From Competition to Classic: The Genesis of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein

What led to the creation of one of the greatest classic novels ever written? Was it luck, or was it a tragic life that brought about Frankenstein?

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Portrait of Mary Shelley with her bok Frankenstein over the bottom right coreer with lightening surrounding it

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein wasn’t born in a sterile lab of literary creation. Much like its misunderstood creature, it emerged from a jolt of inspiration, a dash of competition, and a healthy dose of personal tragedy. Let’s take a look at the tumultuous life of Mary Shelley and the events that led to the fabrication of the science fiction genre and one of the greatest classic novels of all time.

Tragedy Strikes at Birth

Born Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin in 1797, Shelley’s life began with a bang and a whimper. Her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, a feminist icon and champion of women’s rights, died shortly after childbirth. This loss, coupled with that of her father, William Godwin, a prominent radical philosopher, fostered an environment of intellectual curiosity and societal rebellion, but also one tinged with immense personal sorrow.

Mary Wollstonecraft on the cover of her novel A Vindication of the Rights of Women.

At the tender age of 16, Mary eloped with the already-married poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. Their whirlwind romance, ostracized by society due to Percy’s existing marriage and their radical views, added another layer of hardship to Mary’s young life. Despite the challenges, their shared passion for literature and philosophy ignited a spark within Mary, laying the groundwork for her future literary exploits.

Breathing Life into Frankenstein

The turning point for Frankenstein arrived in 1816 during a fateful stay in Geneva, Switzerland, with Percy and her stepsister, Claire Clairmont. Joining them was Lord Byron, another Romantic poet with a reputation for unconventional living. Seeking entertainment during an uncharacteristically gloomy summer, Byron proposed a writing competition — a ghost story to send shivers down their spines. This seemingly whimsical challenge sparked a fire within Mary, who, at just 18 years old, began to weave a tale that would forever alter the landscape of literature.

Mary Shelley and Percy Shelley portrait, oil on canvas after wedding.

Fueled by a vivid dream and inspired by the group’s discussions on scientific advancements like galvanism, the idea of reanimating the dead with electricity, Mary conjured the chilling story of Victor Frankenstein, a scientist obsessed with the creation of life and the being he brings into existence.

Themes of Frankenstein that Resonate with Shelley’s Experiences

Themes throughout Frankenstein echo deeply with Shelley’s own experiences. The motif of birth, both literal and metaphorical, mirrors her own entry into the world and the subsequent loss of her mother. The struggle between good and evil reflects the societal ostracization she faced due to her unconventional relationship with Percy. The question of nature versus nurture, though not yet a fully defined concept in Shelley’s time, finds its roots in the novel, mirroring her own grappling with the influence of her parents’ ideologies and her personal choices.

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, book cover of a man perched above a body of water among reeds looking at himself in the dark

Beyond the personal, this novel also reflects the anxieties brewing in the wake of the Industrial Revolution. The novel’s portrayal of scientific ambition gone awry serves as a cautionary tale, questioning the ethical implications of unchecked progress and the potential for unintended consequences. This aligns with the concerns voiced by her father, William Godwin, who wrote about the potential dangers of unchecked societal change.

Furthermore, Frankenstein delves into the complexities of social expectations and identity. The creature, ostracized for its monstrous appearance, yearns for acceptance and belonging, themes that resonated with Shelley, who navigated a life outside societal norms. The novel also explores the tension between science and religion, a debate prevalent during Shelley’s time, with the creation of life challenging established religious beliefs.

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, born from a night of friendly competition, transcended its origins to become a literary monument. Its enduring themes, drawn from the depths of Shelley’s personal experiences and the anxieties of her era, continue to resonate with readers today, solidifying its place as a timeless classic.

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