Contents Index

Mary Shelley's Embattled Garden

Kate Ferguson Ellis

Chapter 10 of The Contested Castle: Gothic Novels and the Subversion of Domestic Ideology (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1989), pp. 181-206

{181} The 1817 Preface to Frankenstein tells us that the author's "chief concern" in writing the novel had "been limited to avoiding the enervating effects of the novels of the present day and to the exhibition of the amiableness of domestic affection, and the excellence of universal virtue." If Percy Shelley, who wrote this preface, intended his wife's readers to take this statement at its face value, and not as a parody of those declarations of moral intent ritually present in the prefaces of novels by women, he was certainly reading selectively. It is true that the novel's three interconnected narratives are each told by a man to whom domestic affection is not merely amiable but positively sacred. Yet their enthusiasm is surely undercut by the fact that each narrator speaks from the perspective of one who has been denied the experience he reveres so highly, and who therefore cannot transmit it to a future generation.

This is the problem that links the three narratives thematically: a problem of "haves" and "have nots" with respect to the highly desirable experience of domestic affection. The outer, encircling narrative has Walton writing to his sister Mrs. Saville in distant England about his longing for "the company of a man who could sympathize with me, whose eyes would reply to mine."1 What comes between him and human sympathy is "a love of the marvellous, a belief in the marvellous, intertwined in all my projects, which hurries me out of the common pathways of men, even to the wild sea and unvisited regions I am about to explore" (21). Not content merely to put his visions on paper as poetry, he must find an actual heaven on earth near the North Pole and benefit all mankind with his discovery. Margaret Saville, who has a husband {182} and children, cannot know the pain that drives Walton to prefer death to failure.

Out beyond the reach of domestic happiness, Walton meets Victor Frankenstein, who shares his desire to benefit mankind by a spectacular discovery. But Victor must also exile himself from the comforts of home while he is creating his monster, so that, unable to confess what he has done, he cannot warn his endangered family and dearest friend. The monster, whose narrative is at the center of the novel, is in turn placed beyond the reach of domestic affection by a "father" who will not create for him a mate. So the monster determines that Victor will not have "pleasures not for him [the monster] ordained," and kills everyone who might provide them for his withholding parent. Thus Victor, as his position in the narrative structure would indicate, is between two extremes. He is not resigned, as Walton seems to be, to worshipping domestic happiness from a distance, nor does he see it as the only good, as the monster seems to do.

The recurrence of this theme suggests that Mary Shelley was as much concerned with the limitations of domestic affection as she was with trumpeting its praises. She is explicit, moreover, about the source of its limitations. Godwin had hinted, in his two Gothic novels, that innocence was an attribute of questionable value, and that some part of the human spirit could never be entirely subsumed within the domestic parameters of happiness. It is true that Mary Shelley had a complex array of experiences, both as a daughter and as a mother, as a mistress and as a wife, on which to draw in shaping her vision of the family as an institution.2 But Frankenstein is also a highly literary work, with its explicit and implicit references to Milton and other "classics" of Western civilization.3 Biographical and literary components of the novel come together when we focus on its author, herself the daughter of two Gothic novelists, and her place in the Gothic tradition of her day.

Shelley's use of the writings of her parents makes an interesting pattern out of the reverse side of her closely woven first novel. I will argue that she extended the ideas of her mother with respect to the harmful effects of a rigid separation between social usefulness and female charm. Her relationship to her father's writings, on the other hand, is much more ambivalent. Lee Sterrenburg has argued {183} that Shelley rejected the radical utopianism of Godwin's political writings, citing her use of a figure that appeared routinely in the work of conservative writers hostile to the ideas of the French Revolution, a monster.4 Yet Godwin gave voice to his pessimistic side in his Gothic novels. The disclosure of a secret in Caleb Williams does not bring about the defeat of evil nor even the purgation of the home, as it does in the Radcliffian Gothic. And St. Leon, rebelling against the poverty that is his family's fate, tries to turn his superhuman power to the benefit of mankind but fails. Like Victor, he finds that domestic affection is an ineffective shield against those parts of the psyche that experience denies.

As a literary daughter, then, Shelley can be said to have drawn together in her first novel the "deep subversive impulse" of feminist protest that we found in the Radcliffian tradition and the pervasive pessimism of the Lewisite tradition. The narrators are all outsiders seeking a counterpart. They are driven by a guiding hand in a counter-providential direction. And finally, the "innocence" in which their early lives were spent is not equal to the seductions of forbidden knowledge by which each becomes, in varying degrees, possessed.

The structure of Frankenstein, with its three concentric narratives, imposes upon the linear unfolding of the plot line the very sort of order that Mary Shelley is commenting on in the novel as a whole: one that separates "outer" and "inner," the feminine sphere of domesticity and the masculine sphere of discovery. Moreover, the sequences in which the reader encounters the three narrators give the plot line a circular as well as a linear shape. It begins and ends with Walton, writing to his English sister from the outer periphery of the civilized world, the boundary between the known and the unknown. From there, we move inward to the circle of civilization, to the rural outskirts of Geneva, birthplace of the Protestant ethic. Then, in the physical center of the novel, and accessible only if one traverses many snowy mountains, we come upon the limited Paradise Regained of the De Lacey family. There males and females learn together, role distinctions are minimal, and domestic bliss has ostensibly been recovered, largely through the initiative of Safie, a young woman who comes from a world outside the sphere of Western Protestantism. Nevertheless, we do not end, as so many {184} novels of the period did, with this depiction of domestic affection triumphant in isolation. Rather we move out again, first to civilization and its discontents and finally to Walton, defeated in his attempt to discover, in the land of ice and snow, a paradise beyond the boundaries of the domestic and the familiar.

The circularity of the novel emphasizes another feature of bourgeois family life that is critical in locating, in the text of the novel, Shelley's critique of that institution -- the encapsulated consciousness of all the characters who espouse its values. A blindness to the possibilities of other contexts for domestic affection is particularly characteristic of her two "outside" narrators, Walton and Victor, both benevolent men who were exiled from the domestic hearth but never draw from their situations an understanding of the social forces working to drive them deeper and deeper into isolation. A vision that would go beyond the limits of the institution into which they were born is thus not theirs to convey to the reader. But why, then, does Shelley not locate her critique in the consciousness of those who do attain domestic affection, since they achieve this state by transcending, in their actions, the unequal relationships between parents and children, males and females, that bind together the Walton, Frankenstein, Beaufort, and Moritz families?

The answer is that Shelley deliberately kept this family "innocent." That is to say, she kept their consciousness and their actions separate. De Lacey's blindness, combined with the primitive conditions under which the family creates a refuge from the world's injustice, simply makes rigid roles impractical, if not impossible, to maintain. At the same time, Safie asserts her independence from her father in the belief that she will be able, in a Christian country, "to aspire to higher powers of intellect, and an independence of spirit, forbidden to the female followers of Mahomet" (124). She has no idea, in other words, that what she has done would be unthinkable to Elizabeth Lavenza and her virtuous nineteenth-century middle-class counterparts. She and Felix learn from Volney's Ruins of Empires "of the division of property, of immense wealth and squalid poverty; of rank, descent, and noble blood" (120). But they do not read A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, where Mary Wollstonecraft connects the "pernicious effects" of {185} these divisions with the tyranny of husbands over wives and parents over children in the middle-class home.

This leaves only the monster to articulate the experience of being denied, by a parent, domestic affection as a child, a sibling, a husband, and a parent. But absolute deprivation does not lead to an analysis of what is wrong. Who would listen to the monster and give him the encouragement original thought requires? Instead denial leads to acts of vengeance. The monster is too angry to define for his "father" the forces that led him, the father, to create a monster rather than a lovable child. Yet in his campaign of revenge, the monster goes right to the route of his father's character deformation, and wipes out all who played a part, however unwitting, in fostering, justifying, or replicating it. If we view his violent acts simply as a component of a horror story, the novel can be read as a warning against uncontrolled technology and the ambition that brings it into being. If we see Victor Frankenstein as a representative individual to whom the repressed returns, the novel becomes also a drama of the bourgeois male at war with alienated parts of himself, variously identified. I am suggesting an additional meaning that emerges if we take the violence in the novel to constitute a language of protest whose effect is to expose the "wrongs" done to women and children, friends, and fiancees, in the name of domestic affection. It is a language none of the characters can fully decode because they lack the perspective on the separation of spheres that Mary Shelley had learned principally from her mother's writings.

To grasp the subversiveness of Shelley's critique of the family we need to look more closely at her depiction of the various domestic groupings in the novel. Each of the families in the outer two narratives illustrates a differently flawed model of socialization, ranging from overt tyranny and wrongheaded class pride to an absolute denial of domestic conflict that forces it to go underground or out to sea. None of these arrangements provides the younger generation with adequate defense against powerful forces from the outside world, forces that can neither be controlled nor escaped through the exercise of domestic affection.5

Robert Walton's career was nourished and shaped by a sister, on the one hand, and by cultural artifacts of his society on the other. {186} From his uncle's travel books he learns that his culture confers its highest praise on those who endure great personal hardships to bring "inestimable benefits" to all mankind. This knowledge increases the regret he remembers feeling as a child, he tells his sister, on learning that his father's dying injunction had forbidden his uncle to allow him to embark on a seafaring life. The fact that he received this information before he began to read suggests that his contact with his father, if any, had taken place very early in his life. There is no mention of a mother, only of a sister whose influence upon him is described to her as follows: "A youth passed in solitude, my best years spent under your gentle and feminine foster age, has so refined the groundwork of my character that I cannot overcome an intense distaste to the usual brutality exercised on board ship" (20). This comment implies an absence, not only of parents but of peers as well. He thus has, while growing up, little to counter the models of superachieving manhood he finds in his uncle's library and these, in fact, prevail over his father's dying injunction.

Walton's brief account of his "best years" parallels in two particulars the more lengthily elaborated early life of Victor. The first involves this dying injunction, which is transmitted, in his account, without any explanation, and which has the same effect on him that Victor's father's cursory dismissal of the work of Paracelsus and Cornelius Agrippa has on the youthful Victor. The other similarity is between the actual brother/sister relationship that has a "refining" effect on Walton and the ersatz sibling bond between Victor and Elizabeth. In Walton's case, whatever sociable impulses he might have developed have given way to a character that is uncomfortable in the presence of men who have not been similarly "fostered" by women like his sister. The effect of this refinement on his feelings for women can only be inferred by their absence (except for Margaret) from his narrative, and perhaps also from the fact that the paradise he dreams of is so bounded by ice and snow and other hazards as to be inaccessible to members of the female bourgeoisie.

Walton's rather meager early family life nevertheless shapes his character along lines beneficial to the advancement of his class. He dreams of making discoveries that will benefit all mankind, but Shelley knew, and we know, that the fruits of those voyages of discovery that served as his models did not enrich all mankind {187} equally. Alienated from the crew whose physical work is necessary to the success of his venture, he is as baffled by their lack of commitment to this "glorious expedition" as factory owners were (and are) by workers unwilling to subordinate their needs to the higher cause of industrial expansion and increased profits. Unlike a factory owner, Walton does not plan to enrich himself at the expense of his seafaring "hands." But he does want them to subsume their wishes (for life, comfort, and the pursuit of domestic affection) to his vision of glory and honor that might substitute for the last of these while falling mainly to him.

Walton is participating in the persistent male fantasy of a "band of brothers" that is at the heart of a "shame culture," a fantasy of unfettered individualism in the wilderness untouched by "civilization." Walton is cut off from his sister by his desire for the male solidarity and control over nature that this fantasy substitutes for membership in a community engaged in reproducing itself.6 "My life might have been passed in ease and luxury," he tells his sister,"but I preferred glory to every enticement that wealth placed in my path" (17). Like Godwin's Falkland, he believes that "one man's life or death were but a small price to pay for the acquirement of knowledge which [he] sought, for the dominion [he] should acquire and transmit over the elemental foes of our race" (26). Like her father, Shelley is exploring a construction of masculinity in which the pursuit of honor and glory pulls away from companionship and community.

Shelley underscores this concern with the inserted story of the one member of his crew with whom Walton feels some kinship. This man had amassed a sufficient fortune to gain from her father the hand of the woman he loved. But on discovering that her heart belonged to another, he gave his entire fortune to his impoverished rival, thus enabling the woman to achieve both the economic transaction her father wanted and the love match she herself desired. Yet the father's sense of honor put his promise to the prospective groom over his daughter's wishes, and the generous man had to leave the country in order to free his beloved from her promise. Walton does not say that either he or his mariner have given up on love altogether. Nevertheless, it is difficult to imagine a vocation that requires a more drastic separation of home from workplace than {188} that of Arctic explorer, the profession he and his uncommunicative companion have chosen.

In her portrait of Walton, Shelley shows us a benevolent man made incapable of (or perhaps uninterested in) domestic happiness by the very forces that make him an exemplary, self-denying bourgeois male. Since Victor is caught in the same double bind, it is not surprising that similar forces shape his early life, especially those that separate domestic life from work. The Frankensteins have been, Victor recounts, councillors and syndics for many generations, distinguished members of the bourgeoisie of Calvinist Geneva, and respected servants of the state as public officeholders. Victor's father "had passed his younger days perpetually occupied by the affairs of his country . . . nor was it till the decline of life that he became the husband and father of a family." Once he took on this private function, however, he retired from public life entirely. We see, then, in the first paragraph of Victor's narrative, the dichotomy between public service and domestic affection that Walton's career exemplifies in an extreme form and that widens for Victor as his narrative progresses.

The paragraph that follows immediately supplies another instance of a retreat from public life, though not into felicity. Beaufort, a friend of Victor's father, was a merchant who, "from a flourishing state, fell, through numerous mischances, into poverty" (31). Fortunately for him, his motherless daughter follows him into exile, where she makes for him the supreme sacrifice of descending voluntarily into the working class so that her father may be spared a humiliation his male pride could not have endured. Caroline Beaufort's acceptance of this situation says a good deal about her conception of domestic affection. De Lacey in the monster's narrative is blind, and thus actually unable to share the burden of maintaining the family economy. But we are told nothing from which to conclude that Beaufort was unable to work. In the face of misfortune he is passive, a characteristic of other males in the novel, and condones, by that passivity, the exploitation of his daughter.

It is in this nobly submissive attitude that Victor's father finds his future bride, weeping at the coffin of her dead father. This, it would seem, was her finest hour, the shadow of her future idealization and just the kind of scene sentimental nineteenth- {189} century painters loved. Victor's father rescues her from the painful fate of working-class womanhood, bringing her back, after a two-year courtship, by the only route by which women can return, that is, through marriage. Yet Beaufort's response to economic reversal and the success of one friend in finding him serve to comment on the relationship between class and friendship that one exceptional act does not negate. All of Beaufort's other friends have apparently conformed to the usual pattern of bourgeois behavior when one of their number drops over the edge of their formerly shared paradise. Given the turbulence that marked capitalist development in the later eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the experience of being "ruined" was an ever-present danger. Yet in the fiction of the same period it is rare to find the victims of that upheaval sustained by friendships made in better days. Class solidarity was not large enough, it would seem, to encompass too much misfortune.

Of course Beaufort's personality has not helped the situation. He was, says Victor, "of a proud and unbending disposition, and could not bear to live in poverty and oblivion in the same country where he had been formerly distinguished for his rank and magnificence" (31). Nevertheless, the oblivion he brought upon himself by moving, but which his fellow merchants would have imposed had he remained where he was, implies that they had similarly proud, unbending dispositions, and viewed a loss of money in the same way he did, that is to say, as a fall from grace. Like Robert Walton, Beaufort has internalized an ideology which, while it causes pain to him and his daughter, advances the interests of his class as a whole by purging it of its failures. Domestic affection may be heavily taxed, but it is the one source of self-esteem left to him once he and his neighbours have collaborated in his emotional "ruin."

At the center of this ideology is the belief that material prosperity and social recognition are conferred on superior merit, and thus the lines that divide the bourgeoisie from the rest of humanity reflect worth, not birth. Nevertheless, the naked hostility to poverty that this view implies, while often expressed in the public sphere without shame, was difficult to reconcile with other Christian teachings. One popular fictional device that {190} obfuscates this ideological contradiction is that of the "noble peasant" and his various fairy-tale counterparts, male and female. Caroline Beaufort's devotion to her father is the glass slipper that allowed her to fit so well into her new role as Victor's father's child bride. For her an important part of this role involved revisiting the fallen world of poverty from which she had been so fortunately rescued. Her son explains: "This, to my mother, was more than a duty; it was a necessity, a passion -- remembering what she had suffered and how she had been relieved -- for her to act in turn the guardian angel to the afflicted" (34). Like her husband, Caroline rejects the harsher side of an ideology that views poverty as a problem to be solved through hard work on the part of those afflicted, and wishes to apply to her local indigents the remedy that had softened for her father the harsh reality of class divisions. Motherless herself, she attempts to alleviate social injustice by becoming a "good mother" to those for whom no Prince Charming is likely to appear. Yet when she finds one of their number who clearly does not belong where fate has placed her, Caroline's response is to single out this one and give her more than periodic bounty. In fact, she gives Elizabeth everything she herself had: a bourgeois father, a mother who dies young, a Prince Charming, and a view of the female role (though we are not told where Caroline got this) as one of constant, self-sacrificing devotion to others.

To say that domestic affection, extended into the public sphere, is an adequate remedy for the ills of an industrial society would be to fly in the face of an idea that gained immense popularity in the Victorian era, both in England and in this country.7 But to say that Elizabeth's early death, like her adopted mother's, was a logical outgrowth of the female ideal she sought to embody is a radical statement indeed. Shelley may have thought she was going too far in this direction when she revised her account of Caroline's death from the following: "Elizabeth had caught the scarlet fever; but her illness was not severe, and she quickly recovered. During her confinement, many arguments had been urged to persuade my mother to refrain from attending upon her. She had, at first, yielded to our entreaties; but when she heard that her favorite was recovering, she could no longer debar herself {191} from her society, and entered her chamber long before the danger of infection was past. On the third day my mother sickened."8 In 1831 Mary revised this passage to say that Elizabeth's illness was severe, that "she was in the greatest danger." Her mother "had, at first, yielded to our entreaties; but when she heard that the life of her favorite was menaced, she could no longer control her anxiety. She attended her sick-bed -- her watchful attentions triumphed over the malignity of the distemper -- Elizabeth was saved but the consequence of this imprudence were fatal to her preserver. On the third day my mother sickened. . ." (42-43). In the revision Caroline's death is tragic but not gratuitous as well. Her motherly touch would seem to have been crucial, whereas in the first version it kills her without benefiting anyone else.

Yet if the revised Caroline becomes a heroine in death, her daughter's self-effacing behavior throughout the novel is singularly ineffectual in actual crisis situations. Her most dramatic public act is her attempt to save Justine, the young woman the Frankenstein shave "adopted" without quite conferring equal status on her in the family. Yet all Elizabeth seems able to do is to display her own goodness, her willingness to trust the accused, saying that she would have given her the miniature of her mother, had Justine but asked for it. Yet feminine sweetness is not what wins court cases. It may captivate male hearts, and even elicit "a murmur of approbation" from those in the courtroom. But making a convincing argument before a judge and a jury (even an all-male one) requires skills that Elizabeth does not possess.

Elizabeth seems unaware of this, however. She hopes that Victor "perhaps will find some means to justify my poor guiltless Justine." Yet Victor has been summoned by his father with a plea not to think in terms of crime and punishment. "Come, Victor," he says, "not brooding thought of vengeance against the assassin, but with feelings of peace and gentleness, that will heal, instead of festering, the wounds of our minds" (73). Both father and daughter have so little idea what they are up against. They see the world in such simple blacks and whites that neither one can conceive of what is, in fact, the truth: that the "evidence" that convicts Justine has been planted. If we look at the description of Justine's apprehension this {192} oversight seems truly incredible. Ernest, Victor's younger brother, tells the story:

He related that, the morning on which the murder of poor William had been discovered, Justine had been taken ill, and confined to her bed for several days. During this interval, one of the servants, happening to examine the apparel she had worn the night of the murder, had discovered in her pocket the picture of my mother, which had been judged to be the temptation of the murderer. The servant instantly showed it to one of the others, who, without saying a word to any of the family, went to a magistrate; and, upon their deposition, Justine was apprehended. (79)
This act by two servants is certainly one that might reasonably arouse suspicion on the part of their employers, but the Frankensteins appear to view their inability to suspect anyone as one of their greatest virtues. Furthermore, for a knowing murderer to keep such a damning piece of evidence on her person is at least questionable, yet none of the bereaved family thinks even to raise the issue in Justine's defense. Instead, believing in the power (exemplified by Elizabeth's speech) of domestic affection unaided by deductive reasoning, they follow the lead of the elder Frankenstein, who urges his family to "rely on the justice of our laws, and the activity with which I shall prevent the slightest show of partiality." He has missed the fact that they are dealing not with a set of abstract laws but with emotional citizens, rendered vengeful by "fear and hatred of the crime of which they supposed [Justine] guilty."

Yet the passivity of this family in the face of evil in the world goes even beyond this. On hearing of the murder, Elizabeth is not simply devoid of a wish to find out who did it. Her immediate response is that she did it, since she had given little William the miniature to wear that night. And if this is her response, when no finger is pointing at her, how much less able to defend herself against guilt is Justine, whose very confusion is interpreted as a sign of her guilt in the other sense of the word. Both Justine and Elizabeth have learned well the lessons of submissiveness and devotion to others that Caroline Beaufort epitomized for them. Unfortunately {193} their model behavior lowers their resistance to the forces that kill them, just as it did for their model.

Of the education Justine received in the Frankenstein household we know only that it was "superior to that which [her mistress] intended at first," and that Justine thought this second mother of hers to be "the model of all excellence, and endeavoured to imitate her phraseology and manners" (65). Shelley tells us more about Elizabeth's education, particularly in the second edition of the novel, where she expanded two sentences that appear in her husband's handwriting in the manuscript. In the 1818 version, "I delighted [says Victor] in investigating the facts relative to the actual world; she busied herself in following the aerial creations of the poets. The world was to me a secret, which I desired to discover; to her it was vacancy, which she sought to people with imaginations of her own."9 Here we see the crucial difference in the respective educations of these two people: Victor translates his interest in science into a career aspiration, while Elizabeth translates her interest into a substitute for experience, a way of filling a void created by her lack of contact with the outside world.

In her 1831 revision, Shelley lays even greater stress than in her original version on the domestic harmony that formed the context of the early education of Elizabeth, Victor, and their friend Clerval. She develops the division of the realm of masculine knowledge between Victor and Clerval, connecting (in Clerval's case especially) their studies and their future aspirations:

It was the secrets of heaven and earth that I desired to learn; and whether it was the outward substance of things, or the inner spirit of nature and the mysterious soul of man that occupied me, still my enquiries were directed toward the metaphysical, or, in its highest sense, the physical secrets of the world.

Meanwhile, Clerval occupied himself, so to speak, with the moral relations of things. The busy stage of life, the virtues of heroes, and the actions of men, were his theme, and his hope and his dream was to become one of those whose names are recorded in story, as the gallant and adventurous benefactors of our species. (37)

{194} Elizabeth's literary studies, on the other hand, have been dropped rather than developed. Now she spends her entire time shining "like a shrine-dedicated lamp in our peaceful home." To whom, one may ask, is this shrine dedicated? Both editions remark that Elizabeth and Victor "were strangers to any species of disunion or dispute." But in the first they learn Latin and English together so that they "might read the writings in those languages," while in the second her participation in the studies of the other two is quite different: "She was the living spirit of love to soften and attract: I might have become sullen in my study, rough through the ardour of my nature, but that she was there to subdue me to a semblance of her own gentleness. And Clerval . . . might not have been so perfectly humane, so thoughtful in his generosity -- so full of kindness and tenderness amidst his passion for adventurous exploit, had not she unfolded to him the real loveliness of beneficence, and made the doing good the end and aim of his soaring ambition" (38). What Mary Shelley spells out, in these additions, is Elizabeth's role in maintaining the atmosphere of continual sunshine in which Victor claims he spent his best years.

One might argue that Elizabeth was not harmed by having her mind filled with the demands and concerns of others exclusively, that she was in fact happy with the "trifling occupations" that took up all her time after Victor and Clerval left their common schoolroom, occupations whose reward was "seeing nothing but happy, kind faces around me" (64). Or one might say that she was being excessively modest, that keeping others happy generally, and softening the "sometimes violent" temper and "vehement passions" (37) of two male students in particular, is no trifling occupation. Yet she was simply performing one of the chief duties of the female sex, displaying that "female excellence" that was best displayed in "the sphere of domestic life," where it manifests itself, as Thomas Gisborne puts it, "in sprightliness and vivacity, in quickness of perception, fertility of invention, in powers adapted to unbend the brow of the learned, to refresh the overlaboured faculties of the wise, and to diffuse throughout the family circle the enlivening and endearing smile of cheerfulness."10 For tasks like these, a woman needed not so much a mind as a heart. Not all writers on female education opposed intellectual development for {195} women. But as we have seen, it tended to be viewed as harmless by those who did not find it harmful to the very qualities that Gisborne and his sympathizers found essential in a dutiful member of the female sex.11

Mary Wollstonecraft, debating on the other side, had very different ideas about the kind of education Elizabeth receives in the second version of Frankenstein. For her "the only way to make [women] properly attentive to their domestic duties" was to "open" political and moral subjects to them. "An active mind," she asserts, "embraces the whole circle of its duties and finds time enough for all."12 Victor praises his adopted sibling for her charms and graces, for which "everyone loved her." But her education has no content, and she does not live long enough for Victor to test Wollstonecraft's assertion that "unless the understanding be cultivated, superficial and monotonous is every grace."13 What is not evident to Victor is certainly evident to the reader, however. Elizabeth is not a real force in the novel; she is too superficial and monotonous.

The division into roles that takes place in the Frankenstein schoolroom corresponds roughly to the divisions described in Plato'sRepublic. Though Plato argues there that temperament is not gender-based, the citizens of his republic learn in earliest childhood a "myth of the metals" which divides them into groups according to whether intellect, courage, or neither predominates in their makeup. The purpose of the indoctrination is to eliminate friction in the republic. But in Frankenstein it has the opposite effect: Victor, divided from his courageous, moral self as well as from his ability to subdue his own vehement passions, sets in motion a chain of events that will destroy those parts of a potentially whole human psyche that have not been given scope for development within his conflict-free upbringing.

For there was in Victor much that could not find expression without disrupting the tranquility of a happy home. On leaving that home he indulges at first "in the most melancholy reflections." But, he continues, "as I proceeded my spirits and hopes rose. I ardently desired the acquisition of knowledge. I had often, when at home, thought it hard to remain during my youth cooped up in one place, and had longed to enter the world, and take my station among other human beings" (45). Unfortunately for him, these other human {196} beings turn out all to be male, their sisters and daughters being busied with "trifling occupations" within the safety of their domestic circle. Only males, in the world of the novel's second narrator, are seen acting upon their longings to acquire knowledge, to leave a home that coops them up, and to take their place in the world. Thus Victor discovers a flaw in the wall that keeps his hearth untouched by evil from the outside: you cannot take its protective magic with you when you leave.

For Elizabeth's power "to soften and attract" does him little good if he must leave it behind when he goes "to take [his] station among other human beings." He may be devoted to preserving her innocence, and revere her for her self-denying dedication to the happiness of others. But since these qualities cut her off from any active engagement in his life, and thus deprive him of a real companion, her supposed perfection only deepens his guilt for not being passive, and intensifies the isolation he needs to keep it hidden. Unable to express his resentment toward her unreproaching dependency, he creates a dependent "child" who does reproach him for his neglect. Furthermore, by making this child ugly he can justify his neglect by appealing to a prejudice that all the characters in the novel uphold. Resentment toward (and cruelty to) an ugly, helpless creature is considered perfectly appropriate human behavior. Indignation is aroused in the novel only by cruelty to beautiful children like Elizabeth and William.

Thus Victor can vent on his monster all the negative emotion that would otherwise have no socially acceptable object, and remain unaware of the transference he has made from his child bride to his child. From his remarks about spending his youth "cooped up in one place," we may surmise that his feelings of resentment, for which the monster becomes an uncontrollable "objective correlative," had their first stirrings while the would-be scientist-hero was still blissfully lodged in the womb of domesticity. But resentment in paradise, for Victor no less than for Satan himself, leads to the expulsion that intensifies resentment. Outside the home, there is nothing to prevent that feeling from growing until it reaches literally murderous proportions. Had Victor not been so furtive about his desire to astound the world, he might have allowed himself time to make a creature his own size, one who mirrored the whole of him, {197} not just the part of himself he cannot bring home. But to do that he would have had to be an integrated person outside the home, and an integrated person within it.

Repeatedly throughout the novel, Shelley gives us examples of the ways in which the bourgeois family creates and perpetuates divided selves in the name of domestic affection, drawing a circle around the home that keeps it in and "disunion and dispute" out. We have noticed already that those whose role is to embody domestic affection cannot go out into the world. "Insiders" cannot leave, or do so at their peril. At the same time Shelley dramatizes, through the experience of Victor's ugly "child," that "outsiders" cannot enter; they are condemned to perpetual exile and deprivation, forbidden even from trying to create a domestic circle of their own. This fate is emphasized by the fate of Justine, who succeeds in imitating to perfection the similarly rescued Caroline Beaufort, but who is abandoned by the Frankensteins at the first suggestion of rebellion. Abandoned first by her own jealous mother, Justine embodies Shelley's most devastating indictment of bourgeois socialization: a second "adopted" family cannot, as Milton put it, "rectify the wrongs of our first parents."

The Frankenstein family failed Justine because their response to her at a time of crisis was passivity. Yet here the distinction between"outsiders" and "insiders" breaks down: the Frankensteins respond to one another, when crisis comes, in the same way, adjuring one another to repress their anger and grief for the sake of maintaining tranquility. The result is that their repressed emotions, especially their anger, are acted upon for them by others. We can see this in the behavior of the jurors at Justine's trial: they are ruled by the spirit of vengeance that the family members themselves refuse to admit into their consciousness. Of course, the monster is the example par excellence of this process of projection, and his victims come from within the family circle as well as outside it. Their only crime is that they participated (voluntarily) in the process of self-division that left Victor incapable of being a loving father, passive in the face of crisis and content to let other people complete him.

The one murder that does not seem to fit into this schema is that of "little William." What we know of him comes only from Elizabeth, who notes two things about him -- his beauty and his {198} interest in domestic affection in its traditional form: "When he smiles, two little dimples appear on each cheek, which are rose with health. He has already had one or two little wives, but Louisa Biron is his favorite, a pretty little girl of five years of age" (66). Ernest, like Clerval, is drawn to a life of adventure and a career in the foreign service, but does not have Victor's powers of application. But it is on William, preparing to be just like his father, that Victor can visit, through the monster, his resentment against a childhood spent in the kind of domestic role-playing William is doing.14

The hothouse atmosphere in which Victor and later William play with their "pretty little" child brides forms a contrast to the mutually supportive, matter-of-fact life of Felix and Agatha De Lacey. Noris this the only point on which the De Lacey family group contrasts with the other families in the novel. They are the only family that perpetuates itself into the next generation, largely because no one in it is striving for the kind of personal immortality that propels Victor and Walton out of their respective domestic Edens. DeLacey père, like Beaufort and Frankenstein the elder, was once a prosperous member of the bourgeoisie. He was exiled and stripped of his fortune and placed in the social order because his son, motivated by benevolence, impulsively aided in the escape of a Turk who was a victim of French racism and political injustice. But Felix's benevolent impulse precipitates events in "the world" that are beyond his control, events that bring down ruin upon the heads of his whole family.

The De Laceys exhibit a great deal less rigidity, however, when it comes to coping with misfortune than either of the two Genevese families who are called upon to deal with ruin or bereavement. This does not mean they are blissfully happy. The father "often endeavored to encourage his children, as sometimes I found that he called them, to cast off their melancholy" (112) while remaining unaware, because of his blindness, that there is often not enough food for himself and them too. But if the land nurtures them meagerly, even with the help of the monster, it is at least a resource for meeting real needs. The relationship of the De Laceys to nature is thus different from that of Victor, for whom it provides only occasions for the repeated display of sensibility that leads to no action. {199} Furthermore, their exile from society is entirely involuntary. They did not impose it upon themselves, as Beaufort did, nor do they blame Felix and exile him as a punishment for the fate they must all share. Quite different is the response of Victor's family to his devotion to the welfare of mankind. Returning home after his first encounter with the monster as a speaking creature, he notes: "My haggard and wild appearance awoke intense alarm; but I answered no question, scarcely did I speak. I felt as if I were placed under a ban -- as if I had no right to claim their sympathies -- as if never more might I enjoy companionship with them" (149). Taken out of context as it is here, one might think this was the monster speaking of his relationship with the De Lacey family. Victor's refusal to be an accepting father to his child, and to give him a companion who would share his sorrows as well as his joys, is a refusal (or perhaps simply an inability) to give his child what his own father did not give him. His exile, as he portrays it in this passage and elsewhere, is largely self-imposed. He answered no question, but questions were asked. Nevertheless, everything we have seen about the Frankenstein family's mode of dealing with disturbing reality emanating from outside their circle indicates that Victor is right to keep quiet, that his revelations might provoke a response that is even more damaging than alarm: they might pretend he had never spoken.15

The deficiencies of Victor's family, dramatized in his inability to bring the monster home, to deal with evil in the outside world, or to own the repressed impulses that others are acting out for him, stem ultimately from the concept of domestic affection on which the continuing tranquility of the family depends. The root of this evil is the separation of male and female spheres for purposes of ensuring the purity of the family and the sanctity of the home. The effect of domestic affection on both Victor and Walton is "an invincible repugnance to new countenances" that leads them away from the human community and toward the solitary pursuit of glory. But these pursuits disqualify them from domestic affection. Once the outside world has touched them they cannot reenter the home without destroying its purity. Victor's rejection of the monster, an extension of the "invincible repugnance to new countenances" that is his family heritage, makes it impossible that he could embrace {200} without guilt the enforced innocence of Elizabeth without destroying the purity that is her major attraction in his eyes.

Scholarly interest in the bourgeois family, the target of Mary Shelley's critique of domestic affection, has received a good deal of impetus in the last twenty years from feminists attempting to name and place the origins of "the problem that has no name."16 It is a problem that arises, in present-day America, when women are immured in the home with nothing but "trifling occupations" to fill their time and no reward beyond the "happy faces" of those who enjoy their unpaid services. Victor might well advise women as well as men entering the post industrial world of work never to allow "any pursuit whatsoever to interfere with the tranquility of his [or her] domestic affections" (56). But as Victor might have realized had he seen his father attempting to combine the roles of perfect husband and father and that of breadwinner giving his "indefatigable attention to public business" (31), the only kinds of work that do not affect one's domestic tranquility, either by exhausting the body or absorbing the mind, are "trifling occupations."

Shelley seems to be suggesting that, if the family is to be a viable institution for the transmission of domestic affection from one generation to the next, it must redefine that precious commodity in such a way that it can extend to "outsiders," while at the same time proving hardy enough to survive in the world outside the home. It is not surprising that a woman should be making this point. Eradicating the gulf between work and home is more clearly in the interest of women than of men, since it is the latter who profit most from the resultant "unnatural distinctions established in society" against which Mary Wollstonecraft protested (almost two hundred years ago). If we can imagine a novel in which a woman scientist creates a monster who returns to destroy its creator's family, the relevance to woman of the problem that Mary Shelley has imagined becomes more immediately apparent.

The one character who clearly exemplifies such a redefined notion of domestic affection is Safie, the daughter of a Christian Arab who,"born in freedom, spurned the bondage to which she was now reduced" upon her marriage to the Turk, Safie's father. This man had rescued his wife from slavery just as Victor's father had rescued Caroline Beaufort from poverty. But instead of translating her gratitude {201} into lifelong subservience and sporadic charity, this woman "spurned the bondage to which she was now reduced." It was she who taught her daughter "to aspire to higher powers of intellect, and an independence of spirit forbidden to the female followers of Mahomet" (124). Undoubtedly Safie's adoption of her mother's views accounts in some measure for her father's duplicity toward her, encouraging her union with Felix when his purposes we reserved by doing so at the same time that he "loathed the idea that his daughter should be united to a Christian."

Although she is motherless when she is called upon to put her early training to the test, Safie applies her mother's teachings in away that is intended to contrast, I believe, with the behavior of the passive Elizabeth, equally influenced by her adopted mother's teachings and example. As a result of the strong impression made by her mother's lessons on her young mind, Safie "sickened at the prospect of again returning to Asia, and being immured within the walls of a harem, allowed only to occupy herself with infantile amusements, ill suited to the temper of her soul, now accustomed to grand ideas and the noble emulation of virtue" (124). In consequence, she not only refuses to wait for the possibility that her lover will miraculously find her, but figures out where Felix is and actively seeks him out, traveling from Italy to Germany with only an attendant for protection. Had Elizabeth been encouraged "to aspire to higher powers of intellect, and an independence of spirit," she might have insisted that Victor make for the monster a companion for his wanderings, one who, like herself, possessed the power to soften and attract. But then she would have had to help him in the making of it, since creatures with this quality are clearly "the other"to Victor. As it was, Victor could not dream of involving Elizabeth in his work on any level. Apparently he preferred a dead wife to a free one.

There remains the death of Victor's father to fill out our analysis of the monster's activity as the revenge of the exile. What is interesting about Alphonse Frankenstein is that he is an absent father for Victor not because he leaves home every day but because he does not. He is so uninterested in matters that do not pertain to domestic tranquility that he does not talk to Victor about his interest in science, an interest he shares with his son in the first version of {202} the novel but not in the second. His decision to postpone family responsibilities until he can give them all of his time means that he relates to his son from a distance once Victor leaves the family nest. Victor, too, is torn away from his child not by the demands of work but by his desire for domesticity, a fact that gives a further ironic twist to the already startling image of a man giving birth and then fleeing his personal responsibility. Within a context of "separate spheres," the revised Victor has two mothers, that is, no role model for male behavior outside the home. Having withdrawn from the world into the home, both his parents devoted all their energies to raising their children in such a way that "we felt that they were not the tyrants to rule over our lot according to their caprice, but the agents and creators of all the many delights which we enjoyed." If they had to discipline their children at all, they undoubtedly concentrated on the wrongdoer's motivation rather than the effects of the deed. But from the description that Shelley gives of the Frankenstein household, parental injunctions seem to have been internalized without even having to be uttered. The very idea of forbidden fruit was thus alien to them.

Perhaps these well-meaning parents, one of whom is young enough to be the child of the other, followed the example of Wollstonecraft's Mrs. Mason, who disciplines her charges by giving and withdrawing "those marks of affection which they particularly delighted to receive."17 This "gentle way of punishment" creates, as we have seen, a guilt-prone personality. Moreover, when Alphonse departs even slightly from his mode of sympathetic explanation, telling his son that the works of Cornelius Agrippa are "sad trash," Victor is so entirely unprepared for his father's brusqueness that the incident begets "the fatal impulse" that leads him to his "ruin." The influence of peers is not there to offset the power of this constantly surveillant, maternal father because of Victor's "invincible repugnance to new countenances," fostered in his hermetically sealed home. Thus it is Alphonse, more than any other member of Victor's family, who walls off the place of "domestic affection" so thoroughly that not only is the monster shut out but his creator as well.

In each of the three narratives a conflict arises between forbidden knowledge and domestic affection, a conflict so intense that the knower is permanently exiled from the sphere of family life. For {203} Walton, it is conflict between the manner in which he spent the first fourteen years of his life, namely reading "our Uncle Thomas' books of voyages" [Letter 2.2], and his dying father's injunction that he not live out his childhood dreams. After such knowledge, such intense stimulation, there can be no forgiveness for disobeying his father. For the monster, the knowledge that destroys him comes when Felix attacks him and he learns that domestic happiness wears a cruel face when it turns toward outsiders. For Victor, who has an intuition about the dark side of domestic affection when he refuses to let the monster have it, the denial of conflict that characterized his early years persists right up to his death in the icy regions around Walton's boat. Insisting that he is not "blamable" in undertaking a work "only induced by reason and virtue," he clings, to the last, to his innocence, and it kills him.

This is indeed Godwinian pessimism. Yet the novel does posit an alternative world to that which is stamped by the industrial mode of patriarchy, the separation of spheres. Safie, who traveled far and wide without a proper chaperone in search of a lover her father forbade, holds out a vision of domestic affection that is not endangered by a knowledge of evil in the world. Thus Shelley took the insights of the Lewisite Gothic novel beyond the tentative happy endings of her predecessors. But at the same time, she answered this pessimistic world view with the optimistic feminism of the mother she never knew.

If we look at Frankenstein through the paradigm of opposing systems of value that we have been calling "guilt" and "shame" cultures, we can see that the guilt-imposing home is unable to accommodate whole human beings, but that the flight into a world without women that is counterposed to domestic life is deadly also. The laboratory where the monster is born is homologous both with Walton's imagined kingdom at the North Pole and with the usurped Gothic castle where women are confined or driven out. Both Walton and Victor are compelled by a desire for honor and glory that would elevate them so high above their fellow man that it would wipe out their guilt for standing up to their respective fathers. Given the nature of "home" in a guilt culture, this flight is both necessary and death-dealing, taking on the cloak of "scientific investigation." This is the way the novel is usually read, as a critique of technological {204} hubris, which is why I have focused primarily on Shelley's critique of "domestic affection."

But Shelley reminds us, even as she pulls apart the ideology of separate spheres, that women are even worse off in the world of honor and shame than they are in the home: the intellectual and sexual sides of their nature have as little place in the extradomestic sphere of male domination as they do in the home. We see this when Victor decides not to make his monster a mate on the grounds that "she, who in all probability was to become a thinking and reasoning animal, might refuse to comply with a compact made before her creation." And if she could not be made to be obedient to her husband, what guarantee would Victor have that their children would obey their father and leave the human race alone? Neither a shame culture, which requires absolute obedience from women and makes them objects of exchange, nor a guilt culture that protects women to a degree that disables them from protecting themselves, can bring forth a new Eden in which labor is not backbreaking and enmity between men and women has been transcended. For this we must look to Safie, who actively rebelled against the most repressive of patriarchal cultures, and who becomes, not a "true wife" but an emblem of an egalitarian third possibility.

In Frankenstein it is a man, rather than a woman, who brings "Death into the World, and all our woe." Women have become the saviors of a fallen world by reason of their attachment to the home and their greater involvement with children. This is still the case despite the stripping away of their spiritual preeminence by an increasingly secular culture. In fact, it may be that women's role as savior has received greater emphasis as secularization has advanced. The continuing popularity of the concept "Frankenstein," a conflation of the monster and his creator, stems from the fact that Mary Shelley articulated through it the agent of our "fall" into a society in which technology may be out of control. Evil in the form we now fear it most came into the world not through the seduction of a man by a woman, but through a creature abandoned by its maker. The myth that underlies the regaining of paradise through political revolution is the rising up of this creature whose likeness to God has been effaced by human institutions.


{205} 1. Mary Shelley, Frankenstein, ed. M. K. Joseph (New York: Oxford University Press, 1971), 19. Subsequent references will be to this edition.

2. Ellen Moers, "Female Gothic," in The Endurance of Frankenstein, ed. George Levine and U. C. Knoepflmacher (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979), 77-87.

3. Harold Bloom, "Afterword" to Frankenstein (New York: New American Library, 1965) 212-23; Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, "Horror's Twin: Mary Shelley's Monstrous Eve," The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1979), 213-47.

4. Lee Sterrenburg, "Mary Shelley's Monster: Politics and Psyche in Frankenstein," in The Endurance of Frankenstein, 143-71.

5. Jane Tompkins's analysis of Charles Brockden Brown's Wieland parallels in many points my discussion of the "innocent" Victor and his monster. Gratuitous violence, for Victor as for Wieland and his sister, Clara, rushes in to fill the vacuum created by an absence of structures of authority in his formative years. See Sensational Designs: The Cultural Work of American Fiction 1790-1860 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985), 40-61.

6. Judith Wilt, Ghosts of the Gothic: Austen, Eliot, and Lawrence (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1980), explores the Gothic impulse to move away from community.

7. In an important article on George Eliot's eighteenth-century predecessors, Margaret Anne Doody gives a more positive reading of the theme of women taking care of children and of each other in "George Eliot and the Eighteenth Century Novel," N[ineteenth] C[entury] F[iction] 35 (1980), 260-91.

8. Mary Shelley, Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus, ed. James Reiger (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1974), 37.

9. Ibid., 30.

10. Thomas Gisborne, An Enquiry into the Duties of the Female Sex (London, 1797), 20-21.

11. Vineta Colby, "The Education of the Heart," in Yesterday's Women: Domestic Realism in the English Novel (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1974), 86-144.

12. Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, ed. Carol Poston (New York: W. W. Norton, 1975), 169.

13. Ibid., 170.20

14. See U. C. Knoepflmacher, "Thoughts on the Aggression of Daughters," in The Endurance of Frankenstein, 88-119.

15. In Sanity, Madness and the Family (London: Tavistock Publications, 1964), R. D. Laing and Aaron Esterson discuss this mode of family behavior as a contributor to the experience of schizophrenia.

16. Betty Friedan, The Feminine Mystique (New York: Norton, 1963).

17. Mary Wollstonecraft, Original Stories from Real Life (London, 1791), 37.