Outline for ENGL 101 at UA
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Date Created: 02/06/15
Literature Resource Center Author Resource Pages Mary Shelley Overview Critic Brian W Aldiss Source St James Guide to Science Fiction Writers 4th ed edited by Jay P Pederson St James Press 1996 Criticism about Mary Wollstonecraft godwin Shelley 17971851 also known as Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin Shelley Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin Shelley Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin Shelley Mary Wollstonecraft Mary Shelley Genres Short stories Travel literature Novels Historical romances Horror stories Gothic novels Letters Correspondence The outline of the plot of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley s first novel Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus is known to almost everyone on the planet Of no other science fiction novel can such a claim be made A scientist rejecting outmoded theories and superstitions turns to research and patches together a new but monstrous human being from corpses Into this new being he manages to instill life This unholy experiment goes wrong The scientist is negligent The monster runs amok bringing death and destruction on scientist and family and almost everyone else before retribution comes This story a type of scientific fairytale has amused or troubled the world since the novel was first published in 1818 The name of the scientist Victor Frankenstein has become synonymous with irresponsible applications of science and technology The label Frankenstein has become synonymous with a type of period horror film In recent years Mary Shelley s novel has been read with renewed critical attention Although the author39s stated aim was quotto curdle the bloodquot her novel is much more than an exercise in horror Its period avour acquired over well nigh two centuries has led us to forget how topical were some of its elements For Mary Shelley it was who developed literary methods followed ever since by SF writers That is to say she embraces topicality by framing her story in a tale of polar exploration a subject of intense current interest following Captain Cook39s failed attempt to find a North West passage Also the novel discusses themes then as now of vital interest such as the upbringing of children Other ingredients such as the quest for the secrets of quotlifequot and debates as to whether quotlifequot could be isolated were topical at the beginning of the nineteenth century and have become so again in an age looking for the secrets of AIDS This farsightedness and its continued relevance wedded to its awful story of vengeance accounts for Frankenstein39s perennial appeal But it is that basic theme of Man preempting God39s work which marks it out as the first true work of science fiction This is no casual adventure what was under nature39s control is now under human control Superstition is rejected science is espousedand this in an age before the word quotscientistquot was coined Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus is now recognised as a master work and much more than Gothic sensationalism as it was previously categorised The horror themethe monster rising from its slab and clobbering everyone in sighthas been used over and over on stage radio and lm Most people are familiar with Boris Karloff39s makeup as Frankenstein s unnamed creature But the old films made the creature dumb a bellower at best whereas much of the book s charm and interest lies in the creature39s selfeducation combined with the eloquence of its dictionan eloquence owing something to Milton s Paradise Lost as befits the artificially created Adam So an old brutality was substituted for a new way of life The book is subtle uid elusive ultimately defying analysisihence the many analyses it has engendered In The Sacred Wood TS Eliot says of Shakespeare39s play Hamlet quotHamlet like the Sonnets is full of some stuff that the writer could not drag to light contemplate or manipulate into artquot He adds quotHamlet the man is dominated by an emotion which is ineXpressible because it is in excess of the facts as they appearquot As much can be said of Frankenstein Perhaps for this reason we turn for clues to the inner meaning of the novel to the author herself Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin had two illustrious parents intellectuals of their age Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin Remarkably their daughter was only 18 and not yet married to the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley when in the June of 1816 she began her story It opened with a dreama dream prompted in part by listening to scientific discussions The dreamer awoke and began to write quotIt was on a dreary night of November that I beheld the accomplishment of my toilsquot The young Godwin lady was living at the time with Shelley in postbellum Switzerland itself patched together into a new national entity Shelley was a married man father of two children Before Frankenstein was published Mary39s halfsister Fanny Imlay committed suicide as did Shelley s wife Harriet Death and insecurity surrounded her Her mother had died in childbirth her first child a daughter was born to her when she was seventeen and died a few days later Her father all but disowned her when she eloped with the poet The horri c elements of the novel obscured the way in which it deals with problems of parentchild relationships families the usages of power justice and as importantly scienti c questions In her edition of the 1818 text of Frankenstein London 1993 Marilyn Butler shows how closely the Shelleys followed the science of their day In particular a young physiologist and surgeon William Lawrence was involved in the vitalist arguments of the day and became their friend In a lecture given on the Life question in 1817 Lawrence declares that quotan immaterial and spiritual being could not have been discovered among the blood and filth of the dissecting roomquot The phraseologysimilar to Mary Shelley s owntakes us back to an aura of graverobbing and vivisection then prevalent the very practices of which Victor Frankenstein is guilty In Butler39s words key passages in the novel quotencode scientific experiments and phrases identifiable with other living experimenters and theorists are introducedquot Equal weight is given to the question of emotional relationships Victor s poor patched creature disowned by its creator shunned by mankind embodies many of its author39s own orphaned feelings of sorrow guilt and rage As Mary Shelley states in the Introduction to the 1831 edition of her novel quotInvention does not consist of creating out of void but out of chaos the materials must in the first place be a ordedquot The story unfolds Our sympathies are transposed from Victor to his quotdaemon as he sometimes calls it Victor and his creation locked in a struggle to the death play out modern dilemmas pity and the lack of it overwhelming ambition secrecy science as opposed to religion and male principle as opposed to female A doppelganger theme intensifies towards the end of the novel The roles of pursuer and pursued become confused A homoerotic theme can be discerned as enemies become strange allies Victor and his creature have between them destroyed all the women in pursuit of their large ambitions This interchange of roles affords some expression of Mary Shelley s double life the internal and the external In her Journals she speaks of herself as one who quotentirely and despotically engrossed by their own feelings leadsas it werean internal life quite di erent from the outward and apparent onequot While Victor shuns society his creature craves it Thus their author dramatises the two sides of her nature The issues raised in Frankenstein still divert or torment us while the novel forms an exemplar of what SF can and should be The awesome solitudes of the novel which lend it grandeur are lacking in crowded Frankenstein movies swarming as they are with villains hunchbacks and peasants brandishing aming torches The text gives no warrant for such claptrap There we nd only the majestic desolations of the Alps the wilderness of Scotland the mer de glace the polar ice This note of profound isolation sounds again in Mary Shelley s other SF novel The Last Man It is a more prolix work which concerns a plague coming out of the East Mankind is gradually and cumulatively wiped out until only Lionel Vemey is left to tell the tale Again extrapolation is part of the authorial procedure A real pandemic was scourging much of the globe in the 1820s Hundreds of thousands of people died in that underpopulated world As before Mary Shelley downloads her feelings re ecting the darkening circumstances she endured after Shelley s death by drowning Three of her four children had died young she had suffered a serious miscarriage from which she almost expired Lord Byron her famous friend had died fighting for Greek liberty She lived in poverty in London supporting herself and her son Percy by her pen The Last Man will never secure the audience accorded its unique predecessor Indeed the Hogarth Press edition of 1985 with my Introduction was its first English reprint Yet the story yields much of pleasureable interest to sympathetic readers The theme itself has weight enough not least in an age facing AIDS Mary Shelley s reputation continues to grow as she is increasingly studied Beyond the SF field Frankenstein has become accepted as one of the seminal works of the Romantic period It is that paradoxical thing academically accepted popularly enjoyed The tragic life of its young author has a separate and continued appeal There s no one like her Source Brian W Aldiss quotMary Shelley Overviewquot in St James Guide to Science Fiction Writers 4th ed edited by Jay P Pederson St James Press 1996 Source Database Literature Resource Center
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