As Mother’s Day beckons, Mary Shelley would like to have a word, or rather a novel’s worth of words. Her novel 200-year-old FrankensteinOr a Modern Prometheus has much to say today about the essential matristic values of nurturing and life-giving, women’s reproductive and other rights, parenthood and child care, and more. The novel’s two centuries of play, film, and book adaptations, most recently Kris Waldherr’s excellent Unnatural Creatures: A Novel of the Frankenstein Women, attest to Frankenstein’s continuing relevance to profound aspects of human experience.
First, let’s look at what might have influenced the writing of Frankenstein. Mary Shelley was the daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft, author of A Vindication of the Rights of Women which in 1792 championed educational and employment opportunities for women. She advocated for women to be treated as full human beings rather than as mere objects of beauty whose inherent “hysteria” made rational thought impossible. Wollstonecraft cited the benefits to society of mothers who can properly educate their children. Wollstonecraft died soon after giving birth to Shelley and was vilified for a previous illegitimate daughter.
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: his 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.
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 ModernPrometheus 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.