Mary Shelley’s experiences have had a large impact on the themes and issues in her novel Frankenstein. It is considered by some to be a birth myth, because of the influence Shelley’s experiences of motherhood has had on the novel. Further, the novel reveals numerous allusions to Shelley’s life. The novel explores the retribution visited upon Monster and creator for incomplete infant care, and several of the characters are representations of individuals in Shelley’s life.
This essay explores the issues of the birth myth and family relations that are identifiable in the novel and argues that Shelley’s life and her experiences have inspired the themes of creation, birth and family in the novel Frankenstein.
Frankenstein is perceived as a birth myth because of the themes of maternity and parenthood alluded to within the novel. Mario Praz comments, “All Mrs. Shelley did was to provide a passive reflection of some of the wild fantasies which were living in the air about her.
” These fantasies or issues that existed in Shelley’s life are identified in the novel as issues of birth, creation, neglect, and confusion.
For example, in Frankenstein, birth is presented as a hideous thing. For birth to be possible, Victor must collect bones and decomposing body parts, among other things, in order for creation to be possible. The reason for this can be found within the life of Shelley, who in her journals describes the “horror of maternity,” since Shelley suffered from the death of her newborns on several occasions.
1 Her journal of March 19, 1815 recorded, “Dream that my little baby came back to life again. “2 Also, Mary Wollstonecraft died giving birth to Mary herself.
These issues contribute to Frankenstein as a birth myth, and one that was lodged in Shelley’s imagination because she herself was a mother. 3 Shelley was set apart from the generality of writers of her own time because of her early and unpleasant experience of becoming a mother, and her unique technique of hideously intermixing death and birth in the novel. 4 Frankenstein is a representation of Shelley’s feelings and experiences of pregnancy, and parenthood, and can be referred to as a birth myth. The idea of the birth myth is also supported when acknowledging the role of Victor Frankenstein, the creator of the monster.
Victor discovers “the cause of generation and life,” which leads him to create such a ghastly looking creature. The novel confronts the displacement of God and woman from acts of conception and birth. This is depicted through Victor Frankenstein in his laboratory, performing an unnatural act of creation. The parent is not a woman but a man who has pushed the masculine prerogative past the limits of nature, creating life not through the female body but in a laboratory. 5 Thus, Frankenstein is a representation of both a mother and father.
These father figures have been shaped by the experience Shelley’s had with her father, William Godwin. For example, Victor’s father is an absent father for Victor, not because he leaves home everyday, but because he actually does not. He is unconcerned with Victor’s interests. Victor himself becomes obsessed with creating his creature, forgetting his family and his friends. 6 Also, Victor is alienated from his “abhorred Monster” by his desire to flee to the shelter of domesticity (pp. 960).
This can be likened to Mary Shelley’s relationship with her own father, who she refers to as “my God. 7 Furthermore, the most distinctive feature of the family that Shelley portrays is that of the dominant yet absent father, working outside the family home to support a subservient wife and children, all roles functioning to reinforce male dominance. 8 If Victor is viewed in this sense as the father of the monster, then it leads to the suggestion that Mary Shelley has portrayed this neglect and lack of nurture to represent her life. Furthermore, the Monster, the result of male arrogance, is the enemy and destroyer of the eternal female principle.
The Monster is the child of an unnatural act of procreation in which woman has become unnecessary. Man, who is the executive power in a patriarchal system, has robbed the mother of her most natural function of childbirth because he can now create children without female participation, an element of the birth myth. At least in his subconsciousness Frankenstein must have realised his crime against the “female principle”, which becomes clear in the following symbolic dream. In the night after the reanimation of the Monster, Victor has a nightmare in which he kills his mother and his fianci??e.
Shelley presents him as a misguided man trying to conquer science, since he believes “he has grasped and solved great cosmic riddles; he therefore loses all touch with reality. “9 In the novel, the creator, upon seeing his awful creation, deserts the monster, creating the feeling of neglect and confusion. The actions of the monster as a result of being deserted by his creator allow us to view the monster as an allusion to both Satan and Adam. The monster pleaded to Frankenstein for him to fulfil his role as his father and creator, he cries, “you, my creator, detest and spurn me…
Do your duty towards me, and I will do mine towards you and the rest of mankind” (pp. 960). Through recognising “Satan as the fitter emblem of my condition,” the Monster also recalls Adam’s rebellion in Paradise Lost. Further, in Shelley’s revenge story, the Adamic Monster who has turned into a Satan forces its neglectful father-creator to experience his own desolation, represented in the novel were the monster causes Victor to suffer through killing his loved ones. 10 Furthermore, the vengeful spirit of the monster as a result of his neglect by Frankenstein assists in representing Mary Shelley’s life in the novel.
Little William had been murdered while wearing a valuable miniature of his mother, and Justine, although innocent was sentenced to death. Professor Moers implies that the Monster’s wanton destruction of the little child William is an expression of a young mother’s anxieties over the precarious health of her own baby William. Further, Richard Church in 1928 indicates he identified a “miserable delight in self-torture” in Mary Shelley’s decision to depict the fictional murder of “that fair child” who shares the same name as her own son.
It is evident that these fears that were proved justified in the death of William in 1819 were also derived from more significant features of Shelley’s life. It is acknowledged that in 1797, the child Mary Wollstonecraft thought she was carrying was ‘little William,’ yet it turned out to be Mary Shelley, who was responsible for her mother’s death eleven days later. 11 This accentuates the argument of the birth myth, and the impact that Shelley’s life had on the novel in representing this myth. Frankenstein is pre-eminently affected by Mary’s family life.
The absence of strong mothers in the story reflects the disastrous effect Mary Wollstonecraft’s death had on her daughter. Throughout her life, Mary suffered knowing that her mother died because of complications in her birth. Shelley has represented these experiences through allusions in her novel. Firstly, Victor’s mother dies while he is at university in Ingolstadt. His step-sister and fianci??e, Elizabeth, is orphaned due to the death of her mother in childbirth. Justine, the nursemaid of Victor’s brother, William Frankenstein, is wrongfully executed.
Elizabeth herself is taken from the world on the threshold of her marriage. 12 Additionally, the motherless Monster kneels at the feet of De Lacy, wishing to receive the same recognition that De Lacey’s daughter, whose mother is also absent, received when she had done that, indicating that Frankenstein clearly draws on Shelley’s recollection of her vain attempts to win “notice” and approval as her father’s pupil. 13 The Monster here represents Mary and the emotions she experienced trying to gain her father’s approval.
A psychoanalytical critique would suggest that Mary suffered the Electra complex, a passionate love for her father. Mary described, “I remember many childish instances of the excess of attachment I bore for him. “14 Additionally, an allusion to Mary Shelley’s mother’s death is identified in the novel. When Victor was seventeen, his adopted sister and future wife Elizabeth, catches scarlet fever and fatally infects her mother. 15 This alludes to the death of Shelley’s mother soon after giving birth to her.
The death of Mary’s mother undoubtedly contributed to the persistent theme of the absence and ill-fatedness of the women and mothers in Frankenstein. The women and especially mothers in Frankenstein are mere symbols, sacrificial virgins and dead mothers who must atone for Victor Frankenstein’s usurpation of procreation. These mothers are categorically dead because their biological function is primordially defiled. One reason for this is that Mary Shelley’s own life as child and mother bore ample witness to the paradox that life lives upon death.
It has become almost necessary for critics of Frankenstein to cite the long list of deaths that occurred in Mary’s early life. 16 Her mother Mary Wollstonecraft had died eleven days after Mary’s birth and her half-sister Fanny Imlay poisoned herself. Further, Percy’s first wife Harriet Westbrook died pregnant by another at the time of her suicide. Finally, Mary’s first daughter passed quietly two weeks after her premature birth. All of these deaths implicate the mother by exaggerating the proximity of life’s origin and end.
It is evident that these occurrences have had a large bearing on Mary’s portrayal of mothers in the novel. The De Lacey family is often compared to the Frankenstein family. The De Lacey family share work and responsibility equally between male and female in an atmosphere of rational companionship, mutual concern, and love. As their symbolic names suggest, Felix embodies happiness, Agatha meaning goodness. They are then joined by Safie, insinuating wisdom, who is the daughter of the Turkish merchant. Having arrived at the De Lacey household, she soon becomes Felix’s beloved companion and is taught to read and write French.
Safie, whose Christian mother instructed her “to aspire to higher powers of intellect, and an independence of spirit, forbidden to the female followers of Mahomet,” (pp. 974) is the incarnation of Mary Wollstonecraft in the novel. Wollstonecraft too travelled alone through Europe and Scandinavia; more important, she advocated in her works, that women should be educated to be the “companions” of men and be permitted to participate in the public realm by voting, working outside the home, and holding political office.
It is evident that Shelley’s mother has an influence on the character of Safie in the novel. Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein has been impacted by people in her life, and her experiences with them. The influence of her experiences, such as the death of her mother, her love for her father, and the death of her own children, has caused some to refer to Frankenstein as a birth myth. Victor Frankenstein is an embodiment of a mother and father by taking over the role of God and natural conception, and creating a being on his own.
Allusions to her life within the text allow the reader to identify that many of the characters are a representation of significant individuals in her life. Further, some occurrences in the novel, such as De Lacey’s daughter kneeling at her father’s knees, and the murder of little William, are likened to Shelley’s own experiences. Thus, to a great extent Shelley’s life has had a significant impact on her writing of Frankenstein, which has mainly affected the family circles in the novel, and has led to the adoption of Frankenstein as a birth myth.