It’s Alive!!!!: Mary Shelley Has a Word to Say about Mother’s Day by Carolyn Lee Boyd

The monster and Elizabeth from movie Frankenstein, 1931, Universal Studios, Public Domain

As Mother’s Day beckons, Mary Shelley would like to have a word, or rather a novel’s worth of words. Her novel 200-year-old Frankenstein Or a Modern Prometheus has much to say today about the essential matristic values of nurturing and life-giving, women’s reproductive and other rights, parenthood and child care, and more. The novel’s two centuries of play, film, and book adaptations, most recently Kris Waldherr’s excellent Unnatural Creatures: A Novel of the Frankenstein Women, attest to Frankenstein’s continuing relevance to profound aspects of human experience.

First, let’s look at what might have influenced the writing of Frankenstein. Mary Shelley was the daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft, author of A Vindication of the Rights of Women which in 1792 championed educational and employment opportunities for women. She advocated for women to be treated as full human beings rather than as mere objects of beauty whose inherent “hysteria” made rational thought impossible. Wollstonecraft cited the benefits to society of mothers who can properly educate their children. Wollstonecraft died soon after giving birth to Shelley and was vilified for a previous illegitimate daughter. 

Young Mary Shelley by Reginald Easton, Public Domain

Mary Shelley was only 16 when she began a relationship with the married Percy Shelley. At 19 she married Shelley after his pregnant wife committed suicide, causing her adored father to break his relationship with her. Her infant daughter died shortly after birth. All this happened before Shelley published Frankenstein at age 20. And, it was written during politically and socially tumultuous times in which strides in science and industry were hailed as progress that promised to remake the world for the better while upending traditional lifeways. 

A quick synopsis: Young Victor Frankenstein becomes obsessed with making new life through science after his mother, Caroline, dies. After creating his monster, he flees in horror, becoming  increasingly insane. The initially gentle monster learns to speak and survive alone, but soon seeks revenge on Victor. He kills Victor’s younger brother and frames Justine, a servant who had been taken in by Caroline and was considered ugly and abused by her own mother because of a twisted spine. Justine is executed. The monster demands that Victor create a “bride” but Victor kills her before she is complete. The monster then kills Victor’s best friend and Victor’s exquisitely beautiful fiancé, Elizabeth, an orphan who was also brought up by Caroline. Victor dies pursuing the monster who has fled north, who then kills himself.

Frankenstein can be seen as a fictional rendition of all A Vindication decries and a reflection of her own traumatic experiences and societal milieu. The women are only important as they relate to the male characters and all, even the monster’s bride, end up dead. Caroline, the only biological mother who has also rescued the orphaned Elizabeth and abused Justine, is the first to die. Elizabeth and Justine are judged only by their attractiveness to men. Their world turns to terror from Victor Frankenstein’s devaluing of women as creators of life and his taking over of that role, as well as his complete lack of nurturing as a father. Victor and the monster are the ones who are emotionally overwrought to the point of insanity, not the women. The real horror is not the monster, but the coldness and death-orientation of a world that has no place for real women or for caring by either women or men. 

Echoes of this world are, unfortunately, still with us today. We see the same objectification and appropriation of women’s bodies and reproductive ability and choices. Violence, abuse, and trauma against women and children are still normalized, as described by Karen Tate here on FAR. Nurturing and children’s basic needs for food, shelter, health care, and love are devalued. Humanity has stolen the sovereignty and wisdom of nature and replaced it with exploitation. No wonder we are still fascinated by the story. 

Cover courtesy of Kris Waldherr

The many adaptations of Frankenstein have, up until Waldherr’s Unnatural Creatures, offered no way out of Frankenstein’s horrific world. “The female characters in Shelley’s masterpiece are mainly portrayed in relation to Victor Frankenstein’s narcissism: his mother Caroline is an ideal mother, his fiancée Elizabeth the perfect mate, and Justine a grateful servant,” notes Waldherr. “By writing Unnatural Creatures, I hoped to redress this balance by granting voice and agency to these three women.” In her book, Caroline, Elizabeth, and Justine are complete and complex characters who care about both themselves and others and act with intelligence and compassion.  I don’t want to give away the imaginative and page-turning plot, so I will just say that, by refusing to buy into the world of the original novel’s assumptions and lack of nurturing values, the women characters rescue themselves and each other from the decimation of their human worth and even the monster from total soul annihilation. While they endeavor to save their world from Victor and the monster, they cannot, of course, completely change their world overnight. But by their individual actions, they release themselves from being defined by it and are able to begin a process of transforming it which, as we have seen, will continue for centuries. While all this is going on, readers will enjoy the lush writing, detailed, almost painterly descriptions, and gripping action of the novel.

Contemporary women’s spirituality has an honored history of re-envisioning ancient myths, folk tales and other stories that, like Frankenstein, speak to the most universal and deep-rooted aspects of human life so that they can guide us to a more just, peaceful, caring world. In a  way, Frankenstein sets out the problem and Unnatural Creatures offers a way of thinking about solutions so that finally, in our own century, we can say “Yes, we can add to this iconic modern story to help recreate our world to better value all beings, life, and nature. Let’s get to it.” Of course, this task cannot fall only on women, but must be taken up by everyone in a society that comes to value nurturing towards all. Perhaps it is time to take over Mother’s Day and make it more about creating a world where everyone is loved and welcomed throughout their whole lives.


Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein Or a Modern Prometheus, Third Norton Critical Edition. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company, 2022.

Tate, Karen, Normalizing Abuse: A Commentary on the Culture of Pervasive Abuse, Independently Published, 2022

Waldherr, Kris, Unnatural Creatures: A Novel of the Frankenstein Women. New York, NY: Muse Publications, 2022.

Wollstonecraft, Mary. A Vindication of the Rights of Women. Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books, 1989.

Author: Carolyn Lee Boyd

Carolyn Lee Boyd’s essays, short stories, memoirs, reviews, and poetry have been published in a variety of print magazines, internet sites, and book anthologies. Her writing explores goddess-centered spirituality in everyday life and how we can all better live in local and global community. In fact, she is currently writing a book on what ancient and contemporary cultures have to tell us about living in community in the 21st century. She would love for you to visit her at her website,, where you can find her writings and music and some of her free e-books to download.

10 thoughts on “It’s Alive!!!!: Mary Shelley Has a Word to Say about Mother’s Day by Carolyn Lee Boyd”

    1. True! I think that Elizabeth also wears white to her wedding in the book. I don’t know whether Mary Shelley knew that white is the color of death in many cultures, but if she did, I think she would have appreciated the social commentary, especially on the role of marriage in the book as well as in 18th and early 19th century society, from which both she and her mother were ostracized for not following social strictures.


      1. she wouldn’t have to know – these patterns stretch across time in ways that science has yet to understand – Rupert Sheldrake one scientist and friend of mine calls this morphic resonance -but his ideas are very radical for conservative materialistic science although now much of what he posited 40 years ago is coming to pass as truth…. he is 80 and way ahead of his time…. Indigenous peoples, of course, understood this stuff intuitively…from the beginning

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Absolutely. I think Mary Shelley was in touch with much that was intuitive in Frankenstein, including how the humans would create catastrophe by thinking they can take over the functions of Nature and rule Nature rather than learning from it how to have proper relationships with other beings. I love Rupert Sheldrake! How wonderful that you know him! And you are absolutely right about Indigenous people and how they always knew, for example, how to have a beneficial relationship to Nature and so many other things.

          Liked by 1 person

          1. Oh so glad you know of Rupert – a truly remarkable man who has persevered never wavering from his belief that all nature is alive!!!! His podcasts will educate like few others – Rupert is an impeccable scientist whose research was and remains ahead of the times.

            Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Judith! I love reframing old stories, too. Stories from long ago can have so much relevance for our own times that we never even think of till we really start to focus on them.


  1. What a unique and engaging Mother’s Day post, Carolyn! I loved it, and it made me want to read both these books (I may be one of the few remaining feminists who has yet to read FRANKENSTEIN). Have you seen the relatively recent movie “Mary Shelley” with Dakota Fanning? It was just wonderful and I actually saw it a couple of times. I think you’d like it alot.

    Liked by 1 person

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