Term Paper: Mary Shelley's Frankenstein Bakhtin Distinguished

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[. . .] Shelley used the opportunity presented by a male usurping the female role of giving birth to describe post-partum depression as well. Victor's flight from the monster, at his first stirring, and his reaction, "For this I had deprived myself of rest and health. I had desired it with an ardor that far exceeded moderation; but now that I had finished, the beauty of the dream vanished, and breathless horror and disgust filled my heart," (Shelley, p. 49) is highly reminiscent of post-partum depression and agitation.

Further, the creation of a setting wherein a male protagonist is made to experience feminine nature and emotions, allows Shelley to explore the unfortunate consequences of a patriarchal vision of the ideal bourgeoisie family. Thus Victor Frankenstein's grief over the results of his creation is, in a sense, Mary Shelley's challenge of the emphasis placed on the sensibility of reason and emotional restraint by a culture, which prided itself on its masculinity (Hobbs, 1993).

History has documented the fact that the early nineteenth century brought about a powerful conservative reaction in England to the French Revolution and the wars that followed, which made any suggestion of political or social reform all but impossible. In fact, feminism in particular almost ceased because of a fear that French ideas would contaminate the British way of life. As a result, traditional family structures and ideals of masculinity and femininity came increasingly to be seen as a central and defining part of British life (Caine, p. 53). By blurring the roles of gender in the process of creation, Shelley was, in fact, challenging the imbalance in a Britain, exemplified by masculinity (Caine, p. 53). Further, by demonstrating the wickedness of an otherwise perfectly reasonable monster as entirely explained by the injustices that he endures, Shelley paints a perfect example of a man created by the inherent blindness in the Enlightenment philosophies to the virtues of being too rational and masculine (Fisch et.al., p. 260).

Shelley's exploration of the virtues of a more gender balanced culture, incorporates a possible explanation for the need of the male gender to suppress the female, implicit in Victor's reasons for destroying the female version of his creation: "...she, who in all probability was to become a thinking and reasoning animal, might refuse to comply with a compact made before her creation." (Shelley, p. 140) Thus, Victor fears the power of the female to reason and more important, as possessing the reproductive power for creating a "race of devils." (Shelley, p. 140) It is interesting that Victor refers to his creation as symbolic of the devil since he very well knew that the monster turned vicious only after he repeatedly faced rejection and injustice at the hands of humans. Though it is possible to just literally interpret Victor's meaning, it is more likely that Victor is actually acknowledging the devastating consequences of defying the female principle in nature: "...to usurp the powers of Mother Nature...increase the prestige and social control of (male) scientists...eliminate the biological and hence the cultural need for women altogether." (Bender et.al., p. 348)

The highlighting of the subliminal male fear of the power of the woman can be linked back to the implication in Frankenstein that the patriarchal ideal of the family results in repression of human emotion, often with disastrous results. The Frankenstein men, for instance, are seen as actively distancing themselves from disturbing emotions that include sexual passion. For Alphonse, marriage is motivated more by the need to fulfill a patriarchal ideal of a male heir, while Victor's almost pre-determined marriage to Elizabeth is more from a desire to preserve the harmony of the existing family (Hobbs, 1993). Implying a quasi-incestuous marriage, Elizabeth and Victor are cousins, friends, and companions: "Foucault claims that sexuality itself becomes a mode of social knowledge and control...family is the most active site of sexuality...doubtless the exigencies of the latter which maintain and prolong its existence, incest...occupies a central place...consistently being solicited and refused...object of obsession and attraction, a dreadful secret...." (Bender et.al., p. 237)

The suppression of human (feminine) emotion leads to Victor's passionate pursuit of discovering the secrets of creation itself. Indeed, Victor's only display of real desire and passion is as he goes about his work of bringing to life the assimilated body parts of corpses (Hobbs, 1993). Macabre, by itself, Victor's misplaced emotion is all the more disturbing given the male denial of female emotion and the feminine ethos of care in Shelley's real world. Viewed from this perspective, Shelley's argument in favor of a more balanced role for the female begins to grow even more meaningful.

Shelley's argument was, however, not restricted in favor of respecting the need for the female role in society. She was also advocating that man acknowledge the feminine characteristics in his own personality: "...men and women must unite as equal partners in the reproduction and preservation of life, controlling the unfettered scientific imagination with a specifically maternal, nurturing love...." (Bender et.al., p. 349)

Studying the real essence of Shelley's message as encapsulated above, it would appear that she was way ahead of her times for the simple reason that society, even today, is still grappling with the issues emerging from culturally constructed gender divisions. As observed by Margaret Mead, the great anthropologist, it is difficult to imagine any society that does not found itself upon the sexual split within our species. Yet, Mead's lifework was devoted to breaking apart the rigid identity that patriarchal culture has developed between female and certain kinds of femininity, between male and certain kinds of masculinity. Interestingly, she demonstrated that there is nothing immutably decreed by nature concerning the qualities each gender is assigned (Aker & Morrow, p. 9).

Mead's contention mirrors the critique of nineteenth century patriarchal culture in Shelley's Frankenstein. Thus, viewed from the context of a critique of the prevalent patriarchal culture, it is possible to see a single underlying theme of a more equal role for the feminine principle in nature in Shelley's work

Works Cited

Aker, D.L. & Morrow, F. "Unleashing Our Unknown Selves: An Inquiry into the Future of Femininity and Masculinity." New York: Praeger Publishers, 1991.

Bender, J., David, D., Richetti, J.J., & Seidel, M. "The Columbia History of the British Novel." New York: Columbia University Press, 1994.

Caine, B. "English Feminism, 1780-1980." Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Fisch, A., Mellor, A.K., & Schor, E.H. "The Other Mary Shelley: Beyond Frankenstein." New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.

Hobbs, C. "Reading the Symptoms: An Exploration of Repression and Hysteria in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein." Studies in the Novel. 1993. Vol. 25: 2, p. 152+

Shelley, M. "Frankenstein: Or, the Modern Prometheus." New York: Collier

Books, 1961.

Shiach, M. "Feminism and Cultural Studies." Oxford:… [END OF PREVIEW]

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