Daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft (who died of complications from the birth) and William Godwin, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin was raised by her father and a stepmother.
In 1814, after a brief acquaintance, Mary eloped with the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. Her father refused to speak with her for several years afterwards. They married in 1816 when he extricated himself from his previous marriage.
Mary Shelley is best known for her famous horror novel Frankenstein or, the Modern Prometheus. It first appeared in 1818, creating an immediate sensation.
Frankenstein enjoyed immediate popularity upon its publication, and has inspired many imitations and versions, including many film versions in the 20th century. She wrote it when her husband's friend and associate, George, Lord Byron, suggested that each of the three (Percy Shelley, Mary Shelley and Byron) each write a ghost story.
She wrote several more novels and some short stories, with historical, Gothic or science fiction themes. She also edited an edition of Percy Shelley's poems, 1830. Her biography of her husband was unfinished at her death.
The following is a reprinted from an article by Kim W. Britton
Frankenstein is considered to be the greatest Gothic Romantic Novel. It is also generally thought of as the first science fiction novel. I have always been impressed and amazed by the fact that Mary wrote this novel when she was eighteen years old. What experiences and powers of imagination led to such an innovative and disturbing work?
The idea for the novel arose in the summer of 1816 when Mary Shelley was staying at Lord Byron's villa in Geneva Switzerland. Not only did Mary incorporate experiences from that summer into her novel, she also utilized the sources that she had been reading and studying. Two in particular were the Metamorphoses by Ovid and Paradise Lost by Milton.
It is believed that Mary studied Ovid in April and May of 1815. The major element that Ovid supplied to the theme of Frankenstein, was his presentation of the Prometheus legend. This is acknowledged in the subtitle: Frankenstein, Or the Modern Prometheus. The creation of the monster is similar to this passage from Ovid:
Whether with particles of heav'nly fire, The God of Nature did his soul inspire; Or earth, but new divided from the sky, And, pliant, still retain'd th'ethereal energy; Which wise Prometheus temper'd into paste, And, mix't with living streams, the godlike image cast... From such rude principles our form began; And earth was metamorphos'd into man.
Lines from Frankenstein that reflect the above passage are; "I collected the instruments of life around me, that I might infuse a spark of being into the lifeless thing that lay at my feet." (p.51)
"...that I may extinguish the spark which I so negligently bestowed." (Frankenstein p.101)
The second important literary influence was Paradise Lost by Milton. ( If you have not read this, it is really worth the time. It is difficult, but is well worth the effort. I find that it is helpful to have a copy of Bullfinch's Mythology when reading it. Almost all of Milton's mythological references are explained in Bullfinch.)
The influence of Milton's Paradise Lost can be seen directly from the epigraph of the 1818 edition of Frankenstein.
"Did I request thee, Maker from my clay to mould me man? Did I solicit thee, from darkness to promote me?"
The spirit of Paradise Lost permeates Frankenstein throughout the novel. On page 240 the monster says;
"The fallen angel becomes a malignant devil. Yet even that enemy of God and man had friends and associates in his desolation; I am alone"
Three parallel themes from the two works arise from these quotes:
the molding of a living being from clay
the growth of malice and the desire for revenge
the isolation of the hostile being and the consequent increase of his hostility
It is easy to establish Mary Shelley's knowledge of Paradise Lost. The work was admired in the Godwin household. Mary and Percy read it in 1815 and again in November 1816. Her journal states that Shelley read it aloud while she was writing Frankenstein. She even incorporated Paradise Lost into the novel by having it be one of the three works that the monster studied. The monster found a correlation between his condition and and an aspect of the novel and stated;
"Like Adam, I was apparently united by no link to any other human being...I was wretched, helpless and alone. Many times I considered Satan as the fitter emblem of my condition (pg. 135-136)
Other echoes of Paradise Lost are as follows:
Frankenstein hopes to be the source of a new species, but ironically his creature evolves into a self-acknowleged Satan who swears eternal revenge and war upon his creator and all the human race. The monster reflects that hell is an internal condition which is produced and increased through loneliness. His only salvation is the creation of a mate, his Eve.
In the later part of the book, Frankenstein refers to the monster in terms used in Paradise Lost; the fiend, the demon, the devil, and adversary. Both master and creature are torn by their internal conflicts from misapplied knowledge and their sense of isolation.
Paradise Lost and The Metamorphoses were two of the sources of Mary Shelley's inspiration for Frankenstein.
Summary from Ousby, Ian, ed. Companion to Literature in English. Hertfordshire: Wordsworth, 1994.
A gothic novel written by Mary Shelley, published in 1818. She had begun it in 1816, when she, her husband Percy Shelley and Lord Byron wrote ghost stories to pass the time during a summer in Switzerland.
Frankenstein, a student of natural philosophy in Geneva, builds a creature in the semblance of a man and gives it life. Possessed of unnatural strength, the creature inspires horror in those who see it but is miserably eager to be loved. The unhappy Frankenstein deserts the creature, but is pursued to Chamonix where he agrees to make a mate. However, a wave of remorse makes him destroy the female he has been constructing , and the creature swears revenge on his creator. He kills Frankenstein's bride on their wedding night. Frankenstein's father dies of grief, and the scientist's mind gives way. Eventually he recovers and sets out to destroy his creation. After a chase across the world, the two at last confront each other in the Arctic wastes. Frankenstein dies and the creature, mourning the loss of the man who gave him life, disappears into the frozen wilderness, hoping for his own annihilation.
Read the complete novel by Mary Shelley
Frankenstein: or the Modern Prometheus
"Nothing contributes so much to tranquilize the mind as a steady purpose a point on which the soul may fix its intellectual eye."
"Teach him to think for himself? Oh, my God, teach him rather to think like other people!"
"It was the secrets of heaven and earth that I desired to learn." (Frankenstein)
"You seek for knowledge and wisdom as I once did; and I ardently hope that the gratification of your wishes may not be a serpent to sting you, as mine has been." (Frankenstein)