Gender Relations in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein Essay

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Gender Relations in Frankenstein

In tracing the historical etymology of the word "monster," the Oxford English Dictionary offers a primary definition of something to be stared at or marveled over (from the same root as "demonstrate") but notes the second-most common use of the word is biological: "an animal or plant deviating in one or more of its parts from the normal type; an animal afflicted with some congenital malformation; a misshapen birth; an abortion." The O.E.D. cites Hoccleve in the early 1400s: "was it not eek a monstre as in nature that god i-bore was of a virgine?" To modern readers, there may be something almost comic in the idea of calling Jesus Christ a "monster" like the one created by Victor Frankenstein. But it is clear that, long before Mary Shelley wrote her famous novel about the "modern Prometheus" who creates his own monster, the very word "monster" had associations with childbirth. I would like to examine more closely the fifth chapter of Mary Shelley's novel -- in which Victor brings the monster to life -- in order to evaluate her own analysis of the issue of childbirth. This was demonstrably an intellectual concern of Mary Shelley that we may expect to see reflected in the text: her own mother Mary Wollstonecraft was one of the earliest writers to undertake a gender-based analysis of inequality, in the Vindication of the Rights of Woman, and we might rightly assume her mother's intellectual influence. But there is also a terrifying personal element to Shelley's narrative as well, which feminist analysis has helped to elucidate.

The fifth chapter of Frankenstein begins on the "dreary night of November" (Shelley 42) when Victor Frankenstein famously brings his monster to life. Frankenstein has been presented as a natural scientist, and Shelley based her depiction of his researches on Galvani's demonstration that electricity could cause the muscles in the leg of a dead frog to twitch and contract. Yet Frankenstein is as far away from the modern nexus of rationality and impersonality that adheres to disinterested scientific pursuit: he is undergoing an "anxiety that almost amounted to agony" (Shelley 42), and he dwells on the tremendous effort that has gone in to his task: Victor calls it "the accomplishment of my toils" (Shelley 42) and two paragraphs later tells us that he had "worked hard for nearly two years, for the sole purpose of infusing life into an inamite body. For this I had deprived myself of rest and health" (Shelley 42). I do not think it far-fetched to hear, in Victor's references to "toils" and the two-year period in which he "worked hard," a hint of the word, or concept, of "labor" -- still used to describe both heroic effort and the simple biological process of childbirth. Frankenstein even gives the protracted timeframe of his parturition -- this fantastical masculine approximation of childbirth is bound to take longer than the customary nine months -- but it is his emotional volatility which is most remarkable in the opening paragraphs, and pervades the climax of the chapter's opening, the description of the re-animation itself:

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… (Shelley 42)

The moment of scientific achievement is ruined by the scientist's own human emotion: he fails to love his creation, and this moment sets into motion the rest of Shelley's plot.

Frankenstein was published initially in 1818 without its author's name on the titlepage, so there may have been no immediate impetus to think of childbirth in these moments. Yet Barbara Johnson was one of the first to offer a wide-ranging feminist reading of Shelley's novel in which

It is only recently that critics have begun to see Victor Frankenstein's disgust at the sight of his creation as a study of postpartum depression, as a representation of maternal rejection of a newborn infant, and to relate the entire novel to Mary Shelley's mixed feelings about motherhood. Having lived through an unwanted pregnancy from a man married to someone else only to see that baby die, followed by a second baby named William -- which is the name of the monster's first murder victim -- Mary Shelley, at the age of only eighteen, must have had excruciatingly divided emotions. Her own mother, indeed, had died upon giving birth to her. (Johnson, 149)

The level of autobiographical content in this chapter, as Johnson indicates, is pretty overwhelming -- and may have been one of the numerous reasons why Shelley's novel was first published anonymously. Yet Johnson's emphasis is more on the transgressiveness of Shelley's imagination here, toying with "the idea that a mother can loathe, fear and reject her baby" (Johnson, 149-50). Johnson is keen to draw out the way in which Shelley's subjective experiences as a woman are encoded into Victor's story. But I think this ignores the conscious art with which Shelley frames the issue: she quite clearly intends us to see this as a fantasy of male childbirth. We need no recourse to Freud in order to note that Victor's rejection of the creature is followed by troubling dreams: at first he sees his fiancee Elizabeth, kisses 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 that I held the corpse of my dead mother in my arms" (Shelley 43).

This would seem to indicate an issue that Johnson does not raise in her reading of Frankenstein -- concerned with feminist psychology, Johnson neglects a historicist approach that would have expanded our view of the novel's depiction of childbirth. The simple fact is that -- although Mary Shelley had indeed written the novel shortly after giving birth twice, only to see the first of these babies die in the crib -- for Mary Shelley an interest in infant mortality must have taken a backseat to the larger issue of women dying in childbirth. It might be fascinating to read Frankenstein in light of one of the great cautionary tales from the history of medical science, the story of Dr. Ignatz Semelweis (born in the year of Frankenstein's publication, in 1818). Semelweis was appalled at how commonplace death in maternity hospitals had become and suggested that the most common (and deadly ) infection was iatrogenic, transmitted by doctors from patient to patient: Semelweis was roundly mocked for the suggestion that the medical profession might have anything to do with making childbirth a worse experience for women, and his battle with the medical establishment over the issue led him to mental breakdown and death in total obscurity (only to be celebrated long after -- once the germ theory of disease had rekindled interest in his story -- as a pioneer of women's health). If infant mortality was vastly more common in 1818 than it is in today's western industrialized nations, the more terrifying prospect of the mother's death in childbirth was likewise more common, and had happened to Mary Wollstonecraft in giving birth to the author of Frankenstein. Clerval identifies Victor as ill when he sees him after the creature has run off: "I did not remark before how ill you appear; so thin and pale" (Shelley 45) which suggests that the creation of the monster did indeed take a tremendous physical toll on his own well-being. Victor admits this later in the chapter: "I was in reality very ill" (Shelley 47). But his illness seems as much nervous as physical, and it is astonishing to see Victor lapse into -- for want of a better word -- outright hysteria, hallucinating the monster's presence and crying out to Clerval "Oh, save me! Save me" (Shelley 46).

Victor may be hubristically Promethean in his attempt to wrest away the ability to give birth from women -- but are we really meant to see his efforts here as somehow insulting to women? If a technological means of producing children had been available in 1818, the chief reason for preferring it to the natural method would be the appalling likelihood that pregnancy could mean death for the mother. This may be one reason why Shelley's chapter is so haunted by images of death-in-life: "A mummy again endued with animation could not be so hideous as that wretch" (Shelley 43).

Barbara Johnson notes the "unexpectedly pervasive" ways in which Frankenstein is constantly likening Shelley's creation of the novel to Victor's creation of the monster, and she herself would refer to the book as "my hideous progeny" (Johnson 150). To a certain degree both Shelley and Victor transgress across gender lines to create: Johnson notes that "it would be tempting…to conclude that Mary Shelley & #8230;.should have fictively transposed her own frustrated female pen envy into a tale of catastrophic male…[continue]

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