Mary Shelley and Knowledge
This essay was written by Kim A. Woodbridge, the owner of this site.
Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, was the daughter of the radical feminist, Mary Wollstonecraft, and the political philosopher, William Godwin, and the wife of the Romantic poet, Percy Bysshe Shelley. Through these familial affiliations, she was also acquainted with Lord Byron, Samuel T. Coleridge, and other literary figures such as Charles and Mary Lamb. Surrounded by such influential literary and political figures of the Romantic Age, it is not surprising that as an adolescent, at the age of 19, she wrote Frankenstein. Though critically a failure, (British Critic,1818 and Monthly Review, 1818) the novel has never been out of print and has been translated into numerous languages. What is surprising, however, is the enormous body of knowledge contained in the novel. The novel contains references to the fields of literature, poetry, science, education, politics, history, and mythology. How did such a young girl, living a life considered morally objectionable to society and harassed by family and financial burdens, acquire such a vast amount of knowledge in all fields of study that encompassed the important issues of her day? Through examination of biographical information and Mary Shelley’s journal entries, we will be able to answer this question. Following, I also plan to highlight Mary Shelley’s knowledge of literature with primary emphasis on the works studied by the monster in relation to his origins as well as Mary Shelley’s.
Mary Shelley was born with notoriety simply by being named Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin. Her parents were well known and somewhat suspect individuals due to their radical political beliefs and writings, such as Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Women and Godwin’s Enquiry Concerning the Nature of Political Justice. Mary Shelley’s mother died from complications shortly after giving birth to Mary. The infamy of her existence was heightened by her father’s subsequent publication of Memoirs of the Author of the Rights of Women. In this work, William Godwin described many aspects of Mary Wollstonecraft’s existence in great detail such as; her relationship with an American and subsequent birth of an illegitimate daughter, her suicide attempts, and the fact that she was already pregnant with Mary when William Godwin married her.
To our late 20th Century sensibilities we may not approve of these behaviors but we certainly don’t consider then shocking or extraordinary. The above mentioned events, however, occurred in the late 1700′s and were not morally acceptable, were abhorrent to the conventions of society, and were certainly not to be discussed or published in a memoir. William Godwin’s publication of this memoir, more than any other event, created an air of societal stigma around Mary Shelley almost from the moment of her birth.
Mary Shelley increased her already infamous existence by running off with Percy Bysshe Shelley when she was 17 in 1814. Percy Shelley was already married and abandoned his pregnant wife and his daughter to live with Mary Shelley. They lived together and had two illegitimate children prior to getting married in December 1816. They married a couple of weeks after Percy’s wife, Harriet, committed suicide by drowning herself in the Serpentine. Mary Shelley became a societal outcast for these actions and had few friends. “Within days she discovered that all of her old circle shunned her, intimates who had cherished her and friends who professed the most liberal principles” (Sunstein
88). Her own father, hypocritically enough, who lived with Mary Wollstonecraft without being married, would not speak to Mary until she and Percy were legally married. Godwin publicly stated, “Mary has committed a crime against hallowed social arrangements, morality, her family, and Harriet Shelley”(Sunstein 89).
Mary and Percy also had numerous other family and financial problems. Even though Percy was to eventually inherit a considerable amount of money, he had many debts and was constantly harassed by creditors. The couple continually moved in order to evade bill collectors. The first ten months of their relationship they moved four times and, in fact, never shared a permanent home together. The couple also had to deal with ostracism from their families as well as many deaths in the family. During their first two and half years together their first child was born prematurely and died two weeks later, Percy’s first wife committed suicide, and Mary’s half sister, Fanny Imlay, committed suicide. In the midst of numerous pregnancies and family, financial, and societal turmoil, however, Mary Shelley managed to conceive of, write, and publish the enduring Frankenstein Again, one must ask how such a young woman, not much more than an adolescent, who was besieged by so many difficulties that few would be able to withstand, could have the creative imagination and even find the time to write this novel.
Not only was Mary Shelley born with notoriety due to an infamous name but was also considered the child of two literary parents and high expectations were placed on her creative output. There were many prestigious visitors to the Godwin household, with one of the most notable and influential being Samuel T. Coleridge. When Mary Shelley was very young, she heard Coleridge recite the famous “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” which would later be referenced many times in Frankenstein. She never received a formal education, normal for women for that time period, but grew up surrounded by literary figures and the writings of her parents and was always encouraged to study and be creative.
Influenced by Godwin, Mary Shelley developed a lifelong habit of deep and extensive reading and research” (Bennett, “Romantic Revisions” , 299).
Mary Shelley’s desire to acquire knowledge and her disciplined study and research habits are demonstrated in her journal entries. She rarely wrote anything of a personal nature so there is little biographical information to be gained from the journals. She did, however, keep a detailed record of what she was reading and studying on an almost daily basis. On a typical day she generally studied a complex work, read some of a novel, and studied a foreign language. For example, on September 19, 1814, Mary studied Greek, read Rasselas, by Samuel Johnson, and read a novel called The Sorcerer (Feldman, 27). Almost every day is filled with a similar pattern of study. Even in the midst of all the difficulties discussed previously, she still spent a considerable portion of each day doing research. The only times that the amount of her work and research abated was when she was ill, which was often due to her many pregnancies, or something truly traumatic happened, such as the death of a child or other family member.
The desire to acquire knowledge and the intense passion for research and study is evident throughout the novel, Frankenstein and is demonstrated through the three narrators; Victor Frankenstein, Walden, and the monster. Frankenstein’s and Walden’s quest for new knowledge of the unknown and the monster’s search for knowledge of his origins parallel Mary Shelley’s lifelong scholarly pursuit and her interest in her own biological origins due to her birth causing her mother’s death.
At the very beginning of the novel, Mary Shelley’s educational experiences and love of literary research are told through Walden, the arctic explorer.
“My education was neglected, yet I was passionately fond of reading. These volumes were my study day and night” (Shelley, 2).
“These visions faded when I perused, for the first time, these poets whose effusions entranced my soul and lifted it to heaven. I also became a poet and for one year lived in a paradise of my own creation; I imagined that I also might obtain a niche in the temple where the names of Homer and Shakespeare are consecrated”(Shelley,2).
In narrating his experiences to Walden, Victor Frankenstein also tells of his yearning for a higher knowledge. The following passages demonstrate this;
“One man’s life or death were but a small price to pay for the acquirement of the knowledge which I sought, for the dominion I should acquire and transmit over the elemental foes of our race”(Shelley,13).
“You seek for knowledge and wisdom as I once did; and I ardently hope the gratification of your wishes may not be a serpent to sting you, as mine has been”(Shelley, 15)
The above passages give the reader a glimpse into Mary Shelley’s fascination with knowledge and are typical of the discussions of scholarly pursuits central to the novel. The voice of Victor Frankenstein provides evidence that Mary Shelley did not believe that all knowledge was “good” knowledge and instead thought that there were some areas that were beyond human understanding and should not be pursued. Obviously, Victor Frankenstein’s desire to explore the mystery of biological creation belonged to the realm of knowledge that should not pursued and that can only lead to dire consequences. Walden was also following the same quest in his search for a passage through the Arctic regions. Only by hearing the tale of Frankenstein is he dissuaded from his pursuit and turns back toward home rather than placing his crew members in mortal danger.
Many of the works that Mary Shelley studied are evident in the voice and character of Frankenstein’s monster and through this character the reader is given a demonstration of the pursuit of knowledge as related to one’s search for his origins. Since Victor Frankenstein abandoned his creation, the monster was left to fend for himself in a society hostile to his gigantic and terrifying appearance and was forced to learn and develop without any parental guidance. Mary Shelley introduced the theory of the development of human knowledge and awareness as defined by John Locke in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding which she studied almost daily in December 1816 and January 1817 (Feldman, 148-154 and Pollin, 107). During this time she was already working on the novel. Her assumptions of the development of human understanding “correspond to those of Locke, concerning the absence of innate principles, the derivation of all ideas from sensation or reflection, and the efficacy of pleasure and pain in causing us to seek or avoid the various objects of sensation” (Pollin, 107). The following passage is one of many examples of Mary Shelley’s belief in John Locke’s theory.
“It is with considerable difficulty that I remember the original era of my being; all the events of that period appear confused and indistinct. A strange multiplicity of sensations seized me, and I saw, felt, heard, and smelt, at the same time; and it was, indeed, a long time before I learned to distinguish between the operation of my various senses” (Shelley, 87).
Another considerable influence on Mary Shelley and in turn the monster, was the works of Rousseau. Mary studied Rousseau early in her own intellectual development (Marshall, 182) and during the period that she composed Frankenstein”(Feldman, 93-97). In The First and Second DiscoursesRousseau’s Second Discourse is a discussion on the state of natural man or what Rousseau calls the “noble savage”. Frankenstein’s monster is an embodiment of this state of being developed by Rousseau, in which the monster first discovers himself and later the knowledge of language and the conventions of society. The monster’s narration of his personal development and later acquisition of knowledge has been recognized by critics of the novel as a “noble savage whose early life in the forest (drinking at brooks, eating nuts and berries and not meat, sleeping under trees, encountering fire for the first time, acquiring language, and so on) conforms in general outline and specific details to the life of Rousseau’s savage”(Marshall, 183).
In addition to the developmental and natural state theories introduced in the novel, there are also four literary and historical works that Mary Shelley read and studied between the time that she eloped with Percy in 1814 and the publication of Frankenstein in 1818, that were of primary importance in the creation of this novel. They are as follows; Paradise Lost by John Milton, The Sorrows of Young Werther by Goethe, Lives by Plutarch, and The Memoirs of the Author of the Rights of Women by William Godwin. The first three assist in the monster’s education and understanding of human society, which will be discussed shortly. First, however I will discuss the Memoirs as related to the monster’s discovery of Victor Frankenstein’s journal, and how the journal and Memoirs relate to Mary Shelley’s and the monster’s search for the knowledge of who they are.
In addition to trying to understand and fit into human society, it was of primary importance for the monster to understand who he was and his origins. He developed, by himself, through the experience of sensations without guidance from similar beings. He was shunned by society and had no understanding of why he was different, why he had no family and why there was no one else like him.
The most significant mark of the monster’s alienation from society was his lack of a name. The absence of a name denies the monster the knowledge of who he is, his familial origins, and a connection to successive generations (Duyfhuizen, 480). The monster’s lack of a name and place in society, which caused him such distress, is shown in the following passage when he his narrating his experiences to Victor.
“But where were my friends and relations? No father had watched my infant days, no mother blessed me with smiles and caresses. I had never yet seen a being resembling me, or who claimed any intercourse with me. What was I? (Shelley, 106)
The monster finally learns of the origin of his creation by discovering the journal, that Victor kept while forming the creature, in the pocket of his clothes. The journal described in graphic detail the procedures that Victor utilized to create this new being during the four months preceding the night that Victor brought the creature to life. For the monster, this discovery was a relief because he finally knew more about his “family” and from where he came but the discovery was also equally disturbing (Homans, 149). The monster notes that “everything is related in them which bears reference to my accursed origin; the whole detail of the series of disgusting circumstances which produced it is set in view; the minutest descriptions of my odious and loathsome person is given”(Shelley, 114-115).
In the above passage Mary Shelley may also be relating the discovery of her own origins. As discussed earlier, William Godwin published the Memoirs of the Author of the Rights of Women shortly after Mary Wollstonecraft’s death and this biography described in great detail Wollstonecraft’s life, affairs, suicide attempts, and relationship with Godwin. The work also provides a graphic account of the birth of Mary Shelley and the subsequent demise of Mary Wollstonecraft. Godwin’s Memoirs were considered to be “the most hurtful book of 1798″ (May, 503) in which Godwin provides “gynecological explicitness in describing his wife’s death after bearing Mary”(May, 503). Mary Shelley read this work while growing up and probably studied it further while developing the novel. The supposition that she read the Memoirs while working on Frankenstein is conjecture as it is not noted in her journal. It is, however, probable that she did because there is such a similarity between the creation of the monster and her own origins and she may not have wanted to note such a personal work in her journal that would one day possibly be subject to public scrutiny. As the monster discovered the horror of his own creation, similarly Mary was subjected to the “horrors of her own origins as a matricide by the fact that she, along with every English speaking person of her age, was able to witness the primal scene of her creation in Godwin’s memoirs”(May, 503).
The three works, previously mentioned, that Mary Shelley studied while developing the novel are of primary importance in the monster’s understanding of the aspects that make one human and part of society. Mary Shelley conveniently has the monster discover these three works and study them after he had developed language skills and the ability to read. Through the study of Paradise Lost The Sorrows of Young Werther and Plutarch’s Lives the monster acquires an understanding of the spiritual, emotional, and civic aspects of human society. The monster obtained knowledge through the study of these works, but he read all three of them as histories of human civilization, when Plutarch was the only one that was actually a biographical history.
Mary Shelley studied Plutarch’s Lives in 1815 (Feldman, 91) the year prior to beginning Frankenstein. It is a biographical account of noble Romans and their heroic deeds. Through the study of this work, both Mary Shelley and the monster learned about models of human conduct (Sunstein, 49). The monster states, “Plutarch taught me high thoughts; he elevated me above the wretched sphere of my own reflections, to admire and love the heroes of past ages” (Shelley, 113). Unfortunately, for both Mary Shelley and her monstrous creation, few noble deeds were encountered, and instead, both received ostracism and even hatred from society.
The second important work is The Sorrows of Young Werther by Goethe. Mary Shelley’s journal notes that she studied this work in 1815 (Feldman, 91). This work is the tale of a man who experiences unrequited love and eventually commits suicide. Through the study of this work the monster gains an understanding of the emotional aspect of human nature and learns about the feelings of love and despair. In relating the experience of studying this work to Victor the monster states,
“The diquisitions upon death and suicide were calculated to fill me with wonder. I did not pretend to enter into the merits of the case, yet I inclined towards the opinions of the hero, whose extinction I wept” (Shelley, 113).
The Sorrows of Young Werther were important to Mary Shelley in the understanding of her dead mother as they were important to the monster in understanding human emotion. Mary Shelley’s mother tried to kill herself due to her unrequited love for Gilbert Imlay, the father of Mary’s half-sister, Fanny. Due to this, William Godwin saw many similarities between his wife and the character created by Goethe. In Godwin’s Memoirs he calls Mary Wollstonecraft the “female Werther” and states that her letters to Gilbert Imlay bear a striking resemblance to the romance of Werther (Marshall, 218). Mary Shelley would have been aware of this having already read the Memoirs. Thus, Mary Shelley utilized the work, that helped her understand the emotional state of her mother, in the novel, so that the monster to could also learn about the experience of human emotion.
The final work, that influences the novel and the monster, is Paradise Lost by John Milton. Mary Shelley spent a considerable amount of time studying this work and read it a number of times prior to writing Frankenstein ( Feldman, 89 and 96). Mary Shelley utilized this work to give her novel mythic scope and the following passage was used as the epigraph;
Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay To mould me Man, did I solicit thee From darkness to promote me? (Johnson, xii).
The monster also read this literary work as the true history of the origin of the creation of human beings. He saw aspects of himself in both the characters of Adam and Satan. He was like Adam in that he was the first of his type of creation and was unlike any living creature. The monster, however, felt a stronger connection to the character of Satan in that he was spurned by his creator, Victor, just as Satan was cast out of heaven by God. The creature related his feelings about his identification with the characters from Paradise Lost in the following passage;
“Like Adam, I was apparently united by no link to any other being in existence; but his state was far different from mine in every other respect. He had come forth from the hands of God a perfect creature, happy and prosperous but I was wretched, helpless, and alone. Many times I considered Satan as the fitter emblem of my condition, for often, like him, when I viewed the bliss of my protectors, the bitter gall of envy rose within me”(Shelley, 114).
It is my personal belief that Mary may have also felt, at times, as the monster does in the above passage. She was human, like all others, but had parents who were political radicals, had a singular educational experience, had the origin of her own creation published for the entire world to read, and ran off with a married man. The combination of the above experiences set Mary apart from society and caused her to feel the isolation and alienation of an outcast; an outcast like
her monster and Milton’s Satan. She differs from the monster in that she is notorious for her name, not her appearance, while the monster has no name and is instead an outcast due to the differences in the way he appears to others. In many ways Mary Shelley saw herself as the monster that she created and identified further with the monster by having him read the same works that she did.
Through the study of Mary Shelley’s journals and her biography, one becomes aware of how important study and research were to her. Her biography tells how the influence of her literary parents and husband provided her with a unique educational experience and how she was encouraged to conduct research. Her journals provide a detailed list of all the works that she studied and assist in relating what she studied to the creation of her timeless classic and all of the knowledge, especially of human origins, that is contained in the novel. Most importantly, the combination of the journal and her biography help answer how such a young woman with such a troubled life created such an enduring piece of literature. She had a great love of research and knowledge and used her studies in her creative output.
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Marshall, David. The Surprising Effects of Sympathy: Marivaux, Diderot, Rousseau, and Mary Shelley. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988.
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Sunstein, Emily W. Mary Shelley: Romance and Reality. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989.Print This Page