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The Limits of Rivalry: Revisioning the Feminine in a Community of Shared Desire

Marlon B. Ross

Chapter 4 of The Contours of Masculine Desire: Romanticism and the Rise of Women's Poetry (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989), 112-121.

{112} As we move from the first to the second generation of male romantics, we move into a web of influence even more entangled but also more self-consciously addressed by the poets themselves. As the second generation of poets offer a critique of their immediate precursors, they also inevitably offer a critique of themselves. As they acknowledge the immediacy of influence from their older rivals, they also grapple more openly (perhaps even more honestly) with the reciprocal or communal nature of influence. Even as they hold tight to the myth of self-possessing desire with one hand, they let go of that myth with the other. Shelley is perhaps the epitome of this split process. For more than any other male romantic, he overtly worries over the poetics of influence in his prose works as well as his poetry. Perhaps even more importantly, Percy is confronted with a feminine other, Mary, who makes repression of brother-sister rivalry more tenuous. Furthermore, he is confronted with a feminine mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, who, by politicizing the desire to categorize the feminine, makes it more difficult for him to take gender difference as a natural part of the landscape. Through Marys Shelley and Wollstonecraft, the recalcitrant feminine impinges on Percy's life, and unsettles the movement of his desire in ways that Wordsworth's wife and sister seem not to.

I am tempted to attribute this to a material cause: Mary Shelley makes feminine desire real because she embodies its most trenchant demands and contradictions. Wollstonecraft's philosophy is ambivalently mirrored in her daughter, who, in reacting so equivocally to the influence of her mother, makes the mother's influence all the more palpable. As Mary Poovey has demonstrated, Mary Shelley engages in a partly conscious, partly unconscious struggle with her mother's influence.1 Shelley is torn between two conflicting desires, one derived from the utopian natural woman that Wollstonecraft looks forward to in her Vindication of the Rights of Woman, the other derived {113} from social reality. As both Mary and Percy seem to sense, Mary's unusual position as the daughter of two libertarian visionaries gives her a kind of psychic freedom to become her own woman, the first daughter of feminine desire, the first daughter born of feminine influence in the literary and sociopolitical sphere, and yet this psychic freedom is itself imprisoned within a darker reality of patriarchal society and is tortured by Mary's own internalizations of that society's strictures and demands. In fact, this potential freedom itself becomes a massive burden, an anxiety of influence more intense than even the most contentious father > son relation. To accept fully such unprecedented feminine freedom ironically would require Shelley to enslave herself to a personal project of cultural liberation through self-defiance, a project that would be the inverse of Wordsworth's, for it would necessarily explore how the self is a mirror of culture, how an individual man cannot possess his own desire any more than a woman can possess hers.


Shelley's first novel Frankenstein can be read as just such an exploration. In Poovey's analysis of the novel, she argues convincingly that the monster represents Shelley's own tortured ambivalence and "expresses the tension she feels between the self-denial demanded by domestic activity and the self-assertiveness essential to artistic creation" (138). In Bearing the Word Margaret Homans interprets the demon as "a revision of Eve, of emanations, and of the object of romantic desire. . . . Its very bodiliness, its identification with matter, associates it with traditional concepts of femaleness. Further, the impossibility of Frankenstein giving it a female demon, an object of its own desire, aligns the demon with women, who are forbidden to have their own desires" (106). Although these interpretations tend to contradict each other, both readings offer insight into Mary Shelley's self-consciously problematized relation to romantic ideology and her troubled relation to her own feminine desire. As an emanation of Shelley's own tortured desire, the monster demonstrates the conflict between masculine selfpossession, which Shelley feels she must emulate if she is to fulfill the genius that has been claimed for her by her peculiar circumstances, and feminine affection, which she feels is the proper and happiest sphere of conduct for both men and women. The demon that her Frankenstein creates is not only the masculine monster that women writers often feared becoming (as we'll see in Chapters 6-8); it is also the monstrosity of masculine desire itself, the tendency of males (such as Percy) to disrupt the potential harmony of feminine space ideologized for Shelley as the domestic arrangements of nineteenth-century society. As the object of masculine desire, the monster demonstrates how men tend to ignore the potential of feminine influence even when they are nurtured within feminine space. By objectifying his desire in his monstrous creativity (representing male romantic poetry), Frankenstein separates himself forever from the potential reconciliation between his self-defeating {114} desire and feminine influence. In order for his desire to retain its aggressive, self-totalizing nature, it must consistently defeat itself by denying the power of the feminine other it has objectified.

In addition to tortured feminine desire and the object of masculine desire, I would argue that the monster must also represent masculine desire itself. The demon is the embodiment of Frankenstein's self-possessing (romantic) urges. Shelley demonstrates how such desire leads men astray and eventually disrupts their attempt at genuinely shared community by destroying all forms of feminine influence. What Walton is attempting to understand, and what Frankenstein learns too late, is the necessity of domestic affection and shared space. The solitary conqueror, whether a scientist like Frankenstein or a discoverer like Walton, not only severs needed human bonds but also necessarily looses his own unrestrained desire upon the world, a desire that is relentlessly aggressive, anarchic, and destructive, even when what is desires is itself a humanitarian ideal.

Frankenstein, like Godwin and Percy, desires to perfect humanity, but in the quest of that goal he ironically threatens already established human bonds, which are the only true basis for human harmony and happiness. Opposed to Frankenstein's monstrously self-consuming desire is Clerval's feminized desire. Clerval is a rare type, a man whose desire has been shaped by feminine influence without an aggressive, resistant counter-reaction, and as such he represents one side of Percy, as much as Frankenstein does. Clerval is an aspiring poet, who is compared from the very beginning with Frankenstein's fiancée Elizabeth. Both offer an alternative to self-possession; both retain their loyalty to domestic bonds; both gaze at nature wondrously and respectfully from the security of their appropriate domestic sphere, as opposed to Frankenstein and Walton, who attempt to master nature by denying the proper limits of human influence; both attempt to nurture Frankenstein, to prevent his self-obsessive desiring. Significantly, it is Clerval who nurses Frankenstein back to physical health after his breakdown upon completing the monster; it is Clerval who brings his friend back to the family and the potential influence of the feminine, but too late. It is Clerval whom the monster murders in retaliation when Frankenstein destroys the female mate whom he has promised the demon. As the homoeroticized version of Elizabeth, it is appropriate that Clerval should be so identified with the mate that Frankenstein cannot allow the monster (himself) to have, as well as with the actual mate (Elizabeth) whose influence Frankenstein fatally represses. Because Clerval represents the femininely influenced male, he must die as a forewarning of Elizabeth's death. Neither he nor Elizabeth can halt the process of self-possessing desire, for both are powerless in comparison to the monster, in relation to the power of masculine desire.

If Shelley's Frankenstein explores the destructiveness of romantic self-possessing ideology, it also explores the inadequacies of the vocations that the romantic poet is anxious to ally himself with, the industrial capitalist and the scientist-explorer. Shelley sees these professions as implying a desire to increase human power by controlling nature, as threatening not only domestic {115} calm and happiness but also the survival of the human species. In her fascinating essay, "Frankenstein: "A Feminist Critique of Science" (reprinted in Mary Shelley), Anne Mellor demonstrates how Shelley's novel distinguishes between "bad" science, "the hubristic manipulation of the forces of nature to serve man's private ends" (287), and "good" science, "a careful observation and celebration of the operations of nature with no attempt radically to alter either the way nature works or the institutions of society" (292). In the former kind of science, represented, of course, by Frankenstein's creation of the monster, there is an attempt "to penetrate, possess, and control Mother Nature" that "entails both a violation of the sacred rights of nature and a false belief in the 'objectivity' or 'rationality' of scientific research" (310). I think the novel goes further than this to ask whether even "good" science is possible without such violation. Walton's journey toward the North Pole could easily be classified as "good" science, since it does not necessarily imply an assault of nature, but rather entails merely an attempt to understand the secrets of polar magnetism. And yet, Walton's exploration, like Frankenstein's experiments, leads to domestic trauma, isolation, and potential death for his crew and himself. The question becomes: What is the line between "mere" observation of nature and mastery of nature? Like Wordsworth, who says that he strives to keep his eye steady upon nature, Frankenstein and Walton immediately slip over that line into self-possessing conquest. As we shall see, this is because "observation" ("good" science) itself -- or what I call spectatorship -- is, like "bad" science, based on a conventionally masculine stance that accentuates the difference between active subject and passive object.

Even when the object is given a sacred life of its own, as Mellor notes that Wordsworth and Erasmus Darwin do, the question of the use of knowledge remains. If knowledge of the natural object is not to be exploited to control the world or reform society in some way, then of what use is it? As Byron points out in Don Juan, the gaining of knowledge can never be innocent; but rather re-initiates a cycle of cure leading to new disease. Likewise, as Frankenstein's creature gains knowledge, his desire to understand presents a cure (a mate for him) which can only lead to a new disease (the need to create another monster). The creature desires a mate, desires a human community -- both very good things in Shelley's eyes. But necessarily he also desires to know more -- a desire that Shelley sees as problematic since it inevitably disturbs the stability of human community. As Frankenstein himself comes to recognize, the cycle of knowledge, like the cycle of desire, is a threat. Because the consequences of knowledge are always unknowable, progress in knowledge itself ironically becomes a form of exponential regress into ignorance. It is also ironic that what the male creature desires most, a mate and home, is what Frankenstein cannot give him, because it would only refuel the cycle of knowledge, forcing Frankenstein to experiment further in creating a female monster. The only thing that can save the monster is domesticity, the very thing that Frankenstein has repressed in order to conduct his experiment, and the very thing that he would have to repress further {116} in order to bring about the cure (if he were to provide a mate for the creature). In denying his creature a domestic environment, Frankenstein compounds his own denial of domesticity, and yet if he creates a mate for the creature, he compounds the cycle of knowledge. Frankenstein can learn that knowledge is dangerous only after he has already begun his quest for it; he can realize that domesticity is sacred only after he is no longer protected by its absolute security.

On the other hand, Elizabeth implicitly understands the dangers that lie in wait outside the domestic circle. She wants Frankenstein's younger brother, Ernest, to become a farmer: "A farmer's is a very healthy happy life; and the least hurtful, or rather the most beneficial profession of any" (Frankenstein 59). Elizabeth's dream for Ernest would prevent his becoming a Frankenstein by domesticating his masculine desire and subjecting him to nature's power. According to Mellor, "Nature nurtures those who cultivate her; perhaps this is why, of all the members of Frankenstein's family, only Ernest survives" ("Possessing Nature: The Female in Frankenstein" 228). Although I agree that Ernest can be seen as surviving as a result of this potential relation to nature, neither Elizabeth nor Clerval survive, despite their harmony with nature. Perhaps survival requires more than respectful cultivation of nature; perhaps it also requires a kind of separation from nature, subjection to its will, and protection from it through a human community. Farming is by far the most domesticated profession. It requires the man to settle on one spot, and to limit his attention there, as opposed to the questing of the scientist and capitalist; it requires a certain subservience to nature, as opposed to the spectatorship and objectification of scientists and the speculation and assault of capitalists. Finally, since Elizabeth's vision of the farmer is bucolic, suppressing the tendency of farming in the early nineteenth century toward "improvement" based on the discoveries of scientists and the theories of laissez faire economists, farming is seen as encouraging neither the quest for knowledge nor the greedy seeking after profit and power. Farming alone of the masculine professions remains unthreatening to domesticity in the novel. The boy Frankenstein's homelife is so perfect because his father has retired and spends his time within the home. Only Frankenstein's thirst for knowledge, and the father's inability to slake such a thirst (for as we have seen desire tends to intensify itself), can destroy the felicity of domestic calm.

Unfortunately, in Mary Shelley's view domesticity cannot survive the assault of masculine desire. Accepting the tragic consequences of the male's heroic effort to achieve absolute influence, Mary Shelley diminishes within her own parable of feminine desire the potential for the feminine to alter the destructive nature of masculine desire. Caught within the strong forcefield of romantic and patriarchal ideology, she allegorizes that strength by depicting the feminine primarily as weakness and victimized vulnerability. She rejects the possibility for the cultural transformation of desire and instead pleads for a complacent acceptance of desire as it is patterned by early nineteenth-century ideology. Mellor is exactly correct when she points out that Shelley's {117} idea of "good" science entails "no attempt radically to alter either the way nature works or the institutions of society."

So Shelley herself is caught in the double bind portrayed in her own novel. The domesticity she wants to celebrate in the early life of Frankenstein and in the DeLacy family is and is not the early nineteenth-century patriarchal family. It is not in that the men in these families are kept at home, their desire to quest disarmed. It is the patriarchal family in that the hierarchy of husband over wife, father over children, elder son over younger, son over daughter, is sustained. In order to defeat the destructiveness of self-possessing masculine desire, the domestic institution itself must be radically altered. But to alter that institution requires disturbing the domestic calm that the institution supposedly ensures. Shelley's perfect domestic spaces, therefore, turn out to be fantasies. Because they remain patriarchal havens, they cannot protect their inhabitants from the assault of masculine conquest, being the origin and effect of such conquest. Because they are feminized havens, they are not strong enough to protect their inhabitants from the assault of masculine conquest, whose object is to constrain the feminine in marginal havens, lest it alter radically the course of desire itself. Ironically, then, by depicting accurately the reality of feminine vulnerability in a patriarchal society, Shelley resists her mother's call to alter radically social discourse, and by resisting her mother's influence, she also resists the course of feminine desire itself, the potential for a feminine order of influence. Instead, similar to Coleridge, she ultimately conceives of the feminine as the radius of masculine power, and domesticity as a space deposited by the countermovement of masculine desire.

Mary Shelley's response to such a burdensome challenge is quite understandable. In effect, she is being asked to complete the life of the woman who died in giving birth to her as much as she is being asked to create a space for desire that is differentiated (that can be experienced by an individual) even as it is unshackled from the myth of masculine self-possession and wholly shared by both sexes. Realizing such a task, even as the stuff of fictive dreams, is perhaps too much to demand of anyone trapped within her personal and social conditions. Even Wollstonecraft herself, as Poovey notes, is unable to rise totally above the masculinist ideology that she has helped us to see through and gradually to move beyond.2


Dying in order to give birth to new life, Wollstonecraft nonetheless represents the potential for a new order of influence, a feminine order based on the natural movement from birth to death to rebirth in an other, who continues the work already begun by inseminating it, incorporating it, sharing it, and giving birth to new work. Patriarchal influence is based on the masculine movement of desire. The father implants his seed and then becomes a spectator at and a speculator on the process of production. His conception of {118} production and reproduction is conceived in terms of distance between subject and other, in terms of natural alienation between himself and his production, between his work and its influence, between his desire and its object. The father's child is an alien being, so much like him and yet not born out of him. And the father's son, even more like him, becomes the ultimate threat. For the father, the process of birth is a miracle. He has given birth miraculously without physical contact; it is birth by the potency of influence (as defined in Chapter 3), rather than birth as a physical process. And so the father speculates on (re)production. He sees the tie between mother and child, the umbilical cord that is never totally cut.3 He watches the sharing of space in the womb; he watches the sharing of desire in the child's training and development; he sees the child growing in the mother's space, incorporating the mother's knowledge, and he sees the mother willingly, gently pushing the child beyond her space, the child incorporating her as she or he moves outward. The father, more distant from this physical natural process, must speculate on it, no matter how closely he watches it. And through his speculation, through his abstract relation to it, he comes to believe in his superior relation to it. He comes to value the distance he must have in order to repress the envy he must possess. What he cannot immediately share he will devalue. As he speculates, the father also comes to believe that he can be above the natural shared process and its consequences. He comes to believe that he can give birth miraculously without the taint of the physical (birth by influence) and that he can reproduce above the natural processes of birth, rebirth, and death. Homans points this out as a myth which claims that "the child originates in and belongs to the father and that the mother provides merely the environment in which the child grows" (see Bearing the Word 153-160). The father's work (his productions and reproductions) becomes transcendent work, the work of spectating and speculating, and his aim becomes influence, the capacity to reproduce objects without sharing the desire of others. He constructs a myth of self-possessing desire, of desire that moves beyond the mother, that moves beyond shared space, that moves deeper and deeper into a self that is miraculously free of influence, that is itself influential.

As we have seen, conceptualizing the self in this way stresses the priority of self over others -- over nature, over tradition, over fellow workers. Self-possession necessarily gives way to rivalry, and rivalry thrives on aggression. Masculine rivalry, then, can be seen as based on assumptions of alienation (the uniqueness of one's space), scarcity (the limitations of space), and priority (the desire to possess as much space as possible). Rivalry assumes the need to compete for limited resources in a hierarchy of rewards, the need to divide up the terrain rather than to share it. Crucial to this conceptualization of influence is the refusal to accept birth as the beginning or death as the end. Just as the male's prerogative and obligation are to expand his space outward, he is also compelled to elongate his span backwards and forwards in time, signifying his desire for immortality. This is why romantic poeticizing, despite the apparent appeal to nature, tends to refuse the naturalness of {119} fatality, and instead constructs an elaborate evasive myth of immortality through the representation of an ever-expanding vision. It is almost as if nature is made an ally for the purposes of diffusing or diverting "her" will to death, or repressing desire's inexorable self-exhaustion within the merely individual. Ultimately, the father feels that he must aggress against the mother for rather than the son, she is the real threat. She represents the reality of his relation to natural processes, to birth, and to death. His transcendence is, in effect, another form of aggression, his way of suppressing the influence of the mother. It is his way of asserting the limits of the physical. If he cannot reproduce himself by sharing the desire of another, even better he can reproduce himself by living on (eternally) in his work; he can live above the physical in the immortality of his speculative productions, in the work that expresses his unique, potent, influential, undying desire.

Feminine influence, on the other hand, can be seen as based on the necessity of shared space (the womb), on the necessary limits of beginning (birth) and ending (death) in time and space, on the need to share knowledge without a hierarchy of rewards (the training and nurturing of children without remuneration). In "Family Structure and Feminine Personality," Nancy Chodorow has argued that "[w]omen's biosexual experiences (menstruation, coitus, pregnancy, childbirth, lactation) all involve some challenge to the boundaries of her body ego ('me'/'not me' in relation to her blood or milk, to a man who penetrates her, to a child once part of her body)" (59). Compounded with this biosexual difference is, of course, the effect of her cultural role on her perception of space and influence. The mother's sociohistorical obligation is to provide a habitat of plenty even when resources are scarce. She is to attend as equally as possible to the very unequal needs of her children. The child does not attempt to contest or supersede the parent's (mother's) work, but to incorporate it as she grows according to her own inclination, but always cognizant of others' (the siblings' and the mother's) desire manifest within her own desire. Chodorow calls this "double identification": "A woman identifies with her own mother and, through identification with her child, she (re)experiences herself as a cared-for child" ("Family Structure" 47). Such a process encourages feminine vulnerability and self-sacrifice, as it also enables empathetic nurturing. The mother passes on to the child a creative impulse and encourages the child to grow according to the child's own inclination. This is why Wollstonecraft focuses on the natural education of women in society. The children's creative capacity is limited by the conditions of the mother's upbringing, both how she is brought up and how she brings up her children. As long as the mother is enslaved to superficial and pernicious forms of influence (such as flattery and seductiveness), society itself will be a prison for all, and natural equality will be impossible. The parent's task, whether mother or father, is to grow, to create, to pass on creativity, and to die. We are immortal only insofar as we live on in the process of generation and regeneration in the others who necessarily move beyond us. As opposed to the masculine paradigm of influence in which the {120} father asserts his immortality and the son must attempt to usurp the father's superior place, the potential for feminine influence acknowledges and accepts the parent's death so that the child may find her own space.

Whether or not we go all the way with Chodorow and claim that "women are less individuated than men," that "they have more flexible ego boundaries," and thus that "feminine personality comes to define itself in relation and connection to other people more than masculine personality does" ("Family Structure" 44), we have to recognize the potential for such difference, and more importantly, I think, to realize how revolutionary such a potential is. I am not suggesting that this is the actual course for all women, any more than rivalry is the actual course for all men. Rather than a dichotomy, we should conceptualize these paradigms as existing on a complex continuum, and always keeping in mind that this differentiation interpolates these paradigms as manifestations of historical process. This paradigm, or ideal, of feminine influence must be contextualized, placed amidst the circumstances of personality, history, ideology, and all other relations that give meaning to the paradigm itself. The relation between Wollstonecraft and her daughter could no more be free of masculine rivalry than the relation between the Shelley couple could be free from the self-possessing conflict inherent in nineteenth-century patriarchal family arrangements. Mary Shelley's relation to her mother is conditioned both by the absence of feminine precedent and the presence of masculine precedent. In other words, that there were so few publicly recognized incidents of a daughter writing under the influence of either a metaphorical or real mother affects the mother > daughter relation as much as the fact that there were innumerable and unavoidable instances of father > son literary rivalry. The Wollstonecraft > Shelley (both Mary and Percy) relation is trapped within the ideological field of masculine rivalry, even as it maps out a possibility for another ideological field beyond the scope of rivalry.

The internalized conflict within Mary Shelley embodies for Percy the reality of resistant feminine desire, desire alien to his demands but vulnerable to his conventionally aggressive masculine gestures. He necessarily sees in his wife not merely the promise of her own natural genius, but also the promise of Wollstonecraft and of womankind. Mary's and Percy's courtship at the site of Wollstonecraft's grave could well serve as the icon for the physical reality of feminine influence and desire in Percy's life. Wollstonecraft is present not only as a shadow of competitive influence from the past, like Milton or Aeschylus, but also as the promise of a new order of influence, a new community of shared desire within the future. Appealing to a material cause, however, seems too facile, especially if taken as the sole explanation for Shelley's greater consciousness of feminine resistance to the totalizing tendency of romantic (masculine) desire. We must remind ourselves of the reality of ideology itself. Wollstonecraft's ideas are real to Shelley because they fit into his ideological matrix, because his ideological field pulls and is pulled by Wollstonecraft's ideological magnet. We must also remember that an ideological field cannot interact with another field without resistance, friction, {121} contradiction, even opposition. Such is the case with Shelley's attraction to Wollstonecraft's Enlightenment philosophy. Blessed (or burdened) with a rival mother and a rival other, Shelley develops a higher consciousness of feminine influence than his male colleagues, but at the same time he also seems unable to give up the gender hierarchy, which is so convenient for the myth of romantic poetic creation.


1. Poovey writes: "For the young Mary Shelley, the collision between what we now call the 'Romantic' model of originality and the 'Victorian' model of feminine domesticity was particularly dramatic. Not only did the public backlash against Mary Wollstonecraft provoke in her daughter an intense combination of pride and shame, anger and fear, but the social conservatism her father embraced after Wollstonecraft's death became as much a part of the young Mary Godwin's situation as her mother's ambiguous legacy." Poovey also points out how it is easier for Percy, being a male aristocrat, "to assert those principles [of independence and self-confidence] and act upon them even more flamboyantly than Wollstonecraft had done" (The Proper Lady 116).

2. See Chapters 2 and 3 of The Proper Lady 116).

3. In Bearing the Word, Homans, following Irigaray, argues that it is the cutting of the umbilical cord "[l]ike the primordial murder of the mother that makes possible the symbolic order" (24).