By Rebecca Richardson
In his review of Frankenstein, Sir Walter Scott defended the novel’s “philosophical and refined use of the supernatural.” Here was a novel that altered “the laws of nature” not to “[pamper] the imagination” but to illustrate “the probable effect which the supposed miracles would produce on those who witnessed them.” The reviewer for Knight’s Quarterly Magazine agreed. “Frankenstein is, I think, the best instance of natural passions applied to supernatural events that I ever met with. Grant that it is possible for one man to create another, and the rest is perfectly natural and in course.”
This way of stating the novel’s premise—“Grant that it is possible for one man to create another”—can seem, like the novel itself, to elide the fact that Victor Frankenstein is reinventing a wheel. To be sure, there are distinctions: this is an asexual reproduction process that depends on the spare parts from the dissecting room and slaughterhouse, and the new being isn’t an infant but an adult of gigantic stature. But despite his size, the Creature starts off, in mind and spirit, as an infant, a blank slate to be written on by his experiences.
Despite what might seem an obvious analogy for reproduction and birth, it would take until Ellen Moers’s work in the 1970s for Frankenstein to be widely interpreted as a “birth myth.” For evidence, Moers pointed to the material of Mary Shelley’s lived experiences: Shelley knew that her own birth had caused the death of her mother, she became pregnant at sixteen after running away with Percy Bysshe Shelley, and, during her time with him (before and after their official marriage), she was continually dealing with pregnancy, miscarriage, childrearing, and the loss of children. Despite these parallels, it had taken around 150 years and a couple waves of feminist thought for Frankenstein to be read as a Gothic analogy for pregnancy, childbirth, and the aftermath.
The fact that it took so long for Frankenstein to get this feminist reading as a birth myth is particularly striking when we consider how adept Romantic-era readers and reviewers were at searching out morals and analogies. Mary Shelley might have seemed to encourage this by dedicating the novel to her father, William Godwin. Both of her parents had used fiction to illustrate theories and philosophies. Godwin’s novel Things as They Are; or, The Adventures of Caleb Williams illustrates principles from his Enquiry Concerning Political Justice. Mary Wollstonecraft’s novel Maria: or, The Wrongs of Woman can seem like an extended, fictionalized illustration of her treatise A Vindication of the Rights of Woman.
Frankenstein was clearly not just a ghost story, and many readers and adapters duly offered their interpretations. Mary Shelley’s husband asserted that the novel’s ultimate moral is “Treat a person ill, and he will become wicked.” Such a simple and striking takeaway made it easy to apply the Frankenstein story to a dizzying range of injustices across the nineteenth century—with politicians, writers, and cartoonists mapping the Creature onto any group that was exploited and cast aside, including the working class, enslaved people, and colonial subjects.
Popular stage adaptations simplified the storyline while also amplifying it to larger audiences. Victor Frankenstein was cast in the mold of the tragic hero, an inventor led astray by the fatal flaw of his ambition. For example, the playwright Richard Brinsley Peake gave Victor the lines: “Oh! How to avoid the powerful vengeance of the monster formed by my cursed ambition. I gave him energy and strength, to crush my own guilty head!”
The Creature also became more child-like through these adaptations. Already in Peake’s 1823 play, the Creature—so eloquent and persuasive in the novel—is reduced to using only the language of stage gestures. (For example, when the Creature burns down the cottage, he is directed to convey all of the following via his movements: “. . . expresses that his kindly feelings towards the human race, have been met by abhorrence and violence; that they are all now converted into hate and vengeance.—In desperation, the MONSTER pulls a flaming brand from the fire . . . and in agony of feeling, dashes through the portico, setting fire to the whole . . .”)
By the time this version of the Creature made his way into film via Boris Karloff’s iconic performance, he had lost even this fluency of movement and gesture. Karloff’s Creature stumbles awkwardly, resembling nothing so much as a child learning to walk. In Bride of Frankenstein, he starts learning simple words—friend, smoke, good—but never reaches anything like Shelley’s depiction of the Creature’s facility with language. In comparison, by the final scenes of the novel, the Creature’s ability to explain himself seems to surpass even language barriers. The novel never explains how the Creature—whom we’ve only known to speak French—communicates with the English Captain Walton. Has the Creature learned English during his travels? Does Walton speak French? Shelley, previously careful to specify who is speaking what language, leaves this out.
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The “birth myth” had always been hiding in plain sight, but Shelley had veiled it by relentlessly priming readers to interpret the novel from a masculine point of view. Her first readers would have encountered Frankenstein as a novel by an anonymous author dedicated to Godwin. Then, the narrative itself is entirely told from male points of view. The frame narrative follows Captain Walton, who is leading an Arctic voyage on a ship with (of course) only other men. Captain Walton’s great desire is specifically for “a man who could sympathize with me; whose eyes would reply to mine” (emphasis mine). And then, lo!, such a potential friend shows up in the Arctic. Now, Walton spends his evenings hearing about Victor Frankenstein’s upbringing and his time at university— another setting that would be entirely populated by men at this time. Then he hears about Frankenstein’s experiments creating a male creature and about Frankenstein’s friendship with Henry Clerval. The women characters seem almost like afterthoughts—the mother who dies early in the story, the servant (Justine) who takes the fall when the Creature frames her for a murder, the fiancée (Elizabeth) who worries that Frankenstein just isn’t that into her (after all, he puts off their wedding and then leaves her alone on their wedding night). And then there’s Margaret Saville, the sister whom Captain Walton addresses; she never speaks or writes back.
The literary allusions and parallels are also relentlessly masculine. The Creature learns French via Volney’s Ruins of Empire and goes on to read Milton’s Paradise Lost, Goethe’s Sorrows of Young Werther, and Plutarch’s Lives. The novel responds to myths that imagine specifically male figures in the act of creating— Prometheus, God—and it’s of course man that comes first in the Biblical version. Much like the riddle about the man who brings his child to the hospital—where the surgeon says it would be impossible to operate on one’s own child—Frankenstein seems to take advantage of the reader’s implicit (or explicit) biases. This is a birth myth, but one cast specifically to imagine reproduction as something that a man does alone. And by recasting it in these terms, it somehow cannot be recognized as thinking about birth at all.
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In her 1971 “A Defense of Abortion,” Judith Jarvis Thomson offers a series of scenarios or thought experiments to analyze the ethics of abortion. Each of these translates pregnancy into something happening outside the body. The most famous of these thought experiments involves a violinist.
“[L]et me ask you to imagine this,” Thomson writes. One morning, you wake up next to a famous violinist. He is unconscious; his body is connected to yours. You learn that he has a fatal kidney ailment and that, in a bid to preserve his life, the Society of Music Lovers has kidnapped you because you are uniquely able to serve as his living dialysis machine. If you unhook yourself, he will die. The violinist / fetus here is an innocent: he hasn’t kidnapped anyone; he hasn’t even (that we know of) asked for help. As if granting the forced-birthers their favorite fantasies—the fetus as extra-innocent and extra-precious—the life here is not merely potential but actual and valued: a famous violinist. (This is an instrument, by the way, that is bound up with ideas about class, race, leisure, value.) But even after stacking the deck in these ways, the ethics of the scenario prove anything but clear-cut. “Is it,” Thomson asks, “morally incumbent on you to accede to this situation?” Does the answer change if it’s nine months, nine years, longer?
Thomson then runs through a series of further analogies, each taking up a different facet of what, even in the 1970s, were already old and worn debates. For example, recognizing that the story about the violinist is most applicable to cases where the pregnant person did not consent to sexual activity, Thomson offers another thought experiment. Suppose, she says, that there are such things as “people-seeds” that “drift about in the air like pollen, and if you open your windows, one may drift in and take root in your carpets or upholstery.” Now let’s say you recognize this risk and do your best with putting up screens—but, “one of the screens is defective; and a seed drifts in and takes root.”
One of the great powers of these analogies is that they take the pregnant body—particularly the body that is coded as female, with all its metaphorical baggage—entirely out of the picture. The fetus-figure becomes a separate entity—it is distinct, external, autonomous.
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Thomson’s examples are also all the stuff of the Gothic, of horror and science fiction—there’s a giant baby expanding to the size of a house, the “people-seeds,” the criminal science experiment.
Our cultural scripts tend to romanticize and prettify pregnancy (to the extent that they can seem to protest too much). Re-reading Frankenstein today, in a post-Roe U.S., the passages describing Frankenstein in the dissecting room and slaughterhouse read like the flipside to our myths about pregnancy: Shelley seems to comment on the visceral, bloody, and dangerous work of building a human being from scratch. What if someone is so wrapped up in rosy dreams about a perfectly beautiful new life that they sleepwalk into parenthood? What if, at the birth, they feel no parental instinct? What if they are not in love with the new life but instead horrified by it? And what if they flee or fall ill or suffer post-partum depression?
The second time Frankenstein embarks on a “pregnancy” he does so out of a sense of duty. (Aren’t you going to have another baby? It’s so lonely to be an only child.) But, adding a Genesis-twist to this story of the second child, the Creature demands not a sibling but a mate. (It’s perhaps worth noting here that Mary Shelley seemed to have complicated feelings about her only surviving child, Percy, coming of age and entering romantic relationships. When he did eventually get married—to Jane St John—biographers like Miranda Seymour have suggested that his wife seemed more infatuated with the famous Mary Shelley than with her son. Sir Percy and Lady Jane had no children.)
It isn’t until Frankenstein is nearly finished with the second Creature that he starts to reconsider. What if this creature has a mind and volition of her own? What if she is not the perfect potential life—not a dutiful mate who keeps the Creature in line, nor (to return to Thomson’s analogy) a famous violinist? What if she proves the Eve of a new species that outcompetes humans? It’s late in the creation process when Frankenstein changes his mind.
Frankenstein is at work on this second Creature when he looks up and sees “the daemon” at the window. “[T]rembling with passion,” Frankenstein “[tears] to pieces the thing on which [he] was engaged.” The sentence lets Frankenstein avoid the explicit. The adult-sized female creature is simply a “thing” he is “engaged” on, not a human-like body in the midst of a bloody and all too visible creation.
In this abortion myth within the larger birth myth, the female creature remains entirely potential. Her life is imagined only by these two men who want her to fulfill the role of companion-in-exile. The thought that she might want something else, that she might reproduce, that she might even sexually desire a human man rather than the Creature, is what inspires Frankenstein’s passionate destruction. Unlike the novel, the 1935 film Bride of Frankenstein allows this female creature a very brief existence: after coming to life, she pulls away from the Creature, who then, in a 1930s version of an incel fantasy, burns them both alive.
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Stories play an increasingly fraught role in the discourse around reproduction, healthcare, and abortion. Theorizing the powers and limits of sympathy in the eighteenth century, Adam Smith used the example of a man imagining the pain of a woman in childbirth. Then and now, examples are supposed to be the bridge to bring home others’ experiences. What would it be like to face an unwanted pregnancy, or a wanted pregnancy that threatens one’s own health, or a pregnancy one has never thought to want or not want because it is financially impossible?
In the debates over reproductive rights in the U.S., it has often been taken for granted that the stories of people who have sought abortions will have the power to sway and persuade. Like the Creature, we aspire to prove our humanity with our eloquence. And yet, we know that even some women who have themselves had abortions support laws that criminalize this choice. Beyond the question of whether such stories actually persuade others, why, in order to have others recognize your right to your own body, should you have to share the most private of experiences with a public that too often targets women, queer people, trans people, and people of color for abuse and violence?
After all, as we know from Shelley’s Frankenstein, there is no guarantee that the humanity within the dehumanized body will be recognized, or that the messages hidden on every page will be found.
Rebecca Richardson is an Advanced Lecturer in the Program in Writing and Rhetoric at Stanford. She is the author of Material Ambitions: Self-Help and Victorian Literature (JHUP, 2021) and is interested in nineteenth-century literature and the stories we tell and re-tell about gender, the body, and politics.