Was Mary Shelley Utilitarian? Excerpts from my Senior Capstone


Author’s Note: this post is based on my senior capstone paper, “Science Fiction in the Era of Philosophical Radicals and Romantics: Utilitarian Critical Readings of Mary Shelley”

During the last semester of my undergraduate degree, I had to do capstone research relevant to my studies in college. I ended up doing an independent study on Mary Shelley and Utilitarianism that produced a roughly 50 page paper titled “Science Fiction in the Era of Philosophical Radicals and Romantics: Utilitarian Critical Readings of Mary Shelley”. I enjoyed working on it, but considering its length, and my dissatisfaction with some of its sections, I have greatly shortened it for posting. What follows is an edited version of only the first two sections, roughly arguing that we should think that Mary Shelley was influenced by Utilitarianism, and it is therefore valuable to read her, and the tropes she influenced, in this light. As my research was limited, and most of my case is derived from quotes from Shelley’s books, I would be very interested if more experienced scholars in this area had opinions on this matter. As it stands, I think that I make a decent case that there is something here. Without further ado:

Throughout my undergraduate career, two main threads characterized my non-fiction writing. One is science fiction, and the other is Utilitarianism. I care a great deal about both, but at first glance they don’t seem to play all that well together.

Some of the most prominent works of science fiction seem to be arguments against Utilitarianism, such as Aldous Huxley’s novel Brave New World and Ursula K. Le Guin’s short story “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas”. I believe that much of this comes from a discomfort we have towards the implications of Utilitarianism under unusual circumstances which science fiction can highlight, although these extremes can be helpful at highlighting more general, principled objections as well. Looking at the given examples, the closest thing to plausible, truly Utilitarian social structures in these works are probably the free love and happiness drug elements of Brave New World, which I think more and more people are now sympathetic to as perhaps even Utopian. Still, even if I tend to disagree with this anti-Utilitarian undertone, it is undeniably present.

One specific work of science fiction that interests me greatly, and which I wrote about more often in college than probably any other single work, is Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. It is usually credited as the first work of science fiction, especially since its citation in Brian Aldiss' 1973 book Billion Year Spree: the True History of Science Fiction. There are earlier works that might also lay claim to this title, such as Niels Klim’s Underground Travels by Ludvig Holberg, The Blazing World by Margaret Cavendish, or Utopia by Thomas More, but Frankenstein’s huge influence on the eventual genre, the essential role science plays in it, and its unusually advanced themes make it clear that once Frankenstein was written, science fiction had been born.

Similarly, Jeremy Bentham and his circle of “Philosophical Radicals” is usually credited with having founded Utilitarianism. Yet some have made the case that the Epicureans of ancient Greece, the Mohists of ancient China, and the Buddhists of ancient India all had fundamental ingredients of this doctrine long before Bentham’s time, and Bentham himself was profoundly influenced by proto-Utilitarians like David Hume and Cesare Beccaria. As with Frankenstein however, once Bentham and company were on the scene, Utilitarianism had clearly begun. Its formal methodology, many of its practical advocacies that are influential to this day, and the name “Utilitarianism” itself all came out of this period.

Frankenstein was conceived in 1816 and published in 1818, during the height of growth for the Philosophical Radicals, in between Jeremy Bentham meeting important allies like James Mill and Pierre Dumont and the founding of radical institutions like University College London and the Westminster Review. Not only did Mary Shelley write for the Westminster Review eight times, but her father William Godwin was one of the earliest major Utilitarians, who followed upon Bentham’s essential political doctrine An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation with his own, more extreme (and popular) vision Enquiry Concerning Political Justice by only four years.

For all of the apparent disconnect between Utilitarianism and science fiction, few science fiction fans realize that the work they credit as having founded science fiction was dedicated to one of the original Utilitarian philosophers. If you look at the original 1818 text of Frankenstein, you will see Godwin’s name, along with the name of his Utilitarian opus “Political Justice”, before you get to the story itself,

“To William Godwin, Author Of Political Justice, Caleb Williams, &c. These Volumes Are Respectfully Inscribed By The Author.” (Shelley)

Shelley’s work has been read through most of the popular critical lenses. Freudian and Marxist ideas are turned onto a book which preceded either school of thought. I think that there is not only a strong historical case for investigating the ties between Mary Shelley and the Utilitarian school maturing around her as she wrote, but also a strong reason for keeping the possible connections in mind when critically reading her work.

Though I have never seen Utilitarian thought used as a tool for literary critical analysis, it seems to me to have this potential. The idea that at the end of the day, nothing else can be of more value than the smallest amount of real happiness or pain, that grand visions of justice, virtue, rights, and beauty, are just words next to the on the ground experiences of those living through the real world, seems to be a vision with truly critical, and yes, radical, potential. And this critical potential has been actively applied, Utilitarianism has produced some stunning cultural critiques as Bart Schultz has recently observed,

“Who knew, circa 1950, that Bentham, the object of such stinging abuse from Dickens and Marx, would emerge as a hero of gay studies? Of postcolonial studies? Of the feminist movement? Of animal liberation?” (Schultz, 56-57)

Popular caricatures advanced by those either directly within, or more chummy with the literary canon, have condemned Utilitarianism as belonging to the realm of naive bean counting bureaucrats, but this is far from the reality. Bentham was not only incredibly prolific as a writer 1 on practical matters, he had an infamously quirky sense of humor. He was also a polymath with interests as varied as philosophy, politics, economics, language, architecture, engineering, botany, music, and cooking.

Most people think of “Romantic” and “Utilitarian” as total opposites, but the Utilitarian movement was actually intimately entangled with the Romantic movement. Mary Shelley’s father William Godwin was both a Romantic writer himself and a huge influence on the politics of the Romantic poets Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Percy Shelley, both of whom wrote works inspired by this influence. One of the most influential Utilitarians of all time, John Stuart Mill, discovered happiness for himself after a period of serious depression through reading and discussing Romantic poets like William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

The specific texts of Mary Shelley’s that I will draw on in examining Mary Shelley’s possible interests in Utilitarianism are Frankenstein, The Last Man, and Mathilda. The main outside reading I did in preparation was of A Life With Mary Shelley by Barbara Johnson, and The Happiness Philosophers by Bart Schultz. In addition to these, I will reference miscellaneous relevant sources and my own background knowledge.

So, could Mary Shelley be called a “Philosophical Radical”? It is probably doubtful. The closest she came to that particular circle was with the eight articles she wrote for their organ, the Westminster Review. Though I have not read these articles, from their titles it seems to me like her contributions were not all that political. Still, the more general question of the degree of her “Philosophical Radicalism” leads in a direction I haven’t seen explored.

In terms of her ideological fit with the Philosophical Radicals, probably the most important fundamental alignment to examine, and the one I am most interested in, is Utilitarianism. From the material I have examined, I think that there is a stronger case to be made that Mary Shelley was a Utilitarian than that she was a Philosophical Radical, and indeed the case that she was influenced by, or even outright a Utilitarian herself, is one of the strongest cases for identifying her with Philosophical Radicalism.

Throughout her works, I have found quotes indicating a Utilitarian perspective. For instance, near the very end of Frankenstein, when the title character is on his death bed, reflecting on his decisions and airing his regrets, his final judgment has a very Utilitarian bent:

“In a fit of enthusiastic madness I created a rational creature, and was bound towards him, to assure, as far as was in my power, his happiness and well-being. This was my duty; but there was another still paramount to that. My duties towards my fellow-creatures had greater claims to my attention, because they included a greater proportion of happiness or misery.” (Shelley)

It is true that not all of Shelley’s morality takes an obviously Utilitarian perspective, she frequently discusses virtue and religion. Still, as much of the writing of her own father William Godwin was a testament to, words like virtue that now have a very distinct life in ethics from Utilitarianism were not always thought of so separately. A quote earlier in Frankenstein, this time from Frankenstein’s creation as he is first learning about humanity, provides further evidence for reading “virtue” in this light:

“I felt the greatest ardour for virtue rise within me, and abhorrence for vice, as far as I understood the signification of those terms, relative as they were, as I applied them, to pleasure and pain alone.” (Shelley)

The religious elements are a bit more of a challenge. While Utilitarianism was not considered totally incompatible with religion at this time (as thinkers like William Paley were testaments to), the Philosophical Radicals were generally opposed to ideas of the supernatural. Meanwhile Shelley’s books had certain overtly religious elements. Memorably, in Mathilda, as the title character is chasing her father who she suspects is planning to kill himself, she asks god to strike a nearby tree if there is no hope for her to save him, and immediately lightning strikes the tree.

The question of Mary Shelley’s relationship to religion is difficult to assess. After all, given the time period, there is reason to suspect that if Shelley had been atheistic or agnostic she would have wanted to hide it. She was also raised by William Godwin, and was married to Percy Shelley for years, both of whom were vocal atheists, so she certainly had exposure to irreligious ideas. At the same time, if Shelley really was looking to avoid controversy with respect to her religious ideas, then she could have skirted the topic wherever possible. You would not expect to see moments like the lightning strike in Mathilda.

You would also expect to see other controversial elements of Shelley’s novels being tempered, but both Frankenstein and The Last Man had unheard of premises that profoundly challenged the exclusive worth and permanence of humanity, and Mathilda’s premise was too uncomfortable for even her own atheist anarchist father William Godwin, who kept it from publication until over a century after they were both dead. I will therefore take Shelley at her word, and assume that she was religious, or at least had a certain respect for and interest in religion that was rare within Philosophical Radicalism.

Some of the evidence of Utilitarianism that might be read as most significant can be found in The Last Man. There can be some debate over the degree of autobiography present in Shelley’s work at large (though the frequency of dead mothers and suicide is certainly telling), but there is no debate of this sort over The Last Man. The parallels here are overt and unapologetic enough that it is clear that, at the very least, Lord Raymond is supposed to be Lord Byron, Prince Adrian is supposed to be Percy Shelley, and the narrator Lionel is supposed to be Mary Shelley herself. This adds a new force to quotes from any of these characters, because they very likely reflect the real-world conversations and ideas of Shelley and her circle.

In one scene, a conversation between Adrian (Percy) and Lionel (Mary) over Raymond’s (Byron’s) recent conduct, is described in this way:

“My friend and I had both been educated in one school, or rather I was his pupil in the opinion, that steady adherence to principle was the only road to honour; a ceaseless observance of the laws of general utility, the only conscientious aim of human ambition.” (Shelley)

Later in the book, the character Perdida 2 is threatening to kill herself if she is taken away from the last resting place of the dead Raymond, and Lionel chastises her on apparently Utilitarian grounds:

“You have often agreed with me that there is but one solution to the intricate riddle of life; to improve ourselves, and contribute to the happiness of others: and now, in the very prime of life, you desert your principles, and shut yourself up in useless solitude.” (Shelley)

Perdida, like Shelley’s half-sister Fanny Imlay, eventually did kill herself. Shelley was confronted with suicide throughout her life, and it can be found throughout her writing. It is interesting that the ways she finally confronts and challenges suicide do not tend to be related to the sanctity of life, but to the happiness of others.

An even lengthier scene confronting suicide can be found in the second-to-last chapter of Mathilda. In this scene Mathilda, after enduring years of crippling depression and a longing for death, finally decides to kill herself. She sets out two cups of poison, and confronts her close friend Woodville, to try to convince him to join her, to kill himself with her. After she lays out her plea at length, appealing to the suffering in life, and the desire to see her dead loved ones again, he makes his case, and finally convinces her not to kill herself. The arguments he uses are often religious, but also Utilitarian:

“Believe me, I will never desert life until this last hope is torn from my bosom, that in some way my labours may form a link in the chain of gold with which we ought all to strive to drag Happiness from where she sits enthroned above the clouds, now far beyond our reach, to inhabit the earth with us.” (Shelley)

The general impression given by the speech is that the best reason for remaining alive is the possibility of helping make the world a happier place. The idea that a life is not sacred, but merely a means to good or bad things (whether in one’s own life or in others'), was certainly unpopular in Shelley’s time, though recently it has gained some traction through the work of consequentialist bioethicists like Jonathan Glover and Peter Singer. Still, moments like these seem to indicate this direction of thinking, one that can also be seen in Frankenstein’s meditations on his death bed, meditations that could even be read today as a defense of voluntary euthanasia:

“They are dead; and but one feeling in such a solitude can persuade me to preserve my life. If I were engaged in any high undertaking or design, fraught with extensive utility to my fellow-creatures, then could I live to fulfil it. But such is not my destiny; I must pursue and destroy the being to whom I gave existence; then my lot on earth will be fulfilled, and I may die.” (Shelley)

Taken together, I think the evidence in Shelley’s writing points powerfully towards a Utilitarian perspective, so much so that even if she wasn’t a Utilitarian, it is hard to deny that she was probably influenced by the theory in her ethical thinking. Still, once again, this may not be enough to identify Shelley with the Philosophical Radicals.

Philosophical Radicalism was a political movement as well as a moral one, and Shelley was more stand-offish in her political life than those around her. As she wrote in her journal in 1838:

“In the first place, with regard to ‘the good cause'—the cause of the advancement of freedom and knowledge, of the rights of women, &c.—I am not a person of opinions. I have said elsewhere that human beings differ greatly in this. Some have passion for reforming the world; others do not cling to particular opinions. That my parents and Shelley were of the former class, makes me respect it…For myself, I earnestly desire the good and enlightenment of my fellow-creatures, and see all, in the present course, tending to the same, and rejoice; but I am not for violent extremes which only bring on an injurious reaction.” (as quoted by Johnson)

Barbara Johnson, in analyzing the meaning of the last part of this quote, suggests both the French Revolution and the backlash to her father’s biography of her mother, Memoirs of the Author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman as examples of these “violent extremes” that led to “injurious reaction”. In this way, Shelley’s comments seem to relate more directly to the Romantics than the Philosophical Radicals, who were more careful in their approach. However, if this statement is read with an eye to Frankenstein’s skepticism over the goodness of unexamined human ambition, and The Last Man’s skepticism of humanity’s ultimate power over its own narrative, then a more general distance from the utopian humanism characteristic of many movements around Shelley can be found as well.

At the same time, as the quote also indicates, Shelley shows some admiration for the ideals of world-changers. Sympathy for her father’s anarcho-socialist perspective can be found in the initial learnings of Frankenstein’s creation:

“For a long time I could not conceive how one man could go forth to murder his fellow, or even why there were laws and governments; but when I heard details of vice and bloodshed, my wonder ceased, and I turned away with disgust and loathing. Every conversation of the cottagers now opened new wonders to me. While I listened to the instructions which Felix bestowed upon the Arabian, the strange system of human society was explained to me. I heard of the division of property, of immense wealth and squalid poverty; of rank, descent, and noble blood.” (Shelley)

Though lines like this seem to distance Shelley further from the more free-market-friendly democratic liberalism favored by the Philosophical Radicals, there is sympathy to these ideals as well. In particular, Prince Adrian in The Last Man dedicates his political career to trying to turn England into a republic, something that serves as a major motivating force throughout the first half of the book. Still, Shelley seemed more cynical about politics than either the Romantics she was often identified with, or the Philosophical Radicals with whom she also shared much. In the realm of morality, good and bad, she remained actively interested in challenging discussions throughout her books.

Despite some contingencies and concessions, it seems clear to me from my readings that Utilitarianism can and should play a much bigger role in analyses of Mary Shelley’s writing. Mary Shelley was undoubtedly one of the most important writers in history, for her role in science fiction if nothing else. Her contributions to science fiction have either directly influenced or at least anticipated tropes in science fiction still highly influential to this day. Would science fiction fans think of their favorite genres and tropes differently if they realized that many, for example those dealing with challenges to the human moral circle, our responsibility to those we cause to exist, and mass extinctions, originated in a big way from within the circle of Utilitarianism? While some aspects of the story of Mary Shelley have become so well-known as to be nearly legendary within the right circles, I think the seriousness of this possibility presents another crucial context of this fascinating life that deserves exploration and contemplation.


  1. (Producing what University College London’s “Transcribe Bentham” project estimates will end up being seventy volumes of writing.) ↩︎

  2. (In the story, Lionel’s sister, and in terms of real-life parallels probably either a stand-in for Shelley’s half-sister Fanny Imlay or Shelley’s step-sister Claire Clairmont.) ↩︎



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