Socialist Worker

The radical vision behind Frankenstein

by Patrick Ward
Issue No. 2297

Mary Shelley was the daughter of philosopher and early feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, who wrote the landmark text A Vindication of the Rights of Women. Wollstonecraft died in 1797 when Mary was just 11 days old.

Her father was William Godwin, whose radical writings on morality shocked Georgian society.

Mary Shelley is best known for the novel she wrote in 1816— Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus. She started it when she was just 18 years old and it was published when she was 21.

She wrote the novel while staying in Geneva, Switzerland, with her lover Percy Bysshe Shelley and friend Lord Byron.

The circle of friends was inspired by the 1789 French Revolution and deeply interested in the new developments in science. These included scandalously controversial theories that the dead could be reanimated.

These scientific influences are present in Frankenstein, but they take second place to Mary Shelley’s political ideas.

High society at the time used the analogy of monsters to talk about the revolutionary masses in France. But workers in Britain were radicalising too under the intense pressure of industrialisation.

The creature in Frankenstein was not the groaning and mindless caricature he would later become in film adaptations of the novel. Shelley portrays an intelligent and articulate creature that wants to fit into society and to be loved. Instead he is shunned and persecuted.

The creature had a love of culture, weeping when he listens to music and reading John Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost.

But he turns on the cruel society that created him—hounding his creator Victor Frankenstein and destroying property.

This was Shelley’s metaphor for the ruling class that creates workers only to deprive them of their means of happiness. The ruling class thus creates the very force that can destroy it.

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