Rousseau's Influence on Mary Shelley

Jean-Jacques Rousseau
by Maurice Quentin de la Tour
circa 1750

Mary Shelley saw Jean-Jacques Rousseau as a man "with an imagination that warmed him to daring." In her 1839 book, Eminent Literary and Scientific Men of France Volume II, Shelley clearly conveys the intellectual debt she has to Rousseau.

Although Shelley was deeply influenced by Rousseau's work, she did not respect some of his choices in life. He abandoned his children to an orphanage, to which Shelley commented, "Rousseau failed in this....the distortion of intellect that blinded him to the first duties of life, we are inclined to believe to be allied to that vein of insanity, that made him an example among men for self-inflicted sufferings." She felt that because he was the bearer of such intense intellect, it was his right to bring up his children and pass on his vast amounts of knowledge to them.

Rousseau also had relationships with various women, of which Shelley did not fully approve. When comparing him to his wife Therese, she scorned him, saying, "he deserves more [blame] for having chosen, in the first place, an ignorant woman, who had no qualities of heart to compensate for stupidity; and secondly, for having injured instead of improving her disposition by causing her to abandon her children, and taking from her the occupations and interests that attend maternity." Mary Shelley clearly did not approve of his treatment of Therese and felt that he should have been more sensible in his choice of a companion.

Despite how Mary Shelley felt about Rousseau's personal affairs, she was incredibly moved by his intellectual work, particularly, Emile. She praised this piece and exalted Rousseau. She describes it as a "success" and "a book that deserves higher praise" than his 1760 Nouvelle Heloise. Clearly, Mary Shelley was moved by this work and was saddened that "this admirable work, whence generations of men derive wisdom and happiness, was the origin of violent persecution against the author; and, by expelling him from his home, and exposing him into a state of mind allied to madness, and devoted him to poverty and sorrow to the end of his life." She is obviously upset that such a renowned work would have cost Rousseau happiness in life.

Although Mary Shelley's critique of Rousseau is half critical and half enthusiastic, she was deeply moved and influenced by his thoughts and dreams. Her description of the Creature in Frankenstein closely resembles her documentation of Rousseau's wanderings throughout Europe during his days of exile. The proximity between the two is unmistakable.

In many ways, Mary Shelley personally related to Rousseau. Both of their mothers died from childbirth complications, they were both dreamers, yet outcasts, and both found inspiration in solitude. Their unspoken connection comes clear through Mary Shelley's narration of the life of Jean-Jacques Rousseau.


Copyright 2002: History 257 - Mount Holyoke College
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Lindsay Theile.