story competition Lord Byron himself initiated when they were stuck inside his manor during a particularly dreary summer. She already had enough grief to fill a novel but then it just kept coming.
Through Science Fiction, Mary could give her avatar the power to defy death as well as the expectations of his bully mentor, as a wounded Percy wished he could have done to his own childhood tormentors, and as she, perhaps, thought she was doing when she eloped with Percy against her father’s wishes.
In real life, all she could do to stem the tide of her grief was to put her faith in love and in new life. All she could do to ease the inherited trauma of her husband was to become a lightning rod for his misplaced hurt and rage.
Within the narrative, Mary doesn’t chide Victor Frankenstein for his desire or even for abandoning his creation. The book wouldn’t be what it is if she had. She simply lays out the circumstances, with heroic empathy for all involved, and lets the consequences speak for themselves.
Off on his own, living in the forest, the creation learns about his world. He learns what’s safe to eat and how to protect himself from the elements. He finds a lovely little family living in a modest cottage and watches them from the treeline. He learns how to talk and read; learns about values, morals, hardships, and community. Oh, and, when the creation finds Victor and corners him into listening to his tragic tale of what’s happened to him since he was abandoned (told within Victor’s story within the Captain’s story), we find out this supposed “monster” is eloquent as hell:
“I admired virtue and good feelings and loved the gentle manners and amiable qualities of my cottagers, but I was shut out from intercourse with them, except through means which I obtained by stealth, when I was unseen and unknown, and which rather increased than satisfied the desire I had of becoming one among my fellows. The gentle words of Agatha and the animated smiles of the charming Arabian were not for me. The mild exhortations of the old man and the lively conversation of the loved Felix were not for me. Miserable, unhappy wretch!” — The Creation’s Monologue from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein
As an outspoken feminist woman, Mary Wollstonecraft (the author's mother), certainly understood this feeling of exclusion. And yet, in her writings before Mary Shelley is born, Wollstonecraft displayed a certain empathy for her oppressors. “No man chooses evil because it is evil,” she once wrote, as if speaking directly to her daughter. “He just mistakes it for happiness, the good he seeks.”
In the book, Victor Frankenstein doesn’t abandon his creation to be cruel. He’s scared, in over his head, and he feels remorse for taking his normal life for granted. The subsequent murder his creation commits is out of fear and anger at being abandoned by his “father”, chased through the streets with fire and pitchforks, and rejected by his beloved cottagers. It wasn’t meant to become a spree. He was never thinking that far ahead.
Victor at first refuses to hear his creation out about how miserable, lonely, and afraid he is, and so the creation uses violence to get his “father’s” attention. Someone has to pay for that violence and so an innocent person is put to death. Wanting to put a stop to it as much as Victor, the creation begs his creator to make him a companion, someone akin to Adam’s Eve (ah, there she is, the “Bride of Frankenstein”). He promises to never hurt anyone ever again if only Victor can give him this and, touched by his creation’s story, Victor agrees… at first.
The more Victor imagines subjecting an unborn female creature to life with a monster who already thinks of her as “his own”, and “his right”, the more he regrets being so weak as to empathize. Not to mention, what would he be inflicting on the world if they could breed?
The way Victor sees it, this is his last chance to be responsible. He’s not going to mess this up again. He tells his creation no. Heartbroken and desperate, the monster threatens him. Terrified and filled with vengeful rage, Victor finally snaps and begins to hunt the monster down. Equally terrified and vengeful, the monster murders Victor’s wife on their wedding night. The way the monster sees it — if he, who had never asked to be re-born, is doomed to a life of wretchedness and loneliness, so is his creator, dammit.
I see rage here. Rage between a young couple that’s lost everything and everyone that ever mattered to them. I see a Creator and Created dynamic that’s never been healthy in any romantic relationship. It’s a horrifying mirror Mary Shelley’s held up to her own life and to society.
At the end of the book, and just as Victor has finished telling the Captain his tale, the monster catches up with his creator, kills him in front of the Captain, then kills himself.
Hurt people hurt people is the message.
It’s what Mary’s mother had been trying to say all along with A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, given new life through the language of death.
So why has this story been so misinterpreted over the years?
I think it’s because the adapters were men who didn’t bother to know Mary Shelley’s backstory. They didn’t see Victor Frankenstein as an amalgam of her husband’s restlessness, her father’s grief, her own longing. They couldn’t bring themselves to see the abandoned Mary or all her perfectly innocent dead babies in a giant monster. They didn’t care that her mother had been metaphorically chased out of town with fire and pitchforks. They didn’t see the adventurous Captain as the traditionally masculine instrument through which a woman writer could give her story legitimacy.
They didn’t see the depth and variation of the women characters peppered throughout the story:
A beloved sister, the far-away recipient of this whole tale, whom the Captain missed dearly and would have brought with him on his adventure if only she wasn’t a girl.
The mother of Victor, who “possessed a mind of uncommon mould” but was restricted to housework, caretaking, and a marriage to a much older friend of her father’s, whose premature death sparks Victor’s longing to resurrect the dead.
A young woman accused of committing one of the monster’s murders, who bravely faces her execution despite her innocence.
Victor’s betrothed, the true Bride of Frankenstein, who does everything she can to prevent her friend’s execution even when Victor (who knows the truth and could stop it) does nothing, who takes care of Victor’s family while he’s away, who knows something’s up with him, who knows he’s lying to her. Her death may be a metaphor for stolen innocence and the true nature of marriage. It may also be the author coming to terms over the death of her mother, whose short-lived marriage might very well have turned sour had she survived.
Like the two main characters, Frankenstein’s adapters have tragically missed so many opportunities to communicate important messages. All they saw was a religious and patriarchal cautionary tale about defying God’s mysterious, black-and-white, good-and-evil will.
They saw a Monster where Mary Godwin Wollstonecraft Shelley was trying to show us her Creation, patched together from all the beautiful and horrible aspects of her life.
If you’d like to read Frankenstein but don’t have the time, you’re in luck. On February 1st, 2023, Frankenstein Weekly will start emailing out the entire 1818 edition in easy-to-handle sections.
This means you can read along with the internet, discuss, and be witness to what’s sure to be some hilarious memes. Given that this story’s never been given the respect it deserves, I hope those don’t rankle. But I also hope the mass appeal of this type of medium will reignite understanding of the themes Mary Shelley originally intended for her creation, and spark more of an interest in her life.