Précis Critiques: Frankenstein
Ellen Moers’ 1976 essay “Female Gothic: The Monster’s Mother” holds that the purpose of gothic literature is to physically frighten, not to provide catharsis, and that women were major contributors to the genre since its earliest days in the 18th century. Gothic novels tended to take place in old mansions or other indoor spaces, and thus women had the power and authority to move freely within them, making, “the Gothic novel a feminine substitute for the picaresque” that was then in style (216). Anne Radcliffe was the premier author of the style, and remained current even into Mary Shelley’s time. Shelley, however, had one distinct biographical detail over her fellow women writers of the period: she had borne children, a fact that informs Frankenstein, which Moers calls, “a birth myth” (216).
Aside from having giving birth, Mary Shelley had done so in unusual circumstances, “without any of the financial or social or familial supports that made bearing and rearing children a relaxed experience for the normal middle-class woman of her day” (222). Long motherless and having eloped with a married man against her father’s will, by the time she had married Percy Bysshe Shelley she had given birth to three children and lost one within a month of being born. Meanwhile, both her half-sister and Shelley’s first wife had committed suicide largely due to anxieties about pregnancy and birth, all of which, Moers implies, has striking parallels to the milieu of death Victor Frankenstein was in. Mary’s sister coped with suicide, Mary with writing.
Moers’ contention that Frankenstein lacks, “an important female victim” is bizarre and unsupported, but her other comments about the work and its important are very intriguing (216). “Frankenstein, if not a great novel, was unquestionably and original one. The major Romantic and minor Gothic tradition to which it should have belonged was the literature of the overreacher…” (219) It is amazing that men like Tolstoy and Zola were the first to broach the topic of the birth process realistically, while Thackeray did so earlier with excessive sentimentality, and Shelley felt the only way to address it was by making her story’s ‘mother’ a warped man. Moers’ piece deserves praise for considering Frankenstein with such intellectual and emotional sophistication after the story had been so debased by popular culture.
“Mary Shelley’s Monstrous Eve,” co-written by Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar and published in 1979, opines that Frankenstein is a female Romantic’s interpretation of Milton’s Paradise Lost, with, “hell a dark parody of heaven” (225). Unlike Moers, Gilbert and Gubar feel the trinity of Victor, the monster, and Walton are connected in that, “all three, like Shelley herself, appear to be trying to understand their presence in a fallen world… but unlike Adam, all three characters seem to have fallen not merely from Eden, but from the earth, fallen directly into hell, like Sin, Satan, and by implication Eve” (229).
In this conception, Victor Frankenstein is an Adam figure who becomes Satan, and Walton is likewise one who ignored his father’s wishes and has satanic tendencies toward domination and glory in a Miltonic arctic hell. Victor is also at the moment of creation an Eve figure, which he then transfers to the monster. In Gilbert and Gubar’s opinion, “the monster’s bitter self-revelations are Mary Shelley’s most impressive and original achievement” (235). The monster’s surreptitious education with the DeLaceys mirrors Mary’s own at the feet of Percy, Lord Byron, and the rest of the male-dominated Romantic authors. The books the monster stumbles upon (like Paradise Lost) are ones that were ‘assigned’ to her by her eventual husband, and, “each must have seemed to her to embody the kind of lessons a female author (or monster) must learn about a male-dominated society” (237). Additionally, “one of the most notable facts about the monster’s ceaselessly anxious study of Paradise Lost is his failure to even mention Eve” (238). The authors also take pains to draw parallels between male fear and loathing of the female body with the hideousness of the monster. In short, he is, “as nameless as unmarried, illegitimately pregnant Mary Godwin may have felt herself to be at the time she wrote Frankenstein” (240).
The piece is very compelling. That portions of it now seem dull is testament to how widely accepted its premises have become: much of the text is devoted to decoupling Frankenstein from the then-common myth that Percy Bysshe Shelley either wrote or was otherwise greatly responsible for its achievement. The authors display an impressive command of the literary context of Mary Shelley’s day, and apply it to a very insightful interpretation of the story.
In the 1985 “Frankenstein and a Critique of Imperialism,” Gayatri Spivak addresses the, “incidental imperialist sentiment” within the book (263). Instances of this include Clerval’s, “design to visit India, in the belief that he had in his knowledge of its various languages, and in the views he had taken of its society, the means of materially assisting the progress of European colonization and trade” (265). It is also displayed in the books the monster uses to gain his education, such as Plutarch’s Lives and Volney’s Ruins of Empires, both of which heavily concerned imperial Rome (266). The imperialist bent was given a liberal twist in the character of Safie, a Turkish woman who has suffered injustices at the hands of both Christians and Muslims, and who is being cared for and properly educated by progressive bourgeoisie. Shelley by way of the monster uses “Arab” and “Turk” interchangeably, exposing her lack of faculty with finer points of the Middle East, a trait common to her fellow British subjects.
The piece is interesting, but is heftier in areas already addressed by Moers, Gilbert, and Gubar, such as the misogyny of Victor Frankenstein, then it is in identifying and explicating instances of imperialism in the text. Perhaps a more traditional Marxist approach may have helped. I believe there is more to be mined from this latter vein than Spivak accomplishes, but the article is still worthwhile. The almost throw-away insight that the monster is, “unnatural because bereft of a determinable childhood,” could have been much more deeply explored from the standpoints of imperialism, misogyny and Shelley’s own childhood without a mother (263).
Anne Mellor’s “Possessing Nature: The Female In Frankenstein,” published in 1988, aggressively addresses the unanswered questions of Spivak’s article. Victor Frankenstein considers Nature to be female, “a gendered construction of the universe whose ramifications are everywhere apparent in Frankenstein” (274). Victor Frankenstein’s goal in creating the monster is to usurp not God the father, but Nature the mother and all women. Indeed, his refusal to create a female counterpart for his monster shows Victor’s true motivation. In Victor’s world, intellect and action are gendered male, emotion female, which accounts for his utter lack of empathy or nurture for his creation. Likewise, women are unable to, “function effectively in the public realm,” with deadly results for Justine (276). “Implicit in Mary Shelley’s attack on the social injustice of established political systems is the suggestion that the separation from the public realm of feminine affections and compassion has caused much of this social evil” (276). The DeLacey family is the alternative to this pathological construct, “a vision of a social group based on justice, equality, and mutual affection… (where) all work is shared in an atmosphere of rational companionship, mutual concern, and love” (277).
- Quote paper
- Mark Schauer (Author), 2012, Precis Critique of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/230274