I finally read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, considered one of the greatest horror stories ever written, not only for its gothic style, but for its chilling depiction of what comes from ambition in overdrive and the absence of compassion. It’s uncanny that a horror story such as this, when closely examined, reads more like an instruction book for life, a cautionary tale about how not to behave if you’re seeking a fulfilling existence amongst the living.
Mary Shelley was twenty years old when her novel Frankenstein was published, first anonymously, but five years later re-released with her name as author. She was eighteen when she began writing this ghost story, part of a contest between good friends.
Many ask how a person so young could write such a powerful piece, but Shelley’s own life reads like a gothic tale. Although young in years when she penned Frankenstein, she was all too familiar with traumatic life experiences.
When Shelley wrote Frankenstein, she did so with the very fiber of her being and beyond, encapsulating the social, ethical and political issues of her time, our time, all time. Such is the work of a genius.
In her introduction to the third edition of the book in 1831, Mary Shelley describes the particular dream that provided the basis for her story:
“When I placed my head on my pillow, I did not sleep, nor could I be said to think. My imagination, unbidden, possessed and guided me, gifting the successive images that arose in my mind with a vividness far beyond the usual bounds of reverie. I saw – with shut eyes, but acute mental vision, – I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half vital motion. Frightful must it be; for supremely frightful would be the effect of any human endeavor to mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world”(172).
So a story is born, the outcome of eighteen remarkable years lived and a dream so terrifying, it could never be forgotten. These are the ingredients of the timeless Frankenstein, the story of a brilliant, ambitious scientist, Victor Frankenstein, and his desire to create life, a creation he hopes will bring him much recognition and power. On a rainy November night, he is successful; the creature on the table comes to life.
Dr. Anne K. Mellor, a leading scholar of Mary Shelley and her works, reveals the many ways Frankenstein is a feminist novel. I appreciate the work of Kellor and other Shelley scholars, since the feminist perspective in Frankenstein, for me, is not so obvious, but after guided consideration, cannot be missed.
(Since I will mention only a fraction of Kellor’s compelling points, I’ll mention a video of a presentation she delivered at Arizona State University, Mothering Monsters: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Rd-eKRRQzcQ, as well point out that she’s written many books and essays on Mary Shelley.)
In her essay Possessing Nature: The Female in Frankenstein, Kellor points out that, “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 that values the male above the female”(274).
And these ugly consequences are what Frankenstein is all about.
The “rigid division of sex roles: the male inhabits the public sphere, the female is relegated to the private or domestic sphere…hence intellectual activity is segregated from emotional activity”(Kellor 275), spurns two monsters, Victor Frankenstein and his creature.
Victor Frankenstein, sent to study science at a distant university, separated from affection and collaboration with others, becomes wildly obsessed with egoistic ambition, and unable to feel any compassion, ultimately rejects his creation, a creature who craves what we all do, acceptance and love.
“Shelley’s attack on the social injustice of established political systems is the suggestion that the separation from the public realm of feminine affections and compassion has caused much of this social evil”(Kellor 276). When I consider the truth in this interpretative statement, I indeed shudder.
Kellor points out that Shelley makes a point to spotlight another reality “by portraying an alternative social organization in the novel: The De Lacy family…a vision of a social group based on justice, equality, and mutual affection”(276-277).
The ostracized creature observes the De Lacy family from a distance, longing to be a part of this healthy unit. Deeply moved by this alternative way of being, the creature describes what he sees:
“He [father] raised her [daughter], and smiled with such kindness and affection, that I felt sensations of a peculiar and overpowering nature: they were a mixture of pain and pleasure, such as I had never before experienced, either from hunger or cold, warmth or food; and I withdrew from the window, unable to bear these emotions.
“Soon after this the young man [brother] returned, bearing on his shoulders a load of wood. The girl met him at the door, helped to relieve him of his burden, and, taking some of the fuel into the cottage, placed it on the fire,”(72).
The creature’s observation of the De Lacy family continues for pages, emphasizing the collaborative way the sexes could work together, a more equally valued and balanced way of relating.
When scientist Victor Frankenstein abdicates all ‘parental’ care and abandons his creation, he creates something truly horrid. The creature laments to Frankenstein, “I was benevolent and good; misery made me a fiend”(66).
The creature persuades Frankenstein to create a female mate for him because he is so miserably isolated and lonely. Frankenstein originally agrees to this, calculating that the creature will then leave him alone, but changes his mind when he fears that perhaps the creature will not be able to control his female mate and then Frankenstein realizes he may not be able to control her either!
Kellor postulates, “What does Frankenstein truly fear, which causes him to end this creation of a female? First, he is afraid of an independent female will, afraid his female creature will have desires and opinions that cannot be controlled by his male creature”(279).
So Frankenstein violently destroys what he has created as the female thus far, eliminating the possibility of a female who may be too powerful, unable to be controlled.
This desire to control extends beyond the female form: “I pursued nature to her hiding places,”(274) says Victor Frankenstein.
It is clear, say Kellor, that “at every level Victor Frankenstein is engaged upon a rape of nature, a violent penetration and usurpation of the female’s “hiding places,” of the womb. Terrified of female sexuality and the power of human reproduction it enables, both he and the patriarchal society he represents use the technologies of science and the laws of the polis to manipulate, control, and repress women”(281).
Mother Nature does not oblige, but assails Frankenstein with violent weather and ill health, both physical and mental.
“However, in Mary Shelley’s feminist novel, Victor Frankenstein’s desire is portrayed not only as horrible and finally unattainable but also as self-destructive. For Nature is not the passive, inert, or “dead” matter that Frankenstein imagines. Frankenstein assumes that he can violate Nature and pursue her to her hiding places with impunity. But Nature both resists and revenges herself upon his attempts…and sets in motion the series of events that produces the monster who destroys Frankenstein’s family, friends and self”(Kellor 282).
But the tale is not all hell and brimstone, “it also celebrates an all-creating nature loved and revered by human beings. Those characters capable of deeply feeling the beauties of Nature are rewarded with physical and mental health,”(Kellor 283) and this is a distinct respite in the horror, a glimmer of hope.
If, only if, Frankenstein hadn’t gone for the power grab, had worked collaboratively, had given the creature a fair shake. This but a story, right?
Ultimately, “As an ecological system of interdependent organisms, Nature requires the submission of the individual ego to the welfare of the family and the larger community,”(Kellor 284) and the sooner we all embrace this, the happier ending there may be.
When we read Frankenstein today, we can read it as a great example of gothic fiction. We can enjoy it for the shiver it sends down our spine as Victor Frankenstein is pursued by his hideous monster and for the suspense it creates wondering who the monster will kill next.
Or we can read Frankenstein for all it’s really worth, a deep examination of the dire consequences of our continued negligence and destructiveness in how we interact with Nature and one another.
Mary Shelley is a #Nasty Woman Writer.
© Maria Dintino 2019
Kellor, Anne K. “Possessing Nature: The Female in Frankenstein.” Frankenstein: A Norton Critical Edition. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1996.
Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein: A Norton Critical Edition. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1996.