Women of Speculative Fiction: Mary Shelley

I’ve decided to start a new series of posts exploring the influence of women on the genres of fantasy and science fiction. So often those genres, particularly sci-fi, are coded as “male,” which is not only a completely arbitrary and nonsensical categorization, but also demonstrably untrue. Women have been present in these genres from the beginning; indeed, speculative fiction as we know it today might not even exist without these women’s influence. I’ll be exploring writers and other real-life figures as well as female characters who populate the worlds of these genres.

We’ll start with one who has often been called the Mother of science fiction, though perhaps it might be slightly more accurate to call her the Grandmother. Frankenstein is a seminal work, no question of that, but it’s probably more properly viewed as proto-science fiction, and could be categorized just as accurately as a work of Gothic horror. I’ll get to the details of that later. First, let’s talk about Mary Shelley herself.

She was the daughter of famed feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, author of A Vindication of the Rights of Women. Though her mother died before Mary had the chance to know her, she was raised to think well of her beliefs and her writings. She was taught the political idealism of her father, William Godwin.

In one regard she followed very much in her mother’s footsteps – just as Wollstonecraft mothered an illegitimate child before marrying Mary’s father, Mary would embark on a romance at just 17 with a married Percy Shelley and bear several children before Percy’s wife died and they were themselves finally married.

Mary believed, as Percy did, in the concept of free love. Unfortunately, this played out rather differently for Percy than it did for her. While Percy had quite a few lovers, Mary could never bring herself to do much more than flirt with anyone but Percy. She was never as complacent about Percy’s free love practices as her convictions told her to be. She was painfully jealous when he seemed to favor another woman over her. And then of course there is the added consequence that only women have to deal with – several pregnancies, always very difficult, and ultimately resulting in the infant death of all but one of her children.

Her life was rife with tragedy. In addition to losing her mother and several children, Mary had to endure the suicide of her half-sister around the same time that Percy’s first wife also killed herself; the poverty of wandering through Europe in disgrace; estrangement from her father and the dislike of a stepmother who heavily favored her own children; much of what was probably undiagnosed depression; a terrifying miscarriage; the premature death of Percy by drowning; and health issues that eventually culminated in her death from a brain tumor at age 53.

Pretty bleak. So what sort of literature did this woman produce? Frankenstein was far from her only work, though it was her first novel and by far the most famous and memorable. None of her later novels contain the supernatural bent of the first, but all of them were written in the Romantic tradition. This refers not to our modern concept of romantic love, but to the literary and philosophical movement that believed in the supremacy of the chaotic natural word, stressing emotion over reason. Percy was a strong contributor to the movement, but Mary’s views differed from his in a few key ways. Unlike Romanticism’s praise of the individual, Mary believed that cooperation and sympathy were the only ways to reform society.

Perhaps it was quite deliberate that Victor Frankenstein, the title hero/anti-hero of the novel, brings about his destruction by working solitary dark deeds and spurning connectedness with others. That would be one of many ways to approach this curious novel. If you’re only familiar with the pop culture perception of Frankenstein, chiefly influenced by the 1930s films, you’d be quite surprised to learn the original form of the story. It contains frame stories with frame stories, beginning in the Arctic with an explorer named Walton who encounters an ailing Frankenstein. He tells Walton his sad tale, which in turn contains the monster’s own accounting of his birth and miserable life. He’s far more articulate and eloquent than the grunting, fire-fearing beast of the films! The letters that form the frame of the narrative might seem peculiar to us, but they were quite typical of the time. In the early 19th century when Frankenstein was written, the concept of the novel was still a fairly recent invention, and writers often felt compelled to compose their stories in the form of letters or other apparently real-world frameworks, as if to lend more credibility.

But perhaps even more bewildering for readers seeking a great bastion of early science fiction, there is very little actual science. Frankenstein makes vague references to his studies and his eventual success in creating life, but it is never explained precisely how. Indeed, he balks at Walton’s request to explain in more detail, as such knowledge should best be kept buried. How convenient. But the truth is, Mary wasn’t setting out to provide a fully plausible tale of reanimating corpses. She was writing a ghost story, as the origin of Frankenstein indicates: she, Percy and a few other writer friends were looking to amuse themselves during a rainy stay at Lake Geneva, and they all decided to write scary stories. Mary’s was the one that endured.

As the subtitle “The Modern Prometheus” would suggest, it is a cautionary tale against overreaching pride. This theme became almost ubiquitous in the sci-fi films of the 40s and 50s, to the point of becoming a cliché: “he tampered in God’s domain”, greatly appropriate for the fear of the atomic age. There, too, the line between science fiction and horror became very thin, as mad scientists and doctors created monsters meant to evoke our worst nightmares. Fans of hard science fiction are understandably frustrated by this conflation, as there is usually very little attempt to provide plausible explanations for the creation of these horrors. Still, it seems a common aspect of human nature is to always feel just a little skittish of scientific advancements.

Frankenstein plays with fire. And yet there is still ambiguity regarding which sin is the greater: creating the monster in the first place, or abandoning it upon its birth? Unlike the dramatic movie scenes with the doctor letting out wild exultant cries of “It’s alive!!”, Frankenstein does not rejoice when he brings his creation to life. All his fevered delight at making a living organism instantly turns to revulsion as the creature stirs, and he flees. The monster, alone and unguided, desperately seeks the company of others and only turns to violence when it is spurned based on its horrid appearance. We are also left to wonder if the monster would have inevitably turned monstrous by nature, or only did so because of Frankenstein’s careless abandonment. It’s quite likely that Mary’s own complicated experiences with motherhood influenced her, even if only unconsciously, to write a tale of a tortured, unnatural parent.

But what about women? Surely the daughter of such an acclaimed feminist would – no. There are only a few significant female characters in Frankenstein, and they are sadly flat and underdeveloped. Of course the only truly fleshed-out (no pun intended) characters are the monster and Frankenstein himself; everyone else is thinly drawn. That doesn’t quite excuse the fact that Frankenstein’s mother, his lover Elizabeth (who also happens to be his adoptive sister, but let’s not get into that weirdness right now) and all the rest of them are playing the same limited roles women are too often confined to – mother, wife, victim. And almost all of them must die to play out their role in Frankenstein’s story.

On the other hand, Mary believed that the cooperative, sympathetic influence necessary to reform society was best found with women, so perhaps she was implying that Frankenstein’s destruction was the result of his lack of that influence? Perhaps such an interpretation is a bit of stretch, but what else is literary theory for if not to tease out every possible convoluted explanation? The novel is short, yet there is no lack of possible interpretations as we try to speculate what it all means, what Mary Shelley was trying to say, and how this book provided the foundation of modern science fiction. One thing is clear – the speculative fiction world would be a very different one if Mary Shelley hadn’t decided to write down that ghost story.

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