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Beyond the horizon

In Critique of Empire in Frankenstein, Elizabeth Bohls cites an Indian literary critic, Gayatri Spivak: “It should not be possible to read nineteenth-century British literature without remembering that imperialism, understood as England’s social mission, was a crucial part of the representation of England to the English" (Bohls, 23). The pursuit for knowledge exhibited by the main characters of Frankenstein mirrors the pursuit for knowledge, and most importantly, for new economic sources of Western Europe in Mary Shelley’s time. Captain James Cook’s famous voyagers were mostly inspired by geographical and scientific discoveries, and it is significant in correspondence to the initially liberate motifs with which the Frankenstein’s characters commenced their explorations. As for James Cook, there are two special occasions that directly link the important circumstances of Frankenstein’s plot. Cook’s expeditions to the Pacific, staffed with scientists, resemble the fate of an overreacher who finally succumbs to the confrontation with his goal, as James Cook did when he was killed by natives on his returning to Hawai in 1779.[11] Even more, he also sailed into Arctic Ocean in search of a Northern Passage, and failed. Who else than Walton, struggling on arctic wastes only to heal the fiasco, can a reader of Frankenstein see in this perspective?

Not only Victor Frankenstein, but all the people the Creature meets see his appearance as evil. His physiognomy is exaggerated to be perceived as an alien, a tribal man whose land was going to be England dominion, and thus, whose rivalry must have been compromised. The whole concept of European standards of taste and scientific propaganda to feed prejudices against other races were invaluable tools, and it is not surprise when A. Mellor adds: “Having conceived his creature as a ‘devil’ and his ‘enemy’, Frankenstein has made him so” (Mellor, 134). When the Creature is completely abandoned by the civilized society, it is: “just looming shadow on the periphery of civilized life” (Bohls), interweaving the potential danger and exclusion that the conquerors and tradesmen possibly suffered, militating oversea. But a similar position was assigned to the women left either in their homeland, carrying on the petty bourgeois life, or to face the hostility that often surrounded their new homes set in the newly established colonies. The women confinement to home is disclosed by another character of the novel, Elizabeth, as she was not permitted to travel with Victor, who revealed: “…regretted that she had not the same opportunities of enlarging her experience and cultivating her understanding” (Shelley, 151).

The readiness to sacrifice the family living to the pursuit of which the final consequences can not be controlled, and the obsession with a dream that was too often just a badly disguised personal and economic ambition to rule over others, that is what worried Mary Shelley when she was unwinding Walton’s and Victor’s unsatisfactory careers. Walton’s expedition to chase the foolish vision of a tropical paradise at the North Pole exemplifies the vanity of the assumed urgency to explore at any cost. His isolation in the middle of the icy nowhere keeps him alone and away from all he actually wants. He is constantly missing a companion and blames himself to pose a fatal threat to his crew. The minor character of the novel, the Russian sea-master, who sacrifices his hopes of marriage so that his beloved may marry the man of her choice, reflects Mary Shelley’s presentation of a woman’s apprehension that her husband might leave her as a result of their separation. Victor is engulfed in his scientific research and can not think lovingly of Elizabeth and his family. He is engaged with a rape of nature, looking for the mystery of life itself, and in this sense, he also goes beyond the horizon which is unattainable and self-destructive. Nature resists his attempt to find the secret of creation and deprives Victor of both mental and physical health while doing his research: “Every night I was oppressed by a slow fever, and I became nervous to a most painful degree” (Shelley, 51). Even Henry Clerval is, to a certain extent, determined to travel to the East, which, along with his knowledge of Oriental languages, may prompt the colonial imperialism rather than a fair-minded linguist eager to see the origins of his academic subject.

Finally, it should be mentioned the character of the Turkish merchant, Safie’s father, living in Paris who was sentenced to death for a crime he had not committed. Although the relation to racism is evident since: “... his [the Turkish merchant] religion and wealth rather than the crime alleged against him had been the cause of his condemnation” (Shelley 107), he is assigned a completely negative role. He is helped from prison by the DeLacey’s family and he even promises to give her daughter to Felix as a fiancé, but later, during the oppressions connected with his escape, he schemes a treacherous plan. He escapes from Christian dominion of Europe with Safie, leaving the DeLacey’s to suffer the punishment for helping him flee. They are exiled from France, deprived of all their possession. Thus, a reader of Frankenstein sees a treasonable Asiatic, an enemy that no one can trust. Moreover, he draws her half-Christian daughter back to the culture where women are kept in harems. Here, Mary Shelley betrays her otherwise liberal and humanistic principles, and seems to turn to accepting trivial preconceptions against non-European cultures in order to call attention to inviolable family values and gender equality.

  1. Born without identity

In the late eighteenth century, women still suffered one major threat which was a relatively high death rate related to the birth-giving. Mary Shelley became half-orphaned when she was eleven days old, on September 10, 1797. However, her father, William Godwin, proved himself a model caretaker and immediately personated the chief object of little Mary’s affection. He studied progressive educational authorities, such as J.J.Rousseau or Mary Wollstonecraft herself, and tried to adopt their child-care practices.

Nevertheless, this idyll was interrupted when Godwin’s housekeeper and governess, Louisa Jones, left their home and Godwin met Mary Jane Clairmont in 1801. She and her two children, a six-year-old Charles and a four-year-old Jane represented stressful competitors for Mary and her relationship with her father. Eleanor Ty, a professor of English at University of Waterloo says: “The new Mrs. Godwin resented Mary’s intense affection for her father and was jealous of the special interest visitors showed in the product of the union between the two most radical thinkers of the day” (Ty). M.J. Clairmont constantly encroached on Mary’s privacy, demanded that she do household chores, and limited her access to Godwin. While her daughter Jane was sent to school, Mary was denied any formal education. She was taught first by Louisa Jones and later Godwin who advised her that reading two or three books at the same time was the best way to study; her father’s excellent library provided her with great opportunity to reading.

The intellectual conversations that Godwin conducted with such visitors as William Wordsworth, Charles Lamb, Samuel Taylor Coleridge or William Hazlitt must have left a great influence on Mary’s own literary aspiration later in her life. Mary’s parents’ intellectual heritage transferred into Mary’s genes was certainly prone to rebel against M. J. Clairmont’s oppressive manners. This friction between the two women partly resulted from the superlatives and adorations that frequent visitors of Godwin’s household often attributed to Mary’s dead mother M. Wollstonecraft. In 1812, upon the tension, Godwin sent Mary to live some time with the family of an acquaintance, William Baxter, Scotland. Staying at Baxter’s, Mary experienced an idyllic time that would have been an example of the domestic harmony and nuclear family that would later appear in her Frankenstein.

Surely, it need not be reminded that Frankenstein is a book that largely reminds M. Shelley’s own troubled family relationships, and the character of the creature is a good example. The creature’s autobiographical descriptions of social rejections are evident when it cries: “Every where I see bliss, from which I alone am irrevocably excluded” (Shelley, 95), and it draws directly on M. Shelley’s experience of the abandonment and emotional deprivation after her father’s remarriage to the repulsive Mrs. Clairmont. Moreover, as a motherless child and a woman in a patriarchal culture, M. Shelley shared the creature’s powerful sense of being born with no identity, without a feminist model to identify with. The creature asks itself: “Who was I? What was I? Whence did I come? What was my destination? These questions continually recurred, but I was unable to solve them” (Shelley, 124).

If the Creature is anxious to develop a bond of affection with the De Lacey family, then it can show M. Shelley’s own emotional isolation in the Godwin’s household. Throughout the novel, there is permanent hint on Victor Frankenstein’s denial of his parental responsibility towards his ‘child’, which is in contrast to the two examples of a loving father – Alphonse Frankenstein (Victor’s father) and Father De Lacey. Both these fathers embody unselfish care for their motherless children and provide them with loving homes, which can not be said about Mary’s experience with what Lisa Hopkins, Professor of English at Sheffield Hallam Universuty described as: “…the backlash that her mother M. Wollstonecraft had engendered. M.Wollstonecraft was almost a monster because her death was taken as an instance of God’s judgment on her lifestyle and on her political views” (“Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein”). As the plot of Frankenstein comes to the point where the Creature is forcefully rejected from previously generous De Lacey’s family, it flees searching for its only legitimate parent – Victor Frankenstein. Accidentally, the Creature runs into Victor’s younger brother, the five-year-old William, who is murdered by it. Three rising images can be derived from this name matching, disclosing Mary Shelley’s deeply buried frustrations: first, her repressed hostility to Godwin, second, her envy at her half brother William who arose from the Godwin-Clairmont relation, and third, and most alarming, her own son William was born a few months before she started writing Frankenstein, on January 24, 1816. She had given a birth to another baby who did not survive but eleven days, and thus the murder of William Frankenstein reveals her horror of being incapable of giving birth to a healthy child. A. Mellor appended to these dark recesses of M. Shelley’s mind: “As she suggests, a rejected and unmothered child can become a killer, especially the killer of its own parents, siblings, or children. When the nuclear family fails to mother its offspring, it engenders homicidal monsters” (Mellor, 47).

The ideal of the affectionate domestic life, inclinable to be damaged at any time, is at the root of all the aspects of Shelley’s novel. The parallelism to what happens if the family members are corrupted, either by the outside society failure or disasters within a family, winds along the whole novel as well as the very life of Mary Shelley.[12]

    1. Predetermination of the role

The intellectual circle surrounding Mary Shelley is often thought of as consisting of poets, writers and philosophers who could be called radicals. These English radicals were intellectually close to French Jacobinism of the early stages of the French Revolution. Although most of them abandoned the philosophy of the revolutionary leaders, mainly when the French Revolution degenerated into the madness of uncontrolled executions, protagonists of radicalism were often seen as those favoring political reforms including changes of social order, electoral reforms, abolition of titles, redistribution of property, or freedom of the press. [13]

There is no question that Percy Byshe Shelley, by the standards of his day, was an economic and political radical. In both his poetry and his prose he is constantly championing the poor against the rich. Perhaps, he could be called a ‘proto socialist’. The early nineteenth century Britain’s home politics is sometimes accompanied by the term ‘political paranoia’ that can be found in both Tory’s and Whig’s doctrines.[14] Percy Byshe Shelley’s work of political content and opposition was by its contemporary reviewers considered as rebellious and trouble-making. An English historian Kim Blank tried to define their attitude towards individuals as Percy Byshe Shelley by claiming that: “The paranoid writer believes that individuals – enemy conspirators, no less – can, through their words, control and manipulate the masses, leading to the complete breakdown of morals and society” (Blank). Such definition may not be relevant to posing any danger to society, but it, paradoxically, corresponds to P. B. Shelley’s private life. This aspect of his radicalism may be detected by the fact that, while being intellectually hyperactive, he was unable to satisfy fully the emotional and financial needs of his first wife Harriet, her children, and also Mary Shelley and her children.

The ideal image of a father who would always be bliss for a woman who is expecting his child is hardly a portrait of P. B. Shelley, and neither is the politics he identified with. His world of abstract ideas, the quest for perfect beauty, love, freedom and goodness were all the goals that Mary Shelley shared as well, however, she had certainly anticipated that these ideals might be only a mask for his narcissism and egoism that often made him an insensitive husband and uncaring, irresponsible parent. Shortly before their elopement to the continent in 1815, P. B. Shelley “tried to force Mary to take James Hogg, a Scottish poet, as a lover despite her sexual indifference to Hogg” (Mellor, 73). A seven-teen-year old Mary, dependant on Percy for emotional support, was urged to reciprocate a stranger’s sexual overtures, while Percy flirted with Claire Clairmont, Mary’s half sister, living out his theory of ‘free love’. Such a disgrace can serve as an example of his character and unreliability.

Mary Shelley balanced her relationship to her husband by allotting his personality to two characters of Frankenstein. Her love and images of an ideal household are embodied in Henry Clerval, while Victor Frankenstein pictures her worry about Percy’s selfishness. Although Henry Clerval has an inquisitive mind and is anxious to gain experience, he never lets it interfere with his personal relationships, and A. Mellor demonstrates it in her analysis saying that: “he immediately delays that voyage to nurse his sick friend back to health” (Mellor, 75). Victor, on the other hand, changes from a gentle, kind and healthy man to a selfish, sickly being so obsessed with the secrets of creation that he even loses contact with his family for several years, studying in Ingolstad.

Mary Shelley found it difficult to identify with her husband’s radical philosophy while satisfying her natural maternal sensation. In other words, she could not followed both the ruffled life style of her husband and her instinctive need of domesticity. The romantic ideology to unite opposites, the human mortality and divine infinity in a new being; the dream of human perfectibility and immortality, as it is revealed in P. B. Shelley’s Defense of Poetry, could not have saturated Mary Shelley’s expectation of a wife and mother: “She understood that the romantic affirmation of the creative process over its finite products could justify a profound irresponsibility on the part of the poet” (Mellor, 80). Frankenstein reflects those ambitions in Victor’s endeavor to “bestow animation upon lifeless matter” (Shelley, 49), which is nothing less than an aspiration to overcome death itself. The resulting consequences are fatal.

Although Mary Shelley was a committed defender of the radical perspective she, unlike P. B. Shelley, was also a supporter of the spirit of conservatism which dominated England during her adolescence. This may seem as contradictory between the two poles, but it must be remembered that the first aim that a mother would seek is domestic safety for her children. No radicalism can fully assure such a demand. Thus, the natural needs of Mary Shelley’s motherhood must have inclined to nearly the opposite political ideology – conservatism. So, in preservation of her own family, she inevitably acknowledges the structure of a bourgeois family, and its economic certainty, which, of course, entails the inequalities of social hierarchy that were manifested in the nineteenth-century British class system. [15] This can not be called radicalism at all!

The deduced conclusion of what position of social class she identified herself with, and what was her attitude towards protecting the interests of radicalism (sometimes seen as heritable obligation) versus interests of private welfare is revealingly captured in the following citation:

Her endorsement of this hierarchy is tellingly revealed both in her revulsion from the lower classes, particularly those of foreign nations -- the German peasants whose "horrid and slimy faces" she found "exceedingly disgusting" during her honeymoon voyage along the Rhine in 1814 and in her unquestioned assumption that she belonged to "society," the upper-middle-class world of her husband's gentry ancestors, rather than to the artisan and dissenting lower-middle classes of her own parents (Mellor, 87).

    1. A “romantic” pregnancy

A woman’s anxieties and insecurities about her own creative and reproductive capabilities reflected in Frankenstein is the first articulation of a woman’s experience of pregnancy and related fears in Western literature. It should be remembered that Mary Shelley had had a baby lost eighteen months before she had the dream of reanimating a corpse by warming it with a ‘spark of life’; the dream occurred after she, Lord Byron, Percy Byshe Shelley and Dr. Polidori agreed each to write a thrilling horror story while staying at Villa Diodati in Switzerland in June, 1816. It is probable that the dream was inspired by their previous discussion concerning galvanism and Erasmus Darwin’s success in causing “a pile of vermicelli to move voluntarily” (Bakewell). Mary Shelley’s reverie opened her subconscious anxieties of a very young, frequently pregnant woman who struggles for upbringing a healthy, normal child; a woman who doubts whether she has the natural ability of a mother; who considers even the possibility of being killed by her child as Mary ‘killed’ her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft.

The narration of Frankenstein is framed by letters from Walton to his sister Margaret, and this correspondence is written in the period that matches exactly Mary Shelley’s third pregnancy during which she wrote Frankenstein. In her critical essays A. Mellor writes: “The first letter is dated December 11, 17--; the last is dated September12, 17--. Exactly nine months enwombs the telling of the history of Frankenstein, bringing Mary Shelley’s literary pregnancy to full term” (Mellor, 54). This parallel of an expectant mother and a female writer’s intellectual challenge to compete within the male literary circle shows the difficulty that Mary Shelley had to endure. She had to manage to be in a full working load both as a continually jeopardized would-be-mother and prompted writer. In the Creature’s development and education, she discusses development and education of a child and how the nurturing of a loving parent is extremely important in the moral progression of an individual.

Mary Shelley’s History of a Six Weeks’ Tour (published before she wrote Frankenstein) reveals that she read Rousseau’s Emile and the Nouvelle Heloise in 1815 and the Creature character contains substantial traits of Rousseau’s conception of the natural man as a noble savage. In the debate on whether learning achievement should be attributed to natural intelligence or to social environment, Mary Shelley highly advocated the social bondage. The Creature’s saying that: “I was benevolent and good; misery made me a fiend. Make me happy, and I shall again be virtuous” (Shelley, 96) bears an obvious connection to Rousseau’s Emile where it is stated that “A man left to himself from birth would be more of a monster than the rest” (Woodbridge). Rousseau blamed the moral failings of children on the lack of a mother’s love, especially during early infancy of a child. However, the peculiarity of this proclamation lies in the fact that Rousseau ignored a father’s parental responsibilities; he abandoned his own children at a local orphanage.

The initially excellent education that the Creature received from the DeLacey’s family provided only theoretical skills while the social emotions were inevitably unfulfilled.[16] The receptive skills and self study were certainly familiar to Mary Shelley’s adolescence when she was deprived of school attendance and had to study in her father’s library. Eventually, the Creature is abandoned by the DeLaceys’ and that is virtually the start of its becoming a criminal, a monster. Here, for Mary Shelley, the education itself does not help bring up a complex personality and she may have asked herself: how well does even a much-loved child learn? Though Victor Frankenstein was deprived of neither parental love nor excellent education, his egoistic thirst for omnipotence made him an asocial, too. In Frankenstein, these two failures depicted Mary Shelley’s maternal fear that she could produce a monster even if she loved her children and provided the best education for them. The constant threat of the possibility that she could die as her mother died, leaving her children to not entirely responsible Percy Byshe Shelley, pervades most noticeably in the fates of social isolation of the two major characters of the novel: Victor Frankenstein and his Monster.

  1. Excluding the female

The gender link between nature and the female, enrooted in Western civilization of the eighteenth century, was very effective in preserving social benefits for men. The anthropomorphic paradigm of usurpation of nature applied on the female gender maintains man’s desires for power, wealth and reputation, and leads to an aggressive desire to dominate the female as a sex object. And it is mainly economic power and the heritage principle that is the central interest in patrilineal society.[17] Provided that Western sexist conception sees nature as female, the Monster is a metaphor for the stolen sacred power of nature to create life. If nature is perceived as a possessable and exploitable female, then there is a danger that ‘she’ can be harmed, and can defend ‘herself’ by destroying ‘her’ exploiters. The Monster warns Victor Frankenstein: “Remember that I have power;…I can make you so wretched that the light of day will be hateful to you” (165).

In Frankenstein, Victor Frankenstein embodies the social superiority of men who fear what A. Mallor describes as: “…uninhibited female sexual experience that threatens the foundation of patriarchal power” (Mellor, 307). This attitude to the female sexuality is very clear in Victor’s response to the Creature’s demand for a female companion. Victor ‘tears to pieces’ the nearly completed female. He destroys what he is afraid of: a female who might assert her own will, a female who might not be afraid of and obedient to the male, who may resist contracts made by the patriarchal society before her birth, contracts that would govern her very existence. Victor is also afraid of her ability to produce offspring and therefore usurps female reproduction power by destroying the passive female body. A. Mellor notes:
“What Victor Frankenstein truly fears is female sexuality as such. A woman who is sexually liberated, free to choose her own life, her own sexual partner, and to propagate at will, can only appear monstrously ugly to Victor, for she defies that sexist aesthetic that insists that women be small, delicate, modest, passive and sexually pleasing” (Mellor, 120).
In case that either the male or female gender tries to dominate the other, the superior must have a reasonable, or at least subconscious, fear of the inferior. The fundamental fear comes from the logic that human society, based on sexual procreation, can not prosper, let alone to survive, without maintaining natural balance between both sexes. Jed Bland says about this ethological principle: “A species in which the males consistently deprived the females, and hence their young, of food resources would be at a disadvantage in evolutionary terms” (Bland).

Mary Shelley must have realized intimate male friendships at first hand when she traveled to Europe and spent the summer 1816 in Villa Diodati, surrounded by a close company of Lord Byron, P. B. Shelley and Dr. Polidori. Such circumstances provided her with material for the portrayals of male homosocial relationships in Frankenstein.[18] The most intimate and intense relationships in the novel occur not between husbands and wives, but between men and their male friends. Considering that Robert Walton is isolated on a ship surrounded by rugged sailors, his desire for a male companion, and not for a female seems unusual if not illogical. In the case of Alphonse Frankenstein, he compensates for the loss of his beloved Beaufort by becoming the lover of his dead friend’s daughter, Caroline, linking himself to the only living reminder of his friend. Victor Frankenstein’ relationship with Henry Clerval provides a living representation of the intimacy that perhaps only a properly functioning family may grant – Henry sacrifices his studies in order to nurture Victor back to health. The male gender of the Monster breaks any doubt of what Mary Shelley tries to show in the novel. Victor’s desire for the Monster and the Monster’s desire for his creator exemplify the depths of narcissistic male homosocial longing which not only ignores but deliberately excludes the feminine.

The reader of Frankenstein may have the impression that Mary Shelley had very little to say about the social position of women since the women in the novel have little to say themselves. But in fact, it only proves that the patriarchal world of eighteenth century Geneva suppressed women and the female sexuality itself. The females are securely fixed in domestic realm, performing their duties as mothers, sisters, wives and daughters without any complain of the discontent or inequalities that shape their lives.

Caroline Frankenstein moves from being the perfect daughter, nursing her father until his death, to being the perfect wife and mother, who eventually dies as consequence of taking care of Elizabeth Lavenza who suffers from small-pox. Elizabeth is the ideal sister, cousin and future wife of Victor, their marriage being planned by Victor’s parents long before (a contract that was characteristic for patriarchal society, as mentioned above). Elizabeth is confined to home while Victor Frankenstein enters the outside world. Women can not function effectively in the public as result of gender division. Justine Moritz is executed for a crime she never committed and Elizabeth is unable to save her, nor can she save herself on her wedding night. These women are in fact personification of nineteenth century ideal of the ‘Angel in the House’, representing the rigid gender-divisions of patriarchal Genevan society.[19] Eventually, they are all dead by the end of the novel. They are killed by their obedience to the role prescribed for them by the male patriarchal society which deprives them of any ability to save themselves.

Frankenstein’s rejection of his Creature signals the male isolation from the realm of domesticity, the sphere that women are supposed to have control of. The rejection to create a female companion for the Creature signals the suppression of the realm of emotions, the sphere from which the female sexual power grows. So both the woman and the Creature are marginalized in this society, and, in this sense a connection can be made between them. The Creature serves as a symbol of women’s helplessness and repression in the male society. Viewed from this point, Victor Frankenstein can be seen as a monster himself, which brings fresh light into the fact that many people in modern popular culture often attribute the name ‘Frankenstein’ to the nameless Monster. The real thrill of what Victor Frankenstein represents when he disturbs the law of nature and domestic kindness is explained by A. Mellor: “One of the deepest horrors of this novel is Frankenstein’s implicit goal of creating a society for men only: his creature is male; he refuses to create a female; there is no reason that the race of immortal beings he hoped to propagate should not be exclusively male” (Mellor, 115).

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