Frankenstein and the contexts of its composition

Mary Shelley came up with the idea for Frankenstein during the night of 16 June 1816, when she was still only 18 years old. She completed the manuscript 11 months later, on 14 May 1817, and published it anonymously on 1 January 1818.

That, at any rate, is the chronological account of Frankenstein and its relationship to time. There are, however, other, more interesting, respects in which Mary Shelley’s novel inserts itself into history and, as it does so, reconfigures the shape and structure of the several literary, scientific, autobiographical and human timelines of which it has since become an integral part.

Frankenstein is, after all, at one and the same time a ground-breaking work of literature and a novel steeped in history. Looking at it from our present-day perspective 200 years later, we can see very clearly its iconic position in a future that it itself helped to write: widely heralded as one of the foundational texts of the science fiction genre, it continues to anticipate (and assist us in giving expression to) anxieties about such things as the prospect of human cloning and the consequences of our ever more incursive interference into the workings of nature. This ability constantly to reinscribe itself into its own future comes hand-in-hand, moreover, with its persistent look backwards: at an earlier (albeit recent) historical period, at pre-existing literary and cultural traditions, at accepted social conventions and dramatic political developments, and – possibly, just possibly – even at the circumstances of Mary Shelley’s own birth, upbringing and subsequent life. The publication of Frankenstein on 1 January 1818 is therefore one of those moments when time acquires, and is propelled to swing backwards and forwards in relation to, a new set of hinges.

In what follows we set Frankenstein briefly within its immediate historical and intellectual context, and then indicate how its relationship to those contexts may have been informed by Mary Shelley’s own life experiences.

Frankenstein in its historical and intellectual context

Published on 1 January 1818, the events Frankenstein narrates actually take place several decades earlier, between Victor Frankenstein’s childhood and early education in the 1770s and his premature death on Captain Walton’s ship in the Arctic in the late 1790s. This was the period when the Enlightenment dream of using the power of human reason to penetrate the secrets of nature, establish society on a more rational basis, and thus advance human knowledge and alleviate human suffering was at its most frenzied. Given early impetus by the scientific breakthroughs of the likes of Robert Boyle (1627-91), Isaac Newton (1643-1727) and the foundation of the Royal Society in London in the seventeenth century, the Enlightenment project of extending these methods to bring about similar advances in the social and political spheres appeared to have scored major successes in the American Revolution of the mid-1770s to 1780s, and the initial phases of the French Revolution a few years later. Victor Frankenstein is thus very much behaving as a man of his time when he informs Walton of his optimistic hope that, were he to succeed in discovering how to bestow the gift of life, “I should … pour a torrent of light into our dark world. A new species would bless me as its creator and source; many happy and excellent natures would owe their being to me” (36).

The hopes and dreams of Enlightenment thinking seemed to come crashing down, however, when the early idealism of the French Revolution later descended into the brutal violence and irrational chaos of the Reign of Terror (1793-4). Like other writings produced during what we now call the Romantic Period, Frankenstein gnaws away at the question of what went wrong, of how Enlightenment projects which set out with the best of intentions – such as Frankenstein’s own project of curing sickness, reversing decay and restoring life – could every so often end up producing such shockingly inhumane results. Frankenstein is like other Romantic writings, too, in that it diagnoses the malaise at the heart of Enlightenment thinking as its propensity to operate with far too reductive a notion of human nature. Valuing individual human beings only in as far as they are capable of objective rational thought – and the natural world primary as an inert resource made available for our exploitation and use – Enlightenment thinking from this point of view ignores the fact that humans are both individuals with their own individual outlooks, experiences and subjectivities, and a composite bundle of mind and body, thoughts and feelings. By overlooking the latter half of this equation and therefore failing to nurture a more harmonious relationship between our cognitions and our emotions, Frankenstein and related Romantic texts appear to charge, Enlightenment thinking disconnects human beings from their own nature and from the world of nature alike, and in so doing gives free rein for entirely subjective, animalistic emotions ultimately to take over – as they appeared to have done in France during the Reign of Terror. The terrifying events Frankenstein narrates are accordingly presented as the kind of events that could unfold if we fail to recognise in ourselves and our fellow human beings our full humanity – as individually subjective, feeling as well as thinking, beings – and if we fail to achieve a reciprocal, respectful relationship to the world of nature.

Yet even as it remorselessly dissects the unhealthy limbs and sinews of the Enlightenment project and conducts that movement’s autopsy (prior, perhaps, to revivification in another form), Frankenstein can also be read as a critique of some of the prevailing Romantic ideologies of its contemporary moment. These ideologies include, above all, the idealisation of the so-called “Byronic Hero,” an individual absolutely unbounded or unrestrained by social convention, morality or by a sense of responsibility to other people. Deriving its name from the characters who populate the poems of the internationally famous Romantic poet Lord Byron, as well as from the public persona of Byron himself, one of the most notorious real-life Byronic heroes most likely to have still been occupying people’s minds when Mary Shelley was writing Frankenstein was Napoleon Bonaparte – the charismatic general who had turned from freedom fighter to imperial oppressor before his recent defeat at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. Victor Frankenstein is in any case as much a “Byronic Hero” as he is an example of the Enlightenment-era scientist; his Byronic qualities of extreme passion, idiosyncrasy, selfishness, isolation from other people, and self-aggrandisement all but ensure his (supposedly dispassionate, objective and therefore “scientific”) Enlightenment project will go askew.

Frankenstein in the context of the life and family history of Mary Shelley

Mary Shelley sometimes referred to her first novel as if it were her child. More particularly, she referred to it as if she had authored the work in much the same manner as Victor Frankenstein authors his horrifying creation. “And now once again, I bid my hideous progeny go forth” she wrote in the preface to the new and revised version of 1831.

(We will discuss elsewhere on this site how it has been suggested that Frankenstein’s stitching together of narratives told by three different narrators – Walton, Frankenstein, and the creature Frankenstein creates – echoes its protagonist’s, Victor Frankenstein’s, stitching together of a complete being out of a collection of physical parts belonging to different bodies, which might be beautiful in and of themselves but become somewhat “hideous” when viewed all together).

In any case, the evaluation of the intellectual, cultural, social and political developments of the recent past that constitute such a pervasive preoccupation in Frankenstein, along with the hopes and fears they might still be understood to offer to the future, would most likely have been experienced as a peculiarly personal story by the young Mary Shelley.

The idea for the novel came to her, after all, while she and her (then still future) husband, the Romantic poet Percy Shelley, were living in self-imposed exile in Geneva, and staying for a few days with Lord Byron. Confined indoors in June 1816 by the inclement weather that characterised the notorious “Year without a summer” which followed the eruption of Mount Tambora in 1815, Byron proposed that he and his fellow guests should hold a competition to see who could write the best ghost-story. Byron himself soon abandoned his attempt and published it as a “Fragment of a Novel,” Percy Shelley did not even got started on a story, while Byron’s doctor, John Pollidori, is alleged to have stolen Byron’s idea and published The Vampyre (which some claim is the first full-length vampire story written in English). Mary Shelley at first struggled to come up with an idea for her own contribution, but after listening to Percy Shelley and Byron discuss whether recent scientific theories about galvanism (a precursor to electricity) could induce life into inert beings, she went to bed and had a dream which became the basis for Frankenstein. “When I placed my head on my pillow,” she recalled in the preface to the 1831 edition:

I did not sleep, nor could I be said to think. My imagination, unbidden, possessed and guided me, gifting the successive images that arose in my mind with a vividness far beyond the usual bounds of reverie. 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. (You can read Mary Shelley’s full account here)

Thus, a novel that would ultimately turn out to be a critique of certain (especially Byronic) aspects of Romanticism was conceived at the prompting of one major British Romantic (Lord Byron) and was written in its entirely in the company of – and some have argued with the direct help of – another (Percy Shelley).

Frankenstein‘s analysis of Enlightenment thinking would have borne as much of the stamp of autobiography and direct personal experience for Mary Shelley as did her careful assessment of Romanticism. Her parents, William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft were, after all, two of Britain’s foremost late-eighteenth-century Enlightenment thinkers. Indeed, when Mary Shelley first published Frankenstein anonymously in 1818, she dedicated the book “To William Godwin, Author of Political JusticeCaleb Williams, Etc.” and reviewers were quick to spot the family resemblance between Godwin’s writing and the present work (which many duly attributed to other supposed “Godwinians” such as Lord Byron and Mary Shelley’s husband Percy).

Later critics have identified strong thematic connections between Frankenstein and the life, writings and death of Mary Shelley’s mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, too. Wollstonecraft was a pioneer of feminist thinking and had won an International reputation for works such as Vindication of the Rights of Woman, composed during the early years of the French Revolution. The manner in which ideas about family, gender and the role education plays in establishing distinctions between men and women are presented in Frankenstein have a clear heritage in Wollstonecraft’s writings.

More emotionally charged than any of this, though, are the connections that can be drawn between Frankenstein’s world of motherless children (Victor Frankenstein’s single-handed creation of a new being is only the most obvious of a frequently repeating pattern) and its constant obsession with the dangers of “conceiving” or “giving birth to” something on the one hand and Mary Shelley’s own life story as a daughter and mother on the other. It is enough to say that Mary Shelley’s mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, died only a few days after giving birth to Mary Shelley and that Mary Shelley herself had lost her first child at birth 18 months prior to commencing work on Frankenstein, that she had given birth to her second child just six months before she came up with the idea for Frankenstein, and that she would became pregnant again during the writing of Frankenstein to indicate how deeply personal her novel’s focus on the narrow boundaries between life and death would have been to her. Indeed, the loss of her first child continued to haunt Mary Shelley and she recorded at the time a recurring dream in which she attempted to bring her dead daughter back to life.

Being a daughter and being a mother were thus two of the cardinal hinges on which Mary Shelley’s presentation of the timelines of recent literary, cultural and political history swing both back to the past and forwards to the future in Frankenstein.