Has it been only two centuries since we first encountered him, loping with superhuman strides over the Alpine ice fields? What did we do before that when we needed a metaphor for disasters of our own making? Nobody said, “We’ve created a monster!” Possibly we had yet to imagine how disastrous our creations could be. And how soon after his gigantic debut was he first called mistakenly by the name of his creator, the title of his story? Was it simply impossible to leave him blank and nameless, as did both of his creators—the young scientist and the novice writer? She gave him not only life but a kind of mythic immortality: he is eternally available to meet the needs and embody the fears of successive eras.
And here we are again, aghast at the monstrosity rising in our midst. Like Victor Frankenstein, we want to run from the room and slam the door behind us, but the thing we have produced keeps coming. It demands acknowledgement and accountability. It is big, and ugly, and destructive. And it is ours. It is us.
I was twenty-one when I first met the most famous of all monsters. It was 1972, and the novel was assigned in a senior seminar at Northwestern that focused on Keats and “the Shelleys.” That final plural—it’s hard to convey how unusual it was, a syllabus featuring a woman writer. I felt—rightly, as it turned out—that I stood at the edge of a new era of literary study.
But that first reading of Frankenstein left me disappointed and confused. I knew that Mary Shelley was the daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft (whom I’d yet to read), the blazing eighteenth-century feminist, so I was expecting a text reflecting that parentage. But the women characters were . . . well, dead, literally and artistically. They were abstract, devoid of energy or voice, and surprisingly stereotypical, repositories of all the dreary feminine virtues. This book was all about men.
I found a partial explanation in the preface Mary Shelley wrote for a third edition in 1831, answering a question she apparently fielded frequently: “How I, then a young girl, came to think of, and to dilate upon, so very hideous an idea?” It was not yet widely accepted that eighteen-year-old girls’ heads are the perfect breeding ground for monsters. After apologizing like a good Victorian lady for a “personal intrusion,” Shelley goes on to describe spending the summer of 1816 with a man not yet her husband (because he was inconveniently married to someone else) in a villa at Lake Geneva, next door to the one occupied by mad-bad-and-dangerous-to-know Lord Byron, rock star poet and refugee from British society, having disgraced his marriage and generally shocked everybody. She and Shelley were likewise runaways, he from the marriage and she from her famous father, philosopher and novelist William Godwin, who forbade the union. She describes evenings of talk—“many and long”—between Byron and Percy Shelley on vast philosophical and speculative topics, conversations “to which I was a devout but nearly silent listener.” In other words, Frankenstein germinated amidst men talking, two brilliant, proud, self-absorbed men.
At the same time that she was a silent listener, though, Mary Godwin was under pressure to produce. Shelley, she says, “was, from the first, very anxious that I should prove myself worthy of my parentage” by becoming a writer. “He was forever inciting me to obtain literary reputation,” but “not so much with the idea that I could produce any thing worthy of notice, but that he himself might judge how far I possessed the promise of better things hereafter.” Is it any wonder this eighteen-year-old struggled to find her own female voice, when it was so utterly overwhelmed by the expectations and judgment of her loquacious boyfriend? And so, when inspiration finally struck, it shaped itself into the story of overweening male egos, talking to each other.
On the night Mary Godwin conceived her novel, Percy and Byron were discussing the potential of modern science to discover and manipulate the source of life. Such a seizure of divine fire was clearly on both minds that summer: Shelley was at work on Prometheus Unbound, and while Byron’s main project was his ongoing autobiographical epic Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, he also tossed off a poem called “Prometheus.” The poems both cast Prometheus as Romantic hero, savior of humanity, rebel against Jovian oppression, champion of liberty and knowledge. Clearly, Mary had reservations: the vision that came to her that night was of “the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out” and “the pale student of unhallowed arts, kneeling beside the thing he had put together.” Her take on the Promethean myth asks questions that still resonate—about science, about human community, about the natural environment, and about the masculine itself.
She subtitled her novel The Modern Prometheus, emphasizing the cultural present in which the book would appear. Frankenstein probes masculinity at a pivotal moment, as a new creature was emerging: the modern European man, rational and scientific, individualistic and aggressive, controlled and controlling, powerfully “self-made.” Mary Shelley pays obligatory homage to this figure, but her novel shudders with doubt. This modern hero turns out to be lethal. In fact, Frankenstein may well be the first novel to raise the specter of what we now call toxic masculinity. And while it took many readings and a certain amount of living for me to figure it out, this is why her pages are littered with the bodies of women and resonant with their silence.
The intellectual coupling of Percy Shelley and Lord Byron repeats in varying forms in Victor Frankenstein’s saga. The novel’s structure depends on men talking to each other: the Creature to Victor, Victor to Walton. Victor’s engagement to the forgettable Elizabeth Lavenza pales to near-obscurity alongside his intense relations with the male figures who function as dark or bright mirrors, partners in a kind of ongoing discourse on masculinity and its possibilities.
First, there is Captain Walton, who seeks a Northwest Passage through the Arctic Ocean, but even more importantly a brother, a male soul-mate: “I desire the company of a man,” he writes to his sister, “who could sympathize with me, whose eyes would reply to mine.” And he finds him, floating moribund on a chunk of ice. But Victor has been anticipated in Walton’s own heroic aspirations: fame, glory, going boldly where no man has gone before. As boys they both thought of themselves as special, as chosen, apart from the general run of humanity. Both yearned to break through boundaries, to discover, to benefit “mankind,” and to bask in their beneficiaries’ gratitude. Now each sees in the other’s quest the image of his own. In the closing pages of the novel, Victor’s story becomes the fulcrum for Walton’s decision whether to forge ahead or turn back to Europe and civilization. Together they embody the masculinity that will dominate the industrializing, colonizing West. After all, why was a Northwest Passage sought?
If Walton is Victor’s Promethean twin, his opposite is Henry Clerval, Victor’s childhood buddy. As a boy Clerval writes fairy tales and reads myth and legend, which Victor finds quaint. He is imaginative, as Victor is (seemingly) rational. He is ecstatically responsive to the natural world, as Victor turns away from it. Clerval is quite happy with the world as it is, in the present moment, and can’t fathom his friend’s inability to live contentedly there. His healthy sunniness counteracts Victor’s stormy sullenness. “[I]n Clerval I saw the image of my former self,” he says; Henry is the Victor that might have been. Victor’s manhood shrivels progressively into navel-gazing withdrawal; Clerval remains expansively androgynous—he even nurses Victor through illness. While Victor dives headfirst into the scientific revolution of Western Europe, Clerval becomes an “orientalist,” majoring in Persian, Arabic, and Hebrew literatures. Victor finds these soothing and relaxing—that is, feminine, as the European mind typically saw what it conceived as “the orient”: “How different from the manly and heroical poetry of Greece and Rome!”
Victor’s pursuit of the manly and heroic leads him to his darkest mirror, one so appalling that his first glance into the yellow eyes looking back at him drives him from his lodgings into the street. But if he begins as the rejecting father, deus absconditus, the relationship changes abruptly when he hears the Creature’s story (as Walton is hearing his own). Just as it was long-winded male talk that impregnated Mary Godwin’s mind with the seed of the novel, male talk is the intercourse of intimacy in its pages. The Creature’s long autobiography is surrounded by Victor’s confessio, which is embedded within Walton’s—three tales of male aspiration, aggression, and defeat enclosed in a kind of fatal embrace.
Once Victor hears his Creature out, their bond permanently changes: from here on Victor is so firmly bound to his Creature that he sees him as an extension of himself, as when he claims guilt for the deaths of his brother William and Justine Moritz. He speaks about the Creature in “othering” language—monster, devil, vile insect—but claims him as an intimate, a dark twin. “I had committed deeds of mischief beyond description horrible,” says Victor. “Yet my heart overflows with kindness and the love of virtue.” The words, and the sense of confounding doubleness, might have come straight from the Creature’s mouth. Elizabeth, wondering what’s happening with the wedding plans, gently prods Victor, “Do you not love another?” and shortly afterward Victor’s father does the same: “Have you, then, some other attachment?” The proper answer to both questions is an emphatic Yes. There is now one passion in Victor’s life. The flight to the Arctic seems a parody of their connection: Victor is ostensibly chasing the Creature, but the Creature is actively drawing him on, providing food and directions.
The Creature is always doing double duty in this novel: he is monstrous, and he is innocent victim of monstrousness. But from both perspectives he forces Victor to face his worst crime—not creation, but abandonment. For Shelley, it is the abandonment of human relation and connection that makes monsters of men.
The new Masculine defined itself against that communal, relational realm, now left in the keeping of women. As the capitalist commercial economy gained steam-powered speed, it produced a new, hard-nosed masculinity. “Be steady to your purposes, and firm as a rock!” Victor advises Walton’s crew. But to be rocklike—hard, inflexible, utterly phallic—was to risk one’s very humanity. Recourse to the female world was man’s only hope. This schema shows up in countless nineteenth-century narratives. But nowhere is the idea of the feminine as life-giving force deployed more ironically than in Frankenstein. What Victor achieves is an obscene parody of motherhood, yielding an outsize parody of a baby, who will come to call himself “an abortion.” Inevitably, a Modern Prometheus would attempt to seize the power of life itself, by usurping women’s very bodies and reproductive power.
To become a man in the modern world, then, required separation from the feminine in order to dominate it. In this tale, whose backdrop is Paradise Lost, the Fall precedes the eating of the forbidden fruit: Victor’s brief Edenic childhood—where orphans are quickly absorbed into the family and no one dominates anyone else—ends with the death of his mother.
Caroline Frankenstein’s death—“that most irreparable evil”—precipitates Victor into one of the chief outposts of the world of men: the university. Victor narrows himself to its demands, finding intellectual father figures and single-mindedly pursuing his studies to the exclusion of all human relations—his father, Elizabeth, and Clerval, the remnants of the lost world. As markers of the destruction of the feminine, Shelley plants dead mothers and motherless children all over her novel; it is the very curse she visits upon her Creature—who is driven to murder by glimpsing a miniature of Victor’s mother. In the parallel scenes where Victor and the Creature destroy each other’s brides, female embodiment becomes terrifying. For Shelley, a woman’s body is the site of intense anxiety, and the dramas of pregnancy, birth, and motherhood are laced with blood.
The curse of motherlessness carried special resonance for the author, whose entire life was shadowed by her brilliant mother’s death, ten days after giving birth to her. She knew that motherhood was fraught with danger for women: in 1816 she had already lost one child, born prematurely; she would bury two more in infancy before giving birth to the son who survived her. In October of 1816, as she completed the novel, her half-sister Fanny Imlay Godwin killed herself (possibly in response to Percy Shelley’s rejection), and in December Percy’s wife Harriet did the same, pregnant by another man. Mary Shelley was embedded in women’s deaths, the dangers of sexuality, and the fragility of life itself; she had every reason to comprehend, in a way no man could do, the terrible dance of creation and destruction. She saw how creation could devour the creator.
“I was now alone,” Victor says of his arrival at Ingolstadt. Of course he’s surrounded by people; what he means is that he is cut off from his collective source, his Motherland. He is now an anomaly without context or meaning. In the realm of the disembodied masculine mind, men are atoms, striving and colliding. Mary Shelley is among the earliest nineteenth-century writers to peer into the darkness behind the highly masculine individualism that resounded throughout Enlightenment philosophy and the democratic uprisings in Europe and the Americas. Removed from traditional communities and rituals of connection, a man might find himself wandering a nightmare landscape of aloneness.
Occasionally Elizabeth or Clerval calls Victor back to a memory of his humanness, “[b]ut the apple was already eaten.” He cannot get himself back to the garden; he can only “[sink] again, trembling and hopeless, into my miserable self.” In the liberal Western tradition, individuality and freedom are interdependent: a man roots his freedom in his individuality, and vice versa. But in this novel, the isolated self is a quagmire, a trap.
What Victor creates amounts to an outsized illustration of individuality in the extreme: “When I looked around, I saw and heard of none like me. Was I then a monster . . .?” His monstrousness lies not in his body but in his isolation. “I had never yet seen a being resembling me, or who claimed any intercourse with me. What was I?” What is anyone, removed from connection with their kind? Victor and his Creature are left to their obsessive dance, competing with each other in suffering exceptionalism: “No creature had ever been so miserable as I was,” says Victor. The Creature echoes, “No crime, no mischief, no malignity, no misery can be found comparable to mine.”
Of course, they ensure each other’s isolation by slaughtering each other’s girlfriends in that joint frenzy of femicide. The feminine Clerval dies between them. These deaths ensure that the relationship of Victor and the Creature continues uninterrupted. The deaths seal the sterility of Manworld, assuring that neither Victor nor the Creature will reproduce. Motherhood, and Motherworld, are snuffed out. Enlightened Man run amok in his intellectual pride ultimately spells the death of Mother Nature herself.
“Nature never did betray / The heart that loved her,” Wordsworth had assured a generation of readers. His proto-ecological sense of a reciprocal relation between humanity and nature became part of the groundwork of Romanticism. In Frankenstein, Shelley envisions that reciprocity violated and ravaged. Victor’s first important lesson at college is that “a modern system of science had been introduced.” That system, Mary Shelley knew, was the fire in the hand of the Modern Prometheus. When Victor’s mentor, M. Waldman, schools him in the real nature of modern science, he describes its grand potential in terms of predation on a female power. Contemporary “natural philosophers,” he explains, “penetrate into the recesses of nature, and shew how she works in her hiding places,” gaining “new and almost unlimited powers.” This is the prospect that galvanizes Victor: the “penetration” of nature and the seizure of her power. “I pursued her to her hiding places,” he says in dutiful mimicry.
Shelley makes the connection between modern science and the death of the feminine in the Freudian bonanza of a dream that Victor has on the very night the Creature comes to life: he kisses Elizabeth and watches her turn into his mother’s corpse. The Creature’s birth equals the death of Mother—Victor’s own mother along with the potential mother of his children—because it originated in an assault on nature itself, always spoken of in the novel as female.
“We murder to dissect,” Wordsworth wrote. After Victor’s betrayal, nature turns away. He finds himself blind to her beauties, notwithstanding Clerval’s efforts to draw out a Romantic response. She is no longer in any kind of intimate relation to him. Finally, after Clerval’s death, Victor’s dogged pursuit of the Creature turns north, and nature inexorably fades to white, a blank page on which nothing is written but death.
Robert Frost opted for ice as the way the world would end. We know better now; what the Creature calls “the everlasting ices of the north” are not everlasting. It will be fire, solar fire, melting the ice into the oceans and drowning the land. Two hundred years ago, a teenager (a concept then unknown), living near Alpine glaciers, took Frost’s route: the arrogance of Modern Man would leave him alone, drifting on an ice floe like a stranded polar bear.
Mary Shelley had immediate reason to be thinking in terms of environmental disaster. In 1816, debris from the eruption of Mount Tambora, in what is now Indonesia, reached Europe, darkening the sun, lowering temperatures, and disrupting weather patterns. Crops failed and famine ravaged sections of the continent. The winter of that year was fiercely cold. Did these phenomena contribute to Shelley’s decision to begin and end Frankenstein in a world of ice? Certainly the apocalyptic suggestion took hold: in 1826 she would publish a novel called The Last Man, in which a plague, accompanied by meteorological phenomena including a blackened sun, destroys all but one man—once more, the singular hero alone with himself in a dead world. The arctic landscape and the human extinction are both metaphors reaching forward into a world where ecological disaster has replaced Biblical apocalypse as the end of days.
“Oh! be men,” Victor exhorts Walton’s mutinous crew at the novel’s conclusion, “or be more than men!” He has apparently missed the point of his own story: that being men, or more than men, is exactly the problem. In their need to be “bigger” than other men, he and Walton both forget that the biggest man among them is a monster.
In the 1831 preface, Mary Shelley bids her “hideous progeny,” as she calls her novel, “go forth and prosper,” as it surely has done. As it turns two hundred, toxic masculinity occupies the highest offices in our country and others. A swelling chorus testifies to its effects on women in a level of abuse that amounts to nothing less than a norm. Patriarchal controls seize women’s reproductive capacities and choices. Our government repeatedly draws back from established checks on environmental destruction, opens the seas to drilling, and carves up public lands for profitable exploitation. Individual and commercial benefits outweigh any notion of a collective good. And we are all digitally connected and deeply lonely.
Two centuries ago, Mary Shelley could imagine women only as silent listeners, like herself. In fact, she places a silent, listening woman in the novel: Margaret Saville, Walton’s sister, to whom he writes the letters that form the novel, containing the other narratives. Like Shelley’s other women, Margaret represents the female world of connection and community: “you have a husband, and lovely children,” her brother writes; “you may be happy.” Margaret Walton Saville is silent under the weight of these oppressive male narratives, as was the author—who signs her preface “M.W.S.” At the core of this novel of masculine discourse is a silence, with another at its outer rim. But between the two, between the lines, a woman’s insight and foresight (the meaning of the word “prometheus”) speak volumes. The future was, and is, female. It must be.