Thursday, March 1, 2012

A Strange Relationship ~ Mary Shelley and Frankenstein's Monster

by Gary Inbinder

“Accursed creator! Why did you form a monster so hideous that even you turned from me in disgust? God, in pity, made man beautiful and alluring, after his own image; but my form is a filthy type of yours, more horrid even from the very resemblance. Satan had his companions, fellow-devils, to admire and encourage him; but I am solitary and abhorred.”

That is the voice of the creature from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; it is not the grunting monster portrayed in most films. Moreover, it may be the cri de coeur of Frankenstein’s nineteen-year-old author.

At the time she wrote Frankenstein, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin was involved in scandal, and the object of gossip and ridicule. At sixteen she had eloped to the continent with the then married poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. Her teen-aged half-sister, Jane Claire Clairmont, joined them. Claire may have also been intimate with Shelley, and she later became Lord Byron’s mistress, bearing him a daughter whom Byron had placed in an orphanage where the girl, Allegra, died at age five.

At seventeen, Mary gave premature birth to an unnamed daughter who died within days. The following year, Mary’s other stepsister, Fanny Imlay, killed herself, and she too may have had an affair with Shelley. That same year, Shelley’s pregnant wife, Harriet, committed suicide by jumping from a bridge over the Serpentine in Hyde Park.

Mary was the daughter of famous parents. Her mother, who died shortly after giving birth, author and philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft, is considered among the first modern feminists. Mary Wollstonecraft’s husband, William Godwin, was a noted radical author and philosopher. Both of Mary Shelley’s parents advocated free love and questioned traditional marriage. Therefore, Mary was shocked, confused and deeply hurt when her father refused to speak to her for two years, until after the death of Shelley’s wife and Mary and Percy’s subsequent marriage. At the time she wrote Frankenstein, young Mary may have identified with her creature, despised and abandoned by its creator. And there is also evidence from her journals that she identified with pariahs she encountered in her reading, like Milton’s Satan and Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner.

In my re-imagined sequel, Confessions of the Creature, Frankenstein’s monster narrates his heroic quest for love and honor while Napoleon rages across Europe. In the Arctic waters of the Barents Sea, the creature has taken the ultimate revenge on his creator, Frankenstein. He travels south to a forest outside the town of Yaroslavl, where a chance meeting with a witch who sees through his hideous exterior to his damaged spirit gives him the opportunity to overcome what he is, and perhaps become who he was meant to be.

Transformed by witchcraft into a normal looking man, but retaining his superhuman strength, the creature journeys to Moscow, where he becomes the protégé of the wealthy natural philosopher Baron Suvorin, and the lover of Suvorin's daughter, Sabrina Pavlovna. Taking the name Viktor Suvorin, the creature wins acclaim as a military hero.

An honored hero, happy with his family, Viktor faces a final challenge to his hard won humanity when tragedy strikes. Pursuit of an enemy returns Viktor to the Arctic, scene of his final struggle with his creator. There, on a frozen sea under the shimmering Northern Lights, the creature must confront the truth about himself and the meaning of his creation and his life.

There has been much speculation over the years concerning Mary Shelley’s identification with her creature. In my novel, a fictionalized Mary confronts the transformed monster who may have been her alter ego. And, like my character Viktor, Mary’s own life was transformed by the tragic realities of life, most notably the deaths of her husband and their son William. In her preface to the 1831 edition of Frankenstein, she wrote nostalgically of the time of the novel’s creation, when both Percy and William were still living: “And now, once again, I bid my hideous progeny go forth and prosper. I have an affection for it, for it was the offspring of happy days, when death and grief were but words which found no true echo in my heart.”

I think her reference to the “true echo” of death and grief is telling. There was certainly “death and grief” in Mary Shelley’s life prior to the time she wrote Frankenstein, but the two greatest blows of misfortune were yet to come.

8 comments:

  1. Debbie-What a thought-provoking, excellent article! Frankly, I have not thought much about Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, and your essay makes her story very compelling. Thank you!

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    1. Gary Inbinder did a fantastic job with this article! (My apologies for confusing the name...)

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  2. Really thought provoking. Romanticism and Regency aren't my areas of expertise, but I did read "The Monsters" by Thomas and Dorothy Hoobler, and I don't think I've read a more gripping work of non-fiction. Your analysis falls right in line with theirs. This sounds like a truly fascinating read.

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  3. Thanks Lauren and V.R.

    Regarding the names. Mary was born Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin (named for her mother who died shortly after giving birth) and she changed the name to Mary Shelley after she and Percy were married. I believe she's sometimes confused with her mother who was also Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, although she wrote under her own name, Mary Wollstonecraft. I hope that doesn't add to the confusion. ;)

    Gary

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  4. Great post, great book! Mary's mother Mary is one of my heroines.

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    1. Thanks, Linda. And thanks again for your very generous review of my book!

      Gary

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  5. Mary did have a tragic life as so many of the Romantics, but that is what gave her the depth to write I suppose.

    A sequel to Frankenstein sounds very intriguing. Thanks for sharing, Gary.

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    1. Thanks, Sophia Rose. Mary did have a tragic life, but in the end I believe her work represents a triumph over tragedy. She appears as a character in my novel, including a final meeting with her "creature" in the last chapter.

      Gary

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