Contents Index

Mary and the Monster: Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and Maureen Duffy's Gor Saga

Jenny Newman

Chapter 5 of Where No Man Has Gone Before: Women and Science Fiction, ed. Lucie Armitt (London: Routledge, 1991), pp. 85-96

{[85]} During the wet summer of 1816 the talk between the men at the Villa Diodati often turned to science. Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley and Polidori (possibly the most knowledgeable) were discussing the latest experiments enthusiastically, including Galvani's development of electricity by chemical action, and Erasmus Darwin's observation of the activity of bacteria in dead organic matter.

According to the 1817 preface to Frankenstein,1 Mary Shelley almost always confined herself to the role of passive listener. But when Byron suggested that each of the four summer visitors to Switzerland write a ghost story, it soon became obvious that it was in her that the new scientific inquiry had taken deepest root. Frankenstein, completed in England the following May, was her own troubled response to the masculine spirit of competition promoted by Byron. The composition of this 'scientific romance'2 was to span some of the most disturbing events of her young life, out of which she created the first work of science fiction, one of the most powerful myths of Romanticism, and a text which embodies a profound division in her own experience. I am not claiming that this particular 'disentangling' of the text is more valid than any other. With every page of Frankenstein reminding us that reading is an act of interpretation, the narrative structure does everything to discourage monolithic theories.

Shelley continued to work on Frankenstein back in England. By December 1816 she had reached the crucial chapter 4 (5 in the 1831 edition), which begins with the words she cited later, in her 1831 introduction to the novel, as the very first words she wrote. The pressures to write a masculine epic must have been strong. Her husband-to-be was reading her Paradise Lost out loud. 'He was forever inciting me to obtain literary reputation' she wrote {86} in that same Introduction [Introduction 4]. Her stepsister, Claire Clairmont, gave the same impression of the Shelley family, later and less reverentially: 'In our family, if you cannot write an epic poem or novel that by its originality knocks all other novels on the head, you are a despicable creature, not worth acknowledging.'3

Critics and biographers have often dwelt on the difficulties of Shelley's life during the composition of Frankenstein -- poverty, and separation from Percy Bysshe Shelley when he was either hiding from creditors or else away from their lodgings trying to raise money. She had been ostracised by her father, William Godwin, and many former friends after her elopement, and betrayed by her own biology into a disastrous series of pregnancies and miscarriages. Understandably, perhaps, her biographers dwell less on the fate of Percy Bysshe Shelley's wife. But contemporary society was well aware of the scandal. For the first time the world was seeing Mary very differently from the way she saw herself. Frankenstein, like 'The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,' which the girl Mary Godwin heard read aloud by the poet, deals with an inescapable guilt too deep for orthodox shriving. Its exploration of a fanatical spirit of inquiry leading both to irresponsibility and an inalienable sense of connection between two people who loathe each other, turns Percy Bysshe Shelley's Promethean optimism upside down.

Contemporary Marxist and feminist critics have given Mary Shelley a hard time. Franco Moretti, for instance, claims that the monster represents a newly emergent proletariat, with his desire to breed a pointer to the feared proliferation of the working class; and then accuses the author of being reactionary for having Victor Frankenstein refer to the monster's desired progeny as a 'race of devils'.4 The feminist interpretation in Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar's The Madwoman in the Attic is more sympathetic, but rather matronising. Here Shelley, a 'puzzled but studious Miltonist', produces a Gothic psychodrama which is also 'a version of the misogynistic story implicit in Paradise Lost'.5

It seems likely that the character of Victor Frankenstein was based on Percy Bysshe Shelley, as many critics assert.6 Victor was the pen name he often used in his juvenilia; and the notion of victory recurs frequently throughout his poetry, usually as a point of aspiration. The word itself recurs frequently, too, and is the final one in Prometheus Unbound. Victor Frankenstein, the idealistic young seeker after truth with a burning desire to 'pen- {87} etrate the secrets of nature', resembles a nightmare version of the boy Shelley growing old enough to do damage.

So if Frankenstein in this particular configuration resembles Percy, who is Frankenstein's monster? Again, interpretations vary -- the monster as proletariat,7 as the unacceptable side of the hero,8 as Mary Shelley's 'overstrained, intellectual conscience',9 as reason in isolation,10 as the embodiment of Frankenstein's ambition,11 and as the author's first, nameless baby who died shortly after birth,12 to name only a few, and without wishing to dispute these readings.

In my suggested interpretation, as in Gilbert and Gubar's, the monster's unique experience of knowing what it is to be born free of history, his social illegitimacy, his namelessness, 'nameless as a woman in a patriarchal society'13 make him figuratively feminine. Mary Shelley had long been familiar with the idea of women as monsters, having read the reviews of her dead mother's works, where men like William Duff, writing in the Aristotelian vein where women are 'monsters, not quite human, not quite animal', describes Mary Wollstonecraft, the 'hyena in petticoats', as freakish because she overstepped the 'natural and proper bounds for a woman'.

So what relationship in the novel does Mary's monster bear to Victor, his/her manufacturer? At points s/he appears to be auditioning for the role of wife, hoping to share an identity with Frankenstein's family, struggling to acquire its culture and showing an almost obsessive interest in its domestic minutiae. The yearning to be with his/her master on his wedding night is born out of an understandable desire for revenge after Frankenstein's failure to construct a mate. Weddings in nineteenth-century fiction are notorious for being interrupted. But what distinguishes Frankenstein from The Bride of Lammermoor, for instance, or Jane Eyre, is the monster's desire to interrupt not the wedding ceremony or the wedding breakfast, but the bedroom scene. Suffusing the menace is a sexual overtone which threatens consummation as well as disruption.

The distance from which the monster pursues the maker betokens a respect which intensifies into conjugal concern when the flight is reversed. As the man pursues the monster he acts on his/her sustaining words of advice, such as 'You will find near this place, if you follow not too tardily, a dead hare; eat, and be refreshed',14 or 'Wrap yourself in furs and provide food"15 {88} -- examples of their mutual dependence preventing them from killing each other; when the maker dies, the monster can only disappear from view to commit suttee on the polar snows.

Many men besides William Duff have described the second sex as monsters, including Percy Bysshe Shelley himself, who in a letter referred to his union with one he knew well as 'a dead & living body . . . linked together in loathsome & horrible communion'.16 His is the living body in the metaphor. The dead one belongs to his wife -- not Mary but Harriet Shelley, a woman three years his junior whom he had recently abandoned to live with Mary. At the time he wrote these words she was pregnant by him, and still very much alive.

Harriet too had once, as Lorna Sage puts it, been galvanised 'into a dazzle with idealist electricity'.17 Presumably the young Mary Godwin believed that the marriage had fizzled out by the time she eloped with Percy Bysshe, and that Mrs Shelley was reconciled to her husband's departure Having scrutinized all the evidence about the life of her dead mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary Godwin must have known how serious the results of behaviour like hers might be. Wollstonecraft, on returning from Scandinavia to find out that Gilbert Imlay had left her yet again, soaked her clothes to make sure she would sink, and tried to drown herself in the Thames. By living with the husband of another young woman just as much a mother as she, and with -- legally at any rate -- a greater claim on her husband, Mary Godwin, daughter of a feminist mother and a father who advocated free love, placed herself at a painful point of intersection between these two idealisms.

Mary's journal entry for 6 December 1814 shows that the birth of Harriet's child became a source of resentment:

a letter from Hookham to say that Harriet has been brought to bed of a son and heir -- S. writes a number of circular letters on this event which ought to be ushered in with ringing of bells &c. for it is the son of his wife. . . . a letter from Harriet confirming the news, in a letter from a deserted wife, telling us that he has been born a week.18
This is not an attack on Harriet herself, but on her husband's behaviour, and on the irrefutable link forged anew between the married couple by the arrival of a 'son and heir'. It makes the birth of Mary's own illegitimate baby a few weeks later look {89} particularly poignant. She was two months premature, and died before she could be given a name. (The son and heir did not himself live long enough to inherit the Shelley estate.)

Mary usually worked on her novel when Percy Bysshe was away from home. Early in December 1816 she wrote to him saying she had just completed chapter 4. A few days later she received the news that Harriet Shelley had drowned herself in the Serpentine -- a tragic action replay of Wollstonecraft's attempted suicide, but this time successful. Harriet, like Mary herself, was pregnant again, but probably not by Percy Bysshe Shelley. Claire Clairmont, who was living with Percy and Mary at the time, described the event in a letter to E. J. Trelawney in 1878:

One morning Miss W---- visited H---- and the latter was very low at receiving no letters from her lover - and expressed a fear that he did not really love her and meant to abandon her -- for she remarked I don't think I am made to inspire love, and you know my husband abandoned me -- the Eg [sic] of that day, a dark November Eg -- with rain -- at eight o'clock she went into the park and threw herself into the Serpentine.19
Mary Shelley's diaries, impersonal to the point of being little more than reading lists, contain only passing references to her writing -- she keeps her 'workshop of filthy creation' as private as Frankenstein does.20 But the parallel is dear between the 'dreary night of November' which sees the birth of the monster in the crucial chapter 5, and the one described to Trelawney. Mary cites that famous opening sentence of chapter 5 as the first fruits of her imagination all those years later, and Claire Clairmont, so close to her at the time of Harriet's suicide, echoes them, unconsciously perhaps, in her letter to Trelawney.

The dreadful denouément of Harriet's life intensified Mary's own anxieties about the fate of her hideous progeny. And the first Mrs Shelley's death highlighted the callousness of her husband's behaviour. His subsequent escape in the preface to Prometheus Unbound to what he calls 'beautiful idealisms of moral excellence' looks evasive by comparison with Mary Shelley's engagement with the notions of moral responsibility he seemed reluctant to contemplate.

Soon after Harriet's suicide Mary become Mrs Shelley II, marrying, like her mother before her, without any great belief in the institution. Her express purpose was to help her husband gain {90} custody of his two children by his first wife. The episode concluded with his new wife's induction into the Fall -- not the Biblical or Miltonic version but a feminist kind, where free love and a consideration for other women become incompatible Here possession of a kindred spirit -- masculine -- means expulsion of another woman from the Garden. Mary Shelley becomes a latter-day Eve, who in an apocryphal version of the Bible dispossesses Adam's first wife, Lilith -- ironical in view of Gilbert and Gubar's argument that Mary Shelley reworked Paradise Lost all too dutifully.

The mortuary monster coming to life may be not so much to do with Shelley's own experiences as a mother, as critics have often suggested, as with a distaste for this mess of Victor's own making. By killing herself, Harriet Shelley ensured that her dead body remained linked with her husband's in a 'loathsome & horrible communion' that even he could not have anticipated when he wrote those words. In the second wife's account of the making of a monster its manufacturer denies all responsibility for it -- as does the second scientific inquirer, Captain Walton. Their two epics frame the monster's own account of its doings. The author's official sympathies are with Frankenstein. But the monster's predicament remains the most moving part of the book even though Shelley has locked it inside the innermost Chinese box of the narrative, and filtered it through not one male consciousness but two.

Second wives were commonplace in the nineteenth century, largely because so many first wives died in childbirth. Shelley was unusual in having to cope with an earlier incumbent who was, for a short time, still alive. In the Victorian age Jane Eyre nearly becomes a fictional counterpart. In Charlotte Bronte's novel the figure of the first wife, completely cut off from authorial sympathy before her rescue by Jean Rhys in Wide Sargasso Sea, and furnished, like Shelley's monster, with shaggy locks and a bestial mien, forces us to notice her unusual plight even of we are not officially asked to sympathise with this later version of a woman seeing her rival as a Gothic monster.

In the 1980s, with one couple in three divorcing, living first wives are no longer so rare. But the topic still provokes feminist writers -- witness the recent spate of novels like Carol Clewlow's A Woman's Guide to Adultery. The blurb for the paperback edition of Fay Weldon's Remember Me, where a dead first wife comes {91} back to haunt the second, might have appealed to Harriet Shelley herself: 'Second wives beware. First wives take heart. Your power is more than you know.'

That single laboratory experiment in Frankenstein, born out of the new science, brought forth a novel set of dilemmas which women writers are still exploring today. 'The Modern Prometheus', as Mary Shelley subtitled her novel, remains more modern than its author could have guessed. Fay Weldon's latest novel The Cloning of Joanna May (1989), is the most recent book to reinforce the link between the modern variant of Frankenstein's experiments -- genetic engineering -- and a masculine inability to feel. But Maureen Duffy's Gor Saga (1981) is more original because for the first time the problems of Frankenstein are resolved in a collective rather than an individual fashion.

Like Frankenstein, Gor Saga is written under the influence of a Darwin; but this time it is Charles, not Erasmus, and what Milton called original sin is suggested here by our proximity to the apes. The fascist state in this futuristic world attempts to establish middle-class supremacy by reinforcing a rigid division between it and the working class, which is held by the bourgeoisie to resemble anthropoids.

In Duffy's novel we watch an attempt to forge the missing link in an artificial insemination scene which reads like a parody of The Origin of Species. This time the scientist, Forester, attempts to create new life by impregnating a gorilla, significantly called Mary. Although he uses a syringe, the sperm is his own. His act of making fits comfortably -- or uncomfortably -- into a tradition of Gothic eroticism. Like the shuddering of Frankenstein's monster at the moment of making, or Lucia's blood transfusion in Dracula, Forester's tremor of excitement while pressing the plunger between Mary's bright pink buttocks is a possible representation of a man-made orgasm.21

Clearly Forester is a latter-day Frankenstein, with his dactyllic surname beginning with 'F', and his mental lust to beget life with power rather than tenderness as he 'apes' female creativity. Eventually a baby is born, half man, half gorilla, after a hard and bloody birth while Mary screams with pain and rage.

The name chosen by Forester for this new species is hominid and the young specimen is fostered among the working class or 'nons', in the belief that it will pass more easily as human. Forester's sympathetic, middle-class wife, Ann, refuses to use this {92} derogatory term, preferring 'ordinary people' instead. But 'non' is more precise, suggesting as it does not proximity to the apes, but a class impoverished not only financially but culturally, easily manipulated by advertisements into buying surplus products. One such is the unnutritious breakfast cereal advertised during one long, hot summer in the over-populated city. The reward for buying far more than needed is a free disc of the pop song, 'Girl in a Red Car.' With its tale of the working-class boy longing for the uptown girl it becomes a class-based parallel to the exploitative miscegenation which produced the little hominid.

Maureen Duffy, like Mary Shelley, wrote a late preface to a first novel. Duffy's first novel is the autobiographical That's How it Was (1962), which describes going to grammar school from a working-class point of view. In her 1982 preface, Duffy explains how she came to write the science fiction Gor Saga nearly twenty years after the more directly autobiographical work, using what she calls 'species-ism' as a metaphor for the way she'd felt divided by the experience.

Although the hominid has a first name -- Gor, short for Gordon, but also suggesting gorilla -- he has no family name, and no rightful place in society. Like Shelley's monster, he is denied knowledge of his origins, which Forester hides in his laboratory for fear of rivals imitating his experiments. He too can be said to occupy a feminine position in society, close to nature, alien to culture, with a particularly painful point of entry into the symbolic order. Shelley's monster had found, among other books, a copy of Paradise Lost 'lying' on the ground -- what Lorna Sage calls a promiscuous text,22 ready to be possessed by anybody -- although its authority is clearly enough inscribed on the cover in the name of John Milton. In Gor's world books are not so freely available. Ann Forester hoards what battered old copies she can find to distribute among the nons, while her brother-in-law continues to develop the microfiches which have almost totally replaced them. But if the written word is obsolescent, science has advanced, and Gor has an operation on his vocal cords which enables him to speak. Afterwards he is fostered in Forester's own family, and comes to identify himself as middle-class.

As in Frankenstein, it is the monster's nascent sexuality that provokes the major crisis. In the earlier novel, the monster wants a mate, and rebels when Victor fails to equip him with one. In Gor Saga, Ann Forester gives a party for her teenage daughter, {93} and someone spikes the punch. Adolescent passions run high, and, in complete ignorance of any kinship, Gor kisses his half-sister. When Forester finds out, he banishes Gor, and it is now that the hominid's lack of social identity counts against him. As Forester never registered his birth, he is ineligible for any human right -- food, work or shelter.

Which century makes life easier for a monster on the run, the early nineteenth, or an apocalyptic version of the late twentieth? Switzerland may once have been associated with the Reformation and Republican enlightenment, but by the eighteenth century it had become a closed society, with the government in the hands of an oligarchy.23 The English Walton forms a contrast to the Swiss Victor in his egalitarian approach to discovery, turning back from the ice floes in response to his crew's terror -- but even in the floating democracy of his ship there is no place for the monster.

Maureen Duffy depicts a world where, as Marx had predicted, an economic crisis has deepened the fissure between the classes. The landscape of Shelley's England was beginning to be changed by the rise of industrialism. Duffy's descriptions chart a postcapitalist decay. Gor manages to establish squatter's rights for himself in a derelict house -- but soon desperate loneliness drives him out again into a world of inner-city riots, gangs of homeless youths, a metered water supply and privatised bus companies that looks disconcertingly more like ours than when the book was written. Yet the rigid division between nons and the middle class engenders a society more susceptible than Frankenstein's to social change, and accessible to outsiders like Gor. At his wits' end, he stumbles on the urban guerrillas (a pun here?), who make him a member of their socialist collective. If it wasn't beleaguered by the state it would be utopian, with its presiding matriarch in the shape of Mrs Bardfield, who had been a much-loved 'non' foster-mother of the infant Gor.

From here Gor sets out under cover of darkness to decode the mystery of his origins, raiding Forester's laboratory on the downs above Salisbury. In the Preface cited before, Maureen Duffy says that the relationship between the mother and child is the basis of all her fiction, and that every nativity is the Nativity. In this case, Gor's unravelling of his own genesis -- the account begins with a series of notes in diary form, a typically feminine form of creativity -- looks like a particularly cruel travesty of the maternal {94} instinct. It was a Nativity all right, complete with Mary in the shape of an ape mother, dangling her babe by the ankle, its head only an inch away from the cage floor, while Jo-Jo, the gorilla mate she had rejected, stands by disregarded, a St Joseph figure to one side of the manger.

In a scene reminiscent of Oedipus Rex, that tale of a classical seeker of his own origins, Gor seizes a poker from the long-dead fire of an old rectory, and goes to confront his maker -- the only one he'll ever know, given that the priest in the rectory had told him that as far as hominids are concerned God does not exist. Only the arrival of Ann Forester and William Bardfield, the matriarch's son, prevents Gor from striking his 'father' dead, so the castration rests at a symbolic level. But it is further than Frankenstein ever got, and it is enough to liberate Ann, who finds the courage to leave her sexually unresponsive husband. Gor's ambiguous sexual identity -- feminine in relation to society, yet unable to engender children of his own -- plays its part in this feminist version of Sophocles' story. We see the mother, unlike Jocasta, surviving guilt to assume a fuller sexual identity as she falls in love with William. Together they will live -- with Gor and anyone else who wants to -- in the urban guerrilla camp where William is already a leader. The final scene is one of rejoicing. Although Gor has not found a biological identity, he has acquired the social one denied to him by science (malevolently) and religion (intending to be benevolent), science and religion being presented as unsatisfactory forces here, both in their different ways symptoms of the 'species-ism' that Duffy is castigating.

Mothers are scarce in Frankenstein: Victor, Elizabeth, Justine, Safie, Agatha and Felix are all motherless. And the opening sentence of Gor Saga reads: 'He never really knew his mother.' At the end of the book Gor finds out from Forester that Mary died miserably -- or was terminated -- as an expendable part of what Gor himself has already come to see should be an animal commonwealth, not an animal kingdom. But all Gor's other mothers -- the human foster mothers -- reappear in the urban guerrilla camp, where a collective celebration after a victory over the state soldiery makes Gor's private misery manageable at the end of the book.

Both Frankenstein and Forester 'ape' women's creativity by engendering new life; and their fiercely masculine lust for power {95} results, in these two female texts, in 'feminine' progeny -- as though their perverted procreative drive is bound to result in rebellious daughters.

The narrative structure of Frankenstein sustains Shelley's ambivalence about her monster, exploring his grief after severance from his maker, but finally abandoning him on the ice with no critique of Frankenstein's behaviour anywhere in the narrative. Maureen Duffy, writing after Marx and the upsurge of the women's movement, reworks Shelleyan ambiguities by placing Gor firmly at the centre of his own saga, and excluding Forester from the scene of rejoicing at the end. It is a futuristic vision in a genre still considered marginal -- but both the future and marginalia have in their different ways, always been important places for women writers to work out alternative theories of human relations, and their implication for the present. 'The Crowning of Gor', as the last section is called, challenges the notion of the individualistic epic hero by praising the collective rather than the individual victory, reminding us 200 years after the French Revolution which inspired the writers of the Romantic movement that liberation is best achieved communally.


1. Shelley wrote in her introduction to the 1831 edition of Frankenstein: 'I certainly did not owe the suggestion of one incident, nor scarcely one train of feeling, to my husband, and yet but for his incitement it would never have taken the form in which it was presented to the world. From this declaration I except the preface. As far as I can recollect, it was written by him' [Introduction, frame 12].

2. Patrick Parrinder, Science Fiction: Its Criticism and Teachings London Methuen, 1980, 8.

3. Mrs Julian Marshall (ed.), The Life and Letters of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, 2 vols, London, Richard Bentley, 1889, 2, 248.

4. Franco Moretti, Signs Taken for Wonders London, Verso and New Left Books, 1983, 86.

5. Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar, The Madwoman in the Attic, New Haven, Yale University Press, 1979, 224-5.

6. E.g., Rosie Jackson, 'Frankenstein: a myth for women', Women's Review 12 (October 1986), 16; Christopher Small, Ariel Like a Harpy: Shelley, Mary and Frankenstein, London, Gollancz, 1972, 101, and Mary K. Patterson Thomburg, The Monster in the Mirror: Gender and the Sentimental/Gothic Myth in Frankenstein, Ann Arbor, UMI, 1987, 8.

7. Moretti, op. cit., 86.

8. Thornburg, op. cit., 79.

9. This is Richard Church's view, cited in Muriel Spark, Child of Light: A Reassessment of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, London, Tower Bridge Publications, 1951, 137.

10. Spark, op. cit., 137.

11. William A. Walling, Mary Shelley, Boston, Twayne, 1972, 38.

12. Ellen Moers, Literary Women, London, Women's Press, 1978, 96.

13. Gilbert and Gubar, op. cit., 241.

14. M. K. Joseph (ed.), Mary Shelley: Frankenstein, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1980, 204-5.

15. ibid., 205.

16. Frederick L. Jones (ed.), The Letters (of Percy Bysshe Shelley, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1963, 1, 402.

17. 'The available space', in Moira Monteith (ed.), Women's Writing: A Challenge to Theory, Brighton, Harvester, 1986, 21.

18. Paula R. Feldman and Diana Scott-Kilvert (eds), The Journals of Mary Shelley 1814-1844, 2 vols, Oxford, Clarendon, 1987, 11, 50.

19. Quoted ibid., 151.

20. Frankenstein, 55.

21. Maureen Duffy, Gor Saga, London, Methuen, 1981, 1983 edn, 10.

22. Monteith, op. cit., 16.

23. Thornburg, op. cit., 72.