Mary Shelly who became a mother during her teenage years through an extramarital affair was the first author to introduce birth to fiction 200 years ago, with the story of a crazy scientist who tried to create a human but ended up with a monster.
Gothic fiction which initially emerged in the 18th century is a literary genre that is associated with notions such as horror, terror, extremism and the supernatural. It emerged in Europe, particularly in England and became very popular during that period. Early on, Gothic stories often made use of motifs such as dilapidated castles, fortresses, monasteries, and vast forests with secret passageways placed within a majestic Medieval atmosphere. Common themes of the genre are malignancy, treacherous schemes, violence, incest, and rape. This was until Mary Shelley wrote the novel The Modern Prometheus (Frankenstein: The Modern Prometheus).
The novel tells the tragic relationship between the medical student Victor Frankenstein and the freaky monster he has created. Dr. Frankenstein, who thought that “in order to understand life, we must first have recourse to death”, managed to “infuse life into an inanimate body” after a long research process (35). Frankenstein who wrote “Life and death appeared to me as ideal bounds, which I should first break through, and pour a torrent of life into our dark world. A new species would bless me as its creator and source: may happy and excellent natures would owe their existence to me,” (32) discovers the secret of life and decides to use it to create a superior human being. He puts together the pieces of corpses he has collected from graveyards and slaughterhouses. And finally, he creates the unnamed freak in the novel. (Contrary to popular belief Frankenstein is not the name of the creature, but of this creator.) But Victor Frankenstein gets scared of the creature and runs away. Whereas the creature knew his creator and didn’t understand why people were running away from him. He decides to find his father (Dr. Frankenstein) and confront him. The creature who starts to observe a family after a while, sees how the family members love one another and feels lonely. The monster asks his creator to create a partner for him; someone that he can live with, will look like him and have the same flaws. He promises that he will go far away and stay there forever, and won’t bother anyone if his wish were to come true. But Frankenstein wouldn’t be able to create another monster. The creature’s loneliness becomes brutal over time, and he gorily decides to seek vengeance from his creator.
In addition to the absence of a female protagonist, the novel also doesn’t include any noteworthy female victims. Nevertheless, it’s very difficult to find another novel written by a woman writer, that can be analyzed through the author’s gender in the history of literature. The novel which is considered as the first example of the genre that is called science fiction today, was often regarded as a critique of the Enlightenment ideology and a manifestation of the fear caused by the scientific developments during the 19th century. It also set up an example for perhaps the most common narrative of 20th century science fiction writing: “the crazy scientist and his creature that gets out of control”. But different readings are also available. For instance, according to Ellen Moers, Frankenstein is a “birth myth” that was lodged in the novelist’s imagination, by the fact that she was also a mother. In order to read Frankenstein as a birth myth, it is useful to know certain important parts of Mary Shelly’s life.
She was one of the most remarkable literary successors in England. She was the daughter of two distinguished literary legends; and the wife of a third one. Her mom Mary Wollstonecraft was the most famous and bright women’s rights activist at the time, her father was William Godwin the writer and philosopher. She initially had an extramarital affair with the famous poet Percy Shelly, and later became his wife. Her mom lost her life while giving birth to her, so Mary was raised by her father. She spoke five languages including Latin and Greek. We can tell from her diaries that she has read all the famous writers of the time (she has made a list of the novels she has read) or participated in their discussions. But in her own experience as a writer, there’s an early and chaotic event that sets her apart from the other novelists of the period, and that is motherhood. Mary Shelly went through her first pregnancy at the age of 16, and she was almost always pregnant in the following five years. But she wasn’t a trustworthy (!) mother, both because she had lost some of her babies a few months after the births and she wasn’t a married (legally recognized!) mother. Thus, Mary Godwin who was 18 at the time, started writing Frankenstein under these circumstances. And what came into being was a monster.
It is useful to look at the period Frankenstein was written in to understand the relationship between women’s literature and the birth experience. Only a few notable women writers had children during the 18th and 19th centuries (at least in the West), most of them were either single or childless. Perhaps the more important reason behind it is the challenge of writing about women’s experiences at a period when female authorship was disapproved. After the Victorian taboo about physical sexuality being part of literature was broken, the subject of birth was introduced to literature through realistic fiction and by male writers such as Tolstoy, Zola and William Carlos Williams. Tolstoy was the father of 15 children that were all born at home. Whereas Williams was a town doctor who has delivered hundreds of babies. And Mary Shelly introduced the subject of birth to literature not through realism but gothic fiction long before those writers; with the story of a crazy scientist who locks himself in his laboratory, secretly, guiltily trying to create a human, and ending up with a monster. Here is that birth scene:
“It was already one in the morning; the rain pattered dismally against the panes and my candle was nearly burnt out, when, by the glimmer of the half-extinguished light, I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open; it breathed hard, and a convulsive motion agitated its limbs.
How can I describe my emotions at this catastrophe? (…) His yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath; his hair was of a lustrous black, and flowing; his teeth of pearly whiteness; but these luxuriousness only formed a more horrid contrast with his water eyes, that seemed almost of the same color as the dun white sockets in which they were set, his shrivelled complexion and straight black lips.”(35)
According to Ellen Moers, the portrayal of the creature’s birth is very good horror, but Dr Frankenstein abandoning the creature without a name or identity is equally atrocious. He remains nameless because throughout the book the creature and the non-humans are referred to as “it”. “Here, […], is where Mary Shelley’s book is most interesting, most powerful, and most feminine: in the motif of revulsion against newborn life, and the drama of guilt, dread, and flight surrounding birth and its consequences.” (93). For example, at least three chapters of the book are actually allocated to the monster punishing its creator and confronting him for his insufficient care or lack thereof. In Frankenstein, the actual plot starts with the birth of the monster, the story prior to the birth or the birth itself don’t matter, what counts is the story after the birth, meaning the postpartum trauma!
Fear and guilt, depression and anxiety are common –some more than others– symptoms women show after birth. But what is deeply rooted in our culture and often mentioned especially in literature is the postpartum bliss. The bliss the mother feels when she holds her baby in her arms for the first time; the sense of completeness, that fulfilling love must sweep over all the other emotions. Bliss must be the only emotion one can feel after birth. But Frankenstein shows us the other side of the coin.
“…when, by the dim and yellow light of the moon, as it forced its way through the window-shutters, I beheld the wretch—the miserable monster whom I had created. He held up the curtain of the bed; and his eyes, if eyes they may be called, were fixed on me. His jaws opened, and he muttered some inarticulate sounds, while a grin wrinkled his cheeks. He might have spoken, but I did not hear; one hand was stretched out, seemingly to detain me, but I escaped, and rushed downstairs. I took refuge in the court-yard belonging to the house which I inhabited (…) Mingled with this horror, I felt the bitterness of disappointment: dreams that had been my food and pleasant rest for so long a space, were now become a hell to me; and the change was so rapid, the overthrow so complete!” (36)
Mary Shelly writes about the discussions around Frankenstein’s creation, the novel’s course but predominantly about her unusual reading schedule in her diaries in a cold-blooded manner. Her pregnancies are barely mentioned. Aside from a lot of literary works, she was also reading Sir Humphry Davy’s chemistry books and Erasmus Darwin’s biology books at the time. While in Switzerland, she talks with Percy Shelly, Lord Byron and Polidori about scientific issues –which were brand new at the time– such as hypnotism, electricity, galvanism (electricity produced by chemical reactions) bearing the promise of deciphering the secret of life. And one night they make plans to write horror stories. The others couldn’t keep their promises, but Polidori embarked on writing a vampire story while Mary started writing Frankenstein.
The literature of the Romantic and Gothic traditions is one that significantly pioneers characters that transgress boundaries: superhumans that digress the normal human restrictions to stand against social norms or to violate God’s rules. Just like Faust who made an agreement with the devil; M. Lewis and Hoffman’s deviant priests; the Wandering Jew who was cursed to wander around forever for taunting Jesus; C Maturin’s Melmoth the Wanderer who sold his soul to the devil to live 150 years longer; and Prometheus who was chained for stealing the fire from Gods. The common thread between these characters and their stories is that they all transgressed boundaries for their ferocious desire for more emotion, experience, knowledge, and mostly immortality, and they were all punished for their actions.
Whereas Mary Shelly’s character is different. Dr. Frankenstein’s desire to move beyond science’s forbidden boundaries is not for prolonging his life but to create a new human. He challenges mortality not by living forever but by creating a new human. This indicates an unprecedented change and diversion, one that wasn’t present in older myths.
Mary was pregnant when she ran away with Percy Shelly in July 1814. She gives birth in 1815, and has a daughter; an illegal, premature, and sick girl. Her diaries don’t mention the company of any doctors or nurses, or any others that were helping her. But she notes that she was breastfeeding and reading the novel Corinne by Mme de Staël. The baby dies in March, she writes in her diary “I found my baby dead. An unfortunate day”. She was pregnant only eight weeks after the birth of her first baby, in April 1815. She gives birth to a boy in January 1816, more breastfeeding, more reading…
She starts writing Frankenstein in June 1816. But ominous events follow one another during that year: Mary’s sister Fanny finds out that her father is not Godwin but her mom’s American ex-husband and commits suicide. All of them also feel shameful over this tragedy. Godwin even disavows the body and Fanny gets buried in the graveyard for the poor without a tombstone. Mary gets pregnant again in November. In a letter dated 5 November, she announces to Shelly that she is pregnant and has also finished four chapters of the book. This time Shelly’s famous legal wife Harriett commits suicide in mid-November. Mary finishes writing Frankenstein in May 1817 and it gets published in 1818.
Just like in Frankenstein’s attempts at creating a disgusting, filthy creature, birth, and death were intertwined within a horrid form in Mary Shelly’s life. Who can read these words in her diary dated 19 March 1815 –that Mary had written at the age of 17 upon losing her baby without even naming her–, without thinking of the birth myth of an unnamed creature and getting goosebumps?
“Dream that my little baby came to life again – that it had only been cold and that we rubbed it by the fire and it lived – I awake and find no baby – I think about the little thing all day. Not in good spirits. I thought that if I could bestow animation upon lifeless matter, I might in process of time renew life where death had apparently devoted the body to corruption.” (32)
While having a child and raising him/her was a pleasant experience for a middle-class woman around her age during that time, Mary became a mother during her teenage years without any family, social or financial support. An unmarried juvenile responsible for breaking up a young woman’s marriage. A father who was enraged by her running away, who cut off communication with her, whom she admired. And her mother Mary Wollstonecraft whom she respected, whose books she read over and over again, and who had died while giving birth to her.
At the end of the novel, the creature talking right by Frankenstein’s body almost embodies Mary herself:
“Am I to be thought the only criminal, when all humankind sinned against me? (…) I, the miserable and the abandoned, am an abortion, to be spurned at, and kicked, and trampled on. (…) I have murdered the lovely and the helpless (…) I have devoted my creator, the select specimen of all that is worthy of love and admiration among men, to misery. I have pursued him even to that irremediable ruin.”(165)
Ever since its publication, a lot of literary critics have offered numerous interpretations and readings on Frankenstein; many writers, filmmakers, and playwrights have been influenced by the novel. The idea of the novel and the creature -which is referred to by the protagonist’s name even though it has no name- have almost turned into an idiom to describe the jeopardies of scientific information. It was also regarded as an existentialist novel about the mind emotion binary; a philosophical novel about the extremism of idealism and genius; an unorthodox novel animating the split personality, criticizing racial prejudices. The literary critic Franco Moretti also offers a rather different reading. Moretti reads the book through social classes and writes
“Reunited and brought back to life in the monster are the limbs of those — the ‘poor’ — whom the breakdown of feudal relations has forced into brigandage, poverty and death”. According to Moretti, the bourgeoisie who has put together these pieces and ‘animated’ them, realized the horridness of its creation and the terrifying power it can exert over them once the monster came to life; and wanted to destroy it immediately.
I do think that a novel which has been written 200 years ago still being part of such vital discussions and open to numerous interpretations can only be explained through the author’s extraordinary intelligence and talent. Furthermore, considering the presence of smart robots, cloned beings, and discussions around artificial intelligence, it seems like there will be many more conversations and writings about Frankenstein for a long while.
For the original in Turkish / Yazının Türkçesi için:
Translator: Gülşah Mursaloğlu
Proof-reader: Müge Karahan