A 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 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.