Review: Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

I’m almost embarrassed to admit that the first time I read Frankenstein by Mary Shelley was just last year. I love classics, but there are several that I have only recently read, or haven’t even read at all (yet). I chalk this up to the fact that I didn’t really start actually studying literature until 2018 when I started my Masters degree.

I, like nearly everyone in the world, had obviously heard the story of Frankenstein many times before reading the book. And, as usual, the book completely blew any other version of the tale out of the water. I very quickly fell under the spell of Shelley’s writing, and proceeded to become really interested in her.

Before I read Frankenstein, I read another great book called Romantic Outlaws by Charlotte Gordon. It is an excellent resource for learning more about Shelley, and her feminist mother Mary Wollstonecraft. When I discovered that Shelley was Wollstonecraft’s daughter, I was immediately starstruck. If you’re unfamiliar with her, Wollstonecraft wrote one of the earliest feminist manifestos, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. Inside, she argues that the only reason women are considered inferior to men is because they are not educated in the same way.

Shelley was born Mary Godwin to Wollstonecraft and William Godwin, an English philosopher. From the moment she was born, great pressure was put on her to become an intellectual like her parents. Godwin and Wollstonecraft were celebrities in their circle, and they were both widely admired.

In Romantic Outlaws, I learned a lot more about how Frankenstein came to be, and I decided it was finally time that I read it. It’s a fairly short novel, coming in at just under 300 pages, and I got through it very quickly. If you’re unfamiliar with the story, the book tells the tale of Doctor Victor Frankenstein and his quest to build a human. I won’t get too into the specifics if you haven’t read it yet, but things don’t go as planned for Dr. Frankenstein, and his creature (aptly named The Creature) turns against him.

What I will say is this: Frankenstein has been told and retold since its publication, but one thing that is certain, is that the original novel is not so much about fear or horror or monsters, but what happens when a living thing becomes lonely.

Much of the novel is dedicated to The Creature’s narrative. He is extremely intelligent and well-spoken, thanks to a poor family that he lives among for months without them knowing. He hides in the shadows and listens to their conversations, and he also finds a sack of abandoned books in the woods which he uses to teach himself to read.

The Creature knows that he is ugly, and he knows that he inspires fear in whoever he meets. He is profoundly lonely, and decides to go to Victor for help. He pleads with the doctor to create a mate for him, and Victor warily agrees. You’ll have to read the novel to find out what happens next as I don’t want to spoil it for anyone!

After learning more about Shelley’s life, it becomes clear that The Creature’s monologues come from a very personal place. In addition to the pressure put on her to become a famous intellectual, Shelley had to deal with the fact that her mother died giving birth to her. She was constantly trying to make her father proud, and was very attached to him. He was very hard on her, and was constantly pushing her to be better. This gets tiring after a while.

Then, when she was 16, Shelley would meet her future husband, Percy Shelley, a poet. The pair ran away to be together because Mary’s father didn’t approve of the relationship. Mary Shelley’s relationship with Percy was also one of strain. He was a notorious womanizer, and Shelley was often left alone with her own thoughts. Additionally, Shelley suffered from several miscarriages, and scholars say that it would not be surprising if she suffered from depression. These feelings clearly inspired the deep feelings of loneliness that The Creature expresses.

Shelley was clearly inspired by the epic poem Paradise Lost by John Milton, and admitted this freely in the years after Frankenstein’s publication. She uses one line in particular as the epigraph to the novel, which describes the conversation Adam has with God after his creation:

“Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay

To mould Me man? Did I solicit thee

From darkness to promote me?”

The Creature expresses the same sentiments after he begs Dr. Frankenstein to make him a mate. He even references the epic poem himself, but reminds the doctor that when God created Adam, he created Eve, and he did not abandon them. He abhors the doctor for creating him; he never asked to be created. He did not “solicit” him.

In many ways, Shelley is The Creature. She did not ask to be made. She did not ask for the pressures put on her by her parents. She didn’t ask to be born into a world where sadness, loneliness and rejection rule. She also didn’t ask to be a woman in the 19th century, without many options. At the time, women were supposed to be wives and mothers, and (in her mind) Shelley couldn’t even do that properly.

Shelley works through her feelings of loneliness through her writing. But, she wasn’t allowed to claim her work the first time it was published due to her sex. It was published anonymously with a short introduction by her husband. Many thought that the novel was written by Percy, and he didn’t seem to mind taking credit for it.

The second edition did give credit where credit was due, and Mary Shelley’s name was on the cover. Interestingly enough, when critics found out it was written by a woman, harsh reviews began to surface which criticized the novel, with a few publications refusing all together to comment on the novel. But despite the harsh reviews, Frankenstein was an instant success and has remained largely read and studied since the 19th century.

For me, it’s important to remember that Mary Shelley was just 18 years old when she wrote her masterpiece. It speaks on the hardships and melancholy that come along with being a teenager on the cusp of adulthood. She was trying to find her place in a world that was very difficult for a young woman. She was trying to express her feelings in a way which felt right. And, I think, if we take a closer look at Frankenstein, we can all recognize that we have a Creature living inside of us.

Originally published at on February 8, 2020.



Musings on feminism, books, and human connections.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store