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It's Alive! It's Alive!: The Style of Mary Shelley

Updated on May 11, 2012

It's said that writing from personal experience makes for the best work. The piece will resonate more soundly with the audience. The emotion will be more sincerely felt. And, overall the experience for the reader will be more enjoyable. Many of the worlds’ most influential authors gained their notable reputation by infusing their work with personal experiences, and Mary Shelley is one of them. Basing pieces of her story off events from her own life, Mary Shelley weaves the tale Victor Frankenstein in reflection of her personal experiences. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein: or The Modern Prometheus demonstrates the development of Shelley’s darker, more horrifying literary style while at the same time reflecting experiences from the author’s own life within the character of Victor Frankenstein in the novel. This cooperative duality between Mary Shelley and her character allows her creature, and the novel, to continue living.

During the summer of 1816 Mary Shelley, then Mary Godwin, went on a vacation to Switzerland with her lover Percy Shelley, stepsister Claire Clairmont, and friends Lord Byron, and John William Polidori. Lord Byron had rented a manor on Lake Geneva christened Villa Diodati for the troupe to stay in for the summer. Here the story Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus was inked into creation through a combination of eighteen-year-old Mary’s imagination and experience. According to the book’s preface, the group grew bored of hiding out inside the manor for days at a time while it poured down rain outside. In an attempt to battle their boredom, the group delighted in reading German ghost stories and, eventually, Lord Byron suggested that everyone pen their version of a ghost story. That’s when Mary Shelley gave her infamous monster life. Frankenstein was intended to be a short story, but Percy coaxed Mary into completing her work as a full-length novel, and it was published in 1818 when Mary was just twenty-one years old. Though some people questioned whether Mary actually wrote the novel, and though it was met with mixed reviews, overall the novel was a success and she was praised for her intense descriptions and powerful imagination (DNB).

Mary Shelley kept a diary, just like many other writers. She detailed the events of her life within her journals, which have been collected and are now printed in volumes. Many scholars have remarked about the importance of these journals that follow Shelley for most of her life. Especially critical to the first volume of the journals, which I read, are the entries given the name of “The Geneva Journal Fragments.” These entries start in July 1816 and cover the life of Mary Shelley during the important years of Frankenstein, encompassing the period while she was writing it, as well as after it was published ('sjournal).

The journals of Mary Shelley provide a special kind of insight into her inspiration for Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus and information about the style of the novel in terms of thematic elements and structure. The Geneva Journal Fragments, in particular, reveal many experiences within Shelley’s own life that make their way into the novel. One of the most powerful comes when Mary describes the Arve as being one of the most beautiful places in the world, an idea that corresponds to Victor Frankenstein’s within the novel. Shelley writes:

We leave St. Martin on mules at seven o’clock – the road for a league lay through the plain at the end of which we were taken to see the Cascade- the water here falls 250 feet dashing & casting a spray which formed a mist around it… This cataract fell into the Arve which dashed against its banks like a wild animal who is furious in constraint…There is something so divine in all this scenery that you love & admire it even where its features are less magnificent than usual. As we mounted still higher this appeared the most beautiful part of our journey- the river foamed far below & the rocks & glaciers towered above-mighty pines filled the vale and sometimes obstructed our view (Shelley 114-115).

There is a lot going on in this passage. First, the reader can see how heavily influenced by Romanticism Shelley was. She recounts the beauty of her surroundings in vivid and admiring detail, saying there is something “divine” found within the scenery around her, even when it isn’t as “magnificent” as usual. This is pure Romanticism. To wonder at the beauty of nature and find its forms picturesque, divine even, when it isn’t as glorious as it should be comes from the Romantic notion concerning the inherent connection that exists between man and the natural world. This idea that nature and man are so deeply connected that the experience is almost that of a religious one is one of the major themes that pervades Romantic ideology.

Next, Shelley describes the way the water falls violently into the Arve. It’s interesting the words Shelley chose to describe the water falling from the cascade; “dashing…like a wild animal who is furious in constraint.” Typically, when a writer refers to a non-human subject the word “that” would be used in the place where Shelley uses the word “who.” By wording her sentence in this fashion the author has given a human quality to the crashing waters. The wording in this sentence also blends the savage and animalistic nature of the environment with the even-minded human nature. The dual natures illustrated here correspond to themes in her novel as Frankenstein struggles with his creature’s dual natures, the uncivilized animalistic one that murders his creator’s brother, wife, and friend, and the human one that yearns for companionship and acceptance. Duality of natures can also be seen within the character of Victor Frankenstein himself. He starts out as a curious young scientist, the human nature, but because of his inner turmoil and disintegration into isolation he ends up extremely animalistic in nature, completely obsessed with obliterating his creation.

Shelley says that the water is “furious in constraint.” The idea of constraint is reflective of ideas in the novel Frankenstein because the creature is constrained by his hideous appearance. The monster, originally a compassionate and gentle being, is restricted from any sort of companionship by anyone but his creator because of the way he looks. Even when he acts in an altruistic fashion, such as when he saves the drowning child, he receives only hatred and violence in return for his assistance. Just as the water is “furious in constraint” so too is the demon in the novel; he is angered over how his horrifying looks confine him to a life of solitude and scorn.

Finally, Shelley mentions the glaciers, and tells of how they are part of the most beautiful piece of their journey. The glaciers must have made quite an impression on Shelley because they are present throughout her novel, with Frankenstein globetrotting ever-Northward after his creation, determined to have his vengeance on it. In both the first and the final scenes the glaciers are depicted, introducing the reader to the story and leaving the reader with a last mental image of the ice.

In chapter 9 of Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus, Victor Frankenstein describes the Arve in a very similar fashion. He says:

The weight upon my spirit was sensibly lightened as I plunged yet deeper in the ravine of Arve. The immense mountains and precipices that overhung me on every side -- the sound of the river raging among the rocks, and the dashing of the waterfalls around, spoke of a power mighty as I ascended higher, the valley assumed a more magnificent and astonishing character... formed a scene of singular beauty. But it was augmented and rendered sublime by the mighty Alps, whose white and shining pyramids and domes towered above all, as belonging to another earth, the habitations of another race of beings... Soon after I entered the valley of Chamounix. This valley is more wonderful and sublime...snowy mountains ... Immense glaciers approached the road; I heard the rumbling thunder of the falling avalanche, and marked the smoke of its passage...A tingling long-lost sense of pleasure often came across me during this journey (Shelley 88).

The quote above possesses many of the same characteristics as the quote from Mary Shelley’s journal. For instance, the influence of Romanticism is evident in the above selection from Shelley’s novel when Victor says that the beauty of the ravine lifted the weight from his spirit, and how his surroundings were as powerful as “Omnipotence.” This once again demonstrates the Romantic ideal of the power and wonder of the natural world and its connection with mankind. Shelley uses many of descriptive words to illustrate the scenery around Victor as she does in her journals, she writes about the “raging” river, and “dashing” waterfalls, the “magnificent,” “mighty,” and “sublime” landscape.

Another example of this incorporation of Mary Shelley’s life into the novel is found in the intense grief she experienced after the death of her infant child. She writes on page 433 in volume two of The Journals of Mary Shelley,

Here, God knows, my tears are of little value to any but myself. Oh my child -- what is your fate to be? You alone keep me -- you are the only chain that links me to time -- but for you I should be free -- And yet I cannot be destined to live long; A hatred of life must consume the vital principle -- perfectly detached as I am from the world, I cannot long be a part of it. I feel that all is to me dead except the necessity of viewing a succession of daily suns illuminate the sepulchre of all I love (Shelley The Journals of Mary Shelley vol. 2 pg. 43).

The feelings Shelley wrote about in her journal mirror those felt by Victor in the novel at the death of his loved ones:

Why did I not die? More miserable than man ever was before, why did I not sink into forgetfulness and rest? Death snatches away many blooming children, the only hopes of their doating parents: how many brides and youthful lovers have been one day in the bloom of health and hope, and the next a prey for worms and the decay of the tomb! Of what materials was I made, that I could thus resist so many shocks, which, like the turning of the wheel, continually renewed the torture (Shelley 148).

In both of these passages an intense feeling of isolation is communicated, Shelley says in her journal she is “perfectly detached from the world,” and in her novel Victor recounts of the isolation his “continually renewed torture” affords him. Both Shelley and her character are isolated from the rest of human-kind by a grief so intense they wish for death, and are tormented by their own thoughts. Both passages show the parent’s contemplating the fate of their dead loved ones, both wondering why they, themselves, did not die: in the journal, “a hatred of life” and in the novel, “why did I not sink into forgetfulness and rest?” Finally, both passages reference the dead loved one’s tomb, with the journal saying Shelley lives only to see “the suns illuminate the sepulcher of all I love,” and the novel speak of being “prey for worms and the decay of the tomb!”

There are many other similarities found in her novel that correspond to Shelley’s own life. Obviously, the major one is science. Specifically, the branches of science called “natural philosophy” and “galvanism.” Around the time she was writing Frankenstein Mary Shelley was reading a lot of recently published scientific research and having intellectual conversations with Percy and Byron about the findings of scientists Erasmus Darwin and Luigi Galvani. Erasmus Darwin was reportedly able to reanimate dead matter, and Luigi Galvani found that electrical stimulation made the muscles in dissected animals twitch (Holmes 328).

In 1822 Percy Shelley died. Mary became a widow at twenty-five years old, and she and her son, Percy, moved back to England. Continuing to write professionally, Mary frequently published short stories for periodicals like the Keepsaker to support herself and her son. Shelley also wrote other novels including The Last Man (1826) which is about the downfall of mankind in the twenty-first century, and Ledore (1835) which is thought to be autobiographical. Both of these works are of a fairly consistent style for Shelley, The Last Man because of Shelley’s recurring theme of mankind, and Ledore because of the practice she had with Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus for including parts of her life in the story. Mary Shelley stayed in England and continued to write until her death in 1851 (DNB).

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein: or The Modern Prometheus demonstrates the development of her darker, more horrifying style while at the same time reflecting experiences from the author’s own life within the character of Victor Frankenstein in the novel. The cooperative duality between Mary Shelley and her character gives the piece life with its feeling of realness and sincerity that could only have been captured through personal experience. Audiences have long delighted in the story of the tragic scientist, and Frankenstein was adapted into a major motion picture for the first time in 1910 where it has remained a favorite of Hollywood ever since. It is certain that the creature Mary Shelley gave life to, her Gothic novel, survives in the literary world of today.

Works Cited

Seymour, Miranda. Mary Shelley. New York: Grove Press, 2000

Corporate Author. Mary Shelley. Encyclopedia of World Biography. 2011.

Shelley, Mary. Selected Letters of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley. Ed. Betty T. Bennett. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995.

Shelley, Mary. The Journals of Mary Shelley, 1814–44. Ed. Paula R. Feldman and Diana Scott-Kilvert. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995.

Bennett, Betty T., ed. Mary Shelley in her Times. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003.

Blumberg, Jane. Mary Shelley's Early Novels: "This Child of Imagination and Misery. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1993.

Carlson, J. A. England's First Family of Writers: Mary Wollstonecraft, William Godwin, Mary Shelley. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007.

Fisch, Audrey A., Anne K. Mellor, and Esther H. Schorr, eds. The Other Mary Shelley: Beyond "Frankenstein". New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.

Mellor, Anne K. Mary Shelley: Her Life, her Fiction, Her Monsters. London: Routledge, 1990.

Merriman, C.D. Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley. The Literature Network. 2006., Petri. Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (1797-1851). 2008.

The Journals of Mary Shelley Vol. 1. Paula R. Feldman and Diana Scott-Kilvert. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.

The Journals of Mary Shelley, 1814-1844. Vol. 2. Paula R. Feldman. Clarendon Press. Oxford. 1987.

Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein. New York: Dover, 1994.

^ David Ames Wells, The science of common things: a familiar explanation of the first principles of physical science. For schools, families, and young students., Publisher Ivison, Phinney, Blakeman, 1859, 323 pages (page 290)

Holmes, Richard. Shelley: The Pursuit. 1974. London: Harper Perennial, 2003. ISBN 0007204582


Submit a Comment
  • rebelogilbert profile image

    Gilbert Arevalo 

    2 years ago from Hacienda Heights, California

    Wonderful insight comparing Mary Shelly's personal life to her masterpiece novel, Frankenstein. I read the novel a few months ago. It amazes me how many movie versions her novel inspired. Keep up the good work, orderedchaos.

  • Burnell Andrews profile image

    Burnell Andrews 

    6 years ago from LaBelle, Florida

    Frankenstein is one of my favorites as well, and love how you described it. You know people always think about technological do not go there message, but to me Frankenstein was always about responsibility, specifically Victor is a deadbeat father who abandons his son, who starts out noble but then rather justifiabily turns bad later on. Victor creates life but fails to go through with the consequences of that creation, just like any bad father does, and he spends the rest of the book essentially dealing with the consequences of not taking responsibity. But then it is more complex then that which is why Frankenstein is such a good book it is also about abrogating creation's place as well. Anyway glad a true classic like Shelley's is being reviewed and you did a good job.

  • Reptillian profile image


    7 years ago from South Dakota

    Frankenstein is my favorite book! :) Although my favorite quote from Frankenstein is actually from Milton's Paradise Lost.

    "Did I request thee, Maker, from my Clay

    To mould me Man, did I sollicite thee

    From darkness to promote me"

    I'll say this for the monster, he's well read! :)


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