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.

 



  1. February 10, 2016 @ 12:22 pm Victoria Sutton

    Thank you for the comparison to the ‘monster’ with the view Rousseau has on being…

    I read this too through all three pregnancies, I agree we cannot diminish the importance of her having children and the ‘merry go round’ they had as a family,,,

    Reply

  2. June 1, 2016 @ 2:16 pm Jan Sand

    FRANK IN CONTEMPLATION

    They call me Frank these days
    And the name implies me many ways.
    My character is blunt, somewhat unswerving.
    My features rather crude, I am a creature
    Of many parts, they say, unnerving
    In random chaotic fashion. But, anyways,
    I function. Admittedly with little passion.
    Those hormone fires sparking desires,
    That smolders into what inspires humanity
    To love, to hate, to insanity, to inanity,
    Do not reside in my inside.
    My thoughts have space,
    Do not jumble or collide.

    I am a spare parts man. My maker
    Doctor Frankenstein, gathered fingertips,
    A fine array of noses, lips,
    A box of ears and bellybuttons, fifteen,
    Pink, well formed and quite clean.
    My bones had lain with frozen stones
    For decades, disinterred but well matched
    And sturdy. Three from an acrobat, one,
    A delight, once lived inside a knight. Two patched
    Out of pieces from a horse, a cat, and just for fun,
    Two from a calf
    And one from a giraffe.

    Am I human? Mostly, I would say.
    But can any normal human say more?
    Speaking Frankly it seems not.
    Any peek into the random mind
    Would find, perhaps a common spot
    Where each could join, relate.
    Happily to twist and knot.
    But minds are vast topologies
    Teeming with mythologies.
    Here and there a mountain peak
    May glisten in the light
    Of clean perception,
    A point to guide the wild ride
    We all endure for reception
    Of markers inside
    To know what’s wrong,
    Or what might be right.
    But deep down low, below
    Where fantasy is spun,
    Where hot blood must run
    With energies that spark and glow,
    Where frigid caverns harbor fears,
    Stalactites bleeding tears,
    Strange pallid creatures spawn and grow,
    Blind, with trembling antennae feeling
    To supplement their senses, reeling.
    Here is where our mind appears,
    Here is where the join begins,
    Where necessities and desires
    Ignite to free their eager djinns.

    Being thus, both minus, plus
    In fragments of humanity
    I teeter in my loyalties.
    Inflections there roil and muss.
    Internally no royalties
    Dictate my state of insanity.
    My mind, from the good doctor’s hand
    Was pieced in ways, sometimes grand,
    Sometimes out of opportunity
    From a mélange community.

    Centrally there was the plan
    To integrate disparate parts
    With surgic skills and arcane arts
    To merely duplicate a man.
    But my baron had a mind
    Of extraordinary kind.
    His thoughts were rather wild and free
    That wandered into rare country
    And harnessed serendipity.

    He viewed the brain as working space,
    A foundation kind of place, a base
    Whereupon to erect, construct, and intervene.
    Intimations, cross connections, strange collections
    From exotic sources. Monkeys, mice, even horses,
    No sense to be conservative, release creative forces
    And sweep the whole horizon on the biologic scene.

    With appreciation and surmise
    He snatched the brains for eagle eyes
    And to set the world agog
    Applied the slimy senses from a frog.
    Out of a squid he stole great nerves
    Laid out in lines, tangles, curves
    To olfactions from a dog.
    Thus it went, adventure bent,
    And no particular intent
    But merely elected eclectic enterprise
    To appropriate variety to human guise.

    So thus am I constituted
    In ways strange and convoluted
    Some parts blatant, some more muted
    To contain within my brain
    Much surmised and quite a bit
    Simply grabbed and uncomputed.

    But now the doubts, most elegant,
    Are running out in this rant.
    Am I animal or plant?
    I really cannot say.
    A few genes from mushrooms
    Were inserted
    (Some upright, some inverted)
    Fitting in quite alright
    So I’m mildly saprophyte.

    The conclusion, in confusion, comes to admit
    I’m a bit of this and that most adroitly fit.
    My claim to humanity, although sincere,
    Based on just my form is not too clear.
    I walk like any bird or man
    Converse like any parrot.
    My fingers are slightly thick
    Resembling a carrot.
    I cannot classify my thoughts
    As fish or fowl or oyster.
    Some ideas float to me
    Not fitting for a cloister.
    My mosaic being borrowed with great plunder,
    Is strange undoubtedly, and something of a wonder,
    It partakes of living things, a smorgasbord of life.
    Nothing clear nor direct, not any absolute,
    Not more human than an ant, or, perhaps a newt.
    I am a universal, a poem said to living,
    Proteins intermingled and delightfully forgiving.

    It’s not a bad thing now, amidst our human fighting
    To be a being out of many, accepting, not benighting.
    All living things, derive their wings,
    Their eyes, their ears, their hearts,
    All their bones and working things
    From each other’s working parts.
    For life is made to see, to hear, to dance in sunlit joy.
    It matters not what parts you’ve got
    Or what you might employ.
    We live, we love, we reproduce,
    We are of Earth and air,
    We’re born to laugh and love and sing
    And strike away despair.
    I am a being of all of us that walk or swim or fly,
    Exist in space, seize this time that flows so quickly by.
    I am you and you are me, it’s all so very clear.
    Our time is always merely now, our place is always here.
    So join with me in ecstasy to surely be aware.
    This world is made to be played, intensively to care.

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