All the information that has been already mentioned hovers around one central aspect of M. Shelley’s novel, which is the conflict between what should be ideal relationships in human society and what actually happens. If we see her as a teen-age Romantic writer who was virtually immersed in the society of distinguished poets, who were all men, then it is interesting to search for the cause of her skepticism about the principles of Romantic ideology, the dark side of the ideology, which is compared to Victor’s egoism: “Frankenstein’s goal can be identified with the radical desire that energized some of the best known English Romantic poems, the desire to elevate human beings into living gods” (Mellor, 70). Mary Shelley’s radicalism does not lie in her blind following of her parents’ legacy, but in uncovering gender inequality within the most progressive areas of people’s activity, whether it is tendencies in literature or science:
The explanatory models of science, like the plots of literary works, depend on linguistic structures which are shaped by metaphor and metonymy. The feminist reader is perhaps most sensitized to those symbolic structures which employ gender as a major variable or value. Mary Shelley was one of the first to comprehend and illustrate the dangers inherent in the use of sexist metaphors in the seventeenth-century scientific revolution (Mellor, 287).
She must have noticed that whatever ideology is favored, it is favored on the condition that the masculine element sees itself as something superior seeking something that would strengthen its position. In Frankenstein, she gives great attention to the scientist who works egoistically on his vision – a concept that serves her an effective reflection on her frustration with patriarchal establishment.
There is a strong assumption that Mary Shelley had a sound awareness of some of the most important scientific work of her day. Percy Byshe Shelley is known to have ordered the latest scientific textbooks from a London bookseller and librarian Thomas Hookham, who was P.B.Shelley’s publisher and acquaintance. Thus, Mary had some reliable sources from which to develop confrontation between scientific research and her social politics. The works of famous scientists of the late eighteenth century, Humphry Davy and Erasmus Darwin, were essential for her to understand basics of scientific research of her time. Davy’s theories and methods asserted that nature should be overmastered, which is seen in Mellor’s citation of Davy’s Discourse: “Who wouldn’t be ambitious of becoming acquainted with the most profound secrets of nature, of ascertaining her hidden operations, and of exhibiting to men that system of knowledge which relates so intimately to their own physical and moral constitution” (Mellor, 290). This is openly paraphrased in Victor Frankenstein words: “I pursued nature into her (my italics) hiding places” (49), and it shows the unshakable conception of nature as feminine, as something that should be exploited.
Erasmus Darwin, on the other hand, provided Mary Shelley with much more humanistic approach to science: “…a careful observation and celebration of the operations of nature with no attempt radically to alter either the way nature works or the institutions of society” (Mellor, 292). This concept must have resonated with her sense of humanity and natural femininity, and served her with the notion of ‘good science’, a positive notion of Romanticism against the masculine egoism represented by Victor Frankenstein. Moreover, E. Darwin was the first man who for English readers popularized the concept of the evolution of species through natural selection over million of years. V. Frankenstein is an antagonistic portrait to E. Darwin’s theories. Furthermore, he [Victor] makes the faulty Creation Theory look ridiculous by the Creature’s hideous appearance. The Creature has already had an appearance of a hybrid that causes panic even before it becomes the devilish monster. The fact that the Creature is animated without any contribution of female aspect, the absence of sexuality in the act of creation, is a direct simile to the theory that humanity and the Earth were created by God. But Victor usurps even the unique power of God to create life, thus, he defies both God and femininity, and the consequences are fatal. With this respect, E. Darwin’s teachings give M. Shelley a powerful tool to put across her feminist message that no harmony in human life is possible without fusing both male and female sexuality. Deploring Victor’s ‘bad science’, A. Mellor makes use of E. Darwin’ theories: “Frankenstein denies to his child the maternal love and nurturance it requires, the very nourishment that Darwin explicitly equated with the female sex” (Mellor, 301). Mary Shelley realized the tendency of a hubristic scientist to overmaster nature and employed this view to show similar tendency of men to overmaster women in a patriarchal society.
With the help of art
By creating her famous monster, Mary Shelley consolidated the tradition of the Gothic novel as female domain because of the extreme popularity of her Frankenstein. Although the birth of the Gothic novel is associated with male authors as Horace Walpole (The Castle of Otranto) or Matthew Lewis (The Monk), women writers were attracted by this genre because, as A. Mellor explains: “its conventions permit women to explore one of the most deeply repressed experiences in a patriarchal culture, female sexual desire” (Mellor, 55).
The typical plot shows a young female heroine hiding in a ruined castle; she is both frightened and fascinated by an intrusive villain who often possesses certain sexual provocation for her. She is then saved from seduction and death by a virtuous hero whom she then marries. The female sexual desire is thus satiated through ‘more acceptable’ sexual experience through the institution of marriage, which was often the only possibility for women of Mary Shelley’s era and social status how to experience the sexual passion. The real ‘evil’ was thought to be in uninhibited sexual experience, the sexually liberated woman. Although M. Shelley is the first writer who breaks the tradition of the Gothic novel by the fact that the central character is not a woman, the final death of Elizabeth Lavenza-Frankenstein on her wedding night gives us the proof that female sexuality is the matter. The scene of her murder is based on Henry Fuseli’s famous painting The Nightmare. Elizabeth’s posture on the wedding-bed after she has been murdered by the Monster reflects Fuseli’s image of female erotic desire both lusting for and frightened of the incubus riding upon a passive woman and brought to her bedroom by the stallion that leers at her from the foot of her bed. Invoking this image, M. Shelley reveals what Victor Frankenstein fears most: his bride’s sexuality. Elizabeth would not have been murdered if Victor had not left her alone in the bedroom, alone on their wedding-night, while he was searching for his Monster. Most significantly, she dies in what would have been the night of her sexual awakening. Victor Frankenstein has yet again repressed the feminine in favor of his own ‘all-male’ creation. “Afraid of female sexuality and the power of human reproduction it enables, both Frankenstein and the patriarchal society he represents use the technology of science and the laws of the polis to control and repress women” (Mellor, 308).
Clear connection can be made to the social hypocrisy of the double standard for males and females in the middle-class society of Mary Shelley’s era, and indeed in much later times. A respectable married man could have an affair out of wedlock and it was tolerated as something normal, but this would not be the case for his wife. Even much more later, in 1857, when Divorce Legislation was introduced, women were clearly disadvantaged: the rule “allowed for a man to divorce his wife for adultery, but a woman could only divorce if adultery was accompanied by cruelty” (“Victorian era”).
In the age when ‘normal’ women were not thought to have any sexual pleasure, it is no surprise that prostitution flourished. A man often resorted to a prostitute in order to keep his wife out of any possible sexual excesses which might raise her sexual appetite distracting her from her domestic duties. Lynn Abrams explains that a woman was expected: “…that she be pious, respectable and busy – no life of leisure for her; that she accept her place in the sexual hierarchy. Her role was that of helpment and domestic manager” (Abrams).
Conclusion While all the female characters in Frankenstein are effectively suspended from public society, Mary Shelley tried to distance herself from the novel with similar implicitness. Both the narrators are males, but it was a female author who wrote the novel. Although the England of Mary Shelley’s day was already becoming to admit female authorship, proved by authors such as Mary Wollstonecraft, Ann Radcliffe, or Fanny Burney, for example, the first edition of Frankenstein in 1818 was published anonymously. This is obviously not a sign of Mary Shelley as a continuator of her famous parents who were considered extreme radical thinkers publishing under their own names. A surprisingly plain reason can be the economical dependence on Percy Byshe Shelley’ father, Sir Timothy Shelley, a Sussex squire and a Member of Parliament. When Frankenstein was being published, Mary Shelley had already been a mother, having given birth to William in 1816 and Clara Everina in 1817. Her financial security, and above all the heritage for her son William, was, in case of P. B. Shelley’ death, dependant on the will of her father-in-law who would not have supported her or her children if she had done anything to displease him.
The message of Mary Shelley’s novel bridges the whole period from her day up to day. The subject of this message is the detection of social inequality in human society. Neither the French Revolution nor the conversion of feudalism to capitalism could change the exploitative nature of man. Mary Shelley offers an explanation for it by assuming that a flourishing and rightful society presumes a well-balanced domestic family. A family that fulfills needs of all its members is at the centre of M. Shelley’s social belief. It is an idea of a family that functions as a protective barrier against all the negative social effects threatening the family members in the case of disintegration of the family.
Along the narration of Frankenstein, there is a succession of tragic incidents that are the outgrowth of malfunctioning relationships between family members and most importantly between men and women (or husband and wife). The male vanity is an element that corrupts the principles of a functioning family by considering ‘himself’ as superior to the female element. Defying equal mutual partnership, the male ego locks himself out of the basics of human society – the family. And this is the core of Mary Shelley’s message – the counter-productivity of such a behavior since the man has situated himself outside the sphere of family intimacy and offspring breeding, the sphere where the woman has been left alone and is becoming to reign. The consequence is the subconscious fear of the female; the tendency to suppress her with the help of economic power and legal system. The establishment of the patriarchal society is very convenient in such circumstances.
Mary Shelley shows readers of the novel that this way of organizing human society conflicts with the notion of improving and humanizing the human race, and, basically, that it is a deviation leading to the destruction of humankind. This is the legacy of Mary Shelley Frankenstein, which is much more than a mere literary model for ‘a mad scientist and his monsters’ being a universal theme in modern pop-culture as we know it.
And what is the legacy of the author of Frankenstein for women who are still interested in the aspect of feminism? Most people of the twenty first century already understand what women rights mean – education, professional equality and much more feminist notions. The actual legacy stretches beyond us into the future, into the question that women have not yet addressed, and which is: what is woman’s nature. It was already proposed by British liberal thinker John Steward Mill in 1869 when he wrote:
I deny that any one knows or can know, the nature of the two sexes, as long as they have only been seen in their present relation to one another. Until conditions of equality exist, no one can possibly assess the natural differences between women and men, distorted as they have been. What is natural to the two sexes can only be found out by allowing both to develop and use their faculties freely. (Subjection of Women).
Mary Shelley’ Frankenstein gives us a new sight in the problem of emancipation. It must be emancipation of both men and women from the prejudice that the two different sexes should be considered as separate in all their duties and opportunities. Neither the ussurpator nor the ussurped can prosper without mutual respect.
The influence of William Godwin’s memoirs is discussed with Lisa Hopkins on BBC