Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley was born in London in 1797 to radical philosopher, William Godwin, and Mary Wollstonecraft, author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. Wollstonecraft died 11 days after giving birth, and young Mary was educated in the intellectual circles of her father’s contemporaries. In 1814, at the age of seventeen, Mary met and fell in love with poet, Percy Bysshe Shelley. She ran away with him to France and they were married in 1816 after Shelley’s wife committed suicide.
Percy Shelley was a prominent poet of the Romantic Movement along with Samuel Taylor Coleridge, William Wordsworth, and Shelley’s friend, Lord Byron. As his wife and companion, Mary Shelley was exposed to the same influences as her husband, and this Romanticism influenced her work. Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein after Byron introduced a challenge to discern whom among the three writers — Percy Shelley, Mary Shelley, and Byron himself — could write the best ghost story.
The tumultuous French Revolution, which began before her birth, but had far-reaching echoes in society and literature, as well as the Industrial Revolution of England in the 18th Century, were influences on Mary Shelley’s life and work. The mass production and dehumanization of the Industrial Revolution posed a threat to the Romantic ideals of the importance of the individual, the beauty of nature, and the emotional and free spirit. Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus, can be seen as a protest against this scientific revolution.
Scientific progress was a large part of this century of discovery. Darwin, a leading scientific figure with his theories of evolution, was a personal friend of Shelley’s husband, so science was not an ignored topic in her life. Advances in medicine and the need for cadavers also figured into the time in which Mary Shelley lived. At this time in London grave robbing was a common occurrence because men dubbed “the resurrection men” would sell the stolen bodies to teaching hospitals so that medical students could dissect and study them. This knowledge makes the idea of Victor Frankenstein scavenging graveyards for parts seem less shocking.
Frankenstein addresses common Romantic themes of isolation and the beauty of nature, but it also deals with loss, which Mary Shelley knew a great deal about. Growing up motherless, Mary also lost her sister to suicide, as well as losing three of her own children to miscarriage and early childhood deaths. In 1822 her husband drowned in the Gulf of Spezzia, and she was left, twenty-five years old, with only one remaining son. She remained unmarried and died in London in 1851.
Although she wrote several other books, including Valperga (1823), The Last Man (1826), Lodore (1835), and Falkner (1837), Frankenstein is her most well known work. “The critics greeted Mary Shelley’s novel with a combination of praise and disdain” (Moss and Wilson). The unorthodox studies of Frankenstein were shocking to critics, but “despite the critical attacks, Frankenstein caused a literary sensation in London. The novel fit smoothly into the popular gothic genre” (Moss and Wilson). But more than just a popular culture novel, Frankenstein has lasted over time. “The novel became one of the triumphs of the Romantic movement due to its themes of alienation and isolation and its warning about the destructive power that can result when human creativity is unfettered by moral and social concerns” (Moss and Wilson)
Mary Wolstonecraft Shelley
Frankenstein, set in Europe in the 1790’s, begins with the letters of Captain Robert Walton to his sister. These letters form the framework for the story in which Walton tells his sister the story of Victor Frankenstein and his monster as Frankenstein told it to him.
Walton set out to explore the North Pole. The ship got trapped in frozen water and the crew, watching around them, saw a giant man in the distance on a dogsled. Hours later they found Frankenstein and his dogsled near the ship, so they brought the sick man aboard. As he recovered, Frankenstein told Walton his story so that Walton would learn the price of pursuing glory at any cost.
Frankenstein grew up in a perfectly loving and gentle Swiss family with an especially close tie to his adopted cousin, Elizabeth, and his dear friend Henry Clerval. As a young boy, Frankenstein became obsessed with studying outdated theories about what gives humans their life spark. In college at Ingolstadt, he created his own “perfect” human from scavenged body parts, but once it lived, the creature was hideous. Frankenstein was disgusted by its ugliness, so he ran away from it.
Henry Clerval came to Ingolstadt to study with Frankenstein, but ended up nursing him after his exhausting and secret efforts to create a perfect human life. While Frankenstein recovered from his illness over many months and then studied languages with Clerval at the college, the monster wandered around looking for friendship. After several harsh encounters with humans, the monster became afraid of them and spent a long time living near a cottage and observing the family who lived there. Through these observations he became educated and realized that he was very different from the humans he watched. Out of loneliness, the monster sought the friendship of this family, but they were afraid of him, and this rejection made him seek vengeance against his creator.
He went to Geneva and met a little boy in the woods. The monster hoped to kidnap him and keep him as a companion, but the boy was Frankenstein’s younger brother, so the monster killed him to get back at his creator. Then the monster planted the necklace he removed from the child’s body on a beautiful girl who was later executed for the crime.
When Frankenstein learned of his brother’s death, he went back to Geneva to be with his family. In the woods where his young brother was murdered, Frankenstein saw the monster and knew that he was William’s murderer. Frankenstein was ravaged by his grief and guilt for creating the monster who wreaked so much destruction, and he went into the mountains alone to find peace. Instead of peace, Frankenstein was approached by the monster who then demanded that he create a female monster to be the monster’s companion. Frankenstein, fearing for his family, agreed to and went to England to do his work. Clerval accompanied Frankenstein, but they separated in Scotland and Frankenstein began his work. When he was almost finished, he changed his mind because he didn’t want to be responsible for the carnage another monster could create, so he destroyed the project. The monster vowed revenge on Frankenstein’s upcoming wedding night. Before Frankenstein could return home, the monster murdered Clerval.
Once home, Frankenstein married his cousin Elizabeth right away and prepared for his death, but the monster killed Elizabeth instead and the grief of her death killed Frankenstein’s father. After that, Frankenstein vowed to pursue the monster and destroy him. That’s how Frankenstein ended up near the North Pole where Walton’s ship was trapped. A few days after Frankenstein finished his story, Walton and his crew decided to turn back and go home. Before they left, Frankenstein died and the monster appeared in his room. Walton heard the monster’s explanation for his vengeance as well as his remorse before he left the ship and traveled toward the Pole to destroy himself so that none would ever know of his existence.
Robert Walton: Indirect narrator of the story, he tells Victor Frankenstein’s story through letters to his sister, Margaret Saville. Walton is a self-educated man who set out to reach and explore the North Pole and find an Arctic passage to connect the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. While his ship is locked in ice, his crew sees Frankenstein’s monster pass by on a dog sled and Frankenstein himself, exhausted and weakened, not far behind. They take Frankenstein aboard and Walton nurses him and talks with him because he has been longing for a friend. In seeing Walton’s raw ambition to explore the North Pole at all costs, Frankenstein is prompted to tell the story of his destruction that a similar ambition brought upon him. After Frankenstein’s death and just before the ship heads back to England, Walton is also the last to see the monster before he goes north to kill himself.
Victor Frankenstein: Frankenstein is the eldest son of a wealthy, Genevese man, Alphonse, and his young wife, Caroline. Victor grows up in the perfect family with a happy childhood and a constant and devoted companion in his adopted cousin, Elizabeth. He is sensitive, intelligent, and passionate about his interests and becomes absorbed in the quest to find out what creates life. While away at college in Ingolstadt, Victor creates a being from scavenged corpse parts and gives it life, but is repulsed by its hideousness once it lives. The monster, in retaliation for Victor’s negligence, destroys his life by killing off those Victor loves. Victor chases him to the far reaches of the Arctic planning to destroy him and then die to escape his misery and remorse at his creation, but he dies aboard Walton’s ship before he can catch the monster.
The Monster: Created by Victor Frankenstein in Ingolstadt, the monster is a conglomeration of human parts with inhuman strength. He is so hideous that Victor, his own creator, cannot stand to look upon him. He is loving and gentle at the beginning of his life, childlike in his curiosity and experiences, but after several harsh encounters with humans, he becomes bitter. He seeks revenge on his creator for making him so hideous and rendering him permanently lonely because of his ugliness. He offers Frankenstein peace in exchange for a companion of like origin, but when Frankenstein does not comply, he vows to destroy him and begins killing off Frankenstein’s friends and family — those figures he most envies because he does not have them. After finding Frankenstein dead aboard Walton’s ship, the monster goes further north with plans to destroy himself and end the suffering that Frankenstein began when he created him.
Elizabeth Lavenza: Adopted cousin of Victor Frankenstein. Elizabeth was a beautiful orphan being raised by an Italian peasant family when Caroline Beaufort Frankenstein adopted her. She became Victor’s constant companion and he watched over her as if she were his own possession from their meeting when he was 5 years old. Her beauty and kindness made her adored almost reverently by all who knew her, and it was taken for granted that she and Victor would marry. She is the gentling influence and the comforter for the males of the Frankenstein family when Caroline dies, and her beauty and goodness are constant throughout her life. She and Victor are married, but on their wedding night, the monster strangles Elizabeth to punish Victor for not creating for him a companion creature.
Henry Clerval: Life-long friend of Victor Frankenstein, Henry was poetic, sensitive and caring, and their friendship was a strong one. When Victor was in Ingolstadt so long without sending word to his family, Henry relocated there to study and to look after Victor. Henry nursed him through a long period of illness before Victor returned to Geneva. Later they traveled together to England and Scotland, but while they were there, the monster strangled Henry to punish Victor. Victor was accused of the murder, but was acquitted.
Justine Moritz: Servant in the Frankenstein household, Justine was another beautiful, gentle, and kind addition to the Frankenstein family whom Caroline took in to care for and educate. When Caroline got scarlet fever, Justine nursed her, and after Caroline died, Justine returned to her own mother. Her mother too became ill and died, so Justine returned to the Frankenstein home to help raise the two sons Caroline had left when she died. Justine was a grateful and faithful part of their household, but she was accused of 5-year-old William Frankenstein’s murder when a locket he had been wearing was found in her dress. Although she had been framed by the monster and was innocent, she was executed and Victor considered her death his fault because he created the monster who framed her.
Alphonse Frankenstein: Victor Frankenstein’s father, Alphonse was a wealthy and benevolent man who loved his wife and his children very dearly. He rescued Caroline Beaufort, daughter of his close friend, from poverty after her father’s death. He was a doting husband and father bent by the grief of loss after loss until he dies from accumulated sorrow and shock.
Caroline Beaufort Frankenstein: Wife of Alphonse and mother of Victor, Ernest, and William, Caroline Beaufort Frankenstein was the daughter of a once-wealthy friend of Alphonse. Planning to aid his friend, Alphonse found his home and went there only to find Caroline weeping over his coffin. Alphonse took her into his home and married her two years later. They had a loving relationship and cared for their children very much. She was a good, beautiful, and gentle woman adored by all her family until she died from the scarlet fever she contracted nursing Elizabeth back to health.
Mrs. Margaret Saville: Sister of Robert Walton, ship captain, Mrs. Saville is significant only because she is the recipient of the letters describing Frankenstein’s story. Walton writes to her of the progress of his journey and his acquaintance with Frankenstein.
Beaufort: Friend of Alphonse Frankenstein and Caroline’s father, Beaufort lost his wealth and relocated to escape the humiliation of his poverty. Caroline nursed him as his health declined and was weeping over his coffin when Alphonse found her and took her back to Geneva.
M. Waldman: Chemistry professor at Ingolstadt. His lectures revive Victor’s interest in discovering the spark of life and creation.
Ernest Frankenstein: Victor’s brother. Ernest is 7 years younger than Victor and is only mentioned a few times, the longest reference in a letter to Victor from Elizabeth. She mentions that Ernest wants to join the Swiss military.
William Frankenstein: Victor’s youngest brother, William is sweet, happy, greatly adored by his family. William is strangled in the woods while the family was out for a walk. His is the first of the monster’s victims, and Justine is framed for the murder.
De Lacey Family: Felix, Agatha, and their blind father. This is the family of cottagers near where the monster lives. They are French exiles living in Germany because Felix helped an unjustly imprisoned Turk escape. He watches them and over time learns to speak and read from observing them. The monster becomes attached to them and chops wood for them as well as other small services without revealing himself to them. He craves their acceptance and affection and educates himself further to win them over. When he seeks their affection, however, they are afraid of him and their scorn sends him away. This rejection sends him on a quest to find Victor, his creator, and seek vengeance.
Muhammadan: Turk Felix aided and for whom the De Lacey family was exiled to Germany. Muhammadan was unjustly condemned for reasons of religion and wealth, and Felix helped him escape, falling in love with Muhammadan’s daughter, Safie, along the way. Muhammadan promises to allow them to marry, but plans secretly to take Safie back to Turkey with him.
Safie: Daughter of Muhammadan and Arabian Christian woman. Safie falls in love with Felix and doesn’t want to return to the oppressive country of her birth. When her father leaves for Turkey with the expectation that she will follow soon after with all of his possessions, she seeks out Felix and lives with him and his family in Germany.
M. Kirwin: Irish magistrate who cares for Victor when he falls ill after being accused of Henry’s murder. Kirwin is sympathetic and believes Victor is innocent, so he has a doctor care for Victor while he is imprisoned and also sends for Alphonse.
Geneva: Geneva, Switzerland. Home of the Frankenstein family where Victor grew up and to which he returned after college and the creation of the monster. The murders of William and Justine were located in the area around Geneva.
Ingolstadt: Ingolstadt, Germany. Victor went to college in Ingolstadt and created the monster in his laboratory there. This was the city of the monster’s awakening.
Mont Blanc: A mountain near Geneva. This mountain is referred to again and again in descriptions of scenery throughout the novel. It carries weight as a mark of Romanticism because it is the subject of a famous poem by William Wordsworth, one of Mary Shelley’s contemporaries.
Orkney Islands: Orkney Islands, Scotland. Victor stays in a hut on one of the sparsely populated Orkney Islands to create a second creature to be a companion to the monster.
North Pole: Destination of Robert Walton and his ship as well as the monster and Victor. Walton is bound for the North Pole to explore in the hopes of uncovering secrets of the earth and gaining glory for his discovery. Victor is following the monster to the North Pole to destroy him or die trying, and they meet while Walton’s ship is trapped in ice. Walton and Victor never make it to the North Pole because Walton’s men want to turn back for England and Victor dies. The monster, however, is last seen on his way to the furthest point north to destroy himself so that none will know of his hideous existence.
Chamounix: Frankenstein traveled to Chamounix to escape his guilt and depression, but while he was in Chamounix, the monster approached him about creating a female monster companion for him. The monster lived in an ice cave not far from Chamounix.
Mary Shelley was born in 1779 in London, England. At the age of sixteen, she met the famous British poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, whom she later married.
The idea of a man who creates life-in the form of a horrible and grotesque monster-came to Mary in a vivid, waking dream. With her husband’s encouragement, she used this idea as the basis for FRANKENSTEIN. It was written when she was only nineteen years old. After Percy’s death, May Shelley continued to write but produced nothing to equal the success of this classic tale of horror.
THE HISTORY OF FRANKENSTEIN
1816: Mary Wollstonecraft Shelly, daughter of one of the world’s first prominent feminists, writes the novel “Frankenstein” based n a “waking dream.”
1823: Richard Brinsley Peake’s “Presumption, or the Fate of Frankenstein,” the first stage adaptation of the novel, is performed in London.
1887: “The Vampire’s Victim,” a musical comedy featuring Fred Leslie as the creature, is presented as a Christmas show and includes dancing bears, two vampires and a female Dr. Frankenstein.
1910: The first movie version of “Frankenstein,” a 16-minute dramatization, is produced by Thomas Edison’s film company. It stars Charles Ogle as the monster.
1928: Hamilton Deane produces an adaptation of “Frankenstein,” which tours British provinces. Dean himself plays the creature.
1930: “Frankenstein” makes its West End premiere in London.
1957: A script written for a Broadway production is sued as the basis for the screenplay of the Universal Pictures film featuring Boris Karloff. Karloff’s performance steals the film.Hammer films produces “The Curse of Frankenstein,” the first Frankenstein film in color. Unlike earlier versions, it portrayed Victor Frankenstein as the outright villain of the story.
1972: An illustrated version of the story published by Marvel Comics is the first to be told from the monster’s point of view. The creature is portrayed as victim, not victimizer.
1973: A two-part television movie is produced and released as “Frankenstein, the True Story” in America and “Dr. Frankenstein” in the United Kingdom. In this story, Victor Frankenstein attempts to save a dying friend by replacing his brain in the reanimated body of a recently dead man.
1974: “Young Frankenstein,” written by and starring Gene Wilder, spoofs the Universal films of the 1930s with song and dance numbers. It’s the only “Frankenstein” film with a happy ending.
1978: Berni Wrightson publishes a lavishly illustrated adaptation of “Frankenstein” that visually portrays the creature as originally described by Shelly.
1981: Elaborate effects cannot compensate for a bad script when an ill-conceived stage version of “Frankenstein” is mounted on Broadway. It starred John Carradine and closed after only one performance.
1994: The feminist undertones of the original novel are developed in “Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein,” a film starring Tom Hulce and Helena Bonham Carter.