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.
During the January 21st Women’s March in New York City, I was inspired and delighted by so many of the signs women and men had crafted to express their opposition to the current disastrous regime in the United States: “Grab America Back,” “Support Your Mom,” “Sad!,” “Miss Uterus Strikes Back.” But one image stood out, mesmerizing me: that of a woman proudly wearing an American flag as hijab, with a message below—“We The People Are Greater Than Fear.” For several blocks as we made our way up Fifth Avenue, I walked beside a woman carrying that sign, and it became, for me, the most powerful symbol of the resistance we must all wage during the dark time ahead.
The image, based on a photograph of Munira Ahmed by Ridwan Adhami, was created for the Women’s March by graphic artist Shepard Fairey (who also designed the iconic image of Barack Obama, “Hope”). It offers a striking visual challenge to a long-held orthodoxy, now brought to the fore by Donald Trump and his gang: that Western-style liberal democracy (epitomized by the United States) is incompatible with Islam. And, perhaps even more specifically, that Islam is incompatible with feminism.