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MLQ: Modern Language Quarterly 63.2 (2002) 197-226

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The Monster in a Dark Room:
Frankenstein, Feminism, and Philosophy

Nancy Yousef

It is as a giant that the creature makes his first appearance in Frankenstein. He is the "strange sight" that attracts Walton's attention, a "being which had the shape of a man but apparently of gigantic stature" and clearly of a different kind from Frankenstein, the wretched, emaciated stranger Walton's crew pulls aboard the vessel. The creature's "miserable frame" embodies the omission of infancy and childhood from Frankenstein's conception. The creature does not come to life as a small, helpless infant in need of the care of others; his height and vigor are exaggerated inversions of the tininess and weakness of newborns. The long period of becoming (human) that follows birth and entails varied and prolonged dependence on others is precluded by the mature form that the creature has at birth. He himself associates the absence of a formative history of dependence and relation with his grossly anomalous physical shape as he describes his developing sense of being "similar [to], yet strangely unlike" human beings: "I was unformed in mind; I was dependent on none, and related to none. . . . My person was hideous and my stature gigantic." 1 The creature's [End Page 197] giantism is both a fantastic element in the fiction (mysteriously, inexplicably, magically, the human limbs Frankenstein selects are extrahuman in proportion) and exemplary of Mary Shelley's use of the fantastic to further the narrative of the creature's development. Although the full-grown body he is brought to life in enables his physical survival, its monstrous size points to infantile dependence and vulnerability as the conditions that Frankenstein's conception denies.

Not surprisingly, the creature's nonbirth, occluding an unavoidably female act, has dominated feminist interpretations of Frankenstein. Yet the novel is no less strange, no less fantastic, in its handling of the creature's growing up (not that he ever grows, of course). Frankenstein contends with ideals of autonomy and self-sufficiency not only by narrating the unnatural fashioning of a creature in an act of solitary conception but, perhaps more important, by narrating the unnatural development of the creature after it has been abandoned to its solitary fate. This argument makes possible a richer recognition of Shelley's intellectual feminism, particularly her sophisticated engagement with influential theories of development in her day. It also demonstrates the value of recent movements in philosophy that have yet to find a firm place in literary studies.

The Promethean arrogance of Frankenstein's project, the ambition to create life without the other, and the inescapable erasure of the feminine and the maternal that that ambition and project entail: these have been the foci of varied feminist interpretations of the novel, which have also been overwhelmingly influenced by psychoanalytic and psycholinguistic theories. Shelley's "early and chaotic experience, at the very time she became an author, with motherhood" informs Ellen Moers's reading of Frankenstein as a "woman's mythmaking on the subject of birth." 2 But such an approach risks reducing the text to a [End Page 198] "monstrous symptom" of the author's psyche. Registering the influence of Jacques Lacan, Hélène Cixous, and Luce Irigaray, Mary Jacobus objects that interpretations of the novel as a "feminist rereading" of Paradise Lost or other canonical texts depend on extratextual notions of "female experience" and female authorship (although her own reading of Frankenstein as a "drama of oedipal rivalry" that demands the destruction of the female sees the novel as reworking both Milton and the "predominantly oedipal forms of Byronic and Shelleyan Romanticism"). 3 Subsequently, Margaret Homans has attempted a synthetic analysis, combining a historical account of female experience with a theoretical emphasis on the discursive construction of the feminine. Her reading of Frankenstein as a deliberate "criticism . . . of the gendered myth of language that is part of [androcentric] ontology" accommodates the relevant, and well-known, biographical details, psychobiographical conjecture, and analysis of Shelley's appropriation of literary precedents such...


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pp. 197-226
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