Literary Sources of Frankenstein

Frankenstein is considered to be the greatest Gothic Romantic Novel. It is also generally thought of as the first science fiction novel. I have always been impressed and amazed by the fact that Mary wrote this novel when she was eighteen years old. What experiences and powers of imagination led to such an innovative and disturbing work?

The idea for the novel arose in the summer of 1816 when Mary Shelley was staying at Lord Byron’s villa in Geneva Switzerland. Not only did Mary incorporate experiences from that summer into her novel, she also utilized the sources that she had been reading and studying. Two in particular were the Metamorphoses by Ovid and Paradise Lost by Milton.

It is believed that Mary studied Ovid in April and May of 1815. The major element that Ovid supplied to the theme of Frankenstein, was his presentation of the Prometheus legend. This is acknowledged in the subtitle: Frankenstein, Or the Modern Prometheus. The creation of the monster is similar to this passage from Ovid:

Whether with particles of heav’nly fire,
The God of Nature did his soul inspire;
Or earth, but new divided from the sky,
And, pliant, still retain’d th’ethereal energy;
Which wise Prometheus temper’d into paste,
And, mix’t with living streams, the godlike image cast…
From such rude principles our form began;
And earth was metamorphos’d into man.

Lines from Frankenstein that reflect the above passage are;

“I collected the instruments of life around me, that I might
infuse a spark of being into the lifeless thing that lay at my feet.” (p.51)

“…that I may extinguish the spark which I so negligently bestowed.”
(Frankenstein p.101)

The second important literary influence was Paradise Lost by Milton. ( If you have not read this, it is really worth the time. It is difficult, but is well worth the effort. I find that it is helpful to have a copy of Bullfinch’s Mythology when reading it. Almost all of Milton’s mythological references are explained in Bullfinch.)

The influence of Milton’s Paradise Lost can be seen directly from the epigraph of the 1818 edition of Frankenstein.

“Did I request thee, Maker from my clay
to mould me man?
Did I solicit thee,
from darkness to promote me?”

The spirit of Paradise Lost permeates Frankenstein throughout the novel. On page 240 the monster says;

“The fallen angel becomes a malignant devil. Yet even that enemy of God
and man had friends and associates in his desolation; I am alone”

Three parallel themes from the two works arise from these quotes:

  • the molding of a living being from clay
  • the growth of malice and the desire for revenge
  • the isolation of the hostile being and the consequent increase of his hostility

It is easy to establish Mary Shelley’s knowledge of Paradise Lost. The work was admired in the Godwin household. Mary and Percy read it in 1815 and again in November 1816. Her journal states that Shelley read it aloud while she was writing Frankenstein. She even incorporated Paradise Lost into the novel by having it be one of the three works that the monster studied. The monster found a correlation between his condition and and an aspect of the novel and stated;

“Like Adam, I was apparently united by no link to any other
human being…I was wretched, helpless and alone. Many times I
considered Satan as the fitter emblem of my condition” (pg. 135-136)

Other echoes of Paradise Lost are as follows:

Frankenstein hopes to be the source of a new species, but ironically his creature evolves into a self-acknowledged Satan who swears eternal revenge and war upon his creator and all the human race. The monster reflects that hell is an internal condition which is produced and increased through loneliness. His only salvation is the creation of a mate, his Eve.

In the later part of the book, Frankenstein refers to the monster in terms used in Paradise Lost; the fiend, the demon, the devil, and adversary. Both master and creature are torn by their internal conflicts from misapplied knowledge and their sense of isolation.

Paradise Lost and The Metamorphoses were two of the sources of Mary Shelley’s inspiration for Frankenstein.

Here is a link to the electronic text of Frankenstein.

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