Mothering the Monster: Mary Shelley

Frontispiece to 1831 edition of Frankenstein

“For we think back through our mothers if we are women.” –Virginia Woolf

You may have heard the story. One summer nearly two hundred years ago a young woman traveled to Geneva with her famous and scandalous lover, to stay in a rented villa with his even more famous and scandalous (and considerably richer) friend. But the summer was cold and rainy; a volcanic eruption on the other side of the world had disrupted weather patterns. Later there would be crop failures and widespread starvation, but for the time being the group considered only how to overcome boredom. They told each other ghost stories until someone, looking around at the assembled literary talent, suggested that each one of them should write a ghost story.

The young woman had already borne her lover a child which died not long after birth; her own mother, yet another famous writer, had died eleven days after giving birth to her. Raised by her philosopher father, she was literally a child of the Enlightenment and a Romantic poet’s common-law wife, born at the historical moment when alchemy was becoming chemistry and occultism was becoming science. Intellectually curious, she had read about all of these things…from Henry Cornelius Agrippa to Luigi Galvani, from the search for the Philosopher’s Stone that would grant immortality to experiments with electrical currents and dead frogs. Unable to sleep one night, she found herself in a “waking dream”:

My imagination, unbidden, possessed and guided me, gifting the successive images that arose in my mind with a vividness far beyond the usual bounds of reverie. I saw—with shut eyes, but acute mental vision,—I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half vital motion. Frightful must it be; for supremely frightful would be the effect of any human endeavour to mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world. His success would terrify the artist; he would rush away from his odious handywork, horror-stricken. He would hope that, left to itself, the slight spark of life which he had communicated would fade; that this thing, which had received such imperfect animation, would subside into dead matter; and he might sleep in the belief that the silence of the grave would quench for ever the transient existence of the hideous corpse which he had looked upon as the cradle of life. He sleeps; but he is awakened; he opens his eyes; behold the horrid thing stands at his bedside, opening his curtains, and looking on him with yellow, watery, but speculative eyes.

She began to write.

That young woman of course was Mary Shelley…Mary Godwin at the time, daughter of William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft, lover and later wife of Percy Bysshe Shelley, all of them much more famous than she. The novel was Frankenstein. With it she made her own literary reputation which would grow over time and eventually eclipse all of them. She also birthed two literary genres in one swoop: modern horror, with its anti-heros and railing against mortality, and science fiction, strange twins who have traveled together ever since. She was eighteen years old.

While earlier works explored some of the tropes and ideas of science fiction, such as Margaret Cavendish’s The Blazing World, Frankenstein is widely accepted as the first real science fiction novel. The themes of unintended consequences of science and technology, the collision of same with human bodies, and exploration of the boundaries of what it means to be human by means of crossing them, are all characteristic science fiction themes and all fully present in Frankenstein.  Shelley’s treatment of them, especially the second, is also inherently feminist. Consider the matter of creating life in the first place. Victor Frankenstein is often said to be “playing God”; yet creating life is something women do all the time, via the “stupendous mechanism” of the natural order. Frankenstein’s offense then is not merely in creating life, but in an attempt to thwart the equally natural process of death and decomposition, in trying to seize control of bodily processes in a way that seems to strike the author (who had already been through the process of giving birth) as hubris.

Yet to my mind the central moral question of the novel…and Victor Frankenstein’s fatal flaw…is not bound up with how Frankenstein creates life, but what he does once he has accomplished it. The creature fills him with revulsion and he rejects it; instead of responding to its desire for human companionship and evident strong desire to learn, he repeatedly drives it away. Victor Frankenstein is a bad parent. Further, his own cold, callous nature is contrasted with that of his creation.  The creature, called Adam, is capable of responding to kindness and his destructive and violent behavior is a response to repeated rejection by others when they are confronted by his physical ugliness.  In a sharp critique of Romantic ideas about truth, goodness, and beauty, Frankenstein has none of the creature’s physical flaws but is nonetheless deeply morally flawed. Where the creature desperately seeks companionship, Frankenstein spurns it; where the creature is driven by pain and rage, Frankenstein acts from self-interest. To Shelley, what makes a person human is not a “natural” human body but the qualities of empathy and unselfishness…a perspective which has recurred in speculative literature many times over the last two centuries.

Consider that human “perfection” has generally been conceptualized as masculine. Women on the other hand historically and culturally are flawed, Other, monstrous and animalistic…tied to the body, mortality, birth and death…and the consequences of their subjugated state have long been proffered as justification for it. Mary Shelley was the daughter of the woman who wrote passionately and eloquently of the degradation of women by presumptions of their weakness, foolishness, and irrationality. Taking it further, writers like Barbara Creed can declare that “All human societies have a conception of the monstrous-feminine, of what it is about women that is shocking, terrifying, horrific, abject.” Others like Catharine MacKinnon can ask, in all seriousness, “Are women human?” pointing out that in terms of our society’s willingness to recognize our full humanity and autonomy, we are not. In some sense, we are the monster. Hence our tendency to empathize with monsters and to turn on their intellectual, idealized-human creators a sharply critical eye.

For every woman writing science fiction today, Mary Shelley is our antecedent, our monster-bearing foremother, who teaches us to both question what being human really is and insist upon our own humanity, while keeping sympathy for the monster who is us.  Every work of feminist science fiction is a dispatch from the edge of an ice floe.

“And now, once again, I bid my hideous progeny go forth and prosper.” — Mary Shelley