Mary Shelley and Her Yearning for Knowledge
Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, was the daughter of the radical feminist, Mary Wollstonecraft, and the political philosopher, William Godwin, and the wife of the Romantic poet, Percy Bysshe Shelley. Through these familial affiliations, she was also acquainted with Lord Byron Samuel T. Coleridge, and other literary figures such as Charles and Mary Lamb. Surrounded by such influential literary and political figures of the Romantic Age, it is not surprising that as an adolescent, at the age of 19, she wrote Frankenstein. Though critically a failure, (British Critic, 1818 and Monthly Review, 1818) the novel has never been out of print and has been translated into numerous languages. What is surprising, however, is the enormous body of knowledge contained in the novel. The novel contains references to the fields of literature, poetry, science, education, politics, history, and mythology. How did such a young girl, living a life considered morally objectionable to society and harassed by family and financial burdens, acquire such a vast amount of knowledge in all fields of study that encompassed the important issues of her day? Through examination of biographical information and Mary Shelley’s journal entries, it will be able to answer this question. Following, I also plan to highlight Mary Shelley’s knowledge of literature with primary emphasis on the works studied by the monster in relation to his origins as well as Mary Shelley’s.
Mary Shelley was born with notoriety simply by being named Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin. Her parents were well-known and somewhat suspect individuals due to their radical political beliefs and writings, such as Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Women and Godwin’s Enquiry Concerning the Nature of Political Justice. Mary Shelley’s mother died from complications shortly after giving birth to Mary. The infamy of her existence was heightened by her father’s subsequent publication of Memoirs of the Author of the Rights of Women. In this work, William Godwin described many aspects of Mary Wollstonecraft’s existence in great detail such as: her relationship with an American and subsequent birth of an illegitimate daughter, her suicide attempts, and the fact that she was already pregnant with Mary when William Godwin married her. To the late 20th Century sensibilities we may not approve of these behaviors but we certainly don’t consider then shocking or extraordinary. The above mentioned events, however, occurred in the late 1700’s and were not morally acceptable, were abhorrent to the conventions of society, and were certainly not to be discussed or published in a memoir. William Godwin’s publication of this memoir, more than any other event, created an air of societal stigma around Mary Shelley almost from the moment of her birth.
Mary Shelley increased her already infamous existence by running off with Percy Bysshe Shelley when she was 17 in 1814. Percy Shelley was already married and abandoned his pregnant wife and his daughter to live with Mary Shelley. They lived together and had two illegitimate children prior to getting married in December 1816. They married a couple of weeks after Percy’s wife, Harriet, committed suicide by drowning herself in the Serpentine. Mary Shelley became a societal outcast for these actions and had few friends. Within days she discovered that all of her old circle shunned her, intimates who had cherished her and friends who professed the most liberal principles (Sunstein 88). Her own father, hypocritically enough, who lived with Mary Wollstonecraft without being married, would not speak to Mary until she and Percy were legally married. Godwin publicly stated, Mary has committed a crime against hallowed social arrangements, morality, her family, and Harriet Shelley(Sunstein 89).
Mary and Percy also had numerous other family and financial problems. Even though Percy was to eventually inherit a considerable amount of money, he had many debts and was constantly harassed by creditors. The couple continually moved in order to evade bill collectors. The first ten months of their relationship they moved four times and, in fact, never shared a permanent home together. The couple also had to deal with ostracism from their families as well as many deaths in the family. During their first two and half years together their first child was born prematurely and died two weeks later, Percy’s first wife committed suicide, and Mary’s half sister, Fanny Imlay, committed suicide. In the midst of numerous pregnancies and family, financial, and societal turmoil, however, Mary Shelley managed to conceive of, write, and publish the enduring Frankenstein Again, one must ask how such a young woman, not much more than an adolescent, who was besieged by so many difficulties that few would be able to withstand, could have the creative imagination and even find the time to write this novel.
Not only was Mary Shelley born with notoriety due to an infamous name but also was also considered the child of two literary parents and high expectations were placed on her creative output. There were many prestigious visitors to the Godwin household, with one of the most notable and influential being Samuel T. Coleridge. When Mary Shelley was very young, she heard Coleridge recite the famous Rime of the Ancient Mariner which would later be referenced many times in Frankenstein. She never received a formal education, normal for women for that time period, but grew up surrounded by literary figures and the writings of her parents and was always encouraged to study and be creative. Influenced by Godwin, Mary Shelley developed a lifelong habit of deep and extensive reading and research(Bennett, Romantic Revisions, 299).
Mary Shelley’s desire to acquire knowledge and her disciplined study and research habits are demonstrated in her journal entries. She rarely wrote anything of a personal nature so there is little biographical information to be gained from the journals. She did, however, keep a detailed record of what she was reading and studying on an almost daily basis. On a typical day she generally studied a complex work, read some of a novel, and studied a foreign language. For example, on September 19, 1814, Mary studied Greek, read Rasselas, by Samuel Johnson, and read a novel called The Sorcerer (Feldman, 27). Almost every day is filled with a similar pattern of study. Even in the midst of all the difficulties discussed previously, she still spent a considerable portion of each day doing research. The only times that the amount of her work and research abated was when she was ill, which was often due to her many pregnancies, or something truly traumatic happened, such as the death of a child or other family member. The desire to acquire knowledge and the intense passion for research and study is evident throughout the novel, Frankenstein and is demonstrated through the three narrators; Victor Frankenstein, Walden, and the monster. Frankenstein’s and Walden’s quest for new knowledge of the unknown and the monster’s search for knowledge of his origins parallel Mary Shelley’s lifelong scholarly pursuit and her interest in her own biological origins due to her birth causing her mother’s death.
At the very beginning of the novel, Mary Shelley’s educational experiences and love of literary research are told through Walden, the arctic explorer.
My education was neglected, yet I was passionately fond of reading. These volumes were my study day and night(Shelley, 2).
These visions faded when I perused, for the first time, these poets whose effusions entranced my soul and lifted it to heaven. I also became a poet and for one year lived in a paradise of my own creation; I imagined that I also might obtain a niche in the temple where the names of Homer and Shakespeare are consecrated(Shelley, 2). In narrating his experiences to Walden, Victor Frankenstein also tells of his yearning for a higher knowledge. The following passages demonstrate this:
One man’s life or death were but a small price to pay for the acquirement of the knowledge which I sought, for the dominion I should acquire and transmit over the elemental foes of our race(Shelley, 13).
You seek for knowledge and wisdom as I once did; and I ardently hope the gratification of your wishes may not be a serpent to sting you, as mine has been(Shelley, 15).
Many of the works that Mary Shelley studied are evident in the voice and character of Frankenstein’s monster and through this character the reader is given a demonstration of the pursuit of knowledge as related to one’s search for his origins. Since Victor Frankenstein abandoned his creation, the monster was left to fend for himself in a society hostile to his gigantic and terrifying appearance and was forced to learn and develop without any parental guidance. Mary Shelley introduced the theory of the development of human knowledge and awareness as defined by John Locke in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding which she studied almost daily in December 1816 and January 1817 (Feldman, 148-154 and Pollin, 107). During this time she was already working on the novel. Her assumptions of the development of human understanding correspond to those of Locke, concerning the absence of innate principles, the derivation of all ideas from sensation or reflection, and the efficacy of pleasure and pain in causing us to seek or avoid the various objects of sensation (Pollin, 107). The following passage is one of many examples of Mary Shelley’s belief in John Locke’s theory.
It is with considerable difficulty that I remember the original era of my being; all the events of that period appear confused and indistinct. A strange multiplicity of sensations seized me, and I saw, felt, heard, and smelt, at the same time; and it was, indeed, a long time before I learned to distinguish between the operation of my various senses (Shelley, 87).
Another considerable influence on Mary Shelley and in turn the monster, was the works of Rousseau. Mary studied Rousseau early in her own intellectual development (Marshall, 182) and during the period that she composed Frankenstein (Feldman, 93-97). In Rousseau’s Second Discourse is a discussion on the state of natural man or what Rousseau calls the noble savage. Frankenstein’s monster is an embodiment of this state of being developed by Rousseau, in which the monster first discovers himself and later the knowledge of language and the conventions of society. The monster’s narration of his personal development and later acquisition of knowledge has been recognized by critics of the novel as a noble savage whose early life in the forest (drinking at brooks, eating nuts and berries and not meat, sleeping under trees, encountering fire for the first time, acquiring language, and so on) conforms in general outline and specific details to the life of Rousseau’s savage(Marshall, 183).
As you can see, Mary Shelley not only wrote a great book, but she also was a very knowledgeable author and a very creative one. This paper should help you understand why Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein and what inspired her to write, including the other stories and poems she did. Mary Shelley was a creative author that won her a lot of acknowledgement.
Mary Shelley and Her Yearning for Knowledge