Dead and Never Called Me Mother Feminist Gender Performativity in 19th Century English Novels Essay

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Gender and the 19th c English novel

The question of gender in the nineteenth century English novel is complicated by consideration of more recent late twentieth century theorizing about gender. In particular, Judith Butler's highly influential notion of "gender performativity" suggests that gender is, in itself, nothing more than a sort of act. However this becomes an interesting angle to approach the works of creative artists, as a female novelist will quite naturally imagine her way into all sorts of characters who are not necessarily female: although much has been made, for example, of Jane Austen's modest refusal in her fiction to imagine or depict the conversations of men without a lady present, it is noteworthy that in many other female novelists of the nineteenth century, the willingness to imagine different persons is, in many ways, the readiest way to approach the subject of gender metaphorically.

Mary Shelley's Frankenstein offers a convenient place to begin. Certainly no-one would suspect Shelley of an ignorance of what would pass for feminist sentiment in 1818, the year of Frankenstein's publication: Shelley's mother was, after all, Mary Wollstonecraft, author of the Vindication of the Rights of Women, perhaps the clearest critique of the status of women to emerge from the late Enlightenment. Yet Frankenstein is not a novel that presents a broad variety of female characters: while willing to ventriloquize the voices of a number of male protagonists (the captain, Walton, who narrates the frame-story; then Victor Frankenstein; then even the monster himself in the inset narrative of Chapters 11 and following) Shelley places the novel's only noteworthy female character in a subsidiary role. She is there mostly to provide the monster's instrument of vengeance against his creator. But this superficial unconcern with female subjectivity on Shelley's part should not be taken as a sign of disinterest in gender as a subject. In point of fact, the real subject of Frankenstein would appear to be the novel's fantasy of male childbirth. If it is astonishing to the reader in 2014 to think that Frankenstein was written by a nineteen-year-old woman, it is perhaps even more astonishing to think that, by nineteen, Mary Shelley had already given birth twice -- with the first child dying after a few weeks, inducing severe postpartum depression in the mother. It is worth recalling that childbirth is regarded by Simone de Beauvoir as the most basic fact upon which patriarchal power structures are built:

Fecundation can occur without any pleasure being felt by the woman. But fecundation by no means represents for her the completion of the sexual process; on the contrary, her service to the species only begins at this point: it is fulfilled slowly and painfully, in pregnancy, childbirth, and lactation. 'Anatomic destiny' is thus profoundly different in man and woman, and no less different is their moral and social situation. Patriarchal civilization dedicated women to chastity; it recognized more or less openly the right of the male to sexual freedom, while woman was restricted to marriage. (De Beauvoir, 374).

Consequently Frankenstein's insistent focus on its male characters -- all of whom are involved in the process of bringing a new life into the world (whether as creator or created) -- seems less an evasion of feminist concerns, and more an attempt to force a prospective male readership into consideration of their implications. This becomes apparent in the scene relatively early in the narrative where Frankenstein finally succeeds in bringing his creature to life. Victor tells us that he "had worked hard for nearly two years, for the sole purpose of infusing life into an inanimate body" -- this would seem to be about the amount of time the nineteen-year-old Shelley had spent pregnant (Shelley, V). Yet what is most fascinating about Victor Frankenstein is the emotional journey that he undergoes: "I had desired it with an ardour that far exceeded moderation; but now that I had finished, the beauty of the dream vanished, and breathless horror and disgust filled my heart. Unable to endure the aspect of the being I had created, I rushed out of the room and continued a long time traversing my bed-chamber, unable to compose my mind to sleep" (Shelley, V). In other words, success in his endeavor leads only to a sensation of horror, followed by a bizarre nightmare in which his fiancee transforms into his dead mother's corpse, whereupon he is awakened by the monster and abandons it in disgust. This central rejection -- and the consequent revenge taken upon Frankenstein by the monster -- seems like Mary Shelley's conscious attempt to force male subjectivities to try on (somewhat performatively) the experience of motherhood.

If Butler's notion of the performativity of gender might suggest one way in which Shelley's male-centered story is still being used to express central feminist concerns, it is worth noting that the female subjectivities depicted in other nineteenth century English novels frequently have an element of performativity to them as well. Perhaps one of the most famous examples comes from Wuthering Heights, where Catherine's famous expression of her love for Heathcliff is expressed in terms of pure identification:

My great miseries in this world have been Heathcliff's miseries, and I watched and felt each from the beginning: my great thought in living is himself. If all else perished, and he remained, I should still continue to be; and if all else remained, and he were annihilated, the universe would turn to a mighty stranger: I should not seem a part of it. -- My love for Linton is like the foliage in the woods: time will change it, I'm well aware, as winter changes the trees. My love for Heathcliff resembles the eternal rocks beneath: a source of little visible delight, but necessary. Nelly, I am Heathcliff! He's always, always in my mind: not as a pleasure, any more than I am always a pleasure to myself, but as my own being. So don't talk of our separation again… (Emily Bronte, IX)

In this sense, the identity of the female protagonist is not dependent upon that of the central male figure, but instead extends to a quality of identification. It is worth noting that this identification also crucially incorporates the non-human natural world -- everything which is not culturally determined. Basch notes that Catherine's statement is not hyperbolic, as indeed the logic of the novel demonstrates that "by denying momentarily within herself her passion for Heathcliff, by abandoning him and Nature, of which she is an organic part, Cathy brings about her own destruction" (Basch 91). Likewise the central relationship in Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre ultimately seems to rest upon a sort of reversal of expected gender roles: the revenge had upon Rochester by his mad wife leaves him physically "helpless" in a way that puts him at the mercy of the young governess he once had dominated:

"It was all his own courage, and a body may say, his kindness, in a way, ma'am: he wouldn't leave the house till every one else was out before him. As he came down the great staircase at last, after Mrs. Rochester had flung herself from the battlements, there was a great crash -- all fell. He was taken out from under the ruins, alive, but sadly hurt: a beam had fallen in such a way as to protect him partly; but one eye was knocked out, and one hand so crushed that Mr. Carter, the surgeon, had to amputate it directly. The other eye inflamed: he lost the sight of that also. He is now helpless, indeed -- blind and a cripple." (Charlotte Bronte, XXXVI)

What is interesting here is the question of whether or not the suppressed energies of the women in the novel are actually, in some way, exacting a sort of revenge upon the central male figure here. It is worth noting that the dynamic is not unlike the one expressed by Butler in Gender Trouble, where, discussing Joan Riviere's notion of womanliness as a "masquerade" Butler notes that "femininity is taken on by a woman who 'wishes for masculinity,' but fears the retributive consequences of taking on the public appearance of masculinity…The woman takes on a masquerade knowingly in order to conceal her masculinity from the masculine audience she wants to castrate…the woman who 'wishes for masculinity' is homosexual only in terms of sustaining a masculine identification, but not in terms of a sexual orientation or desire." (Butler 70). Of course Charlotte Bronte notoriously manages to elide the actual motivations of the "madwoman in the attic," leaving the set-up open to obvious feminist interpretation by Gilbert and Gubar (who use Rochester's mad wife as a symbol for what patriarchal culture was doing to women in the nineteenth century).

However Gilbert and Gubar themselves note something else about the construction of these central characters -- Frankenstein's Monster, Jane Eyre, and Heathcliff -- insofar as they are given radically curtailed past histories, which Gilbert and Gubar interpret in light of a feminist concern with motherhood:…[continue]

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