“Franken-Shelley” Autobiography?


Everyone knows the classic tell of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; “In trying to create life, young student Victor Frankenstein unleashes forces beyond his control, setting into motion a long and tragic chain of events that brings Victor himself to the very brink. Victor tries to destroy his creation as it destroys everything he loves, a powerful unforgettable story of love, friendship and horror.” This is the exact description on the back of the hardcopy I own of Frankenstein. Were these Mary Shelley’s intentions? To create one of the best gothic novels of all times? Though there were many gothic influences around Shelley, she didn’t write with any motives and didn’t intend to create what is often called the first science fiction novel. Shelley must have created the novel with her own experiences and fears in mind. Shelley wrote to express herself.

The summer of 1816 or better known as the “year without a summer” Mary Shelley, Percy Shelley, Lord Byron, and Dr. John Polidori were staying at the Villa Diodati near Lake Geneva. Shelley recorded everything in a diary she kept on her six week stay during the year without a summer. Forced to stay indoors the poets longed for ways to pass the time. They read volumes and volumes of ghost stories and also discussed Erasmus Darwin (Charles Darwin grandfather)idea of galvanism, the contraction of muscles stimulated by electricity. Shelley recorded in her journal still seeking ways to pass time Byron suggested everyone partake in a their very own horror-story writing contest, and as you can guess the rest is history. I guess you could say the main “event or occurrence” that created Frankenstein was Shelley’s “the year without a summer.” But what caused Shelley to tell such a horrific story, and the even bigger question, Did she even win the contest? If I had to guess I would say yes.

Shelley didn’t have a direct literary goal when writing Frankenstein. According to “An Overview of Frankenstein” author George Griffith, Shelley did not take full credit for the novel’s birth but rather attributed it to what was around her. “Invention does not consist in creating out of void, but out of chaos.” Frankenstein itself is autobiographical. Considering Shelley’s past this is not surprising. The ideas of creation and abandonment is what she feared and which she had experienced first hand.

From Shelley’s birth, her mother’s death and isolated childhood, to her marriage, miscarriages and her new child, I highly doubt Shelley was thinking about creating a best selling gothic novel or the first infamous science fiction novel. Frankenstein in a deeper meaning has a lot to do with the horrors of Shelley’s relationships.

The idea that Frankenstein is based on Shelley’s life isn’t just a silly idea, it finds truth in not only the events but also specific names and dates in the novel. According to Mary Shelley Overview author Brian Aldiss, the letters written between Walton and Margaret were written from December 11-17 to September 12-17 which also happened to be the time period of Shelley’s third pregnancy. Also, the demon creature was created in 1797 which is the very year Mary Shelley was born. This is just one specific example on how Frankenstein is autobiographical.

Ten days after Mary Shelley was born her mother died of puerperal fever, you could say the idea that many of the deaths in the novel like, Victor Frankenstein’s, and the creatures promised suicide stem from Shelley’s first encounters with death. Like Mary Shelley, Victor Frankenstein also had a tragic life story that is being told Walton, Is this Shelley telling us the reader a dramatized version of her life story? In Shelley’s life many things determined by birth or death were out of her control and she was alone to face her fears. Frankenstein in a terrifying way is an expression of Shelley’s fears. The creature in Frankenstein could portray Shelley’s fear of abandonment that is out of her control. Victor abandons the creature as soon as he looks at him. This action was out of the creatures control. He couldn’t control how he was made and was left alone to face his fears. Shelley is parallel to the creature in this manner. Shelley even describes the creature as a newborn baby opening his eyes for the first time and having to learn everything by himself, Shelley was also a newborn baby when her mother died and she left to face all of her fears.

Frankenstein has often been called the first science fiction novel, how does this pertain to Shelley’s life? Shelley wrote Frankenstein about everything that was around her. Frankenstein to some audiences read Frankenstein as a warning about the careless use of science. The novel was written at the early stages of the Industrial Revolution. The period of dramatic scientific and technological advancements. Shelley wanted to show what could happen if scientist aren’t careful with their experiments. Shelley viewed most scientist similar to Victor who finished his work in hopes of becoming famous. The monster portrays Shelley’s fear of modern technology, and all the advancements taking place. The Industrial Revolution was happening every where around Shelley, she couldn’t avoid incorporating it into Frankenstein.

In broad terms you see how Frankenstein is a terrifying version of Mary Shelley’s tragic life. According to Chris Baldick from Oxford University Press, these are the clear cut obvious reasons why Frankenstein isn’t a true gothic novel or even a ghost story for that matter and really is an autobiography of Mary Shelley’s life. First off he points out how the novel contains no supernatural apparitions such as ghost, witches, devils, demons, magical creatures. Even though the creature is called a demon he certainly isn’t. All supernatural beings have been replaced by human, natural, and scientific powers. Baldick also discusses how Shelley abandons the simple good-evil scheme of a true Gothic novel. Niether Victor nor the creature are one hundred percent good or evil they are both highly inconclusive characters. Mary Shelley never intended for Frankenstein to be either of these genres. She was writing to express herself like I said before.

“The year without a summer,” and Lord Byron’s idea of fun to pass time is the specific event or occurrence that in a broad perspective led Mary Shelley to write Frankenstein. Little did we as the readers know that Frankenstein is a dark reflection of Mary Shelley’s life and that she had no intentions for it becoming one of the best gothic novels of all time.

Frankenstein is a dramatized autobiography because the relationships in the novel relate directly to Shelley’s experience. Frankenstein was created out of Shelley’s fears and her emotions about her mother’s death, her own birth, isolated childhood, marriage, miscarriages and overall “the year without a summer”. The question if she won the contest remains unanswered.


Aldiss, Brian. “Mary Shelley Overview.” St. James Guide to Science Fiction Writers, ed 4. 1996. The Gale Group. Web. 2 May. 2014.

Baldick, Chris. “In Frankenstein’s Shadow: Myth, Montrosity, and the Nineteenth Century Writing.” (Oxford: Oxford University Press) 1990. Web. 5 May. 2014

Griffith, George. “An Overview of Frankenstein.” Exploring Novels. 1998. The Gale Group. Web. 2 May. 2014.

Mudge, Bradford K.,(ed) “Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley.” Dictionary of Literary Biography VOL. 178. 1997. The Gale Group. Web. 2 May. 2014.

Picture Source:
Campbell, Sian. “Mary Shelley-Feminist Icon. Feminism. Web. 2 May. 2014