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Sunday, March 21, 2010

Matriarchy, Modernity and the Scientist in Shelley’s Frankenstein

Amy Goh #260354243

ENGL 405: Medicine and Mystery in Victorian Literature

Professor Stephanie King

11th February 2010

Matriarchy, Modernity and the Scientist in Shelley’s Frankenstein

In Shelley’s Frankenstein, she presents us with a dystopian ‘world without mothers’ where sexual reproduction is asexual and the masculine figure has to take both roles. Thus, she reveals the impossible predicament of the modern scientist: of having to balance the intrinsically male notion of progress in the gaining of scientific knowledge- the foundation myth of ‘modernity’- with the internal need for the female, ‘humanising’ touch as expressed through familial ties and Nature. In Frankenstein’s tragedy, she reveals that the need for the scientific education to be revolutionised from the institutions of the university to a communal setting where knowledge is shared, and the female influence interposed to balance the inherently patriarchal1 scientific pursuit of knowledge with its mechanical probing of Nature, the ultimate female principle2. Victor’s monster’s deformity, in this lens, can be seen as Shelley’s comment on science’s ability to deform nature by trying to contain it within structures.

Modernity’s promise of the dawn of an “age of rationality” that would put an “end to superstition and injustice” and that “rational religion based on science would replace priest craft, democracy

1 I use the term “patriarchal” in the generic sense as a category for various forms of intrinsically ‘male’ dominating structures such as language (confining ideas to linguistic units) i, politics (the governing of bodies) and science (the structuring of the natural world through rational logic). Conversely, ‘matriarchal’ systems are centered about community, and the gathering and binding of peoples.

i In referring to ‘language’ as a dominating structure, I am alluding to Lecan’s theory in his essay “Middle March” that postulates that a child is initiated into the logic of a universe re-enforced by patriarchal structures when he acquires the faculties of language.
2 In referring to Nature as the “ultimate female principle”, I am alluding to the traditional idea of Nature/the earth as an essentially female force created by, and balancing, the typically male creator.

would overthrow aristocratic tyrants, and in time vastly improved machines and medicines would bring a far better life to all” (10 Ellwood)3 articulates a newfound humanistic optimism that was prevalent during Shelley’s time. There was a widespread belief that, through the realisation of a new, rational science, an “elixir of life” would “banish disease from the human frame” (40), depicting a way of thinking that devalues the female forces of intuition, sensory perception and communal bonding. In this cultural context, Shelley’s novel ultimately serves as a parable- a modern counterpoint to the Prometheus myth- to the possible dangers of subtracting the ‘matriarchal’ realm of feeling completely from the ‘patriarchal’ structures of instrumental pathology present in science.

Victor’s education begins in a matriarchal realm, where he, in his romps through nature with his childhood companions Elizabeth and Clerval, displays a gladness “akin to rapture” in “learning the hidden laws of nature” (Shelley 36). Early on, he describes a “fervent longing to penetrate the secrets of nature” (37) and states he disdains “the structures of languages... the code of governments”, preferring the “inner spirit of nature and the soul of man” found in the “secrets of heaven and earth” (37). He displays “an ardent imagination and childish reasoning” (40), thinking that by penetrating Nature’s womb, he will discover secrets unforeseen that will give him a spiritual satisfaction. To the contrary, the works of modern philosophers such as Sir Isaac Newton left him “discontented and unsatisfied” (39) with their reductive theories. Elizabeth, Victor’s foremost female figure, is associated with the former realm. Early on, it is established that while she busied herself with “the sublime shapes of the mountains... (and) the silence of winter” (36), Victor delighted in “investigating the causes” (36)- the mechanics- behind it all. She balances Victor’s

3 Robert Ellwood, ‘Myth, Gnosis, and Modernity,’ from The Politics of Myth: A Study of C. G. Jung, Mircea Eliade and Joseph Campbell (SUNY Press, 2004), 1-35.
4 Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley. Frankenstein (Oxford Classics). 1818. Reprint. London: Oxford University Press, 1980. Print.

“violent” (37) scientific temperament with “the living spirit of love... sub(duing) (him) to a semblance of her own gentleness” (39). Here, Shelley portrays the scientific need to understand the workings of Nature in a positive light when balanced with the female influence. In a pre-modern matriarchal world where familial ties and Nature is privileged, science has a beneficial role, giving the scientist a transcendent satisfaction in his discoveries. The realm of feeling is thus connected to the ‘male’ desire of understanding, and it is in exploring the great wonder of Nature in the company of “familiar faces” (45) that Victor finds the utmost fulfilment.
However, it is the university and the “modern system of science” (39) it imposes that drags Victor away from this childish, innocent pursuit of knowledge characteristic of the domestic, matriarchal sphere into an institutionalised, structured education. This would mark the start of a solitary spiral from which the removal of the female figures in Victor’s life will only aggravate. Initially, he is initiated by a “man of great research in natural philosophy” (41) away from the kingdom of ‘subliminal’ science linked to vast, insurmountable Nature into rational, reductive science. Natural phenomenon like thunder is reduced to the mathematics of electricity and galvanism, as the scientist is given a privileged position over the ancients with their “would-be science” of “natural history” (41) in his ability to ‘rein’ nature by understanding its mechanics. Thus enamoured by the rationality of this professor’s explanations, Victor rejects natural history as a “deformed and abortive creation” (41). This, in turn, foreshadows the inevitable turning of the magical wonder that accompanies the contemplation of the mysteries of the cosmos present in the pre-modern ‘matriarchal’ mind into the modern rationality that came with the enlightened modern mind. This discovery of electricity, thus, serves as an impetus for a new kind of thinking for Victor that shifts him from the communal realm of female influence to the male-dominated realm of science.

Similarly, the death of his mother and Elizabeth’s falling sick with scarlet fever before Victor’s departure for the university of Inglostadt can be seen as a foreshadowing of Victor’s subsequent downfall that begins when he embarks on the solitary route of the scientist in his embracing of the professor’s new form of ‘natural philosophy’ subtracted from the more innocent pursuit of ‘wonder’ in natural history. Nature, in contrast to science’s rationality, is here associated with the uncertain, larger realm of spiritual and instinctual knowledge. However, it is not in science’s inherent rationality that causes Victor to make his fatal mistake of trying to recreate the human structure, but in his distancing away from his family in the confines of his lab that resultantly, causes him to disassociate from his humanity and think that the secrets of Nature can be reduced to the “minuteness of parts” (53). As Victor narrates in retrospect later, the scientist “might dissect, anatomise, and give names; but her immortal lineaments were still a wonder and a mystery... (keeping) human beings from entering the citadel of nature” (40).

The process of Victor’s creation of the monster from the “intricacies of fibres, muscles, and veins” (53) is especially significant. He digs the “unhallowed damps of the grave” and “torture(s)... living animal(s)” with an ironically “supernatural enthusiasm” (51) to “animate... lifeless clay” (54) in a parody of Prometheus. He desires to theorise the creation myth itself, mistakenly thinking that the root of life comes from the grave. He becomes an ‘anti-God’, pulling together disparate parts from the recesses of churchyards. His belief that one has to “first have recourse to death” through the study of cadavers in order to “examine the causes of life” (51) cites the absence of a superstitious fear in death as an unknown, ominous, indeed unknowable entity. His studious belief that “wonderful man” will have victory over death shows the delusions that may exist when the scientist thinks he can master Nature with his instruments of rationality. The scientist, at close proximity to his microscope, in conquering disease gains the false impression that the grandeurs present in the all-encompassing Nature can, likewise, be tamed. Herein stems the roots of Victor’s god delusion: as the ‘modern’ Prometheus, Victor mistakenly thinks he can recreate the “principle of life” (51) with reductive scientific thinking, thereby perfecting a superior race outside the realm of Nature. Thus, he discredits the reproductive capacities of the female and the power of Nature, thinking he can lay control on all life. In the “solitary chamber, at the top of the house” (55) divorced from humanity and the season’s cycles, Victor undergoes the delusion that the tumours the “incipient disease”(57) of science produces from the grave will be redeemed by the subsequent beauty of its results. However, the “beauty of (that) dream vanish(es)” (57) with the reality of science’s grotesque face when the “shrine-dedicated lamp” (38) of the female influence (herein associated with all-encompassing Nature and the more accessible forces of Elizabeth and the communal sphere) is completely removed as Victor becomes increasingly obsessed with the (re) creation of life.

Shelley seems to imply, however, that the communal, matriarchal realm cannot be so easily put away as Victor sets his ‘false prophets’- Cornelius Agrippa, Albertus Magnus, and Paracelsus, formerly the “lords of (his) imagination” (41)- aside for the study of rational science. Victor, in desiring to recreate life, portrays the inevitable longing of the scientist for the lost matriarchal realm. Like Victor, he desires “continual food for discovery and wonder” (50). In other words, he wants knowledge to nourish him like a mother. Thus, Victor’s seeking of the “active principle of life” (51) can be seen as a search for the ultimate mother figure that he loses in his relentless pursuit of singular knowledge. It is the natural reaction of the modern scientist in having to “exchange chimeras of boundless grandeur for realities of little worth” (54). Likewise, Victor’s main motivation is that “A new species would bless me as its creator and source; many happy and excellent natures would owe their being to me. No father could claim the gratitude of his child so completely as I should deserve theirs” (54). Here, it can be seen that, even in the modern scientist, there is a ‘womb anxiety’- an innate desire to ‘retreat’ and reconcile with the lost feminine force that can only be accessed through Nature, family and the communal realm. In Victor’s monster, Shelley likens the production of knowledge to the creation of an essentially vital entity. In desiring to recreate the biological force through the pursuit of knowledge, thus, Victor essentially desires to create a being that will provide him with sustenance. However, due to his education, he makes the fatal mistake of thinking that by mastering- in itself a patriarchal act- human life through the instrumental logic of science, he can regain contact with the lost female force. Victor “attempts to usurp (the)... biological female function... (refusing) to accept the limitations of his male identity”. In doing so, he “trespasses divine territory, (and)... challenges the divinely ordained, natural procreative role of the female” (Kiely 64)4. Thus, in the ‘world without mothers’ of modern science, the creation of knowledge can be seen as a result of needing to compensate for the loss of a vitalistic force. In Victor’s case, this becomes the catalyst for his destruction when he decides he does not need the female force and can reproduce life asexually. The Victorian scientist- in his devaluing of the powers of the female realm- becomes a comical figure in trying to uncover the secrets of life using essentially lifeless, mechanical instruments.

However, in attributing his fate to the “immutable laws” (42) of “Chance” and “the Angel of Destruction” (45), Victor subconsciously adheres to the secret feminine power of Nature- here, an inherently greater, ‘sublime’, unconquerable entity- in his belief of superstition. Superstition, here,

4 Robert Kiely. The Romantic Novel in England. Cambridge, MA, 1972.

is associated with the realm of intuition, a female instinct; like old Gods become demons, intuition is debased in Victorian society into something inherently anachronistic. Thus, even though the Victorian scientist desired to obliterate disease from humankind in his vision of a utopian humanism, he was inevitably confined within certain limits. The scientist may have suffered delusions of being able to confine the natural world into the structures of scientific reasoning; however, new ‘natural’ science, due to its unnatural properties, becomes a perversion, just as the monster can be seen as Science’s deformed progeny. Thus, in privileging superstition and allocating the deformity of the monster to ‘Chance’, Shelley inverts the conventional Victorian conception of superstition as irrational, revealing the need to acknowledge the potency of such feminine forces in rational discourses such as science.

Victor’s romantic voyage with Clerval can, in this light, be interpreted as another search for the lost sublimity of Nature he experienced in childhood. He desires to re-enter the feminine womb of nature by beholding it like the poet, reconciling with the lost, repressed feminine forces he rejects in choosing the solitary life of the scientist over familial community. He seeks “the passion caused by the great and sublime in nature... astonishment” (Burke5), journeying through glaciers and vast mountains hoping to, in the “brawling waves” of “imperial nature” (96), find solace and indeed, they do provide him with momentary reprieve. As he states, contemplating nature “elevated (him) from all littleness of feeling, and although they did not remove (his) grief, they subdued and tranquillized it” (96). However, as he has already conquered the natural world within the structures of science with his discovery of the secret of the ultimate ‘principle of life’, Nature’s wonder no longer holds any solace for there is nothing within its limits that can cause him true astonishment. Thus, Victor’s

5 Edmund Burke. On the Sublime and Beautiful. Vol. XXIV, Part 2. The Harvard Classics. New York: P.F. Collier & Son, 1909–14; Bartleby.com, 2001. www.bartleby.com/24/2/.

reprieve is short-lived, and as early as the next morning this newfound tranquility “fled with sleep, and dark melancholy clouded every thought” (96). The lost authentic connection to ‘something greater’- the spiritual, motherly force- evades him.

Shelley, however, does not completely debase science into the regions of the narcissistic imaginings of the modern mind in its desire to recreate itself. To the contrary, she gives Victor a chance to redeem himself. If Victor had nurtured the monster by relearning maternal instinct and undertaking creative responsibility, he could have been saved by his monster’s gratitude for his creator. However, Victor fails to realise the necessity of taking maternal responsibility over the creation of his progeny and abandons his monster, not even bothering to give it a name. Due to the lack of the female influence, he lacks sympathy for the monster, reducing the issue of paternal responsibility to the weight of his rights over the small “portion of happiness” (144) he would be able to bestow his monster. Instead of taking the sympathetic view as Prometheus did in his giving of fire to man, he “reduce(s) (the issue) to an opposition between self and other” (Gilligan 256), speaking in the language of debt and obligation rather than that of the maternal responsibility a creator should feel for his child. Pity is similar to sympathy which, as James Joyce states, “arrests the mind in the presence of whatsoever is grave and constant in human sufferings and unites it with the sufferer”. Terror, in contrast, “is the feeling which arrests the mind in the presence of whatsoever is grave and constant in human sufferings and unites it with the secret cause” (Joyce 239)7. Likewise, Victor’s failure at pity and embracing of terror is a failing to realise that “creation is always an associative or nurturing act: a creator recognises the inherent capabilities of his/her

6 Carol Gilligan, In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women's Development. Reissue ed. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993. Print.
7 James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (The Modern Library; Random house, Inc.), p. 239.

progeny (whether that progeny takes the for of a child, an idea, or a monster) and moulds the fashions it it in the context most suitable for its development and success” (Hustis 855)8. In other words, in the inherently single-minded pursuit of science, the scientist often overlooks the creative responsibility he possesses in the act of creation, a lesson that can only be obtained when one understands one’s obligation to humanity and that human kind is inherently connected to each other.

However, Shelley does not paint a completely stark picture of modern science. Rather, she proposes that Victor needs to be 'humanised' by returning 'home' to the more matriarchal realm of familial values in which communication and the sharing of knowledge is a characteristic. Shelley criticises the English idea that a liberal arts education- a pre-requisite for the scientific profession in Oxford- is the solution to ‘soften’ science. After all, Clerval, who is shown throughout the novel as possessing a child-like enthusiasm for the natural world, is stated to have been “debarred from a liberal education” (44) . Rather, she stresses the need of humanly ties and the importance of the scientific community- the communal ‘matriarchal’ influence- in 'neutralising' scientific knowledge. All in all, Victor’s monster is not a disavowal of science, but a progressive look at how it can be transformed into something benefitting mankind with the right ‘tools’. Although Nature- in modernity- has been permanently deformed, the solution does not strictly lie in a romantic regression into the sublime (the Romantic poet’s solution), but in the embracing of such deformity by the sharing of knowledge in a scientific community that emphasises communication between research fields.

8 Harriet Hustis, “Responsible Creativity and the “Modernity” of Mary Shelley’s Prometheus”, SEL 43, 4 (Autumn 2003): 845-858

Works Cited

"Burke, Edmund. 1909. 14. On the Sublime and Beautiful. Vol. 24, Part 2. The Harvard Classics." Bartleby.com. N.p., n.d. Web. 10 Feb. 2010. .

Ellwood, Robert, ‘Myth, Gnosis, and Modernity,’ from The Politics of Myth: A Study of C. G. Jung, Mircea Eliade and Joseph Campbell (SUNY Press, 2004), 1-35. Print.

Gilligan, Carol. In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women's Development. Reissue ed. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993. Print.

Hustis, Harriet, “Responsible Creativity and the “Modernity” of Mary Shelley’s Prometheus”, SEL 43, 4 (Autumn 2003): 845-858. Print.

Joyce, James A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (The Modern Library; Random house, Inc.), p. 239. Print.

Kiely, Robert. The Romantic Novel in England. Cambridge, MA, 1972. Print. Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft. Frankenstein (Oxford Classics). 1818. Reprint. London: Oxford
University Press, 1980. Print.

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