Science Fiction Studies

#51 = Volume 17, Part 2 = July 1990

Meri-Jane Rochelson

Mary Shelley's Progeny

Anne K. Mellor. Mary Shelley: Her Life, Her Fiction, Her Monsters. NY: Methuen, 1988. xx + 276pp. illus. $25.00 (cloth); Routledge, 1989. $14.95 (paper).

Allene Stuart Phy. Mary Shelley. Mercer Island, WA: Starmont House, 1988. [Starmont Reader's Guide No. 36.] 124pp. $17.95 (cloth); $9.95 (paper).

Mary K. Patterson Thornburg. The Monster in the Mirror: Gender and the Sentimental/Gothic Myth in Frankenstein. Ann Arbor, MI: UMI Research Press, 1987. [Studies in Speculative Fiction, No. 14.] ix + 154pp. $39.95.

The popular appeal of Frankenstein has a long history: the immediate success of Mary Shelley's novel was followed in 1823 by a long-running theatrical adaptation, and the numerous film versions of the book have given it the status of myth. Only in the last 20 years has scholarly interest caught up, but now writers concerned with feminism, the Gothic, psychology, and myth itself have found much to discover and comment upon in a book which, as Mary Thornburg notes (p. 9), "seems not only to invite but to support" myriad interpretations. Thornburg's own study concentrates on placing Frankenstein in a literary tradition based on social and psychological archetypes, while Anne Mellor and Allene Phy variously consider it in the context of its author's life and career. Each of these books in some way rewards our ongoing fascination with this SF novel (often thought of as the first) and its author.

Of the three, Mellor's study is the most exciting, informative, and provocative. The central thesis of her book is that Mary Shelley's life and writing career were spent "in search of a family" (the title of chapter 1), her fiction reflecting both an exaltation of the bourgeois family and a recognition that such a patriarchal system can never provide the kind of ideal nurturance Shelley would attribute to it. The book alternates biography with literary criticism, leading to a somewhat unusual organization. After a detailed chronology which could itself serve as an abbreviated sketch, Mellor examines Shelley's history from before her birth--in the relationship of her parents, Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin--to the "waking dream" in the summer of 1816 that became Frankenstein. This lengthy and important section is followed by six chapters analyzing Frankenstein, chapters in which the bounds of the thesis stretch to encompass a view of the novel as anti-romantic and anti-scientific critique. Biography resumes, in a regrettably more curtailed form, at the start of each of the subsequent chapters (8-10) as Mellor considers The Last Man, the 1831 edition of Frankenstein, and Mathilda, Lodore, and Falkner. Among the many minor works Mary Shelley produced, Mellor finds these most relevant to her conclusion, that

[a]t the psychological as well as the ideological level,...Mary Shelley's fictions are ruptured, broken apart by her contradictory desires: to find self-esteem and emotional satisfaction as wife and mother within an egalitarian family on the one hand, and on the other, to consummate her relentless desire for total absorption by the all-powerful parent, whether the father or the (in her case forever lost) mother. (p. 218)

Apart from their fictional referents, the "monsters" of Mellor's title are identified as the ideologies that deter men from nurturance and destroy women in roles of self-abnegation (p. 217), and Mellor shows how Mary Shelley struggled with these monsters throughout her life and work.

Although the book seems somewhat unbalanced by Mellor's organizational decisions--and confounds the reader's desire for plot when biography is interrupted to resume one hundred pages later--they seem on the whole justified when one considers Mellor's aims. Who, exactly, was the Mary Shelley that wrote Frankenstein, and who was she later, as she revised it and wrote her subsequent fiction? Discontents that were brewing in the Shelley family before the 1818 publication of Frankenstein worsened afterward, with the deaths of Mary's second and third children and what Mellor convincingly describes as Percy's implication in them. By alternating biography and criticism, Mellor makes clear just what can be considered as we relate Shelley's life to her work at each point, and helps to establish plausible reasons for changes in Shelley's world-view over time. Though the chronological organization makes Mellor's discussion of the sentimental literature somewhat anti-climactic (it becomes clear that Frankenstein explores as fully and variously as possible its author's preoccupations with domesticity and gender roles), the later chapters reveal the persistence of the family theme in Shelley's work.

The first chapter of Mellor's study sets up the biographical context. Drawing from the journals, letters, and biographies of most of the participants in the Godwin and Shelley circles, Mellor details the family situations that led to feelings of deprivation and longing and were to find reflection over and over again in Mary Shelley's fiction: the close relationship between father and daughter in the four years after Mary Wollstonecraft's death of childbed fever; Godwin's subsequent withdrawal after his marriage to Mary Jane Clairmont; and finally, Percy Shelley's self-absorption that left him "singularly unconcerned" (p. 32) at the death of Mary's first child and apparently oblivious to the effects on his companion/wife of his frequent flirtations and affairs with other women. In addition, Mellor's first chapter gives the reader insights into Mary Shelley's literary beginnings that make clear her integrity as an individual and writer beyond all her connections to the great radical thinkers and writers of her time. Mellor details as far as possible Shelley's early, in-home, education, and prints portions of "Mounseer Nongtongpaw," the capable and witty continuation of Charles Dibdin's ballad, which Mary wrote and published at age ten (pp. 10-11). She discusses Mary's happiness during an extended visit to Scotland in her youth--a visit which, according to Mellor, gave her the "example of domestic affection and harmony" that would later influence her writing (p. 16). Thus chapter 1 provides a detailed and basically sympathetic view of Mary Shelley's early life, a useful corrective to such earlier characterizations as James Rieger's "stiff, humorless and self-dramatizing woman" (p. xxiii). Mellor also makes clear, however, in her account of Mary and Percy Shelley's travels, Mary's "deep aversion to the lower classes" and a basic conservatism that informs her work (p. 25).

Indeed, Mellor rightly notes, in the subsequent chapters on the novel, that Shelley's "ideal [in Frankenstein] is a balance, a golden mean between conflicting demands" (p. 126). The immediate context for this statement is a discussion of Robert Walton, who strives but turns back, recognizing a duty of care for his imperiled crew. At several points (e.g., p. 125), Mellor makes explicit her debt to Carol Gilligan's notion of the "ethic of care," found typically to characterize women's approach to decision-making; and Mellor persuasively argues that Frankenstein upholds this ethic in contrast to a Romantic model of male egotism. Fatally self-absorbed, over-confident in the powers of his mind and imagination, and ignoring his responsibilities to both his original family and his offspring (the "creature," as Mellor sympathetically calls the monster), Victor Frankenstein reflects his author's hostility towards Godwin and, especially, Percy Shelley. Mellor's discussion is especially compelling in chapters 4 and 5, in which Mary Shelley is shown to reject both a (Percy) Shelleyan view of nature as the field for Promethean exploits and the traditional scientific imaging of nature as a passive female to be tamed and penetrated by the masculine mind.

One of the strengths of Mellor's study is its documentation of Mary Shelley's familiarity with the works of Erasmus Darwin and Sir Humphry Davy and her demonstration of Mary's preference for the egalitarian biological models of the first (p. 98) to the "master-scientist" concept of the second (p. 93). Also persuasive is Mellor's discussion of "Problems of Perception" (chapter 7). Since it is only those who see the creature who run from him in fear, "Mary Shelley strikingly shows us that when we see nature as evil, we make it evil" (p. 134). This, according to Mellor, is the author's "final critique of the Romantic ideology" (p. 136) with its faith in the primacy of the imagination.

Mellor's discussion of Percy Shelley's revisions to Mary's manuscript of Frankenstein, almost slipped into the critical analysis in chapter 3, may be the single most important contribution of this book to future students of the novel. Drawing on careful study of the manuscript in the Abinger Collection of the Bodleian Library, Mellor explains how Mary Shelley routinely invited her husband's editorial emendations, some of which "distorted the meaning of the text" in line with what Mellor perceives as a more sympathetic view of Victor Frankenstein (pp. 62-63). A table of revisions (pp. 60-61) illustrates the large extent to which Percy substituted formal-sounding, Latinate expressions for his wife's often more direct and colloquial style. In all, we learn that he made approximately "five or six changes per manuscript page...[,] less numerous in the creature's narrative than elsewhere" (p. 59)--information which makes one wonder just how much we can rely on comparisons of diction in interpreting character in this work. In this chapter, Mellor concentrates on the negative effects of Percy Shelley's revisions, while an appendix (less tied to the thesis) details how he "genuinely improved the many small ways" (p. 219). Mellor notes that the complete record of Percy Shelley's involvement will be clear to the general reader only when a transcript of the manuscript is edited and published (p. 224). What her own analysis makes clear is that although Mary Shelley was perfectly willing to give extensive (though not entire) editorial license to her husband, he was not the "minor collaborator" that Rieger (p. xviii) has suggested he was.

The beauty of Mellor's approach to Frankenstein is that it expands rather than contracts the arena of interpretation. Recognizing (and revealing) Mary Shelley's knowledge of the intellectual currents of her day, Mellor draws upon Kant and Edmund Burke in examining the unknowability of the creature and its relation to the Romantic enterprise. Close readings of the text allow for political as well as psychological analysis, and the focus on the bourgeois family becomes the starting point, not the end, of interpretations.

Still, in a study this rich there are points with which to take issue. According to Mellor, Mary Shelley fully endorses Walton's decision to turn back from his quest, while in fact her ambivalence towards Promethean striving is revealed at several points. Mellor considers "as both authorial credo and moral touchstone" (p. 86) a passage in which Frankenstein laments that the discovery of America was not "more gradual," but does not lament the discovery itself. If Frankenstein represents his author there, then why not in his dying words: "Seek happiness in tranquillity, and avoid ambition....Yet why do I say this? I myself have been blasted in these hopes, yet another may succeed" (Rieger: 215; the quotation appears in the 1831 Frankenstein as well)? This statement seems to me only partly fraught with menace; along with the rather pale presentation of Robert Walton himself, it seems to suggest that Mary Shelley's "golden mean" includes a recognition of exploration's appeal and value.

Mellor also, I think, overstates her case as she emphasizes the differences between the 1818 and 1831 editions of the novel. According to Mellor, Mary Shelley's response to the deaths of three of her children and her husband was an increased fatalism and a view of nature in the later version as no longer "organic" and nurturant but "mechanistic" and menacing (p. 172). While textual changes support these assertions, and while Shelley's subsequent fiction, most notably The Last Man, reveals the persistence of this more desolate world-view, they do not add up to a presentation of Victor as "less responsible for his actions" (p. 173) and "more a victim of circumstances than...the active author of evil" (p. 174). Nor do they diminish the significance of his failure to care for the creature (p. 173). Whether one views Frankenstein as villain, victim, or tragic hero is determined by the extent to which one chooses to find the creature's narrative reliable. If one views the creature's history consistently as upholding the ethic of care, as Mellor--I think rightly--does, then the differences that give the 1831 edition a more pessimistic tone are important biographically but do not radically affect interpretation of the novel. Similarly, some of Percy Shelley's revisions are less dramatic than Mellor insists. The conclusion of Frankenstein is just as ambiguous, I believe, when the monster is "lost in darkness and distance" as when, in Mary's manuscript version, he is more specifically "lost [to] sight" (p. 68).

There are, finally, some minor problems with this study as biography. Though ample and detailed notes support most of Mellor's assertions, there are points at which the reader seeks confirmation but is left simply with Mellor's word. A case in point is an explanation of how Frankenstein reflects "elements of Percy Shelley's temperament and character that had begun to trouble Mary Shelley" (p. 73). One is asked to accept that Mary suspected her husband's actions and ideals of concealing "an emotional narcissism, an unwillingness to confront the origins of his own desires or the impact of his demands on those most dependent upon him," without Mary's statement of any such recognition. I believe that Mellor could present the evidence, since elsewhere it is clear that she has carefully read Mary Shelley's journals and letters; but at this point and a few others, the reader would like to know, more explicitly, the degree of Mary's awareness. The biography is also curtailed in the service of Mellor's thesis, and the reader is thus somewhat shortchanged for the period after Percy's death. One would like to see more, for example, concerning Mary Shelley's relationships with women friends, particularly since Mellor's is a feminist study. She discusses Fanny Derham, a minor character in Lodore (1835), who "represents the possibility of an entirely independent intellectual, self-reliant woman who develops deep and enriching friendships with other women as well as with men" (p. 207), noting that Mary Shelley presents her as a historically absent ideal. But when Mellor swiftly alludes to Mary's betrayals and "desertions" by women in her widowed years, we long for more of the story of these relationships.

In the end, however, Mary Shelley: Her Life, Her Fiction, Her Monsters is a thought-provoking and illuminating book, a major contribution to our study of Frankenstein and the forces behind much of Mary Shelley's fiction.

In contrast to Mellor's wide-ranging approach, Thornburg sticks close to her thesis that "the source of Frankenstein's power is its delineation and merciless exposure of the sentimental/Gothic myth, our culture's dominant world view at least until the middle of the twentieth century" (p. 11). Her study is composed of three large chapters: the first defines the myth and illustrates its persistence in British and American literature in the 18th and 19th centuries; the second presents a detailed analysis of Frankenstein in terms of the myth; and the third details the myth's survival (and incipient transformation) in contemporary popular genres--the western, the romance, and SF.

Thornburg's title derives from her characterization of the Gothic as a distortedly revealing mirror image of the sentimental genre, with its insistence on neatly-defined sex-roles, its docile and masochistically nurturant women and domestically "tamed" Byronic men (pp. 23-34). The Gothic, which gives free play to the violence and sensuality suppressed by sentimental fiction, denies its comfortable assurance "that innocence and purity are blessed, that right and wrong are easily distinguishable, that conformity to its code of social and moral behavior will be rewarded" (p. 42). Thornburg views Frankenstein's creation and rejection of the Monster (as she most frequently refers to the creature) in psychological and generic terms, as an attempt--necessarily unsuccessful--to "creat[e] himself as the perfect sentimental man, carving away from himself the elements that are unacceptable to that role" (p. 79). Thus in Thornburg's view Frankenstein is the tragic hero of a novel that reveals the fatal inefficacy of the sentimental ideal, and his creation, the recipient of excess passion, is, well, a monster.

Thornburg's thesis is compelling as she analyzes Frankenstein in the context of literary sentimentalism. Like Mellor, Thornburg sees in Frankenstein's "disastrously successful quest" Mary Shelley's critique of her husband's Romantic idealism (p. 94), and the novel's critique of patriarchal social constructs is correctly perceived as promoting a radical view of its own. Thornburg's placement of Frankenstein in the sentimental/Gothic tradition should be of value to students of the novel, and she astutely points out that the frequent assertions of "flaws" in the book (either vague or extremely particular) are indications of critics' more general discomfort with an unsettling work of fiction (pp. 9-10). But the greatest strength of Thornburg's study, its exhaustive development of its thesis, is also its greatest weakness. Ultimately it tends to flatten out the novel, creating a tidy explanation for Gothicism that is at odds with the ambiguity of the Gothic enterprise itself.

In analyzing the split world-view of Frankenstein, Thornburg draws on the doppelgänger motif that has long been a staple of criticism on the novel. To introduce the psychological interpretation she posits the monster as a projection of the darker forces within Victor, without independent existence. The close reading based on this assumption is compelling and ingenious, and disconcertingly supplies plot details (such as the idea of an assignation between Justine and Victor, for example, interrupted by young William and leading to his murder) that make more plausible some of the otherwise highly coincidental events of the novel (p. 86). But when Thornburg rightly notes that the novel compels us to recognize the monster as a separate being, the psychological thesis is more difficult to sustain. Would most readers agree that the monster's narrative "represent[s] the endeavor of the monstrous part of the divided personality to achieve reintegration with Victor's conscious self," or that the monster's "compassion [and] charity" (p. 87) are among the qualities denied by both Victor and the sentimental tradition? At points such as this, facts of the novel have to be stretched to fit the thesis, and the argument becomes thin. Similarly, Thornburg accepts as given that the reader is "invited to sympathize" with Frankenstein and that the monster is the "apparent antagonist, with whom the reader is not free to sympathize openly" (p. 64). Perhaps so, if the novel is viewed only from the sentimental perspective; but I would disagree with Thornburg that Frankenstein "is not apparently antisentimental" (p. 64). The Gothic mirror hovers over the novel and elicits a kind of double reading; the reader is in some sense always aware of the disparity between the "apparent" and the actual. Thornburg acknowledges this tension by stating that this doubleness "arouses and maintains the reader's anxiety and never quite dispels it" (p. 64). But I would submit that the anti-sentimental critique appears earlier in the reading experience--and more clearly--than Thornburg allows, its agent being a persuasively sympathetic depiction of the creature.

Chapter 1 of The Monster in the Mirror is useful in itself as an exploration of the sentimental/Gothic tradition, whose origins Thornburg locates in the rise of Protestantism and capitalism. Brief illustrations of the myth and its variations as they appear in Richardson, Austen, Alcott, Hawthorne, and others provide a useful and illuminating context of "mainstream" literature in which to examine Mary Shelley's contribution. The extended discussion of Dracula, however, while apt, seems somewhat misplaced. It goes on far too long for its illustrative function, and the reader has the sense of material thought "too good to waste," but which should have been cut nevertheless. The same may be said about the detailed discussion of Shane in chapter 3, which is followed by an almost too sparsely illustrated consideration of modern romance novels. A curious fact about Thornburg's book is that, although it is scrupulously documented in parenthetical page references, it contains not a single footnote. Wasn't there anything Thornburg wanted to say that burst the bounds of her argument? At the very least, some of the discussion of Dracula and Shane might have made for provocative notes.

The final part of Thornburg's last chapter, however, is of particular interest to readers of SF, as it examines how current SF reflects the sentimental/Gothic myth. Thornburg sees SF, in fact, as very similar to Gothic in that both attempt "by the use of metaphoric structure and movement, to repair the fault in human consciousness, to reveal the relationship between what we are and what we think we are and wish to be" (p. 132). Thus she places Frankenstein solidly in the SF tradition, and analyzes both direct and indirect reworkings of its plot and themes. Thornburg ends by demonstrating how, in the later 20th century, writers such as Ursula Le Guin have consciously manipulated the divisions that fed the sentimental myths of the past so as to create works that directly address, and warn of, the societal monstrosities which such divisions create. This egalitarian tradition in recent SF is shown to be a worthy inheritor of the genre that Frankenstein began.

While both Thornburg's and Mellor's books are written for a scholarly audience, Phy's Mary Shelley is addressed to the general reader who, having read Frankenstein or seen one of its many film versions, wants to know more. But depending upon which part of the handbook one considers, this reader is getting either a great deal or very little. Phy's sense of the importance of her subject, apparent in the extensive and interesting discussion of even Mary Shelley's most minor work, is undermined often by a self-conscious flippancy that suggests embarrassment with the entire project. As even Phy's own study reveals, however, such embarrassment is needless.

Chapter 2, "The Problem of Mary Shelley," sets up the ambivalent tone. On the one hand, Phy capably summarizes the "elusiveness" of her subject in the critical history (p. 11), from early studies that saw her as only a minor figure, the daughter and wife of notables, to recent feminist considerations that, according to Phy, "stress...the courageous solitary woman, widowed early in life, who was seeking to earn a living, rear a child, and establish her independence" (p. 12). On the other hand, there is little further elaboration until chapter 3, which begins with discussions of the careers of Shelley's parents and husband. Considerations of Frankenstein, here and elsewhere, tend to slip into discussions of the various film versions, discussions which are in themselves of interest. But at these points Phy shows surprisingly little concern for where Mary Shelley's contributions begin and end, beyond the assertion that "[o]ne mark of Mary Shelley's power is...the ability of her writing to beget scenarios quite unlike her book" (p. 13).

Mary Shelley begins with a detailed "Canon and Chronology" that, like Mellor's, essentially gives the life in brief. It is a valuable supplement to chapter 3, "The Life and Achievements," and could almost stand in its place, though the brief discussions of Wollstonecraft, Godwin, and Percy Shelley are useful. The biographical summary is competent, but its brevity leads to a shortage of explanation and some odd-sounding statements--e.g., "Mary Shelley was an admirable woman, but she was not a saint" (p. 31). The attentive reader will find all the basics--certainly more than is available in most introductions--but should go elsewhere for detailed discussion.

Phy's irreverent tone continues in the plot summary of Frankenstein (chapter 4): "Frankenstein, obviously not up to the task of nurturing the Monster (who quickly develops a personality of his own), revealed himself to be a fragile man who easily faints in a crisis" (p. 39). Thus it is a surprise to come upon the serious consideration of themes and critical approaches that follows. Though overtly reluctant to take a feminist approach, Phy implicitly criticizes the sentimentalized figures of Elizabeth Lavenza and Caroline Frankenstein in her section on "Females and Feminism," and agrees with Mellor in viewing Safie as the one female character who displays any independence (pp. 41-42). Phy also interestingly notes the monster's "archaic linguistic mode of prayer and supplication" used "in addressing his maker" (p. 45). Most of the discussion of critical views is drawn from The Endurance of Frankenstein (1979), which is a good place to begin and perhaps enough for the generalist. Still, although the book was published in 1988, Phy does not refer to William Veeder's important 1986 study, nor does she (or Thornburg, for that matter) discuss Gilbert and Gubar's influential chapter on Frankenstein in The Madwoman in the Attic. On the whole, if one is looking for a critical bibliography, I would recommend Mellor's as the most comprehensive; Phy's is rather scanty.

The most valuable portions of this book, however, appear as Phy goes on to present areas of Mary Shelley's career often ignored or dismissed by writers more interested in pursuing a critical perspective. She focusses on the "sole survivor" motif of The Last Man (noting correctly [p. 68] Mary Shelley's deficiencies as a futurist prophet), and summarizes stories of immortality and reanimation of particular interest to SF readers. In the chapters on "Other Writings, Largely Forgotten" and on Shelley's biographical writings, letters, journals, and editions of her husband's works, Phy performs a service to all readers whose only acquaintance with Mary Shelley is through Frankenstein. Although Phy agrees with most commentators that there is little literary merit in such works as the Keepsake stories, she points out that "Mary's short stories, like her minor novels, provide the record of a literary life pursued seriously and industriously" (p. 92). Discussion of many of these works was not essential in a handbook for SF readers, and their inclusion, even as a catalogue, serves well to indicate the range of Mary Shelley's career. Unfortunately, all three of these studies are marred by errors (to some extent, but not entirely, typographical) or careless misspellings of names; Thornburg even bases an analytical point on the spelling of Walton's sister's name as "Seville" (p. 65). On such error in Phy's work could be misleading, for surely "Roger Dodsworth: The Reanimated Englishman" would be of great interest to readers of Frankenstein if it had been completed in 1816, as noted on page 76; the correct date of composition--1826--is suggested somewhat confusingly two pages later. Phy also mistakenly distinguishes between the character Woodville and "a nameless poet" in Mathilda (in fact the poet is not nameless, and they are the same character), leading one to suspect similar errors of fact in other plot summaries. Finally, Phy notes in her discussion of The Last Man that "[w]e no longer very much fear the extinction of our kind through disease--though occasionally a science-fiction writer can still cause shivers by importing a virus from outer space for which we have no immunities" (p. 67): while literally correct, it's an oddly oblivious statement in the age of AIDS.

What all these new books affirm, however, is the persistence of Frankenstein's power at all levels of appreciation, and an increased interest in understanding the life and complete career of its author. They are valuable not only for the insights they themselves provide, but for the questions they continue to raise and urge us to answer.


Gilbert, Sandra M. & Susan Gubar. The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination. New Haven, 1979.

Gilligan, Carol. In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women's Development. Cambridge, MA: 1982.

Levine, George & U.C. Knoepflmacher, eds. The Endurance of Frankenstein: Essays on Mary Shelley's Novel. Berkeley, CA: 1979.

Rieger, James, ed. Frankenstein, or, The Modern Prometheus (The 1818 Text). Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1974.

Veeder, William. Mary Shelley and Frankenstein: The Fate of Androgyny. Chicago, 1986.

moonbut.gif (4466 bytes)   Back to Home