How do changing attitudes towards femininity effect academic readings of “Frankenstein or the Modern Day Prometheus” by Mary Shelley?
When commenting on the gender implications of “Frankenstein” academic thought appears to vary considerably about what, if any, social commentary Mary Shelley was trying to make, and if her links to some of the most notorious and infamous men and women of 18th and 19th century literature had an y bearing on how she presented the gender of the creature, and the creator himself, Victor Frankenstein. Sussman (2004) separates interpretations of this iconic Gothic novella into 3 distinct groups based on the implied perception of Shelley as either; 1) the wife of poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, 2) A mourning mother and finally 3) the daughter of revolutionary writers; William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft. As this grouping shows the interpretation of the tale of Victor Frankenstein and the rejection of the monster he created varies according the focus on the role of Shelley as a woman, and our views of her most important social and family function as a feminine being.
The interpretation, which was most common before the arrival of second wave feminism was that Mary, wrote “Frankenstein” with either the aid of, or, in response to, her more famous husband, the romantic poetic, Percy Bysshe Shelley. Societal attitudes to the legitimacy of female writers are scarcely more clearly illustrated than the subsequent negative change of critical thinking when it was revealed that the author of “Frankenstein” was a woman (Gordon 2015). Another clear indicator of the value placed on male creativity and intellectual thought is the reluctance of critics and scholar’s, most notably James Rieger (1982) in his edition of Frankenstein, to accept Mary Shelley’s exclusive right to authorship due to Percy Shelley’s sometimes lengthy input as editor. Whilst the manuscripts do show his annotation to be lengthy, the overwhelming majority of the text is penned by Mary herself, and based on the manuscripts alone there is no clear reason to perceive Percy’s role as anything but editor. The persistence with which questions of authorship resurface perhaps indicates a reluctance to accept a young female author as a credible source of such a story, despite all evidence of her authorship.
Another common way to explain “Frankenstein” as being forged my the merits of man rather than woman is to cast Percy in one of the lead roles, either as the tortured and fickle Doctor, turning away from his creation, or as the horrific creature, constructed by the society he lived in, which turned away in horror from the radical poet who was formed as a reaction to his environment. In this way the focus is shifted from Mary as the author, to Percy as the inspiration, challenging her right to authorship in a more subtle and insidious way (London 1993).
Second wave feminism initially did not do anything to establish the authorship and credit for “Frankenstein” back to Mary, as she was notably absent from the initial attentions of those looking to their literary foremother’s, such as Wolfe did in “A Room of One’s Own” (Sussman 2004).
Sussman (2004) attributes this neglect of Mary Shelley in second wave feminism to the turning away from the role of the mother
in this stage of feminist theory. Women who embraced their maternity and mother hood were not seen to be following feminist ideals as the two callings, feminism and motherhood were thought to be mutually exclusive. Shelley, whose life was heavily influenced by a maternal legacy and her own anguish and heartache due to the deaths of her children, did not fit the ideals of the second wave feminist movement. Consequently the interpretation of “Frankenstein” as a tale of birth trauma is not one that sits easily with many critics, the creature being a child, and the rejection of that child by it’s mother is not a particularly palatable one and is not widely subscribed to.
The key to understanding this most recent interpretation of “Frankenstein” is to understand the works of both of Shelley’s parents, particularly her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft’s “Vindication of the Rights of Woman” The literary and political legacy that Mary Shelley inherited from having two heavyweights of political literature in the 18th century is something that was neglected to a large extent by those of the first and second school of interpretation of her works. Godwin, her father was a radical figure in political thought and a great inspiration to those romantic poets of whom Mary Shelley herself would become familiar with. The Wollstonecraft legacy was perhaps the most formidable and weighty for Mary Shelley to contend with as not only was her more one of the first published female writers to address the rights of women but she also died from complications relating to her daughter, Mary’s birth. Never having known her mother, as Mary Goodwin, soon to be Mary Shelley began to embark on her adult life the memory of her mother cast a long shadow as is evidenced by her correspondence with both her sisters, Jane and Fanny, and Percy (Gordon 2015).
“The Vindication of the Rights of Women” emphasises Mary Wollstonecraft’s firm belief that until women are given the same education and opportunities to better themselves as men then no scholar can claim to know what they are truly capable of. She asserts that a lack of education and meaningful pursuits is what impedes the reasoning and development of women, and that enforced idleness is the means with which women are subjugated and subdued, making them secondary to men in the eyes of the society of the time. This work was largely a response to political and philosophical literature of the time that denied women a space in the definition of humanity, or “mankind”(Schneir 1972).
When we look at Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” through the lens of her mother’s work and ideology we get a very different reading to those who look at the novella through the lens of Percy Shelley’s influence, or the experience of a mourning mother. We see an independent young woman, struggling to come to terms with mortality, male creation and ambition and the expectations placed on her as her mother’s daughter. It is only through this interpretation that we are able to see Mary’s focus on the plight of unmarried women and their illegitimate children, as was her mother’s situation when she gave birth to her sister Fanny. This interpretation also allows the reader to cast Mary in the role of the creature and her father in the role of Victor Frankenstein. William Godwin’s radical views were an inspiration to Mary, Percy and other’s in the romantic free love movement of the time. But when his daughter put her father’s ideologies into practice and embarked on a relationship with the married Percy, he rejected her, much as the young Doctor Frankenstein rejects the monster created by his own endeavours.
The view a reader or critic takes of the importance or role of Mary Shelley’s femininity as the author of “Frankenstein” has a profound impact on the meaning that can be derived from this story. Viewing it in the shadow of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s influence works to erase her authorship, and whilst viewing the work as a response to maternal grief needs greater exploration as a basis for reading this text, it is certainly reading “Frankenstein” through the lens of Mary Shelley the daughter that provides the greatest insight into the origins and meaning of the tale. This take on the meaning behind one of the great pieces of Gothic literature also opens up the text to multiple interpretations and allows us to explore Mary Shelley the author as an individual, rather than, in an eerie echo of the construction of the creature, as the sum of her functional feminine parts.
- Gordon, Charlotte. Romantic Outlaws. New York, NY: Random House, 2015. Print.
- London, Bette. ‘Mary Shelley, Frankenstein, And The Spectacle Of Masculinity’. PMLA2 (1993): 253. Web.
- Mellor, Anne Kostelanetz. Mary Shelley, Her Life, Her Fiction, Her Monsters. New York: Routledge, 1989. Print.
- Schneir, Miriam. ‘A Vindication Of The Rights Of Women / Mary Wollstonecraft’. Feminism: The Essential Historical Writings. 1st ed. New York: Random House, 1972. 5-16. Print.
- Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft, and James Rieger. Frankenstein, Or, The Modern Prometheus, The 1818 Text. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982. Print.
- Sussman, Charlotte. “Daughter of the Revolution: Mary Shelley in Our Times.” Journal for Early Modern Cultural Studies (2004): 158-186.
- Wollstonecraft, Mary. Vindication Of The Rights Of Woman. [Auckland, N.Z.]: Floating Press, 2010. Print.
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