Bette London’s article starts by describing the reframing of Mary and Percy Bysshe Shelley’s stories by their son Percy. The son was much more conventionally Christian and embarrassed by the risque reputation his parents had garnered. Front and centre of this rebrand of the Shelley story is the statue by Henry Weekes at the top of the article which uses Christian iconography to paint a picture of Mary as a Madonna-like figure to the spectacle of Shelley’s masculine martyrdom.
London then goes on to critique both feminist and nonfeminist readings of Frankenstein and this is the bit where I started to really pay attention. She asserts that the sexless or female reading of the Creature’s gender and even that of his creator as a feminist reading draws focus away from the very obvious spectacle of the masculine form that reoccurs throughout the novel. Emphasis is placed on the physical male form, and it is laid out periodically for others to gaze upon. If we deny the masculinity of Victor and his Creature we deny Mary Shelley‘s deliberately and explicitly masculine spectacle which she artfully constructed to highlight the hubris and deficiencies of this particular brand of masculine creation.
You may notice that I often refer to Mary Shelley as Shelley, rather than adhering to convention and using Shelley as a shorthand for Percy Bysshe Shelley. It is really down to Bette London’s article on the male spectacle in Frankenstein, in which she points out that that the esteemed authoress is always Mary to Percy’s Shelley, even in scholarship surrounding Frankenstein that should give greater deference to the author of the text.
It gets confusing because I am so accustomed to this mode of addressing the poet as Shelley, a la Byron, Keats and Coleridge, that I often slip and have to go back through an article to check how many times I messed up.
This over-familiarity when addressing Mary Shelley, in addition to the portrayal of her authorship as monstrous shows an almost calculated dismissal of her role as one of the most influential gothic, horror and proto-science fiction authors in the English literary canon.
“How could a girl of 18 write such a confronting story?”
Well, because she is intelligent, imaginative and more than little disenfranchised. She also had a lot of opportunities to flourish that she might not have had if she was not surrounded by “radicals” who had already been prepped for an intelligent, persistent and creative woman by her mother. It’s not that strange when put in perspective, and if we take away those antiquated notions of the fragility of a young maiden. Frankenstein is singular, groundbreaking and monstrous; Shelley’s authorship, however, should not be viewed in similar terms.
Shelley should be regarded as a genius of gothic fiction, rather than a mysterious anomaly. The woman of the 1810s was exposed to her share of gruesome spectacles and overwhelming sorrow, so what, aside from a lack of access to education and the means of publication, was so different between the male aspiring writer and the female?
It is simply a matter of social conditioning and fewer opportunities.
And if we are too busy looking at the monstrous spectacle of female authorship, we’re likely to miss the spectacle of male ego, cruelty and hubris that is right in front of our faces.
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.
Compare and contrast the ways in which any two texts studied on the unit organize information to generate a sympathetic response to characters, paying particular attention to its implications for narrative meaning. Take care to quote directly from your chosen texts, illustrating the techniques used to generate a sympathetic response and explaining how meaning is affected by them.
When looking at the text The Story of an Hour by Kate Chopin and Ozymandias by Percy Bysshe Shelley, we find some striking similarities in the fate of Ozymandias, the great king of Egypt, and Louise Mallard, the troubled woman who meets her ironic end in Chopin’s story. The joy, passion and power that these two very different characters experience could be perceived as an illusion that is shattered when it comes into conflict with reality. In order to demonstrate these parallels that occur across vastly different timelines and how this method of characterisation creates a sympathetic response in the reader, I will endeavour to display how these characters are built up and broken back down again in order to make the egotistical seem palatable and relatable.
In The Story of an Hour, Louise Mallard finds a relief and freedom in the knowledge of her husband’s death. Her husband, Brently Mallard is not an abusive or cold man, for, as is indicated by the phrase “…the face that had never looked save with love upon her…” (Chopin, para. 13) he appears to have loved Louise very much indeed, so it is not the nature of their specific marriage that is abhorrent to her, but the nature of marriage itself is the oppressing force. The oppression that Louise is perceiving herself freed from is the partnership of marriage, the inhibition of her self-sufficiency and the denial of her desire to be completely self-governing as evidenced by this line: “There would be no powerful will bending hers in that blind persistence with which men and women believe they have a right to impose a private will upon a fellow-creature.” (Chopin, para. 14). This desire to take into account no-ones wishes but her own is essentially unachievable without total isolation, and the joy that she feels at her husband’s death seems cold and callous, but through this almost sublime, fragile and temporary moment of freedom Chopin rendering explicit the more shameful thoughts that, whilst perhaps not as persistent, or joyous as Louise’s, most people will have experienced at some point; that is guilty pleasure at someone else’s expense.
Whereas in Ozymandias the great king of Egypt strives to leave a lasting, powerful legacy, and it is his pride and passion for his cause that gives him solace in the face of his own mortality. The inscription is perhaps our greatest clue to the driving force of this king, based on Rameses II (Waith, p. 22), for it reads; “My name is Ozymandias, king of kings: Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!” (Shelley, 10). He lived, in his time as the untouchable and unquestionable ruler of his world, whose works and monuments were designed to display his majesty to both people of his time and in the future. These works gave the king a legacy, or artificial immortality as a ruler that was both tyrant and sustaining force to his people, as evidenced by the line “The hand that mock’d them and the heart that fed.” (Shelley, 8). The illusion of immortality can be likened to Louise Mallard’s illusion of freedom; both are artificial states that cannot be sustained in the face of time and reality. The reader may not easily be able to relate to a tyrant but it is not a great leap of imagination to relate to the desire to make your mark on the world, and whilst we may not have attempted this on a monstrous scale, the idea of legacy is not alien to the human experience.
Now that we have established illusion of triumph over the separate conflicts these characters face we can look at how these very extreme, in their own ways, expressions of human desire, are made relatable by rendering them benign. Ozymandias as a tyrant and formidable ruler is rendered somewhat inert and pitiable by the distance that Shelley places between the reader and the king of old. Not only is the time since the Ozymandias’ glory years amplified by the term “antique land” (Shelley, line 1) when referring to the traveller’s country of origin but the use of the words “shatter’d visage” (Shelley, line 4), and mere fact that we are hearing this story through the filter of the traveller and the narrator puts considerable space between the reader and the king, making him appear much less threatening. Louise is also made less threatening by the inclusions of a few shows of her vulnerability that have the effect of detoxifying the somewhat distasteful nature of her celebrations. It is established very early on that Louise suffers from a heart condition (Chopin, para. 1), the heart condition which will eventually kill her, this coupled with her immediate outpouring of grief before her realisation of her new freedom breaks through the heartless surface, that the character might otherwise only offer. She concedes that grief may overcome her when she is faced with the corpse of her dead husband (Chopin, para. 13) which also gives the reader the chance of redemption to hold onto. By exposing the vulnerabilities of the characters the authors have allowed us room to pity these two people in a way that without these tiny nuggets of discourse we could not otherwise do.
To further heighten sense of sympathy we feel for these characters both Shelley and Chopin have painted a bleak, tragic and intrinsically ironic final picture of their characters; the ruins of the works of man who wanted immortality and infamy lie in isolated and all but forgotten ruins, and the woman who wanted the ultimate freedom from the will of others is granted it by her subsequent death. The “colossal wreck” (Shelley, 6) of the icon of Ozymandais’ empire surrounded by nothing but vast expanses of desert, and the “joy that kills” (Chopin, para. 3) Louise Mallard both mock the sublime delusions of the characters whose downfall, and ultimately failed endeavours they represent. Reduced down to the very basics they are two characters in conflict with cruel reality, who will eventually succumb to it; whether by death in the space of an hour, or the slow but steady decay of an empire over thousands of years.
Berkove, Lawrence I. “Fatal Self-Assertion in Kate Chopin’s” The Story of an Hour”.” American Literary Realism (2000): 152-158.
Chopin, Kate, and Kate Chopin. The Story of an Hour. Logan, IA: Perfection Learning, 2001. Web.
Culler, Jonathan D. The literary in theory. Oxford University Press, New York (1997): 83-94.
Giovannelli, Alessandro. “In sympathy with narrative characters.” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 67.1 (2009): 83-95.
Shelley, Percy B. “Ozymandias.” The Norton Anthology of Poetry. By Margaret W. Ferguson, Mary Jo. Salter, and Jon Stallworthy. 5th ed. New York: W.W. Norton, 2005. 870. Print.
Waith, Eugene M. “Ozymandias: Shelley, Horace Smith, and Denon.” Keats-Shelley Journal (1995): 22-28.
Chosen Essay topic “Gender identity entraps and limits us.” Examine this assertion with reference to your chosen texts.
Secondary Source Summary:
Mary Shelley, Frankenstein, and the Spectacle of Masculinity, Bette London, Modern Language Association, 1993.
Bette London is a Professor at the University of Rochester and is widely published on the subject of modern and classical literature. Her article draws upon a range of sources to provide both supporting material and target arguments including the work of Rieger and Mellor, both of whom have been critiqued within the article. London looks at the role of gender in both Mary Shelley’s work, critiques of “Frankenstein” and depictions of Mary Shelley particularly in relation to the death of Percy Bysshe Shelley. In critiquing these sources she reaches the conclusion that though male characters are at the centre of the text it is the absent female characters that define its parameters and enable us to examine the flaws and intricacies of the protagonists.
This article raises a few points relevant to my chosen essay topic; that the gender identity of the Creature is a limiting factor, that Victor Frankenstein’s obsession or need to discover the secret of exclusively male creation is at the centre of his pursuits, but primarily I have chosen this article because it lays the groundwork for a tantalising argument that struck a chord with me immediately. If Victor Frankenstein had divulged his secret to his intended wife Elizabeth, rather than not trusting her judgement, strength, or courage, arguably on the basis of her gender as he extensively later reveals it to Walton, he may have been able to avoid her demise. But he lives in such a male centred time and in such a male centred mindset that he does not see the value in her opinion or advice, and does not even contemplate that he may not be the Creature’s intended victim.
Sussman, Charlotte “Daughter of the Revolution: Mary Shelley in Our Times” Journal for Early Modern Cultural Studies, Vol. 4, No. 1, Women Writers of the Eighteenth Century, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004. pp. 158-186 Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/27793781
London, Bette “Mary Shelley, Frankenstein, and the Spectacle of Masculinity”, PMLA Vol. 108, No. 2, Modern Language Association, 1993. pp. 253-267 Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/462596