It’s Alive, It’s Alive!
And by “it,” we mean she, and by “she," we mean the author...
This feminist reading of Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein is contingent on the life of the author herself. This includes, her trauma, experience, and her failures. It is not far-fetched to suggest that a young woman such as Mary Shelley, “twice the victim of reproductive tragedy” (Lehman), would project these haunting emotions upon the protagonist of her own novel; a male protagonist, none-the-less. Instead of an infant, Shelley produced a two dimensional, mad scientist, crazed with becoming a creator himself. As the reader, we can and SHOULD ponder Shelley’s choice of sexes when producing her lead character. Let us suggest that this is about more than simply removing female characters from the novel, or perhaps keeping them silent.
This is about wanting to be more than a speaker, this is about the desire to reproduce, and the male desire, at that.
It may be redundant to mention that only women are capable of producing offspring. The woman carries and births the baby, simply due to indisputable laws of nature. In an era where women weren’t scholars or business people, their only task may have been to carry children. But what happens when a woman fails at this task? What becomes her purpose then? Does she have one? Mary Shelley found herself aching and deeply anxious, living in the role of a female with a barren womb.
Betraying her birthright.
So to, Victor Frankenstein accurately falls into the role of an infertile woman with a proclivity for procreative science. We will go on to explain the true motivation of our male protagonist, himself. We will uncover that this entire, seemingly patriarchal novel, was born from nothing stranger than male pregnancy anxiety.
Male superiority turns its head as we dip our toes into shallow psychoanalytic waters. Here, we discover the undeniably feminist concept of womb envy. Although many are familiar with the Freudian concept of “penis envy,” it is less likely to be familiar with its counterpart.
In short, penis envy is a patriarchal view that states that women feel envious of men due to their biological makeup. The opposing theory, womb envy, suggests that maybe, JUST maybe, it is possible for men to reciprocate these feelings. This is where we find Victor, trespassing onto the property of a female crisis, struggling with the desire to possess reproductive properties himself.
After her failed pregnancies, Mary’s procreative connection was cut at the cord. Her only option was to resort to creation by ink, thus she created a fictional man to suffer along with her – a man with a catastrophic case of womb envy. Her frustration and anxiety allowed her to sketch out and color in this character, shading him with her own anxieties and torture.
Shelley's novel shows us,
“A male character who yearned for the existential security of elemental proactive power in the same way Mary, herself did” (Lehman).
But is this the real problem? What are we getting at here?
After all, Mary didn’t create a sniffling male, drenched in anxiety over his lack of reproductive organs – she created a megalomaniac, mad scientist. Thus, the lines between science and nature fall away as Victor oversteps his biological boundaries.
A returning, circular theme in Shelley’s novel is the desire that science engenders in disqualifying preconceived and biological gender nuances. This means that science seems to think it can do whatever it wants. Men can reproduce, just like women can! Sure, no problem.
Let’s take a look at the history of this concept.
In 1861, after the discovery of the female sex-cell, men were forced to grapple with the fact that they were not independent creators. Thus, the myth of single male parenthood was contemplated through the means of technology, and science.
“Soon the new reproductive technologies will enable men to take over the life giving powers of women” (Lehman).
Here, we are able to see the male takeover in action. Men who wished to believe such power hungry theologies, were prepared to devalue women as the source of life and reproduction. Although it is assumed that it is normal for women to feel envious of men, this is only due to patriarchal dominance which puts men on top. However, this stigma forces men to suppress “the extent of their longing for the simplicity and indisputable potentialities of being a women.”
Mary’s text forces the reader to reevaluate the needs and desires of each sex. It frees men and women to explore the potential envy for the role of the other, as exemplified by a male character who madly wishes to take on the role of a female producer (a male character who acts as a stand in for Mary, herself). However, a punishment seems to exist as well. One may argue that the destructive tendencies of the monster can be blamed on its unnatural, inhuman birth story. Due to the takeover of the scientist, the female producer has been dangerously removed from the creation process.
This implores a peaceful perspective! Both men and women are needed to create a child - one cannot fill the roll of the other with science or technology. According to Frankenstein, this is how you create a monster.
Food for Thought
Mary Shelley's portrayal of womb envy seems to come before Freud even coined the term.
Frankenstein was Mary Shelley's psychological outlet. She used her text to release her torture and anxiety. By creating a womb envious, male protagonist, she normalized her own case of womb envy, perhaps before anyone even stumbled upon the concept.