A Revolutionary Heritage: Mary Shelley and the Influence of William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft
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The novel Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus (1818), written by Mary Shelley some twenty years after the French Revolution, has been subject to many theories and speculations since it was published. Many critics have wondered how it is possible that a girl of eighteen in the nineteenth century could write such a novel and what her inspiration could have been to come up with such a curious invention. Mary Shelley’s monster and its master Victor Frankenstein are famous to the degree that, ironically, they overshadow their creator. To gain more insight into the novel and the idea behind it, it is interesting to consider to which extent Mary Shelley employed notions of enlightenment and revolutionary thought. Shelley’s parents Godwin and Wollstonecraft participated in the so-called ‘pamphlet war’, a quarrel on paper between progressive and conservative writers and/or activists that was at its height during the 1790s. Edmund Burke, originally an Irishman and former supporter of the American Revolution, did not regard the French Revolution with quite the same amount of enthusiasm as Godwin, Wollstonecraft and other enlightened writers did. Political pamphlets advocating the rights of man began to appear everywhere in answer to Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790). Writers of the Jacobin dissent reacted to Burke and other conservatives and they seized this as an opportunity to attack the established gentry. Godwin’s most important political and philosophical work was written during this time entitled An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice (1793). Even before Godwin, Wollstonecraft had published The Rights of Man (1790). During these years Wollstonecraft would publish her most famous work A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), which had great influence on authors moving in the same circles as she did. Godwin would later publish his political thriller Things As They Are; Or the Adventures of Caleb Williams (1794), which was an attempt to apply his abstract theories to a more realistic situation. Both these last pieces of writing will be used in analyzing Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. She did not write her novel out of a blank slate but instead based large parts of it on the works of her parents. The legacy of her parents, Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin and simultaneously the French Revolution can be found in many different concepts, positive and negative, which Mary Shelley incorporated into her novel Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus.