Contents Index

A Feminist Critique of Science (1988), Part II

Anne K. Mellor

[Continuation of Chap. 5 of Anne K. Mellor, Mary Shelley: Her Life, Her Fictions, Her Monsters (1988). The pagination is marked with double curled brackets {{--}} to distinguish this version from the 1987 essay.]

{{107}} Mary Shelley based Victor Frankenstein's attempt to create a new species from dead organic matter through the use of chemistry and electricity on the most advanced scientific research of the early nineteenth century. Her vision of the isolated scientist discovering the secret of life is no mere fantasy but a plausible prediction of what science might accomplish. As such, Frankenstein has rightly been hailed as the first legitimate example of that genre we call science fiction. Brian Aldiss has tentatively defined science fiction as "the search for a definition of man and his status in the universe which will stand in our advanced but confused state of knowledge (science), and is characteristically cast in the Gothic or post-Gothic mold." And Eric Rabkin and Robert Sc[h]oles have identified the conventional elements of science fiction as "speculation and social criticism, hardware and exotic adventure."30 We might expand these criteria to say that science fiction is a genre that (1) is grounded on valid scientific research; (2) gives a persuasive prediction of what science might be able to accomplish in the foreseeable future; and (3) offers a humanistic critique of either specific technological inventions or the very nature of scientific thinking.

Frankenstein is notable both for its grasp of the nature of the seventeenth-century scientific revolution and its perspicacious analysis of the dangers inherent in that enterprise. Mary Shelley provides us with the first portrait of what the popular media has since caricatured as the "mad scientist," a figure that finds its modern apotheosis in Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove (1964). But Mary Shelley's portrait of Victor Frankenstein is both more subtle and more persuasive than subsequent media versions.

Mary Shelley recognized that Frankenstein's passion for his scientific research is a displacement of normal emotions and healthy human relationships. Obsessed by his vision of the limitless power to be gained from his newly discovered capacity to bestow animation, Victor Frankenstein devotes all his time and "ardour" to his experimental research, the creating of a human being. He becomes oblivious to the world around him, to his family and friends, even to his own health. {{108}} As he admits, "my cheek had grown pale with study, and my person became emaciated with confinement" (49) as "a resistless, and almost frantic impulse, urged me forward; I seemed to have lost all soul or sensation but for this one pursuit" (50). In his compulsive desire to complete his experiment, he ignores the beauty of nature and stops corresponding with his father and Elizabeth. "I could not tear my thoughts from my employment, loathsome in itself; but which had taken hold of my imagination. I wished, as it were, to procrastinate my feelings of affection, until the great object of my affection was compleated" (manuscript version of 50: 29-33). Frankenstein has clearly substituted his scientific research for normal emotional interactions. His only "object of affection" has become the experiment on the laboratory table before him.

In his ability to substitute work for love, a dream of personal omnipotence for a dream of familial interdependence, Victor Frankenstein possesses a personality that has recently been characterized by Evelyn Fox Keller as typical of the modern scientist. Keller argues from her psychological survey of physicists working at Harvard University that the professional scientific demand for "objectivity" often masks a prior psychological alienation from the mother, an alienation that can lead scientists to feel uncomfortable with their emotions and sexuality. The scientists she studied, when compared to the norm, typically felt more estranged from their mothers, were more emotionally repressed, had a relatively low sex-drive, and tended to feel more comfortable with objects than people. Their professional detachment often precluded a concern with ethics and politics in their research. They preferred to leave the problems resulting from the social application of their discoveries to others. Frankenstein's failure to take personal responsibility for the outcome of his experiment thus anticipates the practice of many modern scientists.

Mary Shelley developed the character of Victor Frankenstein as a calculated inversion of the eighteenth-century "man of feeling." Influenced by Shaftesbury's philosophical argument that sympathy is the basis of human morality and by the fictional treatments of this idea -- Henry Mackenzie's The Man of Feeling, Godwin's Fleetwood, or The New Man of Feeling, Lawrence Sterne's A Sentimental Journey and Rousseau's La Nouvelle Héloïse which she heard Percy Shelley read aloud that summer of 1816 -- Mary Shelley embodied in Victor Frankenstein the very opposite of the sentimental hero. her isolated protagonist has given both "heart and soul" to his work, callously indifferent to the anxiety his silence might cause his father and his fiancée. As such he has truly "lost all soul" (50). He has cut himself off {{109}} from all moral feeling, from the capacity either to perceive or to enact goodness, as Shaftesbury defined it.

That Mary Shelley endorsed the ideal of the man of feeling as a moral exemplar is revealed not only in her association of the alienated Victor Frankenstein with Faust and Satan but also in her cameo portrait of the Russian boat-master whom Walton employs. this character functions in the novel as a moral touchstone of disinterested sympathy from which to measure the fall of both Frankenstein and Walton. The master "is a person of an excellent disposition, and is remarkable in the ship for his gentleness, and the mildness of his discipline" (14). He is entirely altruistic. When the girl he had obtained permission to marry told him that she loved another man, he not only gave her up but bestowed his small fortune on his impoverished rival and then tried to persuade her father to consent to the love-match. When her father refused, thinking himself honor-bound to the sea-master, the master left Russia and refused to return until the girl had married her lover. But despite the master's noble character, Walton finds the master's sympathetic involvement in the communal life of the ship narrow and boring.

Walton is aware of his own emotional limitations. Throughout the novel, he desperately seeks a friend, some man who would "participate my joy, . . . sympathize with me, . . . approve or amend my plans . . . [and have] affection enough for me to endeavor to regulate my mind" (13-14). Walton's desire is modelled directly on Godwin's Fleetwood, who also desperately sought a friend:

I saw that I was alone, and I desired to have a friend, . . . a friend . . . whose kidness shall produce a conviction in my mind, that I do not stand alone in the world . . . a friend, who is to me as another self, who joys in all my joys, and grieves in all my sorrows, not with a joy or grief that looks like compliment, not with a sympathy that changes into smiles when I am no longer present, though my head continues bent to earth with anguish. . . . Friendship, in the sense in which I felt the want of it, has been truly said to be a sentiment that can grasp but one individual in its embrace.32
But Godwin's novel clearly demonstrates that Fleetwood's sentimental desire for a "brother of my heart" masks a selfish need to possess the beloved entirely. His jealousy leads to a paranoic suspiciousness that destroys the only genuine friendship Fleetwood ever finds, that with his wife Mary Macneil. In contrast, Mary Macneil articulates an ideal of true friendship, a concept that Godwin had learned from Mary Wollstonecraft:
{{110}} I am not idle and thoughtless enough, to promise to sink my being and individuality in yours. I shall have distinct propensities and preferences . . . In me you will have a wife, and not a passive machine. But, whenever a question occurs of reflection, of experience, of judgment, or of prudential consideration, I shall always listen to your wisdom with undissembled deference. In every thing indifferent, or that can be made so, I shall obey you with pleasure. And in return I am sure you will consider me as a being to be won with kindness, and not dictated to with the laconic phrase of authority.33
From the perspective provided by Godwin's Fleetwood, we can see that Walton's concept of friendship, which some have hailed as the positive moral value in the novel,34 is badly flawed. Walton seeks an alter-ego, a mirror of his self who will reflect back his own joys and sorrows, adding only the wisdom that an older Walton would in time have discovered for himself. Rather than a relationship of genuine altruism and self-sacrifice, or a partnership of independent yet mutually supportive persons, Waltons' concept of friendship is in fact another form of egoism. He is therefore given the friendship of his genuine alter-ego, Victor Frankenstein, a "friendship" that, being none, is found only to be lost. As Walton laments, "I have longed for a friend; I have sought one who would sympathize with and love me. Behold, on these desert seas I have found such a one; but, I fear, I have gained him only to know his value, and lose him." (209)

Both Walton and Frankenstein devote their emotional energy not to empathic feelings or domestic affections but to egoistic dreams of conquering the boundaries of nature or of death. Not only have they diverted their libidinal desires away from normal erotic objects, but in the process they have engaged in a particular mode of thinking which we might call "scientific." Frankenstein and Walton are both the products of the scientific revolution of the seventeenth century. They have been taught to see nature "objectively," as something separate from themselves, as passive and even dead matter -- as the "object of my affection" -- that can and should be penetrated, analyzed, and controlled. They thus accord nature no living soul or "personhood" requiring recognition or respect.

Wordsworth had articulated the danger inherent in thinking of nature as something distinct from human consciousness. A reader of Wordsworth, Mary Shelley understood nature in his terms, as a sacred all-creating mother, a living organism or ecological community with which human beings interact in mutual dependence. To defy this bond, as both Frankenstein and Walton do, is to break one's ties with the source of life and health. Hence Frankenstein literally becomes sick in {{111}} the process of carrying out his experiment: "every night I was oppressed by a slow fever, and I became nervous to a most painful degree" (51); and at its completion, he collapses in "a nervous fever" that confines him to his sickbed for several months.

But Mary Shelley's critique of objective, rationalistic thought goes beyond Wordsworth's organicist notion that "we murder to dissect." Perhaps because she was a woman, she perceived that inherent in most scientific thought was a potent gender identification. Professor Waldman taught Frankenstein that scientists "penetrate into the recesses of nature, and shew how she works in her hiding places" (42, my emphasis). In Waldman's trope, nature is a passive female who can be penetrated in order to satisfy male desire. Waldman's metaphor is derived directly from the writings of the leading British scientists of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Francis Bacon had heralded the seventeenth-century scientific revolution as a calculated attempt to enslave female nature. Bacon's metaphor of a passive, possessable female nature strikingly altered the traditional image of nature as Dame Kind, an "all-creating" and bounteous Mother Earth who singlehandedly bore and nourished her children. But it was Bacon's metaphor that structured most of the new scientific writing in England in the eighteenth century. Isaac Barrow, Newton's teacher, declared that the aim of the new philosophy was to "search Nature out of her Concealments, and unfold her dark Mysteries,"35 while Robert Boyle noted contemptuously that "some men care only to know Nature, others desire to command her."36 Henry Oldenburg, a future Secretary of the Royal Society, invoked Bacon to support his assertion that the "true sons of learning" are those men who do not remain satisfied with the well-known truths but rather "penetrate from Nature's antechamber to her inner closet."37 As Brian Easlea concludes, many seventeenth-century natural philosophers and their successors viewed the scientific quest as a virile masculine penetration into a passive female nature, a penetration that would, in Bacon's words, not merely exert a "gentle guidance over nature's course" but rather "conquer and subdue her" and even "shake her to her foundations."38 This vision of nature was visually encoded in Ernest Barrias' large, bare-breasted female statue that in 1902 was placed at the entrance of the grand staircase of the Faculté de Médecine of the Université de Paris, bearing the inscription: "LA NATURE SE DEVOILANT DEVANT LA SCIENCE."

Carolyn Merchant, Evelyn Fox Keller, and Brian Easlea have drawn our attention to the negative consequences of this identification of nature as the passive female.39 Construing nature as the passive "Other" has led, as Merchant shows, to the increasing destruction of the {{112}} environment and the disruption of the delicate ecological balance between humankind and nature. Moreover, as Keller has suggested in her studies of how the social construction of gender has affected the making of science, the professional scientific demand for "objectivity" and detachment often masks an aggressive desire to dominate the female sex object. The result can be a dangerous division between what C. P. Snow called the "two cultures," between the power-seeking practices of science and the concerns of humanists with moral responsibility, emotional communion, and spiritual values. The scientist who analyzes, manipulates, and attempts to control nature unconsciously engages in a form of oppressive sexual politics. Construing nature as the female Other, he attempts to make nature serve his own ends, to gratify his own desires for power, wealth, and reputation.

Frankenstein's scientific project is clearly an attempt to gain power. Inspired by Waldman's description of scientists who "acquired new and almost unlimited powers" (42), Frankenstein has sought both the power of a father over his children, and, more omnipotently, of God over his creation. More subtly yet more pervasively, Frankenstein has sought power over the female. He has "pursued nature to her hiding places" (49) in an attempt not only to penetrate nature and show how her hidden womb works but actually to steal or appropriate that womb. To usurp the power of reproduction is to usurp the power of production as such. Marx identified childbirth as the primary example of pure, or unalienated, labor. Victor Frankenstein's enterprise can be viewed from a Marxist perspective as an attempt to exploit nature or labor in the service of a ruling class. Frankenstein wishes to harness the modes of reproduction in order to become the acknowledged, revered, and gratefully obeyed father of a new species. His project is thus identical with that of bourgeois capitalism: to exploit nature's resources for both commercial profit and political control.

Among these resources are animal and human bodies. Collecting bones and flesh from charnel-houses, dissecting rooms, and slaughter-houses, Frankenstein sees these human and animal organs as nothing more than the tools of his trade, no different from his other scientific instruments. In this sense he is identical with the factory owner who gathers men, his disembodied "hands" as Dickens's Bounderby would say, to manipulate his machines. We can therefore see Frankenstein's creature, as Franco Moretti has suggested, as the proletariat, "a collective and artificial creature,"41 dehumanized by the mechanized modes of technological production controlled by the industrial scientist and, in modern times, by the computer. Elizabeth Gaskell first identified Frankenstein's monster with the nineteenth-century British working-class in Mary Barton (1848):

{{113}} The actions of the educated seem to me typified in those of Frankenstein, that monster of many human qualities, ungifted with a soul, a knowledge of the difference between good and evil.

The people rise up to life; they irritate us, they terrify us, and we become their enemies. Then, in the sorrowful moment of our triumphant power, their eyes gaze on us with a mute reproach. Why have we made them what they are; a powerful monster, yet without the inner means for peace and happiness? (Chapter 15)

But this misshapen and alienated worker, Frankenstein's monster, has the power to destroy his maker, to seize the technology of production (the creature carries the secret of his own creation in his pocket) and force it serve his own ends.

In the second edition of the novel, Mary Shelley further identifies Frankenstein's capitalist project with the project of colonial imperialism. Clerval here announces his intention to join the East India Company:

He came to the university with the design of making himself a complete master of the oriental languages, as thus he should open a field for the plan of life he had marked out for himself. Resolved to pursue no inglorious career, he turned his eyes toward the East, as affording scope for his spirit of enterprise. (243-44)
Frankenstein's enthusiastic affirmation of Clerval's plan signals Mary Shelley's recognition of the expanding and increasingly dangerous degree of cultural and scientific control over the resources of nature, whether dead matter or living races. Her awareness of the similarity between Frankenstein's scientific enterprise and Clerval's imperialist project may have been triggered by the Parliamentary Debated on the slave trade in 1824. The foreign secretary and leader of the House of Commons, George Canning, in a speech opposing the freeing of the Negro slaves in the West Indies, explicitly identified the slaves with Frankenstein's monster:
To turn [the Negro] loose in the manhood of his physical strength, in the maturity of his physical passions, but in the infancy of his uninstructed reason, would be to raise up a creature resembling the splendid fiction of a recent romance; the hero of which constructs a human form, with all the corporeal capabilities of man, and with the thews and sinews of a giant; but being unable to impart to the work of his hands a perception of right and wrong, he finds too late that he has only created a more than mortal power of doing mischief, and himself recoils from the monster which he has made.42
Writing during the early years of Britain's industrial revolution and {{114}} the age of Empire, Mary Shelley was aware of the damaging consequences of a scientific, objective, alienated view of both nature and human labor. Uninhibited scientific and technological development, without a sense of moral responsibility for either the processes or products of these new modes of production, could easily, as in Frankenstein's case, produce monsters. A creature denied both parental love and peers; a working class denied access to meaningful work but condemned instead, in Ruskin's words, to make the same glass bead over and over; a colonized and degraded race: all are potential monsters, dehumanized by their uncaring employers and unable to feel the bonds of citizenship with the capitalist society in which they live. Moreover, these workers can become more powerful than their makers. As Frankenstein's creature asserts, "You are my creator, but I am your master; -- obey!" (165), a prophecy whose fulfillment might take the form of bloody revolutions in which the oppressed overthrow their masters.

Even more dangerous is Mary Shelley's implicit warning against the possible dangers inherent in the technological developments of modern science. Although we have not yet discovered Frankenstein's procedure for reanimating corpses, recent research in biochemistry -- the discovery of DNA, the technique of gene-splicing, and the development of extra-uterine fertilization -- has brought us to the point where human beings are able to manipulate life-forms in ways previously reserved only to nature and chance. The replacement of natural childbirth by the mechanical eugenic control systems and baby-breeders envisioned in Aldous Huxley's Brave New World or Marge Piercy's Woman on the Edge of Time is now only a matter of time and social will. Worse by far, of course, is the contemporary proliferation of nuclear weapons systems resulting from the Los Alamos Project and the political decision to drop atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, As Jonathan Schell has so powerfully reminded us in The Fate of the Earth, as such docudramas as "The Day After" (1983) and "Threads" (1984) have starkly portrayed, a morally irresponsible scientific development has released a monster that can destroy civilization itself. As Frankenstein's monster proclaims, "Remember that I have power; . . I can make you so wretched that the light of day will be hateful to you" (165). Mary Shelley's tale of horror is no fantastical ghost story, but rather a profound insight into the probable consequences of "objective" -- gendered -- or morally insensitive scientific and technological research.


30. Brian W. Aldiss, Billion Year Spree -- The History of Science Fiction (London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1973), p. 8. Cf. Robert Scholes and Eric S. Rabkin, Science Fiction: History, Science, Vision (New York: Oxford University Press, 1977), p. 38. Aldiss, Scholes, and Rabkin concur that Frankenstein is the first legitimate example of science fiction. For an analysis of the way Frankenstein has been misread by male science-fiction writers, see Judith A. Spector, "Science Fiction and the Sex War: A Womb of One's Own, " Literature and Psychology 31 (1981): 21-32.

31. Evelyn Fox Keller, "Gender and Science," Psychoanalysis and Contemporary Thought 1 (1978): 409-33; see also her Reflections on Gender and Science, Chap. 4.

32. William Godwin, Fleetwood or, The New Man of Feeling, 3 Vols. (London, 1805; repr. New York and London: Garland, 1979) II: 143-45.

33. William Godwin, Fleetwood, II:278-79.

34. See, for example, Robert Kiely, The Romantic Novel in England (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1972), p. 166.

35. Isaac Barrow, The Usefulness of Mathematical Learning Explained and Demonstrated (1734; London: Frank Cass, 1770), p. xxix-xxx.

36. Robert Boyle, The Works of Robert Boyle, ed. Thomas Birch, 6 Vols. (London, 1772), 1:310.

37. Correspondence of Henry Oldenburg, ed. A.R. Hall and M.B. Hall (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1965), 1:113.

38. Francis Bacon, The Works of Francis Bacon, ed. J. Spedding, R.L. Ellis, and D.N. Heath (new edn., 1879-90; Facsimile, Stuttgart-Bad Cannstatt, 1962, 7 Volumes), II: 42, 373. For a discussion of the sexual metaphors utilized in much seventeenth- and eighteenth-century English scientific writing, see Brian Easlea, Science and Sexual Oppression -- Patriarchy's Confrontation with Woman and Nature (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1981), p. 86; Chaps. 3, 4, 5.

39. Caroline Merchant, The Death of Nature: Women, Ecology and the Scientific Revolution (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1980); see also Evelyn Scott Keller, Reflections on Gender and Science, Chaps.4-9; and Brian Easlea, Science and Sexual Oppression.

40. As Caroline Merchant concludes, "The removal of animistic, organic assumptions about the cosmos constituted the death of nature -- the most far-reaching effect of the Scientific Revolution. Because nature was now viewed as a system of dead, inert particles moved by external, rather than inherent forces, the mechanical framework itself could legitimate the manipulation of nature. Moreover, as a conceptual framework, the mechanical order had associated with it a framework of values based on power, fully compatible with the directions taken by commercial capitalism" (The Death of Nature, p. 193.

For a useful study of the way Frankenstein condemns patriarchy and the concept of male motherhood, see Burton Hatlen, "Milton, Mary Shelley, and Patriarchy," in Rhetoric, Literature and Interpretation, ed. Harry R. Garvin (Lewisburg, Pa.: Bucknell University press, 1983), pp.19-47.

41. Franco Moretti, Signs Taken for Wonders -- Essays in the Sociology of Literary Form, trans. S. Fischer, D. Forgacs, and D. Miller (London: Verso, 1983), p. 85.

42. George Canning, "Ameliorization of the Condition of the Slave Population in the West Indies (House of Lords)," [Hansard's] Parliamentary Debates, n.s. 10 (March 10, 1824), cols. 1046-1198 [1103].