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Mary Shelley's Frankenstein
Bakhtin distinguished the literary form of the novel as distinct from other genres because of its rendering of the dynamic present, not in a separate and unitary literary language, but in the competing and often cosmic discord of actual and multiple voices, thus making contact with contemporary reality in all its openendedness (Bender et.al., p. x). Bakhtin's definition of the novel is important because it serves to illuminate the reason why Mary Shelley's Frankenstein has come to be regarded as connecting important, but widely disparate, elements of nineteenth century culture in Victorian England (Fisch et.al., p. 186). With many apparently conflicting themes such as the domestic ideology of the bourgeoisie family and parenting on the one hand, with fear of pregnancy, childbirth and forbidden emotions ranging from the desire to play God and incest on the other, Shelley's Frankenstein is often seen as a complex mosaic, which lends itself to varying interpretations. A closer look at the pieces within the mosaic, however, reveals a common thread that questions the prevailing assumptions of gender roles in culture. One possible resolution, therefore, to the seemingly conflicting themes in Shelley's work lies in analyzing the disparate, often contradictory elements from a single, contextual framework of the male dominated, patriarchal culture in existence during the time. Given the aforesaid hypothesis, it is the objective of this paper to explore whether the adoption of such a contextual framework will help to clarify the divisions in Shelley's work between conformist and challenging views of gender balanced roles both in society as well as within the make-up of the individual personality.
The existence of a patriarchal culture during Mary Shelley's lifetime has been well established in a wide body of work in the fields of sociology, cultural studies, and literature. The study of such works helps understand the historical antecedents of a patriarchal culture and the forces in operation during the time of Shelley's writing Frankenstein. Masculinity and femininity has, over generations, been defined and shaped by men through the medium of patriarchal culture. Further, the beginning of the nineteenth century and the Industrial Revolution accelerated the masculinization of culture due to the exponential increase in the production of knowledge by men and the multiplication of cultural codes and languages written in male script (Aker & Morrow, p. 25). Though the nineteenth century was actually a period of great progress in basic human rights, the seeds of which were sown in the late eighteenth century, it still remained a patriarchal culture: "Paine's stress on individual rights...drew on the classical tradition of Locke.... But Locke's concept of the individual agent never extended beyond men...further reinforced the differences between men and women by arguing that within the family men would inevitably carry greater authority." (Shiach, p. 187)
The prevalent social culture that valued the bourgeoisie family as the correct environment for the 'proper lady,' (Fisch et.al., p. 221) explains Shelley's vision of the idealized De Lacey and the Frankenstein families. In particular, attention needs to be paid to her characterization of three women formed on the idealized model of the times. Caroline Beaufort, Elizabeth Lavenza, and Justine Moritz; all display the stereotypical traits of the domesticated woman, totally dependent on the patriarchal family structure. The dependence is especially marked in Caroline Beaufort and Elizabeth Lavenza who perceive Alphonse Frankenstein as their rescuer from a life otherwise destined for poverty and hardship. The portrayal of such devotion has, in fact, been interpreted by feminist critics of female authored fiction as symptomatic of the triumph of patriarchal domestic ideology: "Basing their conclusions primarily upon conduct books and religious tracts... including Addison and Steele's Spectator, they have eloquently argued that women writers of the Romantic era were either forced to accommodate...indirectly subvert, or gain power wholly within a cultural construction of the proper lady as a modest, domesticated woman...." (Bender et.al., p. 328)
Shelley's depiction of the typical Victorian heroine was not, however, solely due to the cultural preferences of her time, but also because she seems to have truly believed in the ideal family as holding the key to human kind's salvation. Right through the reading of Frankenstein, Shelley espouses the importance of loving parents in the development and nurturing of children. This is apparent in the abandoned offspring of Victor Frankenstein longing for human affection and acceptance, and turning vicious only after he is repeatedly rejected: "The novel thereby argues that a battered, rejected child becomes a battering, abusive parent." (Bender et.al., p. 346-347)
Implicit in Shelley's story is the message that humanity needs to develop the feminine qualities of empathy and caring, both at home and in the pursuit of knowledge and power. Indeed, this view is explicated in Victor's advice to Walton, "...if no man allowed any pursuit whatsoever to interfere with the tranquility of his domestic affections, Greece had not been enslaved...the empires of Mexico and Peru had not been destroyed." (Shelley, p. 48)
Given Shelley's emphasis on the need for loving parents and the nurturing of similar domestic affections even in the pursuit of affairs in the outside world, it is apparent that Shelley was arguing in favor of viewing feminine emotions in a positive light. As Anne Mellor points out, Mary Shelley along with Jane Austen, Maria Edgeworth, Charlotte Smith, Susan Ferrier, Helen Maria Williams, and Felicia Hemans, advocated a revolution in 'female manners,' by emphasizing the rationality of women, by celebrating community, by conceiving of nature as an ally, by preferring gradual and evolutionary reform, and by espousing an ethic of care rather than an ethic of individual justice (Fisch et.al., p. 8).
Shelley's advocating of nature as an ally needs to be seen not just in the light of the consequences of Victor's attempt to produce life without the help of a woman's womb, but equally as an impassioned plea to recognize feminine traits in both women and men as a fact of nature and not as a weakness to be conquered. The sensibilities of the prevailing patriarchal culture did not allow Shelley to undertake any overt exploration of a woman's very real and natural fear of pregnancy and childbirth. The refusal of a culture to entertain such emotions is evident in Godwin's letters to Shelley; post the loss of her baby. The disdain of the nineteenth century culture for intense emotion associated with the female sex resulted in a great deal of emphasis on emotional restraint and control, a fact highlighted by Godwin's admonishing the grieving mother: "...lowering your character...putting you quite among the commonality and mob of your sex." (Hobbs, 1993) gothic novel, however, offered the ideal vehicle for Shelley to indirectly express such emotions, which she did admirably through the relationship between Victor Frankenstein and the monster he gave birth to. In fact, Shelley hints at her intention to explore emotions considered too delicate to otherwise discuss in the preface to Frankenstein, when she declares that she intended to use the novelty of strange and supernatural terrors to drive home a 'commanding' point-of-view on human passions, which the mere narration of ordinary relations within the context of a familiar world would not allow (Shelley, p. 5).
True, the human passions she refers too could be delineated as several things, including the disastrous consequences of man trying to play 'God' through subverting the natural process of creation, incest or the suppression by man of the feminine side to his nature. However, while the preceding human issues are also significant in Frankenstein, there is ample evidence in the novel and Shelley's biography to believe that she very much intended to table a woman's very real fear of pregnancy as well as the trauma of after birth. After all, she admits to setting out to think a story that would "...speak to the mysterious fears of our nature..." In the introduction she wrote to Frankenstein (Shelley, 9).
The mysterious fears referred to by Shelley could only be based on her own life experiences. At the time of her writing Frankenstein, the death of two of Shelley's children had taken its toll and created an understandable fear of pregnancy as well as after birth. Shelley embodies these fears in Victor's emotions as he goes about the process of creating life through laboring on the animation of the body parts of corpses: "...my enthusiasm was checked by my anxiety.... Every night I was oppressed by a slow fever, and I became nervous to almost a painful degree...my labors would soon end, and I believed that exercise and amusement would then drive away incipient disease...promised myself both of these when my creation should be complete." (Shelley, p. 48) An examination of the language here reflects a close parallel with a pregnant woman's emotions: anxiety for the child and one's own well being; distress over the changes in the body; discomfort; resentment over the constraints placed on a normal life; and the fear of the pain of labor. One clear inference that can, therefore, be drawn from Shelley's depiction of a male creator going…[continue]
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