Re-reading Mary Shelley’s FRANKENSTEIN by Joyce Zonana

jz-headshotA few weeks ago, a former colleague invited me to visit one of his classes, to discuss Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s 1818 novel Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus and the essay I’d published about it almost thirty years ago, “‘They Will Prove the Truth of My Tale: Safie’s Letters as the Feminist Core of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.”  To prepare for that visit, I’ve spent the past few days re-reading the book, and I’m overwhelmed anew by the beauty of Shelley’s language, the brilliance of her plot, and the profoundness of her themes. The book moves me even more today than when I first read it.

Frankenstein is a novel that speaks especially powerfully to questions that concern FAR readers: patriarchal competition vs. matriarchal connection; humans’ proper relation to nature; the origin of evil. All the Frankenstein movies, however wonderful they are, simply don’t do the book justice. The belief that it is a “science fiction” or “horror” story keeps many potential readers, I suspect, from picking up this book that expresses its author’s deepest, explicitly feminist meditations about human life.

“I am malicious because I am miserable,” Victor Frankenstein’s creation, the purported “monster” tells him after killing Victor’s young brother: “I was benevolent; my soul glowed with love and humanity; but am I not alone, miserably alone?”

Victor, the ambitious young scientist, had wanted to create human life.  He labors for nearly two years, but “the beauty of the dream vanished” the moment he sees the ugliness of the creature he has animated from dead matter. It seems more than strange for a parent–even such a perverse one–to abandon a child solely because it is ugly, but Victor cannot bring himself to look at the “wretch” he so longed to create.

Left to himself, the outcast, nameless creature wanders helplessly through the world, finding food and shelter as he can, and discovering that other humans, too, fear him and, as a result, attack him. Is the creature a migrant, an alien “other” whose presence on our doorstep we refuse? At one point, he hopes that an especially loving, intimate family might adopt him; after spending months hiding nearby and secretly helping them, he ventures to petition the blind elderly father, explaining how people are prejudiced against him:

I have good dispositions; my life has been hitherto harmless, and, in some degree, beneficial; but a fatal prejudice clouds their eyes, and where they ought to see a feeling and kind friend, they behold only a detestable monster.

Because the old man cannot see the creature, he is moved by his words and offers to help; but the moment his children come in, they are alarmed by the creature’s uncouth looks, and, like everyone before them, immediately attack.

The creature’s benevolence turns to momentary feelings of “rage and revenge.” Yet these feelings pass, and a while later, he saves a young girl from drowning. But a man who sees him carrying her body is horrified. The man shoots and wounds the creature:

The feelings of kindness and gentleness, which I had entertained but a few moments before, gave place to hellish rage and gnashing of teeth. Inflamed by pain, I vowed eternal hatred and vengeance to all mankind.

And so is born the “monster” most people associate with the name Frankenstein–a lone and lonely terrorist who lashes out against a world that has no place for him. One by one, he strangles all the people his “maker” holds dear: Victor’s brother William, his best friend Clerval, and his cousin/bride Elizabeth.

Yet the novel invites us to have compassion for the creature, even while it condemns the society that makes him as he is. Victor, raised by a devoted mother and tenderly loved by a doting cousin, should have known better. As should we.

When I first read and taught Frankenstein in the late 1980s, I saw in it an explicitly feminist parable that put into narrative form the arguments Mary Shelley’s mother, Mary Wollstonecraft had made in her 1792 treatise, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. Wollstonecraft had insisted that women have “improvable reason” and “souls”; they are not “mere animals” or “weak beings” as European law and philosophy had regarded them. Victor’s creature, although biologically male, suffers just as women in Western culture suffer when they are treated “not as part of the human species.”

In other ways, too, Mary Shelley’s novel embodies feminist–even ecofeminist–values. For one thing, she suggests that the male effort to “penetrate into the recesses of nature, and shew how she works in her hiding places” is more than problematic–bringing disastrous results for the men involved, for nature, and for all of humanity. For another, the book’s ideal is human cooperation and love, an ideal exemplified largely in the novel’s female characters.

But what strikes me most today is the genealogy of terrorism that the book lays out: I see the creature as the gunman in the clock tower in Austin; the Parkland shooter; Timothy McVeigh in Oklahoma; the pilots who took over planes on 9/11 . . . I don’t know all the details of all these men’s stories, but I suspect that, like the creature, they too became “malicious” because they were “miserable.” And I weep for a world that abandons so many of its children, leaving them to suffer and sometimes to seek revenge.

Mary Shelley

Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, portrait by Richard Rothwell, National Portrait Gallery, London

Mary Shelley was 21 when she published Frankenstein just over two hundred years ago. It has proved to be one of the most enduring and productive literary works ever written–generating hundreds of interpretations and versions. And while last year institutions across the country celebrated Frankenstein at 200, Mary Shelley, as her biographer Fiona Sampson recently put it, has still not really been given the respect she deserves. It’s never too late to explore for the first or the hundredth time the provocative work of this extraordinary woman writer.

Joyce Zonana is the author of a memoir, Dream Homes: From Cairo to Katrina, an Exile’s Journey. She recently completed a translation from the French of Egyptian-Jewish writer Tobie Nathan’s Ce pays qui te ressemble [This Land That Is Like You], a novel celebrating Arab-Jewish life in early twentieth-century Cairo, forthcoming from Seagull Books. She served for a time as co-Director of the Ariadne Institute for the Study of Myth and Ritual and has also translated Henri Bosco’s Malicroix, forthcoming from New York Review Books.


Categories: abuse, Body, Children, Ecofeminism, Family, Fiction, General, Literature, Patriarchy, Popular Culture, Violence

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18 replies

  1. It strikes me that this is a story of prejudice based on how people look. Many people with visible disabilities struggle with such reactions. The same is true of lesbians and gays who present as different. So I think that one could argue that Mary Shelley understood the idea of multiple oppressions, interlocking oppressions or the newer term of intersectionality.

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  2. I am thinking of Robin Kimmerer’s story of meeting the evil Windigo in Braiding Sweetgrass. She gives him a tea that makes him vomit up everything he had eaten/destroyed. Then she gives him a healing tea. Then she lies down beside him and tells him a healing story.

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  3. How beautiful is that! I can’t wait to read that book. I requested it at the Brooklyn Public Library months ago, but it seems that many people are ahead of me.


  4. Searching online this morning for quotes by Mary Shelley (1797-1851) and found this one — wow, so wonderful, feminist, delightful — and where she says; “I do not wish women to have power over men; but over themselves.”

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  5. It’s been a long time since I read Frankenstein. What I still remember about it is how eloquent the Monster is. That was so surprising to me! And, yes, the horror movies got it all wrong, including taking the Monster’s eloquence away and just giving him grunts and a nasty temper. Well, I guess if I were an abandoned child like he is, I’d be angry, too.

    Joyce, have you ever seen the musical film Young Frankenstein (1974)? It’s a totally silly, satirical parody by Mel Brooks (whom we also remember for “Springtime for Hitler” from The Producers). It’s a parody of those old horror movies and then became a play, which I’ve seen twice. Neither the movie nor horror movies it parodies nor the play have any clue at all about what Shelley actually wrote. But it’s still funny.

    Thanks for giving us the “genealogy” of terrorism. I suspect being married to Percy Shelley filled Mary with horror and anger. That whole bunch of Romantic poets was scary!

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  6. You’re right, Barbara, the monster is astonishingly eloquent. He learns to speak and read from that wonderful family he watches over for a year . . . They’re the ones whose rejection really cuts him to the quick. I haven’t seen the Mel Brooks movie, but I will! And, yes, being married to Percy would certainly have filled the young Mary with rage and horror–which she, like her “creature,” eloquently expressed!

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  7. I’ve not read this book, but now will have to! Thank you Joyce.


  8. I’ve never read it either – thinking of it, as you said, as a horror story. Thanks for the clarification. Now I need to read it. Mary Shelly, another of the long list of creative women who have not received their due.


  9. Hi Joyce, Like you, I taught _Frankenstein_ in the 1980s as the first novel in a course on “Women and Science Fiction.” I think SF’s lineage can be traced back to this novel, although it is an early 19th century piece with much more than what people stereotypically association with science fiction. I, too, loved the novel, and so did my students. What I remember about my take on the bookl was Mary Shelley’s feminist understanding of “mothering” and her main character Victor Frankenstein’s horrifying abandonment of his “child.”Shelley wrote it while on vacation with her husband (I think he was her lover at the time), Lord Byron, and someone else. In a friendly competition, each of them wrote a horror story, and all agreed that Mary had written the best piece.


    • Yes, Mary Shelley seems to have been thinking a lot about mothering when she wrote the book. She had lost several children, and her mother had died right after giving birth to her. It was something that was always on her mind. And, yes, I do believe Frankenstein is considered the first SF novel, and also, of course, much science fiction is also very thoughtful and often feminist. I’m thinking of Ursula LeGuin and Joanna Russ, among others.


  10. I have never read Frankenstein and it sounds like I need to do that. Funny I was thinking as I read your post about the Tupac Shakur lyrics used as the title of a movie “The Hate U Give” was the movie tackling modern racism issues. Shakur’s lyric title is “The Hate u Give Little Infants Fucks Everyone.” And then in the comments, you mention the connection to Africa. In those lyrics and movie one of the main themes is how the energy we put out will come back to us in the form of our children. And if that message is not one of love . . . well . . then. . .
    Thank you for the post.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Thanks for this post, Joyce. I took a course on the Romantic writers when I was a student at CSU Northridge in the late 70s and I remember that while reading about Percy Shelley, I found a footnote in my textbook that said that his wife, Mary, had written Frankenstein. I was so upset that she only merited a footnote! I thought to myself, why does he get so much credit when few people other than English majors have ever heard of him, but almost everyone has heard of Frankenstein!


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