Frankenstein’s Progeny Protests: Romanticism’s Monstrous Interrogation of Patriarchy
by Nicky Bond
Romanticism emerged out of the social and political milieu of late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth century Europe as a response to the widespread revolutionary developments of the period, including Industrialization, the Enlightenment, Abolitionism, the French Revolution, advances in science and medicine, and increased access to print material and education (Broadview 3-30). The vibrant Romantic Period hailed a proliferation of great thinkers and writers who championed the rights and freedoms of individuals, bringing about a new kind of democracy, exposing the deleterious character of the old order of Western patriarchal aristocracy (3-30), and inaugurating a rigorous exploration/interrogation of the individual’s interplay with self, other and nature, that continues into our modern day (Peer 1-7). Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein participates in the democratic project of Romanticism by exposing the problematic effects of patriarchal ideology through the text’s portrayal of Victor Frankenstein’s inhumane treatment of his man-made Creature within the context of patriarchal Europe. Viewed through a feminist lens, the Creature becomes a poignant metaphor for the subordinated women of nineteenth-century Europe who, battling the oppression of patriarchy, fight for the right to freedom and equality.
Frankenstein in Cultural Context: Nineteenth Century Patriarchal Europe
Through the narrative frame of his ardent admirer Robert Walton, the novel introduces Victor Frankenstein as the quintessential nineteenth-century patriarchal male. Victor is an educated, white, wealthy, able-bodied, European male of distinguished family. In recalling his happy childhood, Victor describes his parents as “indulgent” (Shelley 67), which, while implying generosity, also connotes spoiling, and aptly reflects the treatment of white, wealthy males in patriarchal European society. The text reveals that Victor’s father is a benevolent aristocrat who rescues Victor’s mother (his deceased best friend’s daughter) as “an orphan and a beggar” (65) and then marries her – creating a “powerful man rescues helpless female” trope that resurfaces in numerous forms throughout the novel. Moreover, Victor’s narrative specifies that his mother “possessed a mind of an uncommon mould” (65), yet the evidence that he gives to illustrate this fine mind is Caroline’s ability to find and work various labor jobs, such as plaiting straw, to support herself and her dying merchant father. When compared with her husband’s position as a prestigious government legislator and her son’s scientific genius in his young adulthood, Caroline’s straw plaiting depicts the sparse opportunity for an educated woman to cultivate her intellect in the Romantic era, where the world of academia was considered the male domain.
Shelley’s mother Mary Wollstonecraft was an important political and literary figure of late eighteenth-century England who tragically died shortly after Shelley was born, due to complications from Shelley’s birth. Shelley was most certainly influenced by her mother’s work, and Caroline’s circumstances in the narrative recall Wollstonecraft’s commentary from her famous 1792 feminist treatise A Vindication of the Rights of Women, in which Wollstonecraft explains the barriers that European women in this era face:
But in the education of women, the cultivation of the understanding is always subordinate to the acquirement of some corporeal accomplishment; even while enervated by confinement and false notions of modesty, the body is prevented from attaining that grace and beauty which relaxed half-formed limbs never exhibit. Besides, in youth their faculties are not brought forward by emulation; and having no serious scientific study, if they have natural sagacity it is turned too soon on life and manners. They dwell on effects, and modifications, without tracing them back to causes; and complicated rules to adjust behavior are a weak substitute for simple principles. (qtd in Shelley 233)
Both Caroline’s and Elizabeth’s experiences in the novel resonate with this discourse. The diminishment of female agency in nineteenth-century patriarchal society is again depicted in Victor’s description of the Frankenstein family hierarchy when he explains, “My father directed our studies, and my mother partook of our enjoyments” (71). This representation delineates the elder Frankenstein’s elevated role as the intellectual director of the household and his mother’s subordinate role as a peer or playmate rather than an intellectual or authority figure. Caroline’s role in the family sets the stage for three more women in the novel: Elizabeth, Safie, and Justine– all “respectable” orphans confined to domestic spheres, who are wholly dependent on, and inferior to, their wealthy male protectors.
Following his mother’s death, Victor explains his moment of greatest attraction for Elizabeth: “I never beheld her so enchanting as at this time, when she was continually endeavouring to contribute to the happiness of others, entirely forgetful of herself” (73). When Victor decides to go into exile for two years, leaving Elizabeth to care for his family, his insensate description of her submissive acceptance of his decision again reveals his patriarchal assumption of privilege as well as Elizabeth’s acceptance of her role as caregiver in the domestic space: “Elizabeth approved of my departure, and only regretted that she had not the same opportunities of enlarging her experience, and cultivating her understanding” (Shelley 164). Much like Caroline, Elizabeth is conveniently subservient and unassuming in her relationship with patriarchal males. It is from this context that Victor emerges as the product of an environment that creates, nurtures, and enables his egocentric arrogance – in essence, he emerges as a powerful patriarchal male.
The Creation of a Monster
As a young man, Victor excels in the academic realm of natural philosophy. This leads to his lofty endeavor of creating life from inanimate matter. His treatment of the Creature before, compared to after, its animation illustrates Victor’s paternalistic reaction to the threat of a potential shift in power that the Creature embodies. Metaphorically, this threat resonates with the anxiety felt by the well-intentioned Romantic male who, in aspiring to make room for democracy within the new order, comes face to face with the looming loss of his own privileged position in society. Prior to the Creature’s animation, Victor’s anticipation of the accolades that he will receive for successfully creating new life out of inert materials gives him a sort of superhuman energy. He recalls, “No one can conceive the variety of feelings that bore me onwards, like a hurricane, in the first enthusiasm of success” (80). This aspect of Victor’s creative process parallels the nineteenth century male’s initial glorious and generous intention to widen the definition of humanity and to bring formerly disempowered beings into the privileged sphere of the patriarchy. Despite his frenzied focus on his own imminent glory, Victor carefully ensures that the Creature’s “limbs were in proportion,” and that he chooses its “features as beautiful” (83), just as the male Romantic writer feels assured that his ideals are beautiful and that they reflect a system of equality. Moreover, just like Victor, the Romantic male enthusiastically builds the era’s lofty, democratic vision without, initially, considering the deleterious consequences to his own “species” of privileged, patriarchal male.
Once Victor gives life to a Creature who looks different from him and is of greater stature than he is, it suddenly occurs to him that his position at the top of the hierarchy of power is threatened. In an instant, he switches from glorifying his own power of creativity to realizing with horror the Creature’s potential power. Victor’s immediate response to his Creature is so hyperbolic as to attract suspicion regarding its authenticity. Victor describes his initial view of the creature: “His yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath; his hair was of a lustrous black, and flowing; his teeth of a pearly whiteness; but these luxuries only formed a more horrid contrast with his watery eyes, that seemed almost of the same colour as the dun white sockets in which they were set, his shrivelled complexion, and his straight black lips” (83). It would seem illogical that the physical appearance of the Creature whom he has been seeing, building, touching, and manipulating, daily, for two years is suddenly a surprise to Victor such that he lists out these very familiar features as if they are inherently terrifying. Surely, the Creature’s ability to move and breathe does not suddenly change its pre-living outward physical appearance enough to warrant this horrified response from Victor. He continues in this dramatic vein: “Oh! no mortal could support the horror of that countenance. A mummy again endued with animation could not be so hideous as that wretch” (84). Even more questionable is Victor’s next statement, which sharply contradicts his previous description of the specially selected “beautiful features” of the Creature: “I had gazed on him while unfinished; he was ugly then; but when those muscles and joints were rendered capable of motion, it became a thing such as even Dante could not have conceived” (84).
Patriarchy Faces Democracy
The inconsistency in Victor’s before-and-after description of beautiful features turned ugly troubles the reliability of Victor’s narration and to sympathize with the Creature, whom Victor unreasonably and summarily rejects before the creature can utter a word. The reader might also begin to suspect that the root of Victor’s abhorrence does not truly lie with the appearance of the creature – that it is perhaps rather the movements, the abilities, and the potential power of the creature that Victor finds heinous and terrifying. When the Creature demands a mate, Victor becomes even more horrified and enraged. Diana Reese, in “A Troubled Legacy: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and the Inheritance of Human Rights,” explains the Creature’s reaction: “It is precisely the voicing of this particular claim that leads directly to the paranoid escalation of the Doctor’s response […] The monster’s projected social being is precisely what Dr. Frankenstein has come to regard as a direct threat to his own” (Reese 53). On a metaphorical level, if the Creature symbolizes all women in society – or, on a more inclusive scale, all subjugated groups in society–then the monstrous size of this entity of marginalized individuals accounts for the great stature of the creature, as compared to the smaller, now-threatened body that Victor occupies – the privileged, patriarchal male. Thus, Victor – and the patriarchal male – might accurately anticipate that if he allows this Creature its own agency and reproductive rights, then his days as ruler of Europe – and by extension, of the world – are numbered. Suddenly, the Romantic ideal of democracy loses its charming appeal, and Victor becomes terrified of his own creation, knowing that it is a threat to his “species” of patriarchal man.
The Creature becomes even more of a threat to Victor when it requests, then demands, a mate. Diana Reese endorses the Creature’s plea for Victor to create for it a partner: “The monster should by all rights inherit the rights of man and the citizen: he is possessed of sensibility and can reason on his own behalf. By virtue of both of these capacities he becomes able to voice a claim” (Reese 55). It is noteworthy, however, that Reese refers to the Creature as “the daemon” or “the monster” throughout her essay. Perhaps she does so in order to mimic Victor’s most frequently used labels for the Creature, or perhaps to emphasize its non-humanness – because Reese apprehends “the daemon” as representing a different “species.” However, in contrast to Reese’s labelling of the “monster/daemon,” I consciously employ the more sympathetic label of “the Creature” here, in an attempt to emphasize the Creature’s role as Victor’s creation – that is, Victor’s progeny, made in his own likeness, and formed from human parts. Nonetheless, the Creature’s namelessness remains problematic, and is further evidence of Victor’s othering treatment of it – treatment which alienates and dehumanizes the Creature.
Despite Reese’s othering labels for the Creature, it is clear that she views it as a semi-human being that is entitled to human rights by virtue of its human qualities (53-57). Indeed, the Creature possesses human attributes, and only differs from other humans in its biological appearance at first, and later, in its unusual strength. But Victor does not allow the Creature even the most basic of human rights. Much like Victor’s view of the Creature, the patriarchal system of the Romantic era did not consider women as fully human in terms of their rights as citizens. In fact, women could not vote in Switzerland, where this story takes place, until 1971 (Strong-Boag n. pag.). As the characterizations of Margaret Saville, Caroline and Elizabeth Frankenstein, Justine Moray, and Safie DeLacey portray, the Romantic era confined women to the home, patiently waiting for their gallant males to rescue them from poverty, misery, or boredom.
The Harmful Effects of Othering
Victor’s abandonment of his Creature leaves it no choice but to fend for itself. The Creature avails itself of a kind of nurturance by proxy from the DeLacey family, acquiring education and growing stronger in its comprehension of both its own abilities and its alienated position in society through its apprehension of the DeLacey family interactions with each other and itself. As the Creature develops, it cultivates a valuable skill that its creator lacks – that is, the ability to sympathize deeply with other creatures. Anna Clark’s analysis of the three first-person narrators of Frankenstein depicts how the Creature stands apart from Walton and Victor in its ability to provide an internally focalized narrative of other minor characters in the story, such as Felix and Safie. While Walton and Victor’s narratives are limited to their own focalized perspectives, the Creature’s “narrative functions as a description of learning to differentiate and focalize perspectives. He first learns to differentiate those of his own body and feelings, and later, through his extended secret scrutiny of the DeLaceys, those of other individuals” (Clark 261). Thus Clark credits the Creature with achieving “exceptional status” in the story, “due largely to his prowess as a narrator of other characters’ points of view” (245). Clark does not connect this acquisition to the Creature’s marginalized position, although she points out that the Creature learns through observing the DeLacey family through a hole in the wall – “a small and almost imperceptible chink, through which the eye could just penetrate” (125). Yet herein lies an accidental consequence of the lived experience of oppression – the oppressed might gain empathy for her fellow creature through the forced experience of taking on another’s perspective or carrying out another’s will. Neither Walton nor Victor stand to gain this skill from the position of their privileged patriarchal perches, but from its lowly position as an outside observer of the DeLacey family, the Creature learns to see life through the eyes of others.
The Creature’s by-proxy upbringing by the DeLaceys introduces another important aspect of feminism into the story – that is, the intersectionality of gender and race. The Creature watches with interest as “the Arabian,” Safie, is welcomed into the DeLacey home as an exotic Other, and subsequently colonized by the DeLacey family. The Creature witnesses Safie’s othering treatment at the hands of the DeLaceys, who all the while both view and project themselves as benevolent people – symbolizing the treatment of colonized peoples at the hands of Western cultures. Relaying its observations of Safie shortly after she arrives, the Creature notes: “‘I soon perceived, that although the stranger uttered articulate sounds, and appeared to have a language of her own, she was neither understood by, or herself understood, the cottagers’” (Shelley 133). The DeLaceys solve this communication problem by teaching Safie their language – there is no reciprocity here, it is simply assumed that “the Arabian” must adopt the language of the colonizer. In fact, Safie is only acceptable as a foreign love interest for Felix because she has already rejected her father’s Islamic religion, opting for Christianity, her mother’s religion and the religion of the DeLacey’s, which Safie associates with “grand ideas and a noble emulation for virtue” (130), although certainly these are not traits demonstrated to the Creature by the DeLaceys.
The Creature refers to Safie as “the Arabian” throughout the narrative, mimicking Felix’s first greeting to Safie in which he calls her “his sweet Arabian” rather than by her name (133). Hence, the Creature, while itself subjected to the dehumanizing treatment of being unnamed, obliviously inflicts the same degradation on Safie. When the Creature is apprehended, in this scenario, as a metaphor for white, Western feminism (a form of feminism that is as old as feminism itself, and continues to problematize contemporary feminism), then the Creature’s racism towards Safie as a colonized Other represents the racism of those white, middle-upper class, Western women who, while fighting for their own rights, dismiss the rights and efface the identities of other women, such as women of color and women who live in poverty (Mohanty 499-530).
The Trajectory of Empowerment
Through its observations of the DeLacey family, the Creature becomes fully conscious of its own low rank in society, and also of systemic societal injustices. It later explains to Victor: “I learned that the possessions most esteemed by your fellow-creatures were, high and unsullied descent united with riches. A man might be respected with only one of these acquisitions; but without either he was considered, except in very rare instances, as a vagabond and a slave, doomed to waste his powers for the profit of the chosen few” (135-136). Here the Creature demonstrates its acquired insight regarding political aspects of nineteenth century European society, specifically, with respect to the injustice associated with patriarchal hierarchies.
The Creature nonetheless attempts multiple times to befriend and commune with its oppressor, even saving a little child from the river. As a reward for the Creature’s kindness, the “rustic” parent of the child shoots and wounds the Creature (153). When the Creature tries to force young William to be his companion, William also rejects its advances. At this point, the Creature concedes that it is not possible to coexist in harmony with these truly monstrous beings, and thus he kills William. William’s murder triggers a series of further tragedies that include the deaths of Justine, Clerval, Elizabeth, the elder Frankenstein, and finally, Victor. Each of these deaths holds metaphorical significance in relation to the fight for women’s rights in the Romantic era. Patriarchy cannot exist with feminism; one of them must die. Thus, the realization of feminism necessitates death to the future generations of patriarchal males (represented by William), death to the subordination of women by other women (Justine), and death to the idyllic Romantic male-worshipping-male figure (Clerval). Moreover, it means death to the patriarchal female figure (Elizabeth), death to the benevolent but condescending patriarch (the elder Frankenstein) and most importantly, death to the patriarchal system that reigns supreme over its non-dominant members (represented by Victor). The only part of the oppressive system that survives is Victor’s younger brother Earnest. Anthony Badalamenti proposes that Mary Shelley intentionally attaches the name “Earnest” to the lone survivor of the Frankenstein family as a sign of hope that her (patriarchal) husband Percy “would come to look more maturely at what his ideas on marriage and children really implied for their life together” (Badalementi 435-436). Thus the hope signified by this name lies in Earnest’s ability to learn from his brother’s mistakes and sincerely move towards the incorporation of a true democratic spirit within the Romantic project, regardless of how this affects his own power and privilege.
The novel’s end resonates with a message of hope, embedded in the missing narration of the Creature’s death. The story finishes with a description of the Creature’s intended demise – thereby allowing for the potential survival of the Creature. Perhaps, then, the Creature does not kill itself as it first irrationally promises when reeling with shock at the death of its creator. Conceivably, before giving up all hope for life and love, the Creature stops to consider that the destruction of the patriarchal system was a painful but necessary step in the creation of a just, inclusive society. The Creature, like the patriarchal woman, thus becomes free to imagine a newly empowered life – without Victor, and without the patriarchal hierarchy – a life in which it can join forces with others who are subordinated, in an empowered battle for the equality of humans of all forms and abilities. Thus it is that Shelley’s novel stays relevant for centuries after its creation, reminding its readers of the power of marginalized peoples to destroy the power hierarchies of the world, and to create life, and art, anew.
Badalamenti, Anthony F. “Why Did Mary Shelley Write Frankenstein?” Journal of Religion and Health, vol. 45, no. 3, Fall 2006, pp. 419-439.
Clark, Anna E. “Frankenstein; or, the Modern Protagonist.” ELH, vol. 81, no. 1, 2014, pp. 245–268. Project MUSE, muse.jhu.edu. Accessed 13 Apr. 2015.
Mohanty, Chandra Talpade. “‘Under Western Eyes’ Revisited: Feminist Solidarity Through Anticapitalist Struggles.” Signs, vol. 28, no. 2, 2003, pp. 499–535.
Peer, Larry H. Romanticism across the Disciplines. University Press of America, 1998.
Reese, Diana. “A Troubled Legacy: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and the Inheritance of Human Rights.” Representations, vol. 96, no. 1, 2006, pp. 48–72. doi:10.1525/rep.2006.96.1.48. Accessed 24 Mar. 2015.
Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft. Frankenstein, or, The Modern Prometheus. edited by D.L. Macdonald and Kathleen Scherf, Broadview Press, 2012.
Strong-Boag, Veronica. “Europe.” Women Suffrage and Beyond: Confronting the DemocraticDeficit. 10 Oct. 2011, http://womensuffrage.org/?page_id=97. Accessed 02 April 2015.
Nicky Bond is in her third year of a BA in English at the University of Calgary. She encountered Frankenstein in her first year survey course on English Literature. Nicky holds a bachelor’s degree in nursing from the University of Calgary (1992), and she currently works with Calgary families in the social services sector.
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