Frankenstein’s Forgetting

You’re never more yourself than when you’re reading Frankenstein. The novel is a Rorschach test, a blot of ink, therapeutic. Assigning the novel is like running out for curry nine months pregnant and noticing who smiles, who chuckles, who averts their gaze.

As you watch the creature come together you take yourself apart at the seams. This is an exercise I perform often with college freshmen. They always side with the creature. They can’t help it. He’s poorly parented. Frankenstein just ditches him, passes out, forgets about him on purpose. They are the same age as Mary Shelley and they cannot help but sympathize. Even when they can’t believe they’re siding with the creature. Even when they say to the class, as if in apology, it’s not like I’m condoning murder or anything.

Even when they say to me, before they realize they shouldn’t, you look like you’re going to pop any day now.

nypl.digitalcollections.b16926af-3f2f-6b2f-e040-e00a1806531a.001.wMary Shelley knew as well as anybody what it was like to be a pregnant body. Her mother pretty much invented feminism, birthed her, and then died, so that kind of sets you up from the beginning.

On the topic, Barbara Johnson writes:

Having a baby changed everything for Mary [Wollstonecraft], but she did not let that get in the way of her activity, nor did she subscribe to the cult of motherhood that many other women endorsed. She treated pregnancy as an inevitable part of her life, not as an occasion for emotion. She did not consider it a solution to the problem of women’s emotions, although her last novel is written fictionally to her (dead) daughter. In other words, Mary Wollstonecraft did not solve the question of women’s emotion, but she did see motherhood as women’s destiny. For Mary, this was certainly the case. She traveled to Scandinavia with a toddler from Gilbert Imlay, and she died of complications from giving birth to the future Mary Shelley (81).

I have not solved the question of women’s emotions, either. In this pregnancy, I have wept repeatedly from the same television advertisements. In one, for the Holiday Inn, a young couple with straight brown hair and rolling suitcases travels to a new town in order to adopt an infant. On the phone to probably no one, the future mother says, we’re nervous.

In the timeline of Mary Shelley’s life, there is at least one adoption, or possible adoption. Daisy Hay investigates:

We know that at some point between December 1818 and February 1819 a female child was born in Naples, and that Shelley was either her father or felt in some way responsible for her welfare. We know that the child was not Mary’s, although on the birth certificate Shelley stated that he was Elena’s father and Mary was her mother. (Since Elena was left with foster parents in Naples this cannot be true.) We know that as a result of Elena’s birth Shelley was later the victim of a blackmail attempt, probably because he lied on her birth certificate, a criminal offense. That he did so suggests that he felt it was imperative that the true facts of Elena’s parentage be disguised. We also know that when Elena died aged eighteen months Shelley was deeply unhappy (159).

We know so much about the lives of the Shelleys, and I am obsessed with how little we know about this. Theories abound, of course. Perhaps Percy had a child with Mary’s pushy sister; perhaps Percy adopted the child to placate Mary’s grief following the deaths of two of her children. But the truth has been forgotten. We may argue, in context, that it has been forgotten willfully.

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nypl.digitalcollections.78abffff-24da-1e46-e040-e00a18064970.001.wI reread Frankenstein every time I teach it, and every time I read it, I am reminded that it is the great story of forgetting. Just as Victor continually turns away from his creation, choosing to be haunted by its shadows rather than facing what he has made, the novel itself contains pockets of quicksand, each disappearing into a different book, a book this book is not. There’s Justine’s legal drama, like something out of the mystery novel that Mary’s father invented. There’s Felix and Safie’s Orientalist romance, a jailbreak, a forbidden love. And there’s Walton, our fearless frame narrator, out on his ship in the icy seas, headed toward the North Pole, recording all of this for his sister, Margaret, who may or may not ever get to read it. And in this world of monsters and mad scientists, sailors with secret histories and beautiful children, we get to be Margaret.

It’s not easy being Margaret.

This morning when I woke up the baby was alert and curious, shifting under the stretched skin of my abdomen, finding my hand and pressing into it, jousting with the soft blade that my doctor tells me is his left elbow, the piece of him I know best, insistent particle.

The problem with pregnancy is that, much like a novel or the candlelit quiver of a late night scientific discovery, it’s a bad place to stop being yourself.

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Jeffrey Jerome Cohen argues that the monster’s body is a cultural body (4). He uses Derrida to explain this but one could just use Frankenstein. The creature is a cultural body, literally—stitched together from human fragments—and he enters into the world pure and childlike, a tribute to Rousseau, until everybody tells him, you’re a monster, you’re a monster, you’re a monster.

The pregnant body is a cultural body too, of course. I could turn to the resurgence of abortion politics in America—it’s a strange feeling when you realize that politicians suddenly care about your body, the little, fruit-filled body of an English professor hiking with her dog through the mountains, her future a tiny light under her sweater. You become public even when you’re out there alone, like Frankenstein’s creature pursuing him over the desolate and sublime landscape of the alps, except with an easy footpath and a view that makes you think of Monet’s treatments of winter thaw. But the Shelleys didn’t much care for the practicalities of governance and, although I do, I have a hard time feeling them in my gut. If we want to be small anarchists, better to talk about the fear machine inside my iPhone, which tells me everything can harm you, child, which tells me that, today, you are the size of a winter melon.

Has anyone written a book about the children of the Shelley circle, the tiny ghosts who haunt the pages? Mary’s uncomfortable vegetarian pregnancies (her husband insisted, and she didn’t exactly have great access to quinoa and kale smoothies), Shelley’s son and daughter left behind in London? We know Mary’s sister conceived Byron’s daughter and it didn’t go so well. I used to erase these children from my teaching; wasn’t it sexist, I reasoned, to insist that Mary Shelley’s art account for such quotidian losses?

Now, thirty-eight weeks pregnant, the whole thing just hurts to think about.

Johnson has a way with words, and with misery:

[…] Mary must have known at first hand a whole gamut of feminine contradictions, impasses, and options. For the complexities of the demands, desires, and sufferings of Mary’s life as a woman were staggering. Her father, who had once been a vehement opponent of the institution of marriage, nearly disowned his daughter for running away with Shelley, an already married disciple of Godwin’s own former views. Shelley himself, who believed in multiple love objects, amicably fostered an erotic correspondence between Mary and his friend Thomas Jefferson Hogg, among others. For years, Mary and Shelley were accompanied everywhere by Mary’s stepsister Claire, whom Mary did not particularly like, who had a child by Byron, and who maintained an ambiguous relation with Shelley. During the writing of Frankenstein, Mary learned of the suicide of her half-sister Fanny Imlay, her mother’s illegitimate child by an American lover, and the suicide of Shelley’s wife Harriet, who was pregnant by a man other than Shelley. By the time she and Shelley married, Mary had had two children; she would have two more by the time of Shelley’s death and watch as all but one of the children died in infancy. Widowed at age twenty-four, she never remarried. It is thus indeed perhaps the very hiddenness of the question of femininity in Frankenstein that somehow proclaims the painful message not of female monstrousness but of female contradictions (24-25).

Fruitful ground, here, for a psychoanalytic literary theorist. But Johnson leaves out something important—the sense that the Shelleys’ marriage was, by all accounts and despite all odds, a damn good one. And that Mary Shelley seems to have been—in contrast to Victor Frankenstein—a pretty devoted mother.

Setting the monster aside: pregnancy is terrifying. Anyone who tells you otherwise is either lying, or a better woman than I am.

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Fragments of Percy Bysshe Shelley's skull and heart treasured by Mary Shelley.
Fragments of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s skull and heart treasured by Mary Shelley.

Addressing the connections between superficiality and monstrosity in Frankenstein, one of my students quotes RuPaul:

We are born naked and the rest is drag.

You are born naked, your head an arrow stretched thin by my efforts and pointed right at me.

I expected you fat and crying, but there’s no soundscape in my memory.

Glossing Johnson, Judith Butler explains:

[…] there is some question about whether giving birth is itself monstrous or is intimately tied to a problem of monstrosity (37).

For all those years, my students and I chastised the creator, his postpartum swoon:

The different accidents of life are not so changeable as the feelings of human nature […] now that I had finished, the beauty of the dream vanished […] I threw myself on the bed in my clothes, endeavouring to seek a few moments of forgetfulness.  But it was in vain: I slept indeed, but I was disturbed by the wildest dreams (83-84).

Moments after your new skin touched my chest, I heard the nurse prodding me:

Rachel, Rachel, stay with us.

After years of wondering how, I myself fainted twice, clinging to you. I fainted from the blood loss, the hours of pushing, the days of effort. And as I woke, I thought, just like in Frankenstein.

I had a moment of understanding, but only a moment. Before long I was eating pancakes with my hands while your father held you in the window.

Today, I bind my belly in muslin. I listen to the new Adele album like the basic bitch I am. I stand guardian over your nap, contemplating my shrinking abdomen, my diminishing monstrosity, my screams a memory, the weeks between past and future buffering them like absorbent cloth.

What I’m saying is, you are my great story of forgetting.

Rachel Feder is Assistant Professor of British Romantic literature at the University of Denver

Image credits: NYPL Carl H Pforzheimer Collection of Shelley and His Circle.