A Feminist Approach to Understanding the Complications between a Creator and the Created
Mary Shelley explores in Frankenstein the way characters attempt to conquer nature and the natural world. Victor, for example, takes the natural role of woman by becoming a creator of a living being and defying the rules of nature. In other words, because nature is commonly personified as a female (specifically, a “mother nature” figure), Victor is both trying to overpower nature as well as the female role by having “pursued nature to her hiding places” (Shelley Frankenstein 82). Mary Shelley investigates in the novel Victor’s desire for an all-male, patriarchal society by refusing to create a female companion for the Creature and thus remaining the sole creator, causing his offspring much anguish. Similar themes are present and comparable in the poems of Sylvia Plath and even Sir Philip Sidney. Both “Metaphors” and “Astrophil and Stella” present concepts of creation, its effect on the women involved and how it can place women in an insignificant position. By comparing and contrasting the way creation is or is not represented as foremost a female undertaking in these two poems and the Frankenstein novel it is evident that each work explores a separate take on the same issue and the characters involved both benefit and suffer from their specific roles. Additionally, applying feminist as well as psychoanalytical theories to these texts will give insight into the patriarchal assumptions involved and the mental processes of both male and female when considering their roles in creation.
Mary Shelley is exploring the repercussions of when a man like Victor or Walton attempt to conquer the unconquerable: nature. Victor wants to create a being of his own, thus usurping the role of women in society and leading to extreme tragedy for all those involved. By pursuing nature “to her hiding places” Victor is exemplifying Simone de Beauvoir’s concept that “one is not born, but becomes a woman”. He replaces the natural gift of fertility with his learned abilities of invention in order to have the female power to create, and then later, to destroy. Victor, although he is a man, is requested by the Creature to create another being: a companion and a wife. He is at first willing to extend his powers to satisfy the Creature but later reflects upon his fears, saying: “I was now about to form another being, of whose dispositions I was alike ignorant; she might become ten thousand times more malignant than her mate” (Shelley 190). Victor is expressing a fear of the unknown, a “mysterious Other” which reflects both post-colonial and feminist studies of ‘Other’ enslavement. Victor has fears as a creator of making a being that he cannot control and so, not being able to control both the female creation and nature herself.
In comparison, Plath’s poem “Metaphors” represents a woman who describes her fears and hesitations of being pregnant. She describes herself as “a means, a stage, a cow in calf” (Plath 7) which directly reflects the way Victor sees himself as “a means” of creation, especially later as he is under pressure from the Creature. The woman in this poem describes the way she is just the body for the child she can create, a “fat purse” for “new minted money” (Plath 6), where one is clearly more valued than the other. Victor, similarly, fears he will create something significantly more powerful than himself and by doing so potentially “inflicting this curse upon everlasting generations” (Shelley 190). Both deal with the fear of releasing something into the world and not being emotionally ready to do so. The woman in the poem having “eaten a bag of green apples” (Plath 8) could be a metaphor for consuming something ripe, something she is not ready for; similar to how Victor feels about creating a female being. These feelings are tended to by the feminist movement because they are emotions which women alone can experience. Victor is, of course, challenging this in Mary Shelley’s depiction of him also being able to create a being. Both attempt to retain control over their lives and bodies, and want to ascertain their power and existence, specifically for Victor over women. This need for power gives insight into the patriarchal influences involved in depicting women as naturally passive.
There are patriarchal tendencies, as seen in Mary Shelley’s novel, to depict females as generally conquerable characters by men. They are possessions and at first deemed unimportant, especially in Frankenstein where all the female characters meet a devastating end. The only potentially powerful and strong female presences in Frankenstein are first, in the form of Mother Nature, which Victor attempts to conquer and second, in the idea of the Creature’s companion, which Victor fears and decides to destroy before creation. Similarly, in Sidney’s poem “Astrophil and Stella” the male narrator wants to get the attention of, and control, his lover by means of his creation, the poem. Just as Victor wants to control nature, the female character in Frankenstein, the poet wants to control and obtain the female reader. He writes about using his words to convince her to be his lover, saying: “Pleasure might cause her read, reading might make her know, / Knowledge might pity win, and pity grace obtain” (Sidney 3–4). His powers lie in his abilities of creation, similar to Victor’s powers of invention and they both seek to possess a certain female existence. The female in Sidney’s poem is a seemingly passive character, she has no voice in sonnet 1 and seems to be at the will of Sidney’s “fit words” (Sidney 5). Astrophil’s muse in the end tells him to “look in thy heart, and write” (14), in other words, create. In this way, he will be able to overpower his lover with his creation. Sidney also uses the phrase “great with child to speak, and helpless in my throes” (12) to describe the desire to create and the pains in which he has. Astrophil is thus placing himself in the position of a pregnant woman, just as Victor did, and both have an uncontrollable desire to produce. Victor decides that to overpower “women” he will pursue her to her hiding places, and also create. However, when it came to creating a woman he decides against creation and instead, destroys: “I tore to pieces the thing on which I was engaged” (Shelley 191). Evidently, Victor is constantly attempting to put himself above the woman figure. However, he is not always successful and unscathed in doing so.
Despite the evident patriarchal stereotypes in Frankenstein of insignificant females, Victor both fears and despises these powerful female forces. Mother Nature, although seemingly conquered by Victor, does revenge itself throughout the novel, as forces of nature (strong winds, fevers and mental illnesses) slowly destroy Victor. After agreeing to create another being, he says, “I listened to every blast, as if it were a dull ugly siroc on its way to consume me” (Shelley 173). Interestingly, after giving up that pursuit and destroying his work he describes the sea as being “almost motionless, for the winds were hushed and all nature reposed under the eye of the quiet moon” (Shelley 191). Mother Nature is powerful enough to both torment and soothe Victor depending on his place and relationship with it, and he must fear that power. In addition, Victor fears both his creation and evidently feels intimidated by the woman he is creating, for it may be “ten thousand times more malignant than her mate” (Shelley 190). Similar fears are present in the “Metaphors” poem by the pregnant woman who comments on being insignificant compared to her creation. Like Victor, she feels a certain sense of helplessness, and in the end writes “Boarded the train there’s no getting off” (Plath 9), which suggests a lack of control over her pregnancy (like Victor and his creature). Victor’s fears, however, go so far as to lead to destruction of his creation and so he desires to be the only creator in his entirely patriarchal society.
By destroying the Creature’s mate, Victor prevents a woman from being created that could be more powerful than him and also prevents the creature and this mate from doing creating of their own. He says “a race of devils would be propagated upon the earth, who might make the very existence of the species of man a condition precarious and full of terror” (Shelley 190). Therefore, Victor desires to be the only one capable of creation. Similarly, in Sidney’s sonne, he hesitatingly looks to other poets, other creators, for inspiration: “Oft turning others’ leaves, to see if thence would flow some fresh and fruitful showers upon my sunburned brain” (Sidney 7–8). However, Sidney also clashes with these other creations and creators, saying, “others’ feet still seemed but strangers in my way” (11), meaning the other poets’ creations are but a distraction from his own creation. Similarly, by creating a companion for the Creature, Victor would be possibly allowing the monster to be a creator as well, which terrifies him. Therefore, the Creature can be seen as merely another poet whose “feet” seem to be “but strangers” in Victor’s way. Evidently, Victor desires to be the only creator in the patriarchal society which he represents. He stands as a ruler over his creation and feels like he has the power to inflict pain on his entire civilization.
There is a post-colonial connection here in the way Victor desires to rule over his creation and control their happiness. He thinks he is doing what is best for civilization and asks questions similar to those that colonists would ask before invading: “Had I a right, for my own benefit, to inflict this curse upon everlasting generations?… I shuddered to think that future ages might curse me as their pest, whose selfishness had not hesitated to buy its own peace at the price perhaps of the existence of the whole human race” (Shelley 190). Unlike Walton, who dreams early on of being known and famous for his goodness in discovery, Victor is now considering if his contributions will be seen as evil. Similarly, a colonizer, like the British, might consider if his actions are for the betterment of the country they are invading or if they are selfish desires of their own. Post-colonial thinking tied in with feminist ideas gives insight into the way Victor is both concerned with overpowering women characters but also causing damage to his society because of his dominant position, simultaneously. A psychoanalytical approach could be applied to Victor’s thinking in this instance too because it is questionable whether or not Victor is truly being selfless, or if he is still conceited in his thoughts of being remembered or famous in a good light or a bad one. Victor seems to have concern for other’s happiness, but at the same time is consciously aware of both his marginalization of his creation and also the pain he is causing to him. Psychoanalytically, he seems to be selfish in wanting the creature all for himself and not allowing him to have a female companion or have creations of his own. The Creature does question him later saying, “Are you to be happy, while I grovel in the intensity of my wretchedness?” (Shelley 192). Both Victor in Frankenstein and the two poems are linked to this concept of gaining pleasure from others’ (their creation’s) pain.
Sidney in his sonnet 1, for example, seeks for his lover to pity him for the pain he is going through, and then return to him. “That she dear she might take some pleasure of my pain, / Pleasure might cause her read, reading might make her know, / Knowledge might pity win, and pity grace obtain” (Sidney 2–4). Through his creation, he attempts to cause pain in his reader and through that to gain her admiration. He says, “I sought fit words to paint the blackest face of woe” (5), which psychoanalytically suggests a twisted sense of trying to gain happiness from portraying sadness. In a feminist perspective, he is wrongly using his creation to manipulate the woman to whom he is writing and asserting his male position by claiming he can do so. Similarly, Victor writes: “The wretch saw me destroy the creature on whose future existence he depended for happiness, and, with a howl of devilish despair and revenge, withdrew” (Shelley 191). Victor is causing pain to his creature by destroying his hope for a female companion. In return, the creature murders Elizabeth, not Victor. Both instances of causing pain are inflicted to the female character, which again suggests that Mary Shelley is illustrating a patriarchal society in which women are passive, and in the end, destroyed.
Feminism is a movement which attempts understanding, establishing and defending equal rights for women. The poems and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein all, in their own ways, work to explore the female role and certain difficulties placed before her. In Frankenstein, Victor plays the role of a usurper of woman, by attempting to conquer Mother Nature as well as undermining the place for women in society all together. Mary Shelley, inspired by her mother’s Vindication of the Rights of Woman, “portrays the consequences of a social construction of gender which values men over women” (Mellor Mary Shelley: her life, her fiction, her monsters 115). Sylvia Plath`s poem works to show difficulties from the perspective of the woman, who fears feeling and being seen insignificantly as just “a means” to her creating. Sidney shows a different place in his poem, of a man who endeavours to overpower his female lover by creating persuasively manipulating words on a page. All three different creations, whether material or human, are tugging at the female role and point out a fight for power between the creator and the created.