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Mary Shelley's Troubled Family History Translates into Her Novels

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More often than not, an author’s personal life translates into their stories. Whether it is done subconsciously or on purpose, their experiences paint a more colorful, vivid picture, and thus convey a stronger message to the reader. Perhaps, Mary Shelley’s own troubled family experience translates into her novel, Frankenstein; Or, The Modern Prometheus. Parenthood, or rather the absence, irresponsibility, and failure of parents, seems to be a constant theme presented in Frankenstein. Although examples of failed parenting can be seen within various relationships throughout the novel, the most interesting illustration of parenthood is seen of the main character, Victor Frankenstein, as he plays the roles of both father and son.

The story may be told in the perspective of a man who creates a monstrous creature, inevitably fathering it; but in actuality, the monster is not his creation, but he himself. This monstrous tale is not about how Victor becomes a victim of his own creation. Rather, his failure as a father to parent the creature he brought to life, ultimately enabling this creature to take part in society. Shelley suggests that Frankenstein is the true monster for the inhumane acts he commits against his creation, and the lack of compassion Frankenstein shows him as his father. In addition to Frankenstein’s role as a father, his role as a son is also explored as he experienced a childhood lacking in parental figures too. This suggests that there may be some correlation between Frankenstein’s upbringing, and how it affects his ability to be a parent, thus causing a chain reaction. Through the relationships between the explorer Robert Walton and his sister Margaret Saville, Frankenstein and his parents, and Frankenstein and his creation, Shelley’s message of the importance of parenting and the consequences that come with improper upbringing is outlined through these varying relationships.

With the novel beginning with letters from Walton to Saville, the absence of parents leaves Walton lacking a clear sense of purpose, continually seeking his sisters blessing, and longing for a true friend. Walton’s letters to his sister clearly serves as the outer narrative framework of the novel, used to provide context on the main narrative, and foreshadow various themes in the novel, one of which is parenthood. Although the novel suggests that his father has passed, it is unclear who or where Walton’s mother is, leaving the role of both parents vacant, yet partially filled by Saville.

In his letters to Saville, Walton cannot seem to conceal his excitement for his exploration adventures. He claims that “this expedition has been a favourite dream of [his] early years” (52). Walton further explains that his “education was neglected” (52), only to discover later on that “… [his] father’s dying injunction had forbidden [his] uncles to allow [him] to embark in a sea-faring life” (52). Although his dying father is a fairly reasonable reason for postponing his lifelong dream to be at sea, he was left clueless as to why he was unable to explore the world for the better part of his younger years, and his dream was nonetheless hindered. For a while, Walton was lost and lacked a sense of purpose, only to rediscover his passion for the sea in his later years. Furthermore, it is still unclear what his purpose is, other than the fact that he pursues his dream of exploration.

Moreover, Walton seems to be seeking this guidance from his sister Saville. Without parents, his letters suggest that Saville had filled that void as the nurturing motherly figure. In Walton’s first letter to Saville, he states “You will rejoice to hear that no disaster has accompanied the commencement of an enterprise which you have regarded with such evil forebodings … my first task is to assure my dear sister of my welfare, and increasing confidence in the success of my undertaking”(51). Saville’s disapproval of Walton’s expedition is apparent as Walton suggests that she had regarded it with “evil forebodings” and that she would “rejoice” to hear he is safe and sound. He emphasizes that his very “first task” was to ensure Saville knew he was safe and sound, making it his first priority to reassure his “dear” sister of his successes so far. As his guardian, Walton also constantly seeks guidance and blessing from Saville. In one of the many letters he sent her, he states, “And now, dear Margaret, do I not deserve to accomplish some great purpose.” (53). Through the consistent mention of the hardship he endured growing up, Walton attempts to justify his current endeavors to redeem himself, and convince his sister he is doing the right thing. However it is evident that she is returning very little, if at all, correspondence in response to his letters. At one point, Walton exclaims, “Oh, that some encouraging voice would answer in the affirmative!” (53). The lack of correspondence suggests that Saville is yet another parental figure in Walton’s life who cannot be that parent he so desires. His desperate cry for an “encouraging voice” from his sister appears to not only be a cry for attention but also to show Saville his success and receive the validation he longs for.

Due to the absence of his parents in his childhood – and as it seems that of Saville, he confesses to his sister that “I have no friend, Margaret: when I am glowing with the enthusiasm of success, there will be none to participate my joy…” (54). The lack of compassion from his family appears to leave Walton lonely and in need of a more understanding friend. Due to parental neglect, it is evident Walton is unable to assimilate into society. His inability to find a meaningful friendship causes him to isolate himself.

The absence of Frankenstein’s mother and neglect from his father also causes Frankenstein to defy their wishes, ultimately leading to the series of unfortunate events that are bestowed upon his family and friends. With Victor’s early discovery of his interest in natural philosophy, his father carelessly glances at the book Frankenstein was studying and responds, “My dear Victor, do not waste your time upon this; it is sad trash” (68). Without so much as an explanation, this clear example of lack of parental guidance, and insensitivity towards his son’s desires leaves Frankenstein feeling bitter and spiteful. In reflection, Frankenstein states, “If, instead of this remark, my father had taken the pains to explain to me … I should certainly have thrown Agrippa aside … it is even possible, that the train of my ideas would never have received the fatal impulse that led to my ruin” (68). By calling Agrippa’s principles “sad trash,” his father insults something Frankenstein found a deep interest in. If his father “had taken the pains to explain” why it was sad trash, Frankenstein believes he would have immediately moved on. However, he blames his father’s lack of parenting as one of a few reasons why it has “led to [his] ruin.” Although this deliberate act of defiance would naturally seem like an act of hatred towards his father, it does not suit Frankenstein’s case at all as he loved his father. Nevertheless, Frankenstein continues to learn about this outdated science to prove his father otherwise. Blinded by his desire to show his father his success in this field of expertise, he jeopardizes everything without realizing the consequences, leading to disastrous outcomes.

Like Walton, Frankenstein has a difficult time assimilating into society. His obsession with creating his creature causes Frankenstein to isolate himself from his closest friend and his family. Ultimately, the creation of his creature causes Frankenstein to feel even more isolated as he feels guilty for the death of his little brother William and the wrongful conviction of William’s babysitter Justin Moritz. Due to his guilt, Frankenstein states that “[He] was a wretch, and none ever conceived of the misery that [he] then endured” (110). The unfortunate fates of those around him are the direct result of his inability to properly bring his creature into society. Frankenstein feels responsible for these disastrous series of events, calling himself a “wretch” because he did not bother to give the creature moral guidance. In turn, Frankenstein’s inability to be a capable father stems from his father’s inability to properly raise him. Frankenstein’s improper upbringing not only affects him as an adult but also his ability to be a father himself.

Frankenstein’s irresponsibility as a parent causes the creature to isolate himself from society and become the dangerous and revengeful creature Frankenstein had prejudiced him to be. In the very first instance the creature and Frankenstein interact, the creature confronts Frankenstein as he states, “‘… you, my creator, detest and spurn me, thy creature…” (118). By rejecting his creation, Frankenstein abandons his responsibility as the father of this creature. Just like children are born into this world, this creature was brought into this world without any knowledge of how it functions. By following the example of a parent, a child can properly assimilate into society. Despite the creature’s outer appearance, he was born with good intentions like any other human being. It is through a person’s upbringing that determines if they learn to be good or bad people. In the creature’s case, the absence of a loving and caring protector, and the “detest and spurn” his creator felt towards him caused the creature to become a monstrous animal. When he could not find solace with his creator, the creature looked towards other human beings for compassion. After secretly watching over a family for months, the creature’s courage to approach this family due to the strong attachment he felt with them only caused more heartache. He explains to the blind father of the family, “’I am an unfortunate and deserted creature; I look around, and I have no relation or friend upon earth…I am an outcast in the world for ever’” (147). In his desperate attempt to receive acceptance from this family, his sympathetic tone that appeals to the blind father, was only to be met with tragedy when the truth of his appearance is discovered and he really becomes “an outcast in the world for ever.” Due to the creature’s improper upbringing, much like Frankenstein’s, isolation became his fate and revenge became his outlet.

By failing to be a compassionate parental figure, Saville leaves Walton feeling alone and lost, Frankenstein’s father leads Frankenstein to defy him, and Frankenstein makes it impossible for the creature to receive compassion within society. These various child-parent relationships enlighten the audience to the effect poor parenting has on society. Shelley’s portrayal of parent-child relationships throughout the novel raises the question of whether or not the tragedies in the novel could have been avoided with proper parenting, and if the parents are ultimately to blame for the chain of unfortunate events that occur in Frankenstein. Shelley suggests that the fate of a human being lies in the hands of parental figures that hold the responsibility of morally guiding children in the right direction. A parent should raise a child with compassion to ensure they have a proper upbringing.

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Mary Shelley’s Troubled Family History Translates into Her Novels. (2018, August 02). GradesFixer. Retrieved January 15, 2021, from
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