Having grown up in an environment surrounded by prolific writers, Mary Shelley has a history of exposure to many grand works of Romantic literature throughout her childhood. From that of her parents, Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin, Romantic writers of progressive ideology, to the famous family friend, Lord Byron, one of the leading figures of the Romantic movement. But one of her biggest literary influences comes from her late husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley. In a thorough analysis of her most famous work, Frankenstein, one may notice several references to the works of Percy Shelley. Perhaps the most notable reference is the direct quotation of the last two stanzas of Percy Shelley’s “Mutability,” a poem detailing the instability of human emotion and its tendency to change. Throughout one’s reading of Frankenstein, one might draw parallels between the theme of change in “Mutability” and that of key aspects in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, specifically in encounters with the monster.
In the story of Frankenstein, scientist and university student Victor Frankenstein has always had an interest in discovering and learning about the rules and inner workings of the world. However, when he decides to test the rules of nature himself by attempting to create life, he quickly regrets his actions as he successfully manages to create the monster, a hideous humanoid who “had the shape of a man, but … of gigantic stature” (20). After about a year, Victor seems to almost forget his worries about the monster when his younger brother is murdered by a mysterious assailant. Beloved adopted family member Justine is accused of the murder and put to death. Victor realizes it must be the monster’s doing and takes a trip out into the swiss countryside to collect his thoughts and calm himself.
There, Shelley describes the trip with such sophistication detailing the “glorious presence-chamber of imperial Nature” which “afforded [Victor] the greatest consolation that [he] was capable of receiving” (86). Upon reading this, one may experience a sense of uneasiness given the overly exaggerated light and pleasant mood that Shelley has forged which is offset by the tense nature of the story of Frankenstein. Naturally, the next day, the weather takes a turn for the worse where “the rain was pouring in torrents, and thick mists hid the summits of the mountains” who were previously described as “mighty friends” (86). Victor notices the new gloomy environmental changes of the next day but resolves not to allow its sinister state to affect his good mood. It is then that Shelley decides to include the last two stanzas of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poem “Mutability”. Soon after, the monster makes its appearance bounding across the unsurpassable mountain with ease towards the startled Frankenstein. Victor’s mood, like the weather, changes drastically upon recognizing the “tremendous and abhorred” monster (87). He becomes infuriated and vows to slay the monster in a duel, exhibiting emotions characteristic of the raging storm that surrounds him. Readers who may have previously questioned why Shelley decided to include a quotation from “Mutability” now realize its significance to the story as foreshadowing of Victor’s sudden change in mood upon seeing the monster, his scorned creation.
Considering Percy Shelley’s “Mutability,” one might wonder why Shelley decided to specifically include the last two stanzas rather than the first two. Upon close inspection, it is clear that the last two stanzas relate to Frankenstein in a way the first two do not. In the first two stanzas, Percy Shelley describes the mutability of clouds which when “Night closes round, … are lost for ever” (4) and the sound of a wind harp which “Give[s] various response to each varying blast” (6). While both describe instances of change, only the examples from the last two stanzas pertain to humans and emotions where “A dream has power to poison sleep” or where “one wandering thought pollutes the day” (9-10). Moreover, these lines can be directly correlated to instances in Frankenstein. Pertaining to dreams, after creating the monster, Victor rushes in horror to his room and throws himself on his bed falling asleep. He has a dream where he sees his lover, Elizabeth, who was “in the bloom of health” (51). However, as the dream progresses, Elizabeth morphs into “the corpse of [Victor’s] dead mother,” both indicating a sudden change in mood from happiness to horror and a reference to dreams as mentioned in “Mutability” (51). Likewise, one can draw parallels between Victor’s internal thoughts and dialogue, the source of much of his worsening anxiety and distress, and Percy Shelley’s recognition that a thought can pollute the day. This is seen as Victor regretfully dwells on his decision to create the monster as “the thought made [him] shiver” (54). This is further contrasted by the excitement and ecstasy he experienced that morning before the realization that he created a monster.
By considering Mary Shelley’s decision to include a portion of “Mutability” in Frankenstein, and by analyzing its relevance to the story, it becomes evident that change is certainly a theme of importance. Mary Shelley uses the elements of surprise and consternation brought about by sudden change to her advantage, creating truly horrific incidents and atmospheres befitting of a Romantic age horror story. This comes as Mary Shelley is no stranger to drastic change given her tragic past in losing several close family members including her husband, the author of “Mutability,” Percy Shelley. Therefore, Shelley’s use of “Mutability” in Frankenstein is not merely a well placed quotation, but one of relevance that reflects the theme of change both in Frankenstein, and in life, reminding readers that “Man’s yesterday may ne’er be like his morrow; Nought may endure but mutability!” (51).
Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein. Introduction and Notes by Karen Karbiener. Barnes and Noble, 2003.
Shelley, Percy Bysshe. “Mutability.” The Norton Anthology of British Literature: The Romantic Period. 10th ed. Stephen Greenblatt, General Editor. W.W. Norton, 2017. pp. 766.
One thought on “A Mood of Mutability”
Jacob, you presented an excellent and well thought out topic. Through supporting details and examples from the text, you covered and expressed your ideas completely. Great job! I really enjoyed your take on Percy Shelley’s influence in the writing of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.