Psychological Origins Of Frankenstein Essay, Research Paper
The Psychological Origins of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein
When one thinks of a book such as Frankenstein, one thinks of it as purely a horror story and not much else. However, there is far more to the story than is first apparent. Shelley has effectively mixed the horror genre with some autobiographical elements.
Mary Shelley was the daughter of William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft, two notable English thinkers. Wollstonecraft died days after Mary’s birth leaving her in the care of William and a nanny named Louisa. Three years later, Louisa was fired for being in an illicit relationship with one of William’s students. After William remarried, Mary was sent to Scotland to live with the David Baxter family.
Meanwhile, William became friends with the young poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. When she was sixteen, Mary returned to London. Sometime later she and Shelley became lovers, despite the objections of Mary’s parents and Shelley’s wife Harriet. They eloped to Paris taking Mary’s half-sister Jane with them. The trio then traveled to Switzerland, where Mary became pregnant and Jane and Percy became lovers.
They soon returned to England to find themselves mired in scandal. Mary soon gave birth to a daughter, Clara, who died two weeks later.
Mary threw Jane out of her home. Jane, who had changed her name to Claire and had begun to pursue Lord Byron, invited Percy and Mary to accompany her and Byron to Switzerland. There, the four spent the coldest summer of the century engaging in intense conversation, reading ghost stories, and other various activities. It was there in Switzerland on June 15 that Mary conceived of the idea of Frankenstein.
Six months before writing Frankenstein, Mary had given birth a second time to a baby boy that she named William. She wrote her novel during her third pregnancy at the age of only nineteen. Her deepest subconscious fears about the death of her first daughter were unleashed. “What if my child is born deformed, a freak, a hideous thing? Will I wish it dead again (as Frankenstein wishes for his monster)? Could I kill it? Could it kill me (as I killed my mother)?”
The return to London in September 1816 ushered in a series of disasters in Mary’s life. Her half-sister committed suicide, which was soon followed by the suicide of Shelley’s wife Harriet. Then in June of 1819, Mary’s first son William died. She was now 21.
Shelley legally married Mary Godwin shortly after Harriet’s death, and their fourth child Percy was soon born afterward. On July 8, 1822, mary was confronted by another tragedy: While spending the summer in Italy, Shelley was drowned in a boating accident. He was a month short of thirty years of age.
With this understanding of Shelley’s life, we can further understand the psychological origins of the book.
There are many different psychological interpretations of the book. Some consider Frankenstein to be a novel about a man who tries to have a baby without a woman. In contrast, others feel that this book expresses, for the first time in Western literature, women’s most powerfully felt anxieties about pregnancy, a topic avoided by male writers and considered improper for women to discuss in public. The suggestion to male readers is that women may not always desire their own babies; the suggestion to female readers is that their fears and hostilities are shared by other women.
It is only recently that critics have begun to see Victor Frankenstein’s disgust at the sight of his creation as a study of postpartum depression, as a representation of maternal rejection of a newborn infant, and to relate the entire novel to Shelley’s mixed feelings about motherhood. Having lived through an unwanted pregnancy from a man married to someone else, only to see that baby die, followed by a second baby named William which is the name of the monster’s first murder victim Mary Shelley at the age of only 18 must have had awfully divided emotions. The idea that a mother can loathe, fear, and reject her baby has until recently been one of the most repressed of psychoanalytical insights, although it is of course already implicit in the story of Oedipus, whose parents cast him out as an infant to die.
There are several parallels between the monster and Mary. First she identifies with the monster (as a rejected child). She spent two years peering in at the Baxters’, like the monster peered in at the De Lacey cottage. Another similarity is that both Mary and the Monster lack a mother and a father. Finally, the monster also reads the same things that Mary read in 1814: Paradise Lost, The Suffering of Young Werther, Plutarch’s Lives of the Roman Emperors, and the poetry of Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Lord Byron.
Mary Shelley based the character of Victor Frankenstein on her husband Percy. Shelley published his first volume of poetry under the pen name “Victor.” He had a sister named Elizabeth (in the book, Dr. Frankenstein’s fiancee is named Elizabeth). Shelley also had the same education as Victor chemistry, alchemy, foreign languages, and he goes to the university of Ingolstadt. Finally Shelley was indifferent to children. He had abandoned his first wife and children and had not grieved for the loss of his and Mary’s first child.
The character of Clerval is Victor’s “other” self. He is a poet who loves nature, who is capable of sympathy and nurturing others, and who obeys his father. This positive image of parenting is ripped out of the novel when Clerval is murdered, leaving only the egotistical, self-absorbed Victor. Victor Frankenstein is a total failure at parenting. He labors to give birth to his creation, then he flees the moment the monster opens his eyes. He is contrasted with two loving fathers: Alphonse Frankenstein and Father de Lacey. The monster’s first victim is William (William Godwin? William Godwin, Jr., William Shelley?). Many experts believe that Shelley is fearfully imagining the death of her own son.
It is very important to note that Mary was only about 18 or 19 years of age when she wrote Frankenstein. Yet, she had experienced such a dysfunctional childhood (and in many ways was still experiencing that childhood) that she did not know what to do in her life. She was still only a teenager, but she had had three children by the time she was 17. Her unconscious fears about everything were unleashed when she began writing Frankenstein. Mary Shelley’s novel thrilled audiences and provoked many different adaptations of her work. However, the thread of reality that she wove throughout her work says more about her life than any autobiography ever could.