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The Understanding Of Feminist Theories English Literature Essay

A system of cultural and social assumptions that are presented as natural or common sense, presented as normative social structures but which actually uphold a particular point of view on the world, they are shifting through time, contingent sets of attitudes and dispositions.’ (Lecture handout)

This ‘shift through time’ relates to feminist theory being developed in writing over time due to the influence of previous feminist literature. The women’s movement of the 1960s was not the beginning of feminism. It is an ideology already present in classical books. An example of one of these books is Mary Wollstonecraft’s ‘A Vindication of the Rights of Women’ which highly influenced her daughter Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein. Other influences on this novel will be discussed in this essay.

A feminist may view Frankenstein as a woman’s story of male creativity because it is a woman’s description of a man’s creation. (Lecture handout) Frankenstein has been described as a ‘Female Gothic’ [2] which is defined as ‘the work that women writers have done in the literary mode that, since the eighteenth century, we have called the Gothic.’ (Moers, p.214) She ‘intended Frankenstein to be the kind of ghost story that would ‘curdle the blood, and quicken the beatings of the heart.’ (Moers, p.214) This is seen in the description when the mad scientist makes the monster:

It was on a dreary night of November…With an anxiety that almost amounted to agony, I collected the instruments of life around me, that I might infuse a spark of being into the lifeless thing that lay at my feet…my candle was nearly burnt out…I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open; it breathed hard, and a convulsion motion agitated its limbs…His yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath; his hair was of a lustrous black, and flowing…; but these luxuriances only formed a more horrid contrast with his watery eyes, that seemed almost of the same colour as the dun white sockets in which they were set, his shrivelled complexion and straight black lips. (Moers, p.217-218)

The adjectives ‘dreary,’ ‘lifeless,’ ‘horrid,’ ‘shrivelled’ and ‘black’ create a dark image of the monster for the reader. The feelings described such as ‘anxiety’, ‘agony’ and agitation of its limbs reflect possible negative feelings the reader may be experiencing as they read the description. The action described such as ‘my candle was nearly burnt out’ and ‘it breathed hard’ creates suspense to the mystery of this creature. These techniques show Frankenstein to have ‘brought a new sophistication to literary terror and it did so without a heroine, without even an important female victim.’ (Moers, p.216)

Mary Shelley’s personal experience influenced her writing and a feminist may see the ‘hideous’ description of birth as an addition to fear of female sexuality because his ‘workshop of filthy creation’ is seen as ‘filthy because obscenely sexual.’ (Lecture handout) Women’s childbirth is metaphorically described in a ‘hideous’ way in Frankenstein as shown in Frankenstein’s process, when he has decided to produce new life, is to visit the vaults and charnel houses and examine the human body in all its disgusting phases of decay and decomposition. (Moers, p.220) ‘To examine the causes of life,’ he says, ‘we must first have recourse to death.’ His purpose is to ‘bestow animation upon lifeless matter,’ so that he might ‘in process of time renew life where death has apparently devoted the body to corruption.’’ (Moers, p.220) ‘Death’ and ‘lifeless matter’ must be looked at and used to make new life:

Death and birth were thus as hideously mixed in the life of Mary Shelley as in Frankenstein’s ‘workshop of filthy creation’…her myth of the birth of a nameless monster…which records the trauma of her loss…of her first baby…who did not live long enough to be given a name. (Moers, p.221)

A feminist may relate to the feelings of mothers guilt of abandoning her children as only women experience a mother’s attachment to their child. Ellen Moers states that another personal female experience which influenced Shelley’s writing was the absence of a mother since she was born and her father’s abandonment of her after she eloped. (Moers, p.222) ‘I, the miserable and the abandoned.’ Cries the monster at the end of Frankenstein, ‘I 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 to misery; I have pursued him even to that irremediable ruin.’ (Moers, p.222) This reflects Mary Shelley’s feelings of being ‘miserable’ and ‘abandoned’ through harsh imagery using words such as ‘spurned’, ‘kicked’, ‘trampled.’ It also reflects her guilt over losing her children which are ‘lovely’ and ‘helpless’ and have suffered the same abandonment as the newborn is ‘at once monstrous agent of destruction and piteous victim of parental abandonment.’ (Moers, p.222)

A feminist may consider all women to originate from Eve to identify who we are and the reason why we are separated from men into a different gender which triggered the separation of public-masculine world and domestic-feminine one. Frankenstein is heavily influenced by the evidence of marginalisation of ‘fallen Eve’ in John Milton’s Paradise Lost. Frankenstein ‘‘Who was I? What was I? Whence did I come?’ the monster reports wondering, describing endless speculations cast in Miltonic terms.’ [3] These questions refer back to the story of mankind to identify who we are, what we were before we were alive and when we came into this world. ‘Thus their questionings are in some sense female, for they belong in that line of literary women’s questionings of the fall into gender…’ (Gilbert and Gubar, p.229-230)

Relating back to the point that Eve represents ‘female fall,’ a feminist may read Frankenstein as a subverted version of Milton’s Paradise Lost with the emphasis on the fall of the woman in terms of her creativity. Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar argue that Mary Shelley uses Walton’s revelations in the novel to mirror her anxieties as a woman. Walton says: ‘You are well-acquainted with my failure and how heavily I bore the disappointment’ [4] However, Mary Shelley also states in her introduction in Frankenstein that she ‘had spent her childhood in ‘waking dreams’ of literature; later, both she and her poet-husband hoped she would prove herself ‘worthy of [her] parentage and enrol [herself] on the page of fame’ (xii).’ (Gilbert and Gubar, p.229-230) Both Shelley and Walton share the anxiety of failure as a writer. ‘…it seems possible that one of the anxious fantasies his narrative helps Mary Shelley covertly examine is the fearful tale of a female fall from a lost paradise of art, speech, and autonomy into a hell of sexuality, silence, and filthy materiality…’ (Gilbert and Gubar, p.231)

A feminist may argue that female characters are just as important as male characters in literature which may be an argument for the equality of importance of men and women in everyday life. The female characters of the book have a significant role in the story:

…Victors post-creation nightmare of transforming a lovely, living Elizabeth, with a single magical kiss, into ‘the corpse of my dead mother’ enveloped in a shroud made more horrible by ‘grave-worms crawling in the folds of the flannel’ (42, chap 5) (Gilbert and Gubar, p.232)

Relating back to the subject of ‘Gothic’ writing, Elizabeth’s character enables Shelley to further reveal her ‘Gothic’ style through chilling imagery using words such as ‘corpse,’ ‘dead’ and ‘grave-worms crawling.’ ‘Though it has been disguised, buried, or miniaturised, female-ness…is at the heart of this apparently masculine book.’ (Gilbert and Gubar, p.232) Although the book is comprised of mainly male characters, Elizabeth’s character is used to show Shelley’s talent in writing which is the ‘heart’ of the book.

A feminist may see the character Victor as the cause of the fall of women as he symbolises Eve who represents all women who are tempted to do wrong unto the world and unleash ‘Sin and Death.’ Victor’s curiosity also mirrors Eve’s curiosity:

He is consumed by ‘a fervent longing to penetrate the secrets of nature,’ a longing which -expressed in his explorations of ‘vaults and charnel-houses,’ his guilty observations of ‘the structure of human frame’- recalls the criminal female curiosity that led Psyche to lose love by gazing upon its secret face, Eve to insist upon consuming ‘intellectual food’… (Gilbert and Gubar, p.234)

The ‘secrets of nature’ is a sexual reference and the metaphors ‘vaults and charnel-houses’ and ‘human frame’ are metaphors for bodies and ‘intellectual food’ refers to sexual appetite:

For what Victor Frankenstein most importantly learns, we must remember, is that he is the ‘author’ of the monster-for him alone is ‘reserved…so astonishing a secret’- and thus it is he who is ‘the true murderer,’ he who unleashes Sin and Death upon the world, he who dreams the primal kiss that incestuously kills both ‘sister’ and ‘mother. (Gilbert and Gubar, p.234)

A feminist recognises the importance of books and reading to further women’s education. (Lecture handout) The monster is the voice of Mary Shelley. ‘Werter’s story, says the monster-and he seems to be speaking for Mary Shelley-taught him about ‘gentle and domestic manners and about ‘lofty sentiments…which had for their object something out of self…the monster explains to Victor that ‘I thought Werter himself a more divine being that I had ever…imagined.’ (Gilbert and Gubar, p.237) Mary Shelley reveals to her readers the importance of education and etiquette such as ‘gentle and domestic manners’ to help men and women in their everyday lives. Mary Shelley considers Werter a ‘divine being’ relaying the message that men are valued for their knowledge and can enable women to learn from them through their literature.

A feminist may view Frankenstein as a separation of public-masculine world and domestic feminine one as males are taking the domestic role of women’s childbirth in Shelley’s alternative world. (Lecture handout) Mary Shelley creates an alternative all-male world in her novel. Frankenstein’s ‘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.’ (p53)’ [5] This description horridly describes the corpse intentionally as a representation of the death of all women.

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. (Mellor, p.274)

This separation of the public-masculine world and domestic feminine one helps us to understand the cultural background of the text in the time it was written in regards to peoples ideas on gender separation. (Lecture handout)

The men in Frankenstein’s world all work outside the home…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 favourite animal’ [p.30]; or they work as house wives, childcare providers, and nurses… (Mellor, p.275)

Men are seen to have more ‘opportunities’ to expand their knowledge and develop their understanding and women are seen as ‘pets’ or ‘animals.’ ‘Victor Frankenstein’s nineteenth-century Genevan society is founded on a rigid division of sex roles.’ (Mellor, p.274)

We can see Mary Shelley’s feminist views on the divide of the gender in the novel and the costs of it. Frankenstein’s ‘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)’ (Mellor, p.275) The bad result of the division is he ignored his friends and loved ones as he ‘cannot do scientific research and think lovingly of Elizabeth and his family at the same time.’ (Mellor, p.275)

Feminist theory of Frankenstein enhances my understanding of the text as it has shown me it could be read as a woman’s story of male creativity. The theme of gender is exposed throughout the novel in different ways. The description of birth or the ‘hideous progeny’ of body reveals the fear of female sexuality of the time. Evidence of marginalisation is shown in the references to Milton’s Paradise Lost as Eve is seen to be ‘fallen.’ Also the separation of public-masculine world and domestic feminine one is seen through the characters roles in the novel. Mary Shelley’s gothic style is seen as a subversive form of writing as no other woman before her was able to develop this style in an effective way. There is a strong encouragement to educate women through the importance of books and reading in the novel as Shelley used previous literature to write her novel. This is significant as feminist readings of Frankenstein can be used by other feminists to understand other novels the same way feminist theory of Frankenstein has helped me to understand the text.


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