Tag Archives: feminism

On Frankenstein and its free-thinking author, the marvelous Mary Shelly

9 Sep

Mary-Shelley

By Lanny Morgnanesi

 

I started reading the highly-praised novel, Frankenstein, or, The Modern Prometheus, by Mary Shelley, and immediately thought, “Wow, I’d sure like to have known Mary Shelley.”

 

Just from reading her prose, I concluded she must have been an incredibly interesting person. That was my first reaction. My second reaction was surprise. Her story, I quickly learned, is so different from the one in the Frankenstein movies. It’s deeper, more philosophical and more scientific – and not at all like a product of the 19th century.  I guess literary people knew that, but I didn’t.

 

In the 1931 classic film featuring Boris Karloff, the hideous monster can only grunt and lumber. He is a huge child. In the book, the monster also is hideous, but after coming alive as a blank slate, he manages over time to fully educate himself. He is actually erudite. He reads and speak convincingly, with great logic and force.

Frankenstein

“Am I to be thought the only criminal, when all humankind sinned against me?” the shunned outcast asks. 

 

In the movie, the monster is without motive or even understanding. In the book, he seeks revenge against his creator for bringing him into a hostile, hateful world that abhors him. He reaches a breaking point when Victor Frankenstein, the scientist, refuses to create a bride for him that would provide love and companionship. The monster in the book kills the people closest to Frankenstein so that the scientist will know true suffering.

 

The movie has villagers killing him. In the book, he commits suicide. This takes place in the Arctic, where the monster (unaffected by the cold) has deliberately led Frankenstein, who seeks to destroy him. After the tormented scientist dies from exhaustion, sorrow and despair, the monster experiences remorse. He tells Robert Walton, an Arctic explorer who tried to save the scientist, that he will now build a funeral  pyre on the ice and leap upon it.

 

But back to Mary, whose personality seeps through almost every line of the novel. Speaking as Walton the explorer, she explains why old friends are the best:

 

“ . . . the companions of our childhood always possess a certain power over our minds, which hardly any later friend can obtain. They know our infantine dispositions, which, however they may be afterwards modified, are never eradicated; and they can judge of our actions with more certain conclusions as to the integrity of our motives.”

 

What a conversationalists she must have been – had to have been, since from an early age she hung out with master poets Percy Shelley (whom she ran off with and married) and Lord Byron. On a trip with those two and her half-sister, the group accepted a challenge to each write a ghost story. Frankenstein was Mary’s contribution. The year was 1817. She was 18. Her book, revised several times, is often called the first true science fiction novel.

 

When we think of women from that era, we tend to imagine them as passive and subservient. I can’t envision Mary being anything like that. To begin with, she was born to non-conformist parents who took issue with the norms of established society, including religion, government and morality. They didn’t believe in marriage. Mary’s father was a writer and radical  philosopher. Her mother, in 1792, wrote, Vindication of the Rights of Woman, said to be the first major feminist work in English.

 

What’s shocking to me, sitting comfortably in the 21st century, is that Mary and her parents were not, like the monster, social outcasts. They were part of society and made a living with their unconventional thoughts and ideas. This means those very thoughts and ideas, to a degree, were being at least tolerated and possibly accepted. So I must ask myself, could this also mean that the stereotype of the passive, submissive, ornamental 18th and 19th century woman is a partially a myth? I couldn’t help but wonder.

 

I’m of the belief that the people of today can’t be much different than the people of yesterday. For sure, the burden of child rearing and the need to produce many off springs because of high infant and child mortality undoubtedly kept women tied to home and hearth. Still, that is not to say they couldn’t have had a strong influence over the lives and fates of their families and even their communities. Minds like Mary’s were not easily dismissed, and she could not have been the only female of her era with such a mind.

 

Reading Frankenstein did not make me want to rewrite feminist history, or even look deeper into it. It did, however, make me realize that each century shares something with all others, and that genius can prevail even in the harshest environment.

 

 

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