“We will each write a blog post,” said Lord Byron; and Mia acceded to his proposition.
Like Lindsay, I chose to observe this pre-Halloween week by digging into my archives – The Collected Works of Mia, if you will – where I came across an essay I wrote as a college freshman: “A feminist criticism of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.” That such a brilliant five-page, double-spaced document should not be shared with all the Internet is unconscionable.
There is something truly horrifying about the prospect of reading something you wrote, probably in haste, when you were 18 years old. But I was surprised to find that it’s really not that bad. I mean, there are definitely some cringe-worthy stylistic choices, and the construction of this sentence is pretty funny: “Children do not thoroughly understand the constructs of gender.” Kids: so foolish! Oh and this sentence: “However, a ‘rustic’ man sees this scene and attacks the monster, showing his disdain for female liberation.” Pretty clear line of reasoning, I’d say!
But rustic misogynists aside, I stand by these clunky final lines: “Perhaps only a woman could have written such a story as Frankenstein. The pervasive theme – that of feeling detached from the world of men – could only have been understood by a woman.”
(Okay quick, selective plot summary: Frankenstein constructs a monster. He abandons the monster because it’s hideous. The monster lives in a cottage for a while but is lonely and befriends a blind man. But! The blind man’s family rejects the monster because of its hideousness, and the monster goes on a killing rampage because, it figures, humans aren’t that nice after all. The book was first published anonymously in 1818.)
(Quick biographical note: Mary Shelley’s mother was Mary Wollstonecraft, early feminist and author of A Vindication of the Rights of Women, which was published in 1792.)
In my essay, I framed the monster as a metaphor for woman (minus the killing rampage, perhaps): safe but unfulfilled in a domestic setting and unable to fully take part in a society that is prejudiced against it. But what intrigues me now is the fact that I thought up this idea to begin with. Did I feel detached from “the world of men” as an 18-year-old woman? Interestingly enough, a similar question was asked of Shelley. She wrote in the introduction to the 1831 edition of Frankenstein:
The Publishers of the Standard Novels, in selecting Frankenstein for one of their series, expressed a wish that I should furnish them with some account of the origin of the story. I am the more willing to comply because I shall thus give a general answer to the question so very frequently asked me, “How I, then a young girl, came to think of and to dilate upon so very hideous an idea?”
Shelley goes on to tell, literally, how she came up with the idea: she and future husband Percy were hanging out in a Swiss villa with Lord Byron and his pal Polidori one stormy summer, reading German ghost stories and talking about bringing corpses back to life (as one is apt to talk about), when Byron was like, “We will each write a ghost story.” Well, what’s more natural than a story-writing competition among friends?
Suffice it to say, all those talks about reanimated corpses kept Shelley up at night, and it was then when she dreamed up her frightful story. What’s more, in a house full of male writers, Shelley was the only person to complete a story – Percy and Byron “speedily relinquished their uncongenial task.” (Poets: so lazy!) And Polidori eventually wrote The Vampyre, which someone called “the first story successfully to fuse the disparate elements of vampirism into a coherent literary genre” – which I guess is a good thing? But it certainly doesn’t have the lasting popularity of Shelley’s story.
But anyway. Yes, that is the story of how 18-year-old Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein. Still, I’m pretty sure that’s not what the esteemed Publishers of the Standard Novels were asking. They wanted to know how a young woman, with so much less life experience than say, an older man, could imagine such a cruel world. And it’s like duh, you know? By the time a girl reaches 18, she knows what she’s up against. For instance, I actually remember the moment I realized in fifth grade that my chances of becoming president were pretty slim because I’d grow up to be a woman and not a man.
What I seemed to be getting at in my essay – and what I maybe didn’t have the vocabulary to express – was that Frankenstein’s monster, like woman, was aware of its otherness. It learned, through a few painful (and bloody) lessons that its abnormal physical appearance outweighed its other traits. And, sure, maybe Shelley wouldn’t have written Frankenstein if it hadn’t been for bad weather and Byron. But, as I read in my well-annotated edition of the book, Shelley was rereading her mother’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman while working on this ghost story. And I can’t help but think that Wollstonecraft’s opening words on the position of women influenced her daughter:
After considering the historic page, and viewing the living world with anxious solicitude, the most melancholy emotions of sorrowful indignation have depressed my spirits, and I have sighed when obliged to confess, that either nature has made a great difference between man and man, or that the civilization, which has hitherto taken place in the world, has been very partial.
In a society where “man” is the default – the creator and upholder of civilization – woman is the Other. That she should conceive of a character like Frankenstein’s monster – a thoughtful, loving, but ultimately weird-looking monster who quickly realizes that it’ll never measure up to man – doesn’t surprise me at all.