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Was ‘Frankenstein’ Really About Childbirth?

“I have no doubt of seeing the animal today,” Mary Wollstonecraft wrote hastily to her husband, William Godwin, on August 30, 1797, as she waited for the midwife who would help her deliver the couple’s first child. The “animal” was Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, who would grow up to be Mary Shelley, wife of the Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley and author of Frankenstein, one of the most enduring and influential novels of the nineteenth century. But Wollstonecraft would not live to see her daughter’s fame: She died of an infection days after giving birth.

The last notes that Wollstonecraft wrote to Godwin are included in the exhibition “Shelley’s Ghost: The Afterlife of a Poet,” which began last year at the Bodleian Library in Oxford and has now come to the New York Public Library. On display are numerous artifacts both personal and literary from the lives of the Shelleys, including manuscript pages from the notebook in which Mary wrote Frankenstein (with editing in the margins by her husband), which have never before been shown publicly in the United States. But it was Wollstonecraft’s scribbled note, in which she referred to her baby as “the animal”— the same word that the scientist in Frankenstein would use to describe his own notorious creation—that gave me pause. Could the novel—commonly understood as a fable of masculine reproduction, in which a man creates life asexually—also be a story about pregnancy?

Frankenstein is one of the great creation myths of all time: a scientist, drunk on knowledge and possibility, discovers the secret of animating matter and energizes a monstrous creature, which proceeds to wreak havoc on his life and that of everyone he loves. Perhaps inevitably, the novel has engendered its own creation myth, one that is nearly as uncanny as the tale of the monster itself. As Mary Shelley tells the story in her introduction to an 1831 reprint edition of the novel, she began writing it during a trip to Geneva in the summer of 1816, when she was only 18. The weather was wet, and the group—which included Mary, Percy (who was still married to his first wife, Harriet), and Lord Byron—passed the time by reading an old volume of ghost stories. After Byron proposed that each of them should write his or her own ghost story, Mary dreamed one night of a “hideous phantasm of a man stretched out .… On the working of some powerful engine, [it shows] signs of life, and stir[s] with an uneasy, half vital motion.” The story followed quickly: She started it in June 1816 and finished it by May of the following year.

Most critics have understood Frankenstein as a cautionary tale of the dangers inherent in intellectual hubris: the Tower of Babel reworked as science fiction. “We need look no further than the novel’s subtitle—The Modern Prometheus—to discover Frankenstein’s main theme: the aspiration of modern masculinist scientists to be technically creative divinities,” Maurice Hindle writes in his introduction to the Penguin Classics edition. During the trip to Geneva, Byron and Percy Shelley were obsessed with new developments in natural philosophy, including the experiments of Erasmus Darwin with “galvanism”—the use of electrical current to stimulate inanimate objects. Mary had been listening to their discussions with great interest. Her father, a distinguished philosopher in his own right, had introduced her as a child to some of the great minds of the time, and she read widely in English literature and philosophy, including Milton’s Paradise Lost and Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding—both foundational texts for Frankenstein.

Even considering Mary Shelley’s extraordinary education, though, there is something that does not quite fit together in this origin theory. As Miranda Seymour, author of a recent biography, has written, Shelley’s conception of an “ambitious young scientist who … became the first creator of a living human being without divine assistance [was] a shocking idea in her day and an extraordinary one for a young woman to choose for her first subject.” Mary admitted as much herself. “How [did] I, then a young girl, [come] to think of, and to dilate upon, so very hideous an idea?” she wondered in 1831, in an introduction to a reprint edition of the now-seminal novel.

But Mary Shelley at 18 was far more experienced than the ordinary young girl. She had met her future husband in May 1814, when she was 16 and he, a few years older, was a pupil of Godwin’s; the two ran off together that summer, to the dismay of Mary’s father and Shelley’s wife. The following February, eight months later, she gave birth prematurely to a girl, who died after a few days. Soon Mary was pregnant again, and in January 1816 her son William was born. She and Shelley were married in December 1816, and she gave birth to their daughter Clara the following September.

In other words, not only was Mary Shelley pregnant during much of the period that she was writing Frankenstein, but she had already suffered the birth and death of an infant. Unsurprisingly, she was tormented by the loss: A journal entry in 1815 reads, “Dream that my little baby came to life again; that it had only been cold, and that we rubbed it before the fire, and it lives.” The echoes of Frankenstein—in which the scientist, who hopes to “infuse a spark of being into the lifeless thing that lay at my feet,” at last sees it open its eyes and breathe—are unmistakable. And the birth of the “creature,” as he calls it at first, occurs only after “days and nights of incredible labor and fatigue”; later he refers again to the “painful labor.”

The monster is born fully formed, but his intellectual development follows the ordinary process of a human infant. While hiding out by a cabin, he learns language simply by watching and listening to the inhabitants, just as a child learns to speak. He even experiences the infant’s characteristic moment of recognizing its own reflection: “How was I terrified when I viewed myself in a transparent pool!” And he feels his creator’s rejection as keenly as he would the rejection of a parent. “Why did you form a monster so hideous that even you turned from me in disgust?” he asks the scientist. The monster has a face that only a mother could love—but he has no mother.

The disasters that follow upon the “birth” of the monster are also of a piece with Mary’s own experience. Childbirth in the early nineteenth century was perhaps just as dangerous as experimenting with electricity, as Mary well knew, having lost her own mother. (The infection from which Wollstonecraft died was caused by a piece of the placenta that remained inside her.) Mary would nearly die herself a few years later after suffering a miscarriage. And, in an era when children often died young, it is not coincidental that the monster’s first victims are children: first a young boy called William, the same name as Mary’s son; then a teenage girl. (Uncannily, William Shelley lived to be only three; daughter Clara died at only a year old.)

“Invention consists in the capacity of seizing on the capabilities of a subject, and in the power of moulding and fashioning ideas suggested to it,” Mary Shelley wrote in her 1831 introduction to Frankenstein. By the time this edition appeared, she had survived six pregnancies and the deaths of four children; writing must have seemed far more reliable than child-rearing as a way to mold and fashion ideas. If there could be any further doubt about the connection between her maternity and her creativity, it is dispelled by the end of the essay. “And now, once again, I bid my hideous progeny go forth and prosper,” she concludes. “I have an affection for it, for it was the offspring of happy days.”

Ruth Franklin is a senior editor at The New Republic. Follow her on Twitter  @ruth_franklin.