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A Malleable Mary

Published on April 21st, 2016 at 03:37 am

By Kayla Poursalimi

Throughout her life Mary Shelley was influenced by some of the most prominent intellectuals of her time; with an out spoken mother who passionately fought for women’s rights, as well as a father who was a well known philosopher, Mary was informally educated as great minds were attracted into the house hold and a large library was at her fingertips. With the loss of her mother at such an early age, Mary did not get to know her very well but did find comfort in visiting her mother’s grave when life with her stepmother became overly abusive and conecending. The work of her mother made her way into Mary’s writing with a feminist theoretical framework in Frankenstein. Later in life she met her future husband all thanks to her father; the future husband, Percy Shelley, was also quite the intellectual. Some of Mary Shelley’s personal letters have given insight on the influence her husband had over her most well known novel, Frankenstein. Her letters have exposed the amount of editing her husband had done as well as his part in writing the preface of the story. At the time she was writing, her letters state that Percy was reading John Milton’s Paradise Lost aloud to her. Milton’s influence on the novel is prominent in multiple was both directly and indirectly. Over all these three factors proved to have prominent impression on Mary with her parents, husband and Milton all showing themselves in the novel one way or another.

Mary Shelley projected her mother’s values through her work, specifically Frankenstein, as she questions the role of women with her title character usurp the role of women in society (creating life) and using her mothers Enlightenment ideals in crating the core of her novel. As the author of A Vindication of the Rights of Women, Mary Wollstonecraft was a very out spoken and radical woman; these traits were then passed on to her daughter, also named Mary. Shelley struggled with fulfilling that role, after a majority of her children died in infancy. Furthermore Mary’s mother die while giving birth to her obviously causing spells of self-blame. The relationship between Frankenstein and his creation is a direct criticism of motherhood, projecting Shelley’s own life struggles in her writing. Pulling from her mother’s feminist writing, Shelley uses Victor Frankenstein to depict the flaws in the gender stereotypes. By having the women in her novel have very story lived, barely developed roles and keeping them in the household Shelley shows the constrains put on women while the men have free reign. However the masculinity clouds the emotional judgment needed to wield such power. Victor’s lack of empathy caused him to put little care into his work thus creating a grotesque figure. As Anne K. Mellor puts it in her article “Usurping the Female”, Frankenstein works hastily, “…callously making him eight feet tall simply because ‘the minuteness of the parts formed a great hindrance to my speed’ (49). He then fails to love or feel any parental responsibility for the freak he has created” (Mellor 1988). After a less than favorable interaction with humans he had hoped to befriend to replace his deadbeat father, the monster curses his creator’s lack of care, “Why did I live? Why, in that instant, did I not extinguish the spark of existence which you had so wantonly bestowed” (Shelley 161). Frankenstein rejected his creation and when the creature sought out parental guidance in others he was once again turned away. This parallels Shelley never really knowing her mother then being shunned by her stepmother. Moreover, Shelley mirrors her mother’s work by creating an inherently neutral being who is then turned “evil” due to the treatment he received by the people around him, David Soyka’s writing, “Frankenstein and the Miltonic Creation of Evil” addressed Shelley’s repetition of her mothers beliefs, “Shelley… was echoing her mother's sentiment that ‘Nature, or to speak with strict propriety, God, has made all things right; but man has sought him out many inventions to mar the work’ ” (Soyka 1992). The background behind he creation of the monster and his treatment after he is brought to life is a direct copy of Mary’s personal experiences as they relate to motherhood.

Percy Shelley was a controlling man who clearly pushed Mary’s work especially the elaboration of the A Modern Prometheus that then became Frankenstein as a result of his influences. The most prominent indication of Percy’s affect on Frankenstein is the entire preface that he wrote himself. By writing the preface many believed that he was the true author of the novel, but later investigations proved otherwise. The preface includes the line, “The circumstance on which my story rests was suggested in casual conversation” (Shelley 2), and the use of first person and obviously claiming the story as his gives insight on Percy’s views on the novel and the impact he had on the final product. Furthermore, the conversation mentioned was one between Percy Shelley and Lord Byron; this completely excluded Mary from the creation of the novel. In the article “Shelley and the Miltonic Element in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein,” Phillip Wade addresses Percy Shelley’s role in the making of the text by pointing out, “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’ ” (Wade 1976). Percy’s encouragement caused Mary to turn to him for later advice for forming the story. The letters exchanged between the couple give insight on the depth of Percy’s involvement. Wade provides further insight by including one of Mary’s letters, “ ‘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,’ ” he then elaborates on this piece of evidence, “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” (Wade 1976). David Soyka argues that Percy had a much more subtle influence on Mary’s work in his article. Soyka suggests, “Percy Shelley's unresolved Oedipal complex compounded with an erotic attraction to his sister Elizabeth as the source for Frankenstein's death-wish dream, to be fulfilled in reality by the Monster, of his "situational" sister Elizabeth” (Soyka 1992). He then continues with, “Mary Shelley may have put more of herself in this plot than it might first seem. She might just as easily have named the character of Elizabeth after her own stepsister, whose affair with Percy may have made Mary wish her dead” (Soyka 1992). Percy’s influence on Mary especially in the case of her writing produced a much different out come than if she were to write on her own. This difference can some what be seen when comparing the 1818 edition and the 1831 edition, the latter being the one with more of Percy’s edits.

As a direct result of Percy’s impact on Mary, she implemented a multitude of Miltonic ideas and allusions in her novel. Shelley herself admired Milton’s work, Paradise Lost, but her notes show that she became familiar with the text only when her husband read the novel aloud to her. She intertwined Miltonic allusions as a consequence of her enchantment by the book thanks to Percy. In his article Wade elaborates on the Miltonic influences as a result of Percy Shelley by noting entries made in Mary Shelley’s journals often stating how her spouse often read to her while she worked, many of the entries of this subject are concentrated around the dates when she was writing Frankenstein, he also points out, “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” (Wade 1976). This further suggests Percy Shelley may have had a greater influence on the project than commonly thought. One of the most obvious use of integration between the two texts would be when the monster stumbles upon Milton’s novel and relates to Satan as the victim in his own scenario. "But Paradise Lost excited different and far deeper emotions…I was wretched, helpless, and alone. Many times I considered Satan as the fitter emblem of my condition; for often, like him, when I viewed the bliss of my protectors, the bitter gall of envy rose within me” (Shelley 153). The monster acknowledges how he has an origin story comparable to Adam, however he was not guarded and cared for by his creator as Adam was; he was expelled from his “garden”, this rejection caused the creature to gravitate towards Satan who was also ostracized by his respective creator. Soyka however compares the monster to Job, “the Monster is transformed from innocent Adam, a victim of other's actions (Eve's disobedience; the De Laceys' revulsion), to Satan avenging his predicament. One other Biblical character that might be considered outside of Paradise Lost, however, is Job, with whose loathsome appearance of "sore boils" the Monster shares in being singled out from mankind… the Monster as a Job figure challenges his creator to be responsible for his creation” (Soyka 1992). Soyka also notes The Book of God and Man: A Study of Job, by Robert Gordis, who connects Job to “the Greek Prometheus, who challenged the reign of the Gods” thus connecting back to Shelley’s original work, as it was originally known as A Modern Prometheus giving insight on the monsters true form, neither evil nor good, just like fire. The monster is neutral and is reactions are simply the backlash of hoe he is treated, just as fired can be used for destruction or as a tool.

Coming from a rich background of prominent thinkers of her time, Mary Shelley had a considerable amount of influences in her life from an early age. Having one of the firsts feminists as her mother, Shelley became a radical herself; she implemented ideas questioning gender roles in her work as a result. Later on in life, especially when writing Frankenstein, he husband took an interest in her work and made sever edits in her writing and wrote portions of it himself. He additionally pushed her in a direction that she had not gone before in her previous works, and later did not return to this direction ever again, the direction being a Miltonic one. Her husband influenced her addition of Miltonic ideologies that became very prominent in the text. Overall the text Frankenstein is a stitching together of bits and pieces those around her, like a monster of her own.

Works Cited

Gordis, Robert. The Book of God and Man: A Study of Job. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1965.
Mellor, Anne K. "Usurping the Female" N.p., 1988. Web. 02 Apr. 2016.
Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft. Frankenstein. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 2009. Print.
Soyka, David. "Frankenstein and the Miltonic Creation of Evil" N.p., n.d. Web. 30 Mar. 2016.
Wade, Phillip. "Shelley and the Miltonic Element" "Shelley and the Miltonic Element" N.p., n.d. Web. 30 Mar. 2016.