Mary Shelley and Romanticism
Frankenstein exemplifies many of the values associated with Romanticism, an artistic movement that began in Western Europe during the late 1700s through the mid- 1800s. The characteristics of Romanticism include a focus on individual emotions, enthusiasm about the grandeur of the natural world, and a celebration of creativity and the figure of the artist. Mary Shelley’s life intersected with some of the most famous writers and thinkers of the Romantic period. She was the daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft, a writer and intellectual who advocated for gender equality, and William Godwin, a political philosopher and novelist who was fascinated by questions of justice, rights, and social inequality. When she was just sixteen years old, Mary Shelley fell in love with the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, who was passionate about writing bold and innovative literature that reflected his somewhat radical ideals of creativity, freedom, and equality. As a result of her family connections and relationship with Percy Shelley, Mary developed friendships with other famous Romantic writers, notably the poet Lord Byron.
The context of Romanticism influenced both the origin and content of Frankenstein. In the summer of 1816, Mary and Percy Shelley were travelling in Europe and spent time visiting Byron at his house in Switzerland. According to Mary Shelley’s introduction to the 1831 edition of the novel, the three writers devised a game to see who could invent the most terrifying ghost story. The author writes that that night she had a shocking dream about an inventor assembling a monster, and began writing the story that she would eventually expand into Frankenstein. Many of the trademarks of Romanticism are evident in the novel. Walton and Frankenstein are ambitious geniuses who are determined to live up to their destinies; while neither is an artist, both engage in works of ground-breaking creativity by pushing the limits of geography and science. The impact and beauty of the natural world, always significant to Romantic writers, play an important role in creating an appropriate setting for the novel’s dramatic events. The monster’s experience of coming into the world without any knowledge of social norms and behavioral expectations reflects Romanticism’s curiosity about how innate human nature is gradually shaped by society and culture.