With the knowledge of Shelley’s excerpts mentioning music and the brief history of the evolution of the guitar, one can construct some inferences regarding why Shelley chose to discuss music (most specifically, in the scenes including the DeLacey’s) and whether she is alluding to some class structure or place in society through these references.
Professor Christopher Page of Gresham College has, by incredible fortune, recorded his speech entitled, “Being a Guitarist in the Time of Byron and Shelley.” In this video, he discusses the transition from a quaint instrument meant for casual play to one that is complex and highly commodified. Ulrich Wedemeier also performs throughout the lecture, and this video is an excellent supplement to contextualize Shelley’s exposure and possible perception of the instrument.
First and foremost, it is important to note that Shelley did not especially mention the monster’s infatuation with music in the way it is presented in modern adaptations. Wierzbicki traces this confusion to its roots in Presumption, an 1823 play of Frankenstein. In this play, the Monster becomes instantly blissful and distracted by the sound of music and is thus manageable. The Monster seemingly surpasses the emotions of any human when faced with a musical experience. However, that does not seem to be the intention of Mary Shelley. The Monster has a distinctly human reaction to hearing music. He stops, listens, and enjoys to Mr. DeLacey and his daughter’s playing as they elicit mournful tunes from the instrument, but he does not lose control of himself or become entranced in some inhuman way. Shelley’s perception of music, in general, should thus be interpreted as a human experience, and the Monster’s human reaction should place him in a light that is not dissimilar from other people.
In the case of the DeLacey’s, it seems evident that Shelley is indeed making some commentary on their social status when mentioning the guitar. This paper previously mentioned the ambiguity of “air” as a musical form, which appears to be an intentional allusion to vague classicism by Shelley. The air isn’t high class nor is it low class, which appears to be the odd dichotomy that the DeLacey’s are stuck within. Initial examination of the DeLacey’s life would reveal that they had fallen out of fortune within their home country and had to flee to Switzerland. It appears that the family was well-off but had to abandon their lives of comfort in exchange for safety. The “mournful airs” played by both Mr. DeLacey and his daughter indicates a melancholy desire to return back to their home. In a manner similar to gypsies, the DeLacey’s are outside of their home country and isolated foreigners. Unlike the gypsies, however, the DeLacey’s pieces are described as simple and sad, which does not align with a gypsy-like musical style. Thus, the DeLacey’s are placed in an interesting dichotomy of two worlds: they were once wealthy and play simple airs that could easily be pictured in some upper-class drawing room, but now they remain isolated in a foreign country where they were expelled to. Just like the guitar instrument itself, the family bridges a gap between elite classical music and simultaneously humble and virtuosic folk musical styles of gypsies and lower-class individuals. Shelley’s choice of the guitar as the instrument used by the DeLacey’s is extremely effective, and close historical examination of the instrument paired with the carefully chosen words by the author reveals a hidden aspect of the novel that could easily be overlooked. Music in the novel, just like music in the real world, thus lives in a perpetual state of both universal accessibility and unstable rising and falling of class structures and statuses, which adds to the appeal of both music itself and this novel which effectively addresses it.
Image: Mary Shelley, Richard Rothwell, 1840 (National Portrait Gallery). To tie this entire project together, an image of Mary Shelley with her elusive facial expression demonstrates that this class commentary through musical allusions could very likely have been intentional by this lauded author.