Feminism and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein

On Frankenstein, with reference to feminist critique.

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein has particular interest in relation to feminist theory, firstly it is of course written by a female and the daughter of the seminal feminist writer Mary Wollstonecraft; author of ‘A Vindication Of The Rights Of Woman.’ Secondly when we understand the background to Mary Shelley’s life with the poet Percy Shelley we can begin to unravel the plethora of feminine issues that Mary Shelley’s existence must have encompassed; the creation of life, mortality, the sharing of relationships, emotional neglect,guilt, male arrogance, accountability, sacrifice and consequence. All of these points feature in Frankenstein, which can draw us to the conclusion that Mary Shelley was making some valid comments on the nature of man through the character of Victor Frankenstein and her fictional narrative. Mary’s experiences as the lover and wife of Percy Shelley are all important in understanding the feminist issues that play a part in the story of Frankenstein;

“For this I had deprived my self of rest and health. 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…”

One of the interesting and most female aspects and indeed I feel the very spirit of the book; is the creation of life but what interests me is not in fact the creation but the question of responsibility; the action and the consequence. Victor Frankenstein is able selfishly to throw himself into the work of creating a “human being” but he does this to satisfy his own “scientific” needs, he gives little thought to what will happen when his “creation” is born, there is no urge on the part of Victor to “prepare the nest.” In this way he is not an adequate parent, or indeed “Mother” and we feel here that during the gestation of “the creature” Victor’s thoughts are on personal glorification for discovering “a secret” his dreams are not of nurturing the form he creates, but taking credit for his “scientific mastery” I use the term mastery, because this want to create is intrinsically a dominating male impulse in Victor, nowhere are the signs of femininity that are equated with “creation”. Victor is a spoilt child building “a toy” for himself, or indeed a spoilt Father who only wants a son to perpetuate his own needs, he never considers “the offspring” only in personal reference to himself and his mental images of the gratitude he will receive;

“A new species would bless me as its creator and source; many happy and excellent natures would owe their being to me. No father could claim the gratitude of his child so completely as I should deserve theirs.”

Here we see Victor already beginning to drown in his own self-indulgence, and his images of parental grandeur. We wonder if the act of unnatural scientific creation would have been different had it been implemented by a woman? It is an innately male impulse of Victor Frankenstein’s’ to create the “super human” much like the Nazi’s over a century later and their dream of the super-race and although Victor tells us “Darkness had no effect upon my fancy.” Much in the same way the Nazi’s believed their beliefs to be pure. Again this is testament to male arrogance/domination and the use of a vision to excuse actions.

Victor is not merely constructing a being of proportionate measures, but something above and beyond “maleness” he creates a “super – man” a being ‘eight foot in height, and proportionably large.’ Again and again we can see the issue of male arrogance/responsibility/accountability playing a key role in Frankenstein. For doesn’t Victor’s dogged arrogance kill the innocent? One can in this way construct a feminist view where important parallels can be made between the fictional character of Victor Frankenstein and the lover and husband of the author Mary Shelley. For in the same way that innocence is murdered and indeed so are all the female characters in the story, by the “monster ” created by Victor Frankenstein’s immovable beliefs, so is Mary Shelley’s innocence lost in the realms of Percy Shelley; his genius, his arrogance, his beliefs, his insensitivity, his circle of friends, his absences and of course his love;

“It is a general truth that from the moment one mind is penetrated by the influence of another, it”s own native power over other minds has gone, and for ever. And Mary parted with the power at sixteen, before she knew she was to have it.” (Mrs Julian Marshall 1889 Life and Letters of Mary Shelley’

This is not to say that Mary Shelley was an naive captive to Percy, she was an intelligent willing disciple, but she was also a sixteen-year-old girl who fell deeply in love; a love that was frowned upon by friends and indeed Mary’s own father William Godwin.

Indeed Frankenstein is full of feminist issues that have particular reference to Mary Shelley’s life, for instance when we look at the treatment of the female characters in the book we can only wonder at what Shelley was trying to convey, there are three main female characters in Frankenstein, the Mother, Elizabeth and Justine, all three characters are killed off by Mary Shelley; the Mother dies (as did Mary’s own Mother) and both Elizabeth and Justine are killed by the monster. In Shelley’s description of the two women, her treatment is reminiscent of Mary Wollstonecraft’s writing’s on what quite definitely a women should not be;

‘She was docile and good…I loved to tend on her, as I should on a favourite animal…She was continually endeavouring to contribute to the happiness of others, entirely forgetful of herself’

Elizabeth’s character is submissive and subjugated, she has nothing else other than Victor and his family, she is not educated in the same way that Victor is, or even Clervill who learns languages, Elizabeth remains at home while Victor pursues his education, and is expected to wait for him in reserved obedience. We can see the shadows of autobiography slipping into the text, as it was a bitter pill that Mary Shelley’s two brothers and indeed her sister Jane Clairmont were educated at boarding schools whereas Mary’s education was minimal and I feel, a little forgotten by her emotionally errant father William Godwin. “Jane might be well educated…but Mary could stay at home and mend the Stockings.” Justine is also given the same kind of description, she is spoken of as being “the most grateful little creature in the world”

Is Shelley mocking this type of woman? Is she mocking herself? Is she promoting emancipation from the bonds of the “waiting female” is she saying that if one does not free oneself emotional death is the outcome? For indeed we know that her mother Mary Wollstonecraft did not agree with belief of “the docile creature” as the vision of womanhood;

“…when he tells us that women are formed for softness and sweet attractive grace, I cannot comprehend this meaning, unless…he meant to deprive us of souls, and insinuate we were beings only designed by sweet attractive grace, and docile blind obedience…How grossly do they insult us who thus advise us only to render ourselves gentle, domestic brutes!”

So then to the question as to the reason why Mary Shelley wrote these two female characters into the novel, is she making a feminist comment about a certain type of female and this is why she sacrifices them to Frankenstein/the creature? Is she making a valid comment about the death of femininity through a dominating male presence? For no-where in the book is there a strong female character, Elizabeth’s strengths are only seen in her capacity to assist others mainly Frankenstein and his family. Is this book a testament to male domination and the slaughter of innocents at the hands of male arrogance?

For are not all of the innocents murdered, even the Monsters innocence is sacrificed at the hands of Victor Frankenstein’s lack of care for the being he has created, Victor just isn’t there for the creature, much in the same way that perhaps William Godwin and indeed Percy Shelley’s absences and insensitivity had an effect on the young Mary Shelley.

“It seemed sometimes that he had an extraordinary and fatal capacity

for wrecking the lives and happiness of his family by pandering to some mad impulse which he, and only he, decided was the right course to pursue.”

This quote is very reminiscent of Victor Frankenstein and his insatiable appetite for acquiring the secret of life at all costs and in the end his vision costs him all of his loved ones and indeed his own life. This previous quote is in reference to Percy Shelley’s behaviour concerning the transporting of his ill daughter Clara across Italy, Clara was already ill, and Shelley’s insistence on travel proved to be the fatal blow for his daughter, Clara died on the 24th of September 1818 in the same year that Frankenstein was published. We do not know if Mary blamed him for the death of Clara, but one cannot help to see the same selfish parallels in Victor Frankenstein and Percy Shelley.

Since 1814 Mary Godwin/Shelley had been in the hands of Percy Shelley and his “vision” of free love, a new human race enlightened by knowledge and the rejection of God, he dreamed of living in a free community, free from the bondage of marriage, his views were seen as radical and monstrous by some but it was “his vision” gleaned from the ‘literary life’ that he immersed himself in;

‘His literary life consisted of ransacking books…to find hints and suggestions that pointed towards the nature of supposed “reality”…These fragments were then used in conjunction with his own imagination to aide him in the representation of an unknown future. Mary was soon to describe Victor Frankenstein constructing his creature in a similar way, stitching it together from bits and pieces, from stray fragments.’

So Mary Shelley lived with Percy’s vision, she shared her marriage with other women and indeed other men, Shelley encouraged Mary to engage in sexual partnership with Thomas Jefferson Hogg; which Mary only then seemed to do because of the lack of emotional support from her husband and his fascination with Claire Clairmont. Mary trekked across Europe, followed Shelley blindly, lived in poverty and estrangement from her father who she loved again somewhat blindly. Mary Shelley’s story is of female sacrifice, Percy Shelley’s story is that of selfishness and arrogance, he is the proverbial spoilt child, he forever was “getting his own way”.

Mary Shelley’s fictional writing of Frankenstein seems to be steeped in autobiography; this makes her life all-important in a feminist reading of her work. If we look at the concept of Frankenstein and his creature being one and the same and both being a metaphor for male dominance we can consider that femininity is the main victim of arrogance in the pursuit of “a vision.”

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3 Comments
  1. Posted December 14, 2008 at 10:24 am

    It is so good to see some serious literary essays on Bookstove. Thank you for a wonderfully written article. As a man I find I cannot disagree with your appraisal of Doctor Frankenstein!

  2. Drea
    Posted September 5, 2009 at 9:59 am

    very insightful and I like how you present the ideas in the novel

  3. nan
    Posted November 25, 2010 at 5:46 pm

    who can summary it

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