Contents Index

Frankenstein and the Feminine Subversion of the Novel

Devon Hodges

Tulsa Studies in Women's Literature, 2.2 (Fall 1983), 155-164

{155} Mary Shelley's Frankenstein has long been labelled a "woman's book." Ellen Moers describes Frankenstein as a female "birth myth" which depicts Shelley's ambivalence about motherhood;1 Kate Ellis interprets Frankenstein as a critique of the bourgeois family and the separation of male and female spheres;2 Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar write that the book describes a "woman's helpless alienation in a male society,"3 and Mary Poovey calls it a "myth of female powerlessness" which justifies the female writer's uncontrollable desire for self-expression.4 All these interpretations rightly insist that Shelley is concerned about the position of women in a patriarchal culture, but their thematic emphasis does not enable us to see how the female themes of the novel are given particular efficacy because of Shelley's ability to subvert patriarchal narrative conventions. Shelley's text works to change structures of narrative as well as to introduce new topics of discussion.

The novel, as the genre most obviously in the service of social and material reality, necessarily recreates patriarchal culture and ideology. Nonetheless, it is the form to which women readers and writers have always been most devoted. This devotion is not surprising since feminine authority itself is deeply connected to the rise of the novel. In a recent essay, Nancy Armstrong has insisted on the relation of the feminine to the novel while arguing that the femininity of the novel is not the product of "female nature nor even female culture, strictly speaking . . . but of ideology and cultural myth."5 As Armstrong explains it, the well-documented split between the economic and domestic spheres that took place in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries created a female provenance that reproduced not some essential femininity but rather "old patriarchal traditions of pre-industrial England."6 The female voice, because it seemed naturally connected to the domestic sphere and to traditionally paternal tastes and values, served the interest of patriarchy by hiding the contradiction between old and new forms of patriarchy brought about by disruptive patriarchal capitalism. In other words, women were allowed to write precisely {156} at the moment when their writing was a "feminine power that preserves the system of primogeniture"7 Armstrong's compelling discussion of the novel as a form in service of patriarchal culture traces the ambivalence of women's writing to the very codes that structure it.

Several modern theorists have looked at the narrative conventions of the novel and located there a grammar which works to create a seemingly natural sequence of events and a powerful sense of closure as a way of securing masculine identity and speech, of making male dominance seem inevitable. The paternal premise of the novel, as Edward Said has pointed out, depends on the novelistic conventions of sequence, finality, and integrity.8 The form of the novel is not neutral.9 Nor is language itself: feminists have long been aware that the woman's voice is muted in a patriarchal culture. To explain this all too familiar equation of the feminine with silence, many have adopted the influential work of Jacques Lacan which describes the female's relation to this symbolic order as one characterized by lack.

No wonder, then, that feminist interpretations of women's writing have increasingly concerned themselves with the woman writer's effort to speak within the language and codes of her society without being appropriated by them. Her problem might be stated this way: the woman writer desires to take advantage of opportunities to express herself, yet the language and codes of patriarchal culture impose yet another silence on her. As Mary Jacobus writes, "access to a male-dominated culture may be felt to bring with it alienation, repression, division -- a silencing of the 'feminine,' a loss of women's 'inheritance.'"10 What then is a woman writer to do? Her most utopian option is to write in a new language, but who is going to be able to read this language? She can also refuse to speak, but such a protest offers no challenge to the patriarchal order. Her other option is to deform, to transgress literary structure from within -- demonstrating the inadequacy of the paternal narrative by opening it up to what it excludes.

If the feminine novel is the creation of a patriarchal culture, we must look, as Nancy Armstrong suggests, to disruptive effects, to "discontinuities" that work against the "novel's traditional gestures toward closure" in order to find how women writers communicate a feminine position within writing.11 Of course, it is precisely such discontinuities that may make the woman writer seem less able than her male counterparts. Shelley's Frankenstein, for example, though praised as a rich ground of thematic interpretation, has been widely criticized as a flawed novel. One critic says that it is "radically uneven and awkward,"12 and another notes its "lack of causal sufficiency."13 Frankenstein, we are told, is a narrative "not fully elaborated into rational, sequential art."14 These judgments, based on the assumption that art must {157} obey the conventions of patriarchal narrative-sequence, finality, integrity -- implicitly announce that Shelley's text does not exist entirely within the conventional literary framework.

Frankenstein's violation of literary propriety does not mean that Mary Shelley deliberately privileges the feminine. In the "Author's Introduction" she writes that she is "very averse to bringing herself forward in print."[Introduction 1]15 And through much of the novel she adopts a male voice while assigning her self-effacing female characters (appropriately described as exotic, as outsiders) to a marginal position. In this way, her novel reproduces the traditional opposition of masculine and feminine, speech and silence, that makes so paradoxical the position of the woman who writes: if speech is associated with masculinity, then a woman must lose her identity in order to make self-expression possible. But perhaps in adopting a male voice, the woman writer is given the opportunity to intervene from within, to become an alien presence that undermines the stability of the male voice.

The identity of the self, the authority of the narrative "I," lends coherence to the traditional novel's structure and provides an anchor for its meanings. It is a unifying device that needs transformation if women are to speak. As one feminist puts it, "To change the system, we have to change the speaking subject."16 In other words, the subject must be free to define itself in new ways. Mary Shelley acknowledges the power of fiction to allow for a more flexible identity in her "Author's Introduction." Here she describes the pleasures of childhood dreaming in which she was not "confined to my own identity" (p. viii). In Frankenstein, the unity of the subject is subverted by the presence of multiple narrators. The story is narrated by three men: Robert Walton, Victor Frankenstein, and the monster. Each of these men is an image of the others -- all are wandering creatures who are in some way deviant. Walton is embarked on a voyage to the northern pole which has been prohibited by his father, and in Victor Frankenstein he finds "the brother of his heart" (p. 26). Frankenstein, described by Walton as a "creature" whose eyes "expressed madness" while he "gnashed his teeth" [Letter 43], is an image of the monster he pursues, and he explicitly tells his story to reveal to Walton the madness he and Walton share. The monster, Frankenstein's offspring, eventually recapitulates Walton's movements and becomes even more obviously a figure of Walton's prohibited desires.

Such doubling and dislocation are produced by the non-identity of the self to itself (the self is found in the Other), a mechanism that Shelley does not employ without ambivalence. While an apparently fixed order of things is shown to be the basis for oppression -- in the monster's story, for example -- the transgression of this order not surprisingly leads to fear, since cultural assumptions have long maintained that fixed roles protect men and women {158} from dangerous anti-social impulses. This fear is articulated several times in the novel when the "artist" Frankenstein regrets his decision to defy propriety and employ "exploded systems and useless names" (p. 45) in order to create a new species. But at the same time, Shelley knows that to obey the law and stay at home is no good either. The hearth is the abode of "angels of the house" whose repose is "akin to death" (p. 43), and in her text the law dramatically victimizes the innocent Justine. So Shelley has it both ways: she decenters man by using multiple narrators who question the symbolic order while, at the same time, she insists that changing the shape of man can only result in the creation of monstrosity.

Shelley's ambivalence, recorded in her plot, does not compromise her narrative practice. Shelley challenges the place of women plotted by the traditional novel by disrupting narrative sequence. Her characters do not escape traditional female destinies -- to be mother, wife, dead, or some combination of the three -- but the novel subverts the form of female destiny by defamiliarizing narrative sequence, making it seem unnatural, inadequate. Robert Walton, the narrator of the letters that frame the novel, pronounces the unreliability of his story when he writes that letters are a "poor medium of communication" (p. 18). His uncertain narrative is interrupted by the accidental arrival of Victor Frankenstein, whose narrative displaces Walton's. Frankenstein's story is also insufficient since it is broken by faints, fevers, dreams, inexplicable silences that dislocate narrative sequence. (Why doesn't Frankenstein speak to save the innocent Justine who is accused of killing his brother? Why doesn't he understand the monster's threat: "I will be with you on your wedding night"? [3.3.4]) Further, the accuracy of his account is put into question by the monster, whose story displaces Frankenstein's narrative in the middle of the novel -- and who is the source of the disruption recounted in it. And this figure of disruption, like the novel itself, is never fully contained: the monster's death by fire and ice remains only a promised and deliberately improbable conclusion. To contribute further to the novel's lack of unity, dependent upon a resolution that provides a sense of closure, Shelley directs the novel itself toward a woman reader, Mrs. Saville, who is located both in and outside the text, and provides the narrative with an uncertain destination.

One obvious explanation for the narrative's refusal of a fixed identity and its subversion of the conventions of narrative sequence and unity is that it is a dream text. In her introduction to the book, Mary Shelley states that her novel is the "transcript of the grim terrors" of a "waking dream" (p. xi). What dislocates the narrative might simply be the irrational logic of the dream, of the unconscious. Yet dream logic may be in the service of a woman writer's critique of prevailing structures. Dreams, as Edward Said has pointed out, {159} "are interventions in the ongoing course of things, not additions to it. Where once stood a pater familias, or an unfolding plot, or a single image . . . we have a break in the sequence."17 Dreams allow something to speak which is not normally present in the patriarchal course of things. Through the agency of dream, this order confronts something it cannot fully account for, something it has excluded or repressed. Such a bringing to the surface of a troubling otherness, sometimes explicitly connected to the unconscious, has been described as an effect of women's writing. "A feminine text," writes Helene Cixous, "can't be predicted, isn't predictable, isn't knowable, and is therefore very disturbing."18 It is disturbing because it exposes the inadequacy of the symbolic order, the limits of its knowledge.

The dream form of Frankenstein, then, might be seen as a transgression of the boundaries of patriarchal order. A similar act of transgression occurs on the thematic level of the novel. In the story, Victor Frankenstein, the bearer of the qualities of god-like power and knowledge that characterize the masculine position in culture, discovers the limits of his mastery. He intends to create a "new species" that will flatter his ego: "No father," he imagines, "could claim the gratitude of his child so completely as I should deserve theirs" (p. 52). And he gives his creature an especially large frame as if to insure that it will reflect him at twice his size -- and thus become the flattering mirror men often expect women to be. Frankenstein's desire for domination and his expectation of submission are captured in the pose he takes before his inanimate creature: Frankenstein stands erect above its prone body, a position that has been called the classical spectacle of male power and female powerlessness in a patriarchal society.19

The proof of Frankenstein's mastery, however, depends on the aesthetic unity of his creation -- and Frankenstein's monster is anything but a perfect form. The monster is a haphazard collection of parts. This incoherent structure, because it exposes the limitations of Frankenstein's power and knowledge, contaminates Frankenstein. On viewing the animated creature, Frankenstein becomes "discomposed" and his disrupted state appears in the language of the passages following his act of creation:

I started from my sleep with horror; a cold dew covered my forehead, my teeth chattered, and every limb became convulsed; when, by the dim and yellow light of the moon, as it forced its way through the window shutters, I beheld the wretch -- the miserable monster whom I had created (p. 57).
This sentence is typical of the style of these passages, accurately described as "spasmodic, juxtapositive, and repetitive."20 The disruption of mastery thus has an effect on the formal structure of the narrative.

{160} Other feminist critics have written about this moment not as demonstrating the limits of male authority through a distinctive textual practice, but rather as depicting female authorship as a "frightful transgression." My own discussion of Shelley's ambivalence suggests this element too. Shelley's novel challenges the privileged position of the male in a patriarchal system -- most particularly by challenging narrative conventions that powerfully articulate the fiction of man as the locus of truth, identity, knowledge -- but it also records the anxiety of a woman participating in an alien system: the symbolic order belongs to the fathers. Perhaps the conditions of patriarchal culture insist that women's writing must necessarily sustain these two positions: woman has no place in writing yet can subvert male identity and truth by destabilizing narrative, making it uncertain about its patriarchal message. In the preface, Percy Shelley constructs an apologia for Frankenstein that attempts to blur the contradiction between the text's transgression of and adherence to the familiar opposition of masculine and feminine. He insists that the text functions to show the virtue of the domestic sphere -- a place for women that has been largely defined by men:

[M]y chief concern . . . has been limited to the avoiding of 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. The opinions which naturally spring from the character and situation of the hero are by no means to be conceived as existing always in my own conviction . . . (p. xiv).
Of this disclaimer, Barbara Johnson writes: "How is this to be read except as a gesture of repression of the very specificity of the power of feminine contradiction?"21 Another critic, Virginia Woolf, suggests that contradiction is a necessary condition of women in a patriarchal culture since that culture is an "ill-fitting form."22

It is Shelley's monster, of course, who articulates the misery of being neither fully inside nor outside culture. The monster does not desire to be a rebel; he wants to be assimilated into society. As a spectator looking on society from the outside, he discovers language and the wonderful power of communication it makes possible: "I found that these people possessed a method of communicating their experience . . . this was indeed a godlike science, and I ardently desired to become acquainted with it" (pp. 107-08). His success at acquiring language is manifest in the eloquence of his narrative, an eloquence even Frankenstein acknowledges: the monster is "eloquent and persuasive," he tells Walton, "but trust him not" (p. 198). The monster cannot be trusted because, though he ably performs in an alien language, he never fully inhabits it. As a result, his language always seems to be a disguise for something terrifying that remains unspoken.

{161} The monster is the character in the novel who makes the reader most self-conscious about language as a foreign medium. And since Mary Shelley's style as a whole seems artificial, she seems to share the monster's problem: for her too, language is an "ill-fitting form." Her prose style has been the object of criticism because, as one critic says, it is "inflexibly public and oratorical even in its most intimate passages."23 Her style, in other words, pushes language into the foreground as an impersonal form, as unreal, as lacking a "natural" relation to its speaker and to the objects it names. Her style thus insists that language is an artificial cultural production, a view best articulated by the monster. Describing the cottagers, he says: "Their pronunciation was quick and the words they uttered, not having any apparent connection with visible objects, I was unable to discover any clue by which I could unravel the mystery of their reference" (p. 107). Of course a style of writing which uncovers the unnaturalness of language can turn against the author rather than the culture that produces it, and the public nature of Shelley's prose can thus be viewed not as a critique of patriarchal discourse, but as a sign of artistic failure. Shelley herself is apologetic about her work. In her "Introduction," she remarks that while her husband could "embody his ideas and sentiments in the radiance of brilliant imagery and in the music of the most melodious verse that adorns our language," she is capable only of finding the "machinery of a story" [Introduction 6] -- a phrase that points again to the artificial quality of literary production.

By not valuing a transgressing mode of writing which produces a work that Shelley herself calls her "hideous progeny" [Introduction 12], Shelley seems to accept a subordinate place in culture. She is a "good" girl who writes because her parentage makes the desire to write "natural," and even more emphatically, because her husband and his friends want her to. This portrait of feminine virtue is underlined in Percy Shelley's description of the text as portraying the "amiableness of domestic affection." Yet these assertions of the conventionality of the text recall the monster's words to Frankenstein: "I will not be tempted to set myself in opposition to thee. I am thy creature" (p. 95). Like Shelley herself, the monster asserts his desire to conform to the expectations of society -- his inner core is basically good. His problem is that he is defined from the outside as evil, alien, other: "my life has been hitherto harmless and in some degree beneficial; but a fatal prejudice clouds their eyes, and where they ought to see a good and kind friend, they behold only a detestable monster" (p. 128). And his monstrousness is projected on him. The monster represents, as we have seen, the limits of Frankenstein's own knowledge. But this is precisely what Frankenstein does not want to admit. In order to maintain his position of mastery, he represses the existence of the monster: "I avoided explanation and maintained a continual silence . . . supposed I {162} had a persuasion that I should be mad" (p. 177). He refuses to create a mate for the monster in the name of the social order, the "whole human race" (p. 159). What is repressed by society cannot be included on any terms without causing its maddening dislocation, or more positively, without causing its transformation.

Shelley's text has such disruptive power. In spite of her disclaimers, Frankenstein strays from propriety because it does not support a patriarchal system of representation. The "I" is loosened from its moorings; the chain of events becomes incoherent, the textual order violated. This disruption of novelistic conventions is the violent gesticulation of a repressed femininity pushing against a patriarchal form that privileges male identity and speech and victimizes even obedient women. Shelley both appropriates the form and disrupts it: her narrative technique provides a model for a more flexible discourse, but Shelley accepts conventional standards and calls that discourse "hideous."

The monster, not Shelley's stereotypic female characters, is the figure of this deformed and deforming text. He articulates the possible options of the woman who writes in order to express herself but finds that her culture imposes, in its very codes, an obstacle to feminine self-expression. One of her options, already mentioned, is to find a new language. The monster embraces this option only when he finds that he simply cannot be assimilated into society. He asks Frankenstein to create a new form of woman. With her, the monster plans to build a new society in which he can be in "communication with an equal" (p. 140). This utopian hope is denied realization by Frankenstein in the name of a cultural order threatened by the monster, and, Frankenstein imagines, "ten thousand times" [3.3.1] more threatened by a female monster. So the monster is left to express his desires by unsettling the order which frustrates them: he makes Frankenstein undergo his own experience of incoherence and exile -- what the monster calls the "miserable series" of his being (p. 297). In this, he is the figure of feminine textuality.

Like the monster, woman in a patriarchal society is defined as an absence, an enigma, mystery, or crime, or she is allowed to be a presence only so that she can be defined as a lack, a mutilated body that must be repressed to enable men to join the symbolic order and maintain their mastery. As Baudelaire puts it, "woman is different, that is to say, abominable." Her difference places her outside culture, and her abominable presence places her within it. Mary Shelley, because she writes from this paradoxical position, has been accused of artistic failure: "Mary Shelley is not inside or outside enough" writes one male critic.24 But her representation of the liminal position of women -- and the relation of that position to sexual {163} categories of a patriarchal culture -- is precisely her achievement.

Frankenstein is a novel suspended in an indefinite space. The shifts in narrative voice, the narrative's violation of causal sequence, its refusal of a definite conclusion, its public style, are strategies that destabilize narrative form so that it communicates the monstrous burden of female difference as it is defined by patriarchal culture. At the same time, the novel challenges the authority of the cultural order by making it feel the pressure of something it has tried to exclude and repress. Shelley, then, is a woman writer who uses the resources of fiction to transgress literary structure from within.

"It is an odd feeling," writes Virginia WooIf, "writing against the current: difficult entirely to disregard the current."25 Difficult too for the current not to feel a woman's resistance as she pushes against the stream of patriarchal culture -- interrupting, disturbing, deforming it -- encouraging us to see that what seems continuous, inexorable, natural, contains within it other possibilities, other ways of imagining the order of things.


1. Ellen Moers, "Female Gothic," The Endurance of Frankenstein, ed. George Levine (Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press, 1979), p. 79.

2. Kate Ellis, "Monster in the Garden: Mary Shelley and the Bourgeois Family," The Endurance of Frankenstein, pp. 128-42.

3. Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, The Madwoman in the Attic (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1979), p. 246.

4. Mary Poovey, "My Hideous Progeny: Mary Shelley and the Feminization of Romanticism," PMLA, 95 (1980), 332-46.

5. Nancy Armstrong, "The Rise of Feminine Authority in the Novel," Novel: A Forum on Fiction, 15 (Winter 1982), 138.

6. Armstrong, 129.

7. Armstrong, 141.

8. Edward Said, Beginnings: Intention and Method (New York: Basic Books, 1975), p. 163.

9. My understanding of feminine textuality has greatly benefited from discussion with Janice Doane about her unpublished dissertation, "Silence and Narrative: The Early Novels of Gertrude Stein," SUNY Buffalo, 1981.

10. Mary Jacobus, "The Difference of View," Women Writing and Writing About Women (London: Barnes and Noble Books, 1980), p. 10. 11. Armstrong, 142.

12. George Levine, "The Ambiguous Heritage of Frankenstein," The Endurance of Frankenstein, p. 3.

13. Phillip Stevick, "Frankenstein and Comedy," The Endurance of Frankenstein, p. 227.

14. Stevick, p. 230.

15. Mary Shelley, "Author's Introduction," Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus (New York and Scarborough, Ontario: New American Library, 1965), p. vii. All citations from Frankenstein are from this text.

16. Alice Jardine, "Introduction to Kristeva," Signs, 7 (1980), 11.

17. Said, p. 172.

18. Helen Cixous, "Castration or Decapitation," trans. Annette Kuhn, Signs, 7 (1980), 53.

19. See Mary Ann Doane, "Gilda: Epistemology as Strip-tease," Camera Obscura, No. 10 (Spring, 1982).

20. Paul Sherwin, "Frankenstein: Creation as Catastrophe," PMLA, 96 (1981), 895.

21. Barbara Johnson, "My Monster/My Self," Diacritics, 12 (Summer 1982), 9.

22. Virginia WooIf, Three Guineas (New York: Harcourt, Brace, and World, Inc., 1966), p. 105.

23. George Levine, p. 3.

24. Paul Sherwin, 901-02.

25. Virginia WooIf, from her diary as noted by Michele Barret in her introduction to Virginia WooIf: Women and Writing (New York and London: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1980), p. 4.