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Monsters in the Garden: Mary Shelley and the Bourgeois Family

Kate Ellis

In The Endurance of "Frankenstein": Essays on Mary Shelley's Novel, ed. George Levine and U. C. Knoepflmacher (Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: Univ. of California Press, 1979), pp. 123-42

[A later version of this essay, "Mary Shelley's Embattled Garden" (1989), will also be found in this edition.]
Nature has wisely attached affections to duties, to sweeten toil, and to give that vigour to the exertions of reason which only the heart can give. But, the affection which is put on merely because it is the appropriate insignia of a certain character, when its duties are not fulfilled, is one of the empty compliments which vice and folly are obliged to pay to virtue and the real nature of things.
-- Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman
{123} The 1818 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." Perhaps Percy Shelley's statement was simply one of those ritual declarations of moral intent that we find in prefaces written before the novel became a respectable genre. But if Shelley meant to be descriptive, he was certainly reading Frankenstein selectively. It is true that each of the novel's three interconnected narratives is told by a man to whom domestic affection is not merely amiable but positively sacred. Yet each narrator also has been denied the experience he reveres so highly, and cannot, because of this denial, transmit it to a future generation.

The three narratives are thematically linked through the joint predicament of those who have and those who have not the highly desirable experience of domestic affection. The recurrence of this theme suggests that Mary Shelley was at least as much concerned with the limitations of that affection as she was with demonstrating its amiableness. She is explicit, moreover, about the source of these {124} limitations. It is not domestic affection but the context in which it manifests itself that brings death into the world of her novel. And that context is what we have come to describe as the bourgeois family.

In her analysis of domestic affection Mary Shelley carefully sifts the degree to which members of the various families in the novel accede to the separation of male and female spheres of activity characteristic of the bourgeois family. Historically, this separation of spheres had an economic base as factory production replaced cottage industry and as wealth increasingly represented by capital eroded old ties of economic interdependency, not only between landlords and tenants but also between husbands and wives.1 Female wage laborers were rarely paid even subsistence wages; middle-class wives, on the other hand, welcomed their separation from paid work, now done exclusively by their husbands, as a sign of bourgeois status. Pursuits once restricted to the aristocracy were thus opened to a much larger class of women. Accordingly, considerable attention was paid, by many a writer, to the "nature" of the female sex, the education best suited to its cultivation, and the duties arising from its new relationship to the masculine world of production. An important contributor to this debate was Mary Wollstonecraft, who saw domestic affection undermined by an exaggerated separation between female charm and social usefulness. The success with which she transmitted this view can be seen in both the narrative method and the content of her daughter's first novel.

The structure of Frankenstein, with its three concentric narratives, imposes upon the linear unfolding of the plot the very sort of order that Mary Shelley is commenting on in the novel as a whole: one that separates "outer" and "inner," the masculine sphere of discovery and the feminine sphere of domesticity. Moreover, the sequence in which the reader encounters the three narrators gives 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, {125} the spirit of capitalism. Then, in the physical center of the novel, accessible only if one traverses many snowy mountains, we come upon the limited Paradise Regained of the De Lacey family. Here males and females learn together, role distinctions are minimal, and domestic bliss is eventually recovered, largely through the initiative of Safie, a young woman who comes from a world outside the sphere of Western Protestantism. Yet we are not allowed to end with this fiction of the isolated triumph of domestic virtues. Elizabeth Bennett can remove herself to Pemberley away from her family's pride and prejudice; but we follow the dispossessed Monster back into the outer world, witness his destruction of the remnants of Victor's harmonious family circle, and finally behold Walton's defeated attempt to discover in the land of ice and snow a Paradise beyond the domestic and the familiar.

The circularity of Frankenstein underscores Mary Shelley's critique to the insufficiency of a family structure in which the relation between the sexes is as uneven as the relationship between parents and children. The two "outside" narrators, Walton and Frankenstein, are both benevolent men whose exile from the domestic hearth drives them deeper and deeper into isolation. Neither, however, can see that his deprivation might have been avoided through a better understanding of the limits of the institution into which he was born. Even the De Lacey family, where these limits are meaningfully transcended, is basically innocent of what Mary Wollstonecraft, in the title of chapter 9 of her Vindication of the Rights of Woman, had called "the pernicious effects which arise from the unnatural distinctions established in society." The "rational fellowship"2 of this family nucleus has been enforced by necessity. De Lacey's blindness, combined with the primitive conditions in which his family must create a refuge from the world's injustice, simply makes rigid roles impractical, if not impossible to maintain. Safie has asserted her independence from her Turkish 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."3 She has no idea, in {126} 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" (p. 120). But they do not read A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, where Mary Wollstonecraft connects the "pernicious effects" of these divisions with the tyranny of husbands over wives and parents over children in the middle-class home.4

This leaves only the Monster to articulate the experience of being denied the domestic affections of a child, sibling, husband, and parent. In his campaign of revenge, the Monster goes to the root of his father's character deformation, when he wipes out those who played a part, however unwitting, in fostering, justifying, or replicating it. If we view his violent acts as components of a horror story, the novel can be read either as a warning against uncontrolled technology and the ambition that brings it into being, or as a fantasy of the return of the repressed, a drama of man at war with alienated parts of himself, variously identified.5 But an additional meaning emerges if we also take the violence in the novel to constitute a language of protest, the effect of which is to expose the "wrongs" done to women and children, friends and fiancés, in the name of domestic affection. It is a language none of the characters can fully decode because they lack the perspective on bourgeois domesticity that Mary Shelley had learned, principally from her mother's writings, and which she assumed, perhaps naively, in her readers.


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 the "feminine fosterage" of Walton's sister and the "silken cord" employed by Victor's parents, to the wrongheaded class pride of Caroline Beaufort's father and the overt tyranny of Mme. Moritz. None of these arrangements provides the younger generation {127} with adequate defences against powerful forces in the outside world, forces that can neither be controlled nor escaped through the exercise of domestic affection.

Mary Shelley makes clear that Robert Walton's career has been nourished and shaped by conflicting cultural artifacts. From his uncle's travel books he learned that his culture confers its highest praise on those who endure great personal hardships to bring "inestimable benefits" to all mankind. This knowledge, he tells us, "increased the regret which I had felt, as a child, on learning that my father's dying injunction had forbidden my uncle to allow me to embark on a seafaring life." The fact that he was told this 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 the sister whose influence upon him he so persistently acknowledges:

A youth passed in solitude, my best years spent under your gentle and feminine fosterage, has so refined the groundwork of my character that I cannot overcome an intense distaste for the usual brutality exercised on board ship. [P. 20]
Walton's brief account of his "best years" parallels in two particulars the more lengthily elaborated early life of Victor. The parental injunction (which he transmits without any explanation) has the same effect on him that Alphonse Frankenstein's cursory dismissal of the work of Paracelsus and Cornelius Agrippa has on the youthful Victor. The other similarity is between the brother-sister relationship he values so highly and the ersatz sibling bond between Victor and Elizabeth. Lacking a Clerval among his friends, the orphaned Walton regards his sister as his better, because more refined, self. He is markedly uncomfortable in the presence of men who have not been similarly "fostered" by women like his sister. His lieutenant's "endowments," he notes, are "unsoftened by cultivation." In telling his sister the "anecdote" of the sailor's generosity in bestowing his "prize-money" on a rival suitor of the "young Russian lady" who spurned him, Walton suggests that such disinterestedness is nonetheless tainted: "'What a noble fellow!' you will exclaim. He is so; but then he has passed all his life on board a vessel, and has scarcely an idea beyond the ship and the crew."

Walton's stance prevents him from acknowledging that his lieutenant possesses a natural generosity that is instinctive (not unlike {128} that of the Monster). The sailor, he notes, had amassed sufficient wealth to buy himself the hand of the woman he loved. But on discovering that her heart belonged to another, he relinquished his entire fortune to an impoverished rival -- thus enabling the lovers to conform to the prevailing social definition of marriage as an economic transaction. The realization that domestic affection may be simply a commodity to be purchased on the marketplace has apparently left the lieutenant highly disenchanted.

Walton, too, possesses sufficient wealth to have made him the target of some real-life Mr. Harlowes and Mrs. Bennetts. "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" (p. 17). His quest for glory alienates him from the crew whose physical work is necessary to the success of his venture. Although, unlike nineteenth-century factory owners, Walton does not plan to enrich himself at the expense of his seafaring "hands," he is as baffled by their lack of commitment to his "glorious expedition" as factory owners were by their workers' unwillingness to subordinate their needs to the higher cause of industrial expansion. Determined to find for himself and all mankind a substitute for the domestic affections, Walton nonetheless cannot exorcise the effects of his sister's "gentle and feminine fosterage." The drastic separation of home and workplace enforced on the Arctic explorer cannot be maintained. Walton must behold the "untimely extinction" of the "glorious spirit" that had driven him into the land of ice: "My tears flow; my mind is over-shadowed by a cloud of disappointment. But I journey towards England, and may there find consolation."

In Walton we see a benevolent man made incapable of 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, counsellors and syndics for many generations, distinguished members of the bourgeoisie of Calvinist Geneva, and respected servants of the state as public office holders. 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." Although eager to bestow "on the state sons who might carry his virtues and his name {129} down to posterity," Alphonse Frankenstein retired from public life entirely in order to pursue this self-perpetuation. The very first paragraph of Victor's narrative thus presents the same dichotomy between public service and domestic affection already exemplified in an extreme form by Walton's career -- a dichotomy, moreover, which will widen for Victor himself as his narrative progresses.

After describing his father's retreat from public life, Victor supplies a second example of such a removal, though not into felicity. Beaufort, Alphonse Frankenstein's friend, was a merchant who, "from a flourishing state, fell, through numerous mischances, into poverty" (p. 31). Fortunately for him, his motherless daughter follows him into exile, where she descends voluntarily into the working class to support them so that her father may be spared a humiliation his male pride could not have endured. Caroline Beaufort's self-sacrifice says a good deal about her conception of domestic affection. De Lacey in the Monster's narrative is blind, and thus actually disabled from sharing 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 by 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-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 that women can return, that is, through marriage. Yet Beaufort's response to economic reversal, and the success of one friend in finding him, act as a 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 economic edge. Given the economic turbulence that marked capitalist development in the later eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the experience of being "ruined" was even more common in life than in novels. Yet in the fiction of the same period it is rare to find the victims of that upheaval sustained by friendship made in better days. Class solidarity was not large enough, it would seem, to encompass misfortune.

{130} 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 formerly been distinguished for his rank and magnificence" (p. 31). Still, his self-removal into oblivion, which his fellow merchants would have imposed had he remained where he was, implies that he is not unique but rather disposed to view a loss of money in much the same way the others do, that is to say, as a fall from grace. Like Robert Walton, Beaufort has internalized an ideology which, though painful 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 neighbors 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, this view, while often expressed in the public sphere without shame,6 was difficult to reconcile with other Christian teachings. One popular fictional device that 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 gives her entree to her new role as child bride. For her, this role involves revisitations to the fallen world of poverty from which she had been so fortuitously 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. [P. 34]
Like her husband, Caroline rejects the harsher side of an ideology that views poverty as a problem to be solved only through hard work on the part of those afflicted. 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 {131} finds one who clearly does not belong where fate has placed her, Caroline's response is to single out this exception and give her more than periodic bounty. In fact, she gives Elizabeth everything she had: a bourgeois father, a mother who dies young, a Prince Charming, and a view of the female role as one of constant, self-sacrificing devotion to others.7 What is more, she remains dependent, as Elizabeth will be, on male energy and male provision. When Victor tells us that "My father directed our studies, and my mother partook of our enjoyments," he unwittingly suggests much about Caroline's reduced sphere of action.

To say that domestic affection, extended into the public sphere, is an inadequate 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 the United States. 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. Mary Shelley may well 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 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 ironic passage. It is precisely because Elizabeth "was in the greatest danger" that Caroline now

{132} 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. . . . [Pp. 42-43]
In the revision Caroline's death is tragic, but not gratuitous. Her motherly touch would seem to have been crucial, whereas in the first version it kills her without benefiting anyone else.

The revised Caroline becomes a heroine in death, but 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, yet all she seems able to do is to display her own goodness, her willingness to trust the accused, to have given her the miniature of her mother, had Justine but asked for it. Yet feminine sweetness does not win 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 male judge and jury requires skills that Elizabeth hardly possesses.

Elizabeth seems unaware of her ineffectuality. She hopes that Victor "perhaps will find some means to justify my poor guiltless Justine." Still, like Alphonse Frankenstein, who believes in Justine's guilt, Elizabeth is uninterested in pursuing the truth: that the "evidence" that convicts Justine has been planted. The description of Justine's apprehension makes this oversight seem 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. [P. 79]
This act on the part of 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 murderer to keep such a damning piece of evidence on her person is at least {133} questionable, yet none of the bereaved family even thinks of raising the issue in Justine's defence. Instead, believing in the power 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."

Elizabeth's passivity, however, goes beyond a suspension of the need to find little William's true murderer. On hearing of the boy's death, she immediately blames herself for having given him the miniature to wear. And if this is her response, when no finger is pointing at her, how much less able to defend herself is Justine, whose very confusion is interpreted as a sign of her guilt. Both Justine and Elizabeth have learned well the lessons of submissiveness and devotion to others that Caroline Beaufort epitomized for them. Their model behavior similarly lowers their resistance to the forces that kill them.

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" (p. 65). We know a lot more about Elizabeth's education, particularly from the second edition of the novel, where Mary Shelley expanded two sentences that appear in her husband's handwriting in the original manuscript. In the original,

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 a vacancy, which she sought to people with imaginations of her own.9
Here we see the crucial difference in the respective educations of the two figures: 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 on the domestic harmony that formed the context of the early education of Elizabeth, Victor, and their friend Clerval. She develops the division {134} 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. [P. 37]

Elizabeth's literary studies, on the other hand, have been dropped rather than developed. She is now shown to spend 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 -- could aught ill entrench on the noble spirit of Clerval? -- yet he 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. [P. 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 these exclusive demands, 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" (p. 64). Or one might say that she was being excessively {135} modest, that keeping others happy generally and softening the "sometimes violent" temper and "vehement passions" (p. 37) of two male students in particular, is no trifling occupation. Thomas Gisborne, whose extensive treatment of The Duties of the Female Sex was first published in 1797, was one of the many debaters on the nature of women who held this latter view. He posited three general categories of female duties, "each of which," he insisted, "is of extreme and never-ceasing concern to the welfare of mankind." The second of these sets of duties entails "forming and improving the general manners, dispositions, and conduct of the other sex, by society and example." Female excellence, he observed, was best displayed in "the sphere of domestic life," where it manifests itself

in sprightliness and vivacity, in quickness of perception, fertility of invention, in powers adapted to unbend the brow of the learned, to refresh the over-laboured faculties of the wise, and to diffuse throughout the family circle the enlivening and endearing smile of cheerfulness.10
But Mary Wollstonecraft, debating from the other side, had very different views on 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."11 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." 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's Republic. There the citizens learn in earliest childhood a {136} "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 kingdom. But in Frankenstein the division 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 he has already partly lost through his conflict-free upbringing.

There is in Victor much that could not find expression without disrupting the tranquillity of his 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. [P. 45]
Unfortunately for him, these other human beings turn out all to be male, their sisters and daughters being busied with "trifling occupations" within the safety of the 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 places 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, grounded in passivity, 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 intensifies his isolation. Unable to detect any flaws in his mother's and Elizabeth's unreproaching dependency, he creates in the Monster 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 shared by all the characters in the novel: resentment toward (and cruelty to) an {137} ugly helpless creature is 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 Victor's 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 an expulsion that intensifies the 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, not just the part of himself he cannot bring home. But to do that he would have had to be a whole person outside the home and a whole person within it.

Repeatedly throughout the novel Shelley gives us examples of the ways in which the insulated bourgeois family creates and perpetuates divided selves in the name of domestic affection by walling that affection in and keeping "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 experiences of Victor's creature, 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 point is emphasized by the fate of Justine, who succeeds in imitating to perfection the similarly rescued Caroline Beaufort, but who is abandoned at the first suggestion of rebellion. By having Justine abandoned first by her own jealous mother, Shelley is making her most devastating indictment of bourgeois socialization: another family cannot, as Milton put it, "rectify the wrongs of our first parents."

The Frankenstein family fails Justine because its response to her at a time of crisis was passivity. Yet here the distinction between "outsiders" and "insiders" breaks down: the Frankensteins respond {138} to one another, when crises come, in the same way, adjuring one another to repress their anger and grief for the sake of maintaining tranquillity.

Their repressed emotions, especially anger, are acted out 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 crises, and content to let other people complete him.

The one murder that does not seem to fit into this scheme is that of "little William." What we know of him comes only from Elizabeth, who notes his beauty and his precocious interest in domestic affection in its traditional form:

When he smiles, two little dimples appear on each cheek, which are rosy 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.[P. 66]
Ernest Frankenstein is drawn to a life of adventure and a career in the foreign service, though he does not have, Elizabeth reports, Victor's powers of application. Thus William, preparing to be just like his "papa," is the one on whom Victor can indirectly visit, through the agency of the Monster, a resentment against a childhood spent in domestic role-playing.

The hothouse atmosphere in which Victor and later William play with their "pretty little" child brides stands in contrast to the mutually supportive, matter-of-fact life of Felix and Agatha De Lacey. Nor is this the only point on which the De Laceys contrast 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. De Lacey père, like Beaufort and Frankenstein the elder, was once a prosperous member of the bourgeoisie. He was exiled and stripped of his fortune and place in the social order because his son, motivated by benevolence, impulsively aided in the escape of a Turk who was a {139} victim of French racism and political injustice. But his idealistic impulse precipitates events in "the world" that are beyond his control, events that bring down ruin on his whole family.

The De Laceys exhibit a great deal less rigidity, however, when coping with misfortune than either of the two Genevese families who are called upon to deal with ruin or bereavement. Not that they are entirely happy. Although the father encourages "his children, as sometimes I found that he called them, to cast off their melancholy" (p. 112), his blindness prevents him from seeing 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 significantly differs from that of Victor, for whom nature can only provide occasions for the repeated display of a histrionic sensibility.

Furthermore, the social exile of the De Laceys is involuntary; they did not choose it, nor do they blame Felix and exile him as a punishment for the fate they must all share. Victor's family is incapable of such action. 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. [P. 149]
One might almost think this was the Monster speaking of his relationship with the De Lacey family. Victor's refusal, or inability, to be an accepting father to his creature, and to give him a companion who would share his sorrows as well as his joys, is a repetition of his own father's refusal to accept or give to 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 the disturbing reality outside their circle indicates that Victor is right to keep quiet, that his revelations might provoke a response even more damaging than alarm: they might pretend he had never spoken.12


{140} The deficiencies of Victor's family, dramatized in his inability to bring the Monster home (openly, that is), 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 tranquillity of the family depends. The root of this evil lies in the separation of male and female spheres for purposes of maintaining 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 toward the solitary pursuit of glory, which paradoxically disqualifies them for domestic affection. Once touched by the outside world, they cannot reenter the domestic circle without destroying its purity. Victor's rejection of the Monster also makes it impossible for him to embrace 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 ten years from the feminist movement's attempts to name and trace the origins of what Betty Friedan has called "the problem that has no name."13 Shelley seems to suggest that, if the family is to be 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" and become hardly enough to survive in the world outside the home. It is not surprising that a woman should be making this point. Eradicating the artificial gulf between the work of the world and the work of the home is of greater concern to women than men since they experience in almost every aspect of their lives 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 her family, the relevance to women {141} 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 woman who, "born in freedom, spurned the bondage to which she was now reduced" upon her marriage to the Turk. Safie's father had rescued his wife from slavery, just as Victor's father had rescued Caroline Beaufort from poverty. But instead of translating her gratitude into lifelong subservience and sporadic charity, this woman taught her daughter "to aspire to higher powers of intellect, and an independence of spirit forbidden to the female followers of Mahomet" (p. 124). Safie's lucid perception of the rightness of her mother's views was doubtless only confirmed by her father's selfish duplicity in encouraging her union with Felix when it served his purposes while at the same time he "loathed the idea that his daughter should be united to a Christian."

Although Safie is, like Mary Shelley, motherless when she must put her early training to the test, she applies her mother's teachings in a way that is intended to contrast, I believe, with the behavior of the passive Elizabeth, equally influenced by her adopted mother's teachings and example. Safie discovers that her mind is

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. [P. 124]
In consequence, she not only refused to wait for the possibility that her lover will miraculously find her, but actively seeks Felix out, traveling through Europe 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 followed Victor to Ingolstadt and perhaps even have insisted that he provide the Monster a companion for his wanderings. As it is, Victor cannot conceive of involving Elizabeth in his work on any level; both are petrified in fatally polarized worlds.

In her essay, Ellen Moers observes that Frankenstein "is a birth myth, and one that was lodged in the novelist's imagination . . . by the fact that she was herself a mother" (p. 79). But women are daughters before they are mothers, and daughters of fathers as {142} well as mothers, as U. C. Knoepflmacher points out. The kind of family that Shelley is describing shapes us still: its most distinctive feature is that of the dominant yet absent father, working outside the home to support a dependent (or underpaid), subservient wife and children, all roles circularly functioning to reinforce his dominance. Frankenstein is indeed a birth myth, but one in which the parent who "brought death into the world, and all our woe" is not a woman but a man who has pushed the masculine prerogative past the limits of nature, creating life not through the female body but in a laboratory.

Victor's father seems to be the exception that proves the rule. He is an absent father for Victor not because he leaves home every day but because he does not. He is so uninvolved in matters that do not pertain directly to the domestic tranquillity that he does not act to guide Victor's interest in science -- an interest he shared with his son in the first version of the novel but not the second. Likewise, Victor is alienated from his "child" not by his work but by his desire to flee to the shelter of domesticity, which gives a further twist to the already novel image of a man giving birth and then escaping his parental responsibility. The price paid for the schisms that are encouraged behind the pleasant facade of "domestic affection" may be higher than even Mary Shelley could imagine. The modern world can create worse monsters.


1. See Alice Clark, Working Life of Women in the Seventeenth Century (London, 1968), p. 12 and passim.

2. Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, ed. Carol H. Poston (New York, 1975), p. 150.

3. Mary Shelley, Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus, ed. M. K. Joseph (New York, 1971), p. 124; future references to this edition will be given in the text.

4. A Vindication, chaps. 9-11, pp. 140-57.

5. See George Levine on pp. 15-16, above.

6. See, in this connection, Sidney and Beatrice Webb, English Poor Law History (Hamden, Conn., 1963); Ivy Pinchbeck and Margaret Hewett, Children in English Society (London, 1969), vol. I; J. J. Tobias, Urban Crime in Victorian England (New York, 1972).

7. In his discussion, U. C. Knoepflmacher draws numerous parallels between Mary Shelley and her characters. The links between Mary and both Caroline Beaufort and Elizabeth Lavenza are reenforced in other ways: Mary's mother also died young, leaving her orphaned daughter with a father who "passed his younger days perpetually occupied in the affairs of his country; a variety of circumstances had prevented his marrying early, nor was it until the decline of life that he became a husband and father of a family." If both Caroline and Elizabeth are retrieved by Alphonse Frankenstein, a Prince Charming also rescued Mary (or so she at first thought) from the family with which she could not be happily accommodated.

8. Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus, ed. James Rieger (New York, 1974), p. 37.

9. Ibid., p. 30.

10. Thomas Gisborne, An Enquiry into the Duties of the Female Sex (London, 1798), pp. 20-21.

11. A Vindication, p. 169.

12. Examples of this mode of paternal interaction, and of the schizophrenia it elicits, may be found in R. D. Laing and A. Esterson, Sanity, Madness, and the Family (Middlesex, England, 1970).

13. Betty Friedan, The Feminine Mystique (New York, 1965). For an overview of recent scholarship on the family, see Christopher Lasch, "The Family and History," New York Review of Books, November 13, 1975, pp. 33-38. For a feminist view of this material see Barbara J. Harris, "Recent Work on the History of the Family: A Review Article," in Feminist Studies, vol. 3, nos. 3-4 (spring-summer 1976): 159-72.