The University of Toronto at Scarborough

ENGB02Y: English Literature: Historical Survey (SpringTerm)

Instructor: Melba Cuddy-Keane

Mary Shelley (1797-1851)

Notes on her Life:

- father: William Godwin, philosopher, atheist, anarchist;
believed people were rational creatures who could live in harmony without laws and institutions
- mother: Mary Wollstonecraft, writer of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1790)
- neither Godwin nor Wollstonecraft believed in marriage, yet they married to legitimize their daughter's birth
- Mary Wollstonecraft died in childbirth when Mary Shelley was born
- Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley idolized her scholarly and somewhat distant father, disliked her step-mother
- spent a lonely childhood, educated herself through reading

- husband: Percy Bysshe Shelley
- elopement 1814 (Mary was 17; Percy 22); Mary and Percy Bysshe Shelley married in 1816
- note their close friendship with Byron
- after her husband's death (1822), Mary continued to write, editing his poems but also producing fiction, travel sketches, essays, biographies

Writing of Frankenstein

- published in 1818, when Mary was 19
- the writing of Frankenstein was a response to a proposal, made by Byron, that each person in the group should write a ghost story; according to Mary Shelley, she found her inspiration in a dream that she had after hearing Byron and her husband talk about the possibility that science would discover how to create life (see Mary Shelley's "Introduction to Frankenstein")
- Frankenstein--the creator--proud and overly ambitious--a Faustian spirit--the scientist/idealist philosopher whose desire to control life cuts him off from moral and emotional sentiments (compare Manfred)
- current feminist interpretation sees the monster as embodying the feelings of a 19th-C woman who sees herself as a lonely outcast, barred from education and inheritance; who has no place in society; who is denied human status
- the threat posed by the story: ill treatment may change what is essentially innocent into a destructive and violent force


The Gothic

- Gothic Novel: tales of the macabre, fantastic, and supernatural; usually set amid haunted castles, graveyards, ruins, and wild picturesque landscapes
- popular in 1790's and early 19th C
- "Gothic" originally implied medieval; we still refer to Gothic architecture in this way
- in later 18th C, emphasis changes to macabre element

- Mary Shelley's story uses a medieval setting in the early 15th C: see reference to Charles VI (pp. 852-53)
- involves the supernatural, feelings of horror
- elements of the sublime in nature (p. 856)
- a prophetic dream (p. 859)
- a fascination with non-rational elements (self-revelations from the unconscious?)


- a double, alter ego, second self
- source can be found in early legends: somewhere in the world each person has a double or mirror image of the self; the idea of meeting oneself is often associated with death
- the double is often a second passional self haunting the rational self
- examples of doppelgangers : Dr. Frankenstein and the monster; Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde; Marlow and Kurtz (Heart of Darkness)
- Mary Shelley here writes the Doppelganger story with a twist: the self and the double become inextricably confused

Guido (as a young man)

- Byronic temperament
- proud, superior, rebellious, passionate; considers himself above moral codes and ordinary conventions
- hedonism & irresponsible wasting of money
- wilful & destructive in planned seizure of Juliet
- romantic intensity--"mine, and mine only" (p. 852)


- figured as the angelic woman, the narrator's language associates her with the spiritual and pure:
- enshrined, celestial ( p. 852)
- hallowed, holy (p. 854)
- sanctuary, holy (p. 854)
- angel, paradise (p. 855-56)
- celestial, child (p. 861)


- outcast, abhorred, misfit
- note both appearance and speech
- like monster in Frankenstein, he is denied human status
- from Guido's point of view, the dwarf represents the demonic:
    - his power over the elements (nature)
    - his rejection of allegiance to vows (does not come back after 3 days as promised)
    - his hypocrisy: wooing (and intended seduction) of Juliet under cover of innocence and goodness
- but eventually what Guido recognizes in the dwarf is himself:
    - Guido and his "double" engage in a mortal struggle
    - Guido speaks of mingling of their blood and calls the dwarf "myself" and "my very self" (p. 861)
- note irony: he calls the dwarf a "loathsome and foul-shaped wretch" whereas at that moment he (Guido) inhabits the ugly body and the "other" (the dwarf) is fair in both appearance and behaviour
- Guido then recognizes his own lawlessness, his own bad intentions
- the ironic reversal is prefigured earlier when the narrator Guido, the older self, casts his younger self as the "fiend" (pp. 854-55)

The Ending

- reversal of identity produces twist
- it is not in fact clear who is killed and who survives

in one sense, the young Guido died
- after the struggle the young man is paler, slightly bent; hints of the dwarf linger in his body
- the marks of the dwarf in his body could be read as his having accepted his nature as flawed, imperfect
- he has accepted the monstrous as himself, has absorbed the identity of the dwarf into his own body

yet in other sense the original Guido survives, but transformed into a better person
- he takes the risk of being trapped forever in the horrid body in order to save Juliet from supposed betrayal
- he is prepared to sacrifice himself for the spirit of goodness
- he has been transformed into "a fonder and more faithful husband" because of the experience

further reversals:

- the narrator reflects upon the possibility that he has projected the evil onto an external
- he considers the possibility that the other was not his demonic self after all, but his good self
- he is left questioning the validity of subjective reality

How to Interpret the Story?

as a story about the narrator:

- it may be about accepting fallen nature as our own (at the end the young man incorporates aspects of the dwarf's body)
- it may be about recognizing important spiritual and moral values that we have abandoned because of selfishness and an obsession with power (the young man discovers the values of unselfishness and honesty when he gets to live for a while in the outcast's "skin")

as story about the dwarf:

- the dwarf is denied human status
- he has power, but this power is interpreted as being evil
- the story of the dwarf may concern the way we label what is different as "sub-human," the way we treat people who do not fit the conventional mold as outcasts
- we might then read the story as a recognition and an acknowledgement of human difference, as a questioning of our ideas of deviance and eccentricity
- we might read it as a story about acknowledging the so-called "abnormal" within us, and thereby questioning the entire idea of the "normative"

as a story about women's position in society:

- we might be curious or troubled about a woman writer's employing the traditional stereotype of woman as the passive ideal and adopting a narrator's voice that is male
- but the position of woman may be reflected as much in the dwarf as in Juliet, and also in the figure of the narrator who is, after all, the story-teller
- we might then read the story as the way the woman writer overcomes her passive (Juliet) and marginalized (the dwarf) status by becoming a writer

as a story about society:

The political implications are conveyed through the larger context of the story. The references to the insanity of Charles VI and to the rulers "blind to the miserable state of their country" suggest a parallel to early 19th-Century England (pp. 852-53). The story contains radical political implications in its endorsement of the overthrow of irresponsible authority, of leaders who are self-centered and oblivious of the powerlessness of others (compare P.B. Shelley's "England in 1819"). It may also imply, however, the conservative ideal of a return to earlier, more honorable values: the conversion of the young man to the values of Juliet's father.

as a story about story-telling:

The last detail of the story is the first: the narrator is forced to tell his tale. Remember the narrator is the transformed Guido who has now integrated both parts of his psyche.
1) in this telling, the proud rebel acknowledges his ties to other people (his audience)
2) in this telling, the "outcast" is empowered and achieves a bond of community with "his" listener (Can this be read as a reflection of role story-telling has played in women's lives?)

What similarities and differences do you find in the treatment of story-telling when you compare this story with Wordsworth's "Michael" and Coleridge's "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner"?

Perhaps above all the power of this story lies in its ambiguity and its many levels of meaning.

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