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Full Name: Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley
Date of Birth: 1797
Date of Death: 1851
Place of Birth: London
Brief Life Story: Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley was the daughter of the philosopher William Godwin and the writer Mary Wollstonecraft, who wrote "Vindication of the Rights of Woman" (1792). Shelley's mother died in childbirth and she was raised by her father. At age 18 Shelley ran off with Percy Bysshe Shelley, a leading British Romantic poet, who she married in 1816. The couple had a son, but after her husband died in a shipwreck in 1822, Mary Shelley fell into poverty. She continued to write fiction to support herself. Frankenstein (1818) was her first and by far her most successful work of fiction.
Full Title: Frankenstein, or, The Modern Prometheus
Genre: Gothic novel
Setting: Switzerland, France, England, Scotland, and the North Pole in the 18th century
Climax: The Monster's murder of Elizabeth Lavenza on her wedding night to Victor
Protagonist: Victor Frankenstein
Antagonist: The Monster
Point of View: Frankenstein is told through a few layers of first person narratives. Walton is the primary narrator, who then recounts Victor's first-person narrative. In addition, Victor's narrative contains the monster's first person story as well as letters from other characters.
Historical and Literary Context
When Published: 1818
Literary Period: Switzerland and London, England: 1816–1817
Related Literary Works: The Gothic novel flourished in English literature from the publication of Horace Walpole's The Castle of Otranto, which established the genre in 1764, until about 1820. Gothic novels emphasized mystery and horror, and almost always contained dark forests, castles, the supernatural, trap doors, secret rooms, and other similar elements now familiar from "horror" movies. Yet while Frankenstein is one of the most famous novels in the Gothic genre, it was written at a time when the Gothic novel was slowly giving way to the literary movement of Romanticism, and the novel shares the Romantic emphasis on the "sublime" power of nature. In writing Frankenstein, Shelley also drew heavily on John Milton's seventeenth century Paradise Lost, an epic poem that traces humankind's fall from grace. The epigraph of Frankenstein is a quotation from Paradise Lost, in which Adam curses God for creating him, just as the monster curses Victor Frankenstein, his creator.
Related Historical Events: Most critics consider the Gothic genre a reaction to the "Age of Reason," a movement in 18th-century British and European art and politics that stressed the power of the human mind above all. Empowered by an unchecked faith in humanity, people set out to reshape society: The American and French Revolutions erupted, and the Industrial Revolution forced people into long grueling days in factories. The Gothic novelists aimed to represent the dark side that accompanied this age of apparent human progress. At a time when writers and thinkers had begun to believe in the "infinite perfectability of man," Gothic novelists portrayed human beings as woefully imperfect and at the mercy of far more powerful forces, such as nature and death.
A ghost story. On a stormy night in June of 1816, Mary Shelley, her husband, and a few other companions, including the Romantic poet Lord Byron, decided to try to write their own ghost stories, but Shelley couldn't come up with any ideas. A few nights later, she had a dream in which she envisioned "the pale student of unhallowed arts" kneeling beside his creation—the monster. She began writing the story that became Frankenstein the next morning.
The Tale of Two Frankensteins. Shelley published the first edition of Frankenstein anonymously, perhaps due to her concern that such a grim and violent tale would not be well received by her audience if they knew her gender. She revised the novel and published it under her real name in 1831. Some key differences exist between the editions, namely that in the first edition, Elizabeth is Alphonse's niece and, therefore, Victor's cousin. (In the 1831 edition, the more popular version and the one used in this Outline, the Frankensteins adopt Elizabeth from another family).