Contents Index

Mary Shelley, Frankenstein, and the Spectacle of Masculinity

Bette London

PMLA, 108 (March 1993), 253-67

{253} In a striking memorial to the Shelleys -- commissioned by their only surviving child, Sir Percy, and his wife, Lady Shelley -- the couple is impressed in the image of Michelangelo's Pietà (fig. 1).

Fig. 1. Monument to Percy Bysshe Shelley and Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley,
by Henry Weekes. Christchurch Priory, Dorset.
(Photograph from the Bettmann Archive.)

Mary Shelley kneels, breast exposed, in the traditional posture of a Madonna humilitatis, supporting the lifeless body of her drowned god and idol. Superimposing a Christian narrative onto a notorious Romantic "text" -- a scandalous life story composed of atheism, incest, and illicit sexuality -- the monument fixes the contradictions that constitute and surround the Shelleyan legacy, mobilizing its own conventionalized impressions of the staple figures: the martyred, revolutionary poet and his beautiful, distraught widow. The Christianized life of Shelley, however, remains only one of the monument's scandals. For to a modern audience, at least, fed on a revitalization of Frankenstein and a new canonization of the novel's "feminist" author as the creator of monstrous birth fantasies, the marginalization of Mary in the figure of maternal adoration reads with equally disturbing incongruity.1

As a document in the reconstruction of the Shelleys' lived relationship and in the construction of posthumous meaning, the monument, executed by Henry Weekes, contributes to the narrative production and circulation of hierarchically ordered, gendered literary history. It performs the same ideological work, for example, as another piece of "memorial" iconography, Louis-Edouard Fournier's Funeral of Shelley (fig. 2)


Fig. 2. The Funeral of Shelley, by Louis-Edouard Fournier. 1889.
Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool. (Photograph courtesy of the trustees
of the National Museums and Galleries on Merseyside.)

-- a representation of Shelley's cremation that focuses on the ritual viewing of the poet's smoldering body. Mary Shelley (who did not actually attend the funeral) appears as a kneeling figure, literally at the edge of the canvas and barely distinguishable from a shadowy mass of nameless observers, while the standing figures of the privileged mourners (the poet's friends and literary compatriots Byron, Hunt, and Trelawny) command visual attention. The narrative that the painting details thus binds Shelley's preeminence (public and private) to the lasting rites of masculinity.

{254} But though such works ensure the place of masculine privilege, their enshrinement of the poet as martyr figure contains its own subversive potential. For these testimonials to masculine genius barely cover their display of male exhibitionism, rendering the male body disproportionately visible. Thus, while Fournier may refine the viewers' sense of the corpse's presence, the inclusion of Mary in this otherwise all male ritual invokes the scurrilous stories of that body's remnants. These stories, circulating widely in biographical sketches, raise the indecent specter of Mary Shelley's wranglings with Hunt for Percy Shelley's relics -- for possession of the prized part of the poet, the remnant of his heart. Edited out of the official account Fournier represents, this unseemly exhibition glosses the painting's inscription of the spectacle of masculinity, of male spectators surveying the prostrate male body.

Weekes's sculpture, with its self-conscious borrowings from Christian iconography, calls attention even more insistently to the display of {255} masculinity. As Leo Steinberg has demonstrated, European Renaissance art repeatedly points to Christ's sexed body, and the Shelley memorial true to its type, draws the eye to the markers of sexuality, in particular to the veiled phallus that centers the scene. For the arrangement of figures, the viewing trajectory initiated by Mary's gaze (as it invites the eye to travel downward, first to Percy's upturned face and then along the incline of his slumped body), the torsional patterns of the drapery, the pointing of Percy's right hand (with its insinuation of an unnaturally elongated finger) -- all focus on the site of masculinity and the ensuing drama of the lifeless male body.

Mary's iconic representation, then, quite literally supports a scene of male self-display. Like the acts of extravagant feminine self-abasement and masculine idolatry that embarrass her character in the "post-Shelley" phase of her biography, her conventionalized position here both disguises and reveals -- enacts and exposes -- the spectacle it upholds. In what it includes as much as in what it excludes, this portrait of a languishing Mary relentlessly points to the exposure of a monstrously extended Percy. In this respect, then, Weekes's representation can be seen to restage the "origins" of Mary Shelley's most famous creation, Frankenstein -- a text frequently read as a critical portrait of Percy.2 Moreover, in reworking the figures of Mary Shelley's waking dream, the monument reproduces the novel's iconographic centerpiece: "I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out . . ." (228).

Mary Shelley's authorship, then, which would seem to have been effectively erased, returns to these testimonial productions as a species of intertextual glossing performed through the agency of Frankenstein.3 But if Frankenstein recalls what is monstrous, what lurks beneath the surface, in this memorial imagery -- the displayed male body, "the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out" -- the memorials reactivate Frankenstein's own iconography, opening the novel to new interpretive possibilities. For they point to the emblematic identity of its central scenes -- the animation of the monster, the murder of Elizabeth, the death of Frankenstein. And in doing so, they uncover the novel's crucially masculine scaffolding. For these key textual moments, each represented in the narrative as a kind of framed frieze, share both the structural configuration of Weekes's statuary and the monument's erotic fixation on the lifeless male body.4 Thus Frankenstein's description of the unanimated creature -- "the lifeless thing that lay at my feet" [1.4.1] -- captures, precisely at the moment preceding the entry of monstrosity, the classical beauty of the sculpted Percy Shelley: "His limbs were in proportion, and I had selected his features as beautiful" (52). Shelley's posture, moreover -- head flung back, neck exposed, bloodless arm extended -- echoes that of the "lifeless and inanimate" body of Elizabeth, flung upon her bridal bier in the novel's most climactic moment. Mary Shelley, in such a reading, figures the position of Frankenstein supporting the remains of the lover's body -- a position also assumed by the monster in the novel's last exchange of bodies, in the creature's "strange and wonderful" appearance hanging over the "lifeless form" of his creator.

If the logic of the novel demands as its consummation the laying out of Frankenstein's body, as I have been arguing, the symmetrical inversion of its creation scene is achieved through a detour onto the woman's body and through the circulation of the position of monstrosity. This pattern has far-reaching, and as yet largely unexamined, implications for an understanding both of the novel and of the wider workings of gender -- implications that exceed the narrow determinants of a strictly biographical rendering. For the shifting configurations that mark the novel's reinventions of its central scene destabilize the sexual hierarchies that underwrite the novel's meaning, making the male body the site of an ineradicable materiality. Yet the discomposing presence of that body remains the thing most resistant to critical insight; like the sexuality of Christ in Steinberg's thesis, it is preeminently visible but persistently unseen, consigned to modern oblivion.

Among Frankenstein's audiences, however, {256} such oversight would almost seem the product of a representational conspiracy. For if in imitation of the Incarnation, Frankenstein creates a being "complete in all the parts of a man," the absence of the markers of sexuality leaves the creature incomplete, facilitating its installation in the feminine economy -- the traditional locus for "the monstrous" and "the body." Moreover, Frankenstein's account of creating monstrosity sustains the visible paradox that supports masculine identity; for it is only when Frankenstein speculates on female monstrosity ("she might become ten thousand times more malignant than her mate") that he considers the threatening presence of the monster's male sexuality ("a race of devils would be propagated upon the earth" [163]). It is thus the spectacle of woman's uncontrollable materiality (the figure of what cannot be seen) that gives distinctive shape to the already constructed male body.

Overlooking this suppression of male sexuality, many commentaries on the novel -- including some of the most influential feminist readings -- continue to pursue Frankenstein's critical project, upholding the illusion of male gender-neutrality, of the invisibleness of masculinity.5 Indeed, feminist criticism has taken the lead in promoting speculation on the monster's female identity -- a hypothesis extended, at least in part, in the interest of claiming feminine visibility. Erasing all markers of masculine presence, Gilbert and Gubar perfect this reading, naming creature and creator as "Eve and Eve all along" (246); but in exposing all the novel's characters as "female in disguise" (237), they cover over Frankenstein's investments in male exhibitionism, thus supporting, however inadvertently, dominant ideological imperatives. Perhaps for this reason, their "eccentric" reading has been readily accepted. For, habituated to the contemporary construction of the scopic regime, which allows little flexibility in gendered positions, readers continue to ignore the self-evident: Frankenstein's insistent specularization of masculinity, its story of the male creator making a spectacle of himself.6 It is this specularization, and some of the conditions of its suppression, that this essay investigates.

By making the male body my starting point, I insist on its tangibility in both the representational economy of Frankenstein and the cultural production of Mary Shelley's literary authority; and by reading Frankenstein against some specific literary and nonliterary constructions of Mary and Percy Shelley, I suggest the ways conventionalized operations of gender have foreclosed access to Frankenstein's explorations of masculinity -- so much so that an approach to the subject now requires the dismantling of elaborate critical edifices. As the Shelley monuments suggest, the documents that would secure or obscure Frankenstein's place in literary history typically stage male anxieties across the body of the female subject. And in Mary Shelley scholarship, the relentless concern with questions of authority and bodily limits would seem to have taken its cue from the novel. In a pattern, then, for which James Rieger's edition of the 1818 text of Frankenstein may be only the most explicit instance, these works characteristically invest in versions of female monstrosity -- practiced on the figure of Mary Shelley. But a critical rereading of these formative texts might initiate discussion of what they repress: stories of the fractured foundation of masculine privilege.

"Mary Shelley's Life and the Composition of Frankenstein," for example, the introduction to Rieger's critically indispensable text, contrives a biographical portrait of Mary Shelley that reproduces -- in her own person-the figure of monstrosity that haunts her tale, a figure marked, like the novel's male creation, by unnatural bodily extension. Framed by her scandalous mother (kept alive, posthumously, by the defamatory reports of the reactionary press) and by the contamination of her own "final adventure" (an amorous liaison ending in bribery and blackmail), Mary Shelley enters this account circumscribed by the scandal of the female body -- a body even death cannot obliterate. And she remains, in Rieger's reconstruction, the emblem of a too substantial existence: "the stiff, humorless and self-dramatizing woman she had always been" (xxiii). Like the novel's celebrated invention, this "composite figure" troublesomely com- {257} bines a mechanical body (stiff and humorless) with self-proliferating energy.

But as Rieger tells the story of Frankenstein's entry into literary history, Mary Shelley's presence begins to diminish. Always "Mary" to Percy's "Shelley," always modeled on or embodying a husband's or father's literary interests, Rieger's "Mary" fulfills the condition of "proper" secondariness. This truncated figure, however, remains riddled by contradiction. For it is Frankenstein's claims to preeminent originality that support Rieger's effort at literary resuscitation -- the reproduction of the very text, unavailable for over a century, reconstructed in his contribution to the Library of Literature. This effort, moreover, serves to bolster the authority of the woman artist. Indeed, Mary Shelley's authorship can be reconciled to Rieger's textual history only by the hypothesis of female monstrosity -- a hypothesis supported, as in the movies, by the invention of the creator's accomplice: the physician's assistant.7 Perhaps not surprisingly, then, Rieger's narrative uncovers another scandal of the body, a scandal of textual impurity that turns on the discovery of Percy Shelley's pervasive "assistance at every point in the book's manufacture," assistance so extensive that "one hardly knows whether to regard him as editor or minor collaborator" (xviii) .

In Rieger's representation, then, "the life" and "the composition" enact the same scene: the exhibition of the female body with its paradoxical display of excess and lack; its insistently visible demonstration of the horror of having nothing to see. Moreover, in reconstituting the "original" text of Frankenstein (the 1818 edition) with the aid of modern technologies, Rieger replicates this overdetermined configuration, exposing as feminine the text's monstrous lack of unity. For despite his somewhat jocular admission that "there [were] moments in the preparation of this edition when [he] felt like Frankenstein himself" (v), Rieger shies away from the implications of this analogy. Nonetheless, the identificatory structure of male autobiographical creation resonates in his undertaking.

Glossing quotations and allusions as well as some of Percy Shelley's "additions," interpolating "autograph variants" from the 1823 Thomas copy of the text, and appending (as a supplement) the collation of the 1818 and 1831 editions, Rieger manufactures a radically discontinuous text that displays the seams and sutures of its composition, decomposition, and recomposition. Rieger overreaches Frankenstein, however, insisting on the feminine signature of the (textual) body he brings into existence. Excusing his own violation of professional propriety ("I have violated another editorial convention, which prescribes either a clear or a diplomatic text")8 on the grounds that "this mode of presentation shows the author's mind at work," he locates the source of his editorial difficulties in Mary Shelley's "feminine" incapacity -- incapacity marked in the "fussiness of her second thoughts" and her amateurish "tinker[ing] with a completed imaginative act" (xliv). In what seems an urbane, unobtrusive, and even critically sanctioned misogyny, Rieger's "production" thus participates in and reproduces conventional gendered readings, upholding the feminine as the locus of spectacle.

This cultural production -- surely one of Frankenstein's most enduring legacies -- does not confine itself to the masculine academy; it surfaces conspicuously in Mary Shelley's preface to her own recomposing effort, her introduction to the third edition (1831). Asked to account for the "origin of the story," Mary Shelley frames her response in the terms of a question often put to her: "How I, then a young girl, came to think of, and dilate upon, so very hideous an idea?" (222). The question positions her as "a young girl" in the place of spectacle; and, as Mary Poovey has ably illustrated, the ensuing explanation, with its elaborate rhetoric of modesty, reproduces the paradoxical alignment of monstrous exhibitionism and demure self-effacement that conditions the nineteenth-century construction of gender -- a construction Rieger's introduction reinvents.

Moreover, as much feminist criticism has demonstrated, this spectacle of the woman writing, strikingly evoked by Mary Shelley, can be appropriated for feminism in a new deployment {258} of (auto)biography. But the recovery of the female author behind the male-dominated text frequently involves a voyeuristic mechanism that leaves criticism fixed on the self-display of the woman, on what Barbara Johnson calls the "my monster/my self" syndrome. Consequently, as Mary Jacobus insists, such biographical investments inevitably reduce the text to "a monstrous symptom" (138). And insofar as this is true, feminism might do well to alter its perspective, reexamining the structure of spectacle and the positions spectacle engenders.9

Such an examination might suggest that the place of spectacle is not unique to women, and from this perspective, the "impropriety" of Mary Shelley's authorship need not be read as scandalous; the scandal, at least, does not necessarily inhere in a single body. If one turns Rieger's allegations back on themselves, Percy's presence in every stage of "the book's manufacture" implicates the masculine in the production of monstrosity. And the scandal of Mary Shelley's fractured text may discredit the female author less than it does her masculine authorities, who have their own uneasy relations to textual originality. For like her excessively deferential acceptance of her husband's editing, Mary Shelley's unorthodox citational strategies -- her insistent literary allusions and indiscriminate textual borrowings -- may expose not so much her lack of originality as the material conditions that constitute textuality as a form of grafting. Writing in a hand not distinctly her own, Mary Shelley opens to question the copied status of the text she copies into her own. Bearing the word, as Margaret Homans suggests, Frankenstein (creature, creator, text) bares the underpinnings of the male romantic economy, "[literalizing] the literalization of male literature" (117). The joins in Frankenstein's textual anatomy thus demonstrate that composition, even in male hands, is always of the body. Accordingly, the spectacle of the text -- of the text's irregular body prompts with new urgency the question of gender at the novel's source: whose body does the text display?

Rieger's parable would seem to admit only one response: the female body, sexually stigmatized, that advertises Mary Shelley's impropriety. But the deployment of this body in Rieger's reading covers other bodies and a different crime against patriarchy: the exposure of Percy in Mary's posthumous editing and publication of his manuscripts. The paternal prohibition -- Sir Timothy Shelley's refusal to have his son's name and works bandied about in print -- echoes in Rieger's critical admonitions about Mary's contribution to the Victorian impaling of Percy as a "shrill and seraphic figure" (xxi). Hence the crime that, one might say, is inscribed on Mary Shelley's body -- the crime for which the author pays with her sex -- turns out to be, in these narratives at least, the unsexing of Percy, whom she places in the specular position of woman.

Yet the presentation of Percy in Mary's preface to the first collected edition of his poems baffles alike a conventional construction of gender and any simple model of gender transpositions. Fulfilling an "important" obligation (xlix), even a "sacred duty" (liii) -- providing the public with a "perfect edition" of her husband's poems, the living proof of his "sublime genius" (xlix) Mary would seem to occupy the available spectrum of culturally sanctioned feminine positions.10 But in producing Percy Shelley for the public as well as bringing forth his productions, she recasts and conflates the roles of wife and mother; activating the iconographic machinery that renders her, as in the Weekes statue, the mother of her husband, she simultaneously disturbs and enforces gender proprieties. Moreover, in "detailing the history of those productions, as they sprang, living and warm, from his heart and brain," she inserts Percy in Frankenstein's sexually ambiguous place -- the site where maternal and paternal forces of procreation vie for mastery. As in Frankenstein, the suppressed story of female production, doubly marked here as well as there in the absent organ of generation, infects and scandalizes the body of the man. For Mary Shelley's refusal to "remark on the occurrences of [Percy's] private life, except inasmuch as the passions which they engendered inspired his poetry" recalls, even as it covers over, the other products of that passion and Percy's responsibility for their fate: the bodies that sprang "living and warm" from Mary's womb and now lie dead before their {259} time. Laying "the first stone of a monument due to Shelley's genius, his sufferings, and his virtues," Mary Shelley's publication thus anticipates the contradictory inscriptions staged in the works of Henry Weekes and other Victorian monument builders (liii).

Rieger's representation of Mary's wifely editorial productions echoes, in fact, the response of another Shelley biographer to another Victorian edifice: Onslow Ford's monument to Shelley at University College, Oxford (fig. 3).

Fig. 3. Monument to Percy Bysshe Shelley, by Onslow Ford.
University College, Oxford.

Writing in 1940, Newman Ivey White protests that Ford's work "still bears its part in preserving the misconception of Shelley as a beautiful, ineffectual angel" (2: 384). Like the Weekes memorial, Ford's monument exhibits a full length figure of the drowned Shelley executed in white marble -- an ornate display (including a weeping bronze sea nymph supporting the effigy) erected, White points out, at the instigation of a woman, Mary's daughter-in-law, Jane Shelley. As White's insistent specification of the figure's "recumbent" position suggests, it is the laying out of the male body that excites his disgust. For in his rendering of the sculpture, such self-conscious display inevitably proves feminizing, reducing the elevated image of the poet to sentimentalized matter, making it, in effect, a piece of Shelleyana.11

This recurring pattern, familiar in the reconstructions of the Shelley monuments and biographies, inserts the spectacle of woman at the locus of male exhibition; and the female spectacle, simultaneously covering and exposing male self-display, invites a differently inflected reading of literary history. For one thing, it casts Mary's literary "borrowings" in a new light, calling attention to the skeletons buried at the site where a young author's purported improprieties are paraded. If, for example, as Rieger alleges, the 1831 text of Frankenstein "virtually plagiarizes the diction, ideas, and symbolism of Shelley's 'Mont Blanc'" (xxiii), Mary's exposure can illuminate Percy's own illicit dabblings, earlier in his life, in Matthew Lewis's "Tales of Terror": the plagiarism discovered in Original Poetry. Cameron, who discusses this plagiarism in extended notes, points out that Percy immediately attributed it to "the imposition, practiced upon him, by his co-adjutor," his sister Elizabeth (305-06). Similarly, Rieger's insistent production of Mary Shelley's textual impurity in his presentation of a "perfect edition" of her masterwork might alert us to his authorial anxieties -- his concern lest his editorial procedures "mar the book's appearance" (xliv) and betray his implication, as it were, at "every point in the book's manufacture."

A telling footnote to Rieger's representation of Mary Shelley's work and life, these stories point to one of Frankenstein's most unsettling features: its demonstration that positions of specularity are not gender-specific. And from this perspective, Rieger's exhibition of Mary Shelley's artistic deficiencies needs to be not so much discredited -- as Anne Mellor forcefully argues that it should be -- as subjected to renewed scrutiny. For if one questions the myth of masculine self-possession that bolsters Rieger's allegations, one might further question recovery efforts like Mellor's -- efforts built on the desire to claim this plenitude for women. In fact, in insisting on the need to "distinguish Mary Shelley's language from her husband's" and meticulously quantifying and categorizing Percy's revisions, Mellor aligns her project with Rieger's; for although she reverses Rieger's lit- {260} erary judgments, she shares his fundamental assumptions about "unique genius" and the author's stabilizing and authenticating signature.l2 Committed to a view of writing as unitary, coherent, and self-sufficient (writing as "single-handed" production [38]), Mellor's work, as much as Rieger's, sustains authorship as an exclusive institution -- one whose configurations best serve male members.

This vision of authorship as self-contained and self-continuous -- as a coherent extension of the self into an extracorporeal existence -- turns out to be Frankenstein's informing fiction. But as the novel dramatically illustrates, such a vision cannot be sustained without considerable contradiction. This contradiction, predicated on the simultaneous avowal and disavowal of difference -- between the literal and figurative, the unique and reproducible, and the bodily and textual -- marks the productions of masculinity as fetishistic. And it is precisely this fetishistic structure that Frankenstein both illuminates and experiments with, in its intertextual networks as well as in its intratextual thematics.l3 In this context, the question of how much Percy Shelley actually wrote remains beside the point. For the desire to "fix" his contributions to Mary Shelley's text (whether Rieger's attempt to "consolidate" them or Mellor's to "correct" them) simply installs the critic in the novel's problematic. Like Frankenstein, the desiring subject must mobilize an elaborate machinery (the technologies of graphology and advanced stylistics) to perpetuate the myth of self-identity -- a myth the novel treats as male fantasy.

Frankenstein's textual uncertainties can be seen, then, to restage the problems of its central drama: the fantasy of masculine creation outside the body. But in the workings of the novel, this fantasy breaks down over the issue of embodiment -- in the vexed relation between the creator's hand and the creature's body, between the "work of [Frankenstein's] own hands" and Frankenstein's "own hand-writing" (72, 59). As the recalcitrance of Frankenstein's hand suggests, the body's parts cannot be buried -- even in the institutional enclaves of masculinity. Putting the hand back into writing, the excavation of the text, as performed by modern critics, thus reactivates the novel's uneasy grapplings with figuration.

Read in the light of the novel's representational extravaganza, the artistic "flaws" of the novel become even more revealing. The stilted, ornate prose style, for example, which Mellor attributes primarily to Percy Shelley's meddling,l4 can be seen to point up the novel's "mannered" literalizations: its manipulation of its subject. As Nancy Vickers points out, in mannerist art "it is the mark of the hand of the artist rather than the mimetic representation of the model that is structured to command attention." But in Frankenstein that "hand" is neither single nor self-identical; moreover, read as a work of mannerist virtuosity, the novel both exposes and upsets the "very vocabulary of heterosexual hierarchies" on which mannerism depends. According to Vickers, the "sexual/aesthetic pleasure" that "unites male artist, male patron, and male viewer" in mannerist production requires "the discomfort of its female subject" ("Mistress" 37, 36).15 In Frankenstein, however, where the female subject drops out of sight, the discomfort accrues to the masculine collective: the male artist, spectator, and spectacle. And as the notorious slipperiness of Frankenstein's signature suggests, the composition of masculinity, at least in the novel, cannot be fixed.

Although the novel admittedly "presents not one but three autobiographies of men," feminist criticism has made a compelling case for reading Frankenstein, against all odds, as "the autobiography of a woman" (Johnson 3). Strong feminist interpretations have virtually reconstructed the text to put its gender beyond question, teaching readers to privilege the novel's inscription of its absent women and to see in the very repression of the feminine the powerful marks of Mary Shelley's presence.l6 But now, as I have been arguing, a feminist critique might best fulfill its project by reversing this direction, reading the presence of the novel's self-consciously male texts to illuminate the absences they cover, to expose the self-contradictions they repress. Exceeding the text's self-proclaimed limits, such a reading might even name Frankenstein's dread- {261} ful secret: the repression of masculine contradiction at the heart of dominant cultural productions.17

This attention to the production of masculinity has important implications for feminist inquiry, especially for studies of Frankenstein, a novel structured around this central allegory (the making of a man). Such critical rethinking demands, among other things, a renewed attention to the historical specificity of the construction of masculinity and a recognition that masculinity, as much as femininity, is created by cultural negotiations and contestations. It insists that brokenness has no necessary or exclusive connection to the feminine -- witness Frankenstein's self-exhibition as "a miserable spectacle of wrecked humanity." [3.2.3] And it brings to light the constitution and distribution of the male body in the making of cultural identity. Recontextualizing the cultural production of femininity, it suggests the way versions of the feminine reflect and illuminate a fractured masculinity.l8

But the Frankenstein that emerges from such a redirected scrutiny is an entirely different creature from that produced by traditional scholarship and new feminist autobiography. For insofar as Frankenstein's male bodies have claimed critical attention, criticism has resorted to one of two strategies, reading the bodily markings as the secret code for covert female presence or marginalizing them as signs of effeminacy. Either way, the male body drops out of sight, consigned to a condition of aberrancy. But the approach I have been proposing would make it possible to read Frankenstein's self-display in and as the writing of his body -- a project foreclosed by a criticism that aligns the body exclusively with women. And it would permit the novel's critical operation to be seen as something more than the solitary production of an aberrant masculinity. For if Frankenstein's insistent articulation of the male body would seem to challenge the pieties of masculinity, it may be the common understanding of masculinity that requires reconsideration and not Frankenstein's position in it.

Indeed, the text of Frankenstein that criticism has sublimated reveals that male spectacle is an integral part of masculinity. Frankenstein himself illustrates the point: the novel relentlessly highlights the body of this exemplary man even where other bodies seem to be in question. Thus while the novel's most sensational moments -- the animation of the monster, the destruction of the monster's "bride," the discovery of Elizabeth's death -- point to specular objects other than Frankenstein, the narrative witnesses these dramatic passages on Frankenstein's body and replays them in his broken utterances. In the account of the monster's composition, for example, Frankenstein decomposes himself; anticipating his inventory of the creature's parts, he deanimates and divides -- and thus opens to view -- his own body, now seen as an object made up of component parts: "my eyeballs were starting from their sockets" (50); "my voice became broken, my trembling hands almost refused to accomplish their task; I became as timid as a love-sick girl" (51, autograph variant).l9 Frankenstein's transgression thus associates him with the "feminine" scandal of discontinuous, bodily materiality, a gendered position imprinted in the parodic catalog of the monster's "beauties":

Beautiful! -- Great God! His yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath; his hair was of a lustrous black, and flowing; his teeth of a pearly whiteness; but these luxuriances only formed a more horrid contrast with his watery eyes, that seemed almost of the same colour as the dun white sockets in which they were set, his shrivelled complexion, . . . straight black lips. (52)
Normative readings of this scene, focusing on its horrific aspects, disguise its participation in the Petrarchan convention of (female) dismemberment: in the representation of the loved one as a composite of details, a collection of parts. But Mary Shelley's deployment of this technique at this climactic narrative intersection suggests its "natural" function in the construction of an idealized masculine image -- a position reinforced by her later citations of Petrarch's sonnets (with gender pronouns reversed) in her biographical tributes to her husband ("Preface" xlix-lvii). Inverting the traditional blazon {262} (whose gender specificity has been powerfully articulated by Nancy Vickers and, more recently, by Patricia Parker, esp. 126-54), Frankenstein's creation scene thus doubly performs its male anatomy, on the body of the creature and on the body of the creator.

If, then, the question of how to "compose a female" (147) becomes the one on which both Frankenstein and the novel stall, the novel insists nonetheless on the discomposure of masculinity, on the troubled and troubling representation of the male body. Thus even when the monster is not corporeally present, the memory of its animation disturbs Frankenstein's equilibrium. Possessed by an "excess of sensitiveness" and activated by Clerval's gaze, Frankenstein's body becomes a notable site of hysterical self-display. For in Clerval's presence, Frankenstein finds that he cannot "contain" himself -- that he cannot be stilled: "I was unable to remain for a single instant in the same place; I jumped over the chairs, clapped my hands, and laughed aloud" (56). A kind of divertissement -- a danse macabre that induces a dead faint -- this mortifying performance earns Frankenstein the monster's specular place, turning Clerval's gaze from the signs of the absent creature to the creator's now "lifeless" body. After restoring Frankenstein to life and nursing him back to health, Clerval asks only that he "not discompose [himself]" (58).

Even here, however, Frankenstein's aberrant behavior exists within the normative construction of masculinity. For the dispersal of the male body that this scene strikingly demonstrates conforms to a construction of the body familiarly produced in eighteenth-century medical discourse: hypochondria, or male hysteria. Embodying a condition so prevalent as to be dubbed "The English Malady," Frankenstein betrays all the textbook signs of susceptibility: refinement of intellect, extraordinary "understanding" or "imagination," solitary study, single-minded fixation, cloistered nocturnal reflection.20 In fact, distributed across the male body, hysteria was frequently read, in the years before Frankenstein appeared, as a sign of privilege and superiority. Thus, Frankenstein's engagement in male spectacle -- in the production of a grotesque male body -- participates in a culturally specific reconfiguration of the problems of masculine idealization. In the chain of idealized male figures that inhabit the novel, the monster represents only the most evident distortion.

From this perspective, it is easier to understand why, in the novel's monstrous logic of reciprocity, the termination of Frankenstein's effort to conceive and execute a female creature produces as its first embodiment not the much noted and symmetrically satisfying exchange of corpses -- a bride for a bride -- but the disconcerting self-image of male disfigurement: the shattered corpse of Clerval. For the novel turns on male mirrors, and the male body remains the privileged site of inscription. Whereas the murder of Elizabeth prompts Frankenstein to purposeful, if frenzied, action, the sight of the prostrate man ("I saw the lifeless form of Henry Clerval stretched before me" [173]) stops Frankenstein completely: "The human frame could no longer support the agonizing suffering that I endured, and I was carried out of the room in strong convulsions" (174). Even recalling the "anguish of the recognition" (173) subjects his body to disintegration, and he recovers himself -- in the narrated events and in the narration only to reenact this male spectacle, to find himself figuratively as well as literally "stretched on a wretched bed, surrounded by . . . all the miserable apparatus of a dungeon" (174). Frankenstein thus lives to prove on his body his "unnatural" elasticity, to exhibit in his prolonged self-reckoning "the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out."21

In the scenes of horror cataloged in the narrative, Frankenstein thus remains the prime representational stage -- experiencing in himself all the wrackings of the body and the tortures of the unsolicited gaze, displaying an imagination acutely sensitized to the martyr's fate, claiming, at the last, preeminence in suffering: "no creature had ever been so miserable as I was; so frightful an event is single in the history of man" (195). Even Elizabeth's death (the horror most insistently gender-marked) is anticipated on Frankenstein's frame, first in his premonitory imaginings and then in his act of narration. For in Frankenstein's distorted view of history, man {263} is single in his capacity for feeling and suffering. Frankenstein's maddening inability to comprehend, for example, the obvious meaning of the monster's claim "I shall be with you on your wedding-night" [3.5.5] suggests an imagination exclusively bound to male theatricals, an imagination in which the man always occupies center stage. Imagining his own death at the monster's hands, Frankenstein enjoys both positions of the specular exchange: spectator and spectacle. Elizabeth functions merely to facilitate this self-display; as the ostensible object of Frankenstein's interest, she preserves the place of his gaze, permitting the thought of his own absent body to excite his sympathy: "when I thought of my beloved Elizabeth, -- of her tears and endless sorrow, when she should find her lover so barbarously snatched from her, -- tears, the first I had shed for many months, streamed from my eyes . . ." (166). Similarly, when Frankenstein records the actual murder scene, he registers Elizabeth's death throes first on his own body: "my arms dropped, the motion of every muscle and fibre was suspended; I could feel the blood trickling in my veins, and tingling in the extremities of my limbs." [3.6.2]22 Moreover, the scream that signals the monster's offstage consummation of his deed proceeds ambiguously from either Elizabeth's or Frankenstein's mouth: "the scream was repeated, and I rushed into the room" (193). Expressly arranged for Frankenstein's scopic regime, the haunting sight of Elizabeth's "lifeless and inanimate" body ("Every where I turn I see the same figure -- her bloodless arms and relaxed form flung by the murderer on its bridal bier" [193]) consequently appears doubly as an afterimage.

Frankenstein's text thus displays the drama of what D. A. Miller calls the "sensationalized body" -- a body culturally coded as feminine, particularly in the later nineteenth century, but subject to discursive appropriation in the masculine domain. Such a body renders visible the culture's sexual codes and mechanisms of identification -- mechanisms that would seem to provide little space for women. For even if, as Walton's framing suggests, the ultimate recipient of "this strange and terrific story" is female (the reader embodied in Walton's sister, Margaret), the story's horror is dramatized in the experiences of men, in the exchange of sensations between male bodies. Thus when Walton testifies, in his appeal to his sister, to his own somatic sensations of horror ("do you not feel your blood congealed with horror, like that which even now curdles mine?" [206-07]), his representational practices bear the imprint of Frankenstein's body. While the absence of signature leaves the reception of Walton's "tale of horrors" uncertain, his testimonial seals Frankenstein's narrative exchange. The bloodcurdling secret withheld from Elizabeth -- "I have one secret, Elizabeth, a dreadful one; when revealed to you, it will chill your frame with horror" (187) -- finds its destination in Walton's frame; the "tale of misery and terror" Frankenstein promises to confide to Elizabeth "the day after [their] marriage shall take place" [3.5.6] passes instead to Walton's pen in an act that stands as the thrilling consummation of confidential vows between men.

Excluded from the sensations of horror, Elizabeth is simultaneously excluded from the field of pleasure the novel fantasizes. And Walton's narrative, for all its assertions of fraternal devotion, promises to reinscribe this exclusionary logic. Relinquishing the reciprocity of letter writing for the journal's narcissistic investments, Walton readily accommodates his sister to a functional position -- the pretext for his pleasure. The question of woman's pleasure, in fact, enters Walton's text at precisely the moment it is precluded by the union of male bodies, the moment when Walton becomes Frankenstein's amanuensis:

I have resolved every night, when I am not engaged, to record, as nearly as possible in his own words, what he has related during the day. . . . This manuscript will doubtless afford you the greatest pleasure: but to me, who know him, and who hear it from his own lips, with what interest and sympathy shall I read it in some future day! (Letter 4.9)
For Walton -- who lacks the signature of self-identity, who signs himself differently in each recorded instance -- the text becomes the unnatural extension of Frankenstein's hand writ- {264} ing. Writing to and from Frankenstein's body, Walton declares his work the paradigmatic autobiography: a vehicle for anticipating and replicating male self-bonding. It is perhaps not surprising, then, that in the copy of the text presented to Mrs. Thomas, Mary Shelley underlines the word pleasure and adds a marginal note, "impossible," for here especially pleasure is proscribed by sexual difference.

If, however, such a reading seems to repeat the novel's marginalization of the feminine, leaving women readers no unappropriated space for gender-specific identification, it does not for that reason foreclose the possibility of other sites of pleasure -- the pleasure, for example, reserved for the spectator of such male spectacles. For in its turn on the fetishistic mechanism, Frankenstein records the pleasure of seeing what is prohibited in relation to the broken male body. While within the novel's theater of representation the spectator continues to inhabit the male body, his spectatorial pleasure is construed as a form of mortification. But this representation leaves open to investigation the way the performance of masculinity solicits and engages a reader outside the frame -- a reader whose response is not preenacted. For the woman reader, for example, seeking a site for feminist intervention, the novel's male theatricals register differently on the body. For what they reveal is not the exhibition of masculine difference -- the plenitude of phallic power and possession -- but the emptying out of the masculine center. The novel can thus be read as putting into question the singular authority of masculinity and, with it, the fixity of sexual positions and the determinateness of gender privileges.

In its fixation on masculine spectacle, then, Frankenstein unsettles the positions of the specular relationship, but the corollary to this gender transposition is the space opened up to the possibilities of female spectatorship. And this perspective invites a reconsideration of the way Mary Shelley represents herself in the scene of original creation: the "devout but nearly silent listener" to male literary and scientific speculations (Frankenstein 227). For in view of Frankenstein's exposure of masculine discourses and bodies, one might question the conventionality of Mary Shelley's position behind the scenes -- a position from which the female spectator, unobserved, can illuminate and mobilize the skeletal structure of masculinity. In such a model, then, the representation of women is not without its interest, but that interest may lie less in the construction of woman as a self-empowering agency than in the understanding of the woman's position in the arrangement of male exhibitions, in the staging of male spectacle. For the woman silenced at the margins of the male imagination can do more than demonstrate masculine preeminence. Like the figure of Mary Shelley produced in the reconstruction of her story's origins (the 1831 introduction) or the sacrificial figures cast up in her novel, the woman at the extremities can point to the fractures in the unified male image: the excesses and deficiencies that disturb the surface of masculinity. From such a position she can carve out a space for reading differently, opening to view the inevitable gap between image and ideal that structures male self-presentations, that renders male literature -- and literary criticism -- autobiographical confession.

If the novel's performance of gender, then, can solicit readers differently, I would like, by way of conclusion, to pursue one of the text's unacted configurations. When Walton introduces Frankenstein into his narrative, it is as someone who "make[s] a figure in a letter" (16); at the same time, Walton retreats from the space of masochism opened up by his investment in this (male) spectacle, from the figural possibilities invoked by an object that excites in him the most "painful interest." "Will you laugh," he entreats his sister, "at the enthusiasm I express concerning this divine wanderer? If you do, you must have certainly lost that simplicity which was once your characteristic charm" (24). A performative utterance, this speech would preempt the response Walton fears by raising the specter of female monstrosity -- the loss of the characteristic charm of femininity. For the uncharming woman, simultaneously produced by and producing masculine instability, spells the end of representational transparency. She suggests the precarious grounds on which the male escapes{265} the position of spectacle. The male body, it would seem, can be protected from disarming scrutiny only if, as in Weekes's memorial to Shelley, it is propped by the image of feminine propriety: the figure of woman that, confirming the text's iconographic meaning, allows us to see and not to see the component parts of masculinity. But if, as Walton intimates, we refuse the position allocated for woman, the laugh of the Medusa will echo in our reading. In Frankenstein, this laughter might produce a new mythology, focusing not on the spectacle of female monstrosity but on the extravagant fantasies of a deficient masculinity. Reading Frankenstein's spectacle of masculinity, we might turn the Medusa story on its head; for in the version I am constructing, the laugh of the Medusa would animate articulation.


1. Moers's now classic discussion of Frankenstein, first published in 1976, inaugurated a tradition of feminist readings of Mary Shelley. For other significant contributions, see Gilbert and Gubar, Ellis, Knoepflmacher, and Poovey.

2. Indeed, as has been frequently noted, Mary gives Frankenstein Percy's pseudonym, Victor. Scott, Small, and Veeder each discuss this biographical connection. Veeder is especially interesting, for while he invokes "old charges against Percy" in order "to direct the reader to what Mary is pointing at" (6,7), he continues to invest in the woman as spectacle: "Ultimately what I hope to give is a sense of the drama of Mary Shelley, the special splendor of a woman who could, without exaggeration, call her life 'romantic beyond romance' . . . and could write one of the influential novels in our language" (3).

3. In this context, The Funeral can also be seen to gloss the novel, representing its (unrepresented) final sequence: the monster's self-immolation.

4. This configuration also illuminates the novel's memorial imagery, where the portrait of Frankenstein's mother ("an historical subject, painted at my father's desire," representing "Caroline Beaufort in an agony of despair, kneeling by the coffin of her dead father" [73]), placed above a miniature of William (whose death is forcibly linked to a miniature of Caroline), is the first object to meet the eye of the newly bereaved Frankenstein. By means of a contorted female subject, these images thus link male desire to the representation of the lifeless male body.

5. Margaret Homans observes that the monster's "very bodiliness, its identification with matter, associates it with traditional concepts of femaleness." But in analyzing this view of the romantic imagination, she exposes its misogynistic and narcissistic underpinnings: its desire "to do away, not only with the mother, but also 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" (106). My argument interrogates such illusions of masculine wholeness from the opposite direction -- through the implications of bodiliness and materiality as male attributes.

6. For a discussion of Frankenstein's male spectacle (focused on the inscription of Rousseau in Mary Shelley's writings), see David Marshall. Marshall's discussion of the theatricalization of suffering within eighteenth-century fiction and aesthetics demonstrates the extent to which men dominate both positions of the specular exchange.

7. From the first, this figure -- variously named Ygor, Fritz, and Dr. Praetorius -- has been a staple of stage and screen adaptations of the novel. See Lavallay.

8. Rieger here refers to his practice of interpolating the autograph variants from the Thomas copy into the text rather than relegating them to footnotes or an appendix.

9. Jacobus's essay -- which forcefully interrogates the text's modus operandi, its participation in a structure that inevitably sacrifices the woman -- opens the way for such a discussion, shifting the potential direction for feminist inquiry to the problematic representation of masculine "theory."

10. Sunstein notes a similar conventional pose in Mary Shelley's anxieties about a proper biography of Percy: "She was frightened that a biography would drag her, a lone woman who wished only to be obscure and 'insignificant,' before the public. 'This is weakness -- but I cannot help it to be in print -- the subject of men's observations . . . attacked and defended!'" (297). For further discussion of the contradictions built into such gendering of spectacle, see Carson.

11. White even indexes Ford's monument this way: "Ford, Onslow, his recumbent statue of Shelley at University College" (2: xxviii). Jane Shelley, as the prime collector of Shelleyana, some of which was donated to Oxford along with the Ford statue, stands as a perpetrator of both the poet's feminization and his sentimentalization.

12. Although Mellor shares Rieger's faith in textual purity, her "pure" text would eliminate the traces of Percy Shelley: "Perhaps someday an editor will give us the manuscript Mary Shelley actually wrote, cleansed of such elaborations . . ." (62). For her extended treatment of Frankenstein's textual controversy, see especially 52-69.

13. For other discussions of Frankenstein's representation of textuality, see in particular Cottom, Favret, Hodges, and McInerney.

14. "He typically changed her simple, Anglo-Saxon diction and straightforward or colloquial sentence structures into their more refined, complex, and Latinate equivalents. He is thus in large part responsible for the stilted, ornate, putatively Ciceronian prose style about which many readers have complained" (Mellor 59-60).

15. Vickers's study of Cellini's Nymph of Fontainebleau concludes, "The very vocabulary of heterosexual hierarchies that unites male artist, male patron, and male viewer, then, in sexual/aesthetic pleasure articulates, as its corollary, the discomfort of its female subject" ("Mistress" 36). Frankenstein offers an interesting turn on this pattern by putting the male body on display -- laid out with its limbs extended, contorted, dispersed, opened to view.

16.This view of the novel's gender is generally shared even by feminist critics who do not explicitly engage a theory of female autobiography. Veeder, somewhat reductively, questions this tendency: "Feminist readings can, however, go too far. . . . Mother can achieve such prominence that father is cast into shadow" (125).

17. This interpretation of Frankenstein's secret is an inversion of Johnson's paradigm: "It is thus indeed perhaps the very hiddenness of the question of femininity in Frankenstein that somehow proclaims the painful message not of female monstrousness but of female contradictions. For it is the fact of self-contradiction that is so vigorously repressed in women" (9). Sedgwick sees Frankenstein's "tableau of two men chasing one another across a landscape" as emblematic of what she calls "The Age of Frankenstein." Sedgwick argues that it is "importantly undecidable in this tableau, as in many others like it in Gothic novels, whether the two men represent two consciousnesses or only one; and it is importantly undecidable whether this bond . . . is murderous or amorous." For her, texts like Frankenstein crystallize "this paranoid, i.e. specifically homophobic, tableau": "What I have argued most distinctively and rhetorically marks The Age of Frankenstein is the absolute omnipresence of this homophobic, paranoid tableau, in the absence of a widely available sense of a possible homosexual role or culture, and in the absence of any felt specificity of male homosexual desire in the culture at large" (ix-x). This analysis of homophobia, however, has not received sustained attention in the Frankenstein scholarship. A reading that emphasizes masculine contradiction in the novel might link the hysteria- and paranoia-oriented perspectives Sedgwick distinguishes as "feminocentric" and"masculocentric."

18.In my thinking on male subjectivity, I have benefited from the ongoing theoretical work of Kaja Silverman (in particular, "Fassbinder and Lacan"). Until recently, discussions of masculinity and spectacle have been most vigorously pursued in film studies; see, for example, Neale.

19. Devon Hodges makes an analogous point: "On viewing the animated creature, Frankenstein becomes 'discomposed' and his disrupted state appears in the language of the passages following his act of creation: 'I started from my sleep with horror; a cold dew covered my forehead, my teeth chattered, and every limb became convulsed . . .'" [1.4.2] (159). Hodges reads Frankenstein's thematic and stylistic refusal of coherence as emblematic of "the feminine subversion of the novel."

20. John Mullan offers a valuable discussion of male hysteria in his chapter "Hypochondria and Hysteria: Sensibility and the Physicians" (201-40). Frankenstein would seem to meet all the conditions Mullan summarizes as activating the condition: "Specifically, hypochondria is seen to be visited upon those for whom refinement, study, or 'imagination' involves solitude or retreat, the meditation which excludes all but the subjects of its fixation, the 'lucubration' which implies cloistered nocturnal reflection and the writing which comes out of it" (210-11).

21. See, for example, Frankenstein's complaint on his survival of Clerval's murder: "Of what materials was I made, that I could thus resist so many shocks, which, like the turning of the wheel, continually renewed the torture" (174). Freed from literal imprisonment, Frankenstein re-creates the dungeon in his own psyche, in a world circumscribed by the inextinguishable figures of interchangeable men: "and although the sun shone upon me, as upon the happy and gay of heart, I saw around me nothing but a dense and frightful darkness, penetrated by no light but the glimmer of two eyes that glared upon me. Sometimes they were the expressive eyes of Henry, languishing in death . . . sometimes it was the watery clouded eyes of the monster, as I first saw them in my chamber at Ingolstadt" (179-80). In most stage and film versions of the novel, Frankenstein is called not Victor but Henry (Clerval's given name), a substitution that may suggest another novelistically motivated slippage in masculine identity.

22. Veeder, the critic perhaps most concerned with Frankenstein's explorations of masculinity, reads these signs as emblematic of Victor's impotence and effeminacy (122); such a reading, however, relegates these signs to psychological abnormality, foreclosing what might be a more complex exploration of the contradictions that structure the articulation of "normal" masculinity.

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