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Frankenstein: The Mother, the Daughter, and the Monster

Paul Youngquist

Philological Quarterly, 70:3 (Summer 1991), 339-59

But to the girdle do the gods inherit
Beneath is all the fiends'.

-- Shakespeare
{339} Increasingly, and with considerable warrant, criticism approaches Frankenstein as an instance of feminist polemic. It is thus, in the words of one prominent critic, "Mary Shelley's feminist novel" [Mellor], a work that subverts patriarchal assumptions about politics and science and counsels a gentler way of living.1 In artistic terms, it declares a quiet kind of independence, for it qualifies and completes prevailing masculine assumptions, becoming what another critic calls a "vindication of the imagination of woman" [Randel] the fictive sequel to Mary Wollstonecraft's pathbreaking polemic.2

In her journal entry of 21 October 1838, however, Shelley records the following confession: "If I have never written to vindicate the rights of women, I have ever befriended women when oppressed."3 She conjures up the spirit of her mother's polemic to mark the limits of its influence. Where Wollstonecraft defends abstract principle, Shelley cultivates concrete affections. Her feminism appears more intimate than her mother's. In crucial ways, she rejects the ideals of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, working in Frankenstein not so much to rehabilitate as more deeply to investigate the feminine. To approach her novel from any but its own special kind of feminist perspective is to overlook these aims and to deprive Shelley of her deepest, most disturbing insights.

In keeping with the assumptions of Enlightenment tradition, {340} Wollstonecraft aspires beyond sex altogether. Her pervasive emphasis upon reform in the education of women aims ultimately at restoring their full -- and sexless -- humanity.4 British culture, in her view, is guilty primarily of alienating its female members from their human potential, reducing their identity entirely to sex, which men define and control. The obliging conduct of Wollstonecraft's female contemporaries attests to the degeneracy of their minds, which she attributes to "a false system of education, gathered from the books written on this subject by men who, considering females rather as women than human creatures, have been more anxious to make them alluring mistresses than affectionate wives and rational mothers" [Introduction 1].5 Wollstonecraft's assumptions allow her to vindicate even the conventional roles of wife and mother, but only so long as they liberate the human rationality that exists prior to any sexual identity. The best feminism is an enlightened humanism; Wollstonecraft subordinates the female to the human in order to assert equality of reason and therefore right.

This position arises inevitably from her most fundamental beliefs, most of which were commonplaces of the Enlightenment. Throughout A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, nature is the true standard of value, and reason our human means of reading it. Hence the necessity of a rational education: "Children cannot be taught too early to submit to reason . . . for to submit to reason is to submit to the nature of things, and to that God, who formed them so, to promote our real interest" (155). Wollstonecraft's critique lacks the cultural and historical sophistication that characterizes today's feminism. She writes to return culture to the rule of reason, for "if any class of mankind be so created that it must necessarily be educated by rules not strictly deducible from truth, virtue is an affair of convention" (85). A commitment to the universality of reason underwrites her feminism, and because women are rational creatures, their humanity is not, as men would have it, reducible to sex: "I do earnestly wish to see the distinction of sex confounded in society, unless when love animates behavior" (57). Wollstonecraft's utopia is an androgynous one in which sex becomes an issue only where culture and biology meet, as for instance in the affairs of love, or the imperatives of family. A feminism that sees women as essentially different from men would be a betrayal of this redemptive humanism, a crippling acceptance of the cultural presumption that women, after {341} all, are only women. As Wollstonecraft put it, "the desire of being always a woman is the very consciousness that degrades the sex" (99).

Wollstonecraft's critique of prevailing cultural assumptions may seem dated, particularly in its identification of rational with natural order. But the kind of feminism it promoted was, in its day, radical. So it is all the more important to realize that Shelley swerves in Frankenstein away from the humane standard of her mother's feminism. For her novel retreats from Wollstonecraft's faith in reason to advance more bodily imperatives. Shelley's hesitation fully to embrace that faith appears clearest in the way she represents women. Several feminist critics have noted -- with disappointment -- that the novel's female characters seem vapid and bland. Barbara Johnson calls them "beautiful, gentle, selfless, boring nurturers and victims who never experience inner conflict or true desire" (7). Mary Jacobus is a bit less stringent: "at best women are the bearers of a traditional ideology of love, nurturance, and domesticity; at worst, passive victims" (132). The easiest way of explaining those brittle, embarrassing creatures is to handle them as these critics and dismiss them as "victims." But I want to understand why Mary Shelley, with her mother's Vindication at hand, chooses pervasively to present women in such unattractive terms.6

Shelley lacks her mother's confidence that the fate of sex can be overcome. In fact, as William Veeder suggests, "Mary cannot imagine life without gender" (37). A remark she makes in a letter to Maria Gisborne is in this regard illuminating: "My belief is -- whether there be sex in souls or not -- that the sex of our [female] material mechanism makes us quite different creatures -- better though weaker but wanting in the higher grades of intellect."7 Interesting to note here is the emphasis upon the body -- the material facts of sex -- and the way this physical difference distinguishes women and men. Shelley quietly indicts a feminism that denies what she takes to be the imperatives of the body.

In this she is not alone. It is one of the liabilities of Enlightenment thought that the identification of human nature with rationality minimizes the significance of bodily existence. Alison M. Jagger's description of the "normative dualism" inherent in what she calls "liberal feminism" has important implications for Shelley's novel: "If individuals are rational in the required sense, then physical structure and appearance are unimportant. Just as {242} height and weight are considered irrelevant to an individual's essential humanity, so too are the physical characteristics such as race and sex [my italics] that historically have been more controversial. Liberal feminism is grounded squarely on an acceptance of this traditional view" (37). It is just such a feminism that Shelley sets out to critique in Frankenstein, for as we shall see, her assessment of the feminine derives fundamentally from the life of the body. One of Shelley's central tenets is that her mother's feminism reduces the human to a rational corpse.

For Wollstonecraft appeals to reason as a means of minimizing the imperatives of the body and its social misconstructions, but Shelley denies reason the power to achieve so complete a makeover. No character is more reasonable in Frankenstein than the monster, and no character is more cursed by the brute fact of its bodily existence. Wollstonecraft, true to liberal fashion, maintains that the value placed upon physical appearance is primarily a social construct; an ideology of beauty allows women to endure and even encourage their oppression by men: "taught from their infancy that beauty is woman's scepter, the mind shapes itself to the body, and roaming round its gilt cage, only seeks to adorn its prison" (44). If beauty is the curse, then reason is the cure, and liberal feminism becomes a kind of cultural therapy. But Shelley confounds Wollstonecraft's critique of enculturated beauty by insisting upon the bodily ugliness of Frankenstein's creature. She implicitly inverts the values of her mother's argument by reconstructing female beauty as male ugliness. If such qualities were social constructs, then the monster, as a male in a male dominated social order, should be able to overcome them. But the facts of his body antedate that order and prohibit a rational assimilation to it. The monster's main obstacle to social relations is his appearance; his extreme deformity inspires revulsion. In his relations with mankind he expects perpetual frustration: "The human senses," he maintains, "are insurmountable barriers to our union" [2.9.2].8 Try as he may, the monster cannot reason his way out of the fate that his body forces upon him.

And this fate haunts him from the first. Immediately after the monster's creation, Frankenstein awakens to an unanticipated horror:

How can I describe my emotions at this catastrophe, or how delineate the wretch whom with such infinite pains and care I had endeavoured to form? His limbs were in proportion, and I had selected his features as beautiful. Beautiful Great {343} God! His yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath; his hair was of a lustrous black, and flowing; his teeth of a pearly whiteness, but these luxuriances only formed a more horrid contrast with his watery eyes, that seemed almost of the same colour as the dun-white sockets in which they were set, his shrivelled complexion and straight black lips. (52)
Frankenstein's revulsion at his creature's appearance originates beyond enculturated norms. The conjunction of the words "Beautiful! Great God!" add a primordial resonance to Frankenstein's disgust. He responds viscerally to his creature's appearance, which defies accommodation to social norms of ugliness and beauty.

All who encounter the monster, whatever their background, react the same way. Rude villagers shriek and chase him from their midst, pelting him with "stones and many other kinds of missile weapons" (101). The young republican, little William Frankenstein, responds to the creature's appearance with his brother's revulsion: "Ugly wretch! . . . Hideous monster!" (139). The intrepid and bourgeois Walton, prepared for the sight by Frankenstein's detailed narrative, is shocked by the monster's indescribable form, its "loathsome and appalling hideousness . . . uncouth and distorted in its proportions" (216). Frankenstein's creature, rational and compassionate as he is, finds himself trapped in a body that inspires disgust. He even experiences this reaction himself when, in a moment that parodies Eve's acquisition of self-consciousness in Paradise Lost, he sees his own reflection for the first time:

how was I terrified when I viewed myself in a transparent pool! At first I started back, unable to believe that it was indeed I who was reflected in the mirror; and when I became fully convinced that I was in reality the monster that I am, I was filled with the bitterest sensations of despondence and mortification. Alas! I did not yet entirely know the fatal effects of this miserable deformity. (109)
Shelley is careful to situate the monster's revulsion prior to his acquisition of language, diminishing the possibility that it originates in purely cultural assumptions. In fact the monster sees language as a means of rationally transcending the fate his body inflicts. He longs to discover himself to the De Laceys but lacks the words that would allow him to bypass sensation and appeal directly to reason: "I ought not to make the attempt until I had first become master of their language, which knowledge might enable me to make them overlook the deformity of my figure" (109). But once having learned to speak, the monster learns also that no language can cover his bodily deformity. His moving attempt to reason away his hideousness in the presence of the {343} blind patriarch of the De Lacey family fails because the facts of his bodily existence resist all idealizing. At the monster's reasoned and eloquent appeal the old De Lacey, in the words of Frankenstein, exclaims "Great God!" (131), and Felix rushes in to end it violently.

For Shelley, body is fate; all idealizings, cultural and personal, liberal and feminist, mask more profound -- and irrational -- imperatives. If it is ugliness that fuels the monster's social exclusion, it is beauty that drives his revenge: he destroys what he cannot possess. Hence the inadequacy of Wollstonecraft's arguments that reason is natural and beauty mere ornament. They fail to take into account the bodily imperatives that condition all human lives, male and female. In Frankenstein, Shelley takes up the greater task of investigating the fate of the body and its uneasy assimilation to social norms, a task that forces her to swerve away from the "liberal feminism" of her mother toward a more essentialist position based in bodily imperatives.

This is not to say that she has no interest in feminist issues, the status of women in patriarchal society, for instance, or the civilized dissociation of a masculine public world from a feminine domestic one.9 A critique of these oppressive circumstances runs throughout her narrative and gives it the social urgency that feminists have recently begun to recover.10 In comparison with Wollstonecraft's feminism, however, Shelley falls short. Her frank naturalism qualifies the plausibility of her mother's exhortations to an androgynous utopia.11 The monster demonstrates openly the implied imperatives of corporeal life: there can be no transcendence of sex, no rationalist utopia oblivious to the body. All social orders are sublimations of an irreducibly bodily existence. A liberal feminism that restricts itself to the rational analysis of enculturated norms does not plumb the depths of human being. And because so many of Shelley's feminist critics are intellectually the heirs of Wollstonecraft, their appropriations of Frankenstein remain oblivious to its critique of liberal assumptions.12 Beneath the feminism of Frankenstein is to be found a subtler meditation upon human suffering and the way it shapes social distinctions of morality and gender.

Consider again the plight of Frankenstein's monster. It is easy to view him as the embodiment of a fantasy of aggression against women, a fantasy that sustains the oppressive order of patriarchal culture and ensures, if necessary by murder, the subordination {345} of the female. But this view explains neither the revulsion he inspires in other characters (including all the women in the novel) nor the fascination he awakens in ourselves. I think a clue to these powerful responses appears in the spontaneous outbursts of Frankenstein and De Lacey upon first recognizing the monster for what he is. Both are in some sense father figures, and both exclaim "Great God" [1.4.1, 2.7.10]. Their disgust is so complete that it provokes a spontaneous turn to the divine. What is going on here I believe, is a reenactment of an archaic psychological drama. The primal revulsion that the monster inspires resembles what Paul Ricoeur has maintained is a primitive and visceral disgust aroused by impurity. Reenacting a drama of defilement in the context of a demythologized literary narrative, Shelley plunges beneath the surface of the civilized to examine vestigial impulses that shape its enculturated norms. If the monster's body determines its fate, it also presents the social order that reviles it with a fearsome image of impurity.

Ricoeur has suggested that the "primitive dread" awakened by the impure "deserves to be interrogated as our oldest memory."13 It is the subjective component of the experience of defilement, which originates in objective infectious contact with something deemed impure, unclean. Such defilement functions symbolically, representing an evil so virulent that it requires divine vengeance to put things right. Dread of impurity necessitates a purifying avenger; primordial disgust needs a purge from above. Little wonder, then, that when Frankenstein and De Lacey fully awaken to the monster's deformity they respond in specifically religious terms. The monster confronts them with an impurity so complete that it cannot be assimilated to civilized order and reactivates instead a primitive dread.

For the monster has all the marks of a defiled being. He possesses "a figure hideously deformed and loathsome" (115) that makes him "an object for the scorn and horror of mankind" (136). In his hideousness he is an outcast, excluded from all human communities as much for the revulsion he inspires as the appearance he presents. Even Frankenstein, as his monster charges, turns away as from a contaminated being: "Accursed creator! Why did you form a monster so hideous that even you turned away from me in disgust?" (126). Mary Shelley indicates repeatedly that this disgust is a visceral reaction to profound and indelible impurity. The monster comes to life in Frankenstein's {346} "workshop of filthy creation" (50), and his hideous anatomy is a defiled parody of the human, a "filthy type" (126) of its creator's.

This emphasis upon uncleanness, impurity, filth, suggests that the monster manifests for Shelley an archaic symbolism of defilement -- erupting in the midst of a civilized order. Our own cinematic representations of the monster as an overgrown grotesque of somewhat decomposed appearance make the same point: this "monster" is an admonition (Latin "monere"), a living symbol of impurity. Frankenstein authenticates this symbolism when he denounces his creature as "the wretch, the filthy demon" (73), a phrase that freights the whole symbolism of defilement. As "wretch" the monster is literally an outcast. Why? Because he is "filthy." And to what end? That divine vengeance may purge the world of this unclean "demon." The visceral revulsion that the monster awakens attests to an archaic symbolism of unclean contact, a symbolism that antedates social order, sleeping beneath its surface, quietly and vestigially, until it erupts again to challenge civilized assumptions.14 Hence the monster's pathos as he ponders his own existence as a being defiled: "was I then a monster, a blot upon earth, from which all men fled and whom all men disowned?" (115).

The note of helplessness in the monster's voice affirms his defilement, for such a fate is impersonal and descends without regard for responsibility.15 The monster's impurity is not the monster's fault. It derives from an external, not an internal, causality. We ought to inquire, then, into the causes of so complete and arbitrary a defilement. Is the monster's misery wholly the result of its creator's egoistic or masculine presumptions? I think evidence to the contrary appears in a startling remark the monster makes regarding his spurned existence. Defending his essential innocence, he bitterly and mockingly contrasts his being with the purer sort of his persecutors: "Nay, these are virtuous and immaculate beings! I, the miserable and abandoned, am an abortion to be spurned at, kicked, and trampled on" (219).16 The important point here is not merely that the monster equates spotlessness with virtue, but that he describes himself as an "abortion," a term that places the problem of defilement in a specifically biological -- and sexual -- context. Again we find Shelley reducing suffering to the body, but this time to emphasize its symbolic origin. The monster's is a prenatal existence, an "imperfect animation" (228) suspended between conception and {347} delivery. Shelley locates the objective cause of his suffering in the domain of sexuality -- specifically female sexuality -- which appears, if the monster's complaint is credible, to be the paradigm of defilement.

Ricoeur speculates darkly on the archaic relation between defilement and sexuality: "At the limit, the infant would be regarded as born impure, contaminated from the beginning by the parental seed, by the impurity of the maternal genital region, and by the additional impurity of childbirth" (29). Through the monster's defilement and its disgusting effects, Shelley investigates the human curse of maculate conception. Being born defiles being; this is the archaic wisdom that social norms cannot accommodate.

One might object at this point that the monster's defilement results, not from his mere creation (he was never really "born"), but from his asexual creation by a solitary male who usurps a woman's generative powers. The monster is an ugly botch because he incarnates a male fantasy of creative autonomy. And indeed, at a literal level this reading is hard to contest. But there is a kind of sexual sub-symbolism that betrays Shelley's deep allegiance to the body, even in the midst of a fantastic tale of asexual creation. Ponder for instance the bodily implications of the site of the monster's conception. Frankenstein's "workshop of filthy creation" is a "solitary chamber situated . . . at the top of the house, and separated from all the apartments by a gallery and a staircase" (50). A psychoanalytic reading of this description might discover here a symbolism of the female womb, displaced upward as in a dream, accessible only through clandestine physical exertion. The workshop is filthy and loathsome because symbolically it is sexual -- a female space into which a masculine principle enters to advance the unclean cause of procreation. If Frankenstein's workshop is a womb-room, then his creative undertaking might not be so exclusively masculine as it first appears. Shelley subtly qualifies the apparent asexuality of Victor's creative enterprise with a pervasive symbolism of sexual defilement that quietly asserts the inescapability of bodily imperatives. "A resistless and almost frantic impulse" (49) urges him on; his exertions build up to "the most gratifying consummation" (47). Although Shelley unmasks through such language the narcissistic origins of Frankenstein's creative passions, she implies symbolically the dubiousness of sexuality itself. Frankenstein in {348} his dirty workshop symbolizes the sexual act in all its ambiguity, at once gratifying and necessary for creating life, and yet the origin too of defilement. Says Frankenstein, "often did my human nature turn with loathing from my occupation, . . . still urged on by an eagerness which perpetually increased" (50). Sexual desire fuels that eagerness, and sexual contact, as Ricoeur suggests, breeds defilement of the life to come. The sexual sub-symbolism of Frankenstein's activity shows Shelley wrestling with the archaic paradox of impure birth.

The monster incarnates this paradox, the conviction that the sexual activity of creating life pollutes it. Not masculinity but sexuality itself comes in for Shelley's profoundest critique. But why should sexual contact be the cause of defilement and the evil it symbolizes? Shelley's answer conflates origins and ends, identifies life and death. Immediately after "bestowing animation upon lifeless matter" (47), Frankenstein has a dream that betrays the double movement of sexual desire. Envisioning his beloved Elizabeth, he meets with a shock:

Delighted and surprised, I embraced her, but as I imprinted the first kiss on her lips, they became livid with the hue of death; her features appeared to change, and I thought I held the corpse of my dead mother in my arms. (53)
A fantasy of sexual contact fades into an incestuous and necrophilic nightmare. Sexual desire here breeds death -- specifically of the mother, origin of life. By identifying Elizabeth and his mother, Frankenstein's dream identifies life and death, revealing their common origin. To the extent that they create life sexually, mothers are symbolically already dead. Sexual contact defiles the life it engenders by bestowing it upon lifeless matter. Frankenstein may want to discover an alternative form of procreation, one that would allow him ultimately to "renew life where death had apparently devoted the body to corruption" (49), but the lesson of Shelley's symbolism is that all such activity is ambiguously and irreducibly sexual. And sexual contact taints life with mortality; what originates in the life of the mater ends inevitably in the inertness of matter. Hence the revulsion inspired by the monster, who embodies the defilement of being born to a material existence: "a mummy again endued with animation could not be so hideous as that wretch" (53).

The defilement of being born, inevitable outcome of sexual contact: here we encounter in its fullness an archaic symbolism that cannot be assimilated either to social norms or to the {349} assumptions of "liberal feminism." The best a civilized order can do, as Shelley so visibly demonstrates, is exclude it, keep it at bay, repress all evidence of the sexual origin of impurity. To the extent that Frankenstein recapitulates the etiological drama of Paradise Lost, as Gilbert and Gubar suggest so persuasively, it does so to reveal the way Milton mitigates the paradox of impure birth.17 Death in his epic has origins quite apart from those of life. Adam may lament, after his fall, his "wonted Ornaments now soil'd and stain'd" [9.1076]; he may regret that all his future progeny "Is propagated curse" [10.729].18 But the cause of that impurity and curse is not sexual contact but moral infidelity. Milton sublimates the symbolism of defilement by situating it in a moral context that at least ostensibly antedates and explains it. The "spotless innocence" (4. 318) of Adam and Eve precedes their fall; as Milton takes pains to insist, so does their sexual intimacy. And although Eve, through her moral lapse, brings death into the world, its taint is only provisional, as she herself discovers: "I who first brought Death on all, am grac't / The source of life" (11. 168-69). Life at its highest for Milton is not a strictly bodily phenomenon, which means that a material defilement can be morally purged. Such a sublimation of impurity replaces sexual origins with moral ones that translate easily into social norms. Witness Raphael's parting admonition to our fallen parents, "add only / Deeds to thy knowledge answerable" (12. 581-82). For Milton the Fall occasions an impure sexuality, not vice versa.

Shelley recapitulates his story not merely, as Gilbert and Gubar suggest, to expose its patriarchal assumptions, but also to recover the archaic symbolism it sublimates. Her new Adam, the wretched monster, resists assimilation to those social norms that descend from a moral interpretation of defilement.19 More importantly, he asserts, in his very hideousness, the fatal materiality of all life, its mortal intimacy with death. Shelley's Adam is thus more man than Milton's, a creature of human, not divine, procreation. An impure birth is the given paradox of this existence, a tragic paradox that, in Shelley's view, social norms and the moralities that found them arise to repress. Perhaps now we are in a position to understand, partly anyway, why the female characters of Frankenstein are such an insipid lot. With a few exceptions, they fall into two categories: virgins, who are all living angels, and mothers, who are all dead. The "selfless, boring nurturers and victims" [Johnson 7] that so irritate feminist critics pos- {350} sess another quality as well: sexual innocence. Women like Caroline Beaufort who have lost that innocence through bearing and bringing up children are noticeable in this narrative for their absence. We need to account for this striking distinction. Why should Shelley divide the feminine into living maidens and the dead matriarchs?

The symbolic converse of defilement is radical innocence -- in sexual terms, virginity. The living and innocent women who appear to serve as Shelley's feminine ideal are untainted by sexual contact. Elizabeth, Justine, Sophie, and Agatha all play the ethereal part of Ideal Woman. Yet none is sexually experienced; the first two take their spotlessness to the grave. Children of impure birth, they have not yet renewed that impurity. Their ideal status rests upon their sexual innocence. Ricoeur reminds us that an archaic symbolism identifies the virgin as the undefiled: "virginity and spotlessness are as closely bound together as sexuality and contamination" (29). Shelley's perfect women remain biologically immaculate. They are insipid because they are not really characters at all, but symbols of a life yet uncontaminated by materiality.

The word "innocent" appears so often to describe the unlucky Justine that it becomes a kind of praenomen, proof of her purity. And Elizabeth, from her first appearance as "a child fairer than pictured cherub" (235, 1831 edition) to her fatal exit as "the best hope and purest creature of the earth" (193), preserves her sexual innocence beyond even the event of her marriage. Both of these characters die before becoming mothers and bringing death into the world. Preservation of their purity depends upon its absolute negation. It is appropriate, then, that in each case the monster is the ultimate cause of death. In a kind of matter/anti-matter collision, the defiled kills the undefiled. The monster's intimation of his motives for murder is in this regard dim but suggestive. Arranging for Justine to be accused as a murderess, the monster makes this odd remark: "The crime had its source in her; be hers the punishment" (251, 1831 edition). As woman, Justine is metaphorically responsible for the monster's impurity and its murderous effects. As virgin, she is bodily pure enough to atone for the monster's defilement. Like Elizabeth after her, she becomes a sacrificial victim in a displaced rite of purification. Both die to atone for the impersonal crime of defilement. The monster's promise to be with Frankenstein on his wedding night {351} similarly augurs a ritual atonement for impurity. Elizabeth dies spotless, even after having undergone the sacrament of marriage, which works to legitimate sexual contact, contain its contamination. The insipid women of Shelley's novel serve less to exemplify an ideal of femininity than to advance a symbolism of defilement toward resolution in a displaced ritual of atonement.

But what about that other category of female character in Frankenstein, the mother, who with impressive celerity meets her death? This remarkable characteristic of Shelley's narrative has been noticed before, and explained as a symptom of Frankenstein's own need to perpetuate the death of the mother (and, indeed, of motherhood in general) in order to sustain his solipsistic and brutally masculine will to creative autonomy. Frankenstein thus becomes -- as male creator -- responsible for the deaths of all the mothers in the novel, soliciting the feminist conclusion that the masculine imagination, at least in Western tradition, is hostile to woman. Margaret Homans puts the point succinctly: "the novel is about the collision between androcentric and gynocentric theories of creation, a collision that results in the denigration of maternal childbearing through its circumvention by male creation."20 (113). While this reading remains true to the details of the narrative and uncovers a tension certainly present therein, it fails to consider the possibility that "maternal childbearing" is itself an ambiguous ideal. The more profound tension Shelley wrestles with arises out of seeing the mother simultaneously as bearer of life and breeder of death.22 Mothers in Frankenstein are categorically dead because their biological function is primordially defiled. Their precipitous demise thus reiterates the tragic paradox of material existence: that, in the words of William Blake, "life lives upon death."

Mary Shelley's own life as child and mother bore ample witness to this paradox. It has become almost obligatory for critics of Frankenstein to cite the long list of deaths that dogged the early life of its author: her mother Mary Wollstonecraft expiring eleven days after Mary's birth; her half-sister Fanny Imlay poisoning herself and referring obliquely in her suicide note to her illegitimacy; Percy's first wife Harriet Westbrook dying pregnant by another at the time of her suicide; and finally, Mary's first daughter passing quietly two weeks after her premature birth.22 All of these deaths implicate the mother by exaggerating the proximity of life's origin and end. I am not trying to suggest that {352} this biographical context accounts directly for the identification of death and motherhood in Frankenstein, but rather that it urges us to interrogate this fatal pattern for its psychological implications. What we will discover, I believe, is that Shelley represents motherhood as she does as much to evade its sinister imperatives as to criticize an androcentric theory of creation.

It is interesting to note in this regard that Shelley's revisions of her novel for republication in 1831 significantly enhance the role of Frankenstein's mother in the drama of his development. In the 1818 edition, Caroline Beaufort has no palpable existence as mother until Frankenstein mentions her in conjunction with Elizabeth, his intended bride: "I have often heard my mother say, that she was at that time the most beautiful child that she had ever seen" (29), a circumstance that "determined my mother to consider Elizabeth as my future wife" (29). Oddly, Frankenstein's mother, and not he himself, imagines her replacement as the object of his desire; no sooner does a "mother" emerge in this text than she is eclipsed by a "future wife." The mother has no real existence in the 1818 edition because her sexual fertility assures her own fatality. Shelley softens this dim view of motherhood in revision by extensively developing the character of Caroline Beaufort. And the result, as Mary Poovey has skillfully shown, is to transform the ideological bias of the novel; where Frankenstein's mother was previously absent, her emphatic presence now initiates a proto-Victorian celebration of domesticity.23

Beneath the surface of this revision in the interest of social norms, however, still lingers the tragic paradox of impure birth. For the rehabilitation of Caroline Beaufort has as its psychological correlative a denial of the biological function of maternity. In the famous introduction to the 1831 edition [Introduction 1] Shelley adds an account of the genesis of her novel that severely qualifies its effort to accommodate the social norm of the nurturing mother. The details of the account are familiar: Shelley's story comes to her in a dream, which as Homans deftly describes it, is "a dream moreover that is about the coming true of a dream" (112); Frankenstein, "the pale student of unhallowed arts" (228), realizes his lifelong ambition of animating dead matter. But we need to attend as closely to what this dream leaves out as to what it includes. For it ends with an encounter of uncanny implications. Frankenstein withdraws to rest, only to be disturbed a moment later: "He sleeps; but he is awakened; he opens his eyes; behold, {353} the horrid thing stands at his bedside, opening his curtains and looking on him with yellow, watery, but speculative eyes" (228). Surely Homans is right to read this scene as dramatizing the "conception" (109) of the book that Shelley herself describes with the phrase "my hideous progeny" (229).

But we must not overlook the implications of Shelley's implied identification with the sinister creator Frankenstein. If Shelley's dream is the original of Frankenstein's, then the fantasy it liberates is more hers than his. The terms of that fantasy, a creature returning to and innocently observing the site of its conception (for Frankenstein's bed is the symbolic equivalent of his "workshop of filthy creation" [1.3.6]), resemble nothing more than a primal scene -- with one major difference. Here there is no mother. Shelley's dream announces a fantasy of female independence from the biological fate of motherhood. This fantasy, origin of all that follows, conditions even Frankenstein's usurpation of creative power. The only psychological solution, it appears, to the paradox of impure birth is to deny female participation in the defilement of sexual contact. So although the monster's impurity originates sexually, Shelley's narrative manifests that origin only symbolically. A place and not a person bears the burden of female sexuality. Frankenstein's will to creative autonomy is underwritten by a fantasy of female exemption from the contagion of sexual contact. The monster's defilement is thus doubly onerous: not only has sexuality polluted his existence, but in his hideousness he lives alone; he has a face only a mother could love -- and, alas, he has no mother.

This absence of the mother appears, then, to be susceptible to a variety of explanations. It might be the result, as feminists conventionally argue, of Frankenstein's rage for creative autonomy. Or it might be, alternatively, symptomatic of a repression of the mother by Shelley herself.24 Could it be that Shelley's autonomy as a creator, as much as Victor Frankenstein's, depends upon the elision of motherhood from the creative enterprise? Feminist critics implicitly exonerate Shelley from such psychological tensions by reading her narrative as a cool intellectual critique of patriarchy, which at one level it emphatically is. But on another level it betrays an intense discomfort with the lot of the mother as origin of life given to death.25 Shelley represses this biological fate and substitutes for it the labors of artistic creation. Her "hideous progeny" [Introduction 12], a work of art, is not subject to death, as were her {354} children.26 Frankenstein lives today beyond all mortal touch. Repressing the mother allows Shelley to control the creative enterprise rather than be controlled by it. This evasion of biological fate is the condition of creative freedom, for as we have already seen, the monster turns destructive precisely because he cannot maintain such an evasion. Shelley published her novel anonymously in part to reinforce this repression; where once was a mother is now a nameless creator.

The presence of such a repression would be a difficult claim to sustain were it not that the mother reappears in Frankenstein in strange and sublimated ways. After the death of Caroline Beaufort, which in the 1818 edition occurs with remarkable swiftness, the mother's existence is wholly figural; she becomes a mere image of a vanished presence. Shelley somewhat diminishes this ghostliness in revision, but in the earliest published version of the narrative Caroline Beaufort remains primarily a figment of the imagination, a figuration of the maternal. Her first substantial appearance is a disappearance, the quick and fatal consequence of scarlet fever. She returns, however, as a figure that haunts Frankenstein's dreams and presides over his father's household. When Frankenstein comes home to Geneva after an absence of six years, having been recalled by the news of his brother William's death, the first thing he notices upon entering his father's house is a painting of his lost mother:

I gazed on the picture of my mother, which stood over the mantlepiece. It was a historical subject, painted at my father's desire, and represented Caroline Beaufort in an agony of despair, kneeling by the coffin of her dead father. Her garb was rustic and her cheek pale, but there was an air of dignity and beauty that hardly permitted the sentiment of pity. (73)
After her death, Frankenstein's mother persists in a purely figural existence.

The conventional feminist implications of this existence are clear enough: the fact that this picture was painted at the urging of a "father's desire" suggests that a woman's body has been appropriated to become an object for masculine idealizing. But Caroline Beaufort's is a macabre kind of beauty. This painting emphasizes, on a sublime scale, the proximity of the mother to death. If we approach it in psychological terms, as the figural effect of repression, then it suggests a resistance on Shelley's part to the tragic implications of motherhood. She cannot approach or present it directly because the mother is a fatal creator and her labors are tied to time. So she sublimates the mother, recreating {355} her on a heroic and ideal scale. The miniature of the dead William that hangs beneath his mother's sublime image only reinforces Shelley's point: motherhood creates a lineage of death that art recreates by idealizing. The apparent autonomy of the artist -- particularly the female artist -- comes for Shelley at the cost of repressing the mother, whose fatal influence is purged through an idealizing art.

Shelley thus controls the mother by recreating her in idealized, artistic terms, purifying her image from the defilement she originates. Nowhere is this idealizing function of art clearer than in the monster's encounter with another image of Caroline Beaufort. After murdering little William, the monster notices a miniature around the child's neck: "It was a portrait of a most lovely woman. In spite of my malignity, it softened and attracted me. For a few moments I gazed with delight on her dark eyes, fringed by deep lashes, and her lovely lips" (139). The ideal beauty of the mother's image both charms and enrages the monster, who senses a perpetual separation from it. This artistic idealization depends ultimately upon repressing the more fatal aspects of the mother, which emerge indirectly in the use to which the monster puts the miniature. For the image of Caroline Beaufort becomes the evidence that seals the fate of the innocent Justine. The figural mother returns to her foster child, and the fatal causality that links them reveals the repressed curse of impurity that artistic creation works to idealize.

Born free we are born fated, fettered to a dying animal. It is the ambition of Romantic art to loosen those mortal ties and liberate the human. Frankenstein is often read as an early and withering critique of Romantic idealism that unmasks its demoralizing effects.27 But in its repression of biological fate -- the fate of motherhood -- it participates in the very idealizing it seeks to discredit. Jerome McGann has taught us to be wary of all such idealizing: "The idea that poetry, or even consciousness, can set one free of the ruins of history and culture is the grand illusion of every Romantic poet."28 To the extent that Shelley looks to art to set her free from the ruins of motherhood she becomes the purveyor of a Romantic idealism.

But Shelley's will to creative autonomy, like Frankenstein's, cannot wholly escape the taint of mortality. By repressing the mother she too attempts a higher kind of creation than the merely biological. A fantasy of female independence from bio- {355} logical constraints thus supports her own artistic enterprise, just as it had her mother's "liberal feminism." A criticism that views Frankenstein as her "feminist novel" without examining its psychological investments and evasions remains blind to the a ambiguities of its ostensible polemic. For in it Shelley swerves not only away from the standard of her mother's Vindication but also from the fate of motherhood. In this she leaves herself open to her own complaint against her mother: that the facts of the body cannot be denied. Shelley's "feminism," if historically it can be so called, grows uneasily out of certain fundamental idealizings, even illusions, a situation she owns up to in her 1831 introduction. Describing why she feels so strongly about her "hideous progeny" Frankenstein she points explicitly to its idealism: "I have an affection for it, for it was the offspring of happy days, when death and grief were but words which found no true echo in my heart" (229). However sanguine this memory of the good old days with Percy, it suggests that, to Shelley's mind at least, Frankenstein remains in some essential way uninformed by the fact of mortality. Not the creator but the creature knows better the facts of life -- and of death: "Polluted by crimes and torn by the bitterest remorse, where can I find rest but in death?" (220). Not art but death alone resolves the tragic paradox of impure birth.


1. Anne K. Mellor, "Possessing Nature: The Female in Frankenstein," Romanticism and Feminism, ed. Anne K. Mellor (Indiana U. Press, 1988), p. 226. Mellor develops her argument in much greater detail in Mary Shelley: Her Life, Her Fiction, Her Monsters (New York: Routledge, 1989). Among feminist readings of Frankenstein the following deserve particular attention: Barbara Johnson, "My Monster, My Self," Diacritics 12 (1982): 2-10; Mary Jacobus, "Is There a Woman in this Text?" New Literary History 14 (1982): 117-39; Mary Poovey, The Proper Lady and the Woman Writer (U. of Chicago Press), chapter 4; Margaret Homans, Bearing the Word (U. of Chicago Press, 1986), chapter 4; Ellen Moers, "Female Gothic," in The Endurance of Frankenstein, George Levine and U. C. Knoepflmacher, eds. (U. of California Press, 1979), pp. 77-87; and of course Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, The Madwoman in the Attic (Princeton U. Press, 1979).

2. Fred V. Randel, "Frankenstein, Feminism, and the Intertextuality of Mountains," Studies in Romanticism 23 (1984): 515-32, 517.

3. Mary Shelley, The Journals of Mary Shelley, 1814-1844, ed. Paula R. Feldman and Diana Scott-Kilvert, 2 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1987) 2: 557. That Mary Shelley's political commitments were largely a personal matter is revealed in the sentence that follows the one quoted: "At every risk I have befriended and supported victims to the social system, but I do not make a boast" (emphasis mine).

4. For a survey of contemporary feminisms, see Alison M . Jagger, Feminist Politics and Human Nature (Lanham, Maryland: Rowman and Allanheld, 1983). Jagger divides contemporary feminism into four groups: Liberal, Marxist, socialist, and radical. Wollstonecraft's position is an early and definitive example of liberal feminism, which Jagger describes as follows: "the liberal feminist position seems to be that male and female natures are identical -- or to put it more accurately, that there is no such thing as male and female nature: there is only human nature and that has no sex" (37).

5. Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, ed. Carol H. Poston, 2nd ed. (New York: Norton, I988), p. 7. All further references will be to this edition.

6. William Veeder argues to the contrary that the women of Frankenstein are complex and interesting characters. But his analysis, though subtle, does not ring true to my own experience. See his detailed and perceptive discussion in chapter 6 of his Mary Shelley and Frankenstein: The Fate of Androgyny (U. Of Chicago Press, 1986).

7. The Letters of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, ed. Betty B. Bennett, 3 vols (Johns Hopkins U. Press, 1988), 2:246. The letter is dated 11 June 1835.

8. Mary Shelley, Frankenstein, ed. James Rieger (New York: Bobbs-Merrill 1974), p. 14. All further references will be to this edition.

9. For an especially astute discussion of these themes, see Mary Poovey, The Proper Lady and the Woman Writer, chapter 4.

10. Anne K. Mellor, for instance, argues cogently that Victor Frankenstein represents a patriarchal society that uses technologies of science and laws of the polis to manipulate, control, and repress women. See Mary Shelley: Her Life Her Fiction, Her Monsters, Chapter 5.

11 It is for this reason that I cannot conclude with Veeder that androgyny is a human ideal that Frankenstein, at its deepest, pursues. Androgyny may be a kind of ideal for Shelley personally, but over and over again her novel exposes its dubiousness.

12. Mellor is representative: "Mary Shelley, doubtless inspired by her mother's A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, specifically portrays the consequences of a social construction of gender which values men over women" (Mary Shelley, p. 115). Shelley might dispute the complete equality of gender implied by such a statement.

13. Paul Ricoeur, The Symbolism of Evil, trans. Emerson Buchanan (Boston: Beacon Press, 1967), p. 30.

14. Writes Ricoeur, "The invincible bond between Vengeance and defilement is anterior to any institution, any intention, any decree; it is so primitive that it is anterior even to the representation of an avenging god" (30). Julia Kristeva provides a frankly feminist discussion of defilement in Powers of Horror, trans. Leon S. Roudiez (Columbia U. Press, 1982). Kristeva's semiological method is of little use to us here, for it reduces defilement to a kind of containment strategy aimed at maintaining the differentiation of the subject and thus its confinement in the symbolic order. For an examination of defilement as a perceived breach of order, "matter out of place," see Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1966).

15. Ricoeur again: "the inventory of faults under the regime of defilement is vaster on the side of happenings in the world in the degree to which it is narrower on the side of the intentions of the agent" (27).

16. As Mellor reminds us (Mary Shelley, p. 62), it is Percy who suggested the word "abortion" to describe the monster. Mary Shelley clearly approved, since she never tampered with it; it is of a piece with the bodily orientation of her whole symbolism for the monster.

17. See Gilbert and Gubar, pp. 213-47. Gilbert and Gubar approach Frankenstein from a primarily intertextual perspective, interpreting it as an act of "bibliogenesis" in which Shelley confronts but cannot overcome her oppressive male precursors, in particular Milton.

18. John Milton, "Paradise Lost," Complete Poems and Major Prose, ed. Merritt Hughes (Indianapolis: Odyssey, 1967), 9. 1076; 10. 729. All references are to this edition.

19. Ricoeur yet again proves useful: "the world of defilement is a world anterior to the division between the ethical and the physical. Ethics is mingled with the physics of suffering, while suffering is surcharged with ethical meanings" (31).

20. Margaret Homans, Bearing the Word, p. 113.

21. In a searching study of motherhood in Frankenstein from a biographical perspective, U. C. Knoepflmacher notes that Shelley equates femininity with a passivity so extreme that it is best figured by the death of the mother. Knoepflmacher traces Shelley's ambivalence about the feminine back to her childhood lack of a maternal model, observing that "Frankenstein is a novel of omnipresent fathers and absent mothers." See "Thoughts on the Aggression of Daughters," in The Endurance of Frankenstein, pp. 88-119.

22. For a full and intelligent accounting of Mary Shelley's life and the many deaths surrounding it, see Emily W. Sunstein, Mary Shelley: Romance and Reality (Boston: Little, Brown, 1989).

23. See Poovey, pp. 137-42.

24. Marc A. Rubenstein approaches this position, but interprets the repression of the mother in purely biographical terms: "the exclusion of women from Frankenstein seems a direct rebuke of Mary Wollstonecraft." See "My Accursed Origin: the Search for the Mother in Frankenstein," Studies in Romanticism15 (1976): 165-94, 187.

25. Ellen Moers suggests that Frankenstein is "most interesting, most powerful and most feminine" in its presentation of "the motif of revulsion against newborn life, and the drama of guilt, dread, and flight surrounding birth and its consequences" (81). Moers does not, however, ponder the implication of this revulsion beyond the biographical. See "Female Gothic," The Endurance of Frankenstein, pp. 77-87.

26. Consider in this regard the strange dream Shelley recorded in her journal soon after the death of her firstborn: "Dream that my little baby came to life again -- that it had only been cold & that we rubbed it before the fire & it lived. Awake and find no baby" (Journals, 70) -- a sinister parody of Adam's dream in Milton's paradise.

27. See Paul Cantor, Creature and Creator: Mythmaking and English Romanticism (Cambridge U. Press, 1983), chapter 4.

28. Jerome McGann, The Romantic Ideology (U. of Chicago Press, 1983), p. 91.