How does Shelley's own pain reflect in Frankenstein?
Autobiographical elements in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein
The Western authors have frequently explored the issues related to motherhood and pregnancy in their works. However, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is probably the first one to have explored the anxieties of motherhood deeply, what if a weird type of motherhood. Despite there being an awkward scientific concept at the center of the novel, it is also about the science of relationships. Apart from these things, it holds some autobiographical value too and reflects several of the same issues Mary Shelley faced in her life. Several of the events in the novels are said to be a reflection of the true events having taken place in the author's life.
Her own feeling and emotions are reflected through the plot at various stages. Several of the miseries she faced are known to be the inspiration behind the writing of this novel. Shelley’s birth, and her mother’s death had led to a traumatic childhood for her. After that Shelley herself had a miscarriage because of her young age at the time of her first pregnancy. Several researchers have related the macabre tone and story of the novel with the author’s own miseries. Her novel is also considered a portrayal of her own fears of pregnancy and motherhood. If Shelley was able to create such a horrible character as Frankenstein then mostly it were the horrors she faced in her life that inspired her for it. In this way, the monster is also an articulation of her fears of childbirth.
Shelley’s mother died soon after her birth. She did not have a childhood like the common children and grew up feeling lost and abandoned. Coupled with the troubles of her childhood, her miscarriage had instilled a fear inside her that seems to have found its way into her novel. It is also an important reason that Shelley’s novel became so popular among the female readers. It is mainly for its powerful articulation of the anxieties of parenthood. Victor’s failure to be a responsible parent is somewhere at the center of the novel. He abandoned the child just after its birth. The monster is his creation and in that sense he is its father. The hideous creature is too ugly to look at and Victor therefore is not ready to bear its responsibility. Its appearance leaves him horrified. After his abandoning the creature, the novel tracks down the results of such abandonment. The situation might have been different and so many deaths that took place could have been prevented, given Victor took responsibility and reared his creation in a fit manner. The abandoned child grows abusive, violent and revengeful. As he grows up, he finds everyone responsible for his condition, and a series of traumatic events caused by the monster follow.
However, it is not just the plot of the novel that resonates with the author’s life but also the dates used in the novel. Shelley does not address just her own concerns instead it is the common concerns of parenthood dealt with in the novel. Anne K Mellor, a distinguished professor of English and women's studies at UCLA, has written of the author’s portrayal of her feelings very well in her article. She notes that Shelley’s deepest subconscious anxieties and the natural fears expected to be in a young woman about to be a mother were revealed in the novel. Many of such women before they are about to give birth ask such questions of themselves. What if the child is born deformed? Will I love it still or wish it was never born? A deformed hideous looking child is difficult to raise and such fears are common among women about giving birth to an abnormal or unhealthy child. Regarding Frankenstein, Shelley has referred to him as her hideous progeny.
The plot of Frankenstein explores a deeply tragic theme. What turns Frankenstein destructive apart from his defective birth procedure is the love that has been withheld from him. Its consequences are destructive and the novel has played with this theme powerfully. However, the fear in the mothers of bearing abnormal children is also a theme associated with it. This fear grows when people are about to be parents and especially it is found in mothers. Among them, the fear of giving birth to a child with physical defects is the highest. Mary Shelley seems to be the first writer in Western literature to have touched upon this issue. The issue was too taboo for any of the male writers before her to write upon. On the other hand, Shelley had lived these fears in her life and therefore it was natural that in one or the other form they made their way into her novel. Mary had lost her one child and the resulting shock might have found expression through the novel.
Victor, what he felt when he first saw the creature, expresses in the following words, “I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open; it breathed hard, and a convulsive motion agitated its limbs." He runs away feeling abhorrence for his creation. Neither does he want the child nor he wants to be held responsible for its creation. He wishes the child were dead and that people never get to know of him having created it. Apart from being the story of the birth of a deformed child, Frankenstein is about the ugly side of human relationships. The only thing that an abandoned child is full of is a feeling of revenge for his condition. Shelley’s life herself had been full of isolation once her mother died just weeks after her birth.
In this sense the monster might be a representation of the fears that Shelley had lived and grown up with. An abandoned Frankenstein wants someone to share his isolation which makes it seem that his isolation and abandonment make him more violent and vengeful. His monstrosity is the result of his loss of hope that emanates from his isolation. He too wants love and wants to be cared for, but can find neither love nor care. He believes the world has done injustice to him and therefore seeks justice through violence. A monster carved from pieces of dead meat, and still having feelings, is both weird and marvellous.
Shelley’s guilt had grown intense after she lost her child because of miscarriage. She wrote the novel while she was pregnant and her frustrations show up. It was her role as a mother that tormented her mind during her pregnancy while the fears of her miscarriage were still alive there. Victor’s thoughts too reflect a similar fear in the novel. Frankenstein’s life and love both are lost for he himself has lost himself in a mire of relationships with no one to call him his relative. Many critics have claimed that more than being a science fiction, the work is autobiographical and mainly related to the author’s emotions. However, both as fiction and autobiographical work, the novel holds enduring value. It would not have been possible had not both the elements been there in it.
Relationship and deprivation are the main themes explored in the novel. Apart from Frankenstein, several others are also left orphans and beggars because of the series of disasters that happen in the novel. In our world, parental irresponsibility is not something unheard of. The making and breaking of relationships was a pain that Shelley herself had experienced and the events in the novel remind of these things only. Her fears were still alive when she wrote the novel and the author recounts them through its plot. However, Shelley’s own life was a complex web of troubled relationships. So, Shelley’s work is not absolutely based on imagination only. Here and there, some hints of reality are present in the novel. The hideous phantom and the trauma it causes are also a reflection of the author’s own emotional trauma and the deprivations she had felt since birth. The author has successfully given shape to her fears in the form of the characters and events in the novel. If a painter tries to sketch the fears of parenthood, pregnancy and a deformed child’s birth, undoubtedly it may come out to be as hideous as the creature itself.
One disturbing element addressed through the creature in the novel is that of lost love and childhood. The creature too craves for a partner and someone he can call his own. Shelley’s childhood was not a happy one because of her mother’s death. Her loss of her mother and a valuable relationship and the resulting loneliness and fear are also expressed in the novel. The novel contains an intense portrayal of both isolation and the resulting agony and a sense of disconnection from the world and social life. Shelley was affected the most by her mother’s and her child’s loss. The series of deaths happening throughout the novel give it a macabre tone which reflects the bitter pain the author had to undergo at a tender age. Apart from all these things, the author also explores the meaning of human relationships in the novel. There are some losses that can never be fulfilled and the author’s feeling of abandonment and loss of hope are reflected in the characters and plot of the novel.