Contents Index

A Woman Writes the Fiction of Science: The Body in Frankenstein

Mary A. Favret

Genders 14 (1992), 50-65

{50} Modern technology makes itself legitimate through the Frankenstein story. The horrifying tale of a scientist who "bestow[s] animation" upon a lifeless corpse. and is subsequently tormented by the creature he creates, Frankenstein has fostered a legacy which, oddly enough, promotes artificial reproduction. "Frankensteins" continue to proliferate throughout our world: The novel's offspring overrun the various media of popular culture to such an extent that these media (especially film) self-consciously reproduce themselves as ever-new versions of this monster. A genealogy of the Frankenstein figure within our culture becomes a genealogy of that culture. So when we trace this genealogy back to its creator and discover there "a young girl" writing her first novel, we register a certain shiver.1 How is it that a woman novelist has generated this figure of scientific, technological and radically denatured reproduction? We can answer this question only by refusing to separate a woman's labor from the work of technological and cultural reproduction.

It may appear as if popular culture and the ideology of modern science have wrested the figure of Frankenstein out of the hands of the woman who conceived it. Yet the novelist is no natural mother who has lost her child. By sending forth the novel as her "hideous progeny," Mary Shelley names herself the rival, if not the alter ego, of the scientist-creator. Her version of creation haunts his; neither suffers a natural death — or birth. In short, the Frankenstein legacy asks us to recast the original work not simply as seminal science-fiction, but as a rivalry of artificial seminations: science against fiction, fiction against science. The terrain which grounds this rivalry allows us to see the affinities between fiction and science. According to Donna Haraway, this terrain is described by the intersections of "communications technologies and biotechnologies," both of which offer the "crucial tools for recrafting our bodies," for generating our own hideous progeny.2 Frankenstein asks us to recognize production and consumption of fiction as a "communications technology" and "technology of gender."3

Before we hail Mary Shelley as "the mother of science fiction," we ought to locate our notions of motherhood within the field of cultural reproduction {51} Haraway imagines for us. This essay proposes three paths for such a project. To begin with the third: The essay concludes that Mary Shelley's fiction writing presents itself as a production no more natural than Victor's experiments with the "secret of life." Both resist a natural order even as they struggle to define that order. Before reaching this conclusion, however, I suggest that by removing the debate from natural to only unnatural productions we intensify the issue of gender difference. Taking a historical tack, this second path follows Mary Shelley's entrance into early nineteenth-century debates about human nature and (simultaneously) cultural power. Women and fiction, the novelist insists, make a crucial difference in the production of ideas about human nature. In this regard Frankenstein imagines its own legacy in postmodern feminist science fiction.4 Shelley's science fiction "makes visible" the difference of both gender and literary genre as "socially constructed and culturally transmitted organizer[s] of inner and outer worlds."5

But first we must confront the animated body as an index of how human nature is constructed and transmitted. In the language of the novelist, we must consider how "a [human] creature might be manufactured, brought together, and endued with vital warmth" ("Author's Introduction," x). Frankenstein deliberately identifies the story of unnatural creativity with the human body not because the body figures as a source of natural production but because it serves as a measure of the knowledge, pleasure, and consequent power desired by modern Western culture.6 Situated on and about the body, stories and story-telling in Frankenstein begin to matter in a powerful way. It is therefore through the variously animated body that we need to reread the struggles of cultural reproduction.

Producing Animated Bodies

When I suggested that modern technology may have wrested Frankenstein out of the hands of the woman who conceived it, my slippery metaphors (hands— conceived) reenacted the "conceptual" tug-of-war found in all versions of "Frankenstein": the struggle of moving ideas into and out of the body. Notice how the metaphors transfer conception from the womb to the hands, from the material producer ("mater") to the fabricator and manipulator. From the start, in fact, the concept "Frankenstein" was determined to slide "out of the hands" of the novelist, away from the body and into technologized culture. A parallel movement, this time into aesthetic culture, occurs in Percy Shelley's "Defence of Poetry": "A great statue or picture grows under the power of the artist as a child in the mother's womb; and the very mind which directs the hands in formation is incapable of accounting to itself for the origin, the gradations, or the media of the process." Percy Shelley goes on to imagine the poet/artist "engendering . . .  [a] human nature" which defies man's philosophy and science, thereby mystifying the womb altogether.7 The woman's body, replaced by the hands, is the figure that substantiates the artist's claim of cultural power; but engendering begins and ends with the activity of the artistic mind.

{52} If artistic production is allowed to define its own nature in terms of the body, then bodies can be categorized as either "artistic' or "nonartistic objects, as "beautiful" or "deformed."8 In similar fashion, science and technology can judge the body according to their own criteria, as when Victor Frankenstein measures his creature's strength, proportions, and size. The question of conception, whether artistic or nonartistic, scientific or nonscientific, becomes a question of physical manipulation: By whose hands or instruments will natural phenomena be constructed? But it easily becomes a question of ideological manipulation, too. Frankenstein and its cultural offspring pose the question in these terms: Who or what is constructing, animating, and regulating human bodies?

In Frankenstein, the body to be animated remains the central, riveting point for both scientist and novelist. It will test the effectiveness of their rival conceptions. The obsessive attention lavished by Victor Frankenstein on the body parts he assembles replicates the concerns of the writer. Their own bodies drained, yet "animated by an almost supernatural enthusiasm," both creators redirect that energy in order to "bestow . . . animation upon lifeless matter" (50-51). In their disregard for personal health, the creators' own bodies ironically become instruments sacrificed to the demands of production.9

Victor works like "one doomed by slavery to toil in the mines, or any other unwholesome trade" in his quest for the secret of life (55). He emerges from his labors thin, pale, and trembling. Victor's exhausted body, like that of a hysteric, must represent the secret exchange that he cannot articulate. The proof that animation flows from him to some other form appears when Victor encounters his friend Clerval after months of social deprivation. Clerval's healthy humanity provides the counter to Victor's unhealthy, indeed spectral appearance.With the arrival of Clerval and the simultaneous belief that "my enemy [the monster] had indeed fled," Victor rejoices. But Victor's excessive animation astonishes his friend: "[Clerval] saw a wildness in my eyes for which he could not account, and my loud, unrestrained, heartless laughter frightened him" (60). Moreover, at the very moment of this exaggerated, unnatural energy, Victor's imagination discovers the "dreaded spectre glid[ing] into the room." This horrifying representation of animation demands the body's surrender: The chamber has room for only one animated specter. Victor falls in a violent fit, then remains "lifeless" (60). The animating energy which flows through Frankenstein's dwelling is erratic and nervous, traveling from one "lifeless" form to another, subverting any faith in the body's autonomy.

A corresponding economy of nervous energy and imagination describes the relationship of novelist and reader. In the novelist's case the lifeless body to be animated is translated from writer to reader. Mary Shelley tells us she worked for days to invent a story, until a "waking dream" possessed her so forcefully that "a thrill of fear ran through me." "Oh! If I could only contrive [a story] which would my reader as I myself had been frightened," she laments. A "cheering idea" then presents itself: "What terrified me will terrify others . . .  I had thought of a story" ("Author's Introduction," xi). Despite the references to imagination and reverie, Shelley's story quickly defines itself in terms of physical {53} effect: "One which would speak to the mysterious fears of our nature and awaken thrilling horrors — to make the reader dread to look around, to curdle the blood, and quicken the beatings of the heart" ("Author's Introduction," ix; my emphasis). Shelley wants her words to produce sensation. She wants her novel to be proved upon our pulses and registered upon our bodies. While Victor works to animate a dead corpse and "endue it with vital warmth," Mary Shelley works to agitate an enervated reader and deliver her own shock treatment.

Her work was at least as effective as his. Contemporary reviews found the worth of the novel in its physical rather than its philosophical register. The accelerated pulse, the emotional jolt, and the sheer exhaustion it promoted were alternately admired and condemned. The Quarterly Review typifies one sort of response:

Our readers will guess from this summary what a tissue of horrible and disgusting absurdity this work presents. . . .  Frankenstein has passages which appal the mind and make the flesh creep. . . . Our taste and our judgement alike revolt at this kind of writing . . .  – it fatigues the feelings without interesting the understanding; it gratuitously harasses the heart, and only adds to the store. already too great, of painful sensations. (My emphasis)10
Reviewers also duplicated the novel's movement from concept to conception, from idea to body and back again, in an attempt to produce the "truth" of human nature. Walter Scott, writing in Blackwood's Magazine, admits that "the feeling with which we perused the unexpected and fearful, yet . . . very natural conclusion of Frankenstein's experiment, shook a little even our firm nerves.''11 Indeed, if we experience the conclusion of the experiment (the scientific or the fictional experiment) as "natural," we do violence to the human body. In these responses to the novel, physical effect—the power to move us—allies itself with words rather than with physics. But this physical effect implies that the readers' bodies, those muscles and nerves would othewise remain "firm," stiff, inert, or simply not there. By appealing to sensationalism, Mary Shelley imagines a body for the reading public — a lifeless body in need of her artificial animation.12

Perhaps even more than Shelley's monster, who finds its voice and history through the "godlike science" of language, Shelley's reader is animated purely by words. By reading, we are born into reading. In a sense, this strategy effectively snatches both body and monstrosity from the scientist and hands them to the novelist. Yet other animating performances also work to manipulate and resurrect our bodies. Film, for instance, diminishes the alliance between words and animation, resorting to physics for physical effect. The techniques of film, highlighted especially in the proliferation of Frankenstein movies, continue to point out the creator's need for dead bodies in order to perform animation.

The early film versions of Frankenstein all present mute monsters and repeatedly discount or repudiate verbal authority (offered as political speeches, classroom lectures, or written instructions). Rhetorical power rests instead in the image, especially in the eloquent image of a silent body. In James Whale's 1931 film, the first feature-length movie version of Frankenstein, voices are repeatedly silenced as the image of a lifeless body speaks volumes: the hanging corpse, the drowned girl in her father's arms, the creature strapped to the laboratory table.13 In the horror film, language and bodies are translated into a system of {54} light and motion. Here the special effects which move us are communicated by physics and technology, not words.

The power of light especially is brought to center stage in a compelling image from the 1931 Frankenstein. The monster stretches his hands toward a shaft of pure light which falls from a hole in the ceiling — an aperture which the scientist quietly opens and closes like a shutter. In the darkness of movie theaters, we too stretch toward the light. Even as we contemplate film images of dead bodies, we ignore the dangerous possibility that we ourselves have become creatures invested in technologically produced light and sound. The experience of viewing immobilizes our bodies and silences our voices. The consequences of such an experience form the climax of the film: The monster perishes in a burning windmill (Whale's innovation), while we follow its revolving wheel (a primitive projector?) backlit by the flames. The monster is trapped in this icon of technology, but he is also trapped in the very machine projecting his image.14

The divine power of animation resides somewhere on the other side of that aperture and is regulated by the man with the shutter and the wheel. The film maker thus echoes the Romantic poet in asking us all to be children of light — not children of flesh and blood. Culture, conceived either as technological or artistic, asserts itself as an out-of-body experience. In this way the work of culture can forget or drain of force the physical pressure of many bodies, the obvious product of a burgeoning population.

This vying for bodily effects seems a vulgar wrestling match in comparison to the philosophical, political, moral, and psychological debates which inform Frankenstein. But these high-flying debates would have no force if they could not enlist and subordinate the countervailing claims of the body. The novel's epigraph, taken from Paradise Lost, stresses the earthy origins of its arguments and the attempt by those arguments to repudiate their earthiness: "Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay / To mould me Man?"15 The poetic epigraph hints that argumentation and the identification of human nature both admit and resist a material base. Poetry, anatomy, and physical chemistry collide over the body. Perversely, this sensational collision provides the scaffolding for Frankenstein. It both reinforces the power of fiction and subdues the stubborn body.

This dynamic is a sign, as Muriel Spark suggests, that early nineteenth-century readers demanded fiction which produced not only "sensations in the pit of the stomach, but [also] speculation in the mind."16 The Quarterly Review certainly discouraged such a combination. We need to explain the particular combination of sensation and speculation at work in this novel. Recent cultural critics have themselves speculated, following the lead of Michel Foucault, that modern science (the "speculation of the mind") was then in the process of identifying the "pit of the stomach" as an object of inquiry. Perhaps what was also demanded in the early nineteenth century was the stomach's inquiry into science. Even as bodily sensation was being translated into a {55} means of producing scientific truth, Mary Shelley was translating the scientist and his work into sensational fiction.17

Nor was she ignorant that the poetic mind, as much as the scientific, had already entered into the task of translation, locating the physiology of pulses and pleasures as the ground of poetic truth. This truth would, in turn, create a new human nature. Poetry, wrote William Wordsworth, "sheds no tears 'such as Angels weep,' but natural and human tears." The Romantic male poet strove to animate whatever material the scientist provided, giving it "breath and finer spirit"; providing the "countenance of all Science" with an "impassioned expression." Thus Wordsworth pictured the poet walking beside the scientist, "carrying sensation into the midst of the objects of science itself ."18 Or, as Percy Shelley would argue in his Defence of Poetry (1821), the "poetic faculty" could "awaken," "electrify," and actually purify the body from the deadening excesses of the "grosser sciences."19 If for Percy Shelley "the body [produced by science] has . . .  become too unwieldy for that which animates it," poetry would reconstitute the "materials of external life" by establishing "the internal laws of human nature."20 It is Wordsworth, however, who makes most explicit how the poet recruits the body in his campaign to rule over human nature. In the "Essay Supplementary to the Preface of 1815," he explains that "genius" in art expands "the sphere of human sensibility." This "conquest made by the soul of the poet" proceeds via the body of the reader: "Is it to be supposed that the reader can make progress of this kind, like an Indian prince or general — stretched on his palanquin, and borne by slaves? No; he is invigorated and inspirited by his leader, . . . he cannot be carried like a dead weight."21

Given the context of these professional debates, we see that Frankenstein represents the novelist's speculations upon the scientists' and poets' speculations upon the body. The novel competes for a right to affect and effect human nature; in the process, it redefines the terms of that nature in a way that insists upon reproducing difference.

Frankenstein weds the scientific to the poetic view of human nature, then introduces a fictional conception different from any issue of that (masculine) union. Mary Shelley's strategy has two components. First, it should be clear by now that such speculations presuppose the animation of a hypothetically quiescent body. However, whereas scientist and poet disengage "mind" or "genius" from matter in order to elevate a new, disembodied conception of human nature, the novelist insists upon binding those artificial conceptions to the flesh. Animation will have bodily form and bodily consequences. Second, Frankenstein addresses the sexual and yet supposedly ungendered nature of that hypothetical body "For the youth of both sexes," ventures Wordsworth, "poetry is, like love, a passion.''22 The poet nevertheless refuses to distinguish between the bodily effects of passion upon young women as opposed to young men, or to consider what it means for a woman upon a palanquin, rather than a man, to be "invigorated" by her leader. (He complicates this erasure by identifying the reader as an Indian prince, thereby enlisting racial differences to ratify the poet's homogenizing power.) In the scientist's and the poet's efforts to produce a {56} responsive body and thereby define human nature, Mary Shelley discovers a threat to obliterate the difference of gender. If nineteenth-century science wanted to "formulate the uniform truth of sex," as Michel Foucault suggests, and if Romantic poetry discourages the reader from "dwell[ing] upon those points wherein men differ from each other," as Wordsworth maintains,23 then the novel will insist upon the difference gender makes, even — and especially — when men and women are not involved in natural reproduction.

At this "propitious moment" early in the nineteenth century, both poetic and scientific discourse proceeded as if (to borrow Foucault's wording) it was essential that bodily sensation be inscribed not only in an economy of pleasure (the terrors and delights formerly provided by art) but also in an ordered system of knowledge (provided by various sciences). Mary Shelley seizes that double inscription and reinscribes it within the novel. In the process, a "fiction-science" of human nature is produced.

Take for instance the chemistry lectures of Mr. Waldman, Victor's teacher. Delivered by a "voice the sweetest I ever heard," the lectures not only submit nature to the "mastery" of science, they also submit Victor's very "being" to a new "order." " 'The modern masters [of chemistry],' " says Waldman,

"have indeed performed miracles. They penetrate into the recesses of nature and show how she works in her hiding piaces. They ascend into the heavens; they have discovered how the blood circulates, and the nature of the air that we breathe They . . . can command the thunders of heaven, mimic the earthquake, and even mock the invisible world with its own shadows." (47)
This oft-cited passage depicts not just the violation of a feminized Nature by a masculine Science.24 Waldman's speech also suggests how the discourse of science breaks the boundary between "inner" man and "outer" nature (e.g., the "circulation" of blood and air); it even encroaches, in those last ambiguous lines, upon the region of psychology. More remarkably, this speech about science's miracles involves its listener in a psychic death and rebirth into the order of scientists. Victor's human nature submits to this version of natural science's "almost unlimited powers":
Such were the professor's words — rather let me say the words of fate — enounced to destroy me. . . . I felt as if my soul were grappling with a palpable enemy; one by one the various keys were touched which formed the very mechanism of my being; chord after chord was sounded, and soon my mind was filled with one thought, one conception, one purpose.&nbs[;. . .

I closed not my eyes that night. My internal being was in a state of insurrection and turmoil; I felt that order would thence arise, but I had no power to produce it. (47)

Thus is born the soul of a new machine: Victor announces himself as the instrument and product of scientific discourse.

As a result of this discourse, random events can be harmonized into a sense of destiny. Various phenomena can be organized into a unifying "thought, . . . conception, . . . purpose." Human beings can be concentrated into one nature. So effective, in fact, is the discourse of science upon Victor's (and hence, his narrative's) nature that we almost forget Waldman's technique in appreciation of its effects. The "easier task" of the modern scientist, he explains, is "to give {57} new names and arrange in connected classifications the facts" provided by earlier researchers. By this naming and arranging one produces scientific truth (48). Random differences and aberrances are thereby incorporated into one family with a common purpose or fate: "The labours of men of genius, however erroneously directed, scarcely ever fail in ultimately turning to the solid advantage of mankind," Waldman assures his disciple (48). Victor himself becomes an instrumental laborer, enlisted, like Wordsworth's passive Indian or "like one doomed by slavery to toil in the mines'" in this scientific progress (50). As such, he appears incapable of imaging anything but the singular truth and order of the scientific product, which, in turn, fortify his singular identity: "A new species would bless me as its creator and source; many happy and excellent natures would owe their being to me" (52). The rhetoric of the scientist's sentence proclaims its teleological truth: "E Pluribus Unum"—out of the possible "many," he produces one originating truth: himself.

The novelist's strategy first gives this scientific rhetoric physical and psychological effect, then reintroduces the possibility of difference. Like Waldman's lecture, the language which describes the scientific endeavor is employed by the novelist to "move" and terrify the reader. The effect of Shelley's unflinching, often clinical prose is that we flinch before the subjects or specimens of science. The novel directs our bodies to react in fear of scientific techniques. The monster is not the only physical specimen offered by the prose: Elizabeth's "inanimate" body, her "distorted features" and "bloodless arms," and later Clerval's "lifeless form" are spread out beneath the scientist's (and the reader's) gaze, rendering the "human frame" of the viewer "senseless" and near the point of death (169, 186). Most noticeably, it is Victor's body that, having already exhibited an emaciated frame, a pale cheek, chattering teeth, and convulsed limbs, registers a "violent antipathy even to the name of natural philosophy." Restored to good health, Victor finds "the sight of a chemical instrument" as debilitating as the sight of a corpse: "[It] would renew all the agony of my nervous symptoms" (65). In fact, Clerval's mere mention of science violently affects Victor's now scientized and silenced body: "I felt as if he had placed carefully, one by one, . . . those instruments which were to be afterwards used in putting me to a slow and cruel death. I writhed under his words yet dared not exhibit the pain I felt" (66). In short, the novel's "clean stabs of ghastliness" demonstrate precisely how Mary Shelley moves the gothic novel into the realm of scientific method and discourse, then makes those methods and that discourse horrifying — that is, stiflingly painful to both body and thought.25

Nonetheless, unlike the discourse of both romantic science and romantic poetry, Mary Shelley's novel moves beyond the notion of bodily effects into the realm of bodily differences. Contemporary discussion about the novel as a genre reinforced that sense of difference: Fears of the novel's effects upon young women and children were well articulated, but little worry extended to young men.26 Well aware of the feminization of the genre, Mary Shelley exploited the novel's capacity to represent and reproduce difference. Victor's ability to produce monstrosity but not female monstrosity is notorious; in the context of this argument, however, we need only recognize that Victor's science has {58} been unable to conceive of a female body. By contrast, Mary Shelley's novel resists the unification and classified connections proscribed by romantic science and poetics. The creature itself, assembled from disparate parts, can readily conceive of an other human form and can envision a separate, different human society as well. The monster and the novel are all too aware of the difference that physical difference makes.

As Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar have demonstrated, the novel's monster speaks from this realm of bodily difference.27 The monster exposes the homogenizing vision of (male) science and suggests how "not to be Man":28

"Shall I respect man when he contemns me? Let him live with me in the interchange of kindness, and instead of injury I will bestow every benefit upon him. . . . But that cannot be; the human senses are insurmountable barriers to our union." (138)
The novel insists upon the gender of "man" in this passage, especially since the monster goes on to request a "creature of another sex" who, unlike "man," will live with him in the interchange of kindness. Significantly, the monster never introduces the topic of regeneration. He is not interested in the power associated with serial reproduction of a "new species" that will "bless [him] as its creator and source." Instead, he imagines in the "vast wilds of South America" the establishment of a nature different from that of European man, yet nonetheless human:
"My food is not that of man. . . . My companion will be of the same nature as myself and will be content with the same fare. We shall make our bed of dried leaves; the sun shall shine on us as on man and will ripen our food. The picture I present to you is peaceful and human, and you must feel that you can deny it only in the wantonness of power and cruelty." (139)
The recognition of human difference is reiterated by the narrative structure of the novel. Whereas Victor, the instrument of science, obsessively and violently denies difference in order to preserve and reproduce homogeneity, Walton abandons his own scientific program and surrenders his narrative to a variety of voices. Ultimately Walton is a narrator, not a scientist. For him, difference is figured in stories, especially in the different story of his distinctly female reader:
. . .  It is terrible to reflect that the lives of all these men [Walton's crew] are endangered through me. If we are lost, my mad schemes are the cause.

And what, Margaret, will be the state of your mind? You will not hear of my destruction, and you will anxiously await my return. Years will pass, and you will have visitings of despair and yet be tortured by hope. Oh! My beloved sister, the sickening failing of your heart-felt expectations is, in prospect, more terrible to me than my own death. But you have a husband and lovely children; you may be happy. Heaven bless you and make you so! (202)29

Though he suspects his men may (unwillingly and with protest) share his fate, Walton does not know how much his account will affect his sister. He imagines that her mind will be occupied by thoughts of his lost body, but he also imagines alternatively that her mind will be tied to home, marriage, and (her own) family.

Although Frankenstein does not rewrite the paradigm of the separate spheres, it does admit that creators and creatures, women and men have different fates {59} and different responses to the dominant story about human nature. The fiction implies a sort of knowledge or "science" that allows for heterogeneous responses. This heterogeneity, in turn, promotes the proliferation of ever new and different versions of Frankenstein.

Dis-Organizing Human Nature

In recognizing the types of cultural reproduction contrasted within the novel, we may neglect to notice that the body itself is drained of any inherent power. Both the science and the fiction at work in the novel remove the body from nature and set it at odds with nature. They constitute the body instead as the subject of contrasting "human natures" which finally appear as artificial, even aesthetic natures. Even though gendered difference remains a powerful weapon for the novelist, both female and male bodies are destroyed or vanish, disposable fodder in the reproductive wars of science, poetry, and fiction. The difference of gender, as Mary Shelley conceives it, is not a matter of and from bodies (specifically maternal bodies) but a matter of cultural production. Difference is not located in the presence of various bodies but transferred to those bodies by technologies of reproduction. Difference, in other words, is a product to be consumed, not an identity to be lived.

Consider Victor's contemplation of the "astonishing power" of the human body and how resolutely that power impedes his experiments. The stubborn, visceral body, with its "intricacies of fibres muscles, and veins," at first seems an "inconceivable" project. The power must shift trom matter ("within my hands") to fiction ("my imagination") in order for him to take "command":

When I found so astonishing a power placed within my hands. I hesitated. I doubted at first . . . but my imagination was too much exalted by my first success. The materials at present within my command hardly appeared adequate to so arduous an undertaking; . . .yet when I considered the improvement which every day takes place in science and mechanics I was encouraged to hope. (47)
Victor's long meditation, only sketched out here, reveals that the movement is not, as we usually assume, from mind to matter, from Victor's idea to a monstrous thing. Instead, what began as qualities of flesh and blood are appropriated as attributes of Victor's ideas. By the end of his meditation, Victor translates the "intricacies" of the body and the difficult "labour" in his "hands" into the "magnitude and complexity" of his "plan." [1.3.5] The grandeur of his idea replaces the grandeur of the body as the goal to be achieved. Thanks to the improvements of science and mechanics, man's gigantic "plans" are written back onto the human body, which then revives as the (unnatural) figure of his magnificent and complex knowledge: "a being of a gigantic stature; that is to say, about eight feet in height, and proportionally large" (47). The first conversion, from body to mind, is worked through metaphor and accepted as "natural"; the second, from mind to body, announces itself as artificial and monstrous.

Yet both conversions are called into question here and throughout Frankenstein. The novel is not satisfied with making the scientific mind responsible for {60} the monstrous body, as if a bad father must always produce an unnatural son. Just as scientific discourse gave the monster a "father" who had become a mechanized instrument, so Romantic poetics provided a "mother" reproduced as artistic image. In Frankenstein, Victor's human nature undergoes a reformulation and emerges as the subject of science. In a corresponding metamorphosis, Victor's biological mother dies and reappears as the subject of high romantic art — as dream, painting, or vision. Between and against these two different subjects, these reconstructed parents, the force of Mary Shelley's hideous progeny is made legible.

The confrontations and conflations between science and the monster are well known: The monster is both the product and the negation of the logic of early nineteenth-century science. Given less attention is the encounter between the monster and Romantic aesthetics. At a crucial point in the novel, the nonaesthetic, gigantic form of the monster is set against the lovely miniature portrait of Victor's mother. In this opposition the creature and the reader understand monstrosity in a new light, in terms other than those of the laboratory. What Victor had discovered earlier in a dream (he dreams of his fiancee, whose figure then mutates into the corpse of his mother), the creature discovers in the miniature: a living female body replaced by a powerful representation of the mother. "It was a portrait of a most lovely woman. . . . For a few moments I gazed in delight on her dark eyes, fringed by deep lashes, and her lovely lips, but presently my rage returned; I remembered that I was forever deprived of the delights that such beautiful creatures could bestow" (136). For a moment, we forget that the creature is not contemplating a woman but rather a work of artistic production. We forget, too, that the woman represented is dead. Having given the creature aesthetic "delight," art as much as science robs him of "the delights that such beautiful creatures [natural women? art-ificial women? dead women?] could bestow." The creature's violent rage emerges not from the scientific difference between natural and unnatural production but rather the aesthetic difference between "beautiful" and "monstrous" creatures. As the rage runs its course, the (potentially reproductive) bodies of living women in the novel disappear, leaving only the representations of dead mothers and "motherlessness" — images that circulate endlessly through the novel.30

One type of reproduction, an awful conglomeration of assembled parts, confronts another type, the unified image. Victor's "hideous progeny" meets the dead mother reduced to a miniature the choice of this particular image bears on the novel's identity as much as the creature's: The miniature, Coleridge's model for the function of poetry, provides the Romantic poet with "the emblem of art, the shorthand hieroglyphic for the abridgement of nature."31 Meant to be carried close to the body and exchanged within a closed circuit of friends and relatives, the miniature commodified the body on a local scale. The novel of course could give this commodification much wider range: It is as mobile and fleet as Frankenstein's monster. Contrasted with the gigantic form of the monster, the miniature icon of romantic art nevertheless carries an inherent violence of its own — the abridgment of (feminized) nature. The presence of the miniaturized mother presages the death of the novel's other women, Justine and Elizabeth, who have already become copies of the dead mother. That threat of {61} abridgment still reverberates in the tactics of modern technology, which trade gigantic forms for infinitely smaller manifestations. In Haraway's terms, we learn that "miniaturization has turned out to be about power; small is not so much beautiful as preeminently dangerous," even lethal.32 Between the giant and the miniature, the reproductive body disappears.

Elsewhere on that dreary night in November we saw the tension between two modes of production as well as the abridgment of a maternal nature: the novelist's dream of the "pale student of unhallowed arts" generates the scientist's work — the monstrous creature. That work then generates the scientist's dream — the mother's corpse ("Author's Introduction" and 56). In various ways these juxtapositions between monster and miniature, work and dream, hint at aesthetic incest (pseudo-mother arouses pseudo-son). Furthermore, these incestuous meetings allow for the generation of no natural children, only more encounters. Not surprisingly, the encounter between monster and miniature occurs as the result of both a violent murder and a repudiation of natural reproduction. The portrait appears after the monster throttles William, the natural son of a Frankenstein: "Boy," warns the monster, "you will never see your father again" (136). The father-son bloodline, solidified by the established taboo of incest, is disturbed by the entrance of the monstrous creature in Frankenstein. In place of familial (masculine) conflict, we discover a contest between ways of reproducing nature (work, dreams, portraits, novels) — a battle which denies natural reproduction altogether.

We have seen that this contest presupposes the death of the human body, calls upon an intervening female figure, then exposes maternity as merely a mediating image — a portrait or dream. In place of maternity, fiction itself becomes the source and means of reproduction. The woman writer creates a structure which juxtaposes monster and mother but refuses to imagine a natural connection between the two. Nonetheless, because that connection is not naturally but artificially constructed (even uncanny), it has all the more material force. In Victor's illness, in William's death, in the deaths of Clerval and all the women — in short, in the way the novel repeatedly animates, then consumes bodies — we realize that the battle over representation does not take place on the terrain of ideas and figures of speech. In the stories of Frankenstein, that battle makes claims on human bodies.

The battle over representation extends beyond the plot to the very idea of the novel. As Walton, Shelley's narrator, admits, the question of physical effect extends to the natural/unnatural relationship between a (male) storyteller and (female) reader, too. Do Walton's letters, which frame the novel, communicate with a (biological) sister or an (imagined) letter reader? In fact, the consumer of Frankenstein occupies and reproduces the physical position of Walton's sister. The proof of connection remains tied to the question of story relation, not blood relation: "You have read this strange and terrific story, Margaret," he writes his sister; "and do you not feel your blood congeal with horror, like that which even now curdles mine?" (199).

Science and poetry have their own dreams and powers of persuasion, Shelley suggests; but fiction claims the ability to translate and communicate physical sensation between many different bodies, almost like a disease. That power can {62} have violent effects. It should not surprise us that in Shelley's second work of science fiction the scientists, poets, and philosophers fail, the human race vanishes, and one man alone, a man"wedded to literature," delivers the horrific story of the plague that killed them all. The Last Man describes the natural order's conquest over the human body and the human mind; only the fictional word of the novel survives, marking the divorce of "human" from "Nature." Finally, "human nature" remains in the world only as a product of fiction, made endlessly different and novel.33 For Mary Shelley, the way we represent and reproduce the differences of human natures matters vitally, especially in a world where Nature is not ours.

The challenge confronted by Mary Shelley is to counter the production of a classified, scientized body and of a unified, aestheticized body with the production of a various, stubbornly elusive and deliberately fictionalized body which remains materially effective. It is crucial, then, that we see science fiction, rather than some Romantic idea of "organic nature" or "maternal nature" embodying her response to this problem. It is crucial, too, to see our various and visceral responses to the novel as further embodiments of that response. Our responses justify the novel's technology of reproduction. By insisting that novels produce fictions of human nature at least as potent as scientific or poetic truth, Mary Shelley also locates the reproduction of gender differences outside of "nature" ans in the movements of a technologized culture—a culture which imagines itself always changing, always new. The difference made by the female reader and writer, not the woman's body, is her pivot point for science fictions of human nature and destiny.


1. The reference is taken from the "Author's Introduction" to the 1831 Frankenstein, where Mary Shelley attempts to answer the recurring question: "How I, then a young girl, came to think of and to dilate upon so very hideous an idea." Mary Shelley, Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus, with an afterword by Harold Bloom (New York: NAL, 1965), vii. All further citations will be from this text.

2. Donna Haraway, "A Manifesto for Cyborgs," in Feminism/Postmodenism, ed. Linda J. Nicholson (New York: Routledge, 1990), 205. Haraway elaborates this argument: "Communications sciences and biology are constructions of natural-technical objects of knowledge in which the difference between machine and organism is thoroughly blurred; mind, body, and tool are on very intimate terms" (207).

3. See Teresa de Lauretis, Technologies of Gender: Essays on Theory, Film, and Fiction (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1987). Among the critics who have followed this denatured approach to the novel are Peter Brooks, "'Godlike Science/Unhallowed Arts': Language, Nature and Monstrosity," in The Endurance of Frankenstein, ed. George Levine and U. C. Knoepflmacher (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979), 205-220; Judith A. Spector, "Science Fiction and the Sex War: A Womb of One's Own," Literature and Psychology 31 (1981): 21-32; and Alan Bewell, "An Issue of Monstrous Desire: Frankenstein and Obstetrics," Yale Journal of Criticism: Interpretation in the Humanities 2 (Fall 1988): 105-128; all consider the complexities of literature in relation to science, although not in the symbiotic model I employ.

4. On contemporary feminist science fiction, see Haraway, "A Manifesto for Cyborgs," 216-223.


5. Evelyn Fox Keller, "Making Gender Visible in the Pursuit of Nature's Secrets," in Feminist Studies/Critical Studies, ed. Teresa de Lauretis (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986), 67.

6. The question of the body in Frankenstein is generally regarded as the question of the female body, especially the maternal body. See especially Anne K. Mellor, in Mary Shelley: Her Life, Her Fiction, Her Monsters (New York: Methuen, 1988), 52-69 and 115-126; Fred V. Randel, "Frankenstein, Feminism, and the Intertextuality of Mountains," Studies in Romanticism 23 (Winter 1984): 515-532; Barbara Johnson, "My Monster/My Self," Diacritics 12 (1982): 1-21; and Margaret Homans, Bearing the Word. Language and Female Experience in Nineteenth-Century Women's Writings (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986), 100-119. These accounts tend to literalize the (female) body as if its appearance were "natural," By contrast, l argue that the body is a fiction for Shelley, a fiction that has been so homogenized that it does not allow for the difference of gender.

7. Percy Bysshe Shelley, Shelley's Prose, ed. David Lee Clark (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1954), 294.

8. Sergei Eisenstein makes this apparent in "The Structure of Film": "A work of art — an art-ificial work — is built on those same laws by which non-artistic phenomena — the 'organic' phenomena of nature are constructed" (my emphasis). Quoted in William Nestrick, "Coming to Life: Frankenstein and the Nature of Film Narrative," in The Endurance, ed. Levine and Knoepflmacher (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979), 304.

9. Mary Shelley frequently discussed her own writing in terms of the toll it took upon her body. See for example her letters as she prepared the edition of Percy's collected poetry; in The Letters of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, ed. Betty T Bennett, 3 vols. (Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1983), 2: 280-282 and 318-319.

10. Quoted in R. Glynn Grylls, Mary Shelley: A Biography (1938; repr. New York: Haskell House Pubiishers, Ltd; 1969), 316.

11. Quoted in ibid., 316-317.

12. Compare Donna Haraway's comment in "A Manifesto for Cyborgs": "Our machines are disturbingly lively, and we ourselves, frighteningly inert" (194). See also Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality, vol. 1, An Introduction, trans. Robert Hurley (New York: Random House, 1980); and the articles in the special issue "Sexuality and the Social Body in the Nineteenth Century," Representations 14 (Spring 1986). D. A. Miller, writing in that issue, seeks to redress the question of "sensation" in Victorian ''sensationalist" novels, a "genre [which] offers us one of the first instances of modern literature to address itself primarily to the sympathetic nervous system, where it grounds its characteristic effects: accelerated heart rate and respiration, increased blood pressure, the pallor resulting from vasoconstriction etc." "Cage aux Folles: Sensation and Gender in Wilkie Collins' The Woman in White,'' Representations 14 (Spring 1986): 107. My argument places that genre a bit earlier. What makes Frankenstein crucial in this history is the linking of science with the novel's bodily effects — thereby allowing Miller to "see" the anatomy and physiology together with the beating heart and pale face. I am indebted to Miller's suggestion that most critical approaches cast a silence over sensation: "Sensation is felt to occupy a natural site entirely outside of meaning, as though in the breathless body signification expired" (108). He and I both argue the opposite: that meaning is born in (and by) the breathless body.

13. In this context, it bears mentioning that the production of new life — the heir born at the end of the film — never sees the light of day as far as the film is concerned: Only a closed door marks the baby's presence. "Natural" reproduction is blocked by the movements of the camera.

14. Early cinema houses, like Whale's windmill, were also in danger of burning because of the inflammatory chemical nature of the film itself and the proximity of that film to the lights of the projector.

15. John Milton, Paradise Lost, Book X, lines 743-744, quoted on the title page of Frankenstein.

16. Muriel Spark, Mary Shelley (London: Constable, 1989), 154.


17. Foucault writes in The History of Sexuality that the discourses emerging in the early nineteenth century "set out to formulate the uniform truth of sex. As if it needed this production of truth. As if it was essential that sex be inscribed not only in an economy of pleasure but in an ordered system of knowledge. Thus sex gradually became an object of great suspicion" — and with it the human body (1: 69). See also Cynthia Eagle Russet, Sexual Science: The Victorian Construction of Womanhood (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1989), 4-11.

18. William Wordsworth, preface to Lyrical Ballads (1802), in William Wordsworth: The Poems, ed. John O. Hayden, 2 vols. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1981), 1: 876, 881.

19. P. Shelley, Prose, 293, 297.

20. Ibid., 294.

21. William Wordsworth, "Essay Supplementary to the Poems of 1815," in William Wordsworth: The Poems, 2: 946-947.

22. Ibid., 2:924.

23. Ibid., 2: 945.

24. For other references to this passage, see Mellor, Mary Shelley, esp. 92-94; Homans, Bearing the Word, 115; and Ellen Moers, "Female Gothic," in Endurance, ed. Levine and Knoepflmacher, 77-87.

25. Spark, Mary Shelley, 270.

26. For a careful consideration of the novel's ideological association with women and the young, see Nancy Armstrong's introduction to Desire in Domestic Fiction: A Political History of the Novel (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986) and Terry Lovell, Consuming Fiction (London and New York: Verso, 1988). A notorious instance of this association appears in Jean-Jacques Rousseau's preface to his novel Julie, ou La Nouvelle Heloise, which appeared in England as Elosia: or, a series of onginal letters, trans. William Kendrick, 4 vols. (London, 1761): "no chaste virgin ever read a romance: but if perchance any young girl should dare to read a single page of this, she is inevitably lost. Yet let her not accuse me as the cause of her perdition: the mischief was done before; and since she has begun, let her proceed, for she has nothing worse to fear" (1: vi).

27. Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, The Madwomen in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Imagination (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1984), 240-242.

28. The phrase "how not to be Man" is borrowed from Haraway, "A Manifesto for Cyborgs," 215.

29. Compare Victor's letter to his fiancée, Elizabeth, which effectively silences her and seals her doom: "'I fear, my beloved girl, . . . little happiness remains for us on earth. . . . Chase away your idle fears. . . . I have one secret, Elizabeth, a dreadful one; when revealed to you, it will chill your frame with horror, and then . . . you will wonder that I survive what I have endured. . . . But until then, do not mention or allude to it. This I most earnestly entreat, and I know you will comply'" (180).

30. Gilbert and Gubar, in Madwoman, 238-239, mention the "notable fact" that Victor's monster's "ceaselessly anxious study of Paradise Lost" fails "even to mention Eve," the "'Mother of Mankind' . . . fated to 'make' history." Gilbert and Gubar argue that the monster, indeed, represents Milton's Eve, emphasizing her illegitimacy and monstrosity, especially as a "creator" in a male-ordered universe. The fact that the novel's women must be eliminated in Frankenstein and in the Madwoman's argument in order for the monster to bear that representative role underscores my point that the novel makes everyone — except the eliminated mothers — unnatural "creators." If the monster embodies Eve, then he also represents Eve as the lack of a mother, or "motherlessness." Madwoman, 243-244.

31. Cited in Nestrick, "Coming to Life," 294; from The Collected Letters of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, ed. Earl Leslie Griggs (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1959), 4: 956.

32. Haraway, "A Manifesto for Cyborgs," 195.


33. Mary Shelley's The Last Man presents itself as the author's "deciphering" of "leaves, barks, and other substances . . . traced with written characters," which she found in the Sibyl's Cave. The Last Man, intro. Brian Aldiss (London: Hogarth Press, 1985), 3. From these "scattered and unconnected" remnants of nature she constructs the "consistent form" of her novel. She distinguishes her story-telling efforts from the poetry of the Cumaean Sibyl: "Sometimes I have thought, that obscure and chaotic as they [the verses] are, they owe their present form to me, their decipherer. As if we should give to another artist, the painted fragments which form the mosaic copy of Raphael's Transfiguration in St. Peter's; he would put them together in a form, whose mode would be fashioned by his own peculiar mind and talent. Doubtless the leaves of the Cumaean Sibyl have suffered distortion and diminution of excellence and interest in my hands. My only excuse for thus transforming them, is that they were unintelligible in their pristine condition" (4). Thus admitting her "distortions," she justifies her art as something different and novel, available for immediate consumption.