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Mary Shelley's Inspiration for Frankenstein

Updated on January 2, 2015

About Mary Shelley

Mary Shelley was born Mary Godwin, in London on Aug. 30, 1797. Her mother passed away a few days after her birth. Her father was the philosopher and political journalist, William Godwin. She married poet Percy Bysshe Shelley in 1816. Mary was 19 when at Bellerive, near Geneva, in Switzerland, in the summer of 1816, she began writing what is often referred to as the first science fiction novel, Frankenstein. It was published in March, 1818.

Ghost Stories at Lord Byron's

The novel had its beginnings while Mary Shelley and her husband were visiting the poet, Lord Byron, in the summer of 1816. The weather had been unusually cool and stormy, forcing the group of poets to entertain themselves inside. Shelley wrote in her diary, "some volumes of ghost stories, translated from the German into French, fell into our hands".

Lord Byron challenged each of his guests to write a ghost story. So it was with stormy weather and haunting tales that Shelley conjured up the vision of what would become Frankenstein’s Monster. "When I placed my head upon my pillow, I did not sleep, nor could I be said to think... I saw – with shut eyes, but acute mental vision – I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half-vital motion. Frightful must it be; for supremely frightful would be the effect of any human endeavor to mock the stupendous Creator of the world."

Creating Victor Frankenstein

In Mary Shelley’s tale, Victor Frankenstein is a researcher from a wealthy family who is consumed by his desire to learn the secret of creating life. Mary, having just prior to writing the novel given birth prematurely to a child who died shortly afterward, may have found the premise of life and death, on which she based her story, from this experience.

The story proceeds with Frankenstein assembling a creature from parts of deadbodies and using lightning to bring it to life. The procedure described by which heassembling a creto bring it to life. The procedure described by which he accomplished this most likely arose from discussions on galvanism and electric shocks which took place during conversations at Lord Byron’s villa. Once Frankenstein had succeeded in bringing the creature to life, he found it an abomination and abandoned it. The creature pursues him, vowing to destroy everyone around Frankenstein if he doesn’t create a mate for him.

A Literary Masterpiece

In addition to Mary Shelley’s visions and discussions on tales of horror, she was also inspired by books she had read such as 'Paradise Lost' and 'The Rime of the Ancient Mariner'. Commentators have also noted the philosophical influence of her father William Godwin as well as her husband, Percy Shelley throughout components of the novel. Frankenstein was unique in that it was the first literary work to approach overcoming death from a scientific perspective. Upon the novel’s release, it was met with both acclaim and disparagement but it still endures today as a literary masterpiece.

The Life of Mary Shelley


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