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Shelley and the Miltonic Element in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein

Phillip Wade

Milton and the Romantics, 2 (December 1976), 23-25

{23} An attentive reader will hear many echoes of Milton's Paradise Lost in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. Their presence is a distinctive feature of the work, and the frequency with which they occur suggests that Mary intended a series of parallels between the characters and events in Milton's poem and those in her novel. Among students of Mary's work, however, only Christopher Small has attempted to show that she did in fact execute such a scheme of comparisons.1 Small's thesis, insofar as it touches on the Miltonic aspect of the novel, is that the monster, beginning as a newly-created, Adam degenerates through rejection until he becomes a Satan, the adversary of his creator Victor Frankenstein. The monster's own comment on his degeneration, "'But it is even so, the fallen angel becomes a malignant devil,'" Small concludes, "touches the centre of the whole theme."2 This is a perceptive and, I think, altogether justified interpretation. But it fails to account for the true origin of the Miltonic element in Frankenstein which, I submit, was Percy Shelley's contribution to the novel.

Frankenstein, it should be kept in mind, was the eighteen-year-old Mary Shelley's first venture into the craft of authorship. And it was Shelley, himself already the author of two Gothic romances, Zastrozzi and St. Irvyne, who encouraged her to write it and who served as her adviser and editor as she worked. That his influence on the novel was a continuing and pervasive one is an inference supported by her correspondence as well as the entries in her Journal,3 entries as early as that for August 21, 1816 (the summer she began Frankenstein): "Shelley and I talk about my story," and as late as that for May 14, 1817, when it was almost completed, "Shelley corrects . . . 'Frankenstein.' Write Preface. [Shelley wrote it, we learn from Mary's preface to the 1831 edition] Finis." Even more revealing of the part Shelley played in the writing of Frankenstein is Mary's letter to him written on September 24, 1817, as Lackington was preparing the book for the press:

I sent you my dearest another proof -- which arrived tonight in [sic] looking it over there appeared to me some abruptness which I have endeavored to supply -- but I am tired and not very clear headed so I give you carte blanche to make whatever alterations you please.4
Given the languid, if not indifferent, tone of her letter we may reasonably infer that her husband had exercised authorial as well as editorial carte blanche in helping her with Frankenstein.

Shelley's admiration for John Milton's work, particularly Paradise Lost, has been well documented. The late Frederick Jones, in an attempt to "gather from all the best original sources everything of the least importance which can illumine the relationship of Shelley to Milton," found 322 traceable borrowings from Milton in the Shelley canon.5 Of these, forty-one are direct quotations and the rest verbal echoes of phrases (e. g., "palpable obscurity") which are unquestionably Miltonic. In concluding his study Jones compiled a table of Shelley's specific sources in Milton, showing that about ninety percent of his borrowings come from Paradise Lost. Given Shelley's role as Mary's adviser and editor, then, along with the abiding admiration for Milton evidenced in his own work, it is not surprising that Frankenstein should have a palpable Miltonic aura.

In some instances Shelley's Miltonic influence on Frankenstein seems to have been direct, suggesting his conscious supervision of Mary's work -- or even his own hand in the novel. The marked resemblances between his own Gothic romances and Frankenstein support this supposition. The title page of Zastrozzi, for example, bore an epigraph from Milton:

         That their God
May prove their foe, and with repenting hand
Abolish his own works. This would surpass
Common revenge.

Paradise Lost, II, 368-371
The title page of Frankenstein, as it was first published in 1818,6 likewise bore a Miltonic motto:
Did I request thee, Maker, from my Clay
To mould me Man? Did I solicit thee
From darkness to promote me?
Paradise Lost, X, 743-745
(Mary omitted this motto from the second edition in 1831. I have more to say of this later.)

Shelley's earlier characterization of Zastrozzi with his "lofty stature" and "dignified mein and dauntless composure"7 clearly owed much to Milton's Satan, as did that of Wolfstein in in St. Irvyne, described as having a "towering and majestic form" and "expressive and regular features . . . pregnant with a look as if woe had beat to earth a mind whose native and unconfined energies had aspired to heaven "8 In this second romance Shelley had also pictured a character "whose proportions, gigantic and deformed, were seemingly blackened by the inerasable traces of the thunderbolts of God."9 This kind of description, so patently imitative of Milton's characterization of Satan, is as evident in Frankenstein as it is in Shelley's juvenile romances. To give an example: in Zastrozzi there is a scene played in a conventional Alpine setting. A lightning storm, properly terrifying, rattles from crag to crag. And there Matilda:

Contemplated the tempest which raged around her. The battling elements paused, an uninterrupted silence, deep, dreadful as the silence of the tomb, succeeded. Matilda heard a noise -- footsteps were distinguishable, and looking up, a flash of lightning disclosed to her view the towering form of Zastrozzi. His gigantic figure was again involved in pitchy darkness, as the momentary lightning receded. A peal of crashing thunder again madly rattled over the zenith, and a scintillating flash announced Zastrozzi's approach, as he stood before Matilda.10
The identical scene occurs in Frankenstein, with Victor Frankenstein finding himself in the Alps during an electrical storm:
{24} I watched the storm, so beautiful yet terrific . . . . This noble war in the sky elevated my spirits; I clasped my hands, and exclaimed aloud, 'William, dear angel! this is thy funeral, this is thy dirge!" As I said these words, I perceived in the gloom a figure . . . A flash of lightning illuminated the object, and discovered its shape plainly to me, its gigantic stature . . . instantly informed me it was the wretch, the filthy demon, to whom I had given life.11
Granted, storm scenes are not unusual in Romantic literature; one need only recall Byron's Childe Harold. But the Miltonic image of a titanic Satan silhouetted by fires in the pitchy blackness of Hell bears the unmistakable mark of Shelley's influence.

Writing as the ostensible author of Frankenstein, Shelley speaks in the preface (to the first edition) of his endeavor in the novel to "preserve the truth of the elementary principles of human nature, while I have not scrupled to innovate their combinations," adding that, "The Iliad . . . Shakespeare . . . and most especially Milton, in Paradise Lost, conform to this rule" [Preface 1]. Just what "truth of the elementary principles of human nature" was to be revealed in Frankenstein, Shelley made clear in an anonymous review written to accompany the publication of the novel. The monster's "crimes and malevolence," Shelley wrote there, "are the children, as it were, of Necessity and Human Nature. In this the direct moral of the book consists; it is perhaps the most important, and of the most universal application, of any moral that can be enforced by example. Treat a person ill, and he will become wicked."12 The thematic kinship between Shelley's preface, his review, and the Miltonic parallels between Frankenstein's monster and Satan becomes explicit in the monster's declaration that "the fallen angel becomes a malignant devil." And the extended analogy between Satan and the monster culminates in this allusion.

Most of the allusions to Paradise Lost in Frankenstein are consistent with the scheme of comparison I have attempted to delineate. Usually it is the monster who points to parallels between himself and Milton's Satan: "I am the fallen angel. . . . Misery made me a fiend" (95); or "I considered Satan as the fitter emblem of my condition; for often, like him, when I viewed the bliss of my protectors [the De Laceys], the bitter gall of envy rose within me" (125). And, again, the most significant comparison in the novel: "I cannot believe that I am the same creature whose thoughts were once filled with sublime and transcedent visions of the beauty and the majesty of goodness. But it is even so, the fallen angel becomes a malignant devil" (219). Sometimes, however, it is Victor Frankenstein who compares himself to Satan -- "like the archangel who aspired to omnipotence, I am chained in an eternal hell" (208) -- while the monster likens himself to Milton's Adam: "No Eve soothed my sorrows, nor shared my thoughts; I was alone" (127). After burning the De Lacey's cottage, the monster echoes Milton's description of Adam and Eve leaving the Garden of Eden: "And now, with the world before me, whither should I bend my steps?" (135). There are, moreover, a great many ad hoc Miltonic allusions throughout the novel.

The key to the presence of these random allusions is probably to be found in Mary's Journal where, in the month after she began Frankenstein, Mary wrote, "Shelley and I talk about my story [Frankenstein]. Finish 'Herman and Una' and write. Shelley reads Milton" (August 21, 1816). Entry after entry records the fact that Shelley was reading Paradise Lost. And they show that more often than not he read it aloud to Mary. Representative entries read: "Draw, write, read Locke and Curtius. Shelley reads Petrarch and Locke, he reads 'Paradise Lost' aloud in the evening. I work" (November 17, 1816); "Shelley reads Locke, and in the evening 'Paradise Lost' aloud to me" (November 20, 1816), and again, "Write, read Locke . . . . After tea Shelley reads 'Paradise Lost' aloud" (November 21 1816). The greatest concentration of these entries occurs during the period in which Frankenstein was being written (between July 1816 and February 1818), although similar entries followed through 1819. Perhaps some reverberations of Milton's organ voice found their way into the novel indirectly through Mary. It is just as possible, of course, that their presence in Frankenstein is attributable to Shelley who permeated his own juveniles with random allusions to Paradise Lost.

I mentioned earlier that Mary chose to omit the Miltonic motto from the second edition of Frankenstein (1831). Her doing so was very likely a corollary of her desire to minimize Shelley's part in the novel, which was evidenced in her preface to that edition, "I certainly did not owe the suggestion of one incident nor scarcely one train of feeling to my husband, and yet but for his incitement it would never have taken the form in which it was presented to the world" [Introduction 12]. In dropping the Miltonic motto, however, Mary may have unwittingly revealed to us that Shelley had more to do with the actual writing of Frankenstein than she was willing to concede in 1831. If in her judgment the motto was not integral in the context of the work, perhaps she was unaware of the central importance of the Miltonic element in the novel. Certainly if one may judge by Mary's work after Shelley's death, Milton's poetry and thought had little significance for her. Aside from Frankenstein, the only one of her works wholly written and published in Shelley's lifetime, nothing she wrote might be described as faintly Miltonic. And she wrote five more novels and over twenty tales and stories.

The final inference is clear. The Miltonic element which is unique in Frankenstein among Mary's works must be attributed to Shelley's influence on the novel. In her preface to the second edition, Mary reported that she had begun writing Frankenstein with an idea for only a brief Gothic story, but that Shelley had encouraged her "to develop the idea at greater length" [Introduction 12]. Lacking at eighteen the artistic experience as well as the intellectual depth necessary to sustain a novel dealing with the implications of a mortal's imparting life to a creature of his devising, Mary -- as her letters and journal entries show -- turned to Shelley for advice and direction. Never one to curb his magnanimity, Shelley for his part saw Frankenstein as a thesis novel, "a vehicle for useful and momentous instruction "13 And, as we have seen, Shelley stated the novel's thesis in his review; justified his method in the preface by citing Milton as a precedent; and by developing the analogy between Satan and the monster, "enforced by example" what he had called "the direct moral of the book. . . . Treat a person ill, and he will become wicked."


1. Ariel Like a Harpy: Shelley, Mary and Frankenstein (London, 1972). Subsequently published under the title Mary Shelley's Frankenstein: Tracing the Myth (Pittsburgh, 1972).

2. p. 65

3. Mary Shelley's Journal, ed. Frederick L. Jones (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1947). Quotations from the Journal are cited by date in the body of the paper.

4. The Letters of Mary W. Shelley, ed. Frederick L. Jones (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1944), I, 14.

5. "Shelley and Milton," Studies in Philology, XLIX (1952), 480.

6. The first edition was published in three volumes by Lackington, Allen and Company of London. The second was published in Bentley's Standard Novels (London, 1831).

7. See The Complete Works of Percy Shelley, ed. Roger Ingpen and Walter E. Peck, 10 vols. (London, 1926-1930), V, 100. Hereafter cited as the Julian edition.

8. Julian, V, 144.

9. Julian, V, 184.

10. Julian, V, 66. The italics are mine.

11. Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus, ed. James Rieger (New York, 1974), p. 71. The italics are mine. All textual quotations from Frankenstein are taken from this source, and page numbers are cited hereafter in the body of the paper. Excerpts quoted from the Preface to the 1818 edition as well as from the Preface to the 1831 edition are also taken from this source.

12. Julian, VI, 263. It is worth noting that a number of critics have ignored this stated moral in favor of an interpretation which makes Frankenstein the product of Mary's subconscious reaction against Shelley's passion for reforming the world. One of the most convincing of these interpretations is that put forth by P. D. Fleck who finds that, "Frankenstein . . . contains in an imaginative form her criticism of Shelley." See "Mary Shelley's Notes to Shelley's Poems and Frankenstein," SIR, VI (1967), 226-254. But it should be kept in mind that there are two stories in Frankenstein: that of Victor and that of the monster. In his Preface Shelley states the "direct moral," which is conveyed in the monster's story. The other moral, which is implicit in Victor's fate, may well have been Mary's comment on Shelley's penchant for reform through science.

13. A phrase he used earlier in deploring Sir Walter Scott's failure to "subordinate" his fiction to "the inculcated moral." See The Letters of Percy Bysshe Shelley, ed. Frederick L. Jones, 2 vols. (Oxford, 1964), I, 81.