Feminist Aspects in Frankenstein

Anne K. Mellor's and Other Feminist Approaches to Mary Shelley's Gothic Novel

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2009

19 Pages, Grade: 1,3


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Feminist Criticism and Its Interest in Frankenstein
2.1. Feminism and Feminist Criticism
2.2. Frankenstein in Feminist Literary Criticism

3. Mary Shelley – A Feminist?

4. Anne K. Mellor’s Feminist Approach to Frankenstein

5. Mellor’s arguments in other feminist critic approaches

6. Conclusion


1. Introduction

“I have been reading Frankenstein as a woman’s text concerned with women’s issues” (Smith 1992, 284)

The Gothic Novel Frankenstein[1] by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley[2] (1797-1851) is the most famous of her literary works for it has been reissued, redefined and criticised regularly since its first publication in 1818.

Johanna Smith mirrors with her statement what many critics say about Frankenstein: They define Frankenstein not only as a Gothic Novel, but as a Feminist Novel as well. Some of the feminist literary critics say that “feminist interest in Frankenstein would throw light on the novel’s darkest passages” (Fischer et al 1993, 3), others claim it is an invocation on women’s rights in general. However, all of them agree on the fact that the novel underlines the repression of women in private and public and that it criticizes the patriarchal role and dominating position of men.

In this term paper I am aiming at pointing out the arguments of feminist literary critics that define Frankenstein as a feminist novel. In order to support the thesis of Frankenstein being a feminist novel, I first want to give a definition of Feminist Literary Criticism and its branches.

Another interesting question, which needs to be answered before taking a look at feminist aspects in the novel, is the following. Did Mary Shelley intend to put a feminist message in her novel? It is important for the further analysis to know whether we are handling with a feminist or not. Did she really support the feminist movement with her own attitude or was she rather pushed into that kind of role by the critics? I intend to answer this question in the second part of the paper together with an examination of the development of Frankenstein in feminist discussion.

After having defined Mary Shelley as a feminist (or not) and having summarized what the movement was about, I want to go into detail analyzing Shelley’s Frankenstein in feminist terms.

In my analysis I will firstly put emphasis on Anne K. Mellor’s approach to Frankenstein. She not only gave with “Mary Shelley; Her Life, Her Fiction, Her Monsters (1988), the only full-length critical treatment of Shelley’s works in the 1980s” (Fisch et al 1993,8), but she also summarizes a lot of the arguments many feminist critics have mentioned in terms of interpreting Frankenstein. Mellor therefore provides a good basis for further examination.

Finally, in order to support and enlarge Mellor’s theory I want to introduce approaches by other critics treating the issue of feminism in Shelley’s work. These critics not only detail, object, and analyze Mellor’s statements, but they also add their own ideas. Thereby, it shall become clear if we can really label Frankenstein a Feminist Gothic Novel.

2. Feminist Criticism and its Interest in Frankenstein

Before going into detail on analyzing Frankenstein and its feminist features we need to understand what the feminist claims and problems were about and why feminist critics got interested in Mary Shelley’s work at all. In the following chapter I want to offer an overview of the women’s movement development and its relationship to the Gothic novel.

2.1 Feminism and Feminist Criticism

The feminist movement arose in the context of the politically oriented women movement and the industrial society in the late 19th and early 20th century. Critics belonging to the first wave of feminism are influenced by several seminal texts on women’s rights. The mother of Mary Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft, wrote one of the earliest manifestations: A Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792). She therefore can be called the forerunner of the Nineteenth-century movement (cf. Krolokke 2006, 6). Other works by Virginia Woolf (A Room of One’s Own, 1992) and Gilbert and Gubar (The Madwoman in the Attic, 1979) play an important role in providing basic literary material (cf. Nünning, 191).

While the second wave of feminism (1960s to 1970s) addresses a wide range of issues, such as inequalities, sexuality or the workplace, third wave feminism (from mid-1990s onwards) concerns itself with the new aspect of women’s oppression such as violence or overall pornofication (cf. Krolokke 2006, 1f.).

Feminist literary criticism, which arose in the 1960s, covers a broad field of methods and opinions. The critics are concerned with the question how women are analyzed in terms of their treatment in literature (i.e. as characters) and as writers of such (cf. Nünning 2008, 190).

Feminist criticism can mainly be divided into three different stages, phases or strands.

In this paper I will focus on the categorization of French, American and British feminism, because they all analyze similar problems, though from different perspectives.

American feminist critics focus on the feminist writing. They claim women writers have their own experiences and therefore their own style. In their analysis they do not focus on the language but on the literary text itself. In the early phase (till mid-1970s) they examine how women characters are portrayed in texts by male writers who mainly use patriarchal norms (cf. Smith 1992, 262). This phase is also called feminine critique (cf. Nünning 2008, 190).

While these critics focus on male writers, another group forms itself in the 1970s. The ‘ gynocriticism group’ (re)studies works of famous women authors and their female literary tradition, i.e. frequently reappearing patterns of themes and images (cf. Smith 1992, 263).

In contrast to the American feminists, British feminists try to “distinguish themselves from what they see as an American overemphasis on texts linking women across boundaries and decades and an underemphasis on popular art and culture” (ibid., 264). Therefore, basically, British feminists try to focus on historical tradition and political activities in which the differentiation of male and female is buried in order to achieve social change for women.

French Feminism on the opposite sees the gender difference manifested in language. They not only put the literary text and its content into consideration, but they focus on elements of speech. There is a fundamental difference in male and female writing; thinking is male, emotions are female is what they suggest. What French feminists conclude, is that language is mainly male and therefore destroys the voices of women. They thought of it as having a ‘phallocentric structure’: “it privileges the phallus and, more generally, masculinity by associating them with things and values more appreciated by the (masculine-dominated) culture” (Smith 1992, 260). In order to transgress these boundaries of masculine language women writers use unconventional punctuation and stylistic novelty - this feminine language was called l’écriture feminine (cf. Nünning 2008, 192).

Although there are some differences in the understanding of feminist criticism in Anglo-American and French approaches, they tend to have fused together during the last decades.

2.2 Frankenstein in Feminist Literary Criticism

From its publication on, Frankenstein was analyzed not only in Romantic or Gothic terms. However, in the beginning a feminist involvement on Shelley’ side was excluded, mainly because of her very own statements, e.g. “I have never written to vindicate the rights of women, I have ever befriended women when oppressed.”[3] (Shelley in Jones 1947, 206; quoted in Markus 1994, 49). Nevertheless, critics raised the question why Mary Shelley had published her outstanding work anonymously and why she allowed her husband to revise her first version of the novel. Those were aspects, feminists saw as indications for Shelley’s underrated position as a woman writer. Therefore, early assumptions were made that Frankenstein was written by a woman, who had to struggle the female repression of her times. With ‘her monster’ she gave new interest in the treatment of the female writer and she also reinforced “the tradition of the Gothic Novel as a peculiarly female domain” (Mellor 1988, 55).

But also the content of the novel showed feminist traits. Feminist critics found in Frankenstein “a powerful strain of patriarchal ideology and an ambivalent attitude towards women’s creativity” (Smith 1992, 259).

Before feminist literary criticism arose in the 1960s the novel’s fame had not declined. It never got out of print and film versions were published constantly, but it was not so much in the focus of feminists yet. However, when Science Fiction became valued in academic circles in the 1960s and 1970s and interest in the woman writer had begun to revive because of the new development, every feminist critic talked about Mary Shelley and her works again (cf. Lowe-Evans 1998, 10).

Continuingly, not only in the 1980s, feminists used Frankenstein “to criticize masculinist tendencies in literary theory” (Fisch et al 1993, 3f.); still today the novel is well liked to show how women’s repression in theory and practice is presented. As will be seen, all three branches of feminist literary criticism approaches can be found in Frankenstein.

3. Mary Shelley – A Feminist?

Because of the multitude of feminist topics that can be found in Frankenstein it can be assumed that Mary Shelley was strongly influenced by themes of the women movement and that she wanted to disclose some of the issues with her novel.


[1] The following edition is being quoted in this paper: Shelley, Mary. 1818. “Frankenstein”. In: n.e. 1994. Four Gothic Novels. The Castle of Otranto; Vathek; The Monk; Frankenstein (Paperback). Oxford: OUP. In the ongoing text I am going to quote the book as Shelley, <page number>.

[2] Many refer to Mary Shelley as either Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (her mother’s name, followed by her husband’s name), Mary Godwin Shelley (including her father’s name) or simply Mary Shelley. In the ongoing text I will refer to her as Mary Shelley.

[3] Mary Shelley hints at her mother’s important feminist work “A Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792).

Excerpt out of 19 pages


Feminist Aspects in Frankenstein
Anne K. Mellor's and Other Feminist Approaches to Mary Shelley's Gothic Novel
RWTH Aachen University
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ISBN (eBook)
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Feminism, Mary Shelly, Frankenstein, Mellor, Feminist Criticism, Gothic novel, Botting, Nünning
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Jana Brueske (Author), 2009, Feminist Aspects in Frankenstein , Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/204983


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