• Brides of Frankenstein

by Arthur Paul Patterson

WHILE I SAT at the breakfast table, I felt the blood drain out of my face and into my stomach as I listened to her ramble. It wasn't the scattered content that made me so uncomfortable. The content itself was a disconnected diatribe of newsy gossip and trivia, punctuated by misplaced maxims that in their popular form might have actually meant something. Despite the dogmatism, moral superiority, and intensity that was expressed through her tone and bodily gestures, I felt humiliated, embarrassed. Although outwardly there was nothing to be afraid of - I experienced dread.

modern unhealthy relationships

I looked sideways at my friend who was also listening to the monologue. She looked bored; when our eyes met, and she saw that I was disturbed, she made a facial expression that seemed to suggest that I ignore what I was hearing. I supposed that that would have been the wisest thing to do, given that our guest seemed to be unhinged from reason and incapable of dialogue. Since there was so very little to explore in my guest's conversation, I decided to remain silent and ask myself why my stomach kept tumbling, my heart pounding and my mind periodically revolting against my resolve of silence.

Beyond the obviously high blood pressure and tense, angry appearance of my guest, I sensed a presence. There was a saturated heaviness in the air that made it hard for me to breathe. I was getting light-headed and my imagination seemed to draw me to another conversation, one that had already begun somewhere inside myself. The middle-aged housewife metamorphosed into a blood thirsty version of Kali, the Destroyer goddess. It was as if this deeper, red-tongued archetype were translating the inanity of my guest's words into language that made sense of my humiliation and fear.

Wild-eyed Kali informed me that my guest was an incarnation of what lies within the domestic chattering that dominates and oppresses many women and men. She spits out words that suggest my revulsion is rooted in the truth that there is a similar region within myself, a region where all the repressed passivity and domesticity festers and erupts in putrefaction. Because this region is consciously associated with care, giving life, and creating a perfect environment of safety, its unconscious shadow perpetually threatens revenge. This, of course, was not the way she said it. Rather, in a fury she shrieked and howled, promising to avenge the wounded woman within and without. She derided me for imprisoning women and neglecting the feminine within myself, thus driving them insane.

Waking from my reverie, I heard my guest, in a tone that seemed lucid but disconnected from her coffee clutch ramblings, thank us for inviting her into our lovely home and say that she would like to help us with the dishes. My fear returned.

Mary Shelley’s women

unacknowledged shadow

Image by Bev Patterson

Superficially, the women in Mary Shelley's novel Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus are opposite of my breakfast guest. They are virtual angels full of kindness, compassion, social consciousness, moral guidance and are not quick to criticize or harangue. Corporately, they share an unjust fate as truly "innocent victims." Elizabeth's mother dies in childbirth. Elizabeth herself suffers loneliness and eventually death through the hands of her less than sensitive fiancé Victor. Caroline Beaufort Frankenstein is reduced to "straw plaiting" slavery by her father's financial pride. Later she dies nursing the "scarlet fever stricken" Elizabeth back to health. Safie, an Arabian woman, is forced to flee her father's harem for the more liberated European Christendom. Margaret Saville suffers undeserved estrangement from her brother Robert, who was captured by an Arctic dream and had fallen under the influence of Victor, the Modern Prometheus. Justine, the epitome of gothic victimization, whose hard working loyalty to the Frankenstein family was above reproach, was first despised by her husband-forsaken mother for no obvious reason, and later, viciously executed for the death of her murdered charge William Frankenstein. Added to the litany of human casualties must be the Woman Creature, a dismembered potential partner of the Monster, viciously murdered by her Creator, Victor Frankenstein.

Modern interpreters of Frankenstein are frustrated by these porcelain caricatures of womanhood. Some think Mary simply focused on the evils of men and therefore, in true ideological fashion, minimized the foibles of women. More chauvinist critics agree with this interpretation, adding that Mary was blind to her own flaws and was being morally self-righteous. Withstanding their purity and passivity is difficult but not as much as anticipating, then witnessing, their utter demise without an inkling of the will to power on their part. All, without exception, stood in need of empowerment. If we look closely at Mary's novel, however, we recognize her genius, even if it is more accurately considered her unconscious intuition, that the women and men of Frankenstein are separated from each other by flaws that keep them in relational holding patterns that lead to mutual destruction. These same flaws distorted my breakfast guest and mar the lives of other women today.

Separate Spheres

Married in the 1950's, my breakfast guest grew accustomed to stereotypical gender roles. While she reigned supreme in the home as the sole provider of domestic services that included cleaning, child-care, interior decoration, and cooking, she found herself excluded from even the most menial outer world activities such as wage earning or writing checks, and was discouraged from procuring a driver's license. She was as ignorant of her husband's outer world as he was of her domestic one.
Modern interpreters of Frankenstein are frustrated by these porcelain caricatures of womanhood.

The philosophy that women should inhabit a separate domestic sphere has been in existence in Western thought for centuries, going back to the ancient Greeks. Over the years, the relationship of my guest and her husband suffered from this philosophy, due to their separate spheres and mutual unfamiliarity of each other's worlds. The outside world had become so unfamiliar that she developed a mild form of agoraphobia. The fear of being in open or public places is a particularly crippling illness that may prevent its victims from even leaving home. As ludicrous as it sounds, her visiting my home could have caused her anxiety. The situation was unfamiliar and therefore, not safe. Her rage could have been the product of not knowing what to do in a strange environment. She obviously lost her boundaries enough to produce a flooding from her unconscious that impeded communication and normal relationship. I was expecting her to be able to function in the new environment as a full participant; instead my expectation for conversation set off an emotional response of meaningless chatter. Since the connection between leaving home and growing up is so firm, I realized that the elderly woman in front of me had never grown up, that her self-centered, idiosyncratic way of talking was the result of being subjected to domestic enslavement.

So like and yet so unlike are the female angel and demon. It requires only the fire of an altered palette to bring out the contours of the one latent in the face of the other. - Nina Auerbach

The brides of Frankenstein were raised in this separate sphere philosophy. Of them only one, Safie the Arabian, left home in any real sense. Caroline Beaufort's life is a parody of the Cinderella tale. Alphonse a much older, rich, ex-politician, married her when she was left destitute by her father. Mary Shelley describes the way that this relationship was understood:

He came like a protecting spirit to the poor girl, who committed herself to his care...Everything was made to yield to her wishes and her convenience. He strove to shelter her, as a fair exotic is sheltered by the gardener, from every rough wind, and to surround her with all that could tend to excite pleasurable emotion in her soft and benevolent mind.

On first glance it appears that the affectionate Alphonse was being kind to Caroline but, when looked at from a deeper perspective, it is more likely that the only way he could contain her strength was to make her into an infant. Caroline was strong and when put to the test actually supported her sick father and later carried on an effective service to the poor. One wonders if she would not have made an equally effective council-person in the Swiss canton as Alphonse.

Domestic Restrictions
Locked out of the outer male world, she expressed her power within the home. The way in which she did this was through child rearing. Her children were her means of expressing power. In fact, Caroline adopted the power of a Roman patriarch when she presented her son with the gift of a sister.

“On the evening previous to her being brought to my home, my mother had said playfully, "I have a pretty present for my Victor - tomorrow he shall have it." And when on the morrow, she presented Elizabeth to me as her promised gift, I, with childish seriousness, interpreted her words literally and looked upon Elizabeth as mine - mine to protect, love and cherish.

Caroline made a gift of Elizabeth, a second time, when she arranged the marriage of Victor and Elizabeth for the purpose of consoling Alphonse in his grief and providing for a successor to her motherly role.

She joined the hands of Elizabeth and myself: "My children," she said, "my firmest hope of future happiness were placed on the prospect of your union. This expectation will now be the consolation of your father. Elizabeth, my love, you must supply my place to my younger children."

Caroline's actions display a sort of domestic dictatorship which was calculating and far from the fragile exotic in need of protection. She was insuring that her influence on the domestic domain would continue and that she was fulfilling her duty and obligation as a mother and wife.

Obsessed with appearance

Throughout Frankenstein, physical appearance operates as a kind of cipher for spiritual disposition. Mary Shelley uses attraction and beauty to establish sympathetic responses in her characters all the while criticizing this practice by having the ugliest character, the Monster, display the most humane emotions and thoughts.
Obsession with Appearance

Image by Praewthida K

There is something far more spiritually beautiful about the Monster than any man or woman in the novel. The most physically beautiful person in the novel is undoubtedly Elizabeth. At an early age she was set apart by beauty:

Her hair was the brightest living gold, and despite the poverty of her clothing, seemed to set a crown of distinction on her head. Her brow was clear and ample, her blue eyes cloudless, and her lips and the moulding of her face so expressive of sensibility and sweetness that none could behold her without looking on her as of a distinct species, a being heaven-sent, and bearing a celestial stamp in all her features.

Just as she was an object of loveliness to others, she concerned herself with things of aesthetic beauty. "She busied herself with following the aerial creations of the poets; and in the majestic and wondrous scenes which surrounded our Swiss home." This appreciation of appearance can be contrasted with Victor who strove to get at the deep roots of things and the principles behind them. Given the separate sphere setting, it was much easier for her to passively observe and be observed than actively engage in outward life. Conversely, Victor seems to lack an aesthetic value when he creates a functionally superior though hideous monster. It would have done him well to reflect on the overall impression that an eight foot tall collage of human body parts would make on an observer. Working in partnership on the project may have ameliorated much suffering. While they were complementary in character, partnership was not in the destiny for Elizabeth and Victor.

Domestic restriction

Elizabeth shares the same sense of domestic restriction and duty as Caroline. She lost her grief in caring for Caroline's surviving family. Elizabeth becomes a surrogate mother and wife to Alphonse Frankenstein. Along with this role came a penchant for jealousy and protectiveness which is revealed by the fact that while fond of Justine she never ceases to distinguish between the superiority of her role in the family and Justine's. Elizabeth's ambivalence is evident even when pleading for Justine's life during the court scene. She unnecessarily says,

She nursed Madame Frankenstein, my aunt, in her last illness with the greatest affection and care and afterwards attended her own mother during a tedious illness...she was beloved by all the family.

In these few words, Elizabeth is intent on displaying Caroline Frankenstein as her aunt, a distinction she doesn't want shared with the servant Justine. A more effective, and perhaps, more accurate defense of Justine would have been that she was virtually "one of the family"; not merely, "beloved by the family". Elizabeth fashioned herself the mother of William, "my darling William... my little infant", even though Justine had more direct contact and responsibility for him. In the court case, arguing for Justine's life, it would have been less self serving and effective to have said that the servant had the bonds of a mother to William. In the domestic sphere with power at a premium it is not unlikely for women to see other women as competitors for the role of matriarch. While subtle, I think that this idea lies beneath the Elizabeth/Justine relationship.

Another quizzical aspect of Elizabeth's relationship to Justine involves the self-centered response that Elizabeth exhibits when visiting the condemned prisoner for the last time. Instead of commiserating with her, Elizabeth speaks of her own sorrow:

Oh, Justine! said she. Why did you rob me of my last consolation? I relied on your innocence, and although I was then very wretched, I was not so miserable as I am now.

While it is obvious that Elizabeth is sorrowful about Justine and her circumstances, her focus seems to be on the fact that the young woman's death is one in a series of personal calamities. She therefore, wittingly or not, puts Justine in the position of comforter rather than the comforted.

Her attitude mirrors in subtle feminine form the egocentrism that Victor reveals when he misreads the Monster's threat to be toward himself alone on his wedding night. The suffering isolated self comes first for both.

Not a True Partnership

Not a true partnership

image by Michael Olsen

Not unlike Mary Shelley, Elizabeth complains about the lack of response on the part of Victor. Yet her letters are chatty and full of everyday news concerning the servants, children and the gossip of Geneva. She punctuates these topics with a Swiss pride in Enlightenment principles of which she does not appear to have a terribly deep grasp . She concludes her letter with an almost groveling appeal to Victor to write one line. She intentionally places this request at the end of the letter while congratulating Clerval for being such a loyal letter writer.

Over the years, their relationship suffered due to the mutual unfamiliarity of each other's worlds.

Even though Elizabeth is perpetually frustrated by Victor's postponement of her marriage and seems a little too willing to allow him to be released from his vow to her, if there were another object of his affections, she nonetheless never presses him concerning the secret that separates them. Her "disinterested affection" may have more in it than merely a selfless love. She may have been intuiting the worst. From the active pole she is manipulative yet from the passive side she placidly colludes with Victor when he requests:

Chase away your idle fears; to you alone do I consecrate my life and my endeavors for contentment. I have one secret Elizabeth, a dreadful one; when revealed to you, it will chill your frame with horror, and then, far from being surprised at my misery, you will only wonder that I survive what I have endured. I will conclude this tale of misery and terror to you the day after our marriage shall take place, for my sweet cousin, there must be perfect confidence between us. But until then I conjure you, do not mention or allude to it... I know you will comply.

This request shows how little Victor considers his marriage to Elizabeth a true partnership. Far from being a secret that shows confidence in a loved one, this secret is irresponsible. The fact that Victor even brings it up is a sign that he may very much want to reveal the danger that their marriage holds for both of them. Imagine a groom knowing that he will die on his Wedding day without either telling his fiancée or postponing the marriage. His secret is a self-centered ridiculous game that Elizabeth chooses to ignore. But why? My hunch is that she may fear that the truth would destroy their union, a union she doesn't have as much confidence in as she indicates. Victor tells of her "more than marriage day" jitters:

I concealed my feelings by an appearance of hilarity, that brought smiles and joy to the countenance of my father but hardly deceived the ever-watchful eye of Elizabeth. She looked forward to our union with placid contentment, not unmingled with a little fear, which past misfortunes had impressed, that what now seemed certain and tangible happiness, might soon dissipate into an airy dream, and leave no trace but deep everlasting regret.

Effects of Separate Sphere Philosophy

1. Power expressed through domesticity.
2. Agoraphobic homebound immaturity.
3. Acceptance of male infantilization of women.
4. Obsessed with appearance.
5. Make other women competitors for men and domestic dominance.
6. Possessiveness and jealousy.
7. Isolated self becomes narcissistic and self-centered.
8. Emotionally dependent on men.
9. Manipulative - express-repress not straight communication.
10. Refusal to heed inner wisdom and intuition.
11. Put security before truth in evaluation of relationship - collude with family secrets.