A Misreading of Frankenstein in Mary’s Miswriting
The issue of the gender of the writer playing a crucial part in her or his writing has been much discussed in contemporary critical debate. Feminist critics argue that the patriarchal ideology of society makes it imperative for male writers to “write like men,” implying a certain taken-for-granted viewpoint of the author. Of course, there are exceptions; a number of past male writers wrote like women. The last chapter of James Joyce’s Ulysses, which contains a 20,000-word sentence beginning and ending with “yes,” has often been hailed as a quintessential example of feminine writing. Similarly, different readers employ different perspectives to make sense of literary texts. Male readers, for example, tend to see literary texts from a male perspective. But do female readers also read the same texts from a definitely female perspective? Not exactly, because, as Judith Fetterley observes, male authors presumed for centuries that their readers all were male and this could have an enormous effect upon female readers, and in order to “successfully” read works of literature which presumed their readers to be male, female readers unconsciously have to forget they are female and to read as if they were men. In other words, male writers invariably employ conventions of writing that make their style rigidly masculine which demands a male viewpoint on the part of their readers. Fetterley calls this the “immasculation” of female readers by male authors (Introduction, xx). But the counter question of female authors writing like men has always been put on the shelf as something not worth serious critical attention. The present paper is an attempt to show how female authors too sometimes write in a style that is characteristic of male authors, how they address an audience that is presumably male, and how in their use of language and other literary conventions they display tendencies characteristic of their male counterparts. In this I propose to apply Fetterley’s theory of defensive feminine reading to Mary Shelley’s style in Frankenstein in order to prove how she presumed her readers to be male.
The plot of Frankenstein deals with the conflict within Victor Frankenstein, who, due to his love of the natural sciences, produces a monstrous creature. Victor himself is disgusted at the sight of his creature and rejects him. All other humans likewise reject him because of his horrible appearance. The monster, frustrated and misunderstood, ultimately kills the people who are closely related to his creator. This is the tale told by Victor to Robert Walton, a sea-captain on a voyage to the North Pole.
In essence the story is simple, and the three separate plot lines — the Walton plot, the Victor plot, and the creature plot — that circulate through the novel give us three different perspectives on the story. Let’s begin with Walton’s perspective that opens and ends the novel. Walton addresses his entire discourse to his sister Mrs. Margaret Saville, a mute narratee whose complicity with Walton’s narration remains implied but never comes to light. In a sense she represents an inversion of the powerful narratee who determines the existence of the narrator in A Thousand and One Nights (Prince, 8). Interestingly, Walton is both the grand narrator and a narratee: he not only tells the story but more importantly listens to the stories told by the other narrators, Victor and the creature. Shelley, however, does not let her female narratee become a narrator of her own story. Walton even has been invested with the power to interrupt and question the flow and validity of the narrative addressed to him: “Wretch!” I said, “it is well that you come here to whine over the desolation that you have made… It is not pity that you feel; you lament only because the victim of your malignity is withdrawn from your power” (Shelley, 187). Again, as a narratee he has considerable influence over his narrators: “I see by your eagerness, and the wonder and hope which your eyes express, my friend, that you expect to be informed of the secret with which I am acquainted” (57), or “your looks remind me to proceed” (59). By contrast, always at the receiving end, Mrs. Saville remains a shadowy figure whose function is to listen without interrupting. (To narrate is to hold power. See J. M. Coetzee’s Foe, where Susan Barton, the shipwrecked white woman, undertakes to tell the story of Friday, the black slave who has been denied the right to speak).
In Walton’s narration friendship is a dominant theme. “I have no friends,” Walton complains to his sister (31), and when they find Victor, he is filled with brotherly affection for him: “My affection for [Victor] increases every day. He excites at once my admiration and my pity to an astonishing degree” (37). Victor’s fondness for his friend, Henry, is similarly overflowing: “I was indifferent… to my schoolfellows in general; but I united myself in the bonds of the closest friendship to one among them. Henry Clerval was the son of a merchant of Geneva” (45). Later, it is Clerval’s presence that revives Victor’s spirit after his creation of the monster: “I grasped his hand, and in a moment forgot my horror and misfortune; I felt suddenly, and for the first time during many months, calm and serene joy” (62). Again, it is Victor’s father’s friendship with Beaufort that makes him seek out his friend, which eventually leads to his marriage with Caroline Beaufort in spite of their differences in age. Friendship, male friendship, therefore, has a beneficial influence on the characters in the novel.
Victor is a father-figure, and the word “father” and references to the Creation myth abound in the novel: “No father could claim the gratitude of his child so completely as I should deserve theirs” (58), “I knew my silence disquieted them; and I well remembered the words of my father” (59), “Remember, that I am thy creature; I ought to be thy Adam” (93), “the appearance of my father was to me like that of my good angel” (157). The kind, wise patriarch-figure in the old De Lacey fills the creature with admiration and respect; but the younger De Laceys fill him with hatred and disgust for humankind. By contrast, mother plays a marginal role in the development of the story, and both Caroline and Elizabeth are presented as sacrificial figures to atone for Victor’s Promethean venture. Caroline Frankenstein is a stereotype of the good mother for whom happiness means happiness of her children. She is the one who adopts little Elizabeth as a present for Victor, and she sacrifices her own life to save Elizabeth’s:
During her illness, many arguments had been urged to persuade my mother to refrain from attending upon her. She had, at first, yielded to our entreaties; but when she heard that the life of her favorite was menaced, she could no longer control her anxiety. She attended her sick bed, — Elizabeth was saved, but the consequences of this imprudence were fatal to her preserver. (49)
On her deathbed Caroline joins the hands of Victor and Elizabeth and bestows her motherly vocation to Elizabeth: “Elizabeth, my love, you must supply my place to my younger children” (49). Now Elizabeth becomes the mother, and the incest between Elizabeth and Victor takes on a new meaning. It is the son’s Oedipal liaison with the mother. In this case, however, the mother must die so that the son may be saved. Victor survives several years of desperate pursuit and tribulations; Elizabeth dies on the night of her wedding. Clearly, biology is destiny. Yet, Elizabeth is as much a savior-figure as Caroline. For Victor to survive free of the burdens of marriage and family, yet with his vision of himself as the heroic victim of cosmic antagonism intact, Elizabeth must die. The death of innocent Justine on the charge of William’s murder is equally revealing: Shelley fashions her female characters as vulnerable to the forces of nature; their unadulterated goodness yet marginal influence on the scheme of things is reminiscent of the images of women that populate so much of nineteenth-century male writing. It can be argued, therefore, that in Frankenstein the issue of power and capacity for survival is obscured by the structure of romantic love and by the constant invocation of the spiteful creature whose goal it is to destroy the good and the beautiful.
In one sense the central theme of Frankenstein is the conflict of the father with the son. The creature asks Victor to make him a companion “of the same species and [of] the same defects” (128). Victor refuses: the sexual jealousy of the father turns the son into an Oedipal ravisher. The creature’s almost sexual fascination with Caroline’s portrait is symbolic of his revenge on his creator: “For a few moments I gazed with delight on her dark eyes, fringed by deep lashes, and her lovely lips; but presently my rage returned: I remembered that I was for ever deprived of the delights that such beautiful creatures could bestow” (127). Again, the creature exacts his final revenge on his creator by depriving Victor of sexual consummation with his bride. Similarly, the creature’s justification for William’s murder is an indictment of Justine: “the murder I have committed because I am for ever robbed of all that she could give me, she shall atone. The crime had its source in her: be hers the punishment” (127). The women, therefore, are made to suffer for the father’s conflict with the son. Shelley does not allow her protagonist to create a woman because his conception of woman (beautiful but weak) cannot come to terms with the creature’s demand for a companion (hideous and strong): “I was now about to form another being of whose dispositions I was alike ignorant… and she, who in all probability was to become a thinking and reasoning animal, might refuse to comply with a compact made before her creation” (144). Victor’s fear, therefore, is both subconscious and ideological.
Thus in Frankenstein Shelley implicitly upholds a predominantly male discourse. But why does she do this? Perhaps her relationship with her father has something to do with the matter (she even dedicated her book to her father). Recent critics have gone so far as to trace incest in Shelley’s relationship with her father. Moreover, the origin of the novel — a ghost story competition with two other established male poets, “a tale from the pen of one of whom would be far more acceptable to the public than any thing I can ever hope to produce” (Preface, 27) — may have made Shelley address a male audience and follow male conventions of writing. Similarly, if we consider Shelley as one of the early practioners of science fiction (in Shelley’s time science was primarily a masculine field of pursuit), then Shelley’s employment of a distinctly male style of addressing the readers may not sound surprising.
Therefore, Fetterley’s argument that, only male authors presumed their readers to be male, seems to ignore the ideological, biographical, and historical contexts that produced such texts. Wolfgang Iser’s theory of the text’s assymetrical relationship with the reader may help us understand this change that takes place during the process of writing:
Assymetrical contingency occurs when Partner A [the text] gives up trying to implement his own behavioral plan and without resistance follows that of Partner B [the reader]. He adapts himself to and is absorbed by the behavioral strategy of B. (Iser, 164)
Because Shelley’s intended readers were men (the bulk of nineteenth-century reading populace was male), her readers turned her into a male writer: Shelley was “masculated” by her readers. And the result was a male fiction addressed to a male audience.
Coetzee, J. M. Foe. Penguin Books, 1988.
Fetterley, Judith. The Resisting Reader: A Feminist Approach to American Fiction. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1979.
Iser, Wolfgang. The Act of Reading. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins UP, 1978.
Prince, Gerald. “Introduction to the Study of the Narratee.” Reader-Response Criticism: From Formalism to Post-Structuralism. Ed. Jane P. Tompkins. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1980.
Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein. Boston and New York: Bedford/ St. Martin’s, 2000.
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