FRANKENSTEIN 200: Cannot help but remain a text for our time

A tale born out of a ghost-story competition between Mary Shelley, her husband Percy Bysshe Shelley and English poet Lord Byron, Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus has exceeded 300 editions and inspired more than 90 films – in addition to hundreds of academic texts and comic books, even – over the past two centuries. The book was first published anonymously in January 1818 and continues to be cited today in conversations concerning scientific progress, ethics and sometimes, the vanity of humankind.

In this issue, Western News celebrates the 200th anniversary of Frankenstein with insights from faculty across disciplines.

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I cannot think of any film adaptation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein that would pass the Bechdel test. Most have few women characters, women rarely talk to each other and, when they do, it’s invariably about men – or at least about males, if we count Victor Frankenstein’s creation.

But, then, Shelley’s novel wouldn’t pass the Bechdel test either.

Women are both peripheral, yet oddly central to the novel, although their main role seems to be to die. Caroline, Victor’s mother, dies of scarlet fever while nursing his young cousin, Elizabeth; Justine Moritz, a beloved family servant, is hanged after being falsely accused of the murder of his younger brother, William; Victor himself kills the female monster he has promised to make as companion for his creature; and Elizabeth, Victor’s betrothed, dies at the hands of a creation that takes revenge for Victor’s destruction of his would-be mate.

Moreover, the story is told by three male narrators (Walton, Victor Frankenstein and the Creature himself) and women have little voice. It is, of course, the enduring work of a young woman – Shelley was just 18 when she began writing it during a holiday on the shores of Lake Geneva and only 20 when Frankenstein was first published.

But what, we might ask, accounts for the tale’s fascination by feminist and LGBT scholars?

Early feminist criticism, such as Ellen Moer’s Female Gothic, tends to focus on the text as a mirror of Mary Shelley’s life. Even at the young age of 18, Shelley was haunted by the costs of birth. Her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, died of puerperal fever after her doctor failed to wash his hands; Shelley herself lost her first child, a daughter, in 1815. (Two other children, William and Clara, would be born, only to die as toddlers, and only her fourth child, Percy, would survive her.)

What is perhaps more relevant than Shelley’s own tragic narrative of childbirth was the knowledge of how dangerous childbirth was in the early 19th Century. Even today, worldwide, women are more likely to die from complications of pregnancy and childbirth than from cancer. In Shelley’s day, infant mortality was commonplace and contraceptive practices were difficult, ineffectual and largely illegal.

As a result of this biographical and cultural context, Moers reads Frankenstein as a birth myth, in which a man tries to abrogate not God’s right to create but rather woman’s unique relationship with reproduction. Moers argues that the infant – in this case, Frankenstein’s Creature – is “at once monstrous agent of destruction and piteous victim of parental abandonment.”

Scholars Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar read the text as a rewriting of Paradise Lost and saw the Creature as both feminine and maternal. In readings such as these, “Both Victor and the Creature have been seen as figuratively women,” notes Frann Michel in her paper, Lesbian Panic and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein in GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 2. But, Michel adds, “the relation of desire between them has been discussed in terms of heteroeroticism or of male homoeroticism, never in terms of female homoeroticism.”

Other feminist scholars have analyzed the novel’s messages about women’s reproductive role, female agency and male desire to usurp the particular power of giving birth. Frankenstein’s fear of female agency is rather obvious. He destroys the female creature because he imagines she may not want to be the companion of the male Creature and then that she might become the forebear of an entire race of monsters: “a race of devils … who might make the very existence of the species of man a condition precarious and full of terror.”

Shelley’s text has also been taken up within both queer and trans scholarship. Queer readings of the text began, following Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s work on homosociality, by noting the close bonds between males in the text and the suppressed homoeroticism of many of those relationships: Victor’s relationship with his friend, Henri Clerval; Victor’s with Walton; and Victor’s with the monster. In 1995, however, Michel argued the very absence of female homoeroticism in critical readings of Shelley’s text marks a type of cultural panic that insists on interpreting possible moments of desire as, instead, moments of identification between the women in the novel.

In 2016, Mair Rigby noted, “Queer criticism has been attracted to Frankenstein for the text’s representation of monstrosity and excess, as well as its interest in desire, power and transgression.” Queer work in general has taken monstrosity to be a synechdoche for queerness in a society where queer has historically been viewed as monstrous. Rigby argued the point in ‘A Strange Perversity’: Bringing Out Desire between Women in Frankenstein in The Ashgate Research Companion to Queer Theory: “To perform a queer-lesbian reading of Frankenstein is not to attempt to discover modern ‘lesbians’ in the text; it is rather to consider how historical discourses about desire between women inform the novel and shape reading possibilities. Queer-lesbian reading does therefore necessitate a ‘woman seeing’ perspective.”

Frankenstein’s Creature is a floating signifier, functioning as a metaphor not just for mad scientists, women or homosexuality, but for anything else made monstrous by social/cultural reaction.

This is the spirit Susan Stryker took up in, My Words to Victor Frankenstein above the Village of Chamounix: Performing Transgender Rage, which was published in the first issue of GLQ in 1993. Stryker wrote of her intent to recast old analytical narratives and “create new territories, both analytic and material, for a critically refigured transsexual practice. Embracing and identifying with the figure of Frankenstein’s monster, claiming the transformative power of a return from abjection, felt like the right way to go.”

By 2004, Stryker saw much of the liberatory potential of queer theory defused both by its normalization within the academy and by its inability to gain purchase in the political world of Bush, neoliberalism and the Iraq War. This might have been asking a lot of queer theory but, of course, we live in hope of making change and, as Stryker notes, of finding textual and theoretical homes that provide us with some purchase on the world and make it more livable for ourselves and others.

Readings of Frankenstein, with its story of the abject and exiled child, ironically offer an interpretive home for those who find themselves similarly unwanted and made monstrous. At a time when citizens of the United States are retreating from tenuous support of LGBT rights and as women’s reproductive rights and bodily autonomy are increasingly under legislative and populist attack, Frankenstein cannot help but remain a text for our time.

Wendy Pearson is the Chair of Women’s Studies and Feminist Research.

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Read more from the Western News celebration of the 200th anniversary of Frankenstein with insights from faculty across disciplines.

Frankenstein cannot help but remain a text for our time by Wendy Pearson

Bequeathals create ‘life,’ enable research and learning by Tim Wilson

Mary Shelley warned me there’d be days like this by Tim Blackmore

Embracing the loneliness of monsters by Christopher Keep

Of Frankenstein and the White House by Steven Bruhm