Against the Light: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein:

“When younger…I felt as if I were destined for some great enterprise.…I could not rank myself with the herd of common projectors. But this feeling, which supported me in the commencement of my career, now serves only to plunge me lower in the dust. All my speculations and hopes are as nothing; and, like the archangel who aspired to omnipotence, I am chained in an eternal hell.…From my infancy I was imbued with high hopes and a lofty ambition; but how am I sunk! Oh! my friend, if you had known me as I once was, you would not recognize me in this state of degradation. Despondency rarely visited my heart; a high destiny seemed to bear me on, until I fell, never, never again to rise. (152)”

Toward the end of the novel Dr. Frankenstein reminisces with Walton about his early youth. The clear influence of those primal passages from Paradise Lost of John Milton in which Satan delivers his own soliloquy is merged in the above. One could say that Shelley’s novel is the embodiment of that epic power of torment and aristocratic intelligence that would rather be defiant against all authority and tyrannical despotism, ruling in hell rather than being an eternal slave in heaven. As I grow older I feel this sympathy with those failures in knowing that the aspirations we so boldly faced in youth have resulted not in the loft ambitions of the mind but rather become the ruin of Old Age and Time: the despotic rule of natural decay and loss. The only thing that remains is the absolute defiance and intelligence that seeks to emerge against the light…

Mary Shelley’s husband the poet Percy Shelley wrote effusively in his Defence of Poetry (1821) that

Nothing can exceed the energy and magnificence of the character of Satan as expressed in Paradise Lost. It is a mistake to suppose that he could ever have been intended for the popular personification of evil.…Milton’s Devil as a moral being is as far superior to his God as one who perseveres in some purpose which he has conceived to be excellent in spite of adversity and torture, is to one who in the cold security of undoubted triumph inflicts the most horrible revenge upon his enemy, not from any mistaken notion of inducing him to repent of a perseverance in enmity, but with the alleged design of exasperating him to deserve new torments.

The Romantics and the Gnostics as Harold Bloom has strived to remind us through as many works agreed in this defiance of the Old Testament God, Yahweh. Yahweh was for both the Tyrant king, the irascible and jealous, raging bling god of the Old Testament who played havoc across the course of time with his progeny, testing them, judging them, killing and sacrificing them to his whims. The Old testament is a bloody book full of war and hate, and its God is truly the ‘darkness visible’ of a being who torments his own creation.

As J.C. Christopher The Satanic Scholar explicates: Shelley voiced his ambivalent view of Milton’s Satan quite clearly in the Preface to his Prometheus Unbound (1820). “The only imaginary being resembling in any degree Prometheus, is Satan,” Shelley contends, yet he proceeds to explain that Prometheus is “a more poetical character than Satan” because the deity-defiant, humanitarian Titan shares the virtues of “courage and majesty and firm and patient opposition to omnipotent force” without the vices of “ambition, envy, revenge, and a desire for personal aggrandisement, which in the Hero of Paradise Lost, interfere with the interest.” As far as Shelley was concerned, while “Prometheus is, as it were, the type of the highest perfection of moral and intellectual nature, impelled by the purest and the truest motives to the best and noblest ends,” the same simply cannot be said for the character of Milton’s Satan, who instead “engenders in the mind a pernicious casuistry which leads us to weigh his faults with his wrongs and to excuse the former because the latter exceed all measure.” This rather bold position of Shelley’s—that Satan’s shortcomings are essentially excusable because they are utterly outweighed by the wrongdoing perpetrated against him—was previously asserted far less vaguely in one of Shelley’s earlier, unpublished works: his Essay on the Devil and Devils (ca. 1819–20). As a matter of fact, the above quotation from A Defence of Poetry—that Milton’s Satan is unsurpassable in “energy and magnificence”—was a passage Shelley took nearly verbatim from his Essay on the Devil, but what Shelley prudently chose not to copy from his Essay over to his Defence was his irreverently detailed description of how and why that which is genuinely malignant in Milton’s otherwise virtuous Devil—his quest for the destruction of Man—may be blamed upon Milton’s God, who, as in Satan’s “baleful eyes” (I.56), emerges as the far more demonic figure of the story.1

I’ve been rereading Milton’s great poem Paradise Lost as well as Mary Shelley’s work of late, both have infiltrated and informed my mind for decades. Milton’s was for me a work against the political tyranny of his time, a Cromwellian defender Milton chose the path of freedom from despotic rule and after the defeat of Cromwell suffered for his allegiance. It would be after this political defeat that he’d go on to write his famed poem and take up the devil’s cause of freedom against the English power of Divine Kingship. Mary Shelley in the wake of such thought coming as she did from her parents William Godwin the Anarchist, and her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, the arch feminist. Married to the poet who would shape her sense of vision she wrote the first prose epic that would in its Janus faced vision merge the past visions of gnostic battle with the future visions of earthly ruin and sacrifice. Yet, it would be the defiant power of that Satanic pride that would carry her into our own time as the fierce advocate of justice against the dictates of all ruinous power and tyranny.


  1. Christopher J. C., The Satanic Scholar, The Miltonic in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, on the Novel’s Bicentenary (January, 1, 2018) – (read)