Mommy DearestFrankenstein, which first appeared anonymously in 1818, has by now been completely subsumed into popular culture. It predates its only other competitor for the most influential horror novel ever written, Dracula, by 79 years.
The novel was written by an eighteen-year-old girl named Mary Shelley.
While by now we all know the story of Frankenstein, most people (including myself, until now) have never actually read the book. For the purpose of this column I’ve used the original 1818 text because the later printing in 1831 includes significant changes that Shelley felt pressured to make because critics had labeled the book grotesque.
And it is disturbing -- told through the personal narrative of biology student Victor Frankenstein, he relates the terror and chaos unleashed on himself and his family when his science experiment comes to life. Frankenstein discovers a way to assemble a man using body parts and limbs he finds in laboratories and graveyards and miraculously animates him. But when the being stirs, Frankenstein is so terrified that he runs out of the room, abandoning his creation forever. The monster, understandably upset and confused, goes on a journey to understand the human race. But he is disappointed as every person he comes in contact with is so horrified by his appearance that they either flee or beat him with clubs. Having stolen his creator’s journals, he knows he hails from Geneva and makes haste to find him. There he encounters a young boy who just happens to be Frankenstein’s baby brother, William. When William threatens him, invoking the family name, the monster strangles him to death. In meeting Frankenstein later, the monster says he will leave his family alone on one condition: that Frankenstein make him a mate, a creature like him but of the opposite sex, someone who will understand him, someone he can make a life with. At first Frankenstein begrudgingly agrees, but cannot go through with it. When he reneges on his promise, the monster kills Frankenstein’s entire family, one by one.
In an intriguingly beautiful analysis of this text, literature and gender scholars Susan Gubar and Sandra Gilbert in their book The Madwoman in the Attic have called the monster “Mary Shelley’s monstrous Eve,” interpreting his creation as an allegory to Eve’s in the Garden of Eden. This is very astute and the thought certainly plagued Shelley -- Eve’s rejection from the Garden and womanhood’s curse is not unlike the monster’s experience in the world. She had recently read Milton’s Paradise Lost before she wrote the novel and found its misogyny unbearable. Unfortunately, Eve never gets her revenge on God, but the monster could be Shelley’s vector, pointedly asking why were women created if only to suffer at the hands of their creator and their counterparts?
Mary Shelley, even at eighteen, had her fair share of parental strife. Her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, was the author of The Vindication of the Rights of Woman, a very early treatise on women’s rights. Unfortunately her mother died giving birth to Mary; her father, the political philosopher William Godwin, raised her. Both of her parents were literary celebrities and as a child she spent time writing as a hobby. It wasn’t until she met her future husband, the poet Percy Shelley, that she would seriously consider publishing her work. Intriguingly, Mary Shelley is also the author of a novella called Matilda, the story of a young woman whose mother dies in childbirth and is raised by her father -- a man who houses an unhealthy obsessive love for his child. Shelley scholars have labeled it as almost purely autobiographical. Her father refused to publish it and it was considered lost until it was published finally in 1959. Frankenstein marries his cousin, Elizabeth, even though she has been raised as his sister and his monster wants a bride in order replace his parent. The themes of incest run rampant through Shelley’s work.
Frankenstein is very much the story of parental care and nurturing and what happens when this kind of love and support is flawed, or not present. The monster is every bit Frankenstein’s child and he abandons him over and over again. Shelley raises questions here about what we owe our children. Frankenstein is not a willing or fitting parent. He’s the ultimate narcissist. He thinks he can create life and so he does, but has no concept of the weight of this kind of responsibility. It’s a responsibility women take on themselves and deal with every single time they have sexual intercourse -- the possibility of creating life can be totally terrifying if it’s not intended or planned. Shelley herself was the mother of several children, almost all of whom died before they could walk: only one child survived into adulthood.
Some scholars have suggested that Frankenstein’s author is Percy Shelley. I want to clarify that this assertion is total and complete bullshit. No man could have written this novel in this time period. It’s a beautifully heartbreaking exploration on creation and motherhood. And while the book undoubtedly contains a large amount of philosophical and scientific passages, just because Mary was not allowed to be a willing participant in these affairs because of her gender does not mean she wasn’t listening as she sat with Percy and Lord Byron by the fireside. She was a sponge for knowledge and it was keenly absorbed.The novel was published when Shelley was twenty-one. This book contains serious religious, philosophical, scientific, humanistic, suspenseful and human drama. It’s an understatement to say it is a very impressive accomplishment, especially considering even now in 2009 women are just coming out of the woodwork to honest accounts of parenting. There are so many books and people constantly attempting to convince women that procreation is our calling and purpose on this Earth, but there is a much darker side to creation. Frankenstein is Mary Shelley’s greatest gift to us -- required reading for the human race