Mary Shelley, Frankenstein: the text explored

Mary Shelley, Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus: 1818 edn. 

In my previous post I wrote about the tortuous gestation of Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein. It was written initially, when she was just 18, as a short ghost story at the Villa Diodati by Lake Geneva on a stormy night during the dark volcanic summer of 1816. With some input from Percy Shelley she redrafted the tale into a three-volume novel, pubished in 1818.

In the first of a couple of posts I’ll look at a key passage. This is the moment (vol. I, ch. 3) when the young student Victor Frankenstein, adding modern sciences taught by his tutors at Ingoldstadt University in Germany to the earlier mystical texts that had previously enthused him, becomes obsessed with the current notions of ‘the life principle’ and creation itself.

Here this narrative is recorded by Walton, on whose ship Victor is recuperating after being picked up exhausted as he pursues his Creature across the ice. I’ve used the online text at the Romantic Circles site HERE, which is useful for its numerous hyperlinks embedded in the text to scholarly glosses and background. I’ve removed these here and blended their content with other material that I hope adds context and clarity to what’s going in if you’ve not yet read the novel.

One of the phænomena which had peculiarly attracted my attention was the structure of the human frame, and, indeed, any animal endued with life. Whence, I often asked myself, did the principle of life proceed? It was a bold question, and one which has ever been considered as a mystery; yet with how many things are we upon the brink of becoming acquainted, if cowardice or carelessness did not restrain our inquiries.

Mary Shelley

Portrait of Mary Shelley by Reginald Easton in 1820

Victor’s studies in anatomy would have been encouraged at Ingolstadt – its medical school was renowned. Mary Shelley would have gleaned much of her background material for his experiments and research from her reading (inspired by Percy Shelley) of the likes of Erasmus Darwin. It was a ‘bold question’, of course, because the ‘principle of life’ was a key concept in the vitalist controversy that I mentioned in my previous post. As I suggested there, the novel dramatises this debate. Victor’s note of arrogance and pride emerges at the end of that section; he implies that lesser mortals have baulked at the imaginative-scientific leap he believed himself to be making. He portrays himself as the opposite of cowardly or careless – or restrained. Already he’s showing unconsciously that his lack of ethical code is problematic, and that he is challenging divine retribution for his blasphemous career.

I revolved these circumstances in my mind, and determined thenceforth to apply myself more particularly to those branches of natural philosophy which relate to physiology. Unless I had been animated by an almost supernatural enthusiasm, my application to this study would have been irksome, and almost intolerable. To examine the causes of life, we must first have recourse to death.

His self-aggrandising tone becomes more marked here; the ‘almost supernatural’ nature of his ‘enthusiasm’ instils an element of the magical into his endeavours – possibly reflecting his earlier enthusiasm for the alchemy, mysticism and weirdness of the likes of Cornelius Agrippa, the Illuminati and Albertus Magnus, as noted last time. The symmetrical sentence at the end suggests a complacency, even pride, in his rejection of a moral code. His use of the grandiose ‘we’ distances himself from culpability or accountability, and positions opponents as lesser beings. Its epigrammatic tone of certitude has the stamp of authoritarianism, arrogance and overweening pride.

I became acquainted with the science of anatomy: but this was not sufficient; I must also observe the natural decay and corruption of the human body. In my education my father had taken the greatest precautions that my mind should be impressed with no supernatural horrors. I do not ever remember to have trembled at a tale of superstition, or to have feared the apparition of a spirit. Darkness had no effect upon my fancy; and a churchyard was to me merely the receptacle of bodies deprived of life, which, from being the seat of beauty and strength, had become food for the worm. Now I was led to examine the cause and progress of this decay, and forced to spend days and nights in vaults and charnel houses. My attention was fixed upon every object the most insupportable to the delicacy of the human feelings. I saw how the fine form of man was degraded and wasted; I beheld the corruption of death succeed to the blooming cheek of life; I saw how the worm inherited the wonders of the eye and brain. I paused, examining and analysing all the minutiae of causation, as exemplified in the change from life to death, and death to life, until from the midst of this darkness a sudden light broke in upon me—a light so brilliant and wondrous, yet so simple, that while I became dizzy with the immensity of the prospect which it illustrated, I was surprised that among so many men of genius, who had directed their inquiries towards the same science, that I alone should be reserved to discover so astonishing a secret.

Frankenstein OWC cover

My Oxford World’s Classics edition, which has an excellent introduction by Marilyn Butler

Interesting that Victor insists that what he was engaged in doing in his researches was the opposite of supernatural; rhetorically, of course (Mary Shelley’s style is highly rhetorical, like her models, from Paradise Lost and the Bible to ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’) by insisting on what he was not scared of he imbues his work with those very qualities. The catalogue of Gothic and gruesome detail that follows reinforces this effect. His use of passive verbs (‘I was led to…’; ‘and forced to…’; ‘My attention was fixed’) indicates that he believes his progress was the result of some force greater than himself, not his own volition. He’s also trying to impress such a view on his silent interlocutor, Walton. His egotism (‘I alone’) emerges strongly at the end here; his discovery surpasses all previous scientists’ work; they could have discovered his ‘astonishing’ secret if only they’d had his genius. The ‘light’ imagery emphasises proudly his ‘enlightened’ approach, aligning himself with the great discoveries and concepts of the previous century. The ‘dizziness’ he felt once more indicates his intoxication with his work in his ‘filthy workshop of creation’. Another passive voice here (‘should be reserved’) continues the effect noted above. He’s removing agency from himself. In a tragedy this would represent hubris in Victor.

Next time I’ll look at the continuation of this passage, and more.


The origins of Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein’

Mary Shelley, Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus. 1818 edition


Engraving in a Victorian edition of the poetical works of Shelley from a portrait by Alfred Clint, now in the National Portrait Gallery.

1816 was ‘the year without a summer’. The previous year volcano Mt Tambora, in Indonesia, erupted, an event a thousand times more powerful than the recent Icelandic eruption that grounded aircraft across much of the world. The cloud of ash and dust still darkened the skies of the northern hemisphere the following year, adversely affecting the weather. [See this account at the Guardian]

In June 1816 the poet Percy Shelley, at the age of 23, accompanied by the 18-year-old Mary Godwin, daughter of radical philosopher and author William Godwin and the proto-feminist Mary Wollstonecraft – she and Shelley didn’t marry until late 1816, after his first wife Harriet had committed suicide [see below] – were


MaryWollstonecraft, portrait at the Tate Britain gallery

travelling through Europe. Mary had already experienced the trauma and grief of losing their baby daughter soon after her birth in 1815; they took their six-month-old second child William, named after her father, with them on this trip to Switzerland in 1819, by which time she had lost three very young children.

The Shelleys stayed at Cologny by the shores of Lake Geneva, but spent much time in the nearby Villa Diodati, where Byron (then aged 28) was staying, brooding over the dire weather that exacerbated his mood. He had been obliged to go into exile after the scandal of his profligate behaviour (including rumours of incest with his half-sister Augusta) that culminated in his separation from his wife of just over a year, Annabella (they’d had a daughter, Ada, later famous as Ada Lovelace, the pioneer of computer science). Annabella had left Byron, and initiated proceedings for a legal separation. England had become too hot even for him to stand.

Claire Clairmont

Claire Clairmont (1798-1879) by Amelia Curran, portrait now at Byron’s home of Newstead Abbey

Shelley’s group included Mary’s precocious, slightly younger step-sister Claire Clairmont. Her competitive relationship with Mary may have been what led her, like her two (half or step) sisters, to have entered into sexual relations with Shelley; possibly rebuffed by him, she turned her passionate attention to Byron, who she eventually succeeded in seducing (it’s hard to believe he put up much of a fight).

He soon tired of her, however, and made it clear they had no future together. She seems to have insisted Mary and Shelley take this trip to pursue Byron, but he made it clear that although he enjoyed the company of the rest of her party at his lakeside villa, she was not welcome, and they had no future together. She would have known by then that she was carrying his child. Their daughter Allegra was effectively abandoned by him, despite his having agreed to care for her, and she died of fever at the age of five in an Italian convent. The atmosphere in this romantically complicated group must have been electric.

[I posted back in 2015 about this tangled web of intrigue and passion around Claire and its depiction after the event in Henry James’s novella the Aspern Papers].

Unable to get out much because of the weather, the party (Byron was accompanied by his physician, Dr Polidori) passed the time in earnest discussion of the fashionably radical topics of ‘natural sciences’ and ‘natural philosophy’ – that is, what we currently think of as ‘science’ but mixed with more arcane, semi-mystical, even supernatural topics. They would discuss the mysteries of the ‘life principle’, the nature of man as ‘instrument’: the origins of life and nature of death and what follows it. The work of scientists like Erasmus Darwin, grandfather of Charles, and his precursor in theorising evolution, Humphry Davy’s experiments with anaesthetic and other gases, and the use of Italian physicist Galvani’s electrical devices on corpses of humans and animals (to apparently reanimate them) – such semi-theatrical ‘demonstrations’, like post-mortem anatomical dissections, were held in public and attracted rapt audiences – would also have figured in their discussions. What they were often dabbling in was the dangerous and controversial ‘vitalist controversy’, with on the one hand adherents to the conventional teachings of Christianity on such matters, and on the other the new, radical scientific thinking of the likes of Shelley’s one-time physician and surgeon friend William Lawrence, who (like this group of radical Romantics) hotly opposed those establishment, theologically-based views.

Mary Shelley

Portrait of Mary Shelley by Reginald Easton in 1820

One night in mid-June 1816, at Byron’s villa, they agreed upon a competition: each was to compose a ghost story. According to Mary’s preface to the third, 1831 edition of the novel, her mind was hyperactive after these discussions, and she had a nightmare that inspired the short story she offered the party next day. It told a horrific tale of a transgressive experiment that resulted in the production of a living creature out of dead body parts. She continued drafting it until the novel it grew into was finally published in England in 1818.

The emotional turbulence she had experienced and witnessed throughout her young life: multiple bereavements, the controversial, sometimes suicidal and often scandalous behaviour of those near to her, and this seething atmosphere of dangerous, radical theorising about highly volatile topics, from genetics to the origins of species, of life itself, and the consequences of death, would have provided a febrile set of themes, characters and motifs for her to plunder for her narrative. The alpine scenery she had recently toured would provide the perfect Gothic setting for much of it; the rest she had read about in the fashionable books of exploration and discovery of the period (as had Coleridge, who supplied some key allusions and details in the novel; the other major literary influence was Milton, whose Paradise Lost provided its epigraph, and much of its narrative material and tone).

While Mary was working on her draft of her novel in England she experienced yet more catastrophe: her half-sister Fanny Imlay (Mary Wollstonecraft’s daughter from a relationship before she met Godwin), who may also have been romantically involved with Percy Shelley, committed suicide in October 1816, having lived an unhappy life, torn between loyalties to the various involved factions of siblings and relatives. She may also have inherited her mother’s depressive tendencies; Mary Wollstonecraft attempted suicide twice during her troubled relationship with Fanny’s father. As noted above, Shelley’s first wife Harriet drowned herself in the Serpentine in London at the age of 21, after he left her for Mary, and having become pregnant by a new lover.

Lord Byron in Albanian dress

Byron in Albanian dress, painted by Thomas Phillips in 1813 (all images in this post in the Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Percy Shelley was to die aged 29 in a boating accident in Italy just four years after this first edition of Frankenstein was published. Keats had died at the age of 25 the previous year. Byron died in Greece, where he was supporting the independence movement, two years later, aged 36. Mary Shelley lived on until 1851, when she was in her 54th year. Claire Clairmont didn’t die until 1879, in Florence, at the age of 81. Make of all that what you will.

I felt it necessary to provide some context to the origins of Frankenstein, though I acknowledge it’s all pretty well known. I’ve tried to keep it brief, but it’s a complicated web of relationships and influences out of which the novel arose in Mary Shelley’s imagination. Next time I’ll explore the text.