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The daughter of noted authors Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin, Shelley became widely known as a literary talent of her own right with the 1818 publication of Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus. The story of a scientist who attempts to bring life to a dead body, Frankenstein has become one of the most iconic and recognizable novels of the past two centuries. Though Shelley produced a variety of works throughout her career—including novels, short stories, and essays—the bulk of critical scholarship has focused on Frankenstein. Feminist critics have argued that the novel explores a range of themes, including the repression of women, childbirth and parental responsibility, and gender roles at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Such scholars claim that Frankenstein acts as a manifestation of Shelley's own feelings about motherhood and her role as a wife as well as an early attempt to articulate a feminist position. The most famous assessment of Shelley comes from the poet Leigh Hunt, who called Shelley "four-fam'd," referring to her parents, her husband—poet Percy Bysshe Shelley—and the monstrous creature she created.


Shelley was born August 30, 1797, to two of the foremost intellectuals of the eighteenth century. Wollstonecraft, an outspoken advocate for women's rights, died shortly after Shelley's birth, leaving Shelley in the care of her father. Godwin, a novelist and political philosopher, was by all accounts an undemonstrative and self-absorbed intellectual, but Shelley's attachment to him was powerful. This later became a major theme in her work, particularly in Mathilda (1959; believed to have been written c. 1819). In 1801 Godwin married a widow named Mary Jane Clairmont. Shelley's relationship with her stepmother was strained from the beginning for several reasons, such as Shelley's intense feelings for her father, her idolization of her dead mother, and Clairmont's preference for her own children over Shelley and her half sister. Shelley did not receive any formal education, but instead learned to read at home, having access to her father's extensive library. In 1812 tensions between Shelley and her stepmother prompted Godwin to send his daughter to stay with William Baxter and his family. On her return to London later that year, she met Percy Bysshe Shelley, who had become a disciple and financial supporter of her father. In 1814 the couple declared their love for each other and eloped to France. Although the couple married—following the suicide of Percy's first wife, Harriet— their initial relationship caused a long-term estrangement between Shelley and her father. The Shelleys had four children together, though only one survived to adulthood. Shelley lapsed into a deep depression after the deaths of her children, and her relationship with her husband became strained.

Despite their personal losses as well as considerable financial hardships, the Shelleys devoted a great deal of time and energy to the study of literature, language, music, and art, associating with some of the most noted writers of their day, including Lord Byron and Leigh Hunt. During an evening with her husband, Byron, and Byron's companion John Polidori at Lake Leman, Switzerland, Shelley first conceived the idea for Frankenstein. After reading a selection of Gothic stories, the four challenged each other to create their own horrific tales. Shelley became inspired by a discussion between Byron and her husband regarding the notion of creating life with electricity and that night awoke mesmerized by a vision of a creature animated by such means. She began to write the monster's narrative, which Percy Shelley urged her to expand into a novel. In 1822 Percy drowned while the couple was living in Lenci, Italy. A year later, Shelley returned to...

(This entire section contains 1540 words.)

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England with her son. Her life after her husband's death was marked by melancholy and hardship as she tried to support herself and her child. Her husband's father offered her a meager stipend, but ordered that she keep the Shelley name out of print—thus, all her works were published anonymously. She earned money by contributing biographical and critical sketches toChamber's Cyclopedia and writing short stories for literary annuals. Her financial situation improved when her father-in-law increased her allowance after her son came of age, and the pair traveled to Europe, where Shelley wrote a number of travel essays. Too ill in her last years to complete her most cherished project, a biography of her husband, Shelley died on February 1, 1851, at the age of fifty-four.


A story steeped with mythic allusions—as suggested by the subtitle The Modern PrometheusFrankenstein has been characterized variously as either a Gothic, Romantic, horror, or science fiction novel. However, acting in sharp contrast to the rationality of Enlightenment literature, the Gothic atmosphere of Frankenstein rejects the scientific objectivity of modern science fiction in its sense of the strange and the irrational. An epistolary novel told in increasingly tightening circles, or frames, and interspersed with poetry, Frankenstein concerns a driven medical student, Victor Frankenstein, who desires to use science to bypass God and create human life in his laboratory. Piecing together a cadaver from discarded corpses, Victor reanimates the body using electricity, bringing "life" to his horrific creation. After the creature awakens, Victor becomes disgusted and abandons his new offspring, leaving the monster to wander the forests alone. The creature eventually learns language and finds Victor's journal, recounting the details of his creation. Tracking Victor to his family home, the creature demands that Victor take responsibility for his existence and suggests that Victor should build him a mate. When Victor refuses, the creature murders Victor's wife on their wedding night. Victor pursues the creature, who leads him north into the Arctic Circle. Here, Victor meets the captain of a doomed polar expedition, Robert Walton, to whom he narrates his tale—the novel is structured as a letter from Walton to his sister. Victor eventually dies from illness, and the creature appears, explaining to Walton his reasons for seeking vengeance and his remorse at his creator's death. The creature leaves Walton's ship, vowing to destroy himself, so no one else will ever know of his existence.

Although Frankenstein has consistently dominated critical discussions of her oeuvre, Shelley was a prolific author. After Frankenstein, her most recognized work is The Last Man (1826), which describes a post-apocalyptic future. Set in the twenty-first century, the novel depicts a plague that devastates Europe and the efforts of the "last man"—Lionel Verney—to reach Rome in a search for other survivors. The work is noted for its inventive descriptions of the future and is considered an early prototype of contemporary science fiction. Valperga; or, The Life and Adventures of Castruccio, Prince of Lucca (1823) and The Fortunes of Perkin Warbeck (1830) are historical novels that have received scant attention from critics, while Lodore (1835) and Falkner (1837), thought by many to be autobiographical, have frequently been examined by literary historians for their insight into the lives of the Shelleys and their circle of peers. Shelley's posthumously-published novel Mathilda concerns the incestuous attraction between a father and daughter which results in the father's eventual suicide. The daughter, Mathilda, reveals the story to a poet whom she meets while mourning her father in Scotland. Scholars have come to a general consensus regarding Mathilda, suggesting that the characters are largely based on Shelley, her father, and Percy Shelley.


Since Shelley's death, critics have devoted little attention to her range of works, focusing almost entirely on Frankenstein. Early commentators relegated the novel to the Gothic genre, practiced by such popular authors of the era as Ann Radcliffe and Matthew Gregory "Monk" Lewis. While most early Victorian reviewers reviled what they considered the sensationalist and gruesome elements in Frankenstein, many praised the anonymous author's imagination and powers of description. Since the latter part of the nineteenth century, critics have reassessed Frankenstein, analyzing the novel's mythic-philosophic theme of Prometheanism, and its expression of Romantic ideals and attitudes. Scholars have also focused on the influence of Percy Shelley's poetry, Godwin's humanitarian social views, and Wollstonecraft's feminism on the text. Critics have noted the influence of John Milton's Paradise Lost, Goethe's Faust, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge's "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" on Shelley's narrative. Criticism on Frankenstein has proliferated since the 1950s, encompassing a wide variety of themes and approaches. Feminist scholars have often viewed Frankenstein's creature as a representation of the repression of women, arguing that the novel expresses Shelley's own feelings regarding her self-identity and her feelings of anxiety as a female writer. Such critics have also noted that Frankenstein, along with Shelley's other works, offers commentary on the social construction of gender, the marginalization of women, and the ways in which women figure into the public world. In recent years, feminist scholars have additionally begun to examine Shelley's other, more neglected writings. In particular, they have explored the themes of incest, familial relationships, and psychological trauma in Mathilda, offering psychobiological interpretations of the work and viewing it as a revelatory text regarding her relationship with her father. Feminist academics have called for a critical reassessment of Shelley's oeuvre, arguing that her prose reveals a writer with a wide range of stylistic abilities and thematic interests. Overall, critics have maintained that Shelley's writing echoes her mother's early feminist views and addresses complex questions of multiple sexualities, gender roles, and the pressures facing female writers in the nineteenth century.

Principal Works

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History of a Six Weeks' Tour through a Part of France, Switzerland, Germany, and Holland, with Letters Descriptive of a Sail round the lake of Geneva, and the Glaciers of Chamouni [with Percy Bysshe Shelley] (travel essays) 1817

Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus (novel) 1818

Valperga; or, The Life and Adventures of Castruccio, Prince of Lucca (novel) 1823

The Last Man (novel) 1826

The Fortunes of Perkin Warbeck, A Romance (novel) 1830

Lodore (novel) 1835

Falkner: A Novel (novel) 1837

Rambles in Germany and Italy in 1840, 1842, and 1843 (travel essays) 1844

Tales and Stories (short stories) 1891

* Mathilda (novel) 1959

Collected Tales and Stories (short stories) 1976

The Journals of Mary Shelley. 2 vols. (journals) 1987

The Letters of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley. 3 vols. (letters) 1988

* Originally titled The Fields of Fancy, Mathilda is believed to have been written c. 1819.

Primary Sources

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SOURCE: Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft. Preface to Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, pp. 1-2. London: Henry Colburn and Richard Bentley, 1831.

In the following preface to her 1818 edition of Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, Shelley introduces her work, touching on its purpose and how it was conceived.

The event on which this fiction is founded has been supposed, by Dr. Darwin and some of the physiological writers of Germany, as not of impossible occurrence. I shall not be supposed as according the remotest degree of serious faith to such an imagination; yet, in assuming it as the basis of a work of fancy, I have not considered myself as merely weaving a series of supernatural terrors. The event on which the interest of the story depends is exempt from the disadvantages of a mere tale of spectres or enchantment. It was recommended by the novelty of the situations which it develops, and however impossible as a physical fact, affords a point of view to the imagination for the delineating of human passions more comprehensive and commanding than any which thee ordinary relations of existing events can yield.

I have thus endeavoured to preserve the truth of the elementary principles of human nature, while I have not scrupled to innovate upon their combinations. The Iliad, the tragic poetry of Greece, Shakespeare in the Tempest and Midsummer Night's Dream, and most especially Milton in Paradise Lost conform to this rule; and the most humble novelist, who seeks to confer or receive amusement from his labours, may, without presumption, apply to prose fiction a license, or rather a rule, from the adoption of which so many exquisite combinations of human feeling have resulted in the highest specimens of poetry.

The circumstance on which my story rests was suggested in casual conversation. It was commenced partly as a source of amusement, and partly as an expedient for exercising any untried resources of mind. Other motives were mingled with these as the work proceeded. I am by no means indifferent to the manner in which whatever moral tendencies exist in the sentiments or characters it contains shall affect the reader; yet my chief concern in this respect has been limited to the avoiding the enervating effects of the novels of the present day, and to the exhibition of the amiableness of domestic affection, and the excellence of universal virtue. The opinions which naturally spring from the character and situation of the hero are by no means to be conceived as existing always in my own conviction; nor is any inference justly to be drawn from the following pages as prejudicing any philosophical doctrine of whatever kind.

It is a subject also of additional interest to the author that this story was begun in the majestic region where the scene is principally laid and in society which cannot cease to be regretted. I passed the summer of 1816 in the environs of Geneva. The season was cold and rainy, and in the evenings we crowded around a bluing wood fire and occasionally amused ourselves with some German stories of ghosts which happened to fall into our hands. These tales excited in us a playful desire of imitation. Two other friends (a tale from the pen of one of whom would be far more acceptable to the public than anything I can ever hope to produce) and myself agreed to write each a story founded on some supernatural occurrence.

The weather, however, suddenly became serene; and my two friends left me on a journey among the Alps and lost, in the magnificent scenes which they present, all memory of their ghostly visions. The following tale is the only one which has been completed.

General Commentary

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SOURCE: Markley, A. A. "'Laughing That I May Not Weep': Mary Shelley's Short Fiction and Her Novels." Keats-Shelley Journal 66 (1997): 97-124.

In the following excerpt, Markley attempts to reassess Shelley's reputation by examining her stories and novels, arguing that a fresh look at her neglected stories, which explore themes such as the loyalty of women and arranged marriage, shows the breadth of her interests and stylistic abilities.


Still fixed in the general cultural memory as a grieving widow who was unable to reproduce the success of her first novel, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley has not been known as a writer skilled in a range of generic conventions. Until very recently her reputation has been based almost solely upon Frankenstein (1818), and occasionally The Last Man (1826), both of which are serious works of science fiction within which Mary Shelley also refashioned the genre of her father's popular confessional narratives, such as Things As They Are, or the Adventures of Caleb Williams (1794), St. Leon, A Tale of the Sixteenth Century (1799), Fleet-wood (1805), and Mandeville (1817). Nevertheless, Mary Shelley also wrote the historical novels Valperga (1823) and The Fortunes of Perkin Warbeck (1830), the Victorian domestic novels Lodore (1835) and Falkner (1837), and two travel books, History of a Six Weeks' Tour (1817) and Rambles in Germany and Italy (1844), all of which demonstrate significant differences in style and tone from her better-known Godwinian confessional narratives. It has only been within the last few years that significant numbers of scholars have begun to move beyond Frankenstein in assessing her work, and 1996 marked the first publication of all of her novels together in a complete edition, indeed the first publication of several of the novels in this century.1

If we are to give Mary Shelley her due as an artist, it is important to establish a framework for analyzing her work that does not derive solely from Frankenstein, a framework that takes into account her versatility and range from multiple stylistic and generic perspectives. An analysis of many of her shorter pieces, for example, reveals that not only did she experiment with more than one literary genre, but she very often reworked her serious themes and conventions, employed so effectively in such novels as Frankenstein and The Last Man, in a lighter, more artistically playful vein. Mostly short stories that Mary Shelley wrote for gift-book annuals—as financial necessity dictated in the mid to late 1820s and 1830s—many of these works display her wit and ability as a humorist, an aspect of her literary personality which has not been sufficiently acknowledged.2 Moreover, an analysis of these stories offers a rare view of Mary Shelley the writer at work, in this case using and reusing material that inspired her in the composition of her more serious, longer novels.

Mary Shelley produced the majority of her short stories for publication in The Keepsake, a popular annual published every November in time for holiday gift-giving. In working in the rapidly growing gift-book genre, she faced a number of restrictions quite different from those of the three-decker novel. In his Introduction to the Collected Tales and Stories, Charles E. Robinson explains that annuals such as The Keepsake often contracted with writers to compose stories of a certain rigidly-set length to accompany plates they had already chosen to publish (p. xvi). In The Keepsake for 1831 (publ. 1830), for example, Mary Shelley's stories "Transformation: A Tale," and "The Swiss Peasant" were published to accompany plates depicting young women entitled "Juliet" and "The Swiss Peasant."3 The plates were a particular point of pride for The Keepsake's editor, Mary Shelley's friend Frederic Mansel Reynolds, who in the Preface to this number heartily thanks a contributor for permission to publish a frontispiece engraving of a painting of "Haidée," which has no apparent connection to the contents of the annual. Although Mary Shelley's stories are often linked to their respective plates of necessity, the relationship between the illustration and the story is in most cases artificial and rather tenuous.4 A study of her work for the annuals reveals Mary Shelley's remarkably consistent production of high quality work true to her own literary designs, which simultaneously satisfy the necessity of illustrating predetermined engravings.5

Indeed, in many of these short pieces, Mary Shelley manages to complement the plate which she was obligated to "illustrate" in a creative, sometimes even humorous manner. This may suggest something of her attitude toward the restricting genre of the annuals. After all, her feelings must have been mixed about frequently having to put aside work on her novels during the 1820s to compose short stories in order to support herself and her son. And most of her work for the annuals involves treating themes of love and romance, meeting the editors' requirements for stories involving beautiful young women aimed at a largely female readership. The various twists that Mary Shelley is able to put on the themes of these stories provides an array of evidence for her professional poise and artistic skills within a set genre.

No doubt the limited attention paid to Mary Shelley's short stories, along with the majority of her other works, is partly the result of the critical assumption, beginning as early as her own lifetime, that her post-Frankenstein work is aesthetically inferior. Perhaps the most unfortunate fact of her publishing career is that the genius behind Frankenstein often has been attributed in varying degrees to her husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley.6 Even Richard Garnett, one of the most important nineteenth-century figures responsible for the preservation of Mary Shelley's reputation and the first editor of her short stories, contributed to the abiding perception of Mary Shelley's work after Frankenstein as inferior. In his Introduction to Mary Shelley's Tales and Stories of 1891, Garnett attempted to defend Mary Shelley against those who attributed her success in Frankenstein solely to her relationship with her husband. Nevertheless, he undercuts his defense by dismissing her later novels, with the exception of The Last Man:

None of Mary Shelley's subsequent romances approached Frankenstein in power and popularity. The reason may be summed up in a word—Languor. After the death of her infant in 1819, she could never again command the energy which had carried her so vigorously through Frankenstein. Except in one instance, her work did not really interest her. Her heart was not in it.7

Garnett did, however, see many of the virtues of Mary Shelley's short stories, although he credited their general success to the restrictions of the short story format of the period. He wrote that "the necessary limitations of space afforded less scope for that creeping languor which relaxed the nerve of her more ambitious productions" (Introduction, p. xi). In addition, he claims that the annual's tendency to affect "an exalted order of sentiment" was "perfectly suited" to Mary Shelley as a writer of passion and emotion (p. x). Although Garnett credited her for her ability to create "poetical atmosphere" and for the deeply interwoven biographical elements in her work, he did not acknowledge the range of her work. He did not comment on the humorous and parodic elements of such works as "Transformation" and "The Mortal Immortal," for example, nor did he credit either of these stories for their subtle reworkings of the Godwinian confessional narrator; "The Mortal Immortal" he saw merely as "a variation on the theme of St. Leon" (p. xiii).

In reassessing Mary Shelley's reputation as a writer, it must be acknowledged that her short stories vary widely in both tone and generic form, and that the "grieving widow" was in fact capable of great originality, wit, and humor. Her supposed "languor" after the deaths of her children and husband neither stifled Mary Shelley's ability to produce great literature, nor prevented her from exercising a marked ingenuity, even a kind of ironic playfulness, in some works. She frequently achieves these effects by imaginatively playing off the engravings provided her, putting a creative twist on the typical literary fare published in the annuals at that time.

I begin by looking at three stories in which Mary Shelley treats the theme of the loyalty of women, in each case reworking what constitutes a frequently recurring theme in her longer fiction, namely Valperga, The Last Man, and Perkin Warbeck, novels written during the mid to late 1820s. In "The Bride of Modern Italy," Mary Shelley provides a wryly ironic critique of the Italian custom of arranged marriages, which she witnessed while living in Italy from 1818-1823, as well as a humorous response to her husband's infatuation with the young Emilia Viviani. "The False Rhyme" is a comic treatment of the extent of one woman's loyalty; and "The Dream" a humorous deflation of many of the conventions of gothic literature that Mary Shelley often drew on in her own novels. The protagonist of "The Dream" is in many ways a comic recasting of such figures as Ellen in "The Mourner," written two years earlier, or even the heroine of Mathilda—both characters whose obsessive grief cripple them emotionally.

Next I will look at three stories in which Mary Shelley reworks conventions of science fiction and the fantastic—like those found in her well-known novels Frankenstein and The Last Man. In "Roger Dodsworth: The Reanimated Englishman," for example, Mary Shelley gently satirizes contemporary British culture through the device of a European "Rip Van Winkle," whose reanimation in a later century allows her to associate nineteenth-century England with the revolutionary England of the Interregnum. In this story she provides a lighter treatment of the same situation that she had taken up in the unfinished "Valerius: The Reanimated Roman" and The Last Man. In "The Mortal Immortal" and "Transformation," Mary Shelley reaches the height of her gift for humor. In these stories she develops the themes of human immortality and of body-swapping, and while doing so she also recasts the Godwinian confessional narrator, a character-type that strongly influenced her conception of both Victor Frankenstein and Lionel Verney. In addition, she draws on the popular figure of the Byronic hero, traces of whom are also evident in such figures as Valperga's Castruccio, and The Last Man's Lord Raymond. And, in her humorous treatment of fantastic plot elements, she reworks elements of science fiction and the supernatural that characterize her own more serious fiction, Frankenstein in particular.

Mary Shelley was driven to the necessity of having to produce short works quickly in order to support herself and her son Percy Florence in the years following Percy Bysshe Shelley's death, so it is not surprising to find that she occasionally found it worthwhile to rework some of the serious themes to which she devoted herself in her novels. That she reworked the themes with such wit, and sometimes in parodic or humorous ways, however, may be surprising to readers who know her only for her more serious longer fiction. Perhaps Mary Shelley found in these lighter short stories a welcome release from the serious themes that she was continually drawn to in her novels; one may think of Byron's lines from Don Juan: "And if I laugh at any mortal thing / 'T is that I may not weep" (IV.iv.1-2).


"The Bride of Modern Italy" is an excellent example among Mary Shelley's shorter fiction of her artful, playful mode. First published in 1824 in the London Magazine, in it Mary Shelley took the opportunity to respond to her husband's obsession with the young Italian Emilia Viviani in 1820-1821, who was the inspiration for Percy Bysshe Shelley's "Italian Platonics," and his poem Epipsychidion. Although "The Bride of Modern Italy" is a rather gentle treatment of this situation, a passage in a letter that Mary Shelley wrote to Maria Gisborne on 7 March 1822 clarifies her feelings. In reporting to Mrs. Gisborne Emilia's marriage, Mary Shelley writes, "The conclusion of our friendship a la Italiana puts me in mind of a nursery rhyme which runs thus—

As I was going down Cranbourne lane,
Cranbourne lane was dirty,
And there I met a pretty maid,
Who dropt to me a curt'sey;
I gave her cakes, I gave her wine,
I gave her sugar candy,
But oh! the little naughty girl!
She asked me for some brandy

Now turn Cranbourne lane into Pisan acquaintances, which I am sure are dirty enough, & brandy into that wherewithall to buy brandy (& that no small sum pero) & you have [the] whole story of Shelley['s] Italian platonics."8

During the time in which she composed "The Bride of Modern Italy," or soon thereafter, Mary Shelley was at work on another fiction, in which she idealizes Percy Bysshe Shelley in the character of Adrian, Earl of Windsor, a major figure in The Last Man. Adrian embodies the virtues of genius, gentleness, and altruism that Mary Shelley most admired in her husband. Emily Sustein notes that Mary Shelley had to put aside her work on the novel from time to time in order to write short stories for more ready money; her work on "The Bride of Modern Italy" therefore offered her an alternative site for working through the anguished feelings regarding the difficult issues in her marriage in the years immediately preceding Shelley's death.9

The Shelleys became acquainted with Emilia Viviani while living in Pisa in 1820, and both Mary and Shelley were drawn to her out of sympathy for her plight. The daughter of the governor of Pisa, Emilia was confined to a convent until her family arranged her marriage—a process which excluded Emilia's wishes altogether. Mary Shelley's initial response was horror at Italian conventions concerning arranged marriages. In a letter to Leigh Hunt, she described the pitiful, lamenting Emilia: "Her only hope is to marry but her very existence is almost a secret—what an exceptional wedding! I will tell you, my friend, how they marry in this country."10 Her diatribe against the conventions of arranged marriages continues in a long description of a sample marriage contract, in which a groom's physical and financial attributes are described in detail; his name is to be withheld until the contract was agreed upon by both families. But it is not merely the contemporary Italian mode of arranging marriages that Mary Shelley satirizes in "The Bride of Modern Italy"; she also draws a gently critical portrait of her husband in the story—perhaps in part to balance the idealization of Shelley in The Last Man's Adrian. Shelley had become infatuated with Emilia Viviani soon after the Shelleys made her acquaintance, and his feelings for the young girl and the emotional relationship he carried on with Emilia drove a wedge between him and his wife at a time when the marriage was strained by the deaths of Harriet Shelley, their children Clara and William, and problems between Claire Clairmont and Byron concerning Claire's daughter Allegra. As Shelley grew more enamoured of Emilia Viviani, Mary may well have grown gradually more suspicious of the girl's duplicity despite her innocuous demeanor.

In the story, Mary Shelley represents Emilia as "Clorinda Saviani," a woman whose very name, "Clorinda," playfully recalls the military Clorinda of Tasso's Gerusalemme Liberata in order to exploit the comic potential of the woman-warrior. Clorinda's last name, "Saviani," ironically comes from the Italian savio or "wise," a detail that suggests that the girl is not the innocent that she appears to be. Like Emilia, Clorinda is shut up in a convent until her marriage is arranged, and Mary Shelley's long, de-romanticized description of Clorinda's convent itself parodies a convention of gothic literature. "If my reader has never seen a convent," Mary Shelley writes, "let him dismiss from his mind all he may have heard or imagined of such abodes, or he can never transport himself into the garden of St. S——" (p. 32). The narrator describes the weather-stained building and the kitchen garden (overgrown, untended, and strewn with "broken earthen-ware, ashes, cabbage-stalks, orange-peel, bones, and all that marks the vicinity of a much frequented, but disorderly mansion" [p. 32]), creating an exceptionally prosaic setting, something far more earthy than readers might expect. In effect Mary Shelley deflates the conventional gothic setting of the convent, destroying any likelihood that it will invoke the darkness and mystery of gothic fiction. From the beginning of the story Mary Shelley stresses Clorinda's fickleness. The dejected Clorinda pines for her lover Giacomo and explains to her friend Teresa that she changes her patron saint to match her lovers' changing names, a comment that recalls Claire Clairmont's journal entry of 23 July 1821 regarding Emilia Viviani: "Emilia says that she prays always to a Saint, and every time she changes her lover, she changes her Saint, adopting the one of her lover."11 Even for the real Emilia, religious devotion is subjected to amorous whims. Mary Shelley undermines Clorinda's sworn "eternal devotion" to Giacomo by plotting a tale in which that devotion is shaken as soon as the young artist Marcott Alleyn enters the scene. Alleyn, described as "a man of infinitely pleasing manners" and possessing "a soft tone of voice and eyes full of expression," is clearly based in part on Percy Bysshe Shelley. At this point Mary Shelley adds a comic twist to Dante's famous story of the pathethic figures of Paolo and Francesca in the Inferno. Dante's Paolo, having been sent as his brother's representative in obtaining Francesca's hand, falls in love with Francesca himself. Like Paolo, Alleyn comes to Clorinda as a messenger for his friend Giacomo, commenting that "if I do not lose my heart, I shall at least gain some excellent hints for my picture of the Profession of Eloisa." Since the narrator has already described the real state of the convent, the reader can imagine the irony of the disappointment awaiting Alleyn, much like Mary Shelley's disappointment on her first visit to Emilia's dirty convent, which smelled of garlic (Sunstein, p. 193). The depiction of Marcott Alleyn and his artist's hope that he will, at the very least, gain material for a new painting, along with his infatuation—Alleyn's compassion is "excited in various ways"—is obviously satirical. Alleyn's initial infatuation with Clorinda begins to fade as soon as Clorinda begins to return it, the narrator explaining that young men that age "look on women as living Edens which they dare not imagine they can ever enjoy; they love, and dream not of being loved; they seek, and their wildest fancies do not picture themselves as sought" (p. 38). Thematically, the male figure in this scenario turns out to be as fickle as the inconstant Clorinda.

"The Bride of Modern Italy" obviously builds on Mary Shelley's reaction to her husband's interest in Emilia Viviani, but it also offers an excellent example of her sense of humor and her facility for subtle satire. In Valperga, published just a year before (1823), she devoted herself to depicting unflagging feminine devotion in the characters of Euthanasia and Beatrice as opposed to the ambitious and single-minded Castruccio. Here, she allows herself the freedom to satirize masculine devotion. Because Mary Shelley more often tended to idealize her husband in her fiction, and because she went to great lengths throughout her life to establish his reputation as a poet by providing the public with annotated editions of his works, readers may be surprised by the tone of "The Bride of Modern Italy." But the story is perhaps most valuable as proof that Mary Shelley's reputation after her husband's death as a languorous and remorseful widow is based on a substantial underestimation of her mind, her art, and her understanding of the complexities of human relationships.

In the case of "The False Rhyme," Mary Shelley turns again in a comic vein to the theme of feminine loyalty, here making the most of the given engraving and the forced necessity to compose a romantic love story. Written in 1829 for The Keepsake for 1830, this story is built around the premise of a king's mourning a failed love affair, thus imaginatively complementing the plate. The engraving depicts King Francis languishing on a couch with two dogs at his feet, with his sister Margaret, Queen of Navarre, standing beside him and drawing the curtain back from a window to expose an epigram that has been etched into the windowpane.12 In Mary Shelley's extrapolation from the plate, Margaret teases the king for his exaggerated pronouncements on the unfaithfulness of all women, and for his having etched into the window the couplet, "Souvent femme varie / Bien fou qui s'y fie!" (Often a woman is inconstant / A great fool is he who has faith in her!). Margaret jokes that the epigram may just as well read "Souvent homme varie, / Bien folle qui s'y fie," in which she reverses the genders in the couplet and suggests that it is greatly amended thus. The siblings' discussion concludes with a bet that Margaret cannot produce for the king one instance of a woman's faithfulness. Margaret's success in doing so ultimately proves to the king that his couplet is a "false rhyme," the title itself thus working as a pun on this poetic term.

A remarkably concise story, Mary Shelley's light tone and comic treatment of Francis' and Margaret's wager is strengthened by the story's debt to Shakespeare.13 Mary Shelley's characterization of the brooding Francis, who has impetuously imprisoned his knight, Enguerrard de Lagny, on a false charge, is drawn in the tradition of Shakespeare's jealous Othello or Leontes of The Winter's Tale. Moreover, the plot hinges on a traditional case of hidden identity—the king learns that de Lagny's wife Emilie has donned men's clothing in order to take her husband's place in prison so that he can continue to fight for the king. The mistaken-identity and cross-dressing in "The False Rhyme" is traditionally Shakespearean, but in this case it may also be something of a disguised disclosure of a real-life situation for Mary Shelley. In 1991 Betty T. Bennett uncovered proof that Mary Shelley was involved in the long-term success of her friend Mary Diana Dods' dressing and passing as a man, "Walter Sholto Douglas," the "husband" of Isabel Robinson, in Paris social circles in the late 1820s.14 In light of this discovery it is no surprise that the theme of cross-dressing recurs in Mary Shelley's fiction of the mid to late 1820s; other instances include "A Tale of the Passions," "Ferdinando Eboli," The Last Man and Perkin Warbeck.

Much of the humor of "The False Rhyme" derives from its exaggeration of the theme of feminine devotion. Rather than merely provide an example of a woman who is faithful to her husband in the sexual sense, Queen Margaret finds an extreme example in the case of Emilie de Lagny, who is not only the ideal of a woman's loyalty to her husband, but also the ideal of loyalty to the king, since the couple's switch of identity had been orchestrated entirely for the purpose of serving Francis. Having lost his bet, Francis dutifully breaks the window upon which he had etched his "false rhyme," as he had agreed he would do. The story exaggerates the ideal of loyalty to comic proportions, but the issue of loyalty is one that plays a major role in Mary Shelley's serious fiction of this period, including Valperga, which depicts extreme feminine loyalty in both Euthanasia and Beatrice, and The Last Man (1826), in the characters of Perdita and Evadne. In July 1827 Mary Shelley discovered that she had been betrayed for years by her close friend Jane Williams, who had been spreading rumors regarding the problems in Mary's marriage to P. B. Shelley.15 Then, in Perkin Warbeck (1830), she explored the theme of loyalty in the story of Richard Plantagenet, the Yorkist heir to the throne during the reign of Henry VII, with particular focus on the faithfulness and devotion of his wife Katherine. One passage is clearly relevant to Mary Shelley's situation with Jane Williams; when Richard learns of the betrayal of his friend Robin Clifford, he says, "The whole wide world of misery contains no pang so great, as the discovery of treachery where we pictured truth; death is less in the comparison, for both destroy the future, and one, with Gorgon countenance, transforms the past."16

Mary Shelley again explores the theme of female devotion in "The Dream," written for The Keepsake for 1832, and here she chooses to exaggerate elements of Keatsian gothic as represented by such works as "Isabella; or the Pot of Basil" (1818) and "The Eve of St. Agnes" (1819). "The Dream" was composed to accompany an illustration of a woman sitting in the woods, entitled "Constance," and it would be difficult to conceive of a more imaginative story line than Mary Shelley's drawn from such an illustration. Mary Shelley's Constance is an exaggeration of that virtue—a woman who lives her life to mourn the deaths of her father and brother, and who vows to deny her love for Gaspar, whom she deems responsible for their deaths. Constance is an exaggerated figure of the grieving woman, a rather comic counterpart to a figure such as Ellen in Mary Shelley's melodramatic story, "The Mourner" (1830), who inadvertently causes her father's drowning at sea, or to the mournful Mathilda in the novel of that name (written 1819-1820 and unpublished until the twentieth century), in which the heroine inadvertently drives her father to suicide as a result of their incestuous attraction to each other. In the particular scene written to accommodate the illustration, Mary Shelley's heroine hears a rustling in the leaves in the woods around her and despairs that such a sound will never again indicate the approach of her former lover, Gaspar. Just then Gaspar leaps from the bushes to confront her. The situation of the lamenting Constance and her interview with the lover she had been sure she would never see again recalls the appearance of the dead Lorenzo to Keats's crazed "Isabella." The story's similarity to "Isabella" was even clearer in the original manuscript version, in which Constance's interview with Gaspar was set in the dark, gloomy bedroom that she had converted into "black hung rooms" to suit her state of mourning. Charles Robinson notes that Mary Shelley was forced to alter her story to fit the illustration of "Constance" outside in the woods, thus diminishing what seems to have been originally an even stronger evocation of Keats.17

The story's similarity to Keats's "The Eve of St. Agnes" is even stronger than its resemblance to "Isabella," however, for Constance's inability to decide between her devotion to the dead and her love for Gaspar leads her to consult her patron saint, Catherine.18 Like the legend of St. Agnes on which Keats structures his poem, Mary Shelley describes a local legend that a young woman who spends a night asleep on "Saint Catherine's bed" will be guided by the saint in a dream. Here Mary Shelley takes the gothic setting to the extreme, for Saint Catherine's bed turns out to be a precarious ledge jutting out over the river, and the reader is told that those who formerly attempted to sleep there either fled in fear or met their death in the turbulent waters below. True to her name, however, Constance cannot be dissuaded from her decision to seek St. Catherine's guidance, and the description of her perilous night spent on the "bed" extends Keats's use of folktale. In the exaggerated gravity and devotion of "Constance," Mary Shelley recasts Keats's Madeline with her maidenly purity and devotion. In addition, she humorously reworks Keats's theme of appearance and reality: Constance nearly falls from the ledge crying out in a dream that she will save Gaspar, only to be caught and rescued by the real Gaspar, who is standing over her, watching her sleep. Mary Shelley rounds out the humorous ending of "The Dream" by having Constance's maid Manon, who has slept the night in the chapel near St. Catherine's bed, awaken to find Constance's wedding ceremony underway. In addition, Gaspar himself makes light of the events of the story when Constance finally confides to him that it was a vision of his suffering in prison "in soiled and tattered garments, with unkempt locks and wild matted beard," in form "a mere skeleton" that caused her to cry out in her dream and which nearly cost her her life (p. 164). Gaspar answers, "And was it my appearance in that attractive state and winning costume that softened the hard heart of Constance?" (p. 164), thus laughing himself at the ordeal that Constance went through before being able to abandon her grief and excess of devotion, and to accept the opportunity of love.

"The Dream" provides further evidence for Mary Shelley's abilities as a humorist. She exaggerates gothic conventions, in this case as they were employed by Keats, poking fun at some examples of popular fiction, including the "constant" woman whose blind devotion to the dead and to religious folk belief inhibits her present life and happiness until she is saved from the restrictions she has created for herself. The biographical context is unavoidable. Mary Shelley may well be "laughing that [she] may not weep" in this case, given her strong devotion to her husband's memory and her guilt over the dead, as well as the treatments of the theme of the constant woman in her more serious works. Both "The False Rhyme" and "The Dream" are comic treatments of what was obviously a serious issue for Mary Shelley, and as such these stories demonstrate a flexibility and resilience in handling themes that inform her major writings at the time, including Mathilda, Valperga, The Last Man, Perkin Warbeck, and "The Mourner." In these stories Mary Shelley again managed to produce original and creative works within the restrictions of market demands. These stories must have far superseded any expectations the reader of the annuals must have derived from the accompanying engravings.…

Having produced both Frankenstein and The Last Man in the direct lineage of her father's popular confessional narratives, Mary Shelley in "The Mortal Immortal" and "Transformation" may have sought (and found) an outlet for recasting those serious confessionals in a lighter manner. Certainly one of the most valuable legacies of her short stories for the modern reader is the view they provide us of Mary Shelley as an author, playfully reworking the exaggerated and oftentimes morose conventions of gothic fiction, portraying the self-absorbed figures of both Godwin's and Byron's works with wit and humor, and even finding new ways to rework serious themes, such as feminine devotion, that repeatedly inspired her own longer, more serious fiction. In many of her short stories, Mary Shelley not only greatly superseded one of the few publishing venues available to her as a woman writing in the early nineteenth century, and a fairly rigidly confining one at that, but she also produced works of subtle humor—even brilliant imagination—which, as a group, contribute to a reappraisal of her genius and her reputation.


  1. The Novels and Selected Works of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, Nora Crook, ed., with Pamela Clemit. Consulting ed. Betty T. Bennett, 8 vols. (London: William Pickering, 1996).
  2. In his edition Mary Shelley: Collected Tales and Stories with Original Engravings (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976), Charles E. Robinson acknowledges the humorous elements in the short fiction; in this paper I hope to focus on the range and the contexts of Mary Shelley's use of humor in her stories as she reworks major themes from her novels. References to Mary Shelley's short stories are in Robinson's edition.
  3. Mary Shelley also contributed the poems "A Dirge," and "A Night Scene," and "Absence" to the 1831 Keepsake. The stories and poems are attributed in the Table of Contents and under the title of each work in the text as "The Author of Frankenstein, "withthe exception of "A Night Scene" ("I see thee not, my gentlest Isabel;"), which is attributed to "Mary S."
  4. See Robinson, Introduction, p. xvi.
  5. For a treatment of the challenges Mary Shelley faced in writing for the annuals, and especially for an astute assessment of her success within the limitations of the genre, see Sonia Hofkosh, "Disfiguring Economies: Mary Shelley's Short Stories," in The Other Mary Shelley, Audrey Fisch, Anne Mellor, and Esther Schor, eds. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993), pp. 204-19.
  6. Charles E. Robinson's publication of The Frankenstein Notebooks, 2 vols. (New York: Garland, 1996) at last puts this controversy to rest by providing physical proof of the relatively small degree to which P. B. Shelley made editorial additions or changes to the novel.
  7. Richard Garnett, ed. Tales and Stories by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (London: William Paterson, 1891), p. vii. The exception that Garnett allows in this assessment of Mary Shelley's work is The Last Man, although he again undercuts his praise by contributing to the reductive stereotype of Mary Shelley as grieving widow: "The Last Man demands great attention, for it is not only a work of far higher merit than commonly admitted, but of all her works the most characteristic of the authoress, the most representative of Mary Shelley in the character of pining widowhood which it was her destiny to support for the remainder of her life" (pp. vii-viii).
  8. Betty T. Bennett ed., The Letters of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, 3 vols. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980), I, 223. Bennett explains that Mary Shelley's comment on "that wherewithall to buy brandy" refers to Emilia's attempt to borrow a large sum of money from Shelley (225, n14).
  9. Emily Sunstein, Mary Shelley: Romance and Reality (New York: Little, Brown & Co., 1989), p. 254. Mary Shelley's journals attest to the anguish that she suffered in coming to terms with Shelley's death. See Paula R. Feldman and Diana Scott-Kilvert, The Journals of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, 2 vols. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987).
  10. Mary W. Shelley to Leigh Hunt, 3 December 1820, The Letters of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, ed. Betty T. Bennett, 3 vols. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980), I, 162-66.
  11. The Journals of Claire Clairmont, ed. Marion Kingston Stocking (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1968), p. 243; cited by Robinson, p. 376.
  12. See Robinson, Tales, p. xiv. Mary Shelley would have been familiar with Francis I's history from William Godwin's novel St. Leon, in which the narrator witnesses and describes Francis' ceremonial meeting with Henry VIII at the Field of the Cloth of Gold, and participates in certain military engagements in Francis' ranks, including the defeat of the French at Pavia.
  13. Mary Shelley's journal records that she and Shelley read at least 26 of Shakespeare's plays between 1814-1821, and she would have been familiar with all of the plays to some degree from Charles and Mary Lamb's Tales from Shakespear, published by M. J. Godwin and Co. in 1807.
  14. Betty T. Bennett, Mary Diana Dods: A Gentleman and a Scholar (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991). Mary Shelley's interest in the theme of cross-dressing is no doubt likewise due to influences such as Tasso and Byron's Don Juan, during much of the composition of which she served Byron as a copyist.
  15. For Mary Shelley's relationship with Jane Williams, see Emily Sunstein's biography, and Paula R. Feldman and Diana Scott-Kilvert, eds., The Journals of Mary Shelley (Oxford University Press, 1987).
  16. The Fortunes of Perkin Warbeck, a romance, by the author of "Frankenstein," 3 vols. (London: Henry Colburn and Richard Bentley, 1830), II, p.68.
  17. See Robinson, Tales, p. 383.
  18. Robinson, Tales, p. 383.

Title Commentary

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SOURCE: Mellor, Anne K. “Possessing Nature: The Female in Frankenstein.” In Romanticism and Feminism, edited by Anne K. Mellor, pp. 220-32. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1988.

In the following essay, Mellor argues that Frankenstein is a feminist novel which depicts the consequences of a social construction of gender that places greater value on the male.

When Victor Frankenstein identifies Nature as female—“I pursued nature to her hiding places”1—he participates in a gendered construction of the universe whose ramifications are everywhere apparent in Frankenstein. His scientific penetration and technological exploitation of female nature, which I have discussed elsewhere,2 is only one dimension of a more general cultural encoding of the female as passive and possessable, the willing receptacle of male desire. The destruction of the female implicit in Frankenstein’s usurpation of the natural mode of human reproduction symbolically erupts in his nightmare following the animation of his creature, in which his bride-to-be is transformed in his arms into the corpse of his dead mother—“a shroud enveloped her form, and I saw the grave-worms crawling in the folds of the flannel” (p. 53). By stealing the female’s control over reproduction, Frankenstein has eliminated the female’s primary biological function and source of cultural power. Indeed, for the simple purpose of human survival, Frankenstein has eliminated the necessity to have females at all. One of the deepest horrors of this novel is Frankenstein’s implicit goal of creating a society for men only: his creature is male; he refuses to create a female; there is no reason that the race of immortal beings he hoped to propagate should not be exclusively male.3

On the cultural level, Frankenstein’s scientific project—to become the sole creator of a human being—supports a patriarchal denial of the value of women and of female sexuality. Mary Shelley, doubtless inspired by her mother’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, specifically portrays the consequences of a social construction of gender that values the male above the female. Victor Frankenstein’s nineteenth-century Genevan society is founded on a rigid division of sex roles: the male inhabits the public sphere, the female is relegated to the private or domestic sphere.4 The men in Frankenstein’s world all work outside the home, as public servants (Alphonse Frankenstein), as scientists (Victor), as merchants (Clerval and his father), or as explorers (Walton). The women are confined to the home; Elizabeth, for instance, is not permitted to travel with Victor and “regretted that she had not the same opportunities of enlarging her experience and cultivating her understanding” (151). Inside the home, women are either kept as a kind of pet (Victor “loved to tend” on Elizabeth “as I should on a favorite animal” [p. 30]); or they work as house wives, childcare providers, and nurses (Caroline Beaufort Frankenstein, Elizabeth Lavenza, Margaret Saville) or as servants (Justine Moritz).

As a consequence of this sexual division of labor, masculine work is kept outside of the domestic realm; hence intellectual activity is segregated from emotional activity. Victor Frankenstein cannot do scientific research and think lovingly of Elizabeth and his family at the same time. His obsession with his experiment has caused him “to forget those friends who were so many miles absent, and whom I had not seen for so long a time” (p. 50). This separation of masculine work from the domestic affections leads directly to Frankenstein’s downfall. Because Frankenstein cannot work and love at the same time, he fails to feel empathy for the creature he is constructing and callously makes him eight feet tall simply because “the minuteness of the parts formed a great hindrance to my speed” (p. 49). He then fails to love or feel any parental responsibility for the freak he has created. And he remains so fixated on himself that he cannot imagine his monster might threaten someone else when he swears to be with Victor “on his wedding-night.”

This separation of the sphere of public (masculine) power from the sphere of private (feminine) affection also causes the destruction of many of the women in the novel. Caroline Beaufort dies unnecessarily because she feels obligated to nurse her favorite Elizabeth during a smallpox epidemic; she thus incarnates a patriarchal ideal of female self-sacrifice (this suggestion is strengthened in the 1831 revisions where she eagerly risks her life to save Elizabeth). She is a woman who is devoted to her father in wealth and in poverty, who nurses him until his death, and then marries her father’s best friend to whom she is equally devoted.

The division of public man from private woman also means that women cannot function effectively in the public realm. Despite her innocence of the crime for which she is accused, Justine Moritz is executed for the murder of William Frankenstein (and is even half-persuaded by her male confessor that she is responsible for William’s death). And Elizabeth, fully convinced of Justine’s innocence, is unable to save her: the impassioned defense she gives of Justine arouses public approbation of Elizabeth’s generosity but does nothing to help Justine, “on whom the public indignation was turned with renewed violence, charging her with the blackest ingratitude” (p. 80). Nor can Elizabeth save herself on her wedding night. Both these deaths are of course directly attributable to Victor Frankenstein’s self-devoted concern for his own suffering (the creature will attack only him) and his own reputation (people would think him mad if he told them his own monster had killed his brother).

Mary Shelley underlines the mutual deprivation inherent in a family and social structure based on rigid and hierarchical gender divisions by portraying an alternative social organization in the novel: the De Lacey family. The political situation of the De Lacey family, exiled from their native France by the manipulations of an ungrateful Turkish merchant and a draconian legal system, points up the injustice that prevails in a nation where masculine values of competition and chauvinism reign. Mary Shelley’s political critique of a society founded on the unequal distribution of power and possessions is conveyed not only through the manifest injustice of Justine’s execution and of France’s treatment first of the alien Turkish merchant and then of the De Lacey family, but also through the readings in political history that she assigns to the creature. From Plutarch’s Parallel Lives of the Greeks and Romans and from Volney’s Ruins, or Meditations on the Revolutions of Empires, the creature learns both of masculine virtue and of masculine cruelty and injustice. “I heard of the division of property, of immense wealth and squalid poverty; … I learned that the possessions most esteemed … were high and unsullied descent united with riches” (p. 115). “Was man, indeed, at once so powerful, so virtuous, and magnificent, yet so vicious and base?” the creature asks incredulously. Implicit in Mary Shelley’s attack on the social injustice of established political systems is the suggestion that the separation from the public realm of feminine affections and compassion has caused much of this social evil. Had Elizabeth Lavenza’s plea for mercy for Justine, based on her intuitively correct knowledge of Justine’s character, been heeded, Justine would not have been wrongly murdered by the courts. As Elizabeth exclaims,

how I hate [the] shews and mockeries [of this world]! when one creature is murdered, another is immediately deprived of life in a slow torturing manner; then the executioners, their hands yet reeking with the blood of innocence, believe that they have done a great deed. They call this retribution. Hateful name! when the word is pronounced, I know greater and more horrid punishments are going to be inflicted than the gloomiest tyrant has ever invented to satiate his utmost revenge.

(p. 83)

In contrast to this pattern of political inequality and injustice, the De Lacey family represents an alternative ideology: a vision of a social group based on justice, equality, and mutual affection. Felix willingly sacrificed his own welfare to ensure that justice was done to the Turkish merchant. More important, the structure of the De Lacey family constitutes Mary Shelley’s ideal, an ideal derived from her mother’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. In the impoverished De Lacey household, all work is shared equally in an atmosphere of rational companionship, mutual concern, and love. As their symbolic names suggest, Felix embodies happiness, Agatha goodness. They are then joined by Safie (sophia or wisdom). Safie, the daughter of the Turkish merchant, is appalled both by her father’s betrayal of Felix and by the Islamic oppression of women he endorses; she has therefore fled from Turkey to Switzerland, seeking Felix. Having reached the De Lacey household, she promptly 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” (p. 119), is the incarnation of Mary Wollstonecraft in the novel. Wollstonecraft too traveled alone through Europe and Scandinavia; more important, she advocated in A Vindication that women 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.

But this alternative female role-model of an independent, well-educated, self-supporting, and loving companion, and this alternative nuclear family structure based on sexual equality and mutual affection, is lost in the novel, perhaps because the De Lacey family lacks the mother who might have been able to welcome the pleading, pitiable creature. When Safie flees with the De Lacey family, we as readers are deprived of the novel’s only alternative to a rigidly patriarchal construction of gender and sex roles, just as Mary Shelley herself was deprived of a feminist role-model when her mother died and was subsequently denounced in the popular British press as a harlot, atheist, and anarchist. Safie’s disappearance from the novel reflects Mary Shelley’s own predicament. Like Frankenstein’s creature, she has no positive prototype she can imitate, no place in history. That unique phenomenon envisioned by Mary Wollstonecraft, the wife as the lifelong intellectual equal and companion of her husband, does not exist in the world of nineteenth-century Europe experienced by Mary Shelley.

The doctrine of the separate spheres that Victor Frankenstein endorses encodes a particular attitude to female sexuality that Mary Shelley subtly exposes in her novel. This attitude is manifested most vividly in Victor’s response to the creature’s request for a female companion, an Eve to comfort and embrace him. After hearing his creature’s autobiographical account of his sufferings and aspirations, Frankenstein is moved by an awakened conscience to do justice toward his Adam and promises to create a female creature, on condition that both leave forever the neighborhood of mankind. After numerous delays, Frankenstein finally gathers the necessary instruments and materials together into an isolated cottage on one of the Orkney Islands off Scotland and proceeds to create a female being. Once again he becomes ill: “my heart often sickened at the work of my hands … my spirits became unequal; I grew restless and nervous” (p. 162).

Disgusted by his enterprise, Frankenstein finally determines to stop his work, rationalizing his decision to deprive his creature of a female companion in terms that repay careful examination. Here is Frankenstein’s meditation:

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 neighborhood 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. They might even hate each other; the creature who already lived loathed his own deformity, and might he not conceive a greater abhorrence for it when it came before his eyes in the female form? She also might turn with disgust from him to the superior beauty of man; she might quit him, and he be again alone, exasperated by the fresh provocation of being deserted by one of his own species.

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. Had I a right, for my own benefit, to inflict this curse upon everlasting generations? … I shuddered to think that future ages might curse me as their pest, whose selfishness had not hesitated to buy its own peace at the price perhaps of the existence of the whole human race.

(p. 163)

What does Victor Frankenstein truly fear, which causes him to end his creation of a female? First, he is afraid of an independent female will, afraid that his female creature will have desires and opinions that cannot be controlled by his male creature. Like Rousseau’s natural man, she might refuse to comply with a social contract made before her birth by another person; she might assert her own integrity and the revolutionary right to determine her own existence. Moreover, those uninhibited female desires might be sadistic: Frankenstein imagines a female “ten thousand times” more evil than her mate, who would “delight” in murder for its own sake. Third, he fears that his female creature will be more ugly than his male creature, so much so that even the male will turn from her in disgust. Fourth, he fears that she will prefer to mate with ordinary males; implicit here is Frankenstein’s horror that, given the gigantic strength of this female, she would have the power to seize and even rape the male she might choose. And finally, he is afraid of her reproductive powers, her capacity to generate an entire race of similar creatures. What Victor Frankenstein truly fears is female sexuality as such. A woman who is sexually liberated, free to choose her own life, her own sexual partner (by force, if necessary). And to propagate at will can appear only monstrously ugly to Victor Frankenstein, for she defies that sexist aesthetic that insists that women be small, delicate, modest, passive, and sexually pleasing—but available only to their lawful husbands.

Horrified by this image of uninhibited female sexuality, Victor Frankenstein violently 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: “trembling with passion, [I] tore to pieces the thing on which I was engaged” (p. 164). The morning after, when he returns to the scene, “The remains of the half-finished creature, whom I had destroyed, lay scattered on the floor, and I almost felt as if I had mangled the living flesh of a human being” (p. 167). However he has rationalized his decision to

murder the female creature, Frankenstein’s “passion” is here revealed as a fusion of fear, lust, and hostility, a desire to control and even destroy female sexuality.

Frankenstein’s fear of female sexuality is endemic to a patriarchal construction of gender. Uninhibited female sexual experience threatens the very foundation of patriarchal power: the establishment of patrilineal kinship networks together with the transmission of both status and property by inheritance entailed upon a male line. Significantly, in the patriarchal world of Geneva in the novel, female sexuality is strikingly repressed. All the women are presented as sexless: Caroline Beaufort is a devoted daughter and chaste wife while Elizabeth Lavenza’s relationship with Victor is that of a sister.

In this context, the murder of Elizabeth Lavenza on her wedding night becomes doubly significant. The scene of her death is based on a painting Mary Shelley knew well, Henry Fuseli’s famous “The Nightmare.” The corpse of Elizabeth lies in the very attitude in which Fuseli placed his succubus-ridden woman: “She was there, lifeless and inanimate, thrown across the bed, her head hanging down, and her pale and distorted features half covered by her hair” (p. 193). Fuseli’s woman is an image of female erotic desire, both lusting for and frightened of the incubus (or male demon) that rides upon her, brought to her bed-chamber by the stallion that leers at her from the foot of her bed; both the presence of this incubus and the woman’s posture of open sexual acceptance leave Fuseli’s intentions in no doubt.5 Evoking this image, Mary Shelley alerted us to what Victor fears most: his bride’s sexuality.6 Significantly, Elizabeth would not have been killed had Victor not sent her into their wedding bedroom alone. Returning to the body of the murdered Elizabeth, Victor “embraced her with ardour; but the deathly languor and coldness of the limbs told me, that what I now held in my arms had ceased to be the Elizabeth whom I had loved and cherished” (p. 193). Victor most ardently desires his bride when he knows she is dead; the conflation with his earlier dream, when he thought to embrace the living Elizabeth but instead held in his arms the corpse of his mother, signals Victor’s most profound erotic desire, a necrophiliac and incestuous desire to possess the dead female, the lost mother.

To put this point another way, we might observe that Victor Frankenstein’s most passionate relationships are with men rather than with women. He sees Clerval as “the image of my former self” (p. 155), as his “friend and dearest companion” (p. 181), as his true soul mate. His description of Clerval’s haunting eyes—“languishing in death, the dark orbs covered by the lids, and the long black lashes that fringed them” (p. 179)—verges on the erotic. Similarly, Walton responds to Frankenstein with an ardor that borders on the homoerotic. Having desired “the company of a man who could sympathize with me; whose eyes would reply to mine” (p. 13), Walton eagerly embraces Frankenstein as “a celestial spirit” (p. 23) whose death leaves him inarticulate with grief: “what can I say,” Walton writes to his sister, “that will enable you to understand the depth of my sorrow?” (p. 216) Finally, Frankenstein dedicates himself to his scientific experiment with a passion that can be described only as erotic: as Mary Shelley originally described Frankenstein’s obsession, “I wished, as it were, to procrastinate my feelings of affection, until the great object of my affection was compleated.” Frankenstein’s homoerotic fixation upon his creature, whose features he had selected as “beautiful” (p. 52) in a parody of Pygmalion and Galatea, was underlined by Mary Shelley in a revision she made in the Thomas copy of Frankenstein. Describing his anxious enslavement to his task, Frankenstein confesses: “my voice became broken, my trembling hands almost refused to accomplish their task; I became as timid as a lovesick girl, and alternate tremor and passionate ardour took the place of wholesome sensation and regulated ambition” (51:31-35). In place of a normal heterosexual attachment to Elizabeth, Victor Frankenstein has substituted a homosexual obsession with his creature,7 an obsession that in his case is energized by a profound desire to reunite with his dead mother, by becoming himself a mother.

To sum up, at every level Victor Frankenstein is engaged upon a rape of nature, a violent penetration and usurpation of the female’s “hiding places,” of the womb. Terrified of female sexuality and the power of human reproduction it enables, both he and the patriarchal society he represents use the technologies of science and the laws of the polis to manipulate, control, and repress women. Thinking back on Elizabeth Lavenza strangled on her bridal bier and on Fuseli’s image of female erotic desire that she replicates, we can now see that at this level Victor’s creature, his monster, realizes his own most potent lust. The monster, like Fuseli’s incubus, leers over Elizabeth, enacting Victor’s own repressed desire to rape, possess, and destroy the female. Victor’s creature here becomes just that, his “creature,” the instrument of his most potent desire: to destroy female reproductive power so that only men may rule.

However, in Mary Shelley’s feminist novel, Victor Frankenstein’s desire is portrayed not only as horrible and finally unattainable but also as self-destructive. For Nature is not the passive, inert, or “dead” matter that Frankenstein imagines.8 Frankenstein assumes that he can violate Nature and pursue her to her hiding places with impunity. But Nature both resists and revenges herself upon his attempts. During his research, Nature denies to Victor Frankenstein both mental and physical health: “my enthusiasm was checked by my anxiety, and I appeared rather like one doomed by slavery to toil in the mines, or any other unwholesome trade, than an artist occupied by his favourite employment. Every night I was oppressed by a slow fever, and I became nervous to a most painful degree” (p. 51). When his experiment is completed, Victor has a fit that renders him “lifeless” for “a long, long time” and that marks the onset of a “nervous fever” that confines him for many months (p. 57). Victor continues to be tormented by anxiety attacks, bouts of delirium, periods of distraction and madness. As soon as he determines to blaspheme against Nature a second time, by creating a female human being, Nature punishes him: “the eternal twinkling of the stars weighed upon me, and … I listened to every blast of wind, as if it were a dull ugly siroc on its way to consume me” (p. 145). His mental illness returns: “Every thought that was devoted to it was an extreme anguish, and every word that I spoke in allusion to it caused my lips to quiver and my heart to palpitate” (p. 156); “my spirits became unequal; I grew restless and nervous” (p. 162). Finally, Frankenstein’s obsession with destroying his creature exposes him to such mental and physical fatigue that he dies at the age of twenty-five.

Appropriately, Nature prevents Frankenstein from constructing a normal human being: an unnatural method of reproduction produces an unnatural being, in this case a freak of gigantic stature, watery eyes, a shriveled complexion, and straight black lips. This physiognomy causes Frankenstein’s instinctive withdrawal from his child, and sets in motion the series of events that produces the monster who destroys Frankenstein’s family, friends, and self.

Moreover, Nature pursues Victor Frankenstein with the very electricity he has stolen: lightning, thunder, and rain rage around him. The November night on which he steals the “spark of being” from Nature is dreary, dismal, and wet: “the rain … poured from a black and comfortless sky” (p. 54). He next glimpses his creature during a flash of lightning as a violent storm plays over his head at Plainpalais (p. 71); significantly, the almighty Alps, and in particular Mont Blanc, are represented in this novel as female, as an image of omnipotent fertility9—on his wedding day, Victor admires “the beautiful Mont Blanc, and the assemblage of snowy mountains that in vain endeavour to emulate her” (p. 190; my italics). Before Frankenstein’s first encounter with his creature among the Alps, “the rain poured down in torrents, and thick mists hid the summits of the mountains” (p. 91). Setting sail from the Orkney island where he has destroyed his female creature, planning to throw her mangled remains into the sea, Frankenstein wakes to find his skiff threatened by a fierce wind and high waves that portend his own death: “I might be driven into the wide Atlantic, and feel all the tortures of starvation, or be swallowed up in the immeasurable waters that roared and buffetted around me. I … felt the torment of a burning thirst; … I looked upon the sea, it was to be my grave” (p. 169). Frankenstein ends his life and his pursuit of the monster he has made in the arctic regions, surrounded by the aurora borealis, the electromagnetic field of the North Pole. The atmospheric effects of the novel, which most readers have dismissed as little more than the traditional trappings of Gothic fiction, in fact manifest the power of Nature to punish those who transgress her boundaries. The elemental forces that Victor has released pursue him to his hiding places, raging round him like avenging Furies.

Finally, Nature punishes Victor Frankenstein the life-stealer most justly by denying him the capacity for natural procreation. His bride is killed on their wedding night, cutting off his chance to engender his own children. His creature—that “great object, which swallowed up every habit of my nature” (50)—turns against him, destroying not only his brother William, his soul mate Clerval, his loyal servant Justine, his grief-stricken father, and his wife, but finally pursuing Victor himself to his death, leaving Frankenstein entirely without progeny. Nature’s revenge is absolute: he who violates her sacred hiding places is destroyed.

Mary Shelley’s novel thus portrays the penalties of raping Nature. But it also celebrates an all-creating Nature loved and revered by human beings. Those characters capable of deeply feeling the beauties of Nature are rewarded with physical and mental health. Even Frankenstein in his moments of tranquillity or youthful innocence can respond powerfully to the glory of Nature. As Walton notes, “the starry sky, the sea, and every sight afforded by these wonderful regions, seems still to have the power of elevating his soul from earth” (p. 23). In Clerval’s company Victor becomes again

the same happy creature who, a few years ago, loving and beloved by all, had no sorrow or care. When happy, inanimate nature had the power of bestowing on me the most delightful sensations. A serene sky and verdant fields filled me with ecstacy.

(p. 65)

Clerval’s relationship to Nature represents one moral touchstone of the novel: since he “loved with ardour … the scenery of external nature” (p. 154), Nature endows him with a generous sympathy, a vivid imagination, a sensitive intelligence and an unbounded capacity for devoted friendship. His death annihilates the possibility that Victor Frankenstein might regain a positive relationship with Nature.

Mary Shelley envisions Nature as a sacred life-force in which human beings ought to participate in conscious harmony. Elizabeth Lavenza gives voice to this ideal in her choice of profession for Ernest Frankenstein:

I proposed that he should be a farmer… . A farmer’s is a very healthy happy life; and the least hurtful, or rather the most beneficial profession of any. My uncle [wanted him] educated as an advocate … but … it is certainly more creditable to cultivate the earth for the sustenance of man, than to be the confidant, and sometimes the accomplice, of his vices.

(p. 59)

Nature nurtures those who cultivate her; perhaps this is why, of all the members of Frankenstein’s family, only Ernest survives. Mary Shelley shares Wordsworth’s concept of a beneficial bond between the natural and the human world, which is broken only at man’s peril. Had Victor Frankenstein’s eyes not become “insensible to the charms of nature” (p. 50) and the affections of family and friends, he would not have defied Mary Shelley’s moral credo:

A human being in perfection ought always to preserve a calm and peaceful mind, and never to allow passion or a transitory desire to disturb his tranquillity. I do not think that the pursuit of knowledge is an exception to this rule. If the study to which you apply yourself has a tendency to weaken your affections, and to destroy your taste for those simple pleasures in which no alloy can possibly mix [e.g., the “beautiful season”], then that study is certainly unlawful, that is to say, not befitting the human mind.

(p. 51)

As an ecological system of interdependent organisms, Nature requires the submission of the individual ego to the welfare of the family and the larger community. Like George Eliot after her, Mary Shelley is profoundly committed to an ethic of cooperation, mutual dependence, and self-sacrifice. The Russian sea-master willingly sacrifices his own desires that his beloved and her lover may marry; Clerval immediately gives up his desire to attend university in order to nurse his dear friend Victor back to health; Elizabeth offers to release her beloved Victor from his engagement should he now love another. Mary Shelley’s moral vision thus falls into that category of ethical thinking which Carol Gilligan has recently identified as more typically female than male. Where men have tended to identify moral laws as abstract principles that clearly differentiate right from wrong, women have tended to see moral choice as imbedded in an ongoing shared life. As Gilligan contrasts them, a male “ethic of justice proceeds from the premise of equality—that everyone should be treated the same” while a female “ethic of care rests on the premise of nonviolence—that no one should be hurt.”10 This traditional female morality can probably be traced to what Nancy Chodorow and Dorothy Dinner-stein have shown to be the daughter’s greater identification with the mother.11 Whereas the son has learned to assert his separateness from the mother (and the process of mothering), the daughter has learned to represent that gendered role and thus has felt more tightly (and ambivalently) bound to the mother. Less certain of her ego boundaries, the daughter has been more likely to engage in moral thinking which gives priority to the good of the family and the community rather than to the rights of the individual.

Insofar as the family is the basic social unit, it has historically represented the system of morality practiced by the culture at large. The hierarchical structure of the Frankenstein family embodies a masculine ethic of justice in which the rights of the individual are privileged: Frankenstein pursues his own interests in alchemy and chemistry, cheerfully ignoring his family obligations as he engages “heart and soul” in his research, and is moreover encouraged to leave his family and fiancèe for two years (“for a more indulgent and less dictatorial parent did not exist upon earth” [p. 130]). In contrast, the egalitarian and interdependent structure of the De Lacey family ideologically encodes a female ethic of care in which the bonding of the family unit is primary. Felix blames himself most because his self-sacrificing action on behalf of the Turkish merchant involved his family in his suffering. Agatha and Felix perform toward their father “every little office of affection and duty with gentleness; and he rewarded them by his benevolent smiles”; they willingly starve themselves that their father may eat (106). Safie’s arrival particularly delighted Felix but also “diffused gladness through the cottage, dispelling their sorrow as the sun dissipates the morning mists” (112). In portraying the De Laceys as an archetype of the egalitarian, benevolent, and mutually loving nuclear family, Mary Shelley clearly displayed her own moral purpose, which Percy Shelley rightly if somewhat vaguely described in his Preface as “the exhibition of the amiableness of domestic affection, and the excellence of universal virtue” (7).

Mary Shelley’s grounding of moral virtue in the preservation of familial bonds (against which Frankenstein, in his failure to parent his own child, entirely transgresses) entails an aesthetic credo as well. While such romantic descendants as Walter Pater and Oscar Wilde would later argue that aesthetics and morality, art and life, are distinct, Mary Shelley endorsed a traditional mimetic aesthetic that exhorted literature to imitate ideal Nature and defined the role of the writer as a moral educator. Her novel purposefully identifies moral virtue, based on self-sacrifice, moderation, and domestic affection, with aesthetic beauty. Even in poverty, the image of the blind old man listening to the sweetly singing Agatha is “a lovely sight, even to me, poor wretch! who had never beheld aught beautiful before” (103). In contrast, Frankenstein’s and Walton’s dream of breaking boundaries is explicitly identified as both evil and ugly. As Walton acknowledges, “my day dreams are … extended and magnificent; but they want (as the painters call it) keeping” (p. 14). “Keeping,” in painting, means “the maintenance of the proper relation between the representations of nearer and more distant objects in a picture”; hence, in a more general sense, “the proper subserviency of tone and colour in every part of a picture, so that the general effect is harmonious to the eye” (OED). Walton thus introduces Mary Shelley’s ethical norm as an aesthetic norm; both in life and in art, her ideal is a balance or golden mean between conflicting demands, specifically here between large and small objects. In ethical terms, this means that Walton must balance his dreams of geographical discovery and fame against the reality of an already existing set of obligations (to his family, his crew, and the sacredness of Nature). Similarly, Frankenstein should have better balanced the obligations of great and small, of parent and child, of creator and creature. Frankenstein’s failure to maintain keeping, to preserve “a calm and peaceful mind” (p. 51), is thus in Mary Shelley’s eyes both a moral and an aesthetic failure, resulting directly in the creation of a hideous monster.


1. Mary W. Shelley, Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus (London: Lackington, Hughes, Harding, Mavor and Jones, 1818); all further references to Frankenstein will be to the only modern reprint of this first edition, edited by James Rieger (New York: Bobbs-Merrill, 1974; reprinted, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982), and will be cited by page number only in the text. This phrase occurs on page 49.

2. Anne K. Mellor, “Frankenstein: A Feminist Critique of Science,” in One Culture: Essays on Literature and Science, ed. George Levine (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1988), pp. 287-312.

3. Mary Shelley thus heralds a tradition of literary utopias and dystopias that depict single-sex societies, a tradition most recently appropriated by feminist writers to celebrate exclusively female societies. For an analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of such feminist utopian writing, in which female societies are reproduced by parthenogenesis, see my “On Feminist Utopias,” Women’s Studies (1982): 241-62. Leading examples of this genre include Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland, Sally Miller Gearhart’s The Wander-ground, Joanna Russ’s The Female Man, James Tiptree, Jr.’s “Houston, Houston Do You Read?” and Suzy McKee Charnas’s trilogy The Vampire Tapestry.

4. On the gender division of nineteenth-century European culture, see Jean Elshtain, Public Man, Private Woman: Women in Social and Political Thought (Oxford: Robertson, 1981); and Victorian Women: A Documentary Account of Women’s Lives in Nineteenth-Century England, France, and the United States, ed. E. Hellerstein, L. Hume, and K. Offen (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1981). For a study of sex roles in Frankenstein, see Kate Ellis, “Monsters in the Family: Mary Shelley and the Bourgeois Family,” in The Endurance of Frankenstein, ed. George Levine and U. C. Knoepflmacher (Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press, 1979), pp. 123-42; and Anca Vlasopolos, “Frankenstein’s Hidden Skeleton: The Psycho-Politics of Oppression,” Science-Fiction Studies 10 (1983): 125-36.

William Veeder, in his insightful but occasionally reductive psychological study of Mary and Percy Shelley and Frankenstein, Mary Shelley and Frankenstein: The Fate of Androgyny (1986), wishes to define masculinity and femininity as the complementary halves of an ideally balanced androgynous or agapic personality that is destroyed or bifurcated by erotic self-love; his book traces the reasons why Mary Shelley’s fictional characters realize or fail to achieve her androgynous ideal. While he is right to argue that Mary Shelley believed in balancing “masculine” and “feminine” characteristics, he consistently defines as innate psychological characteristics those patterns of learned behavior (masculinity, femininity) that I prefer to see as socially constructed gender roles. His readings thus unintentionally reinforce an oppressive biological determinism and sex-stereotyping, even as they call attention to the dangers of extreme masculine and feminine behaviors.

5. Henry Fuseli, The Nightmare, first version, 1781; The Detroit Institute of Art. This famous painting was widely reproduced throughout the early nineteenth century and was of particular interest to Mary Shelley, who knew of her mother’s early passionate love for Fuseli. H. W. Janson has suggested that Fuseli’s representation of the nightmare is a projection of his unfulfilled passion for Anna Landolt, whose portrait is drawn on the reverse side (H. W. Janson, “Fuseli’s Nightmare,Arts and Sciences 2 [1963]: 23-28). When Fuseli learned that Anna Landolt had married, he wrote to her uncle and his good friend Johann Lavater from London on 16 June 1779 that he had dreamed of lying in her bed and fusing “her body and soul” together with his own. Fuseli’s painting is thus a deliberate allusion to traditional images of Cupid and Psyche meeting in her bedroom at night; here the welcomed god of love has been transformed into a demonic incubus of erotic lust (see also Peter Tomory, The Life and Art of Henry Fuseli, London: 1972, pp. 92ff.; and the Catalogue Raisonnèe by Gert Schiff, Johann Heinrich Fussli, Zurich: 1973, pp. 757-59).

Gerhard Joseph first noted the allusion to Fuseli’s painting, “Frankenstein’s Dream: The Child Is Father of the Monster,” Hartford Studies in Literature 7 (1975): 97-115, 109. William Veeder denies the association (Mary Shelley and Frankenstein, 192-93) on the grounds that Elizabeth’s hair half-covers her face; in this regard, it may be significant that Fuseli’s woman’s face is half-covered in shadow.

6. Paul A. Cantor has discussed Frankenstein’s rejections both of normal sexuality and of the bourgeois lifestyle, in Creature and Creator: Myth-making and English Romanticism (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1984), pp. 109-15.

7. William Veeder has emphasized the homosexual bond between Frankenstein and his monster (Mary Shelley and Frankenstein, pp. 89-92). Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick arrives at this conclusion from a different direction. In her Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire (New York: Columbia University Press, 1985), she observes in passing that Frankenstein, like William Godwin’s Caleb Williams, is “about one or more males who not only is persecuted by, but considers himself transparent to and often under the compulsion of, another male. If we follow Freud [in the case of Dr. Schreber] in hypothesizing that such a sense of persecution represents the fearful, phantasmic rejection by recasting of an original homosexual (or even merely homosocial) desire, then it would make sense to think of this group of novels as embodying strongly homophobic mechanisms” (pp. 91-92).

8.While I largely agree with Mary Poovey’s intelligent and sensitive analysis of Frankenstein’s egotistic desire (in The Proper Lady and the Woman Writer, pp. 123-33), I do not share her view that the nature we see in the novel is “fatal to human beings and human relationships.” Poovey fails to distinguish between Frankenstein’s view of nature and the author’s and between the first and second editions of the novel in this regard.

9. On Mary Shelley’s subversive representation of the traditionally masculinized Alps as female, see Fred V. Randel, “Frankenstein, Feminism, and the Intertextuality of Mountains,” Studies in Romanticism 23 (Winter, 1984): 515-33.

10. Carol Gilligan, In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women’s Development (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1982), p. 174.

11. See Nancy Chodorow, The Reproduction of Mothering: Psychoanalysis and the Sociology of Gender (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1978); Dorothy Dinnerstein, The Mermaid and the Minotaur: Sexual Arrangements and Human Malaise (New York: Harper and Row, 1976); cf. Nancy Friday, My Mother/My Self: The Daughter’s Search for Identity (New York: Dell, 1977).


SOURCE: Smith, Johanna M. "'Cooped Up': Feminine Domesticity in Frankenstein. "In Mary Shelley: Frankenstein, edited by Johanna M. Smith, pp. 270-85. New York: Bedford Books of St. Martin's Press, 1992.

In the following essay, Smith analyzes the influence of the nineteenth-century doctrine of "separate spheres" for men and women on Shelley's Frankenstein.

It is important to note that Frankenstein was published anonymously, that its woman author kept her identity hidden. Similarly, no women in the novel speak directly: everything we hear from and about them is filtered through the three masculine narrators. In addition, these women seldom venture far from home, while the narrators and most of the other men engage in quests and various public occupations. These facts exemplify the nineteenth century's emerging doctrine of "separate spheres," the ideology that split off the (woman's) domestic sphere from the (man's) public world and strictly defined the "feminine" and "masculine" traits appropriate to each sphere. My essay will analyze the operations of this ideology in the writing of Frankenstein and in the novel itself.

From the novel's women we may infer that Mary Shelley approved the separate-spheres doctrine; Elizabeth, for example, fully embodies the ideologically correct feminine qualities Victor—and the author—attribute to her. Yet it is equally clear that Elizabeth and the domestic sphere she represents fail signally in their raison d'être, which is to prepare young men like Victor to resist the temptations of the public sphere. Frankenstein shows that the private virtues inculcated through domestic affection cannot arm men against the public world unless men emulate these feminine and domestic qualities. Although Victor waxes eloquent on the domestic "lesson of patience, of charity, and of self-control" taught him as a child (40),1 his quest for scientific glory shows that none of this lesson took; and while he often reiterates his "warmest admiration" (129) for Elizabeth's qualities, he perceives them not as a model but as a "reward" and "consolation" for his trials (131). Through these contradictions the novel may be suggesting that domestic affection can achieve its educational aim only if it is "hardy enough to survive in the world outside the home" (Ellis, "Monsters" 140); but Frankenstein also dramatizes how all but impossible is that aim.

The problem is that the domestic ideology is bifurcated: the home is to provide not only a moral education for involvement in the public world but also a shelter against this world. Instead of a nursery of virtue, then, the home could become, as one of domesticity's stoutest ideologues put it, a "relief from the severer duties of life" (Ellis, Women 12); a man could thus "pursue the necessary avocation of the day" but also "keep as it were a separate soul for his family, his social duty, and his God" (Ellis, Women 20). Although written some twenty years after Frankenstein, this picture of a man with two separate souls perfectly represents a contradictory domestic ideology and its product, a Victor divided between his masculine "necessary avocation" of scientific glory and his admiration of Elizabeth's feminine domesticity.

Feminist criticism of Frankenstein has addressed the similar conflict between public and private that troubled Victor's creator. Mary Shelley's 1831 introduction states her desire for the public fame both her parents had achieved by writing, but she adds that her private, domestic role—"the cares of a family"—kept her from pursuing this goal (20). Even when she went public with Frankenstein in 1818, she remained to some extent private by publishing it anonymously. Several possible explanations of this desire for privacy suggest themselves. While Mary claimed that she withheld her name out of respect for those "from whom I bear it" (Letters 1.71), she may also have feared a repetition of the public contumely directed at both of her parents as well as their writings. The experience of her husband Percy and their friend Byron, two published poets whose work and unconventional lives had been vilified by critics, must have intensified these fears. And, although by 1818 she was legally married, her experience of publicity after eloping—she knew the rumors that her father had sold her to Percy (Letters 1.4)—may have made her especially wary of inviting public attention. Finally, Mary's caution could well have been gender-specific: she may have wanted to prevent critics from dismissing her as a woman writer.

Several elements of this last possibility—the terms of such a critical judgment, Mary Shelley's own view of women's writing, the difficulty of writing her way out of the woman's private into the man's public sphere—are well illustrated by the peregrinations of a letter she wrote to Percy. On September 30, 1817, the letter's date, Frankenstein was at the publisher, halfway between a private and a public state; Percy Shelley, not Mary, was in London editing the proofs. In her letter Mary animadverted at some length on the politics of a pamphlet by the radical William Cobbett. Percy apparently showed these private comments on public affairs to their mutual friend Leigh Hunt, editor of the Examiner. Without informing Mary, Hunt published her comments in the October 15 Examiner; he did not name her but did note her gender, describing her as "a lady of what is called a masculine understanding, that is to say, of great natural abilities not obstructed by a bad education" (Letters 1.54, fn. 2). Mary's letter reads somewhat breathlessly—like much of the manuscript Frankenstein, for instance, it is punctuated only by dashes—and she felt it "cut a very foolish figure" in print (Letters 1.53). Had she known Hunt planned to make her comments public, she told Percy, she would have written with "more print-worthy dignity"; instead, the letter was "so femeninely [sic] expressed that all men of letters will on reading it acquit me of having a masculine understanding."

The incident of the letter and its author's response illuminate several of her difficulties as a woman writer. To begin with, she would come up against one element of the separation of spheres, namely a strict ideological distinction of "masculine" from "feminine" qualities. In Hunt's editorial note, for instance, "great natural abilities" are gendered; that is, they are equated with "a masculine understanding." If "obstructed" by the "bad" education most women could expect to receive, these abilities would be feminized—that is, obscured and weakened. For Mary Shelley to name herself as Frankenstein's author, then, would be to endanger her status as honorary man, to risk having her "masculine understanding" impugned as "femininely expressed."

Writing a novel of "print-worthy dignity" had already presented its author with similar problems. As I have noted, her domestic duties interfered with the time available for writing, and as editor her husband may have been a further impediment. Mary Poovey has cogently argued that Mary Shelley's own editing of the 1831 Frankenstein was meant to bring her younger, unorthodox self into line with the conventional image of a proper lady, and it seems to me that a similar image-making motivated Percy's revisions of his wife's manuscript. In some ways, of course, his idea of a proper lady diverged wildly from contemporary ideology; after he and Mary eloped, for instance, he suggested to his wife Harriet that she join them. Nonetheless, Percy Shelley shared his culture's desire to mold women according to a masculine idea of femininity, a narcissistic complement to masculine traits. Such narcissism colored his view of his relationship with Mary: they were so "united," he wrote, that in describing her "excellencies" he seemed to himself "an egoist expatiating upon his own perfections" (qtd. in Spark 21). His editing displays the same self-satisfied desire to "unite" Mary's work to his, to see his perfections mirrored in her manuscript.

While some of Percy Shelley's changes are clarifications and others are grammatical, even these minimal alterations show his desire to control the text and shape it in his own image. As he consistently changes Mary's dashes to colons and semicolons, for instance, or her coordinating "that" to the subordinating "which," he is imposing his order on her ideas. More striking are his revisions of her language. Anne K. Mellor has exhaustively documented the extent to which Percy altered Mary's straightforward and colloquial diction into a more ponderous and latinate prose,2 and my own examination of the rough-draft and fair-copy manuscripts confirms that he is largely responsible for what George Levine calls the novel's "inflexibly public and oratorical" style (3). This "public" style is masculine—the product of a public-school and university education, available only to men, which taught writing by using Latin prose as a model—and so it confers "print-worthy dignity" on what might otherwise seem "femininely expressed."

Where Percy Shelley's changes extended beyond clarification, grammar, and diction, Mellor charges that they "actually distorted the meaning of the text" (62). I will return to this questionable notion that any text has a single meaning, but certainly Percy's heavy editorial hand marks the novel throughout. He rewrote some sections extensively; his fair copy of the conclusion (from Victor's death on) significantly revises the rough draft; and his wife gave him "carte blanche to make what alterations you please" while he was editing certain sections of the proofs (Letters 1.42).

Accustomed as we are to regarding authorship as independent creation we may wonder why Mary Shelley allowed her husband to rewrite her novel in these fairly substantial ways. Every writer knows how dispiriting it is to have one's deathless prose altered, no matter how kindly—especially when, as in Mary's case, the alterations come from a more experienced and thus (presumably) authoritative writer. Yet most writers have also felt the benefits of what might be called a collaborative editing, one that does not "distort" a text's single meaning but rather teases out its several inchoate or chaotic possibilities. It is at least arguable, then, that Mary acceded to her husband's changes not simply out of "deference to his superior mind" (Mellor 69) but also because she viewed him as a collaborator. Moreover, if Percy's revisions were in some ways protective coloration, they were also empowering: his attentions must have encouraged her to believe that she "possessed the promise of better things hereafter" (Introduction 20) and to produce a substantial body of "better things" after his death.

But the issue of a man's influence on a woman writer remains complicated. Mary Shelley felt unable "to put [her]self forward unless led, cherished & supported," and she perceived this need for support as feminine, "the woman's love of looking up and being guided" (Journals 555). It might be, then, that this ideology of dependent femininity rendered her unable to write her own text without her husband's help. Moreover, collaboration forced by a more dominant writer on a less powerful and perhaps unwilling "partner" is a kind of rape; if Frankenstein is the product of such a union, then it evinces a debilitating femininity. But to perceive writing as noncollaborative, as a necessarily independent act, betokens a concept of masculinity that raises another set of problems. One has only to think of Victor as self-sufficient "author"3—of the monster (91), "unalterable evils" (84), and "[his] own speedy ruin" (92)—to see such authorship as a monstrous, masculine version of creativity. If Mary Shelley rejected this view of creation as autochthonous, of a work as wholly self-engendered, Frankenstein becomes "an incipient critique of the individualistic notion of originary creativity" (Carson 436). By welcoming help, then, she challenged a destructive version of "masculine understanding." But even if her collaboration was willing, it could be seen as self-suppression, an acceptance of "feminine" weakness: as the journal entry cited above shows, a woman of her time was conditioned to think she needed a man's help. From this perspective, her willingness to accept her husband's revisions is analogous to the novel's oppressively feminine women: all are efforts to straddle the line between public and private, to ensure that a masculine understanding is expressed without feminine obstructions but with feminine propriety.

This "but"-laden formulation leaves the question of Percy Shelley's influence open, and I have done so deliberately—partly because editing this book showed me the difficulty of distinguishing between encouragement and coercion, partly because we cannot ascertain Mary Shelley's motives with any certainty, but mainly because the problem of influence shows that the relations between prescribed femininity and women's actual experience are so convoluted as to resist single-answer formulations.

If we now turn from the author to her novel, we can see how domestic relationships in Frankenstein embody this complex and uneasy negotiation between ideology and experience.

The Frankenstein home seems a model of ideologically correct relationships. Not only are Alphonse and Caroline happily married, as parents they are "possessed by the very spirit of kindness and indulgence" (43). Together, we are told, they guide Victor with "a silken cord" (40); they are joint "agents and creators" of his childhood joys (43); and he derives as much pleasure from his father's "smile of benevolent pleasure" (40) as from his mother's "tender caresses." This shared parenting shows that men as well as women have an important domestic role; indeed, insofar as Alphonse is a Good Father, he is feminine. His nurturant qualities were commonly associated with femininity, and it is significant that he has "relinquished all his public functions," withdrawn from the man's sphere of government into the woman's domestic sphere. Yet he also fulfills the traditional masculine role of protector toward his wife, by rescuing her from want and "shelter[ing] her, as a fair exotic is sheltered by the gardener, from every rougher wind." In these ways Alphonse becomes a sort of feminine patriarch, and his gentle rule by "silken cord" is the reverse of paternal tyranny.

Also ideologically sound is the harmony produced among the household's children by their opposite yet complementary traits. Where the original manuscript focused on diversity, the final version was revised to focus on harmony. In the rough draft, for instance, an electrical storm produced "a very different effect" on each child: Victor wanted "to analyze its causes," Henry "said that the fairies and giants were at war," and Elizabeth "attempted a picture of it" (Abinger Dep.c.477/1, p. 45). Although the 1831 Frankenstein retains such differences between Elizabeth and Victor, the focus shifts to how "diversity and contrast … drew us nearer together" (42). Elizabeth accepts "with a serious and satisfied spirit the appearance of things" while Victor "delight[s] in investigating their causes," but no "disunion or dispute" mars this gender difference between feminine passivity and masculine activity. Here as throughout the novel, gender opposites are represented as complements. The young Victor Frankenstein and his friend Henry Clerval actively prepare for public futures while Elizabeth simply exists as a domestic icon, but what might seem an opposition between separate spheres is rewritten as complementary difference. In other words, while Elizabeth is little more than "the living spirit of love" (43), as such she has feminine functions. Her "sympathy," smile, etc. are "ever there to bless and animate" Henry and Victor; she teaches Henry "the real loveliness of beneficence" (43), and she keeps Victor from becoming "sullen" and "rough" by "subdu[ing him] to a semblance of her own gentleness" (43).

In Henry, moreover, Victor has a paradigm for the successful complementarity of masculine and feminine traits within himself. While Henry wants to be one of "the gallant and adventurous benefactors of our species" (43), he is also a domestic benefactor: as Victor's "kind and attentive nurse" (61) at Ingolstadt, he fulfills the role Elizabeth wished for herself (63). In addition, he tempers his masculine "passion for adventurous exploit" (43) with Elizabeth's feminine desire that he make "doing good the end and aim of his soaring ambition." Unlike Victor's "mad enthusiasm" (154), Henry's "wild and enthusiastic imagination was chastened by the sensibility of his heart" (133). Clearly, Victor's "eager desire" to learn "the physical secrets of the world" should have been balanced by Henry's preoccupation with "the moral relations of things" (43; emphasis added).

Why, then, does this domestic enclave of virtue not protect Victor? Why does he not remain within the boundaries marked off by the "silken cord" of domestic affection? Why does he not profit from the "lesson of patience, of charity, of self-control" taught by his parents and embodied in his friends, Elizabeth and Henry? The answers lie in Victor's complicated relations to nature, feminized domesticity, and masculine science.

For Victor, nature is "maternal" (87), and its life-giving and "kindly influence" has a domestic equivalent in Elizabeth's feminine fosterage. Just as Elizabeth "subdued Victor to a semblance of her own gentleness," so a "cloudless blue sky" can bestow "a tranquillity to which [he] had long been a stranger" (132); just as Elizabeth can "inspire [him] with human feelings" (159), so a "divine spring" can "revive" in him "sentiments of joy and affection" (62). In these moods of openness to nature, Victor is feminized into passive transquillity and domestic affection. In other moods, however, he thrills to a more masculine nature; when he experiences a storm in the Alps, for instance, "This noble war in the sky elevated my spirits" (72). It is this idea of war, of attempted conquest or dominion, that most frequently informs Victor's masculine attitude toward nature. It is no accident, then, that he chooses the masculine realm of science as a means of discovering and thereby mastering the secrets of feminine nature. From childhood Victor had regarded the world as "a secret which I desired to divine"; repeatedly he tells us of his obsessive curiosity about "the hidden laws of nature" (42), his "eager desire" to learn "the secrets of heaven and earth" (43), his "fervent longing to penetrate the secrets of nature" (44). Because "her immortal lineaments were still a wonder and a mystery" to him (45), this unknown nature offers a field for the masculine mastery promised by scientific knowledge.4 At Ingolstadt M. Waldman assures him that modern scientists can "penetrate into the recesses of nature and show how she works in her hiding-places" (51), and so Victor determines to "pursue nature to her hiding-places" (56).

Now, this language describing masculine penetration of feminine nature may be scientific, but it also sounds insistently sexual; to post-Freudian ears, it may suggest a woman writer's uneasiness with masculine sexuality.5 But another explanation may lie in Mary Shelley's conflicted desire both to achieve public fame by writing and to escape the consequent publicity by remaining in the private sphere. If Percy Shelley's "incitement" (23) reinforced her "persistent association of writing with an aggressive quest for public notice" (Poovey 121), then writing Frankenstein must have seemed to invite the consequent invasions by publicity. The novel's language of penetration, that is, may have less to do with sexuality per se than with a woman writer's fear that walled-off domesticity cannot guarantee the privacy it promises. More troubling would be the possibility that, if writing masculinizes, then it might make a woman Victor-like, aggressive, a scientific violator of domesticity's secrets.

But if domesticity can be penetrated, especially from within, does this not suggest that it was never inviolable, that its apparent strengths were in fact its weaknesses or even its immanent destruction? This question moves back toward the problem of feminized domesticity, and here we need to look again at Alphonse's role as feminine patriarch. While Victor says that Waldman's promises of scientific prowess were "enounced to destroy me" (51), he blames not Waldman but his father. Instead of offhandedly dismissing Cornelius Agrippa as "sad trash" (44), Victor complains, Alphonse should have explained that modern science "possessed much greater powers" than Agrippa's outmoded alchemical methods; Victor would then have bowed to the authority of paternal knowledge and "possibl[y]" escaped "the fatal impulse that led to my ruin" (44). Well, maybe. But if the revelation of modern science's "new and almost unlimited powers" (51) is an "evil influence" when it comes from M. Waldman (49), it would be no less evil coming from the elder Frankenstein. Significant here are the author's revisions rendering Alphonse "not scientific" (45). She omitted from the rough draft both his scientific experiments and his wish that Victor attend lectures in natural philosophy, and she altered the decision to send Victor to university, originally made by "my father," to the wish of "my parents" (Abinger Dep.c.477/1, pp. 6, 47). All these changes suggest that the author intended to reduce Alphonse's culpability for Victor's skewed science.

Yet Alphonse does contribute to Victor's ruin, not because he is a bad scientist but because he is a good father. What I am suggesting is a destructive domesticity enforced by the feminized patriarch. Despite Victor's insistence on his perfect childhood, his relation to his "remarkably secluded and domestic" upbringing (48) is in fact conflicted. On the one hand, he is "reluctant" to leave home for Ingolstadt, where he must become "[his] own protector"; on the other, he has "longed to enter the world," to no longer be "cooped up" by domesticity and its protections. In a novel ostensibly written to exhibit "the amiableness of domestic affection" (Preface 25),6 Victor's admission jars: can it be that his home is too domestic, his feminized father too protective?

Although Victor insists on his "gratitude" for his parents' care (43), we may speculate that this very gratitude has made him feel "cooped up." Gratitude, no matter how heartfelt, implies obligation, which in turn implies the power of the person to whom one is grateful or obligated. The insistence on gratitude and obligation induces a bookkeeping mentality that permeates all the relations in this novel. Victor acknowledges Henry Clerval's nursing by asking "How shall I ever repay you?" (62); Felix De Lacey views Safie as "a treasure which would fully reward his toil and hazard" in rescuing her father (108); when shot by the peasant, the monster fumes that "the reward of [his] benevolence" is "ingratitude" (122). This emotional quid pro quo is most evident, however, in the novel's domestic relations. In these terms the Frankenstein family is "a paradigm of the social contract based on economic terms" (Dussinger 52), for kinship and domestic affection are "secondary to the indebtedness incurred by promises exchanged for gifts." That is, in this family what seems freely given in fact requires something in exchange, so that the relation between parents and children is one of "unpayable debt."

Rather than Victor's picture of a gentle patriarch guiding by "silken cord," what then emerges is a cord or bond of constricting domestic relations. Among the Frankensteins, a gift requires gratitude and so produces a sense of obligation that can be discharged only by endless repetition of this pattern. Victor's parents had "a deep consciousness of what they owed towards the being to which they had given life" (40). To them the child was

the innocent and helpless creature bestowed on them by Heaven,…whose future lot it was in their hands to direct to happiness or misery, according as they fulfilled their duties towards me.

(40; emphases added)

Caroline and Alphonse pay off their debt of gratitude to "heaven" by fulfilling the duties they owe their child. Victor in turn owes gratitude for the life "given" him and for his parents' care, but their power and his consequent obligations form the cord that, no matter how silken, confines and encloses him within the family. Hence he repeats this domestic pattern when he contemplates creating a new species, and his view of the parent-child relation revealingly focuses on himself as patriarch. The members of his new species "would owe their being to me," he gloats, and so "[n]o father could claim the gratitude of his child so completely as I should deserve theirs" (55; emphases added). Alphonse may have seemed a gentle patriarch, but Victor's words suggest there was an iron hand in this velvet glove: a father can claim gratitude from the child who owes existence to him.

Judged simply from this paternal point of view, there is a certain logic in Victor's abandonment of the "child" he created: if the sheer bestowal of existence is a sufficient claim to gratitude, why be an Alphonse-like Good Father? Of course, in abandoning the monster Victor forgets the distinction he had earlier made between merely claiming gratitude and really deserving it. To deserve gratitude, parents must "fulfill their duties" toward their child; because Victor does not do so, he is a Bad Father and his child is not embodied filial gratitude but "my own vampire, my own spirit … forced to destroy all that was dear to me" (73). But if a bad father produces a bad child, and Victor like the monster is a bad child, does this not suggest that Alphonse too was a bad father, that he somehow failed to fulfill his duties toward his child? Or was it fulfilling those duties that made him a bad father? In other words, can the ideologically correct Good Father be so nurturant that he becomes a Bad Father? If so, then Alphonse's paternal protection is as damaging to his child as Victor's paternal indifference is to his. In other words, while the monster becomes monstrous in part because he has been denied parental care, Victor becomes monstrous in part because he has been given this care and made subject to the attendant obligations. In this reading, the "spirit" that Victor releases through the monster is the masculinity so "cooped up" by Alphonse's feminized domesticity that it breaks out as "the male principle in its extreme, monstrous form" (Veeder 190). Hence Victor can enter the masculine sphere of science only by destroying the feminine sphere, and that includes his feminized father. Victor's kinship to the monster reveals the dark side of the Frankenstein family's oppressive domesticity and too-nurturant patriarch.

But Victor is not the only victim of this pattern of domestic indebtedness: it is the novel's women who are literally destroyed by it. In the relations of Caroline, Elizabeth, and Justine to the Frankenstein family, we can again see something excessive, something too enveloping in Frankensteinian domesticity. Certainly the image of Caroline as Alphonse's "fair exotic" (39) suggests a hot-house atmosphere, and when she transplants the "garden rose" Elizabeth (41) to the Frankenstein home as Victor's "more than sister" (42), "the amiableness of domestic affection" comes precariously close to incest. Of course Elizabeth is not literally Victor's sister, and he later assures his father that he loves her not as a brother but as a husband (129). But pursuing the hint of incest will clarify how blood kinship among the Frankensteins is secondary to familial indebtedness; we can then see how the resulting insistent domesticity kills off the novel's women.

Class selection determines which women are worthy to enter the upper class Frankenstein family; as Anca Vlasopolos suggests, this criterion is "a form of aristocratic protectionism that encourages, in fact engineers, incest" (126) by closing the family off from otherness or difference. Although plunged into straw-plaiting poverty by her father's business failure, Caroline's lineage and beauty mark her as still deserving the "rank and magnificence" he once enjoyed (38); by marrying her, then, Alphonse is restoring the status quo, rescuing Caroline from the otherness of a working-class milieu and returning her to her proper place. This pattern is even more overt in the adoption of Elizabeth. Because Elizabeth is "of a different stock" from her rude guardians (40), Caroline rescues this nobleman's daughter from the lower orders and then uses the "powerful protection" (41) of the Frankenstein family to restore Elizabeth to her proper status. Difference is further excluded as Elizabeth takes on all the family's feminine roles; Victor's "more than sister" and destined to be his wife, she also becomes Caroline by "supply-[ing her] place" as mother after her death (47). Although Justine is brought less fully into the family, she is perhaps the most Frankensteinized: when Caroline rescues her from a Bad Mother, Justine so "imitate[s] her phraseology and manners" (64) as to become her clone. The Frankenstein family's incestuous pattern of reproducing itself by excluding difference could hardly be clearer. And although none of these women is a born Frankenstein, they all—unlike Victor—fully internalize the family pattern of gratitude that enforces obligation.

This insistent replication of the grateful icon of domesticity shows how completely the pattern of indebtedness permeates the Frankenstein definition of femininity. Caroline is an especially rich example of this definition. We first see her as a daughter; even though her father's culpably "proud and unbending disposition" (38) forces her into his (masculine) role of breadwinner, the daughterly "tenderness" that discharges obligations to even a bad father (39) ensures her elevation to Frankenstein status. After Alphonse becomes her "protecting spirit," Caroline almost literally owes all she has to this marriage, and his oppressive benevolence constitutes another silken cord of enjoined gratitude. When she tries to discharge her obligations by "act[ing] in her turn the guardian angel to the afflicted" (40)—that is, by becoming a Frankenstein—her benevolence takes the usual form of enforced gratitude and obligation. When she gives Justine an education, for instance, "this benefit was fully repaid" (64) when Justine becomes "the most grateful little creature in the world." And when Caroline tries to discharge her debt to Alphonse by rescuing Elizabeth as she herself was rescued, she eventually pays with her life when she catches scarlet fever while nursing her protegée; unlike Victor, she has learned her own lesson "of patience, of charity" only too well.

A similar sacrifice is Elizabeth. Indebted to Caroline for rescue from peasant life, she must discharge this debt by taking Caroline's place as the Frankenstein ideal of femininity. As "a shrinededicated lamp in our peaceful home" (43) and "the tie of our domestic comfort and the stay of [Alphonse's] declining years," she is embodied domesticity. She is also Victor's "possession" (41), as he puts it: "my pride and my delight," "mine to protect, love, and cherish." But just as Alphonse's "protecting spirit" is ultimately responsible for Caroline's death, so Victor fails signally to "protect and cherish" his wife. His dream, that his kiss kills Elizabeth and turns her into his dead mother, is proleptic of the price she must pay for being Caroline's "pretty present" to him (41): in the form of the monster, Victor's aggressive masculinity murders the domestic femininity that had tried to "subdue [him] to a semblance of her own gentleness."

Justine is perhaps the most pathetic victim of this pattern of replicated femininity. Exhausted by her Caroline-like maternal care in searching for William, she falls asleep and so becomes the monster's prey. Her likeness to Caroline reminds him that he is "forever robbed" of any woman's "joy-imparting smiles" (123), so he determines that "she shall atone" for all women's indifference. While Justine suffers here from being Caroline's stand-in, more generally her crime is being seductive; according to this masculine logic, women are "to blame for having been desired" (Jacobus 133). To the townspeople, however, the crime for which Justine must "atone" is "blackest ingratitude" toward her benefactors (79). Once again the portrait of Caroline seals Justine's fate: planted on her by the monster, it becomes circumstantial evidence of this ingratitude. Elizabeth's statement of her own and Caroline's kindness to their servant backfires; Justine, like Caroline and Elizabeth, must pay her obligations to the Frankensteins with her life, and furthermore dies all but convinced "that I was the monster" of ingratitude she is accused of being (80). These dramatic ironies, one victimized woman convicting another and that second victim convicting herself, in fact convict the Frankenstein family of omnivorous benevolence. Victor is right to call himself Justine's murderer (149), for it is the masculinity he represents that destroys its own creation of perfect femininity.

Victor's creation and destruction of the female monster is a kind of parody of these three women's fates. From watching the De Laceys and Safie, the monster learns to value the delights of domesticity they represent but also learns that he is "shut out" from such intercourse (106); hence he asks Victor for a mate with whom to "interchange [the] sympathies necessary for my being" (124). Given the failure of his exchange of sympathies with the De Laceys, it is more than a little ironic that the monster should make this request. And his desire for a female complement, a woman "as hideous as myself" (125), parodies not only Victor's insistence on Elizabeth's complementary relationship to himself, but also Victor's bride-to-be as both the creation and the gift of his parents. This traffic in women via Frankensteinian quid pro quo is at its most overt in the murders of the monsterette and Elizabeth: deprived of a bride by Victor, the monster retaliates by killing Victor's bride. Victor, of course, assumes that he and not Elizabeth will be the monster's target, and in one sense he is correct: like the monsterette's, Elizabeth's creation and murder show that women function not in their own right but rather as signals of and conduits for men's relations with other men.

Against this dreary record of dead women we may place Safe. Her mother was rescued from slavery just as Caroline was rescued from poverty (Ellis, "Monsters" 141), but there the resemblance ends. From her mother Safie learns "to aspire to higher powers of intellect and an independence of spirit" (108); hence she flouts her father's "tyrannical mandate" (110) against marrying Felix and travels across Europe to rejoin him. Both her maternal inspiration and her active adventurousness contrast with Caroline's influence on her passive "daughters" Elizabeth and Justine. Unlike their iconic femininity, Safie is "subtly androgynous" (Rubinstein 189); we might see her as a female Henry, combining the standard feminine "angelic beauty" (103) with a masculine energy and enterprise lacking in the novel's other women. But the challenge she might represent to conventional ideas of femininity is in effect "absorbed" by various cultural norms (Vlasopolos 132). In the first place, her desire to marry Felix has a class bias, for she is "enchant[ed]" (109) by the prospect of "tak[ing] a place in society." In addition, unlike Henry or Walton she seeks adventure not for its own sake or to benefit humankind but to get a man. This is not to say that Walton's quest is unambiguously benevolent: like Victor's desire to "pioneer a new way" (51) and thus achieve "more, far more" than his predecessors, Walton's urge to "confer on all mankind" (26) an "inestimable benefit" is motivated at least as much by a self-absorbed itch for glory as by humanitarianism. It is nonetheless true that Safie, albeit much less drastically than the Frankenstein women, represents the view that women are "relative creatures" whose value derives from "promoting the happiness of others" (Ellis, Women 48, 16). It is thus apt that she joins the De Lacey family, for while their interactive domestic style stands in stark contrast to the rigid gift / debt structure of the Frankensteins, still it is a conventionally separate-spheres arrangement: Felix is "constantly employed out of doors" (98), for instance, while his sister Agatha's work consists of "arranging the cottage" (97). Moreover, just as Victor's family attempts to make a select few women into Frankensteins, so the De Lacey family circle opens only to admit the beautiful Safie. That Felix, like Victor, excludes the ugly monster indicates again how strictly men control where "the amiableness of domestic affection" is allowed to operate.

By using several feminist methodologies—studying one woman writer's experience of domestic and public roles, analyzing the cultural formation and literary representation of these gender roles—I have been reading Frankenstein as a woman's text concerned with women's issues. While Victor's story shows that the constraints of domesticity bear down hard on men, it is clear that the novel's women—who must not only create the familial sanctuary and sacrifice themselves to maintain it but also be punished for its failures—take the heavier share of the burden. If Frankenstein is about Victor, it is also about what his monstrous masculinity does to women, and even though none of these women speaks directly, Mary Shelley's novel speaks to us for them.


  1. Note that page numbers refer to Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley. Edited by Johanna M. Smith. New York: Bedford Books, 1992.
  2. See Mellor 58-69. Murray 62-68 prints a useful side-by-side listing of the rough draft, fair copy, and 1831 revisions.
  3. Mellor 65 argues that Percy Shelley introduced all uses of the word "author." Granted I am not a handwriting expert, the manuscript evidence for this assertion does not seem to me conclusive; moreover, even if it were he who introduced the word, surely Mary Shelley would have had her own ideas of what it connoted.
  4. Mellor's Chapter 5 fully documents the masculinist language of domination used by the scientists Mary consulted while writing Frankenstein; on more recent uses of such language, see Kranzler.
  5. There is some biographical evidence for this view. In 1815 Percy was apparently urging Mary toward an affair with his friend T. J. Hogg, who was nothing loath; this combined sexual pressure may have been at least unsettling for Mary, at worst the same kind of masculine domination that Victor wants to impose on nature. See Letters 1.6-14; the most even-handed treatment of this episode is Spark 40-46.
  6. In her 1831 introduction Mary Shelley claims that Percy Shelley wrote this Preface, but an 1817 journal entry suggests otherwise. On May 14 she writes "S. [i.e., Percy] reads History of Fr[ench] Rev[olution] and corrects F[rankenstein]. write Preface.—Finis" (Journal 169). The verb "write" indicates that the omitted subject of this sentence is not Percy but "I"; this may be a slip of the pen, but if not it is interesting to speculate why Mary remembered Percy and not herself as the author of the Preface.

Works Cited

Carson, James B. "Bringing the Author Forward: Frankenstein through Mary Shelley's Letters." Criticism 30.4 (Fall 1988): 431-53.

Dussinger, John A. "Kinship and Guilt in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein." Studies in the Novel 8 (1976): 38-55.

Ellis, Kate. "Monsters in the Garden: Mary Shelley and the Bourgeois Family." Levine and Knoepflmacher 123-42.

Ellis, Sarah Stickney. The Women of England: Their Social Duties and Domestic Habits. 1838. In The Select Works of Mrs. Ellis. New York: Langley, 1854.

Jacobus, Mary. "Is There a Woman in This Text?" New Literary History 14.1 (Autumn 1982): 117-41.

Kranzler, Laura. "Frankenstein and the Technological Future." Foundation 44 (Winter 1988-89): 42-49.

Levine, George. "The Ambiguous Heritage of Frankenstein." Levine and Knoepflmacher 3-30.

Levine, George, and U. C. Knoepflmacher, eds. The Endurance of Frankenstein: Essays on Mary Shelley's Novel. Berkeley: U of California P, 1979.

Mellor, Anne K. Mary Shelley: Her Life, Her Fiction, Her Monsters. New York: Routledge, 1988.

Murray, E. B. "Shelley's Contribution to Mary's Frankenstein." Keats-Shelley Memorial Bulletin 29 (1978): 50-68.

Poovey, Mary. The Proper Lady and the Woman Writer: Ideology as Style in the Works of Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary Shelley, and Jane Austen. Women in Culture and Society series. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1984. 114-42.

Rubinstein, Marc A. "'My Accursed Origin': The Search for the Mother in Frankenstein." Studies in Romanticism 15 (Spring 1976): 165-94.

Shelley, Mary. The Journals of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley. Ed. Paula R. Feldman and Diana Kilvert-Scott. Oxford: Clarendon, 1987.

——. The Letters of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley. Ed. Betty T. Bennett. 3 vols. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1980-1988.

Spark, Muriel. Mary Shelley. Rev. ed. London: Sphere-Penguin, 1987.

Veeder, William. Mary Shelley and "Frankenstein": The Fate of Androgyny. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1986.

Vlasopolos, Anca. "Frankenstein's Hidden Skeleton: The

Psycho-Politics of Oppression." Science-Fiction Studies 10.2 (July 1983): 125-36.


SOURCE: Behrendt, Stephen. "Mary Shelley, Frankenstein, and the Woman Writer's Fate." In Romantic Women Writers: Voices and Countervoices, edited by Paula R. Feldman and Theresa M. Kelley, pp. 69-87. Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England, 1995.

In the following essay, Behrendt argues that Frankenstein embodies the dilemma of the nineteenth-century female writer and that it comments on women's marginalization and place in the public world.

Frankenstein is a woman author's tale of almost exclusively male activity, a tale whose various parts are all told by men. Women are conspicuously absent from the main action; they are significantly displaced (Agatha de Lacey, Safie) or entirely eliminated (Justine, Elizabeth, and the Creature's partially constructed mate). The only woman truly present in the tale is paradoxically not "there" at all: the unseen, silent auditor/reader Margaret Walton Saville (MWS), who exists only in Walton's letters. Walton's letters make clear that Margaret figures into his part of the tale as both confidante and confessor, much as Walton himself serves Victor Frankenstein. Indeed, Walton's explanations to Margaret of his own behavior suggest that he casts her in a role as sanctifier, whose province it is to hear, understand, sympathize, and approve (see Letter 2, for instance), rather in the manner of the roles in which Dostoyevsky later casts Liza in Notes from Underground and Sonia Marmeladov in Crime and Punishment. Walton manipulates his sister much as William Wordsworth encircles and silences his sister Dorothy in "Tintern Abbey": the brother's own future viability (which the text explicitly demands) is to be engineered precisely by the resonance of his own words in his sister's consciousness (ll. 134-59).

As "silent bearers of ideology" in Western literature and art, women have traditionally been made "the necessary sacrifice to male secularity," which finds its expression in materialistic public activity in a world that cannot—indeed will not—accommodate the woman of action.1 Ellen Moers sees in Ann Radcliffe an alternative to both the intellectual, philosophical woman typified by Mary Wollstonecraft and the super-domesticated image of the submissive wife and mother extolled by earlier eighteenth-century culture. Moers claims that Radcliffe's vision of female selfhood involved neither the wholly intellectual nor the traditionally "loving" nurturant role but rather that of the traveling woman: "the woman who moves, who acts, who copes with vicissitude and adventure."2 This very public role of the woman of action fits authors like Mary Darby Robinson and Helen Maria Williams, as well as the many Gothic heroines who, like Emily St. Aubert in The Mysteries of Udolpho, cope exceedingly well with continual reversals of fortune and circumstance. It is not, however, the model of experience embraced by Mary Shelley, who, despite her considerable travels and public activity, wrote in pointedly gender-specific terms in 1828 that "my sex has precluded all idea of my fulfilling public employments."3 For modern readers her comment hints painfully both at the enculturated tendency of many women of the time—and today—to perpetuate women's oppression by discouraging public roles for women and at a narrowed and more biologically based rationalization of reserve on women's part.

In her important 1982 article, Barbara Johnson examines the troubled relationship among mothering, female authorship, and autobiography in Frankenstein, revealing some of the ways Mary Shelley associated authorship with monstrousness, and the products of authorship with the violent and unpredictable Creature. Anne Mellor has subsequently extended and refined the discussion in terms of Shelley's life and other writings.4 My own reading is informed by their critical insights. I argue further that the initially well-intentioned and humane Creature resembles the idealistic author seeking to benefit her or his society, and so, tragically, does Victor Frankenstein. Both see their desires frustrated, however, as their intentions are first misunderstood and then misrepresented by others. Their interlaced histories thus pose a strong warning to authors—whether of literary texts or of cultural texts, such as revolutions—about the dangers of creating that which can destroy even its own author. The author must acknowledge the fact that her or his text's potential for mischief is at least as great as its potential for good. Because Frankenstein's embedded lessons about the hazards of authorship bear particular relevance to the Romantic woman author, I shall here treat the novel as a touchstone as I examine some broader issues.

Although Frankenstein is a novel about acts and actions, it comes to us not in actions but in reports of actions, almost in the manner of classical theater, where much of the offstage action is represented only in verbal reports. The more contemporary parallel lies in Gothic fiction, in which the violence is often kept offstage and thereby rendered powerfully imminent, a menace whose physical manifestations are only barely held in abeyance by a combination of virtue, fortitude, coincidence, and plain good luck. In Frankenstein the reports are in fact frequently multilayered: they are reports of reports. The most heavily layered is Walton's report of Victor's report of the Creature's report of his self-education and experiences. Mary Shelley adds to this layering by beginning her novel in epistolary fashion, with a series of embedded reports that draw our attention to the writing acts of Walton and, by extension, to Shelley herself, both as original anonymous author and as the subsequently public, ex post facto authorial presence in the 1831 Introduction who reports on the novel's genesis. Moreover, in adopting the epistolary form of discourse, Walton adopts a genre long associated with women's writing. Just as he appropriates woman's procreative activity in creating his own "Creature," so does he appropriate the ostensibly uninhibited literary form (the letter form has been called "spontaneity formalized") that women—otherwise denied voice and hence access to male literary culture—"could practice without unsexing" themselves.5

To what extent does the nature of Frankenstein as a construct of words, rather than a direct representation of actions, embody the dilemma of the woman writer at the beginning of the nineteenth century? In what ways does the marginalization of women, their activities, and their perceived cultural worth figure in Frankenstein's elimination or destruction of them? And what relation do these questions bear to the circumstances and the literary productions of other women writers of the Romantic period? Inherent in Frankenstein are some telling reflections of the ways in which women figured in the public world. In Mary Shelley's novel, women are occasionally the objects of discourse—most notably Margaret Saville, who cannot respond (or is at least represented as not responding), but also Justine and Elizabeth, whose responses to discourse aimed at them are in each case truncated by their deaths at the hands (in Elizabeth's case, quite literally) of the violent system of male authority within which the narrative is inscribed. When they are the subjects of discourse, on the other hand, they fare little better, for every woman of any importance who is spoken of in the main narrative is likewise destroyed: Victor's mother, Elizabeth, Justine, and the Creature's mate (who dies before even being "born"). In the public literary world of the time, the story is much the same. As objects of discourse, women were continually reminded of their "proper" and "natural" place in private familial and public extrafamilial interaction. The woman writer (who becomes herself an originator of discourse by publishing) is "represented" within public culture as an object of discourse when her work is reviewed by the (generally male) critic. But she is also translated into the subject of discourse when her literary efforts are indiscriminately interchanged with, or substituted for, her self—her individual person—within the public discourse of criticism.

Mary Shelley's first novel demonstrates that men's actions are typically either overtly destructive and therefore disruptive of social bonding or simply so thoroughly counterproductive that they result in paralysis, much as Walton's ship becomes immobilized in the ice. This message is repeated in one form or another in her subsequent novels and tales, and it appears in perhaps its starkest terms in Mathilda, where the psychological and sexual oppressions are so powerful that they resist language's capacity to record them at all. The writings of Shelley and others reveal the consequences of the cultural pressures exerted upon the woman author, pressures whose cumulative weight often served either to drive women to misrepresent themselves by adopting the masculinist culture's literary conventions or to silence them altogether.6 In the case of Mary Shelley—daughter of politically radical philosophers, wife of a particularly notorious radical artist, and member of a glittering literary circle—the residue of this enculturated sense of inferiority is startling. The terrible cost of her search for personal fulfillment in a permanent, secure relationship based equally upon affection and intellectual equality have been documented by her biographers. Sufficiently telling are two comments from her letters to two women, the first of whom (Frances Wright [Darusmont]) was herself an active political and social reformer transplanted in 1818 to America:

[W]omen are … per[pet]ually the victims of their generosity—& their purer, & more sensitive feelings render them so much less than men capable of battling the selfishness, hardness & ingratitude [which] is so often the return made, for the noblest efforts to benefit others.

In short my belief is—whether there be sex in souls or not—that the sex of our material mechanism makes us quite different creatures—better though weaker but wanting in the higher grades of intellect.7

The second remark, in which "weaker" clearly refers to physical strength and stature, comes from a letter that is unusual even for Mary Shelley in the violence of its self-deprecation. But Dorothy Wordsworth expressed her fear of disappointing Coleridge in much the same terms: "I have not those powers which Coleridge thinks I have—I know it. My only merits are my devotedness to those I love and I hope a charity towards all mankind."8 John Stuart Mill expressed the nature of the dilemma when he wrote in 1861 that "all the moralities tell [women] that it is the duty of women, and all the current sentimentalities that it is their nature, to live for others, to make complete abnegations of themselves, and to have no life but in their affections."9 Comments like Shelley's and Wordsworth's provide compelling evidence of the validity of Mary Jacobus's much more recent observation that women's attempts to gain access to a male-dominated culture tend often to produce feelings of alienation, repression, and division: "a silencing of the 'feminine,' a loss of woman's inheritance" (27).

Indeed, expressions of self-disgust and self-hatred recur in the personal, private statements of Mary Shelley and other women who indulged their ambition (or, like Mary Robinson, Charlotte Smith, Felicia Hemans, and Shelley herself, their plain financial need) to enter the public arena of authorship. Entering explicitly into competition with the dominant caste of male authors, the woman writer seemed to violate not just social decorum but also the nature and constitution of her own sex. Not surprisingly, her efforts generated both anxiety and hostility among the male literary establishment, particularly when the woman dared to venture outside genres such as Gothic fiction that were more or less reserved for the heightened emotionalism expected of women writers.10 It is instructive to remember that when Percy Bysshe Shelley composed a review of Frankenstein in 1818 his language implied that the author was male (perhaps, as was believed, Shelley himself).11 Although this may have been yet another instance of Shelley's exaggerated, chivalric protectiveness toward his wife, the result was nevertheless to strip her of her authorship, even as she had been stripped of her early literary efforts in 1814 when the trunk containing her papers was left behind in Paris and subsequently vanished.12

I do not mean to minimize the growing impact women had on the Romantic literary market, either as authors or as readers.13 But for nearly two centuries their place has been defined largely in terms of their relation to sentimentalism, which has had the effect of stereotyping the majority and effectively silencing the rest. By the later Romantic period it was becoming apparent that men no longer held quite the stranglehold on the literary scene that we have generally assumed. While publishing and criticism remained male-dominated fields, publishers especially were shrewd enough to understand their markets and to cater to the apparent tastes of a growing female readership, in part by employing women authors who addressed that readership. Nevertheless, the literary woman's activity remained circumscribed. Although women were free to write the literature of sentiment and were, in fact, encouraged to do so, the invitation did not customarily extend to the literature of science or, for the most part, of philosophy, political science, or economics. Indeed, the criticism of the would-be intellectual woman typically turned on assumptions about both the proper "nature" of women and the attributes that make them desirable to men, who are still the ultimate "consumers." This comment is typical: "[T]his woman had utterly thrown off her sex; when nature recalled it to her, she felt only distaste and tedium; sentimental love and its sweet emotions came nowhere near the heart of a woman with pretensions to learning, wit, free thought, politics, who has a passion for philosophy and longs for public acclaim. Kind and decent men do not like women of this sort."14 The woman is Charlotte Corday, the famous man-killer; the account, from a Jacobin newspaper of the time. Such terminology recurs repeatedly in the English press and in the culture it both reflects and molds, and it suggests the extent to which the male establishment feared the "monstrous" advances being made by women. Like other novels (Smith's Desmond or Wollstonecraft's Maria, for example) whose rhetorical and thematic threads include the political, Frankenstein at once trespasses on "forbidden" territory and at the same time comments on the nature and consequences of that incursion.

The Romantic reading public's voracious appetite could consume authors as easily as their works, but their lack of access to the male-dominated, symbiotic twin industries of publishing and criticism made women writers particularly vulnerable. When Joseph Johnson hired Mary Wollstonecraft in 1787, he was taking an unconventional step, even though his decision was undoubtedly rooted more in pragmatic economic reasons than in progressive, gender-sensitive political ones; just back from France, she offered him both a contact (as well as a translator and editor familiar with the Continental literary milieu) and an intelligent author in her own right. Mary Darby Robinson's work for the Morning Post (which placed her squarely in the company of—and partly in competition with—Coleridge and Southey) offers another exception to the all-but-universal rule of male dominance. This overall dominance inevitably lent publishers and critics an inordinate power to silence the woman writer by denying her access to an audience or by so characterizing her efforts as to render them wholly unattractive to the inquisitive reader and thus to the prospective publisher of any subsequent efforts. Both of these forces stood poised to strike as soon as the woman writer overstepped the boundaries of propriety; they stood ready to step in "the moment she appeared to them as too palpably a manifestation of that monstrously capricious readership that has given birth to her" (Ross, Contours, 232).

This is not to say, however, that women poets (and women writers in general) were not acknowledged. Indeed, women poets seem to have been anthologized more frequently in the nineteenth century than they have been until recently in the twentieth, whereas women novelists like Ann Radcliffe, Charlotte Turner Smith, Amelia Opie, Jane Austen, and Mary Shelley, who began on the margins, achieved a more immediate and lasting enfranchisement. But the manner of that acknowledgment of women poets and of that anthologization tells its own tale. Let us take one example: Frederic Rowton's 1853 edition of The Female Poets of Great Britain: Chronologically Arranged with Copious Selections and Critical Remarks.15 An enterprising editor and publisher, Rowton was active in such liberal causes as the Society for the Abolition of Capital Punishment. His anthology achieved a wide readership, both in England and in America, and there is no question that the volume called attention to women's contributions to England's poetic heritage. Nevertheless, Rowton's "critical remarks" typify the narrow post-Romantic characterization of women's writing in terms analogous to those in which women's "domestic" work was being characterized at the outset of the Romantic period. Rowton's comments on Felicia Hemans, for example, are illustrative:

She seems to me to represent and unite as purely and completely as any other writer in our literature the peculiar and specific qualities of the female mind. Her works are to my mind a perfect embodiment of woman's soul:—I would say that they are intensely feminine. The delicacy, the softness, the pureness, the quick observant vision, the ready sensibility, the devotedness, the faith of woman's nature find in Mrs. Hemans their ultra representative.…In nothing can one trace her feminine spirit more strikingly than in her domestic home-loving ideas.…No where, indeed, can we find a more pure and refined idea of home than that which pervades Mrs. Hemans's writings on the subject.

(Pp. 386-87)

The delicacy that Rowton so admires in Hemans is in fact a recessive, deferential attitude that is more a critical overlaying, an interpretive imposition, than an essential quality of Hemans's verse. Just as female subordinates are kept in their "place" at the office by being called by first name (frequently in a diminutive form, at that) by supervisors whom they are expected to call by formal surname, so too is Hemans (and many others) "placed" by Rowton's condescending but nevertheless firmly authoritarian language, shored up by his "selection" of verse, which guarantees that the reader will see in Hemans precisely what Rowton intends. Interestingly, when H. T. Tucker-man wrote an introduction for the American edition of Hemans's Poems that appeared in 1853 (the same year as Rowton's anthology), he employed many of the same critical tactics, engaging in a form of "psychic defense" under the guise of critical appraisal. Such tactics, as Marlon Ross has demonstrated, "enable the critic to perform the crucial cultural endeavor of putting women in their natural and social place while ostensibly simply going about the mundane task of literary criticism" (Contours, 237).

The deferential, self-deprecating introduction or preface was a familiar literary fixture, whether it was employed by a Wordsworth or a Shelley in offering the world works that were proposed to be somehow "experimental" or adopted by a Mary Tighe (as in Psyche, 1805). But while readers seem to have "seen through" the affected posture when men employed it, they were more likely to regard that disclaimer, when women adopted it, not as a mere convention but rather as a statement of fact. And if the woman author failed to make the expected apologies, others stood ready to do it for her. Thus, the editorial introduction addressed "To the Reader" in later editions of Tighe's Psyche, with Other Poems assigns gender-driven terms to Tighe—and Tighe to them: "To possess strong feelings and amiable affections, and to express them with a nice discrimination, has been the attribute of many female writers … [but Tighe is] a writer intimately acquainted with classical literature, and guided by a taste for real excellence, [who] has delivered in polished language such sentiments as can tend only to encourage and improve the best sensations of the human breast."16 Notice that the praiseworthy features—nicety, amiability, polish, sentiment—are intimately associated with such archetypal attributes of the Western female as cleanliness, orderliness, softness, and pliability. Even the exceptional (i. e., unfeminine) attributes—strong feelings, classical learning—are tempered by their being assigned to the support of essentially "feminine" concerns, the nurturing of the best sensations of the human heart chief among them. This sort of bracketing commentary is the norm for the period, both for the woman authors themselves and for the (male) interlocutors who felt compelled to speak for them in order to "introduce" them to their audiences.

Ironically, the notions of "home-loving" domesticity that Tighe's publisher, Rowton, and others sought to impose on women's writing have been succinctly summed up a century and a half later in—of all places—an anthropological study of dining etiquette:

If "a woman's place is in the home," her place implies all the "female" characteristics: interiority, quietness, a longing to nurture, unwillingness to stand forth, and renunciation of the "male" claims to authority, publicity, loudness, brightness, sharpness. These qualities have a multitude of practical applications; for example, they either make a woman altogether unfit and unwilling to attend feasts, or they influence the way she behaves while participating in them.17

Substitute "publish" for "attend feasts," and the fit is nearly perfect. Indeed, according to traditional Western (especially Anglo-American) etiquette, what could be less womanly, less feminine, than publication, which injects the woman into a visible world held to be as thoroughly and exclusively masculine an arena as that to which gentlemen adjourned after dining for cigars and port?

In exercises like Rowton's, ideology is represented as "natural" fact, and begging the question is then passed off as exposition. Elsewhere, Rowton observes of Hemans that "to passion she is well nigh a stranger." Unlike Byron (who is "indeed, of all others the poet of passion"), "affection is with her a serene, radiating principle, mild and ethereal in its nature, gentle in its attributes, pervading and lasting in its effects" (p. 388). And Letitia Landon (Maclean), whom Rowton explicitly compares (favorably) with Byron ("the Byron of our poetesses" [p. 424]) is nevertheless censured for treating materials and attitudes for which Byron was even in 1853 routinely praised—however cautiously. Rowton remarks of Landon's skill at portraying sorrow:

Persons who knew her intimately say that she was not naturally sad: that she was all gaiety and cheerfulness: but there is a mournfulness of soul which is never to be seen on the cheek or in the eye: and this I believe to have dwelt in Mrs. Maclean's breast more than in most people's. How else are we to understand her poetry? We cannot believe her sadness to have been put on like a player's garb: to have been an affectation, an unreality: it is too earnest for that. We must suppose that she felt what she wrote: and if so, her written sadness was real sadness.

(Pp. 426-27)

Rowton's conclusions reveal a built-in ideological inability to credit the female poet with the imaginative capacity to create powerful moods or attitudes, a capacity attributed to a Wordsworth or a Byron without question. The male poet can create, invent; the female poet can only replicate and transcribe. Worse, Rowton extrapolates from his own faulty causal logic a narrowly moralistic (and predictably negative) literary-critical judgment: "This strong tendency towards melancholy frequently led Mrs. Maclean into most erroneous views and sentiments; which, though we may make what excuses we will for them out of consideration for the author, should be heartily and honestly condemned for the sake of moral truth" (p. 429).

We are dealing here with codes of behavior, with manners, considered within the sphere of literary production. Behaviors that are tolerated among male authors—even when they are disapproved—are intolerable in female authors. Morally reactionary critical responses to productions like Don Juan, Prometheus Unbound, or Endymion stemmed at least in part from a recognition that their authors were writers of substance and power, whose productions stood to shake up the conservative establishment on whose stability (and capital) the critical industry of the time had already come to depend. Women were writing powerful, socially volatile poetry, too; but rather than launch a comparable frontal attack on women writers like Mary Darby Robinson, Joanna Baillie, Charlotte Turner Smith, Letitia Landon, or even Hannah More, gender-driven criticism adopted the psychologically subtle device of undermining by misrepresentation, of assessing works in terms of their adherence to or deviation from presumed standards of "femininity." The male-dominated publishing industry and its accompanying critical establishment had, of course, a great store in preserving, codifying, and enforcing this construct of "the feminine" in writing, perhaps especially so in the field of poetry, which was, in the Romantic period, still the preeminent vehicle for "high" art. If the membership of the club could not be preserved indefinitely for males only, it could at least be stratified: separate, lesser rooms in the clubhouse could be apportioned to women to keep them out of the way.

Johnson and Mellor have helped us to see that Frankenstein's Creature shares the situation of Romantic women, marginalized and spurned by a society to whose patriarchal schemata they fail to conform. Moreover, the values and sensibilities typically assigned to women during the Romantic period are not unlike those that Shelley assigns the Creature, including instinctive responsiveness to Nature, the impulse toward emotional human bonding (especially apparent in the deLacey episode), and an experiential rather than an abstract empirical way of "knowing"—all of which are the heritage of eighteenth-century sentimentalism. In the pursuit of all of these impulses the Creature is thwarted, both by his irresponsible creator and by the members of the society that has produced Victor and countless others like him. That the Creature is not "beautiful"—another attribute stereotypically associated with women—indicates the seemingly deforming nature of nonconformity as measured by the standards and sensibilities of the dominant majority. Ironically, as the representative of the masculinist culture that places such a premium on physical beauty among women (note especially his descriptions of Elizabeth), Victor Frankenstein creates a being whose hideousness contravenes any proper instinctive and loving parental response on his part to the Creature as "child." He has created that which he abhors, a situation entirely analogous to what the masculinist social and political establishment wrought upon women, writers or otherwise, and with the same consequences: the victim is led to self-deprecation and ultimately self-destructive behavior. Likewise, the author who thinks highly enough of her work to publish it nevertheless compromises herself in publishing with it self-effacing, apologetic, or temporizing prefaces that devalue or even destroy the work that follows. This is a necessary compromise, it would seem, for those who would be heard at all. But the cost in honesty and self-esteem to the author is considerable.

Victor renounces the product of his activities when the creative seeks to usurp the procreative. Hence, physically destroying the Creature's mate is only an emblem of the real act of devastation implicit in Victor's actions: the demolition of those who will not retreat to passive, silent existence on the margins of human experience. Silent neglect, however, is an equally powerful response. This fact lends particular significance to a literary project Mary Shelley proposed in 1830 to John Murray III and to which he apparently turned a (predictably) deaf ear. Suggesting topics on which she might write for publication, she says, "I have thought also of the Lives of Celebrated women—or a history of Woman—her position in society & her influence upon it—historically considered. [sic] and a History of Chivalry."18

Did Murray simply assume that the market-driven "buying public" (despite the very large number of women readers in it) would be uninterested in a volume of prose about women, perhaps especially one about "Woman"? The topic itself was certainly not prohibitively unpopular: Hemans's Records of Woman had appeared in 1828, with a second edition the same year and a third in 1830, as Shelley must have known (although there is no mention of it, nor of Hemans, in her letters or journals of this period). The balance (or im balance) in Mary Shelley's query between the worthy and promising topic of the position and influence of women in society and the much "safer" "History of Chivalry" (in which women might be expected to figure as ornament rather than as agent) is unintentionally revealing of the cultural bind from which neither Mary Shelley nor any other woman writer of her generation could entirely escape. Certainly, when one considers the sentimental concessions to traditional expectations about gender and genre that mar Records of Woman, one cannot help acknowledging the truth of what Jennifer Breen says about women writers' dilemma of creating in their works a woman's point of view: they were forced by social pressure "to conceal the split between what was expected of them and what they actually felt."19 Hence, most of the women in Records ofWoman are, in fact, reflections of male social and cultural expectations only slightly displaced from their customary passive, recessive, nurturant roles to relatively more aggressive ones whose activity is typically generated by default, by the disappearance, death, or incapacitation of the male figure who would otherwise play the active role in the scenario (e.g., "Arabella Stuart," "The Switzer's Wife," or "Gertrude," whose subtitle, "Fidelity till Death," says it all).

One of Frankenstein's lessons is that all creative activity (whether physically procreative or aesthetically/scientifically creative) drives individuals into seclusion and isolation and away from the salutary human interaction that is the proper objective of all human action. Shelley's introduction to the 1831 edition details the countersocializing aspect of her own experience as creative writer. That she chose to include that information and therefore to publicly detail her physical and psychological anxiety and her attempt to compete with the literary men who surrounded her is instructive, for her experience as a woman of words20 ties her to contemporaries like Anna Letitia Barbauld, Jane Taylor, Mary Robinson, Ann Radcliffe, and Charlotte Smith, as well as to Dorothy Wordsworth, whose words were repeatedly appropriated by her brother in poems that for two centuries have blithely been regarded as "his." That still others, like Felicia Browne Hemans, unhesitatingly identified themselves by their married names (e.g., Mrs. Hemans, Mrs. Opie, or Mrs. Montolieu) indicates the extent to which they elected (whether freely or under cultural coercion) to reduce their actions and their identities to mere words (denoting marital status and recessive identity). What Stuart Curran says specifically of Felicia Hemans and Letitia Landon might be said of many of the women who were their contemporaries: In addition to the comfortable domesticity and sentimentality that may be glimpsed in their work, we can see also "darker strains," which include "a focus on exile and failure, a celebration of female genius frustrated, a haunting omnipresence of death."21 This aspect of women's writing is as troubling today as it was two centuries ago, and it should not surprise us that intrusive contemporary commentators, editors, and anthologizers (like Frederic Rowton) attempted to deny the validity or even the meaningful presence of that aspect, either explicitly by branding it as subject matter inappropriate for women, in roundabout fashion by refusing to credit female authors with adequate imagination or intellect, or in slightly more covert fashion by calling their efforts on this front derivative from male models such as Byron.

Writing literature may be a form of communication, but it is decidedly not dialogue. Like Margaret Saville, the reader (or audience) is kept at a distance; functional interactive discourse with the author is precluded by the nature of the literary work of art. The one-sidedness of this arrangement is quite unlike the dialogic nature of the familiar letter (and I stress the adjective), a genre Mary Shelley seems to have much enjoyed.22 The act of literary communication—the writing act and the production of a public, published text—distances both the writer and the reader from the subjective substance that the text mediates by means of language. In her preface to Psyche (1805), Mary Tighe presents a view of her work opposite to the one reflected in Shelley's 1831 reference to her "hideous progeny": "The author, who dismisses to the public the darling object of his solitary cares, must be prepared to consider, with some degree of indifference, the various receptions it may then meet."23 Whether "hideous progeny" or "darling object," the fate of the published work is out of its author's hands, as is the author's private self, which soon becomes the property of critics and others who appropriate it by reading it both into and in the literary work, as is evident from this remark about Mary Darby Robinson's poetry:

Of Mrs. Robinson's general character, it can only be added that she possessed a sensibility of heart and tenderness of mind which very frequently led her to form hasty decisions, while more mature deliberation would have tended to promote her interest and worldly comfort; she was liberal even to a fault; and many of the leading traits of her life will most fully evince, that she was the most disinterested of human beings. As to her literary character, the following pages, it may be presumed, will form a sufficient testimony.24

Here again are the terms we have seen applied to Hemans and Tighe; they include the standard catalog of "feminine" virtues of softness, tenderness, and pliability, as well as the converse (and therefore culpable) traits of independence, immaturity, hastiness, and lack of foresight. The concluding sentence of the "Preface" makes perfectly clear the writer's rhetorical strategy: having detailed for the reader a literary life characterized by failures to behave "properly," both in life and in print, the writer injects the works themselves ("the following pages") into this pejorative context. Co-opted into disapproving of the author's life and life-style, the reader is invited to carry along that sense of disapprobation while reading the poetry. It is a classic tactic of reader manipulation and an unusually effective one, as history affords us ample opportunities to observe.

To create literary art is ultimately to falsify both the person and the act—whether external and immediate or internal and imaginative—that motivates the verbal text. It is not just a matter of producing fading coals, as Percy Bysshe Shelley suggests in A Defence of Poetry, but rather of burning up the raw material entirely. In the process the individual self gets burned up as well, consumed and extinguished. For the woman writer, no less than for the man, who and what one is gets superseded in the process of publication by the words that may represent—but more likely mis represent—that individual private entity. Fame devours personhood, as Tennyson's Ulysses reminds us later when he ironically announces that "I am become a name." In a "man's world," which is very much what the Romantic era was in England despite the presence of literary women in it, men are better able to overcome this dissolution of the self because they are the principal actors (act-ors) on the public stage, as well as the controllers of language and other cultural determinants. But because of their social, political, and cultural marginalization, women have few resources for countering the extinguishing of the personal self. When they did write, as Susan J. Wolfson observes of Dorothy Wordsworth, their experiences frequently generated in their texts "countertexts and spectres of defeat."25

Wolfson reminds us that in professing to "detest the idea of setting myself up as author" (p. 140) Dorothy Wordsworth effectively accepted the marginalized and un authoritative female role assigned her by the masculinist society epitomized in her brother and valorized by his public audiences. As journal keeper and documenter of domestic affairs both personal and public, rather than self-promoting, publishing author, she played out the culturally conditioned expectations of woman as domestic engineer, historical and social housekeeper, and minder of minor details of order and appearance. Nevertheless, Dorothy Wordsworth did write, both in prose and in poetry, and even her characteristic self-deprecating tone cannot entirely hide the clear strain in her writings of ambition and of longing for a more authoritative and self-expressive voice.26 Much the same might be said about Mary Shelley, whose letters are filled with protestations against public visibility: "There is nothing I shrink from more fearfully than publicity—… far from wishing to stand forward to assert myself in any way, now that I am alone in the world, [I] have but the desire to wrap night and the obscurity of insignificance around me."27 Despite her very considerable oeuvre, she often deprecated both her literary talent and her intellectual acuity by referring to her writing, as she once did to John Murray, as "my stupid pen & ink labors."28

Part of the Romantic woman writer's predicament involves what Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar have called the "anxiety of authorship"—the woman's radical fear "that she cannot create, that because she can never become a 'precursor' the act of writing will isolate or destroy her."29 This is a potentially and often an actually crippling anxiety. And yet this fear need not be gender-specific to women. Sonia Hofkosh has demonstrated that no less "male" a male writer than Byron exemplifies the author who "dreads, as he desires, being read by others—a reading that rewrites him and thus compromises his powers of self-creation."30 The problem is particularly acute for the woman writer, however, who in the Romantic period was working with only the bare thread of a literary heritage. Battling the powerful forces that everywhere reminded her of her cultural and intellectual marginality and the impropriety of her artistic aspirations—forces that fed (and rewarded) timidity and submissiveness—the woman writer was very like Mary Shelley's Creature. This gender-driven cultural stifling both of experience and of expression lies behind what Mary Jacobus, among others, sees as the themes of "dumbness and utterance" and of the powerful quest to fulfill an impossible desire (Reading Woman, 28).

We do well to catch in the Creature's history a glimpse of the history of the woman artist during the Romantic period—and indeed during much of the history of Western culture. What is at issue, finally, is the ongoing radical marginalization of the unconventional, a phenomenon as much political as social and cultural. The dominant social milieu severs communication with the Creature because neither its appearance nor its acts conform to the expectations of that majority culture. The society in which Frankenstein and Walton alike opt for the isolation of individual pursuits over the socializing impulses of human interaction proves to be the real agent in redefining the parameters of creative activity. Acts are replaced by words, activity by passivity, responsibility by the irresponsibly ambivalent, and individuality by abstraction. The person is dissolved.

Mary Shelley's first major literary project after Percy's death was The Last Man, which presents itself as a set of fragmentary papers—Sibylline leaves—that trace the vanishing of an entire civilization in a prolonged universal cataclysm. Since the indifferent universe of time and history effectively ends in the skeptical intellectual framework of that novel, all that remains to lend meaning to mortal existence are human interaction and human language systems, both of which, being temporal, are themselves inevitably doomed to end. The alternative to this desolate picture lies in Shelley's frequently iterated commitment to "an ethic of cooperation, mutual dependence, and self-sacrifice" as the means for salvaging individual and collective dignity and meaning from the wreckage of temporal human existence. She argued in work after work that civilization can achieve its full promise only when "individuals willingly give up their egotistical desires and ambitions in order to serve the greater good of the community."31 But this situation leaves the writer in a particularly precarious position, with her or his printed words dependent for value on a community of readers to whom the author is nevertheless a stranger, whose language and identity is subject to gross misconstruing over time. Mary Shelley's life of Alfieri offers insight into her view of authorship, which itself seems to echo both Wordsworth's and Percy Bysshe Shelley's views: "The author has something to say.…An Author … is a human being whose thoughts do not satisfy his mind … he requires sympathy, a world to listen, and the echoes of assent. [The author desires] to build up an enduring monument … [and] court the notoriety which usually attends those who let the public into the secret of their individual passions or peculiarities."32 But this is risky business, surely, for even if the assenting voice is loud and unified, the author still exposes her or his own autonomous personhood ("individual passions or peculiarities") for public view and public reading—or misreading. As the daughter of Wollstonecraft and Godwin and wife of Percy Bysshe Shelley, she would have appreciated more than most that the "sympathy" of which she writes here could be a rare commodity indeed among the early-nineteenth-century English reading public.

At the same time, though, to write is not just to yield authority but also to take it, to exercise it. In the preface composed for the anonymous first edition of Frankenstein, Percy Bysshe Shelley claims that the author has gone beyond what Erasmus Darwin and other speculative physiologists have postulated about the nature of life and "the elementary principles of human nature." Indeed, the author is presented as having surpassed not only these scientists but also other culturally ensconced male literary luminaries, including Homer, the Greek dramatists, Shakespeare, and Milton, as well as the two "friends" to whose conversations the story is said to owe. In her own 1831 introduction to Frankenstein, Shelley pointedly reminds us that her story originated with a set of conversations between Percy Bysshe Shelley and Byron to which she was essentially a silent auditor. Yet hers is the story that was completed and published and that became sufficiently popular to demand republication. Making her claim of authorship explicit, Mary Shelley in the process claims possession not only of the novel's language but also of the material—the apparently unremittingly male material—of its subject matter. Moreover, the new introduction constitutes a gesture of authority by which her own authorial voice supersedes the ventriloquistic voice of her dead husband in the preface. By 1831 she had, after all, survived both Shelley and Byron, and the popularity of her novel had far exceeded that of her husband's works and had rivaled and in some quarters even surpassed that of Byron's.

The Last Man extends some of the issues I have already raised in terms of Frankenstein. Is the author's role (whether the author be female or male) merely to record the real or invented acts of others? That is, after all, what Mary Shelley turned to in her later years when she wrote the lives of eminent men. The historian characteristically steps out of the history she or he writes, functioning as nameless, invisible recorder, although even in the best of cases an element of fiction enters—or is inserted—into the writing of history. This ostensibly detached role appears to have become increasingly attractive to Mary Shelley, who in 1834, while working on her contributions to the Lives of the Most Eminent Literary and Scientific Men of Italy, Spain, and Portugal, wrote at length about her imagination's fleeting visitations and suggested that, as Wordsworth wrote in the "Intimations" ode, the years that bring the philosophic mind provide recompense (though not necessarily so "abundant" as the poet regards it in "Tintern Abbey") for the imagination's fading: "I hope nothing & my imagination is dormant—She awakes by fits & starts; but often I am left alone (fatal word) even by her. My occupation at present somewhat supplies her place—& my life & reason have been saved by these "Lives"—Yes—let the lonely be occupied—it is the only cure."33

And yet is not this consuming indulgence in words both the goal and the supermarginalizing consequence of authorship generally—to be reduced to words, to be captured, "pictured," and read not as person but as textual construct, as a sort of shadow existence, a phantasm of the reader's own distorting imagination?

The author constantly runs the risk of being made into a fiction by the reader who formulates or extrapolates the author from the text. The woman author is "read" within a system of culturally encoded patriarchal authority over which she has virtually no control but within which she is expected to express herself. She is thus deprived at once of subjectivity, creativity, and autonomy. The assessment not just of Romantic women's writing but also of the cultural and intellectual position of the woman writer in general underscores the urgency of Annette Kolodny's observation that what unites and invigorates feminist criticism is neither dogma nor method but rather "an acute and impassioned attentiveness to the ways in which primarily male structures of power are inscribed (or encoded) within our literary inheritance."34 Worst danger of all, one runs the risk of becoming an accomplice to the substitutional fictionalization of the "real" (the actual, autonomous, personal, and historical individual) self by the very act of writing. For the text that results from that act contains the self that the reader may reformulate and reconstruct in a living lie that reflects not the author but the reader, who has, in the act of reading her, appropriated her and torn her to pieces, much as Victor Frankenstein first assembles and then tears to pieces the Creature's mate.

Virginia Woolf suggested that George Eliot's decision to combine womanhood and writing was very costly indeed; as Mary Jacobus observes, it was a mortally significant decision that entailed "the sacrifice not only of happiness, but of life itself" (Reading Woman, 29). Women writers are particularly sensitive to the conflict between the "domesticity" that society expects of them and their own authorial aspirations for public fame, Marlon Ross writes, precisely because "the conflict is so palpable in their private lives and in their poetic careers" (Contours, 289). Mary Shelley understood the personal cost of authorship, writing of it to Trelawny that "I know too well that that excitement is the parent of pain rather than pleasure."35 Writing, especially for publication, is an act of society, of civilization: a surrender of the autonomous self and identity to, and ostensibly on behalf of, the collective public. But as Rousseau had foreseen, the impulse toward formal civilization brings with it a radical reduction of one's options and, for the writer, "an enclosure within the prisonhouse of language" (Mellor, Mary Shelley, 50). One becomes what one writes, to paraphrase Blake, even as one writes what one is. In this endlessly revolving cycle one becomes imprisoned in temporality and topicality; one is reduced, finally, to a cipher, to a sheaf of papers, to reports of actions—or to reports of ideas that purport to be actions.

Like her contemporaries, Mary Shelley wrestled with the assault upon the personal ego inherent in the public response to one's formal writing. She wrote—after 1822 primarily because she had to, to support herself and her son—and only occasionally did she allow herself to stare back at the potential uselessness of it all: "What folly is it in me to write trash nobody will read—… I am—But all my many pages—future waste paper—surely I am a fool—."36 At more optimistic and self-assured moments she could at least find consolation in the activity of writing, even if it was merely a matter of filling the hours.

That Walton finally redirects his ship toward the south (and symbolically toward warmth and society) at the conclusion of Frankenstein might indicate that he has learned from his experience, were it not that Walton does not choose freely in the matter but rather accedes in the face of a mutiny. I suggest that the practical struggle to be true to oneself and to one's ideals and aspirations—for the woman writer as for the man Arctic explorer—inevitably involves compromise and with it the reduction and subjection of one's essential self to a report embedded in words. Literature traditionally introduces us not to authors but to their words, the words by which they represent impressions of their ideas and of the "selves" in which they live their days. Living with the diminished self whose record is the journal of papers that makes up the novel will haunt Walton, even as the Creature haunts the obsessive-compulsive Victor Frankenstein (who is no victor at all but the ultimate cosmic loser). But so too must the writer—woman or man—inevitably be haunted by the specter of herself or himself reduced to a cipher, to a construct of words, the work itself becoming a "hideous progeny" that dissolves the author as self, as living, acting entity. Whatever the inherent formal value of the literary product, it nevertheless both mutilates and misrepresents its author. In this sense, among others, it seems to me entirely valid to read in Frankenstein, as in much of Romantic women's writing, the enigmatic warning that creativity may be hazardous to one's health—indeed to one's entire existence.


  1. See Mary Jacobus, Reading Woman: Essays in Feminist Criticism (New York: Columbia University Press, 1986), 28.
  2. Ellen Moers, Literary Women: The Great Writers (1963; reprint, New York: Oxford University Press, 1985), 126.
  3. 5 January 1828, The Letters of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, ed. Betty T. Bennett, 3 vols. (Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1983), 2:22.
  4. Barbara Johnson, "My Monster/My Self," Diacritics 12 (1982): 2-10; Anne K. Mellor, Mary Shelley: Her Life, Her Fiction, Her Monsters (New York and London: Methuen, 1988).
  5. Moers, Literary Women, 163; Virginia Woolf, "Dorothy Osborne's 'Letters,'" in The Second Common Reader, ed. Andrew McNeillie (San Diego, Calif.: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1986), 59-70.
  6. Deborah Cameron, Feminism and Linguistic Theory (New York: St. Martin's, 1985), 161. Mellor writes that "that unique phenomenon envisioned by Mary Wollstonecraft, the wife as the lifelong intellectual equal and companion of her husband, does not exist in the world of nineteenth-century Europe experienced by Mary Shelley" ("Possessing Nature: The Female in Frankenstein, "in Romanticism and Feminism, ed. Anne K. Mellor [Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1988], 223).
  7. Shelley to Frances Wright [Darusmont], 12 September 1827, and to Maria Gisborne, 11 June 1835, Letters 2:4, 246.
  8. The Letters of William and Dorothy Wordsworth, ed. Ernest de Selincourt et al., 2nd ed., 6 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1967-93), vol. 1, no. 239.
  9. John Stuart Mill, The Subjection of Women, ed. Sue Mansfield (Arlington Heights, Ill.: AHM Publishing, 1980), 15. Mill's essay was written in 1861 and published in 1869.
  10. See Mary Poovey, The Proper Lady and the Woman Writer: Ideology as Style in the Works of Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary Shelley, and Jane Austen (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984); and Mellor, Mary Shelley, 56.
  11. Percy Bysshe Shelley's review may have been intended for Leigh Hunt's Examiner. It did not appear until Thomas Medwin published it in The Atheneum in 1832.
  12. See Mellor, Mary Shelley, 22-23, and Emily W. Sunstein, Mary Shelley: Romance and Reality (Boston, Toronto and London: Little, Brown, 1989), 85-86.
  13. Stuart Curran, Gaye Tuchman, and Marlon Ross have most notably reminded us of women's significant presence in the literary milieu. See Stuart Curran, Poetic Form and British Romanticism (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986); Gaye Tuchman, with Nina E. Fortin, Edging Women Out: Victorian Novelists, Publishers, and Social Change (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1989); Marlon Ross, The Contours of Masculine Desire: Romanticism and the Rise of Women's Poetry (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989). See too Cheryl Turner, Living by the Pen: Women Writers in the Eighteenth Century (London: Routledge, 1992).
  14. Quoted in Rupert Christiansen, Romantic Affinities: Portraits from an Age, 1780-1830 (London: Cardinal, 1988), 102.
  15. This volume, which is readily available in a facsimile edited by Marilyn Williamson (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1981), typifies the woman writer's treatment by the (male) Victorian anthologizer. Parenthetical page citations in this portion of my discussion refer to this facsimile.
  16. Mrs. Henry [Mary] Tighe, Psyche, with Other Poems, 5th ed. (London: Longman, 1816), iii-iv.
  17. Margaret Visser, The Rituals of Dinner: The Origins, Evolution, Eccentricities, and Meaning of Table Manners (New York: Grove Weidenfeld, 1991), 273.
  18. Shelley to John Murray III, 8 September 1830, Letters, 2:115.
  19. Women Romantic Poets, 1785-1832: An Anthology, ed. Jennifer Breen (London: J. M. Dent, 1992), xix.
  20. This is, in fact, the picture often painted of Mary Shelley: "Mary was never a woman of action. Her pursuits were intellectual, her pleasure domestic" (Jane Dunn, Moon in Eclipse: A Life of Mary Shelley [London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1978], 278).
  21. Stuart Curran, "Romantic Poetry: The 'I' Altered," in Romanticism and Feminism, ed. Anne K. Mellor (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1988), 189.
  22. As Betty T. Bennett's three volumes of Shelley's letters amply demonstrate, she was an avid letter writer, and the style of those letters is richly interactive, inviting a variety of kinds of response from her correspondents. Even in letters from the years immediately following Percy Bysshe Shelley's death, letters in which postured self-pity mingles with spontaneous expressions of genuine misery, the correspondent is never shut off from communication or from what Shelley clearly structures as an ongoing dialogue.
  23. [Mary Tighe], Psyche, or the Legend of Love (London, privately printed, 1805), ii.
  24. "Preface," in The Poetical Works of the Late Mrs. Mary Robinson, 3 vols. (London: Jones and Company, 1824), 1:4.
  25. Susan J. Wolfson, "Individual in Community: Dorothy Wordsworth in Conversation with William," in Mellor, Romanticism and Feminism, 162.
  26. The painful ambivalences about ambition, ability, and gender-related expectations that surface so frequently in what Dorothy Wordsworth's writings tell us about herself, her situation, and the life she led have at last been addressed in a number of sympathetic revisionist studies. See esp. Wolfson, "Individual in Community," Margaret Homans, Women Writers and Poetic Identity: Dorothy Wordsworth, Emily Bronte, and Emily Dickinson (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1980); and Susan M. Levin, Dorothy Wordsworth and Romanticism (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1987).
  27. Shelley to Edward J. Trelawny, 1 April 1829, Letters, 2:72.
  28. Shelley to John Murray III, 10 February 1835, Letters, 2:223.
  29. Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar, The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination (New Haven, Conn., and London: Yale University Press, 1979), 49-50.
  30. Sonia Hofkosh, "The Writer's Ravishment: Women and the Romantic Author—the Example of Byron," in Mellor, Romanticism and Feminism 94.
  31. Mellor, "Possessing Nature," 129, and Mary Shelley, 169, 215.
  32. Mary Shelley [with James Montgomery], Lives of the Most Eminent Literary and Scientific Men of Italy, Spain, and Portugal, 3 vols. (London: Longman, 1835), 2:351.
  33. Shelley, December 1834, The Journals of Mary Shelley: 1814-1844, ed. Paula R. Feldman and Diana Scott-Kilvert, 2 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1987), 2:543.
  34. Annette Kolodny, "Dancing through the Minefield: Some Observations on the Theory, Practice, and Politics of a Feminist Literary Criticism," in The New Feminist Criticism: Essays on Women, Literature, and Theory, ed. Elaine Showalter (New York: Pantheon Books, 1985), 162.
  35. Shelley to E. J. Trelawny, 27 July 1829, Letters, 2:82.
  36. Shelley, 30 January 1825, Journals, 2:489.

Further Reading

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Lyles, W. H. Mary Shelley: An Annotated Bibliography. New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1975.

Lists sources by and about Shelley through 1975.


Mellor, Anne K. Mary Shelley: Her Life, Her Fiction, Her Monsters. New York: Routledge, 1989, 350 p.

Draws on unpublished material and Shelley's fiction to present an analysis of Shelley's life.

Seymour, Miranda. Mary Shelley. New York: Grove Press, 2000, 672 p.

Utilizes feminist scholarship to present a balanced picture of Shelley's life.

Williams, John. Mary Shelley: A Literary Life. London: Palgrave, 2000, 222 p.

Provides an overview of Shelley's life.


Batchelor, Rhonda. "The Rise and Fall of the Eighteenth Century's Authentic Feminine Voice." Eighteenth-Century Fiction 6, no. 4 (July 1994): 347-68.

Suggests that Frankenstein offers formal and thematic echoes of earlier, revolutionary feminist thought.

Bunnell, Charlene E. "Mathilda: Mary Shelley's Romantic Tragedy." Keats-Shelley Journal 66 (1997): 75-96.

Analyzes the theatrical aspects of Mathilda.

Conger, Syndy McMillen. "Mary Shelley's Women in Prison." In Iconoclastic Departures: Mary Shelley After Frankenstein; Essays in Honor of the Bicentenary of Mary Shelley's Birth, edited by Syndy M. Conger, Frederick S. Frank, and Gregory O'Dea, pp. 81-97. Madison, N.J.: Farleigh Dickinson University Press, 1997.

Explores Shelley's treatment of the metaphoric imprisonment of women, a topic taken up by her mother in her writings, and claims that Shelley thus endorses her mother's profeminist views.

Davis, William. "Mathilda and the Ruin of Masculinity." European Romantic Review 13, no. 2 (2002): 175-81.

Argues that Mathilda presents a vision of male subjectivity that Shelley both adored and detested.

Favret, Mary A. "A Woman Writes the Fiction of Science: The Body in Frankenstein." Genders 14 (fall 1992): 50-65.

Discusses Shelley's role in the reproduction of scientific and cultural ideas about human nature.

Gilbert, Sandra M., and Susan Gubar. "Horror's Twin: Mary Shelley's Monstrous Eye." In The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination, pp. 213-47. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1979.

Stresses the literary and sexual themes of Frankenstein, claiming it is a version of the misogynist story found in Milton's Paradise Lost.

Harpold, Terrence. "'Did You Get Mathilda from Papa?': Seduction Fantasy and the Circulation of Mary Shelley's Mathilda." Studies in Romanticism 28 (spring 1989): 49-67.

Offers a psychobiographical interpretation of the novel Mathilda.

Hatlen, Burton. "Milton, Mary Shelley, and Patriarchy." In Rhetoric, Literature, and Interpretation, edited by Harry R. Garvin, pp. 19-47. Lewisburg, Pa.: Bucknell University Press, 1986.

Contends that Shelley wrote from a radical political position, imbuing her writings with egalitarian and libertarian motifs.

Hoeveler, Diane Long. "Mary Shelley's and Gothic Feminism: The Case of 'The Mortal Immortal.'" In Iconoclastic Departures: Mary Shelley After Frankenstein; Essays in Honor of the Bicentenary of Mary Shelley's Birth, edited by Syndy M. Conger, Frederick S. Frank, and Gregory O'Dea, pp. 150-63. Madison, N.J.: Farleigh Dickinson University Press, 1997.

Argues that the short story "The Mortal Immortal" suggests that just as there may be a way to make mortals immortal, there may be a way to equalize men and women.

Joseph, Gerhard. "Virginal Sex, Vaginal Text: The 'Folds' of Frankenstein. "In Virginal Sexuality and Textuality in Victorian Literature, edited by Lloyd Davis, pp. 25-32. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1993.

Focuses on dreams and sexuality to understand Frankenstein.

Liggins, Emma. "The Medical Gaze and the Female Corpse: Looking at Bodies in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein." Studies in the Novel 32, no. 2 (summer 2002): 129-46.

Argues that Frankenstein draws on contemporary debates about surgery and medical practice, comments on the medical control and violation of women, and explores ideas about sexual desire.

Lokke, Kari. "'Children of Liberty': Idealist Historiography in Staël, Shelley, and Sand." PMLA 118, no. 3 (May 2003): 502-20.

Examines how Shelley responded to and refashioned ideas presented by male idealist philosophers.

London, Bette. "Mary Shelley, Frankenstein, and the Spectacle of Masculinity." PMLA 108, no. 3 (March 1993): 253-67.

Examines the presence of the male body in Frankenstein, contending that it serves as the site of an ineradicable masculinity.

Moers, Ellen. "Female Gothic: The Monster's Mother." New York Review of Books 21 (March 1974): 24-8.

Notes that Shelley's most famous novel became the model for the "female" Gothic, a dominant strain in Gothic fiction.

Poovey, Mary. "My Hideous Progeny: Mary Shelley and the Feminization of Romanticism." PMLA 95, no. 3 (May 1980): 332-47.

Explores the pressures faced by Shelley who was expected to be both an original writer and a conventional feminine model of propriety.

——. "'My Hideous Progeny': The Lady and the Monster." In The Proper Lady and the Woman Writer: Ideology as Style in the Works of Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary Shelley, and Jane Austen, pp. 114-42. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984.

Depicts Shelley as torn between the desire for self-expression and the desire to conform.

Purinton, Marjean D. "Polysexualities and Romantic Generations in Mary Shelley's Mythological Dramas Midas and Prosperine." Women's Writing 6, no. 3 (1999): 385-411.

Examines how Shelley's dramas undermine conventional constructions of male and female genders and how her reconstructions of the mother/daughter relationship open up possibilities of multiple sexualities.

Randel, Fred V. "Frankenstein, Feminism, and the Intertextuality of Mountains." Studies in Romanticism 23, no. 4 (winter 1984): 515-32.

Discusses Frankenstein 's feminism, romanticism, and greatness as a work of art.

Rubenstein, Marc A. "'My Accursed Origin': The Search for the Mother in Frankenstein." Studies in Romanticism 15, no. 2 (spring 1976): 165-94.

Analyzes Frankenstein as a struggle focusing on the role of motherhood.

Sussman, Charlotte. "'Islanded in the World': Cultural Memory and Human Mobility in The Last Man." PMLA 118, no. 2 (March 2003): 286-301.

Discusses The Last Man in the context of contemporary sociopolitical debates, especially those about emigration.


Additional coverage of Shelley's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Vol. 20; Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction: Biography and Resources, Vol. 3; Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults, Vol. 5; British Writers, Vol. 3; British Writers: The Classics, Vol. 2; British Writers Supplement, Vol. 3; Concise Dictionary of British Literary Biography, 1789-1832; Dictionary of Literary Biography; Vols. 110, 116, 159, 178; DISCovering Authors; DISCovering Authors: British Edition and Canadian Edition; DISCovering Authors Modules: Most-studied and Novelists; DISCovering Authors 3.0; Exploring Novels; Literary Movements for Students, Vols. 1, 2; Literature and Its Times, Vol. 1; Literature Resource Center; Nineteenth-Century Literature Criticism, Vols. 14, 59, 103; Novels for Students, Vol. 1; Reference Guide to English Literature, Ed. 2; Science Fiction Writers; Something About the Author, Vol. 29; St. James Guide to Horror, Ghost, & Gothic Writers; St. James Guide to Science Fiction Writers, Ed. 4; Twayne's English Authors; World Literature and Its Times, Ed. 3; and World Literature Criticism.


Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley World Literature Analysis


Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft (1797 - 1851)