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The Psyche Behind Frankenstein: Feminism and Queer Theory


By Malaya Nordyke

Author and feminist thinker, Mary Shelley, wrote her first novel, Frankenstein, originally as a short horror story for family and friends. The English writer later published an extended novel version for the first time in 1818. The novel tells the story of a young scientist, Victor Frankenstein, who goes to college and defies the laws of nature by creating a monstrous yet sentient creature. Through this tale, Shelley makes many intrinsic comments on nineteenth century European society, or in the words of Margaret Homans, “Frankenstein portrays the situation of women obliged to play the role of the literal in a culture that devalues it” (Homans 1). Shelley expertly fuses together elements of gothic and romantic literature as well as queer theory, which essentially examines the potential fluidity of gender and sexual identifications, and feminist theory, the examination of the economic, social, and psychological oppression of women, to produce a unique and provocative text. Through the works of Margaret Homans, Ellen Moers, and Anne Mellor, this work will show that by giving a personal insight into the most intimate parts of her mind, her feminist critiques, and her proto-wueer theoretical analysis, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein transcends the boundaries of women’s literature and takes a radical stance on societal problems that persist to this day.

Shelley challenged literary and cultural norms when writing Frankenstein due to her feminist background and her own personal experiences. Firstly, Shelley broke trends of the eighteenth and nineteenth century by simply being a women writing on the topic of female sexuality and nativity. At the time, the dialogue surrounding all things feminine and maternal were told by male novelists like Tolstoy, so Shelley composing this work can be considered a radical feminist act in itself. But Shelley also questioned traditional tales of childbirth and women’s literature by incorporating chaotic experiences from her troubled early life into the narrative. Frankenstein was written around the same time of Mary Shelley’s first pregnancy. Shelley gave birth to a premature baby girl who died just weeks later, devastating and deeply disturbing her. Ellen Moers, among other feminist writers have dubbed Frankenstein a “birth myth”; Shelley’s way of sharing her fears of childbirth as well as expelling the trauma of her experience as a mother. In her Literary Women, Moers examines this very phenomenon:

Most of the novel, roughly two of its three volumes, can be said to deal with the retribution visited upon monster and creator for deficient infant care. Frankenstein seems be distinctly a woman’s mythmaking on the subject of birth precisely because its emphasis is not upon what precedes birth, not upon birth itself, but upon what follows birth: the trauma of the afterbirth. (Moers 5)
For Moers, the novel was written as a backlash to the most natural act of a woman: Shelley’s repulsion not only against giving birth but against newborn life. Fear and pain are certainly real and common, feelings during the most preliminary stages of motherhood, yet they were rarely discussed. Childbirth is often associated with miracles, light, and the pure happiness and instant maternal connection when the mother holds her child for the first time. Shelley rejects this “miracle” when describing Victor’s first time laying eyes on his creation. Instead of the habitual beauty and innocence associated with a newborn, Victor describes the creature with a “shrivelled complexion and straight black lips” (Shelley 41). Moers also discusses the dangerous relationship between monster and creator: child and mother. In the novel, Shelley analyzes the abnormality of the child-parent tie along with the inherent ability for the former to cause the demise of the later and vice versa. This natural pattern is seen when the creature relentlessly pursues its creator, Victor, and quickly becomes the bane of Victor’s existence. Victor reciprocates this destructive obsession when he devotes his final years to putting an end to his own creation. This unique perspective on the ability of a child to be the harbinger of the creators demise may be traced back to Shelley’s mother, who died of puerperal fever following Mary’s birth. Shelley had reportedly always felt responsible for her mothers death. Inversely, the idea that the creator can ruin the life of its creation may be derived from Shelley’s remorse for producing a healthy baby. Frankenstein is just as much a comment on society as a whole as it is a window into Shelley’s darkest thoughts, full of guilt and regret.

Though Mary Shelley’s novel may be about the perturbation of motherhood, Frankenstein is also heavily influenced by Shelley’s feminist background, resulting in a narrative that exposes the arrogance of man and the societal suppression of women. Shelley parallels her characters with biblical figures from Milton’s epic poem, Paradise Lost, to enhance these messages. The ways in which Shelley incorporated characters from Paradise Lost into Frankenstein illuminate how she transformed biblical and literary parallels into feminist criticism. The connections, like the rest of the book, are complex and subjective. One of the more obvious connections is Victor playing the role of God, the omnipotent creator who looses control of his creations. Inversely, Victor also plays the role of Satan, a clever rebel force against the greater power. The creature in some ways plays the role of Satan as well, acting as the fallen angel that has turned from its potential greatness to pursue a life of evil and darkness. The most striking parallel for the creature, though, is its role as Eve, God’s creation that strays from her given purpose. These parallel roles highlight Victor’s conspicuous hubris. In Margaret Homans’s Bearing the Word: Language and the Female Experience in Nineteenth-Century Women's Writing she examines the overt arrogance of men, both in real life and in the novel: Nordyke 4

While a masculine being -- God, Adam, Percy Shelley, Frankenstein – may imagine that his creation of an imaginary being may remain under the control of his desires, Mary Shelley knows otherwise, both through her experience as mistress and wife of Percy and through her experience of childbirth. Shelley's particular history shows irrefutably that children, even pregnancies, do not remain under the control of those who conceive them. (Homans 18)
According to Homans, Shelley used Frankenstein to call out man’s tendency to have the confidence to create, but not the knowledge and capacity to control. This role of a reckless creator is represented in Victor’s double mantle of both God and Satan — a being that has the power of God yet the irresponsibility and misguided propensity of Satan. The situation very much reflects the old saying that with great power comes great responsibility, two characteristics that, according to Homans and quite possibly Shelley, men have a hard time coupling together.

Furthermore, the creature as a revision of Eve demonstrates the inherent marginalization of women. Very much like Eve, who was created upon an agreement between Adam and God with no consideration of her own free will, the creature was brought into the world for Victor’s personal intellectual glory then promptly rejected from the world due to its divergence from its intended purpose. Both works reflect the irrational fear of a woman that expresses her desires. Eve’s consumption of the apple and disobedience to God, whose sole purpose of creating her was to be Adam’s mate, aligns with the creature’s own disobedience to Victor and his demands for a mate of his own. This theme displays societal rejection of a woman that acts against her creator (man) when Eve’s actions are considered the original sin, and the creature’s actions make him a “monster.” Homans backs this theory when discussing Frankenstein’s brutal mutilation Nordyke 5 and destruction of the female companion that he promised the creature: “Further, the impossibility of Frankenstein giving it a female demon, an object of its own desire, aligns the demon with women, who are forbidden to have their own desires” (Homans 8). However, Frankenstein’s misogyny as symbolized by Homans’s analysis becomes more literal when giving his reasons for the destruction of the female counterpart:

She, who in all probability was to become a thinking and reasoning animal, might refuse to comply with a compact made before her creation. They might even hate each other; the creature who already lived loathed his own deformity, and might he not conceive a greater abhorrence for it when it came before his eyes in the female form? She also might turn with disgust from him to the superior beauty of man; she might quit him, and he be again alone, exasperated by the fresh provocation of being deserted by one of his own species. (Shelley 148)
Here, a much more blatant connection to Eve is made. Victor constructs the female creature, then after contemplating sexuality, reproduction, and desire, he hacks the body apart. This act suggests that the feminine is infinitely more threatening to Victor than the masculine because of her potential to stray from what he see as her natural subjection to man. Moreover, Victor is most afraid of the female’s reproductive ability and her potential to choose her own mate. His fear and perceived need to regulate female sexual lives reflects the marginalization of women not only in the early 1800s, but also in modern life and politics. Yet again Victor, acting as God, miscalculates and only throws the creature into a fit of rage. The havoc that ensues can arguably be Shelley’s way of condemning Victor’s misogyny as well as patriarchal thoughts in general.

Frankenstein’s rejection of the female being may also be connected to confusion with his own identity and homosocial tendencies. Homans explains that Victor’s creation of a male creature instead of a female one

…suggests that romantic desire seeks to do away … with all females so as to live finally in a world of mirrors that reflect a comforting illusion of the male self's independent wholeness. It is worth noting that just as Frankenstein's desire is for a male demon, Walton too yearns, not for a bride, but for ‘the company of a man who could sympathize with me, whose eyes would reply to mine’. (Homans 9)
Homans interpretation suggests Victor’s confidence in his gender identity, but there may, in fact, be deeper confusion to his identity. Victor had a life heavily influenced by females, from his mother to Elizabeth. However, the death of Victor’s mother may have made a radical impression on Victor’s perception of women. Though he by no means thought lesser of his beloved mother, the incident may have made Victor subconsciously relate women to weakness and death. His fear of feeling the loss that he felt from the death of his mother may have turned him away from women in general, thus driving him to create a model of stability, which to him meant male. Victor may also have been acting on the patriarchal structure of the time that placed men predominately in the labor force and women in the home. As an ambitious young scientist, Victor may have created a male counterpart because he deemed it a more proper partner for his vocational and intellectual pursuits. In consequence, Victor’s rigid separation of the professional and domestic sphere made him loose touch with the females in his life. While dealing with the creature, Victor gradually lost touch with Elizabeth, his intended mate. This tangible detachment even worried Elizabeth, prompting her to ask “do you not love another?” (Shelley 162). Despite profuse confessions of love to Elizabeth, the most Victor’s most passionate relationships were between him and another man. Although she was the woman that he intended and eventually did marry, there were not many scenes in the book that Elizabeth was physically present in. Her absence and the creatures prominence reveals the replacement of a heterosexual relationship with a homosexual obsession.

Shelley deconstructs set familial structures of the time by having Victor fill the void of the absence of a maternal figure. Victor detaches himself further from women by usurping the most fundamental role of a mother when creating the creature. Mellor points out that Victor consciously describes nature as female, “In constituting nature as female -- ‘I pursued nature to her hiding places’ (49) -- Victor Frankenstein participates in a gendered construction of the universe” (Mellor 1). The complete overthrow of the natural world and Victor’s elimination of the natural female role in the reproductive process undermines women’s cultural and biological power. These two major misogynistic actions taken by Victor lead to the nightmarish tale of Frankenstein. This, again, may be Shelley’s warning of the disastrous results that come with a society in which men are valued over women. Victor’s actions can also be seen as a reaction to the death of his mother. Once his mother died, Victor may have felt the need to fill the void that her absence left, and, in accordance to his withdrawal from the females in his life, prove to himself that he can be independent of the unreliability of women by taking on the only biological act that women can perform but men cannot. Shelley’s work also challenges the traditional familial structure with the father as the head and the mother as the child rearer. Because Victor usurped the role of both parents, there was a lack of an actual mother in the creature’s life. In other works where there is an absence of a maternal figure, such as King Lear, the children of the family typically experience underdevelopment and neglect which often leads to a hatred for the father. The creature, which is portrayed to be a more feminine being than masculine, “grew up” under the rule of dominating and unsympathetic male, which led to the creatures abhorrence and confusion. Living under the order of harsh paterfamilias, the absence of a mother came to symbolize the creature’s loneliness and lack of parental love. Homans partially credits Victor’s personal experience to his choice of not giving a mother to his creation: “Frankenstein’s own history is full of the deaths of mothers. His mother was discovered, as a poverty-stricken orphan, by Frankenstein's father. Frankenstein's adoptive sister and later fiancée, Elizabeth, was likewise discovered as an orphan, in poverty, by Frankenstein's parents” (Homans 2). Initially, Victor’s decision to take on the role of a mother himself may have been in good intentions for his creature. Victor’s experience with women was essentially shrouded by sadness and turmoil, so his failure to provide a mother to his creation may have been his first, and only, attempt at responsible parenting.

Mary Shelley again challenges the patriarchal familial structures of the time through the DeLacey family. Mellor describes the unusual equality in the DeLacey household:

The DeLacey family represents an alternative ideology: a vision of the polis-as- egalitarian-family, of a society based on justice, gender equality, and mutual affection. Felix willingly sacrifices his own welfare to ensure that justice is done to the Turkish merchant. In the impoverished De Lacey household, all work is shared equally in an atmosphere of rational companionship, mutual concern, and love. As their symbolic names suggest, Felix embodies happiness, Agatha goodness. They are then joined by Safie (sophia or wisdom). (Mello 2)
Shelley’s decision to have the creature learn most of what it knows from this family shows her belief in greater equality and progressive thinking through education. Safie’s outward disapproval of the Islamic oppression of women and advocacy for human rights and knowledge was considered very progressive acts of that day. Some writers speculate that Safie is an incarnation of Mary Wollstonecraft, Shelley’s mother, a prominent feminist writer of her day. The DeLacey family gives a progressive and ideological aspect to the novel that, for the most part, takes place in a fairly conservative society. However, the DeLacey’s rejection of the creature can be interpreted as Shelley’s message that there is always room for more acceptance and more equality, even in the most progressive parts of society.

A professor of the Arts, Fred Botting once claimed that "Frankenstein is a product of criticism, not a work of literature.” Clearly, Shelley’s vigorous analysis throughout the novel proves that Frankenstein is indeed a product of feminist and literary criticism. As a woman born into a family of progressive authors and thinkers, Shelley would by no means create a text that did not challenge some aspect of society or call for a higher level of thinking. But of all the appraisal and social commentary within this work, the most important critique is of the social, political, economic, and psychological denigration of women. Shelley examination transcends time, as her narrative challenges nineteenth century European society just as much as it does modern society. Although half correct, Botting is mistaken to not consider Frankenstein a work of literature. This is what is so unique about Mary Shelley’s novel. Frankenstein is able to make a brilliant analysis and express profound thought while also telling a story for the ages.

Works Cited

Homans, Margaret. "Bearing Demons: Frankenstein's Circumvention of the Maternal." Homans, "Bearing Demons" University of Chicago Press, 1986. Web. 30 Mar. 2016.
Mellor, Anne K. "Mary Shelley: Her Life, Her Fiction, Her Monsters." Mellor, "Usurping the Female" New York: Methuen, 1988. Web. 01 Apr. 2016.
Moers, Ellen. "Literary Women: The Great Writers." Moers, "Female Gothic" Oxford University Press, 1976. Web. 30 Mar. 2016.
Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft, and Patrick Nobes. Frankenstein. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2000. Print.

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