Mary Shelley

Program Description

A Fascinating and Enigmatic Person

Frontczak as Shelley with Quill

Teen-age mother, behind-the-scenes supporter of social reform, romantic, and scholar, English writer Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (1797-1851) may be best known as the author of Frankenstein, but there is much more to be learned about her, both personally and psychologically.

As well as becoming a significant author in her own right, Mary Shelley bore the combined burden and blessing of being the only offspring between eminent authors Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin. Likewise, she enjoyed both attention and passion, and sustained rejection and isolation, for becoming the wife of the outspoken and controversial poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. With stridently vocal parents and husband, Mary sought a gentler path of persuasion, opening her novels with the admired status quo, and ever so gradually leading the reader to a new point of view. As Mary reveals her process as an author in creating Frankenstein, you learn how she viewed the world around her and how, in turn, the world treated her.

In addition to a compelling personal story which would make many articles in The National Enquirer seem tame, Mary Shelley's work raises ethical questions that are, if anything, more pertinent today than they were in her lifetime. Is humankind morally capable of managing its technological creations? And what responsibility do we collectively hold in caring for abandoned members of society? Mary Shelley raises these questions within the context of having lived most of her life as an outsider.

The year is 1844. Imagine you are English visitors just returning from Italy, and you are about to be welcomed into the parlor of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley.


Charm and Poignancy

Meet Mary, the person, along with Mary, the author.

"As you expressed a desire to know my opinion of Mrs. Shelley, I will take the present opportunity of saying, that I rarely, if ever, met with a woman to whom I felt so disposed to apply the epithet "bewitching." I can of course merely speak of appearances, but she struck me in the light of a matured child; a union of buoyancy and depth... Her hilarity, contrasted with the almost sadly profound nature of some of her remarks, somewhat puzzled me... I doubt her being a happy woman, and I also doubt her being one that could be distinctly termed melancholy... She reminded me of no person I ever saw but she has made me wish the arrival of the time when I am to see her again."  - Letter from Maria Jane Jewsbury to Anna Jameson dated 18 June 1830


A Message for Today

Optionally, add on one of these one-hour participatory ethics discussions following the Living History program. 

The Ethics of Science and Technology

Many implied particulars of Mary Shelley's science fiction are reality today: blood transfusions, artificial limbs, organ transplants, 3-D printing/growing of body tissue, genetic engineering, cloning, and more. What moral dilemmas do we create once we embrace these medical advances? Once we look at probable extensions of today's technological creations, we encounter questions, such as: What is a scientist's responsibility toward his/her creation? What happens when an abandoned creation turns into a monster? What is society's responsibility to monitor or manage a scientist's inventions? When does the society have the right to step in? It is not the invention, it is the abandonment of the invention to irresponsible use that turns a creation into a monster. Many of our scientific creations have no voice, and have been released to the whims of nature and the marketplace. Mary Shelley's "monster" had a voice. And yet he was unsuccessful at pleading with his creator for the attention he needed to avoid becoming a terror. The author gave voice to the concept of our creations. Will we listen to her? What message do we take from this story?

Frontczak as Shelley Pouring Tea

The Ethics of Social Responsibility

At the outset of his experience Frankenstein's Creature exhibited tremendous compassion. He did not become a monster until he had faced repeated rejection. Many people in our society, through poverty or other dire circumstances, are abandoned or abused. We wonder why they lash out, why some become criminals. What responsibility does society have to a creature, a human, who otherwise doesn't have any nurturing?

On a less extreme scale, but one that applies in our daily lives, to what extent are we able to accept people who are different from ourselves? Frankenstein's monster was spurned solely based on his looks, even though he managed to learn the customs and the language. What does it take for us, as humans, to see past another's outward appearance or culture — which might be strange to us — to see who is really inside, to find the commonality of our experience?