Contents Index

Frankenstein's Daughter: Mary Shelley and Mary Wollstonecraft

Janet Todd

Women & Literature, 4:2 (1976), 18-27

[{18}] In her introduction to Frankenstein, Mary Shelley wrote: "It is not singular that, as the daughter of two parents of distinguished literary celebrity, I should very early in life have thought of writing."1 In the same introduction, she makes the point that creation does not come from a void, but from materials afforded a writer by circumstances. The two comments together suggest that Mary Shelley was aware of her literary debt to her parents and was acknowledging their inspiration. Some of the "materials afforded" were certainly the works of her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft.

The first reviewers of Frankenstein emphasized the novel's relation to William Godwin's Caleb Williams, published in 1794.2 They noted resemblances in the plot, characters, structure and tone. The two heroes the lower class "creature," Caleb Williams, and the upper class master Falkland, are trapped in a pattern of pursuit, in which Caleb, in possession of his master's criminal secret, is hounded by Falkland until the pursuer becomes the pursued and Falkland is destroyed. In something of the same manner, although the pattern is reversed, the monster pursues until he in turn is pursued. Again, a great scene of Godwin's novel, where Caleb and Falkland confront each other not for mutual understanding but for the relief of their own tortured feelings, is paralleled by the climactic scene in Frankenstein in on the sea of ice, where the monster and his creator meet to reinforce their ultimate incomprehension of each other.

In both Caleb Williams and Frankenstein, the protagonists, hunter and hunted, oppresser and oppressed, are male. However, in both, the absolute outcast situation of one of the protagonists -- based in one case on an unchangeably low social position and in the other on a ghastly physical appearance -- is representative of the situation of women, especially fallen women. Like the monster, the woman is separated by her {19} physical condition from the dominant male society and -- in the case of the fallen woman -- from the family as well. Since the family is the necessary bridge to the larger society, this exclusion is the most fundamental and searing.

In Frankenstein, the family, consisting of father, mother and child, or father, brother and sister, is constantly held up as the ideal state. To be deprived of this is truly to be deprived of society and, ultimately, of humanity. The fallen woman suffers just such an exclusion. This exclusion from society and the family is a major concern of Mary Wollstonecraft; it seems appropriate, therefore, to look in her work for an intermediary between Caleb Williams and the monster.

The importance of Wollstonecraft in Mary Shelley's life is revealed in many incidents and circumstances. The trips to her grave to find some solitude away from the chaotic Godwin household, Shelley's avowal of love over the grave, the Wollstonecraft picture hanging over the mantel mentioned by so many visitors to the house, and the references to Wollstonecraft made by Godwin and his literary friends when they commented on Mary's character or appearance must all have impressed on her the personality of her dead mother and have reminded her of the loss she had sustained and caused.

The literary influence of Wollstonecraft must also have been immense. Early in her life Mary Shelley read all of her mother's works and her later journals reveal a constant rereading of them during her years with Shelley.3 In Frankenstein, there are many hints of the influence of this reading, and several of the sentiments are those reiterated in the works of Wollstonecraft. For example, when Walton comments on the effect of ignorance and poverty on the mind, he echoes Wollstonecraft's views in Letters from Sweden, where the lack of curiosity and interest in the uncultured is noted.4 Again, there are in Frankenstein comments about the blighting effect of trade, especially in the characterization of Clerval's father. This was a constant theme of Wollstonecraft, emphasized in her later books after her disastrous relationship with the trading Imlay.5 Many other echoes of Wollstonecraft's views are apparent throughout Frankenstein, but for a sustained similarity between the plot and characterization of Frankenstein and a work of Wollstonecraft, we must turn to her final, unfinished novel, The Wrongs of Woman; or Maria, which presents as one of its two heroines the fallen woman, Jemima.6

A central section of The Wrongs of Woman is the first person narrative of Jemima, which has the same structural place in the novel as the monster's account of his life in Frankenstein. According to Wollstonecraft's {20} intention, Jemima's life story is presented as typical of the lot of working class women, whose several ills she exemplifies. The illegitimate child of two servants, Jemima is abandoned by her father before she is born. Like Wollstonecraft herself, the mother dies a few days after giving birth to her daughter. Sent out to a baby minder, Jemima is from the outset of her life neglected and ill-treated. However, instead of dying like most unwanted babies, she continues to grow, and soon she becomes a drudge for the younger children. This drudgery is exchanged for an even more hurtful one when her father decides to use her as a servant for his new wife. In their house, the stepmother reacts toward Jemima with the same repugnance and contempt as the father has already done, until she finds she can stand the obnoxious presence no longer, and Jemima is sent out as a servant. In the new establishment, she endures brutal treatment and is constantly taunted for her illegitimate birth. Her starvation diet forces her to steal, and she quickly adds the epithet of "thief" to that of "bastard."

Jemima is, in her own words, the "mark of cruelty" until her sixteenth year when "something like comeliness appeared on a Sunday." Automatically she is raped by the man of the house, who then procures her frequent submission with threats. The result is inevitable. Thrown out of the house pregnant, she is forced to take refuge with beggars, and, although feeling some tenderness for her unborn child, she gives herself with much pain an abortion, so that she can eke out a subsistence as a beggar. Later she becomes a thief and a prostitute. She is despised by all, moved from street to street, and regarded as a monstrous blot on society.

The brightest period in this grim life occurs when Jemima finds refuge as the kept mistress of a licentious but cultivated "gentleman," in whose house she learns some book knowledge and refinement of manner and speech. Such acquirements, however, serve only to embitter her when, on his death, she is ejected as a moral outrage by his relatives, and is forced again to become a beggar and washer-woman.

By this stage in her life, Jemima has the awareness that it is primarily her sex rather than her lowly social condition that oppresses her and keeps her a permanent outcast from the society she wishes to enter. As she comments: "A man with half my industry, and, I may say, abilities, could have procured a decent livelihood and discharged some of the duties which knit mankind together; whilst I, who had acquired a taste for the rational, nay, in honest pride let me assert, the virtuous enjoyments of life, was cast aside as the filth of society" (p. 65).

{21} The rest of the narrative drags Jemima through the vicious institutions that oppress the poor; she goes to prison, the pauper hospital and the workhouse. In such surroundings, her character deteriorates, and she becomes indifferent and even at times malevolent; she "hated mankind." Finally she is taken on by the master of the workhouse as an attendant at his private asylum. She is chosen primarily because of her deadened emotions and her apparent moral insensitivity, now her most distinguishing characteristics.

In The Wrongs of Woman, Jemima represents the specific horror of being a woman deprived of family. Like Frankenstein's monster, she is conscious of no defining family and is therefore immediately an adult. Put to work when scarcely more than a baby, she already "looked like a little old woman, or a hag shrivelling into nothing," with "furrows of reflection and care" destroying the appearance of youth. So too the monster's ugliness removes him from the child, whom, at the outset of his life, he resembles in innocence. His yellow eyes and wrinkled skin are those of an old man, and people respond to the disparity between this appearance and his strength and vigor with the horror Jemima also excites.

Both Jemima and the monster realize their bereft condition, which they see as the cause of their horrific situation and their deteriorating characters. Jemima frequently and emphatically makes the point: "I was an egg dropped in the sand; a pauper by nature, hunted from family to family, who belonged to nobody -- and nobody cared for me. I was despised from my birth" (p. 56). The monster expressed the same idea: "No father had watched my infant days, no mother had blessed me with smiles and caresses" (p. 106). At the end of her narrative, Jemima sums up her motherless state in a plaintive question, "Who ever risked anything for me? -- who ever acknowledged me to be a fellow-creature?" The monster echoes this: "But where were my friends and relations?"

The reactions of Jemima and the monster to their anomalous situations are similar: they seek surrogate parents, but in the fictive worlds of the novels, there are no surrogate families. Jemima tries to win the affection of her stepmother, at one point even making an impulsive gesture of affection toward her to kiss her; she is of course violently repulsed. So the monster, revealing himself to the father, De Lacey, begs for the affection of his family and is brutally cast off. Separated from the family which they can never enter, both Jemima and the monster become pariahs. The monster is called by his creator "a vile {22} insect," "abhorred and miserable." Jemima sees herself "hunted from hole to hole, as if she had been a beast of prey, or infected with a moral plague." Full humanity is given only through the family; to be outside it is to be less than human, an animal or a monster.

If neither the monster nor Jemima can force an entry into a family, and so find a moral and social model, both yet find an intellectual one, Jemima in the gentleman she lives with for some years and the monster in the De Laceys, whom he sees through the chinks in the wall. Both the monster and Jemima are infinitely educable, although the monster's progress in intellectual self-improvement is certainly the more remarkable.

When mistress to the gentleman, Jemima improves herself intellectually through reading in his library and through conversation at his dinner table, "from which, in the common course of life, women are excluded." She is encouraged by her master in both reading and conversation until she reaches a point where her "sentiments and language" are superior to her station and sex. Returning to the life of the streets, she finds this superiority, far from being an advantage, a handicap. As a woman she can derive no benefit from it, and it serves only to remind her of the life from which she is excluded: "The book of knowledge is closely clasped, against those who must fulfill their daily task of severe manual labour or die" (p. 64).

The monster derives much of his learning from Felix as he seeks to educate his beloved Safie. Along with language, history, and geography, he learns the social facts which Jemima learnt through experience: "I heard of the division of property, of immense wealth and squalid poverty, of rank, descent, and noble blood." He learns too of the importance of the family: "how the father doted on the smile of the infant, and the lively sallies of the older children, how all the cares of the mother were wrapped up in the precious charge, how the mind of youth expanded and gained knowledge, of brother, sister, and all the various relationships which bind one human being to another in mutual bonds" (pp. 105-106). Such ideas, and with them the realization of his own abnormal extra-familial situation, are reinforced for the monster by his reading. The Sorrows of Werter serves primarily to emphasize that he is related to no one, while Plutarch causes him to feel even greater admiration than before for the forbidden domestic harmony presented by the De Laceys. Above all, Paradise Lost proves most relevant to his situation. The triune relationship of God, Adam and Eve presents the ideal familial pattern, from which he is forever excluded.

The monster's reading confirms his Godwinian observation, that virtue is essentially social, and for acceptance by society a family is {23} necessary, since it is the primary social organization. Deprived of it, the monster follows his reading and experience and concludes: "If I have no ties and no affections, hatred and vice must be my portion" [2.9.4]. Prevented by his lack of family from exercising social virtue, his education, like Jemima's, serves only to embitter him. In Jemima's words, "To be cut off from human converse, now I had been taught to relish it, was to wander a ghost among the living."

It is in their presentation of Godwinian social theory that the monster and Jemima most coincide. Both are, initially at least, innately good, noble, and benevolent, and in both, vice is a wrenching of their human nature from its proper course. Both reiterate that it is misery and injustice which cause vice in them. Because she has been reduced to starvation, Jemima early learns to steal, although she does not thereby lose her consciousness of the evil nature of theft. Later, as a prostitute, preyed on by men, she preys on them by picking the pockets of the drunkards who abuse her with the names of slave, bastard, and whore. During her sorry career, Jemima has one chance of a domestic haven with a tradesman who offers to take her into his house. Before complying, Jemima advises him to eject the pregnant girl already under his roof. This is done and the girl in despair drowns herself. Considering this incident with remorse, Jemima can yet find justification for it: "I was famishing; wonder not that I became a wolf!" She does not completely exonerate herself, however, for she can still refer to herself in this incident as "a monster." Later in her life, smaller social sins cease to result in any self-condemnation: "I began to consider the rich and the poor as natural enemies, and became a thief from principle" (p. 68).

It is the monster's experience of cruelty and injustice that makes him morally monstrous. Constantly he asserts that he is evil because he is miserable. Driven out by the De Lacey family whom he had purposed to help, the monster declares "everlasting war against the species" [2.8.1] He is filled with feelings of "revenge and hatred," inimical to his true character. Like Jemima, the monster feels that his vicious acts are inevitable given his social exclusion, and like Jemima he suffers in the execution of his evil: "Think you that the groans of Clerval were music to my ears? My heart was fashioned to be susceptible of love and sympathy, and when wrenched by misery to vice and hatred, it did not endure the violence of the change without torture such as you cannot even imagine" (p. 202).

The monster and Jemima are both diverted from benevolence by social injustice. In both cases their crimes are real and not glossed over. The monster murders Frankenstein's family and friend, and {24} Jemima causes the death of her unborn child and of the pregnant girl. Both are portrayed as corrupted; yet both retain some essential goodness. Thus the monster and Jemima are allowed partial relationships. Jemima has been repulsed so often that she has lost all possibility of sexual or sensual feelings, and there is no suggestion that she can ever be a wife or mother. She can, however, relate to Maria, where there is no sexual and familial tie, and, through the relationship, Jemima is partly redeemed.

The monster well realizes that his exclusion implies first of all sexual and sensual exclusion. When he imagines an interchange of kindness with humanity, he exclaims, "But that cannot be; the human senses are insurmountable barriers to our union" (p. 130). At the end of the book, however, he excites some compassion in Walton when the latter's eyes are closed. In addition, he is given the last justifying word in the novel, so that the reader is left with an impression less of his crimes than of his sufferings.

A final direct similarity between the monster and Jemima is their association with reason or intellect. In the dualistic psychology of the time, reason opposes sensibility or emotion. While sensibility needs nurturing in a family, reason can exist without such support; in fact it may be strengthened at the expense of sensibility when a person is deprived of domestic life.

In The Wrongs of Woman, Jemima, the outcast, is associated with reason, while Maria, the middle class woman who comes from a defective but still functioning family, is associated with sensibility. Early in the novel, Jemima counters Maria's excessive emotion with her rather callous reasoning. For example, when Maria purposes to starve herself in romantic fashion, Jemima observes that few people carry this out and most start eating as they come to their senses. Always Jemima is aware of consequences, and sympathy is given, if it is given at all, only when it is judged advantageous to herself. Her sympathy for Maria occurs when she has proof that her master no longer trusts her and when she considers herself in need of a new patron.

The monster is associated with reason or intellect in two ways. First, he is the result of Frankenstein's intellect when it is divorced from the sensibility embodied in Elizabeth and his mother. The passion that sustains Frankenstein in his monstrous creation is intellectual, and there is in his laboratory no place for domestic and female sensibility. Secondly, the monster often shows an intellectual awareness not evident in Frankenstein, whose crises are marked by irrationality and {25} impulsiveness. In their encounters it is Frankenstein who is moved by excessive emotion and who, on the sea of ice, has to be restrained by the monster.

The cause of this association with reason to the exclusion of sensibility is the same in Jemima and the monster, and can be traced, like their other ills, to their lack of a nurturing family, in which alone sensibility can be cultivated. Without a family, the rough blasts of society quickly check the development of a faculty which tends to self-indulgence rather than self-interest.

The similarities between the experiences and characters of Jemima and the monster are sufficiently striking to suggest that Mary Shelley had her mother's work somewhere in mind when she wrote her novel.7 Two other circumstances reinforce this obliquely, since they associate the monster with the outcast woman: the fate of Justine in Frankenstein and the social situation of Mary Shelley when she was writing her book.

Justine resembles the monster through her rejection by her creator: "Through a strong perversity, her mother could not endure her, and . . . treated her very ill" (p. 50). Since she does not have the monster's hideous appearance, however, she can be accepted for a time into the Frankenstein household. Yet, as in the case of the monster, the surrogate can never become the real: Justine is finally excluded from the family and killed for the crime of the monster, whose rightful position as child of the family she had in a way usurped. The main evidence against her is the picture of Frankenstein's mother, whom she had tried to accept as her own.

In her relationship to her own family, Justine is close to both Jemima and the monster. She resembles the monster rather than Jemima, however, in her effect on this family -- an effect allowable in the poetic world of Frankenstein, but not in the "typical" world of The Wrongs of Woman:8

One by one, her brothers and sisters died; and her mother, with the exception of her neglected daughter was left childless. The conscience of the woman was troubled; she began to think that the deaths of her favourites was a judgment from heaven to chastise her partiality (p. 51).
Here the excluding family is punished; in both books, however, the punishment falls directly and primarily on the excluded child.

More than most novels, Frankenstein seems to demand some biographical interpretation, owing to the extraordinary situation of Mary {26} Shelley when she wrote it. The death of Mary Wollstonecraft in 1797 had left two motherless daughters. Shortly after Mary Shelley started Frankenstein, Fanny, the eldest, would kill herself, and her melancholy situation as supernumerary in the Godwin household must have been a contributing factor to her fate. Fanny's birth was the result of Wollstonecraft's departure from convention in her liaison with Gilbert Imlay, an account of which Mary Shelley could have read in her father's biography of her mother and in the letters published after her death.9 Mary Shelley was aware of the misery of both Wollstonecraft and her illegitimate daughter, the seeming result of her mother's irregular conduct; yet she eloped with Shelley -- whose wife was living at the time the first version of Frankenstein was written -- and she stayed with him when there seemed no possibility of a marriage. Mary Shelley's first illegitimate child died, and her second, named William for her father, was not acknowledged by him. The child must have served as a reminder of the breach with a father whom she revered and whom it seemed she could never again approach. In her life, then, Mary Shelley had been unable to form the domestic circle she and her mother regarded as essential for virtue and for which the brief Godwin-Wollstonecraft marriage must have served as a model.10

By her birth, Mary Shelley had destroyed the one example near her of an ideal family, and an association of her with the destructive monster therefore becomes possible. Percy Bysshe Shelley's closeness to Frankenstein has long been noted; his family situation, including his love for his sister Elizabeth, his early enjoyment of alchemy and science, and his questing, passionate nature all suggest it. The two associations provide the book with a biographical interpretation which suits well the monster's kinship with Jemima. Mary Shelley has become a fallen woman, cast out from her family. Her situation is due partly to Shelley, who may repulse her as her monster was repulsed; it is also due partly to society and her father, to whom Frankenstein was dedicated -- both had already turned from her.

Such a biographical interpretation is of course speculative. Its possibility, however, helps to confirm the idea suggested by the comparison of The Wrongs of Woman and Frankenstein, that the monster's predicament is the fallen or outcast woman's, and that the cause of this predicament is exclusion from society and, above all, the family.


1. Mary Shelley, Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus (New York: Bantam Edition, 1973). The page numbers throughout the paper refer to this edition.

2. See, for example, The Athenaeum, no. 316, (Nov., 1833), 769-777. Other reviews noted the resemblances of Frankenstein to St. Leon a later novel by Godwin, in which he gives an idealized portrait of Mary Wollstonecraft.

3. Mary Shelley's Journal, ed. Frederick L. Jones (Norman: U. of Oklahoma Press, 1947)

4. Mary Wollstonecraft, Letters Written During a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark (1796: Fontwell, Sussex: Centaur Press, 1970), p. 5.

5. For example, see Mary Wollstonecraft, An Historical and Moral View of the Origin and Progress of the French Revolution and the Effect It Has Produced in Europe (1794; New York: Scholars' Facsimiles and Reprints, 1975), pp. 518-520.

6. Mary Wollstonecraft, Maria or The Wrongs of Woman ( 1798; New York: Norton, 1975). The page numbers in the paper refer to this edition.

7. The main distinction between Jemima and the monster is of course in sex. Some possible reasons for the maleness of the monster are as follows: creator and creature should be of the same sex to avoid sexual implications and this sex should be male since it is bizarre to make a woman create life in other than a biological way; the creator requires a scientific education, usually denied to women; the monster, to wreak havoc on the world, must have great strength, even beyond ordinary men.

8. In her Preface, Wollstonecraft states that she aimed "to show the wrongs of different classes of women" and to portray "woman" rather than "an individual."

9. William Godwin, Memoirs of the Author of 'A Vindication of the Rights of Woman,' (London: Joseph Johnson, 1798); Posthumous Works of the Author of 'A Vindication of the Rights of Woman,' ed. William Godwin (London: Joseph Johnson, 1798), Vols. 111 & IV.

10. Frankenstein's nostalgic picture of his childhood family is similar to Wollstonecraft's effusions over domestic felicity. See, for example, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792; New York: Norton, 1967). p. 91.