The Absence Of Motherhood In Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein
Motherhood as a science has been gaining considerable news coverage as of late. Fertility rates are dropping in America which means many would argue that maternity is in decline. Motherhood as a science discusses the natural process of gestation which can be described as the process of carrying or being carried in the womb between the period of conception and eventually birth. Motherhood and the absence of it is a huge theme in the classic novel Frankenstein, written by Mary Shelley. Shelley’s own mother, the femenist, Mary Wolstonecraft, died due to complications arising from giving birth to her. When Shelley attempted motherhood herself, she received the horrific results of multiple miscarriages and the death of three children. Due to her background, it is not surprising that Shelley would ponder the results of an unnatural birth to a motherless being in her novel. Frankenstein invites readers to take a different perspective on this idea of motherhood by leaving it out completely. Critic Anne Mellor claims that “Frankenstein is a book about what happens when a man tries to have a baby without a woman.” This alternative, motherless, and almost barbaric route scientist Victor Frankenstein takes when creating his creature without a woman portrays the consequences science can have when the boundaries of nature are tested. Frankenstein also invites readers to look back and reflect on the importance of motherhood and the possible detrimental consequences that could ensue when motherhood is absent in a new beings life.
Frankenstein tells the story of an ambitious young scientist, Victor Frankenstein. Victor is so intrigued by the idea of death that he decides to find a way to restore life to the previously deceased. Victor prevails and ends up creating an eight foot tall creature made up of some animal parts and pieces of different human bodies that he dismembered and took from random graves in a cemetery. The creature’s appearance is frightening to witch Victor never gives him a name and runs away at the sight of him. Abandoned by its creator, the creature decides to seek revenge and soon kills everyone close to Victor.
At many points throughout the novel, the effects of maternal absence are highlighted. Mothers in the novel are extremely short lived. Victor’s mother dies of scarlet fever while nursing Victor’s cousin who ends up becoming his wife, Elizabeth. On Victor and Elizabeth’s honeymoon, the creature kills Elizabeth in spite of Victor. Victor’s housekeeper, Justine, is falsely accused and convicted of the murder of Victor’s younger brother, even though it was actually the creature who killed him. The monster itself is the most evident example of motherlessness throughout the novel, a so-called human being created by just a man. Victor wanted to be the sole creator or father of sorts to a brand new species. He states that “Life and death appeared to me ideal bounds, which I should first break through, and pour a torrent of light into our dark world. A new species would bless me as its creator and source; many happy and excellent natures would owe their being to me. No father could claim the gratitude of his child so completely”. This is what Victor thought he deserved from the new creature he desired to make. Without the presence of a woman, Victor would be able to take all of the credit for creating what he hoped to be a beautiful new species completely loyal to him however, he came to regret this decision after realizing he created a monster instead. Victor purposely “selected the creatures features as beautiful”. Once the creature begins to come alive he recoils his previous statement by saying, “The beauty of the dream vanished, and breathless horror and disgust filled my heart”. As a result of the creature’s appearance, Victor feels no sense of responsibility or maternal affection towards his creation. The creature was never a part of him, like a fetus is part of a mother and father, so Victor feels he has the right and liberty to abandon it.
The root of the motherless issue relies heavily on the fact that Victor transported procreation from the realm of natural, an extension of Mother Nature, to something extremely unnatural and technological. Victor’s quest is based specifically off of scientific and explorational curiosities; the study of anatomy, chemistry, and the inevitable decay of the human body. The quest is so completely void of all regards to the purity of life that Victor saw a churchyard as nothing more than a “receptacle of bodies deprived of life” (Shelley, 34). This implies that a living child is simply a body not yet deprived of life. To Victor, life and death are extremely straightforward things. He sees death as a technical puzzle waiting to be challenged and solved. He dreams of having the power to renew life and becomes so obsessed with his quest that he becomes insensible to the charms of nature, including the changing seasons that surround him. His scientific pursuit has left him with no appreciation for life and the beauty of procreation.
The birth of a human life has been said to be one of the most mysterious and miraculous events an individual will experience in their life. In Victor’s mind however, this natural and pure event has become no more than proof of his own greatness. Victor, talking about himself, says, “I was surprised that among so many men of genius who had directed their enquiries toward the same science, I alone should be reserved to discover so astonishing a secret” (Shelley, 34). To Victor, the act of scientific creation says much less about the actual creature but rather reflects mostly upon the creator. Completely oblivious to the femininity of child birth, this act becomes strictly masculine from Victors viewpoint. He sees new life as an exercise of mastery and control over a reluctant yet overall compliant nature. Victor’s soulless detachment from his own creation contrasts significantly with the actual experience of childbirth. Childbirth is not an event of conquest but is one of endurance and the creation of something new that resists control; a baby.
Gestation and childbirth are not equivalent to pushing buttons on a screen or solving a mathematical equation. Labor along with birth are journeys which a female does not choose but rather endures. When the experience is over a mother is left with a child not fashioned by her, like Victor fashioned his creature, but rather fashioned in her and through her. The form of the baby itself is a combination of the male and female who participated in sexual intercourse in order to conceive the fetus. This means that the child has a combination of both parents features, including superficial characteristics along with internal ones, such as the possibility of anxiety, depression, different genetic mutations etc. The point is that the parents don’t get to pick and choose the characteristics they want their child to possess. Procreation is natural and while there is a science behind its natural aspects, there is very little human driven manipulation when it comes to the result of a child. For Victor this process is viewed in a different light. His creation was also a surprise just like a newborn baby is however, his surprise reflects that he specifically chose each feature of his creation and yet his results turned out to be radically different from what he had imagined. He saw every aspect of the creature as under his complete control but instead of creating a superior new race of beings, he created a monster. While Victor’s creation turned out to be an abuse of power and ultimately a huge mistake, the birth of a new born baby can be seen as a true gift.
Thanks to Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein, we can now pose the question: What does a female/mother add to a new being that a man cannot provide alone? A possible answer is that mothers add something to life that Victor cannot recognize. Victor treats the process of creation as a challenge to himself, whereas in reality, procreation wields the power of love and ability that puts creature before creator. Victor did succeed in making something new however, the creature was never apart of him physically. As soon as he sees his creation he feels as if he has no other choice than to disassociate himself from it entirely, leaving the creature motherless and fatherless. Since Victor sees himself as the creator to be more important than his creation, he believes he reserves the right to turn his back on it and to abandon it into a world that is unprepared to receive it. The circumstances in which the creature was born was monstrous however, it only became a monster after it was left alone to fend for itself. Mary Shelley shows us a world in which mothers are absent and it reminds us that motherhood lies heavily in the natural process of biological reproduction. The comparison between natural procreation and Victor’s experimental birth shows readers that men cannot create life on their own. The lack of ethics and morals surrounding Victors creation set him up for failure before he even began. Victor created a monster by eliminating women from his experiment in an attempt to create a creature who would be entirely loyal and eternally grateful to it’s creator. Unfortunately Victor didn’t realize the necessary presence of a woman that is required when forming a new life.
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