Mary Shelley's Frankenstein: Science, Science Fiction, or Autobiography?

Sherry Ginn
Wingate University

Mary Shelley's personal life was quite tragic and many modern critics, especially feminist ones, discuss Frankenstein in terms of the recurring themes of procreation and death. This paper will examine these issues more fully by applying Erik Erikson's theory of psychosocial development to Shelley's life. Most particularly we will examine how Shelley's lack of maternal and paternal care led her to conceive of her Creature. The audience will be encouraged to look beyond the exterior of the Creature and decide exactly who is the monster in this classic novel. Understanding identity issues is also critical to understanding Mary's life and fiction. Her husband's untimely death had adverse effects on Mary's identity and she tried, with varying degrees of success, to establish her own career beyond merely being Percy's literary executor. Indeed many people in her own time were convinced that Percy B. Shelly had actually written Frankenstein.

Many scholars have analyzed the life and fiction of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (see for example, Fisch, Mellor, & Schor, 1993; Levine & Knoepflmacher, 1979). Most of the focus has been upon her most famous work, Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus (for example, Mellor, 1988; Bennett & Robinson, 1990; Van Luchene, 1980). Written when only 19 years old, Frankenstein tells the tale of a man obsessed with creating life, but then abandoning that life once it breathes. It has been repeatedly suggested that the tale of Frankenstein's creature is autobiography, Mary's own tale as seen through the eyes of a 19-year-old woman (see for example, Mellor, 1988). Some claim the novel to be the first legitimate example of the genre we now call science fiction. Some study the novel in terms of its depiction and frank indictment of science. Indeed, study of the scientific aspects of the novel is so popular and timely that the present author and others have presented or published papers on this theme (Ginn, 2003; Ketterer, 1997). The National Library of Medicine has developed a traveling exhibit ( examining Frankenstein's science, and a conference dedicated to this theme (Frankenstein's Science: Theories of Human Nature in the 18th and 19th Centuries) was held in Canberra, Australia in 2003.

The present paper will discuss all of these themes briefly. However the major focus on the paper will be to briefly analyze Mary's life from a psychosocial perspective. I will discuss Mary's life before and after Frankenstein within the framework of Erik Erikson's theory of psychosocial development, and the revisions of portions of the theory as proposed by Marcia and colleagues (1980; 1987; 1989; 1994; Patterson, Sochting, & Marcia, 1992).

The life of Mary Shelley

The essential elements of Frankenstein's story, taken from Mary's own life, have been identified as (1) a white gravestone; (2) a motherless child; (3) a beloved father turning his back on his child; (4) a university student conducting wild experiments; and (5) dreams of rekindling the life of a dead child. A number of excellent biographies have been written about Mary (Mellor, 1988; Nichols, 1988; Seymour, 2000; Sunstein, 1989), and I will only summarize her life here. Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin was born in 1797, the second daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft, author of A Vindication of the Rights of Women. She was the only daughter of William Godwin, author of Caleb Williams and A Certain Justice. Unfortunately, MWG died 9 days after giving

Mary Wollstonecraft (National Portrait Gallery, London)

birth to Mary. Thus, the white gravestone is her mother's and Mary is the motherless child. Certainly it is known that Mary spent countless hours at her mother's grave during her childhood and adolescence. She even frequented the graveside with Percy Shelley where, it is presumed, they realized their love for one another. Or, at least, Percy continued his pursuit of an ideal soul mate personified in the daughter of two of the persons he most idolized at that time of his life.

William Godwin turned his back on his daughter, not once but twice. Unable to cope with raising children, little Mary as well as Mary Wollstonecraft's other daughter, Fanny Emlay, William Godwin sought a wife. Mary found life intolerable following her father's marriage to Mary Jane Clairmont. The new Mrs. Godwin's jealousy of Mary and her mother, with its resulting

William Godwin (National Portrait Gallery, London)

insecurity, made life unbearable for Mary; Mary did not relish having anyone take her mother's place nor did she enjoy her father directing his attention and affection to anyone other than herself. These jealousies made life increasingly unbearable for William Godwin, so much so that he sent Mary away, to live in Scotland with people he or she barely knew. And, when Mary eloped with the already married Percy Shelley in 1814, her father rejected her again (while still demanding money from Percy). Percy was the student conducting wild experiments in his

Percy Bysshe Shelley (National Portrait Gallery, London)

university rooms; he was expelled for writing a paper extolling the virtues of atheism. Finally, Mary reportedly dreamed of rekindling the life of the daughter born prematurely in 1815. Mary gave birth to 4 children in her short life with Percy (he died in 1822), and she had at least one miscarriage, almost fatal. Only one of her children survived to adulthood. Mary blamed Percy for the death of their son, William, and her treatment of Percy following William's death led to intense feelings of guilt following Percy's death by drowning. It is likely that Mary never recovered from that guilt.

The myth and story of Frankenstein

To alleviate the boredom caused by a cold and wet summer in Geneva, Lord Byron proposed that each member of the summer's party write a ghost story. Those people included Mary and Percy Shelley, Claire Clairmont (Mary's stepsister), Byron, and his physician and friend, Joseph Pollidori. Each member undertook the task, but most quickly wearied of it. Pollidori actually conceived a vampire story, but his contribution was not well received by Byron. Mary is the only person who wrote a novel. In her preface to the 1831 edition of Frankenstein, Mary tells how Frankenstein was conceived during a horrific dream, but some scholars greet that

The Nightmare (1781)
Henry Fuseli (1741-1825)
Photograph of oil painting on canvas
Courtesy @ 1997, The Detroit Institute of Arts, Founders Society Purchase

statement with the skepticism due someone recalling an incident from their past (Florescu, 1975).

The young Victor Frankenstein attends university and becomes obsessed with the creation of life. He creates a man out of body parts of dead men and animates the Creature. Horrified at the sight, Victor rejects the Creature when it awakens. Abandoned, the Creature is forced to fend for himself. The Creature teaches himself to read and learns that he is different from other men. The Creature falls in love with a family of poor peasants, the deLacey's, but they reject the Creature in fear when they finally see his distorted visage. The Creature vows to seek out his creator in order to determine why he is different from other men and to demand a mate, someone with whom he can share his solitude. The Creature kills Victor's youngest brother, William, blaming Victor's abandonment for his evil nature. The Creature vows to kill others in Victor's family unless Victor complies with the request for a mate. Victor eventually creates a mate for the Creature but kills her in horror at the idea that the two Creatures might reproduce. In retaliation, the Creature kills Elizabeth, Victor's wife, on their wedding night. He eventually kills Victor as well.

The first edition of Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus was published

anonymously, in 1818, with a dedication to William Godwin and an introduction by Percy Shelley. Various claims as to authorship were forwarded and Mary was angered by the assumption by some that Percy was the author. Although Percy made extensive revisions to the first edition, for which Mary was grateful, she alone was the author of Frankenstein. After his (favorable) review of the novel Mary wrote Sir Walter Scott and claimed authorship. Other critics were not very kind to her following her claim. Indeed The British Critic stated … "the author is, we understand, a female; this is an aggravation of that which is the prevaling (sic) fault of the novel; but if our authoress can forget the gentleness of her sex, it is no reason why we should; and we shall therefore dismiss the novel without further comment" (April 1818). A second edition was

published in 1831. Mary wrote the preface to this edition stating, "I bid my hideous progeny go forth and prosper. I have an affection for" … this "offspring of happy days." She claimed that she had made no substantive changes to the story, although that is not true. Since its publication, the novel has never been out of print; it is considered by some to be only a "minor" novel, but one taught in many institutions, within a number of disciplines (see for example, Behrendt, 1990). Over 40 motion pictures have been produced to date and countless stories have been written using the theme. But, how do we classify this story? Is it science, science fiction, or, as some have claimed, autobiography?

Mary Shelley's Science

When attempting to determine if the story is scientific, as written, we must ask several questions. One of these is, could a young woman with no formal education really conceive such "hideous progeny?" Secondly, could a young woman really understand the scientific and philosophical principles necessary to write this story? However, the most important question concerns Mary's science: What exactly did she know and what exactly did she say? To answer these questions we must understand that, while Mary had no formal education, as was typical of women of her time, she was a voracious reader. Her journals for the years 1814-1818, which span the years when she wrote the novel, give us an idea of her reading list (Bennett, 1980-1988; Feldman & Scott-Kilvert, 1987; Spark & Stanford, 1951). A few of the books she read included her parents’ books (Enquiry concerning Political Justice and Caleb Williams, or Things as they are, by William Godwin and A Vindication of the Rights of Women, and Maria, or the Wrongs of a Woman, by Mary Wolstonecraft); The Physiognomical System of Drs. Gall and

Spurzheim; Rasselas, by Samuel Johnson; The Sorcerer (Veit Weber), translated by R. Huish; The Monk, by Matthew Gregory Lewis; Ruins of Empire, by Volney; History and Progress of the French Revolution; Paradise Lost, by Milton; The Sorrows of Young Werter, by Goethe; Plutarch's Lives; and, Emile, by Jean-Jacques Rousseau. All total, Mary read over 75 books during the year preceding the writing of Frankenstein. Interestingly, both Mary and Claire Claremont's journals of this significant year are lost.

One difference between the 1818 and 1831 editions of the text involves galvanism, or the use of electricity to stimulate nerve impulses. Mary was aware of Galvani's discovery. Luigi Galvani (1737-1798) proposed that electricity flows through nerves. Galvani showed that

Galvani's Experiment (National Library of Medicine Collection, Washington, DC)

stimulation of a frog's nerve causes contraction of the muscle to which it is attached (1791). The scientific community was excited by the potential use of this new force and research was conducted throughout Europe on the application of electricity to induce and sustain life. Indeed, an attempt was made to shock Harriet Shelley back to life following her suicide by drowning. Victor learns of Franklin's experiments with electricity from his father in the 1818 edition, but references to his father's interest in science are omitted from the 1831 edition. Thus, Victor may place the blame upon his father by saying, if his father had shown more interest and knowledge in science, then Victor would not have been seduced by it at university leading to the monster's creation (1831 edition). Obviously Mary could not know how to animate life in enough detail to write it in the book; we do not have that knowledge in the 21st century. Nevertheless, the novel continues to resonate with readers to this day because of its criticism of science without conscience.

Classifying Frankenstein

Some claim the novel to be the first legitimate example of the genre we now call science fiction, a genre that: (1) is grounded in valid scientific research; (2) predicts what might be possible in the future given new scientific discoveries; and, (3) offers a humanistic critique of either specific technological inventions or the very nature of scientific thinking (Mellor, 1988). Jane Donawerth (1997) contends that Frankenstein is feminist science fiction because it introduced 3 themes that can be repeatedly observed in science fiction, as written by women: (1) locating a female voice in a male world; (2) creating an identity for women as alien; and, (3) the exclusion of women from science. While Mary Shelley was an extremely well read young woman, much of the scientific discoveries of the day were not broached in the novel. In addition, what was included was not always included correctly or in depth. It can be argued that the changes that Mary made in the novel between the 1818 and 1831 editions reduce the likelihood that the novel will become outdated. Reading the novel and using the characteristics of science fiction, as proposed by both Mellor and Donawerth, leads me to conclude that the novel does qualify as science fiction. Certainly it is not as scientific as contemporary science fiction, but that does not mean that Mary did not introduce a new literary genre with Frankenstein. The novel presents a scathing critique of the science of her day, that was anti-family and anti-female. Considering Mary's desire for a stable family, we can also see how many have stated that the novel is autobiographical in many respects.

Is Frankenstein autobiography? Consider the essential elements. Each is certainly drawn from Mary's life: the motherless child; the father rejecting the child; a grieving mother mourning for a dead child; a university student conducting wild experiments. Certainly each element found its way into the novel, but reducing the novel to autobiography is too simple. While in many respects Victor Frankenstein is modeled on Percy Shelley, there is no evidence that Percy resented such a portrayal. And, Mary never repudiated her father or her father's treatment of her, even during William Godwin's dreadful conduct following Mary's elopement with Percy, before their marriage. While Mary made quite a statement with Frankenstein about the problems arising from lack of family relationships and parental abdication of responsibility, it is doubtful whether she consciously meant to indict her own father for his treatment of her in childhood.

Nevertheless I believe that reading Frankenstein and Mary's other work within the context of her life allows us to understand her more clearly. It is my contention that this understanding will be effected most clearly by reading Mary's life and work with the framework of psychosocial theory.

The Eight Stages of Man

Erik Erikson (1950, 1968, 1969, 1974, 1975, 1980, and 1982) proposed that personality development proceeded through a series of 8 stages, with each stage occurring in response to demands placed upon the individual by his or her environment. In response to these demands the individual confronts a conflict that will lead to growth and further psychic development if the individual can successfully resolve that conflict. Thus, resolving conflict at each stage of development compels the individual toward growth, whereas failure to resolve the conflict results in failure to develop and grow. Each stage is a time of increased vulnerability and also a time of challenge and potential, representing the turning points in our lives.

The first stage confronting the individual, called trust vs. mistrust, occurs during the first year of life. In this stage the infant must come to trust that his or her caregivers will fulfill his or her needs for food, warmth, comfort, and love. A feeling of physical comfort coupled with a minimal amount of fear about the future sets the stage for the lifelong expectation that the world will be a good place in which to live. Failure to have its needs met leads the infant to mistrust not only the caregivers, but also others in the social environment as well.

The second stage arises during the second and third years of the child's life when the first demands for autonomy are made upon the child. By this age the child is learning to walk and talk, and the parents now demand that the child toilet-train. Successful resolution of this stage of autonomy vs. self-doubt leads the child to begin life independently of the parents.

During the third stage of initiative vs. guilt, the child becomes even more independent and begins interacting with its world, primarily through fantasy and play. These activities serve the purpose of preparing the child for the roles he or she will play as an adult. Behavior becomes active and purposeful within an ever-widening social environment. Parents must allow the child the freedom to pursue play so that the child may learn how to interact with other people. Additionally the child assumes greater and greater responsibility for his or her body, toys, pets, and behavior. Anxiety and guilt result when the child's attempts to master its environment are restricted. However, Erikson believes that such guilt is relieved easily whenever the child experiences a sense of accomplishment, which is likely to occur often during this stage of development.

The fourth stage is called industry vs. inferiority. The child has now begun formal education and is coming into contact with people, other than the parents, who exert influence. The child must master the rigors of school while learning to deal with even more people within its environment. Children direct all of their energy during this period of development toward mastering their own intellectual skills.

During adolescence the child confronts the question "Who am I and why am I here?" The heart of the fifth stage of development, identity vs. role-confusion, is the identity crisis. The adolescent must confront the roles that he or she has played in his or her life thus far and incorporate them into a cohesive identity. To this end the adolescent must be allowed to explore new and different roles or different paths in previous roles. Failure to synthesize an identity leads to the inability to find direction in life and pursue a meaningful future. Following identity development the adolescent enters young adulthood, in which the overwhelming social pressure is to find a mate. Increasingly intimate relationships with friends and the drive toward marriage and procreation characterize this stage of intimacy vs. isolation. Young adulthood is thus a period of childbearing and childrearing.

Middle adulthood, referred to as generativity vs. stagnation, is characterized by launching the children into the world. The individual's children are now entering into their own 4th or 5th stages of development and the middle-aged individual may now feel a need to "give-back" to the world. The person becomes concerned with future generations; this concern may manifest itself in charitable work. However, the primary task of this stage is helping younger generations of people develop useful and productive lives. Finally, the individual enters old age, the stage of integrity vs. despair. The individual must look back upon his or her life and be satisfied. They should have developed a positive outlook throughout the previous 7 stages. If they have done so, then reflection on their life will show a life well spent. Not every decision was a wise one and life may not have turned out exactly as one wanted; however, failure to look back upon one's life with satisfaction yields despair.

Reading Mary within Erikson's Framework

For the purposes of this paper, and in the interest of brevity, I will only discuss Mary Shelley within the context of Erikson's 5th and 6th stages of development, as it is my contention that her life can best be understood by recognizing her failure to resolve the two crises of adolescence and young adulthood, that is, the crises of identity and intimacy. I propose that whereas Erikson's theory of psychosocial development can be used to analyze Mary's life, the theory should be modified as suggested by several researchers (Douvan & Adelson, 1966; Gilligan, 1992; Rogers, 1987; Patterson, Sochting, & Marcia, 1992). These investigators proposed that the fifth and sixth stages of Erikson's theory be reversed for women. That is, women are socialized to pursue intimate relationships and these relationships are more important concerns for female adolescents than is the development of an identity. Indeed Rogers (1987) found that care and concern for others were related to the development of a sense of self in women. In that study, at least, the development of intimate bonds with others predated the development of identity. Analysis of Mary's life and fiction provides much support for this hypothesis.

Exactly who was Mary Shelley, the woman? Mary Shelley was the daughter of two of the most influential authors of their times. She longed to live up to the reputation of her parents. She then eloped with and later married a man destined to become one of the greatest poets in the English romantic tradition. Although she did publish many works of fiction and nonfiction during her life that were generally well received, she was best known for the work she did as Percy's literary executor. Her greatest fame during her lifetime arose out of her scandalous relationship with Percy Shelley. And, although we know her now as the author of Frankenstein and greatly admire her and her work, following the publication of this, her most famous work, many believed that Percy had actually written the tale and simply published it under Mary's name. The film Frankenstein, wondrously directed by James Whale (1931), gives credit to Mrs. Percy B. Shelley as the author of the original work. Long after Percy's death we see Mary living a life devoted to promoting her husband's reputation and raising their sole surviving child, Percy Florence. Mary subsumed her identity into Percy's: she was Percy's lover, then his wife, and lastly his widow and champion. Whereas we know her for her own works in our time, she was less known in her own time as her own person and more so as Percy's wife and widow. A chronology by Peter Dale Scott lists only 2 events occurring in her life following the 1831 publication of the novel: William Godwin's death in 1836, and Mary's own death in 1851(Levine & Knoepflmacher, 1979). In other words, Scott gives credit to Mary for writing Frankenstein, but does not consider her life beyond her greatest literary achievement. Thus, for the most part Mary was defined in terms of her greatest work of fiction, her father and mother, and her husband, although interest in Mary, her life and her other literary accomplishments have enjoyed a resurgence of interest within the last few years.

Although Mary was a published author herself before she met Percy Shelley, she credits Percy with encouraging her to continue writing. In the preface to the 1831 edition Mary wrote that Percy "was from the very first anxious that I should prove myself worthy of my parentage and enrol (sic) myself on the page of fame. He was forever inciting me to obtain literary reputation." Mary's relationship with Percy is not easy to classify. While Mary kept a journal


throughout her life, and she and Percy kept a joint journal following their elopement, she does not give us intimate details of her life with Percy. We can speculate about Percy's attitudes toward "free love" and how Mary received that attitude. Some have speculated about relationships that Mary might have had with other men and about relationships that Percy might have had with other women, including Mary's stepsister, Claire Clairmont (Gittings & Manton, 1992). I myself speculate about Percy's relationship with Bryon. Mary considered Percy to be her soul mate, and he felt the same way about her, at least in the beginning. She considered him to be both a mentor and critic, by virtue of his classical education, a luxury not afforded to her as a woman. Certainly she was his mistress and then his wife. She followed him into exile following their elopement, even though they were virtually penniless, a circumstance that probably contributed to the death of her first child. We also know that she was not happy throughout much of their marriage, because of the scandal of their elopement, the suicide of Harriet Shelley, the constant presence of Claire Clairmont, her father's relentless demands for money, the refusal of Percy's family to provide for them, Percy's dalliances with other women, the deaths of 3 of her children and her worry about the health of the fourth. Only one of Mary's children survived to adulthood (Percy Florence), and it is almost certain that she blamed Percy for the death of baby William. Mary met Percy when she was 15 years old, eloped with him when she was 16 and was widowed shortly before her 25th birthday. She became the woman Percy wanted her to be, the daughter of two of the most famous authors of their day. One wonders did he love her for herself or for her antecedents.

It is my contention that meeting Percy gave Mary a further sense of identity, beyond that afforded to her by being the daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin. Percy then molded Mary into what he wanted a wife to be, and since she loved him so much and trusted his judgment, she allowed him to create her, just as Victor created the Creature. However, while in the novel Victor rejects the creature upon first seeing his horrible visage, Percy does not reject Mary. Rather, she rejects him following the death of baby William. And that rejection led to Mary's misery for the remainder of her life: she was never able to make it right. Her creator died. Mary claimed that her life ended with Shelley's death. Some have speculated that guilt motivated her to lionize Percy. He certainly became more perfect each year beyond his death. Mary sought to publish Percy's poems and served as his literary executor, battling for many years with her father-in-law for the right to publish Percy's work.

While Mary's identity as wife and daughter is not in question, one wonders whether Mary established a sense of self that is separate from William Godwin, Percy Shelley, and Mary Wollstonecraft. Marcia and associates have proposed that Erikson's 5th and 6th stages of development are reversed in women. Thus, whereas men develop a sense of self when in their teens that enables them to establish intimate relationships with others, Marcia proposes that women are socialized to establish those intimate relationships early in life. Only after marriage, child bearing, and child rearing can a woman develop a sense of identity, a self beyond partner and children. Unfortunately for Mary, Percy's untimely death meant that she was forced to find a way to provide for herself and her child; her father-in-law only provided for Percy Florence after a long series of negotiations. Mary attempted to assuage her guilt following Percy's death as well as provide financially for her son by becoming Percy's literary executor, although her father-in-law harassed her about this until his death. Mary thus continued to identify herself as Percy's wife for the remainder of her life, and as we have seen, others continued to identify her that way for over 150 years.

While Frankenstein has endured for almost 200 years, it is only within the last 20 years or so that Mary has been "re-discovered" by literary scholars. While none of her other published works have enjoyed the same success as "her hideous progeny," Mary published several pieces of short fiction, a number of novels (namely Falkner, Lodore, Valperga, The Last Man, and The Fortunes of Perkin Warbeck), 2 allegorical plays (Midas, Proserpine), as well as several works of nonfiction throughout the remainder of her life. She enjoyed a wide circle of friends, but never remarried after Percy's death, not necessarily because she did not want to. It is doubtful if many men would want to live in Percy's shadow. She had a close relationship with her son and his wife, but Percy Florence left no heirs. Much of Mary's adult life was spent in atonement for her birth, her scandalous elopement, her novel with "neither principle, object, or moral," and her "cold" treatment of Percy before his death. Her mysterious illnesses finally took their toll on her in 1851 when she was but 53 years old.


I would like to thank Ms. Susan Sganga, EKS Library Wingate University for help tracking down sources. I am also indebted to Dr. Martha Asti, Assistant Vice-President of Academic Affairs Wingate University, for funding to attend the IPSA conference. The portions of this paper dealing with the science of Frankenstein were presented at the 6th annual meeting of the Southern Association of the History of Medicine and Science, Durham, NC 2003.

Photo of "Henry" Frankenstein in the Laboratory with Fritz and the Creature,
From Frankenstein, James Whale, Director, 1931


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Castle Frankenstein