One night in the Summer of 1816 Mary Shelley sat around with her husband, Percy Shelley, Lord Byron, John William Polidori and Claire Clairmont and decided to partake in a scary story writing contest. Shelley had little idea that the outcome of that night would turn into the great phenomenon that is today one of the recognized and favored horror stories of all time. There is much to Frankenstein, too much to be summed up in a short article commenting on the use of Darkness in Romanticism, but much of it centered around the present obsession of Shelley and her counterparts on this issue of Darkness. The Modern Prometheus was written from a viewpoint of intense and deep emotional hurt on behalf of Shelley, rooted of writers such as Milton and his epic, Paradise Lost and also a massively changing religious scene. Those reasons for the encompassing darkness in Mary Shelley’s classic can also be related to much of the writing that came from the time of the Romantics. These aspects can be seen clearly in most Romantic writing, both in the English scene, which Shelley took part in and also in the American scene, which came later, where the key reclusiveness of Emily Dickinson or the overwhelming lack of hope portrayed through Edgar Allen Poe’s writing is evident. Emotional hurt, previous works, and a changing religious scene all have great impacts on why Darkness played such a vital role of the Romantic writers.
The Writer’s Emotional Strife
Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein after having a past of scandal and had already, at the age of 21, lost a child to death and was no stranger to pain. She had run away from her family and life in a great scandal with the love of her life, Percy Shelly and had shaken many things up in that process. Her parents had both been political activists and writers who had not only challenged the norms of society but pioneered movements that had been before, for example her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, wrote about Feminism, bringing that into the light in a way that had arguably never been done before. But with that comes tragedy, as Wollstonecraft died in childbirth with Mary and all that she had to know her mother were the writings of political satire and activism. In that, Shelley grew up in pain. This is common in the lives of many famous Romantic writers. Reading through Emily Dickinson’s poems and trying to understand how the depth of sorrow could come out so clearly in this women’s poems is hard to fathom without having such heartbreak. It is believed that she underwent a season of unrequited love, which brought her poetry to darkness and an authenticity that it would have never known without pain (Emily). The same can be said for Edgar Allen Poe, who underwent such extreme poverty that he never knew his father and grew up in severe turmoil in the streets. His wife died of tuberculosis, which had already killed his mother and brother (Poe Museum). Those tragedies made his writings what they were and the theme of pain and hurt and sorrow runs rampant throughout all writers during this time. Those are just two examples that could be made of almost any of the Romantic writers of the period.
The Impact of Paradise Lost
The Romantics held Milton’s Paradise Lost more like a sacred text, seeing as the biggest epic to date and taking the themes to heart in every bit of their writings. It is believed that he was actually the key literary figure for the outlines of the stories and poetry written during this time (Shears). The questions that are posed in Paradise Lost echo throughout not only Mary Shelley’s work but other famous and well known works such as Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Samuel Coleridge. The desperate call for the created being connected with the creator that is seen so clearly with Victor Frankenstein and his monsters, screams Satan from Milton’s classic. In Coleridge’s work of bitter tragedy echoes the themes of questioning the impact of trying to control nature and whether or not Nature is in fact a thing of man or of God. If man messes around with something that is not his, what happens, asks Milton. And that is followed shortly by the Mariner killing the albatross and Frankenstein slaving away in his dorm room for months of end, sure that he could create life.
Changing Religious Times
For much of British literature in history, the Church has called the shots and what was popular in the way of living. Christianity was the one of the only mediums through which writers were able to share their vision, even to the point that when Frankenstein started being adapted to stage, it was too dark for the audiences and had to be Christianized in order to be performed. This was the outward feeling of the time and the times that had come before, but inwardly the status quo was being choked to death. Percy Shelley, Mary’s husband, is regarded as one of the most famous Atheist writers to date and every writer, no matter what religion they prescribed to were asking the questions that were posed so defiantly in Milton’s epic of Satan seeking truth. Not to mention that the circles that own this time of writing were led by the men who challenged the role of Christianity in a way that has not died out, considering how many papers and articles are written on the topic of Atheism in Romanticism every year by students and scholars alike. William Wordsworth, Sir William Jones, Richard Payne Knight, and Erasmus Darwin were just a few of the men to attack the status quo alongside of Mary Shelley’s husband (Priestman). Atheism in this time was heavily critical about the political climate and added much to the Darkness that inhabited the writing, not necessarily that Atheism has always added Darkness to writing or that it does now, but in that time with Christianity being the norm in such a dramatic way, the writers of this period wrote with very little hope and much emotional baggage.
"Emily Dickinson." University of Illinois at Chicago. N.p., n.d. Web. <http://www.uic.edu/depts/quic/history/emily_dickinson.html>.
Shears, Jonathon. "The Romantic Legacy of Paradise Lost." The Byron Journal 38.1 (2010): 89-91. Project MUSE. Web. 13 Oct. 2013.
Poe Museum . N.p., n.d. Web. <http://www.poemuseum.org/life.php>.
Priestman, Martin. Romantic Atheism Poetry and Freethought, 1780-1830. N.p.: Cambridge University Press, 2006. 12-44.