Contents Index

Vital Artifice: Mary, Percy, and the Psychological Integrity of Frankenstein

Peter Dale Scott

In The Endurance of "Frankenstein": Essays on Mary Shelley's Novel, ed. George Levine and U. C. Knoepflmacher (Berkeley, Los Angeles, and London: Univ. of California Press, 1979), pp. 172-202.

{172} The extraordinary scope of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein is attested to by the diversified labors of its critics. The Monster whom U. C. Knoepflmacher sees as an aggressive projection of Mary's childhood resentments emerges in Lee Sterrenburg's essay as an implicit critique of her father's political ideas. I shall argue that the book's greatness is precisely this fusion of the personal and the political, the private and the ideological. Yet I also hope to show that the conflicting feelings of resentment and love that Mary originally felt toward her father could only be articulated after transference to another insensitive but idealistic Utopian, her father's disciple, Percy Bysshe Shelley.

Percy helped Mary escape into the freedom of a premature adulthood. But his role as liberator was defective; Mary was soon forced to recognize old forces of sexually imbalanced oppression working through him. Thus I shall argue that the excessively ideological and masculine figure of Victor Frankenstein is modeled primarily, though not exclusively, on Percy Shelley, and that the motherless generation of the Monster symbolizes something at once political and intensely personal -- the corrigible errors of her own experimental life with him. Her responses to both were not hostile but profoundly and creatively ambivalent, and ultimately open-minded.

Percy's Promethean vision of shaping new persons in new sexual relationships both inspired and disrupted the lives of the women around him. His powerful but erratic energy, marred by abstractness and eccentricity, affected Mary's life more deeply than his {173} own. It is no accident that Percy's early philosophical poems -- Queen Mab, Alastor, or The Revolt of Islam -- should strike us as less realized productions than the novel subtitled The Modern Prometheus. Percy was still distracted by ideas, many of them gathered from outlandish and ponderous books. Mary's novel, though enriched by some of these ideas, crystallized around a shaping gift from her own unconscious -- her horrific but cathartic dream. Her ambivalent reactions to that early flamboyantly experimental life with Percy were jolted into dreams and then art by the traumatic death of her first child.

Frankenstein does not merely confront, in the form of the Monster, the threat of dehumanizing alienation which attended the Shelleys' vision of a revolutionary scientific spirit. Mary goes further: the rejected Monster whom she faced in herself, her husband, and the age they lived in, is seen as "susceptible of love" (p. 217). More soberly than Rousseau, Godwin, or Percy, her novel still reassert, in the face of tragedy, the transcendent human potential for change.


Two recent books1 have made clear that Percy Shelley's perverse virtues had their part in inspiring the obsessive character of Victor Frankenstein, as well as that of his rejected Doppelgänger. It would be wrong, in documenting this fact, to distinguish too sharply between the personal reminiscences in Frankenstein of Percy, and the philosophical or political echoes of his ideas. For better or for worse, Percy tried to live his ideas, and to make others live them too: there was artifice in his own projected life-style. This followed from what in his preface to Prometheus Unbound he called his own "passion for reforming the world," and what Mary later, with less enthusiasm, would call his "abstract imagination."2 Of their first year of hectic convivial experiment together in a ménage à trois Mary later noted: "it was like acting a novel, being an incarnate romance."3

{174} In writing out her ambivalence towards Percy's libertarian scientism, Mary had to reconcile that part of herself that thought and felt like Percy with her own protofeminist resentment of him. In its drama of hyperintellectual men and overly passive women, her novel explores the paradox that the two modern intellects most admired by the professed sexual egalitarian Percy -- Milton and Rousseau -- are precisely the two who are criticized at length in The Rights of Woman for their subordination of women.4 (In Safie, Frankenstein proffers an androgynously balanced corrective to Rousseau's docile, domestic, and affectionate Sophie, a figure reproved by Mary Wollstonecraft.) On an ideological level, then, one might say that "The Modern Prometheus" is a pendant to Emile and La Nouvelle Héloise. As Kate Ellis suggests in her contribution to this volume, Victor's abandonment of Elizabeth for a male-oriented course of study "weaken[s] . . . his domestic affections"5 and thus underscores the tragic consequences of an imperfect sexual balance in self and society.

All this is not, of course, to ignore the great mythic innovation of the frightful but sympathetic man-made Monster. On the political level, the Monster, as Lee Sterrenburg points out, acts as an emblem of the revolutionary ideas which radicals like Mary Wollstonecraft viewed as an "experiment in political science."6 Wollstonecraft repeatedly alluded to the "monsters" brought forth by that convulsion, even though her purpose was always to prove that, despite "acts of ferocious folly . . . the people are essentially good" and had only been "rendered ferocious by misery" (I: 71). Her daughter's {175} Monster echoes these beliefs; "misery made me a fiend," he insists (p. 95).7 On a more personal level, then, the Monster's rebellious outbursts stem from resentments very similar to those nurtured by Percy and Mary, both of whom were obsessed with, and rejected by, their fathers.

Percy's most recent biographer, Richard Holmes, has noted how the poet, in his review of Mary's book, implicitly accepted the identification of the Monster's "malevolence and selfishness" with his own waywardness as Sir Timothy's rejected son:

In this the direct moral of the book consists . . . . Treat a person ill and he will become wicked . . . . It is thus that too often in society, those who are best qualified to be its benefactors and its ornaments, are branded by some accident with scorn, and changed by solitude of heart into a scourge and curse.8
Characteristically, Percy does not write as if he had been the initiating agent of rejection, only as the victim.

Yet Percy is first of all Victor. "Victor" was the pseudonym Percy chose on publishing his first volume of childhood poems -- along with the productions of his sister Elizabeth, whose namesake in the novel is Victor Frankenstein's cousin and playmate "or rather his sister" (p. 79).9 The victimized and isolated Monster, on the other hand, can be taken to represent Mary as well as Percy. He also symbolizes the artifice of their innovative and problematic life {176} together, a vital artifice that offered hopes of a new age while it had also become guiltily associated in Mary's mind with the death of their premature first child. Victor Frankenstein's irresoluteness, which leads him first to promise and then to deny a spouse to his creation, is a key to the tragedy, and is likewise attributable to an ideologue's insufficient awareness of human nature. Mary Shelley depicted this blend of fitful irresolution and abstract rhetoric with compassionate intensity, for they were qualities she had come to know in her own husband.

The Victor Frankenstein who is cured by experiments with lightning of his eccentric love for Cornelius Agrippa, Albertus Magnus, and Paracelsus (p. 35) is clearly modeled on the pale atheist at Oxford, the young Percy who (according to his friend T. J. Hogg) purchased "treatises on magic and witchcraft, as well as those modern ones detailing the miracles of electricity and galvanism."10 Victor, like Percy, is dominated by his first love for his "playmate" Elizabeth; yet he leaves her to travel because, like Dante's Ulysses, he "ardently desired the acquisition of knowledge" (p. 40).

Ingolstadt, on the other hand, alludes not to Percy's life but to his ideas, for it is the place where in May 1776 the secret revolutionary conspiracy of the Illuminati had been founded by Dr. Adam Weishaupt. This Masonic brotherhood, according to the compendious four-volume history of Jacobinism by the French émigré Abbé Augustin Barruel, was dedicated to the destruction of private property, religion, and "superstitious" social forms such as marriage (Shelley: The Pursuit, p. 52). The Abbé Barruel expected that the mere exposure of this litany of antinomian ideas would shock foreigners, and particularly the Anglo-Saxons, into outraged reaction; indeed, his Memoirs still have some currency among the American radical right. But as is well known they had the opposite effect on the young Oxonian Percy Bysshe Shelley, who found them a convenient index of the very ideas on marriage and society, the personal and the political, that he would later weave into Queen Mab.

On reading Barruel in 1810 Shelley's immediate response was characteristically impulsive and improvident: a defiant show of atheism that led indirectly to his being sent down from Oxford. In his first letter to Leigh Hunt, then a stranger, Shelley proposed an {177} association, analogous to Illuminism, which might work for "rational liberty" rather than "the visionary schemes of a completely-equalized community" (Shelley: The Pursuit, p. 52).

In 1812, Shelley dabbled briefly in this utopian fantasy, to the alarm of his new mentor William Godwin. Writing in 1810 to his one close friend, Hogg, Shelley revealed passions more violently reminiscent of the Monster's vows:

Oh! I burn with impatience for the moment of Xtianity's dissolution, it has injured me; I swear on the altar of perjured love [here Percy refers to his rejection by his cousin Harriet Grove, but his resentment against his father and whole family situation is unmistakable] to revenge myself on the hated cause of the effect which even now I can scarcely help deploring. -- Indeed I think it is to the benefit of society to destroy the opinions which can annihilate the dearest of its ties . . . . Adieu -- Ecrasez l'infame ecrasez l'impie.11
The closing words are of course Voltaire's, but as a call to action they were (at least in the imagination of Barruel and his young readers Shelley and Hogg) the watchword of the Illuminati. It is unlikely that Mary Shelley ever saw this letter, but she had seen and heard only too much of her husband's bursts of rage and revenge in the name of love. Indeed her Monster's oaths of vengeance ("I vowed eternal hatred and vengeance to all mankind" [p. 138]) seem far less rhetorical than some of her husband's parricidal gesturings in real life:
Yet here I swear, and as I break my oath may Infinity Eternity blast me, here I swear that never will I forgive Christianity! . . . Oh how I wish I were the Antichrist, that it were mine to crush the Demon, to hurl him to his native Hell never to rise again. . . .12
This self-absorption in one's sense of grievance, even more visible in Victor Frankenstein than in his Monster, is akin also to the "selfish" grief for which Mary castigated herself in her autobiographical novel Mathilda. Her reactions to Percy's self-absorption {178} must soon have been extremely ambivalent. The intensity of their early relationship seems to have owed much to their shared sense of alienation and rejection ("I detest Mrs. G[odwin]," Mary wrote in October 1814, and the thought can hardly have been a new one) from family dramas in which there were also strong incestuous side-currents. (Percy wrote in verse to Mary at this time that she offered him an awakening from a life of cursing and "the soul's mute rage," while he tried to interest his wife Harriet in Mary's "sufferings, & the tyranny which is exercised on her.")

But from the first, as in the notorious suicide proposal, it seems to have been Percy who indulged his fantasies, Mary who restrained them. The elopement itself, during which Percy revived his dormant Promethean visions, probably does not deserve to be described as "in every way a disaster" (p. xiv); but undeniably it also suffered, as their marriage would later, from Percy's geographical and sexual restlessness. In particular Jane ("Claire") Clairmont (the daughter and reminder of the detested Mrs. G.) was a source of tension from the beginning, encouraging both Percy to experiment and Mary to withdraw toward the more domestic aspect of her divided make-up -- a nostalgia that we know in her from her early dependence on the Baxter family in Scotland, and also from the eulogy of family tranquillity in Frankenstein.

The polarities in the novel between civil injustice at home and disastrous private experiments abroad reflect the tensions of that first year together, as do the Monster's homelessness and his sensitivity in his inadequate hovel to the passage of the seasons. Even Walton's abandonment of his "great purpose" of finding some paradisal Ultima Thule beyond the Arctic ice -- a recurring fantasy of Percy's early epics (Poetical Works, pp. 19, 59, 618) -- reflects the Shelleys' absurd moment of truth in the wintry rains of Lake Lucerne: only three days after arriving at their intended destination, they abandoned it, and decided not to head on over the frozen Alps to Italy but to return home.

Most laughable to think [wrote Claire] of our going to England the second day after we entered a new house for six months -- All because the stove don't suit.13
The flippant tone of this entry suggests that the stove would not have been Claire's problem -- let alone Percy's.

{179} At this stage Mary was still more creature than creator; she was still the young woman who wrote in her copy of Queen Mab that the book was "sacred" to her, and that she loved the author "beyond all power of expression" (Shelley: The Pursuit, p. 232). Though the abstract, indeed the escapist, aspects of Percy's communitarian philanthropy were beginning to shrivel up her own, she was still willing not only to study Percy's ideas but to help put them into practice. The journals of Mary and Claire record that, for the four days preceding the abrupt decision to return home, the three of them had been reading Percy's cherished copy of Barruel. Frustrated in his earlier efforts at political organization in Ireland, Shelley's interests were shifting toward more intimate, erotic notions of fellowship for a select radical vanguard -- the intimacy of the early idylls with his sister Elizabeth at Field House now recreated as part of a plan for human enlightenment.

Barruel's account of the Illuminist and incestuous infanticide Weishaupt ("like the sinister owl . . . which glides in the shadow of the night, this baleful Sophist will be remembered in history only as the Demon"14) offers many reasons why his University of Ingolstadt should be presented in Frankenstein as the antithesis to Victor's domestic happiness with his playmate Elizabeth in Geneva. The Illuminati wished to deny family love and to replace it with universal love (III:129) -- just as Victor forgets his family while eagerly pursuing the "undertaking" that might endear him to an entire "new species." There was even a proposal to create two orders of Illuminist women -- one of bluestockings, the other of femmes volages "to satisfy those Brothers with a penchant for pleasure" (III:29) -- though Weishaupt rejected this proposal and restricted the higher secrets of his order (as Mary in her novel restricted Ingolstadt) to men alone.

Percy at least may have been interested in the rejected proposal -- not only in his poetry but also in his own small community of women. In the chilling rain and mist at Brunnen, while encouraging Claire to study further in Barruel, Percy began with Mary's help to compose The Assassins, a romance about an isolated fellowship whose unwavering goal is to cause "at whatever expense, the greatest and most unmixed delight."

{180} By the rapidity of their fervid imaginations . . . a new and sacred fire was kindled in their hearts . . . . They were already disembodied spirits; they were already the inhabitants of paradise. [Works, VI:160]
From his source-book Percy had read that the assassins inaugurated their mission of political terror and murder with one day of total sexual license, a fantasy which can be read into the rites of Liberty with which Cythna, in The Revolt of Islam, inaugurated her liberation of the city (Shelley: The Pursuit, p. 397). There is an echo of this paradisal fixation in the initial portrait of Walton, who is twice described (in an echo of Dante's Ulysses) as "ardent" in his desire for knowledge. Just as Percy in Queen Mab imagined a future "sweet" Arctic "of purest spirits" (vi.40), so Walton seeks an imaginary Ultima Thule where "snow and frost are banished" (p. 10) -- a "region of beauty and delight" where "the sun is for ever visible" (p. 9). As Walton first writes to his "dear sister," "I feel my heart glow with an enthusiasm which elevates me to heaven" (pp. 9-10). Walton's renunciation of this fantasy can be seen as a judgment on the youthful Percy, one which, albeit more ambivalently Percy had already made in his Preface to Alastor: "The Poet's self-centered seclusion was avenged by the furies of an irresistible passion pursuing him to speedy ruin" (Poetical Works, p. 33).

It is not clear what Mary thought in 1814 about the Assassins' mountain paradise of "love, friendship and philanthropy" (Works, VI:57).15 But in her journal of the return journey down the Rhine the tone is clearly one not of philanthropy but of an emerging and possibly displaced anger toward her fellow-passengers; three years later she would admit this in a rhetoric far less egalitarian than her husband's:

Nothing could be more horribly disgusting than the lower order of smoking, drinking Germans . . . ; they swaggered and talked . . . and, what was hideous to English eyes, kissed one another. [Works, VI:109].16
{181} As the three waited to cross the Channel, Percy returned to The Assassins without Mary's help. The stepsisters, who by now had Percy and each other very much on their minds, began their own stories. Claire's, about a misunderstood nonconformist, was called "Idiot"; all we know of Mary's is its intriguing title, "Hate."

The next seven months of exacerbated tensions and experimentation in the beleaguered Shelley household saw the crisis that engendered Frankenstein. As Ellen Moers shows, these tensions climaxed with Mary's guilt and nightmares after the death of her first baby ("Dream that my little baby came to life again, and that we rubbed it before the fire, and it lived"),17 which so clearly anticipate her waking dream one year later of a "hideous phantasm" which she saw "show signs of life" (p. 228).

It was a time of separation. Mary, pregnant and increasingly bedridden, saw less and less of Percy, who, now hounded by avenging bailiffs for his unpaid debts, at one point could only visit his home on the legal holiday of Sunday. One thinks of the moment when Victor, now the slave of his creature, becomes engaged to Elizabeth and immediately, like Ulysses-Walton, departs on a two-year voyage for "knowledge and discoveries" (p. 149).

But Percy exploited this separation as a chance to test in real life his abstract political dreams of an expanded erotic community. He spent more and more time with Claire, whose journal of October 7, 1814, records the gradual build-up of undischarged energy:

Mary goes to Bed -- Shelley & myself sit over the fire -- we talk of making an Association of philosophical people [Percy's journal entry reads "subterraneous community of women"] . . . . at one the conversation turned upon those unaccountable & mysterious feelings about supernatural things that we are sometime subject to.
On October 18 she wrote (a partially deleted entry):
Mary goes to bed -- Talk with Shelley over the fire till two -- Hogg -- his letter -- friendship -- Dante -- Tasso & various other subjects.
Mary's own journal records, with perhaps exaggerated detachment, the extent to which Shelley and Claire were exciting each other with tales of supernatural terror. On at least one occasion {182} when Claire could not sleep for "thinking of ghosts," Percy counseled her to read his Zastrozzi, Queen Mab -- and the Abbé Barruel (Shelley: The Pursuit, p. 261).

Soon Mary was developing some degree of erotic intimacy with Percy's old friend T. J. Hogg (whom he had first urged to fall in love with his sister Elizabeth and later involved with his first wife Harriet). Hogg had just published his novel, Prince Alexy Haimatoff, in a review of which Percy had expressed shock at the male chauvinism of the prince's tutor:

We cannot regard his commendation to his pupil to indulge in promiscuous concubinage without horror and detestation . . . . No man can rise pure from the poisonous embraces of a prostitute . . . . Whatever the advantages of simple and pure affections, these ties, these benefits are of equal obligation to either sex. [Works, VI:178-79]
Percy's abhorrence of prostitutes, at least, was sincere. From one he had probably once contracted a venereal disease, a clue not only to the sexual ambivalence and grey hair of Alastor, the Revolt, and Epipsychidion, but very possibly to complications now arising between Percy and his pregnant wife.18 At any rate, Percy went on to praise Hogg's "new and unparalleled powers," adding, suggestively, "we think the interesting subject of sexual relations requires for its successful development the application of a mind thus organized and endowed" (Works, VI:181-82).

This review was written in the same week that Hogg returned to Percy's company. Soon afterwards, as "dear, dearest Alexy," he was becoming Mary's spiritual lover, and the recipient of letters that spoke ambiguously of an even more intimate future bliss:

that also will come in time & then we shall be happier, I do think, than the angels who sing for ever and ever, the lovers of Jane's [Claire's] world of perfection. [Shelley: The Pursuit, p. 278]
One senses that Mary may have valued Hogg, as in the next year she would value Byron, as a friend of Percy's who might bring him a little down to earth. Yet it is clear from her letters as from her {183} journal that, as a woman (not to mention a pregnant woman) she was increasingly unhappy to be schooled in the manners of this intellectual and philanthropic ménage à quatre.

By April 1815 this build-up of tension led to a brief storm. Claire (now described in Mary's no longer discreet journal as "the lady" or "his friend") was sent away to Devonshire; Hogg (whom Mary would soon dislike) also disappeared, despite a written offer from Shelley at one point "to give you your share of our common treasure of which you have been cheated for several days" (Shelley: The Pursuit, p. 282). To three of Shelley's biographers this letter suggests strongly that Hogg's intimacy "had reached a sexual stage and that Mary, at least briefly, had been shared" (Shelley: The Pursuit, p. 282). Rieger, mindful that "the Shelleyan ménage derived its belief in erotic pluralism from Plato and Dante," believes that the fellowship "was physically monogamous at all times" (p. xv). Cameron notes judiciously that the air was heavy with discretion as well as flirtation.19 The whole situation in early 1815 was perhaps almost as ambiguous to the four principals as it is to us, who can only wonder about those excisions from both women's journals.

Whatever the realities, they were more than Mary could cope with; the experiment in a new sexual politics was so far not a success. It was in the midst of these tensions that Mary's first baby girl was born two months prematurely, lived for twelve days, and then -- after yet another of the Shelleys' restless moves -- died one night at Mary's side. On the day of this appalling discovery Mary summoned Hogg ("you are so calm a creature and Shelley is afraid of a fever from the milk") and then "in the evening read Fall of the Jesuits" (Shelley: The Pursuit, p. 281). The title has never been identified; but once again the recipe for calming female nerves may have been Barruel.20

In this period it would hardly have been surprising if Mary had simply resented Percy as an ideological Prometheus with herself as his victim. Yet when their second daughter Clara died in 1818, a victim of Shelley's impetuous decision to rejoin his family with Byron in Venice, Mary clearly internalized the guilt. The second {184} death was followed by a second and much less disguised novel, Mathilda, written in 1819, in which Percy appears as better than Prometheus and herself as a monster. Both descriptions are relevant:

Woodville [Percy]:

He was glorious from his youth. Every one loved him; no shadow of envy or hate cast even from the meanest mind ever fell upon him. He was, as one the peculiar delight of the Gods, railed and fenced in by his own divinity, so that nought but love and admiration could approach him . . . . It is one of the blessings of a moderate fortune, that by preventing the possessor from bestowing pecuniary favors it prevents him also from diving into the arcana of human weakness or malice -- To bestow on your fellow men is a Godlike attribute -- So indeed it is and as such not one fit for mortality; -- the giver like Adam and Prometheus, must pay the penalty of rising above his nature by being the martyr to his own excellence. Woodville was free from all these evils; and if slight examples did come across him he did not notice them but passed on in his course as an angel with winged feet might glide along the earth unimpeded by all those little obstacles over which we of earthly origin stumble.

Mathilda [Mary]:

I believed myself to be polluted by [my father's] unnatural love I had inspired, and that I was a creature cursed and set apart by nature. I thought that like another Cain, I had a mark set on my forehead to shew mankind that there was a barrier between me and they [sic] . . . . Why when fate drove me to be come this outcast from human feeling; this monster with whom none might mingle in converse and love; why had she not from that fatal and most accursed moment, shrouded me in thick mists and placed real darkness between me and my fellows so that I might never more be seen?21

This polarization of the pair into angel and monster, neither of them human, reflects Mary's despondence of 1818-19, her loss of confidence in herself, and her distance from Percy, from which she, her marriage, and her art never really recovered. Both passages are psychologically complex but artistically oversimplified. We must turn to their biographies to remember that Mary resented and distrusted Percy (and Claire) for the very angelic unworldliness {185} she praised in Woodville; and that her father, who had already extracted £4,700 from his patron Percy, was writing nasty letters from London in which he encouraged Mary in her bitterness toward Percy in the hope of extorting still more money for himself. These powerful ambivalences hover near the misleading surface but are not articulated in Mathilda, just as Mary, at this stage, did not dare admit them to herself. The one artistic insight is when Mathilda (so named from Dante's Purgatorio, where she is the more humble terrestrial precursor of the celestial Beatrice) blames her monster-like alienation from human "converse and love" on nothing else than her own belief in her guilt -- indeed, on her own self-condemnation for the guilt of others.22

Frankenstein brilliantly articulates the same ambivalences of guilt and anger that Mathilda suppresses. Written when Percy and Mary were still close, it does not simply contrast their personalities but also fuses them: there are aspects of Mary in the overly masculine Victor, as well as of both Mary and Percy in the suffering daemon. This was possible because, as Grylls has written, "in essentials Mary and [Percy] Shelley were at one."23

The creative richness of Frankenstein reflects Mary's relatively high spirits in 1816-17, when even her dreams could now recognize and confront (as in the dream of the revivified monster) rather than merely compensate for (as in the dream of the revivified baby) the horrors in her own subconscious and past. Mary was even more courageous in her ability to accept the monster-dream as a creative challenge, and hence to dive (as she later shrewdly wrote that Woodville-Percy could not) "into the arcana of human weakness or malice."24 In this period her life was no longer a mere artifice {186} dominated by Percy's whims; she moved in the company of other men (Byron and Polidori) whose suspicions of Percy's utopianism reinforced her own.

Percy of course was not incapable of self-confrontation, but he was clearly less willing to go so far in pursuing it:

   Thine own soul still is true to thee,
But changed to a foul fiend through misery.

   This fiend, whose ghastly presence ever
      Beside thee like thy shadow hangs,
   Dream not to chase; -- the mad endeavor
      Would scourge thee to severer pangs.
   Be as thou art. Thy settled fate,
Dark as it is, all change would aggravate.

[Poetical Works, p. 351 (341)]
This interesting poem, published just before Mary wrote Frankenstein, casts light not only on the absence of psychological realism and self-knowledge in his early poetry, but on his failure to validate poetically the vision of change on which in life he set such store. What Mary had learnt from her dreams Percy continued to read about in books.25


One could compare at length the two major works produced by the Shelleys in 1817: Frankenstein and The Revolt of Islam. Seemingly disparate, each work deals with the complementary themes of despair and revenge, now denounced by Percy as the forces in history that obstruct the triumph of justice and love (Poetical Works, p. 85, cf. pp. 81, 163). Each work, based on earlier models of Gothic {187} revenge tales, narrates a story of vengeful carnage contrasted with love, climaxing with the death of the protagonists but not ending there.

In each work the heroine is an orphan who falls in love with her childhood friend; in the Revolt this orphan (like Mary, to whose "young wisdom" the poem is dedicated with Percy's most intimate and self-revealing praise) then gives birth to a child that is soon taken away, leaving the mother with swollen breasts (Revolt of Islam,VII.22-24).26 In each work the hero (like Percy) is schooled by a gentle tutor, who teaches "doctrines of human power," and accompanied by a male friend, for whom the models are Dr. Lind (Percy's tutor at Eton) and T. J. Hogg. Each work is cast on a global scale, and even introduced by a narrator who tells of his own voyage through "mountains of ice" (Revolt of Islam, I.47; Frankenstein, pp. 204, 211) toward a paradise beyond the polar seas.

Each work, on a more philosophical level, attributes the madness of its protagonists to the brutality of the world. (Special condemnations are reserved for judicial institutions, which at this time were so harassing the family arrangements of the Shelleys.) Each work sees the human condition as one of alienation brought about by a satanic dialectic in which "ill has become their good" (Revolt of Islam, IV.26; cf. Frankenstein, p. 218). Nevertheless, each work, incorporating the historical perspectives of Volney's Ruins, is structured so as to suggest that human nature, at bottom benevolent and meliorable as Rousseau described it, may in the end transcend this historical alienation.27

Above all, each work, when studied closely, makes the free and equal reunion of the sexes and their attributes the key to liberation and order in both self and society. In Laon's words

Well with this world art thou unreconciled;
Never will peace and human nature meet
Till free and equal man and woman greet
Domestic peace. . . .

[Revolt of Islam, II.37]
{188} Each work views its present in the light of William Godwin's eighteenth-century commonplace that in our culture the male sex "is accustomed more to the exercise of its reasoning powers" and that women, "in proportion as they receive a less intellectual education, are more unreservedly under the empire of feeling" (cf. also Ellis, above, p. 135). Though Percy's handling of sexuality in the Revolt would justify an entire essay, what emerges is almost an equality by reversal. Reiman somewhat oversimplifies when he writes that "Cythna, the feminine member, embodies the power of knowledge and reason, whereas Laon embodies forgiving love."28 But he correctly underlines the symbolic importance of their androgynous reunion, which anticipates that of Prometheus and Asia in Prometheus Unbound.

Thus we see in the Revolt an ironic sexual reversal of the polarity in Frankenstein: Percy's Laon is as fatally passive as Mary's Elizabeth, so that the personal salvation of each is in the hands of the opposite sex. Each work is made more interesting by the personal self-doubt that lurks beneath the surface of philosophical optimism (through love such sexual one-sidedness may be transcended); and more interesting also by the author's ability to identify to some degree with his character (and partner) of the opposite sex. Thus Cythna the saving heroine draws some of her good qualities, such as her introspective wisdom (Revolt of Islam, VII.31), from Mary, while her characteristic Shelleyan self-pity (IX.31) is Percy's own.29 But in her philosophical role she owes not a little to Dante's Beatrice: as a "prophetess of Love" who "will fill / The world, like light" (IX.20, VIII.16), her fellowship is of "the purest and the best" hearts (IX.9), while her "smile was Paradise" (IX.36).

It may seem farfetched to compare Mary's popular and unaffected contemporary novel with the historical epic couched by Percy in awkward Spenserian stanzas. My point is to suggest the {189} developing intellectual stimulation and encouragement between Mary and Percy during that productive year at Marlow in 1817. The works seem to indicate that both authors had had occasion to reconsider, without wholly rejecting, their earlier more experimental attitudes toward love and society, and that the tragedy of the lost child rested in Percy's imagination as well as Mary's. Thus it is not fanciful to suggest that each work may have been influenced to some degree by the other; and hence that the high-minded ideas of Percy's ambitious but bookish epic are, not surprisingly, found to some degree in Mary's more modest novel, the story that originated in a dream and was aimed at that wide public which Percy (in his preface and dedicatory verses) confessed he wished to reach but was not likely to.

Despite its occasional immaturities of structure and style, Frankenstein succeeds where the Revolt fails; the novel can be studied closely for its settled and insightful vision not only of the monstrous in the human psyche and society, but also of the means for amendment. From the germ of Mary's personal difficulties with those ideas and shortcomings of Percy that had so transformed her life, she expanded her holistic consciousness to a hopeful critique of civilization and its discontents. Essentially a feminist critique, Frankenstein locates the initial error of Victor and Walton in excessive "masculinity" and insensitivity to feeling, and ultimately leaves Walton conscious of that error's consequences. The symbolism works as well on the cultural level as on the personal, because Mary was able to expand her own personal responses to a dominating father, absent mother, and imbalanced husband into a compassionate study of an overly masculine society and its offspring. One might even say that the novel describes Victor's fall as Androgyny Lost, and that it at least offers the prospect of an Androgyny Regained.

Victor himself admits his share of "blame" (p. 51) to Walton in terms of a voyage which leads to inner psychological disequilibrium and loss from which the whole course of civilization has suffered:

I pursued my undertaking with unremitting ardour. My cheek had grown pale with study . . . . A resistless, and almost frantic impulse, urged me forward; I seemed to have lost all soul or sensation but for this one pursuit . . . . My father . . . was justified in conceiving that I should not be altogether free from blame . . . . If the study to {190} which you apply yourself has a tendency to weaken your affections, and to destroy your taste for those simple pleasures in which no alloy can possibly mix, then that study is certainly unlawful, that is to say, not befitting the human mind. If this rule were always observed; if no man allowed any pursuit whatsoever to interfere with the tranquillity of his domestic affections, Greece had not been enslaved; Caesar would have been discovered more gradually; and the empires of Mexico and Peru had not been destroyed. [Pp. 49-51; emphasis added]
Five years later Percy, in the Defence of Poetry, would himself criticize that pursuit of science, unrestrained by the imagination, which in turn contributed to political tyranny:
We want the creative faculty to imagine that which we know . . . . The cultivation of those sciences which have enlarged the limits of the empire of man over the external world has, for want of the poetical faculty, proportionally circumscribed those of the internal world; and man, having enslaved the elements, remains himself a slave . . . . The rich have become richer and the poor have become poorer, and the vessel of state is driven between the Scylla and Charybdis of anarchy and despotism. Such are the effects which must ever flow from an unmitigated exercise of the calculating faculty. [Works, VI:134, 132]
But apparently Percy did not perceive this psychic imbalance in androgynous terms, nor attribute it, like Mary, to weakened "domestic affections."30 That imbalance is stressed in Victor's repeated and precise definition of his Percy-like restlessness:
I ardently desired the acquisition of knowledge. I had often, when at home, thought it hard to remain during my youth cooped up in one place . . . . Learn from me . . . how dangerous is the acquirement of knowledge, and how much happier that man is who believes his native town to be the world, than he who aspires to become greater than his nature will allow . . . . [Pp. 40, 48]
{191} The one-sidedness of male exploratory reason is dramatized by the symbolic death of Victor's mother at the moment of his departure for Ingolstadt; subsequently those whose rejections will so deprave his creature -- Victor, William, the three De Laceys, Safie -- will all be presented to us as motherless. Thus the tragedy is by no means as inscrutable as critics like Small suggest:
What went wrong? Within the Godwinian scheme . . . it is extremely difficult to answer. Frankenstein has suffered no deprivation, on the contrary he has been doted on, and his upbringing . . . approaches the Rousseau-Godwin ideal . . . .31
One answer Small overlooks, the loss of a mother, is both Mary's obsession and that of the novel, where one-sided patriarchy and intellectual domination are presented as not just Victor's condition, but Western culture's.

Victor's moral self-portrait reiterates that of the orphaned Walton at the outset of the novel, who also needs "affection enough for me to endeavour to regulate my mind" (p. 14):

I shall satiate my ardent curiosity with the sight of the world never before visited . . . . These are my enticements, and they are sufficient to conquer all fear of danger or death . . . I have read with ardour the accounts of the various voyages which have been made in the prospect of arriving at the North Pacific Ocean . . . . These volumes were my study day and night . . . . Do I not deserve to accomplish some great purpose? . . . My courage and my resolution is [sic] firm; but my hopes fluctuate, and my spirits are often depressed . . . . [Pp. 10-12]
Thus both men, as Victor seems to recognize at their first encounter, are voyagers after knowledge after the model of Dante's Ulysses, and with the same psychological imbalance:
You seek for knowledge and wisdom as I once did; and I ardently hope that the gratification of your wishes may not be a serpent to sting you, as mine has been. [p. 24]
Like the Victor who left behind his "amiable companions" in Geneva and set out on a solitary journey because he "ardently desired the acquisition of knowledge" [1.2.3], so too Dante's Ulysses defines his obsession in terms of a willful rejection of domestic feelings and bonds:
{192} Not fondness (dolcezza) for a son, nor piety (pieta) towards an aged father, nor the due love (amore) which should have made Penelope happy, could conquer in me the ardor (ardore) I had to gain experience of the world and of the vices and worth of men; and I put forth in the open deep with but one ship. [Inferno, xxvi.94-101]
Dante makes Ulysses note his rejection of those very qualities (dolcezza, pieta, amore) which mark the more feminine grace offered by Beatrice and the dolce stil novo, and by responding to which Dante (unlike Ulysses) will succeed in reaching paradise. Analogously, Victor notes how he turned his back both on Elizabeth and (in the 1831 edition) on his father ("the Angel of Destruction . . . asserted omnipotent sway over me from the moment I turned my reluctant steps from my father's door" [p. 240]) and ultimately rejected the appeal of his Doppelgänger son.

When Mary has Victor see in his own character the defect that enslaved Greece, Rome, and America (p. 51), she is adding to the psychological insight of Dante the historical insight of Volney. The Monster himself tells us how Volney's Ruins

gave me an insight into the manners, governments, and religions of the different nations of the earth. I heard of the slothful Asiatics; of the stupendous genius and mental activity of the Grecians; of the wars and wonderful virtue of the early Romans -- of their subsequent degeneration . . . . I heard of the discovery of the western hemisphere, and wept with Safie over the hapless fate of its original inhabitants . . . . [Pp. 114-15]
This suggests that Mary was particularly intrigued by the chapter in which Volney attributed cultural decay to political despotism, and despotism to paternal tyranny:
Paternal tyranny laid the foundation of political despotism . . . . In every savage and barbarous state, the father, the chief of the family, is a despot, and a cruel and insolent despot. The wife is his slave, the children his servants . . . . It is remarkable, that paternal authority is great accordingly as the government is despotic. China, India, and Turkey are striking examples of this . . . . In opposition to this the Romans will be cited; but it remains to be proved that the Romans will be cited; but it remains to be proved that the Romans were men truly free; and their quick passage from their republican despotism to their abject sevility under the emperors, gives room at least for considerable doubts as to that freedom . . . .32
{193} The master-slave relationship produces in the people "a state of depression and despair, out of which arise both "gloomy and misanthropic systems of religion" (of the type abominated by Percy) and an irresolute other-worldliness in man (of the type that Mary reproved in Percy and delineated in Victor):
The states of opulent Asia become ennervated . . . . To appease [the despotic gods] man offered the sacrifice of all his enjoyments. . . . he endeavoured to cherish a passion for pain, and to renounce self-love. . . . But as provident nature had endowed the heart of man with inexhaustible hope, perceiving his desires disappointed of happiness here, he pursued it elsewhere: by a sweet illusion, he formed to himself another country, an asylum, where, out of the reach of tyrants, he should regain all his rights. Hence a new disorder arose. Smitten with his imaginary world, man despised the world of nature: for chimerical hopes he neglected the reality. . . . A sacred sloth then established itself in the world. . . . Thus, agitated by their own passions, men . . . have been themselves the eternal instruments of their misfortunes.33
By thus fusing Dante's portrait of the sexually imbalanced psyche with Volney's portrait of a sexually imbalanced society, Mary elevates her portrait of Victor beyond personal observations of Percy into a feminist critique of her age. The Victor whose dreams were "undisturbed by reality" (p. 34), who like Percy was obsessed with the "raising of ghosts" (p. 34), who resented having to "exchange chimeras of boundless grandeur for realities of little worth" (p. 41) -- this caricature of her husband was at the same time Volney's exemplar of man under patriarchal despotism. Far more than either Dante's Ulysses or Volney's slave, Mary's Victor is a study in what Fromm would later call a social character.

In depicting a hero who would solemnize his engagement to Elizabeth and in the same breath announce his departure for two years in search of knowledge, Mary elevated her personal frustrations with Percy to the level of a cultural critique. But she also shows that science need not be so alienated from affection: besides the "gruff," "repulsive," and dogmatic Krempe (shades of the Illuminist Weishaupt) there is the good scientist Waldman (modeled, like Laon's hermit, on Dr. Lind), "whose gentleness was never tinged by dogmatism" (p. 45). Victor (the bad Percy) has also his friend Clerval (the ideal Percy), whose "imagination was too vivid {194} for the minutiae of science" (p. 64), who drew Victor away from Ingolstadt, and "in imitation of the Persian and Arabic writers . . . invented tales of wonderful fancy and passion" (p. 66). "How different from the manly and heroical poetry of Greece and Rome," comments Victor (again echoing Dante) on the more romantic passions of Clerval's favored "orientalists" (p. 64).

Victor is temporarily healed by Clerval's influence, which unfortunately has come too late:

Study had before secluded me from the intercourse of my fellow-creatures, and rendered me unsocial; but Clerval called forth the better feelings of my heart; he again taught me to love the aspect of nature, and the cheerful faces of children. Excellent friend! how sincerely did you love me. . . . A selfish pursuit had cramped and narrowed me, until your gentleness and affection warmed and opened my senses; I became the same happy creature who, a few years ago, loving and beloved by all, had no sorrow or care. [P. 65]
It is not the "yielding" Elizabeth but Clerval who represents both a more androgynously balanced temperament, and the counterweight to the excessively Ulyssean Victor:
He was a being formed in the very "poetry of nature." His wild and enthusiastic imagination was chastened by the sensibility of his heart. His soul overflowed with ardent affections, and his friendship was of that devoted and wondrous nature that the worldly-minded teach us to look for only in the imagination. [Pp. 153-54]
Victor rightly sees in Clerval not an opposite, but the "image of my former self" (p. 155); and Mary seems to have envisaged him as an idealized Percy, more "devoted and wondrous" in his friendship than her unpredictable husband.

Mary nicely adumbrated these differences between the two characters by their preferences for landscape: the solitary Frankenstein (whose name is translatable as "open rock") inclines to the "awful and majestic" scenery of Mont Blanc; the sociable and agreeable Clerval ("clear valley"), to the cultivated valley of the Rhine.34 Victor says that the Montanvert glacier on Mont Blanc

filled me with a sublime ecstasy that gave wings to the soul, and allowed it to soar from the obscure world to light and joy. . . . I {195} determined to go alone, for . . . the presence of another would destroy the solitary grandeur of the scene. [P. 92]
In contrast to this lofty escapism (revealing, in its last clause, another hint of Mary's resentments about her marriage),35 Clerval explicitly prefers the peopled landscape of the Rhine, which Mary herself now remembered (despite those dreadful fellow-passengers) as "the loveliest paradise on earth" (Works, VI.109). "The mountains of Switzerland," says Clerval,
are more majestic and strange; but there is a charm in the banks of this divine river, that I never before saw equalled. Look at that castle which overhangs yon precipice; and that also on the island, almost concealed amongst the foliage of those lovely trees; and now that group of labourers coming from among their vines; and that village half-hid in the recess of the mountain. Oh, surely, the spirit that inhabits or guards this place has a soul more in harmony with man, than with those who [sic] pile the glacier, or retire to the inaccessible peaks.36 [P. 153]
The imagery here is drawn partly from Mary's own memories, partly from Canto III of Childe Harold's Pilgrimage (with its "blending of . . . foliage, crag, wood, cornfield, mountain, vine, / And chiefless castles"), which Byron completed at Lake Leman in July 1816, in the company of the Shelleys. Indeed the description in the next paragraph of Clerval as a being "formed in the very poetry of nature" -- Leigh Hunt's line in praise of the incestuous-adulterous Paolo Malatesta -- reinforces our suspicion that there is more than a hint of Mary's oddly perceived friend Lord Byron in Clerval, and perhaps in the sister-loving, child-rejecting figure of Frankenstein himself.37

{196} More important to the structure of the novel, however, is the recapitulation in Clerval's speech of the Shelleys' life-restoring return down the Rhine to England, after that chilly moment of choice on Lake Lucerne. Clerval's speech, like Mary's own History, explicitly remembers that lake as a place of sexual transgression and death.

I have visited the lakes of Lucerne and Uri, where the snowy mountains descend almost perpendicularly to the water, casting black and impenetrable shades. . . . I have seen this lake agitated by a tempest . . . and the waves dash with fury the base of the mountain, where the priest and his mistress were overwhelmed by an avalanche, and where their dying voices are still said to be heard.38 [P. 153]
Was Mary here mindful of her own illicit liaison with Percy? Certainly Clerval's speech, like her History, associates the voyage to England down the Rhine with a restored pastoral "harmony" and "tranquillity" -- a harmony denied to those who, like Victor, or like Napoleon in the Childe Harold passage, "retire to the inaccessible peaks." Mary thus prepares the reader for Walton's ultimate rejection of the Arctic's "excessive" cold and "mountains of ice" in favor of "dear England."

Though identifying the excessively intellectual and grandiose as the key to cultural alienation, Mary avoids seeking the corrective in a purely domestic realm. On the contrary, women like Justine and Elizabeth, as Kate Ellis and U. C. Knoepflmacher have shown, are likewise criticized for a feminine passivity that suffers male injustice and fails to restore balance. If Victor errs towards the scientism of Krempe, Justine herself errs towards the religious passibility of her Roman Catholic mother, who accepts her sufferings, on the encouragement of her confessor, as "a judgment from heaven" (p. {197} 61). The dead mother of Justine compares poorly with the dead mother of Safie,

a Christian Arab . . . who, born in freedom spurned the bondage to which she was now reduced. She instructed her daughter in the tenets of her religion, and taught her to aspire to higher powers of intellect, and an independence of spirit, forbidden to the female followers of Mahomet. [P. 119]
Safie is the ideal androgynous complement to Clerval: though "accustomed to grand ideas and a noble emulation for virtue" (p. 119), she can exhibit toward Felix "the simplest and tenderest affection" (p. 120). Clerval and Safie, the ideal Percy and Mary, are presented not as utopian pastoral fantasies of harmonious souls, but as undistorted prototypes of their analogues, Victor and Elizabeth.


In her critique of mere science and mere superstition, and her depiction of more androgynous alternatives to these unnatural excesses, Mary ultimately adds little to the ideas of her husband, her two parents, the Lake Poets, and Rousseau. The great originality of Frankenstein lies in Mary's recognition of her own dream-monster as an artifice of life that is simultaneously parodic, damned, and quintessentially human. Mary's complexly ambivalent but loving depiction of the Monster arose out of her complexly ambivalent but loving responses to the artifice of her own life with Percy, in which fears, resentments, and even self-hatred, alternated with real hopes of personal and political transcendence. Despite his imperfections, the Monster emerges as more human than his double-going creator: what has exhausted and dehumanized the father has served to ennoble the artificially prodigious son.

Mary Shelley very deliberately stresses the changed moral awareness of the two avengers, and also of Walton, in the last ten pages of her novel. That moral self-criticism which we noted in Dante's Ulysses, and in Victor's first imitation of him, is absent from Victor's final peroration to Walton's crew. This is a heightened parody of Ulysses' speech to his own crew, and a parody also of those "manly and heroical" epics of antiquity from which its rhetoric was drawn. In contrast to Ulysses' chastened reminiscence of his {198} speech before the "mad flight," Victor now appeals directly, and without self-awareness, for the extinction of domestic affection:

"What do you mean? . . . For this was it a glorious, for this was it an honourable undertaking. You were hereafter to be hailed as the benefactors of your species; your name adored, as belonging to brave men who encountered death for honour and the benefit of mankind. And now, behold, with the first imagination of danger or, if you will, the first mighty and terrific trial of your courage, you shrink away, and are content to be handed down as men who had not strength enough to endure cold and peril; and so, poor souls, they were chilly, and returned to their warm fire-sides . . . . Oh! be men, or be more than men. Be steady to your purposes, and firm as a rock. This ice is not made of such stuff as your hearts might be; it is mutable, cannot withstand you, if you say that it shall not. Do not return to your families with the stigma of disgrace marked on your brows. Return as heroes who have fought and conquered, and who know not what it is to turn their backs on the foe." [P. 212]
From its opening "What do you mean?" (Quid struis?), the speech, even more than that of Dante's Ulysses, self-consciously imitates the lofty rhetoric of Virgil's alti versi. In this decay into stylistic formalism, Victor has lost the moral self-awareness of his opening speeches earlier in the week; and what he has lost, Walton, who like Ulysses now admits his voyage to be a "rash" one (p. 211), has gained. But at the same time the false counselor reveals the perversity of his appeal to "be more than men" by unconscious irony -- as when he reverses the usual lover's complaint (your heart is as hard and immutable as ice) into the complaint that theirs are not more immutable and harder.

In thus ignoring nature ("it is mutable, cannot withstand you, if you say that it shall not") and glorifying the loss of feeling, Victor epitomizes the madness he no longer recognizes, when his last three words construe Walton's voyage as a voyage of hate.39 After {199} the exaggerated rhetoric of a "momentary vigour" (p. 212), the speaker is next seen "sunk in languor, and almost deprived of life." Mary's critical portrait of the unspontaneous intellect owes much to Dante, yet also is an uncanny caricature of languid Percy's fitful and sometimes bookish Promethean pretensions.

The Monster, in contrast, is seen at his least menacing and most human in his final speech. Whereas on the glacier he had perversely refused to see the justice of Victor's accusations (p. 94), he now, in "wild and incoherent self-reproaches," willingly confesses his "frightful selfishness" and "remorse" (p. 217). At times his hyperbolic self-portrait of "impotent passions" and "bitter and loathing despair" anticipates that later product of the chemist's retort, Dostoevsky's underground man. But of course the Monster has acted out those crimes of spite that obsess the underground man only in fantasy; by acting out, the "insatiable passion" has ended (p. 218); and the Monster is now free to forgive Frankenstein and to ask for forgiveness in turn. "Oh, Frankenstein! generous and self-devoted being! what does it avail that I now ask thee to pardon me?" (p. 217). The modern ambiguity of the word "self-devoted" merely reinforces an irony implicit in the praise itself, reflecting Mary's ambivalence toward her husband.40 The phrase "generous and self-devoted" is authentically Shelleyan; unconsciously or consciously, it has been lifted verbatim from one of Percy's self-gratulatory letters at this time.41

The impact of the two last speeches on Walton is problematic: we {200} know only that his first impulses, to obey Victor's dying request "in destroying his enemy, were now suspended by a mixture of curiosity and compassion" (p. 217). Did Mary intend more, and were these intentions inhibited, either out of her own tactful deference to Percy, or even by Percy's own numerous editorial revisions of the manuscript's closing pages? Or did she, from her artist's sense of when to stop, intend to leave us guessing? The allusions to the Comedia suggest that, just as Dante the voyager was enlightened by learning of Ulysses' distemper, so may Walton have been enlightened by Victor's. This at least was Victor's own original intention:

"Listen to my tale. I believe that the strange incidents connected with it will afford a view of nature, which may enlarge your faculties and understanding." [P. 24]
Walton is moved by Victor's final speech, yet rejects its male goals of "glory and honour" (p. 213). Victor greets Walton's decision to return with an impassioned defense of his own dedication:
"You may give up your purpose; but mine is assigned to me by heaven, and I dare not. I am weak; but surely the spirits who assist my vengeance will endow me with sufficient strength." Saying this he endeavoured to spring from the bed, but the exertion was too great for him; he fell back, and fainted. [P. 214]
Yet Victor is deluded in regarding his mission as heaven-sent. On the contrary, Walton's humiliation, his time of sorrow when his "tears flow" (p. 216), can be seen, like Dante's, as a healing crisis. The voyage, which began with his sister's "evil forebodings" (p. 9), is now reversed, to the sailors' "shout of tumultuous joy" (p. 214). Even the imagery is that of Dante's liberating contrition: "The ice cracked . . . a breeze sprung from the west, and . . . the passage . . . became perfectly free" (pp. 213-14; cf. Purgatorio, xxx.85-99, 142-45).

Dante is above all the poet of what we might call epic catharsis, the poet who teaches us that by speaking out our repressed anger we can recognize, and thus correct, not only our own distemper but that of our civilization. Both Shelleys seem to have responded to Dante on this high level. Their male and female visions of liberty may have differed; their contrived efforts at an artificial Dantean fellowship may have contributed at one early stage to Mary's nightmares. But the confrontation with Frankenstein's Monster does {201} more than leave the reader, like Coleridge's wedding guest, "a sadder and a wiser man." For the Monster not only embodies our fears of the way science can artificially pervert nature in ourselves and our society, he also speaks to us knowledgeably of nature and in a human voice, as he did to Walton, to tell us we need not be afraid.


It would take a more qualified historian of the Romantic period to ascertain the originality of Frankenstein. There appears to be no other work like it, and no such mythic creature since Shakespeare's Caliban. It would be wrong, for example, to read Mary's novel as a mere fulfillment of her dead mother's exhortations for hope amid contemporary disaster:
Sanguinary tortures, insidious poisonings, and dark assassinations, have alternately exhibited a race of monsters in human shape, the contemplation of whose ferocity chills the blood, and darkens every enlivening expectation of humanity: but we ought to observe, to reanimate the hopes of benevolence, that the perpetration of these horrid deeds has arisen from despotism in the government, which reason is teaching us to remedy.42
Mary Wollstonecraft anticipated those nineteenth-century writers who attributed the alienation of contemporary social character to the dehumanizing division of labor and the artificial isolation of men in large factories.43 But her argument for sexual equality and community, like that of other revolutionary theorists, was essentially an abstract intellectual one, which relied on the repugnant dialectic of the master-slave relationship.

Frankenstein, by contrast, explores the same problems on the affective level: it depicts the tragic consequences of sexual isolation through artificial roles of "masculinity" and "femininity," and (from the experience of Mary's own unnatural childhood) focuses on one-sided parenting, in addition to schooling, as the ultimate source of these roles. Mary's proto-Freudian dialectic of fathers and sons, of motherless doubles who deny a female sexual partner {202} to each other, shows more awareness than Wollstonecraft or the author of Caleb Williams of the libidinal processes whereby psychic and social deprivations reinforce one another in history.

Like her husband Percy, Mary is more profoundly aware of sexuality, if only in the perverted form of one-sided sex roles, as a shaping energy for good or evil in political society. Percy, a visionary, wrote fitfully of love and science as abstract forces for revolutionary change. Mary, the intuitive realist, without renouncing change, studied the limitations of character in what Adrienne Rich has since called "this savagely fathered and unmothered world."44 Frankenstein, with its subtle but unhostile critique of Percy's revolutionary ideology, deserves recognition as a testimony of hope for the evolution of a new consciousness: one which someday will be neither male, nor even feminist, but quintessentially human.


1. Christopher Small, Ariel Like a Harpy, Mary and Frankenstein (London, 1972); Richard Holmes, Shelley: The Pursuit (London, 1974).

2. Percy Bysshe Shelley, Poetical Works (Boston, 1975), pp. 164, 161.

3. Claire Clairmont, Journals, ed. Marion Stocking (Cambridge, Mass., 1968), p. 21.

4. Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, ed. Helen Poston (New York, 1975), pp. 20 ff.

5. Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, Frankenstein; Or, The Modern Prometheus (the 1818 text), ed. James Rieger (Indianapolis and New York, 1974), cited in the text by page number: "the little Elizabeth . . . shewed signs even then of a gentle and affectionate disposition . . . and a desire to bind as closely the ties of domestic love . . . . She was docile and good-tempered . . ." (p. 51). Cf. Wollstonecraft: "Gentleness, docility, and a spaniel-like affection are, on this ground, consistently recommended as the cardinal virtues of the sex" (A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, p. 34).

6. Mary Wollstonecraft, An Historical and Moral View of the Origin and Progress of the French Revolution; and the Effect It Has Produced in Europe (London, 1795), I:13. While Wollstonecraft is writing here about the "practical success" of the American Revolution's effort to establish a government "on the basis of reason and equality," the French Revolution is in this respect comparable.

7. Years later, when Mary would no longer admit any ambivalence about her dead husband, and when "Frankenstein's monster" had entered the vocabulary of political reaction, Mary reverted to a more simple and classical notion of hubris. She wrote in her 1831 Preface to Frankenstein that "supremely frightful would be the effect of any human endeavour to mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator" (p. 228). Victor is made to see his tragedy more fatalistically: "Chance -- or rather the evil influence, the Angel of Destruction, which asserted omnipotent sway over me from the moment I turned my reluctant steps from my father's door" (p. 240). But the slow genesis of the Monster's hatred, in the 1818 edition, is a matter not of tragic predestination but of missed opportunity, unsustained purpose, and love denied.

8. Percy Bysshe Shelley, "On Frankenstein," in The Complete Works of Percy Bysshe Shelley, ed. Roger Ingpen and Walter E. Peck (New York, 1965), hereafter cited in the text as Works, VI:264.

9. Percy is said once to have fainted on reading the lines comparing the Ancient Mariner (quoted in Frankenstein at p. 54) to one who "Doth walk in fear and dread / Because he knows a frightful fiend / Doth close behind him tread" (Small, pp. 101, 158).

10. Thomas Jefferson Hogg, The Life of Percy Bysshe Shelley (London, 1858), I:58; quoted by Holmes, p. 24.

11. Percy Bysshe Shelley, Letters, ed. Frederick L. Jones (Oxford, 1964), I:27.

12. Shelley, Letters, I:35. Mary must undoubtedly have heard outbursts from Percy like that in a letter of March 6, 1816, to her father William Godwin: "Do not talk of forgiveness again to me, for my blood boils in my veins, and my gall rises against all that bears the human form, when I think of what I, their benefactor and ardent lover, have endured of enmity and contempt from you and from all mankind" (Letters, I:459).

13. Claire Clairmont, Journals, p. 31; Holmes, p. 247; cf. Works, VI:104.

14. M. l'Abbé Barruel, Mémoirs pour servir à l'histoire du Jacobinisme (Hamburg, 1803), III:2.

15. What appears in Mary's journal as collaboration ("We arrange out apartment and write") was revealed by Mary in 1817 to have been more one-sided ("I wrote to his dictation"): Mary Shelley, Journal, ed. Frederick L. Jones (Norman, Okla.: University of Oklahoma Press, 1947), p. 11; Mary Shelley, History of a Six Weeks' Tour (London, 1817), in Works, VI:104.

16. Mary Shelley, Journal, p. 12: "We . . . surveyed at our ease the horrid and slimy faces of our companions in voyage . . . to which we might have addressed the Boatman's speech to Pope -- 'Twere easier for God to make entirely new men than attempt to purify such monsters as these'"

17. Mary Shelley, Journal, p. 41.

18. Thornton Hunt, "Shelley -- by One Who Knew Him," Shelley and Keats as They Struck Their Contemporaries, ed. Edmund Blunden (London, 1925), pp. 30-31; quoted in K.N. Cameron, The Young Shelley: Genesis of a Radical (New York, 1950), p. 125.

19. Kenneth Neill Cameron, Shelley: The Golden Years (Cambridge, Mass., 1974), p. 26.

20. One chapter of the English translation has the subtitle "The Extinction of the Jesuits."

21. Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, Mathilda, ed. Elizabeth Nitchie (Chapel Hill, [1959]), pp. 55, 71.

22. Compare the speech of Cyntha which so angered John Taylor Coleridge in the Quarterly Review: "Reproach not thine own soul, but know thyself, / Nor hate another's crime, nor loathe thine own" (Revolt of Islam, VIII.22).

23. R. Glynn Grylls, Mary Shelley: A Biography (London, 1938), p. xvi. Small agrees (Ariel Like a Harpy, p. 12).

24. Mary later wrote in her journal for February 25, 1822, about this capacity for honest introspection: "let me, in my fellow creature, love that which is . . . and, above all, let me fearlessly descend into the remotest caverns of my mind, carry the torch of self-knowledge into its deepest recesses: but too happy if I dislodge any evil spirit" (Mary Shelley, Journal, pp. 169-70). Mary may have had in mind Cyntha's self-description in The Revolt of Islam, VII.31: "My mind became the book through which I grew / Wise in all human wisdom, and its cave, / Which like a mine I rifled through and through, / To me the keeping of its secret gave -- " (to be contrasted with Percy's own pedantic "knowledge from forbidden mines of lore," To Mary -- ---, v). Both cave images derive from St. Augustine's Confessions, bk. X, chap. 17.

25. For an independent corroboration of Shelley's inability to recreate his own dreamwork poetically, cf. Aletha Hayter, Opium and the Romantic Imagination (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1968), pp. 77-78: "Shelley's visionary powers, extraordinary as they were, do not seem to have induced the experience of remembered imaginative dreams in normal sleep."

26. Mary Godwin to T. J. Hogg, March 6, 1815, in Shelley and His Circle 1773-1822, ed. K. N. Cameron (New York, 1961), III:453.

27. Volney's Ruines, "the book from which Felix instructed Safie," is summarized in Frankenstein at pp. 114-15; cf. K. N. Cameron, "A Major Source of The Revolt of Islam," PMLA, LVI (1941): 175-206; Shelley: The Golden Years, pp. 315-26.

28. Donald H. Reiman, Percy Bysshe Shelley (New York, 1969), p. 60. Reiman overlooks the countervailing trend in the poem by which Cyntha is "the prophetess of Love" (Revolt of Islam, IX.20), and "Love when Wisdom fails makes Cyntha wise" (IX.34).

29. For Mary, cf. supra at note 23. Holmes notes Percy's own "mood of martyrdom and self-sacrifice" while writing this poem, citing a letter of September 24, 1817, to Byron: "As to me, I can but die; I can but be torn to pieces, or devoted to infamy most undeserved . . ." (Shelley: The Pursuit, p. 377; Letters, I:557).

30. This is not the only place in this protofeminist novel where "domestic affections" may be given a more positive value than Kate Ellis indicates. The well-balanced Safie, "accustomed to grand ideas," exhibits "the simplest and tenderest affections" (pp. 119-20); her guitar performance in the cottage, at the feet of the elder De Lacey, almost anticipates the Victorian drawing room (p. 113). In like manner the Monster is made more sensitive by the "gentle and domestic manners . . . combined with lofty sentiments and feelings" that he and the De Laceys encounter in the Sorrows of Werter (p. 123).

31. Small, Ariel Like a Harpy, pp. 65-66.

32. M. [Constantin Francois] Volney, The Ruins, or, A Survey of the Revolutions of Empires (London, 1857), p. 35n.

33. Ibid., pp. 40-42.

34. "Clerval" also echoes the famous French monastery Claravallium or Clairvaux, a center of medieval culture. The equilibrated Clerval is thus the analogue of the unaffected, down-to-earth Waldman ("Forester"), as contrasted to the overeducated and artificial Krempe ("Hatbrim").

35. Mary was allowed to accompany her husband to the Montanvert glacier, where Percy was infuriated by the presence of some English tourists; but the day before, when Percy visited the Boisson glacier, "Mary and Cla[i]re remained at home" (Letters, I:498).

36. Compare: "We saw . . . craggy cliffs crowned by desolate towers, and wooded islands, whose picturesque ruins peeped from behind the foliage . . . . We heard the songs of the vintages . . . memory . . . presents this part of the Rhine to my remembrance as the loveliest paradise on earth" (History of a Six Weeks' Tour, Works, VI:109).

37. Mary reread Canto III with deep emotion right after finishing Frankenstein, and was moved to recall her memories of the absent Byron in the same elegiac tones with which Victor proceeds to recall the departed Clerval (Mary Shelley, Journal, p. 80; cf. Frankenstein, pp. 153-4). For the importance to Mary of Byron and his friendship with Percy, see Journal, p. 184; Ernest J. Lovell, Jr., "Byron and Mary Shelley," Keats-Shelley Journal II (1953): 35-49.

38. Cf. Works, VI:103: "opposite Brunen, they tell the story of a priest and his mistress . . . an avalanche overwhelmed them, but their plaintive voices are still heard in stormy nights."

39. Another example of this unconscious self-condemnation is Victor's reversed allusion to the mark set upon Cain ("Do not return to your families with the stigma of disgrace marked on your brows"). In Genesis 4: 11-16 Cain has been cursed for his brother's murder and sent forth, "a fugitive and a vagabond . . . out from the presence of the Lord." Cain has been marked by God as a warning against vengeance, precisely that which Victor now insists on. Recall how when Mary's Mathilda describes herself as a "monster": "I believed . . . I was a creature cursed and set apart by nature. I thought that like another Cain, I had a mark set on my forehead to shew mankind that there was a barrier between me and they" (Mathilda, p. 71, quoted in note 20). Clearly, the way for Walton's mariners to avoid such a stigma is to return home, not to pursue vengeance and isolation.

40. "Self-devoted," to mean "characterized by devotion of self," rather than to self, is cited by the OED from Addison (1713), Wordsworth (1814), and Scott (1831). Even without the modern shift in the word's connotations, the daemon's extravagant praise is surely undercut by Frankenstein's persistent failure to respond to the feelings of others.

41. Percy Shelley to Leigh Hunt, December 8, 1816, Letters, I:517: "I am an object of compassion to a few more benevolent than the rest, all else abhor & avoid me. With you, & perhaps some others . . . my gentleness & sincerity finds favour, because they are themselves gentle & sincere; they believe in self-devotion and generosity because they are themselves generous & self-devoted."

42. Wollstonecraft, French Revolution, I:515.

43. Ibid., p. 519.

44. Adrienne Rich, "From an Old House in America," Poems: Selected and New, 1950-1974 (New York, 1974), p. 237.