Contents Index

The Woman Writer as Frankenstein

Marcia Aldrich and Richard Isomaki

From Approaches to Teaching Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein," ed. Stephen C. Behrendt (New York: MLA, 1990), 121-26

{121} Students who study Frankenstein in women's literature courses often relate the woman writer's attitude toward her act of creating literature to cultural presumptions about conventional maternal and domestic roles. The two alternatives -- to mother silently within the domestic sphere or to write as an outsider -- have generally appeared mutually exclusive. No woman in the nineteenth century entirely reconciled this exclusivity in shaping her allegiances to social ties, familial inheritances, and literary ambitions. Because of Mary Shelley's experiences as the daughter of a woman writer and because the novel examines creation without a mother, Frankenstein offers a particularly good opportunity to explore the dilemma.

We provide a loosely psychoanalytic frame of study for our students, focusing on the mother-daughter relation and the daughter's struggle for identity in a masculine culture. The search for a satisfactory model of parenting in Frankenstein is not unlike a search for a satisfactory model of female authorship. We ask whether particular texts by women extend maternal ties by relying on this similarity of models or reject feminine inheritance by building on the annihilation of the mother. Connections can be made between Frankenstein and works written long after the Victorian "angel in the house" had apparently ceased to dominate as the image of woman. Sylvia Plath's Ariel, for example, evinces an irreconcilable conflict between literary creation and the maternal role.

We begin with Shelley's novel by pointing out that the popular transfer of the name Frankenstein from the monster's creator to the monster himself is true to the logic of the novel because the two characters are aspects of one being. (We call him "monster," not "Creature," since we want to emphasize his hideousness, not his humanity.) But Frankenstein is also the name of the book, and the logic of transference allows a comparison between Victor Frankenstein and his monster, on the one hand, and Mary Shelley and her novel as "hideous progeny" (xii) on the other, a parallel that Barbara Johnson discusses extensively. Shelley's 1831 introduction suggests that the two seemingly dissimilar processes of creation develop along similar lines. The history of the novel's composition as Shelley recounts it reflects a pattern of random chances like those involved in Frankenstein's search for the hidden secrets of nature. Both Shelley and Frankenstein, for example, begin their pursuits because they curtail outdoor activities in bad weather.

Once engaged in their respective projects, novelist and natural scientist obey the same law of creation, the need for raw materials. Recounting her struggle to come up with a ghost story for the famous competition, Shelley {122} theorizes about the blank failure of her first attempts: "Invention . . . does not consist in creating out of void, but out of chaos; the materials must, in the first place, be afforded: it can give form to dark, shapeless substances but cannot bring into being the substance itself" (x). The same theory explains Frankenstein's need to recycle substances taken from the grave. The first reader to notice this parallel was Percy Shelley, whose preface indicates that the novel has preserved the "elementary principles of human nature" (its preexistent components) but has not "scrupled to innovate upon their combinations" (xiii).

The parallel continues after monster and book have been completed. Both Shelley and Frankenstein view their creations ambivalently because each has encroached on prerogatives reserved to others: Shelley's unfeminine presumption in writing a novel is like Frankenstein's usurpation of he mother's role in reproduction. Both distance themselves from their false creations, and yet the monster nevertheless acts as Frankenstein's gent, the book as Shelley's. Just as the monster revenges himself on those who have excluded him, the monsterbook covertly does Shelley's bidding, acting on the wrathful impulses that conventional feminine decorum could not sanction.

With the parallel established, we turn to biography, asking students what it means that the author of Frankenstein's vexed view of creation was Mary Shelley. Like Walton, she harbored desires to make her mark on the world. To be something great was a duty to her parentage and to her marriage, and her introduction casts her novel as an inevitable product of her position in these institutional relations. Not to write would constitute a perverse turn away from the family voices directing her own. Yet, we suggest, Shelley's introduction undercuts her literary ambitions, justifying her fiction in other terms. It presents an older, seemingly reluctant author explaining how she came to write Frankenstein in the first place and distancing herself from her original production and her earlier ambitions. To deny he self-assertive act of creation, the introduction emphasizes her passivity: "My imagination, unbidden, possessed and guided me" (x).

If Shelley wrote in response to family voices, why this evident ambivalence? Why did she see her novel as a hideous thing? Students can frame answers to these questions by considering the complicated relations among these discordant familial and cultural voices and pressures. For instance, one context for Shelley's attitude toward her work is offered by the experience of Mary Wollstonecraft, whose domestic arrangements became notorious and who was attacked as a "philosophical wanton" (Gilbert and Gubar 222). Was Shelley subtly pressured into identifying her mother's artistry as monstrous, a deformation of literary and philosophical conventions, and her own birth (which killed her mother) as retribution? Cer- {123} tainly her awakening sexuality, her discovery of her mother's texts, her own preparations for a literary career, and Percy's courtship of her at the site of her mother's grave suggest important considerations that help account for the ambivalent birth myths in Frankenstein.

Shelley's difficulties with composition were the result not of personal trauma alone, of course, but also of overtly cultural forces. The drive to create something significant was hardly the norm for feminine behavior. Convention instead stressed self-effacement, substituting for literary fame an anonymous domesticity, the proper context for women's ambition. Her introduction suggests that Shelley was often asked how she came to "dilate upon so very hideous an idea" (vii), a question that nicely illustrates prevailing assumptions about women's proper demeanor and the appropriate channels for their creativity. Shelley's acquaintances frequently remarked on the contrast between her gruesome novel and her feminine manner. Lord Dillon puzzled in 1829: "I should have thought of you -- if I had only read you -- that you were a sort of my Sybil, outpouringly enthusiastic, rather indiscreet, and even extravagant; but you are cool, quiet, and feminine to the last degree . . ." (qtd. in Poovey 143).

We bring these personal and cultural forces together in the classroom to suggest the complex and ambivalent charge Shelley attached to the act of literary creation. This charge is effectively represented by Shelley's emphasis on her entry into the ghost-story contest ("I busied myself to think of a story" [ix]), the emphasis of the italics being repeated on her success in doing so ("I had thought of a story" [xi]). This repetition and typographical effect occurs in the body of the novel only with the monster's threat to Frankenstein ("I will be with you on your wedding-night" [161, 179; cf. 180, 181; Johnson 7-8]). What is the connection? Frankenstein's blindness to the meaning of this threat is palpable. So also is his lack of interest in the sexual, procreative act normally associated with that night, although his betrothal to Elizabeth has been arranged under the aegis of this procreation, as Victor's father makes evident (181). The aim is to breed a number of new little Frankensteins. To think of a story, apparently, is to be with Frankenstein on his wedding-night, a wedding night in which the possibility of domestic creation is killed.

We have now set up clearly the choice between literary creation and the domestic sphere, an issue with which the novel begins. The opening letters abound with suggestions of a parallel between large literary efforts and the Promethean explorations carried out by Frankenstein and Walton: Walton once hoped to inscribe his name in the eternal pantheon with Homer and Shakespeare (16); now a failed poet, he attributes his mysterious urge for the ocean to The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (20). Walton's letters to his sister also portray the voyage north and the possibility of {124} reunion with his sister as mutually exclusive alternatives, a replication of the woman author's choice between writing and motherhood.

Students are interested in domestic relations in the novel, which seem notably feminine even though the masculine views of Walton and Frankenstein are included. In a world where apparently only two possibilities exist, the conventional domestic life of self-sacrifice or the outlawed, selfish one of ambition, Shelley seems at first to advocate the former, exposing the fatal consequences of actions taken for self-aggrandizing reasons. Ambition needs tempering: Walton and Frankenstein, its representatives, are inflated and self-justifying men in whom personal ambition masquerades as selfless dedication to benefiting humankind -- a rationale Shelley effectively punctures. Frankenstein and Walton pursue their explorations at the cost of fully human, social lives, powerless to curb the cycles of destruction they unleash.

One is tempted, therefore, to talk about Shelley's treatment of Frankenstein and Walton as a female critique of male ambition: they undervalue domestic ties, manifesting an insensitivity that leads to suffering. Yet, that sensitivity exists also in domestic relations between men and women, parents and children. Students are quick to note the power fathers wield and its ill effects: Frankenstein's and Walton's quests, for instance, are initiated against their Fathers' prohibitions and can be construed as attempts to extract revenge. Caroline suffers poverty, isolation, and humiliation because of her father's blinding pride and egotism, while Safie's father uses her as a pawn for his freedom. Female characters perish for their loyalties or, like Agatha and Walton's sister, silently nurture affection for brothers who undervalue them.

Parenting, then, far from being the idyll Frankenstein portrays in his story of his childhood, reflects gender relations in disequilibrium. Dorothy Dinnerstein draws a connection between modes of parenting and monstrousness: the unequal allocation of duties to men and women creates a "semi-human, monstrous" state (5; qtd. in Johnson 2). Less than a year apart in age, Elizabeth and Victor differ significantly in their upbringing: Victor is "more deeply smitten with the thirst for knowledge"; to him "the world [is] a secret" to divine (36). Elizabeth, meanwhile, shines "like a shrine-dedicated lamp" in the Frankenstein home (37), content with the mere appearance of things. The flaws in domesticity are implicated in the violent disruptions Victor represents; not all yearnings, needs, and ambitions can be tolerated or nurtured within the domestic sphere. Creativity and domesticity are unreconciled within social bounds.

One question the novel raises, therefore, is whether Frankenstein's initial curiosity is inherently disastrous or simply becomes so because, being tolerable in the domestic realm, it is deformed through suppression. If {125} the home is the place of victimized feminine virtue in a male-dominated culture in which ambition determines the shape of lives, Shelley seems to be attempting to integrate disparate roles that define curiosity and creativity as masculine and valued, domesticity as feminine and devalued. She questions this valorization by presenting extreme examples of masculine egotism, on the one hand, and of idealized domesticity, on the other. Caroline and Elizabeth may well represent those parts of herself, projected in idealized form, that represent the conventionally good mother, uncontaminated and split off from the more troubling aspects of behavior. Like Frankenstein and the monster, these characters represent aspects of warring selves. Walton's sister, Justine, Caroline, Agatha, and the saintly Elizabeth represent the angelic pole of feminine identity, insufficiently humanized. In fact, it is difficult to find figures in the novel that appear integrated and whole, but one might read those that are portrayed as Shelley's attempt to do more than simply mirror her own ambivalence through opposed characters of victimized women and indifferent men. Shelley aims to create a new order in which creativity and domestic sympathy not only coexist but check the tendency to exclusivity by tempering masculine ambition and empowering female sympathy.

We try to help our students unravel one more twist in the knot of complications in Shelley's attitudes toward her literary effort. One aspect of human bonding is the exchange of words: narration is a social act, cognate with the social and familial ties of responsibility that Frankenstein abrogates when he rushes from the scene of his creation. The threat to affectionate domestic relations entailed in Frankenstein's investigations is implied by his father's prediction: that when Victor ceases to think of his family with affection, he will stop writing letters (54). The monster's unavailing preparations for assimilation into the De Lacey circle include listening to the "wonderful narrations" of Volney's Ruins of Empires (114). Frankenstein himself does not want his story to come out a "mutilated narration" (199), hideous as his other creation, although this very narration is enclosed within the letters Walton writes to his sister. Both Walton's sister and Frankenstein's family feel justifiable foreboding over the men's ambitions, even if the relatives' understanding of the men is imperfect. Thus the continuation of Walton's and Frankenstein's quests is posed directly against the well-being of those whom they supposedly love. Significantly, Frankenstein's decision to tell Walton his story turns his monomaniacal pursuit of the monster back toward social bounds, and it seems that Frankenstein is himself transformed by the telling. Regaining the friend he lost on Clerval's death, Frankenstein certainly appears to change in Walton's eyes from one who, though amiable and attractive enough, must once have been noble (25) to one who is noble, even godlike {126} (200). Walton, meanwhile, learns from Frankenstein's story the lesson of sociability and returns for the sake of his crew.

Creation or narration per se does not result in monsters. Shelley paints awed, destructive version of creativity, deforming because it does not shape in combination with feeling: "Victor's worst sin is not the creation he monster but his refusal to take responsibility for it" (Levine, "Ambiguous Heritage" 10). That is the real reason Frankenstein relates his story: not to dissuade Walton from his Promethean pursuit but to show how to behave whether he succeeds or fails (28), a subtlety that students often miss.

While the approach to the novel we describe here is aimed at courses in women's literature, it might apply elsewhere as well. The comparison between two types of creation, of monsters and of books, could be widened include other works, as for instance in a course on Romantic subjectivity. Our approach might also have its place in a study of the transformation Romantic Prometheanism into the optimism of the Victorian assumption of progress, a transformation from transcendental to quasi-material aims. Dickens's Great Expectations, which alludes to Shelley's work, offers a useful contrast to the monster's dilemma in that Pip, full of Frankenstein-like expectations, tries to create himself anew, free of the supposedly degrading domestic ties to the blacksmith Joe. He learns that these affections obligations are in fact unshakable, or ought to be, but not before he destroyed his own hopes, much as Victor Frankenstein destroyed his.