Shelley's Guilt

Frankenstein was written by Mary Shelley in 1816, when she and her husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley, visited the home of the famed poet, Lord Byron, and were trapped inside due to a thunderstorm. As a form of entertainment, the group of friends and writers gathered around the fireplace and took turns telling horror stories.

Frankenstein was Mary Shelley’s story. However, Frankenstein may be more than just the spur-of-the-moment story that Mary Shelley purportedly told on that stormy night. Frankenstein is the embodiment of Mary Shelley’s guilt over the suicide of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s first wife, Harriet Shelley. When Mary Shelley met Percy Bysshe Shelley, she was Mary Wollstonecraft, the daughter of a political philosopher, William Godwin. In 1814, Mary Wollstonecraft began a romantic relationship with one of her father’s associates, the newly married Percy Bysshe Shelley. While an affair is never in good taste, in the early nineteenth century, her affair was considered especially scandalous.

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A pregnant Mary and her lover left England, and lived abroad for two years, until the suicide of Percy Shelley’s first wife, Harriet. Three weeks after her body was found Percy Shelley and Mary were married. It was shortly after that that newlyweds, Mary and Percy Shelley, went, with a group of friends, to Lord Byron’s home in Geneva, Switzerland and were trapped inside by the weather, and Mary Shelley created Frankenstein. There are several instances presented in Frankenstein that support the idea that Mary Shelley’s first book is the embodiment of her guilt over the suicide of Harriet Shelley. Throughout the book, the main character, Victor Frankenstein, is plagued by tremendous amounts of remorse, shame, and guilt, both by the prominent role that he played in creating the Monster that eventually killed most of the members of his family, as well as small things such as not writing to his fiance for several weeks. In one instance, Victor states that “I was seized by remorse and the sense of guilt, which hurried me away to a hell of intense tortures, such as no language can describe.

” The first example of this is seen just after the Monster is brought to life. As well as feeling a sense of overwhelming guilt, Victor is also seized with a terrifying feeling of revulsion for both the monster and himself. One thing that Victor Frankenstein said that could be easily connected to the life of Mary Shelley is just after the monster awakens. Victor says that: ‘The beauty of the dream vanished, and breathless horror and disgust filled my heart.’ In Frankenstein, it is plausible that in terms of similarity between Mary Shelley’s life and her book, Mary Shelley envisioned herself as the monster—a miserable creature that senselessly killed without knowing any better—and, at times, as Victor Frankenstein himself.

Perhaps she felt that the “beauty” and sanctity of her love had been tainted by the manner of its achievement. As the book continues, and more and more relatives of Frankenstein are killed by the monster, Frankenstein is completely convinced that it was he who brought their deaths upon them, and that they are not to be the only victims of his poor judgment. For Mary Shelley, this could be interpreted as guilt over the suicide of Percy Shelley’s wife, as well as the death of her baby that died in infancy. Another example is seen just after the death of Victor Frankenstein’s spouse, Elizabeth. Frankenstein decides that the Monster has chased him long enough and resolves that it is time for the monster to be destroyed.

For Mary Shelley, this may have been her way of trying to exorcise the ‘monster’ that had plagued her. By writing this book, perhaps she was attempting to rid herself of the guilt and revulsion that she felt for herself. Frankenstein in many ways embodies the hopes and guilt of Mary Shelley. She had wanted to create a happy life with Percy, but her own actions had tainted that life. Her inner peace was destroyed, and the beauty of her love was marred by the suicide of Harriet Shelley. For the rest of her life, although she and Percy lived happily and had several children, Mary Shelley regretted the destruction of another being’s life because of her own lack of forethought and compassion.

As Mary Shelley herself says in Frankenstein, “destiny was too potent, and her immutable laws had decreed my utter and terrible destruction.”