Anne Kostelanetz Mellor “Possessing Nature: the Female in Frankenstein” and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein
Exclusively raising opposition to commonplace phenomena can only go as far as just that: talk of a new contrary, and usually unwanted, opinion. The crucial ingredient in making a significant impact with a foreign idea is to make a claim so inconspicuous, that a person with contrary views, perhaps, may alter his or her way of thinking — but only if a belief in individual control of this process arises. Mary Shelley exercises this method in her novel Frankenstein in order to challenge an underlying idea in patriarchal societies. Common patriarchal beliefs posit that women must stay home where it’s safe, and that men must venture out into the unknown — because, unlike women, they are deemed suitable for the unstable and unpredictable outside sphere. Shelley thus creates a fictitious story of an exaggerated patriarchal society that consequently leads to a dreadful end for each character. This is story where women have simply no purpose, men act as though their power is boundless, and nature’s functions are infiltrated. Anne K. Mellor, in her piece “Possessing Nature: The Female in Frankenstein,” analyses the intricate ways Mary Shelley unobtrusively condemns Victor Frankenstein for his sexist views and actions. Victor, representing a patriarchal mind, is an example Shelley creates of what repercussions will arise without social equality for men and women. While readers may be able to catch hints of this tactic as presented in the novel, Mellor remarkably connects all the dots Shelley imbedded throughout and is able to form Shelley’s argument cohesively into an essay. Considering both Shelley’s novel and Mellor’s critique together, a reader is able to see Frankenstein in a new light. Shelley is not just preaching feminism; she’s making an allegory for the reader, since a society controlled by men alone is naturally doomed due to the innate character of a man. By using textual and contextual support, Mellor’s critique is fairly irrefutable: Frankenstein is a lecture for its readers, a lesson.
In order for Mary Shelley to fully get her argument across to the reader, she had to make every aspect of the novel, including the setting, the cause of its own demise. To create this fabricated patriarchal setting, Mary Shelley forms Victor Frankenstein’s society on a “rigid division of sex roles: the male inhabits the public sphere, the female is relegated to the private or domestic sphere” (Mellor 356). The males work outside of the home, “as public servants (Alphonse Frankenstein), as scientists (Victor), as merchants (Clerval and his father), or as explorers (Walton),” (Mellor 356) whereas the women are confined to the home. In addition to being limited to the private sphere, women were reduced to pets (Elizabeth), caretakers (Caroline, Margaret), or servants (Justine). Victor even goes as far as compare Elizabeth to his animal when he says he “loved to tend” on Elizabeth “as I should on a favorite animal.” (Shelley 30) Victor’s foundation in this Genevan society is certainly the essence of male hierarchy, and Shelley utilized this arrangement because the only way to make a significant impact on the reader was to make a scenario the very concept she was denouncing: unequal distribution of power between sexes. Anne K. Mellor begins her essay with this idea, because she believes Mary Shelley based her novel around a simple “cause and effect” approach. Without this setting/foundation established in the beginning, all “effects” would be miscellaneous and, therefore, the reader would not see the book as a lesson. But, thankfully, Shelley does identify the agent.
Even before explaining the main outcomes of such a strict society, Shelley does more than identify the source of the imminent collapse in just the first part of the novel. In order to remind the reader of what the instigator is for every demise that takes place, she drops sub-plots throughout the tale that take the form of microcosms for the entire story’s “cause and effect” claim. Mellor’s essay brings attention to each one so that analysis becomes nearly effortless for the reader. For instance, Caroline Beaufort (Victor’s mother), who can easily be neglected and identified as unimportant, is very crucial in the plot, as Mellor points out. Mellor notes that Caroline was devoted to her father regardless of her financial position until his death, married her father’s best friend (whom she similarly devoted herself to), and then died while nursing Elizabeth during a smallpox epidemic which “incarnates a patriarchal ideal of female self-sacrifice” (Mellor 357). If Caroline had not died during Victor’s youth, there’s a strong chance that her presence would have helped mitigate Victor’s fear of female sexuality. Another substantial sub-plot that Mellor notes is the wrongful execution of Justine Moritz for the murder of William Frankenstein and the fact Elizabeth’s voice is deemed worthless when she comes to Justine’s defence. If women were trusted outside of the household in this particular society, Elizabeth’s “impassioned defense she gives Justine” possibly could have saved Justine from being executed (Mellor 357). These events, Mellor rightly attests, are reminders that Mary Shelley gives to the readers as to what a patriarchal society renders.
After considering these scattered microcosms, Mellor delves into the main domino theory presented in the novel — that fear of female sexuality and abuse of a female’s natural abilities (ideals in a patriarchal society) leads to destruction and punishment. Victor Frankenstein embodies both of the “causes” and, as stated before, also serves as the embodiment of a patriarchal society’s values. This is why Mellor focused on him mainly as a source of analysis.
Victor’s disgust with females is “manifested most vividly in Victor’s response to the creature’s request for a female companion” (Mellor 359). Though at first Victor felt sympathy for the creature’s bitter endeavors and promised to create a female creature as the Eve to the Adam, after beginning his creation of the female, he decides to stop his work. Victor says, “I was now about to form another being, of whose dispositions I was alike ignorant; she might become ten thousand times more malignant than her mate, and delight, for its own sake, in murder and wretchedness. He had sworn to quit the neighbourhood of man, and hide himself in deserts; but she had not; 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…Even if they were to leave Europe, and inhabit the deserts of the new world, yet one of the first results of those sympathies for which the daemon thirsted would be children, and a race of devils would be propagated upon the earth who might make the very existence of the species of man a condition precarious and full of terror” (Shelley 163). Most readers might see Victor’s thought process as relatively reasonable — since why wouldn’t Victor expect another creature to have the same desires as his first creature? Rather than solely reading the words for what they were, Mellor dug deeper into what would cause such an outcome to arise in Victor’s mind: his true fears. She reaches the following conclusions: one, he is alarmed by the concept of an independent female with free will who may not comply with a “social contract made before her birth by another person”; two, those “uninhibited female desires might be sadistic”; three, the female creature could be more ugly than his male creature, and thus his male creature would reject the female creature; four, the female creature may prefer to mate with “humans”; and finally, “he is afraid of her reproductive powers, her capacity to generate an entire race of similar creatures” (Mellor 360). What’s remarkable about these five claims Mellor makes is that they are all textually and contextually supported by Mary Shelley, and all mirror the aspects of general sexism. Victor truly fears a sexually liberated, free woman and a female creature would violate the sexist aesthetic that states that women must be delicate, passive, and “sexually pleasing” (Mellor 360). As if his selfish, prejudiced reasonings behind halting the formation of the female creature weren’t clear enough, Victor “reasserts a male control over the female body, penetrating and mutilating the female creature at his feet in an image that suggests a violent rape” (Mellor 361). Textual evidence of this theme goes as follows: “trembling with passion, [I] tore to pieces the thing on which I was engaged” (Shelley 167). The word “passion” should be noted, as it connotes to a sort of lust or affection that Victor has for the lifeless, half-finished creature.
Interestingly enough, though, Victor refers to nature as female and says, “I pursued nature to her hiding places” (Shelley 77), suggesting that he believes he has baited nature. But his violation of nature’s innate powers is met with undeniable retribution on “her” part. Mellor found each case of nature’s resistance and/or revenge for her readers, illuminating nature’s fight against Victor, and therefore making the essay crucial to take into account after reading the novel itself. Mellor’s piece suggests a heightened symbolic conclusion for the reader: nature is protecting female rights. A female is meant, by nature’s choice, to reproduce and create life, not a male. To retaliate, nature denies Victor physical and mental health, creates terrible weather following the creature’s creation, and finally punishes him by “denying him the capacity for natural procreation” (Mellor 365). Also, Shelley makes it seem as though nature were trying to deter Victor from his patriarchal mindset all throughout his life, even before he starts his experiment. She (nature) shows him her beauty during his walks and her power to give and take life. Since Victor ignored her and crossed the final line by creating life himself, thus assuming an ability restricted to females only, nature punishes him and the ones he loves greatly. Nature, identified as female by Victor himself, shows the repercussions that will occur if women are repressed.
The theory Mellor laid out is quite intricate, but, if Shelley was attempting to make an argument that was abhorred at her time, the approach is understandable. Not only was she denouncing discrimination that is against nature’s will, but she was also trying to persuade those who supported such discrimination to understand her view. Because of this subtlety, it’s necessary for people like Ann K. Mellor to seek out what the buried message is and inform those who have yet to find it for themselves. Without reading the two texts together, many readers of Frankenstein might overlook evidence of an anti-patriarchal theme entirely. For those who can see it from Mellor’s perspective, Frankenstein is arguably one of the most important feminist books ever written.
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