The Victorian period is characterized by the paradox of a great opening in society as well as a tremendous constraint. It is known as the age of change and social advances as well as the age of strict social structure and a severe regard for the customs of the past. Under the reign of Queen Victoria, the Industrial Revolution came of age, blossomed and brought sweeping change across the country and the world. Life switched from a base primarily dictated by the land one owned to a social structure based on commerce and manufacturing (Greenblatt, 2005). In this switch, people living in these changing times began to question the status quo creating a great deal of social upheaval.
Social class structures started to break down and women, too, began to question their allotted place in society. However, at the same time, these breaks from the traditions incited a response reaction in favor of more traditional social roles in other areas, such as the refutation of male sexual relationships to the extent that one could be sentenced to death for participating in the act of homosexuality. “The Victorian novel, with its emphasis on the realistic portrayal of social life, represented many Victorian issues in the stories of its characters” (Greenblatt, 2005). During this period, writers such as Mary Shelley expressed a great deal of concern with these issues. An examination of Shelley’s novel Frankenstein demonstrates both the fear of and impossibility of suppressing homosexuality during this era.
During this period in history, homosexuality advanced in awareness to a socially defined term as well as a practice punishable by law. Although laws against sodomy existed for centuries prior to the period in which Mary Shelley envisioned Frankenstein, none of these successfully attained perpetual status and most were not developed with perpetual status in mind (Harvey, 1978). Records show that while there no active laws against sodomy per se existed during Shelley’s writing of the novel, other laws applied against expressions of homosexuality and there a strong negative public reaction against homosexuality occurred in the early 1800s. “In 1810, when thirty homosexuals were arrested in a raid on the White Swan, Vere St., London, those discharged for want of evidence were so roughly handled by the crowd as to be in danger of their lives” (The Morning Chronicle, 1810).
The subject was delicately handled in the media as well. For example, one report of an execution reported the reason for the sentence as being punishment for “a crime at which nature shudders, not a syllable of the evidence on which we can state” (Sibly, 1815). This sort of evidence illustrates the commonly held beliefs and attitudes among the general population regarding these issues.
However, Shelley did not live as part of the general population. The author of Frankenstein arrived as Mary Godwin in 1797, “just five months after her politically radical parents, William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft, who did not believe in marriage, were married” (Wolf, 2004: 5). Her mother was one of the few feminists of her time, having published well-known commentaries regarding the rights of men and women and particularly for her stance that girls should be provided with an education sufficient to allow them to remain independent. Her father was equally well-known for his libertarian viewpoints and published works.
Although her mother died soon after giving birth to Mary, Shelley’s father exposed her to the world of the literati. He encouraged her to use her imagination and allowed her to read through his collection as well as sit in on his conversations with other prominent writers of his time. These included William Wordsworth, Charles and Mary Lamb, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and William Hazlitt (Pabst-Kastner, 2003). She led a rather difficult life with Percy Shelley, constantly vying for his attention with others including male writers and his first wife, and remained unmarried through the birth of her three children, all fathered by Shelley, only the latter two of which survived. Shelley wrote Frankenstein just before her second daughter’s birth and married Shelley just before the novel’s publication after his first wife had committed suicide.
Throughout the novel, Shelley explores the social abhorrence toward homosexuality by couching it in the more socially acceptable terms of the growing machine age. “Mary Shelley used science as a metaphor for any kind of irresponsible action and what she really was concerned with was the politics of the era” (Pamintuan, 2002).
She accomplishes this investigation into homosexuality not only in Frankenstein’s use of science as a means of producing his monster, but also in the way in which he reacts to the monster and through the consistent references to the ‘unnatural’ state of things in the absence of women. “More in keeping with eighteenth-century moralists than with either William Godwin or Percy Shelley, Mary Shelley characterizes innate desire not as neutral or benevolent but as quintessentially egotistical” (Poovey, 1984: 253). Rather than being concerned with the ‘natural’ order of the world and the advancement of society, Frankenstein, like the homosexual element of Britain, concerned itself with ‘unnatural’ male love.
From the beginning of his studies, Victor Frankenstein purposefully and intentionally turned his back on the natural world as a means of concentrating on discovering the secret of bringing life to inanimate material, a process in which he was “forced to spend days and night in vaults and charnel-houses. My attention was fixed upon every object the most insupportable to the delicacy of the human feelings” (Shelley, 1993: 45) while “my eyes were insensible to the charms of nature” (Shelley, 1993: 49).
Despite the warnings he’d received and the obvious challenge to the natural order of things, Frankenstein continued his search for deep knowledge, continued to work on the creature he had started, continued to envision it as a beautiful thing that would give all homage to him. This demonstrates the unproductive passion of the homosexual lover, the desire to know something ‘unnatural’ and beyond God’s laws. Continuously giving in to his desires blinds him to the true nature of his actions until the living monster stands facing him in all its horrendous grotesqueness.
Although he creates the monster, Frankenstein cannot bear to look upon him. The young doctors falls so ill following the creature’s animation that he requires long-term care by his friend Cherval before he can travel. Although female relatives are the more traditional characters called in to be nursemaid to an ailing young man, Cherval emerges as the only individual capable of adequately tending Frankenstein’s despair. Frankenstein, having created something so hideous he can’t bear himself to look upon it, abandons his creation and allows it to enter the world unprotected, uncared for and misunderstood at every turn; essentially dooming his creature to eternal loneliness in his monstrosity.
This feeling of utter disregard for the well-being of the created wells up immediately upon the creature’s first breath of life. “The beauty of the dream vanished, and breathless horror and disgust filled my heart. Unable to endure the aspect of the being I had created, I rushed out of the room” (Shelley, 2004: 42). Frankenstein only agrees to discuss things with the monster once the threat has been made to his family, forcing the monster to violence as the only means to gain an ear and illustrating the imaginary creation of the unnatural relationship between two men.
The monster, on the other hand, gains his knowledge of a natural life through his experiences outside of Frankenstein’s influence. He comes into life with a gentle spirit and a predilection for loving the natural things of the world. As the spring warmed the earth during the monster’s stay outside the De Lacey home where he gained the learning he should have gained from Frankenstein, the monster tells Frankenstein “my spirits were elevated by the enchanting appearance of nature; the past was blotted from my memory, the present was tranquil, and the future gilded by bright rays of hope and anticipations of joy” (Shelley, 2004: 119).
Here, he learns that a natural life consists of the loving relationship that develops between a man and a woman and thus, he determines to force Frankenstein to provide him with a wife, something that terrifies Frankenstein beyond measure. The creature cannot exist within the world in which he finds himself because he is neither male nor female. He is the only one of his kind and quickly comes to the realization that without a balancing influence, he will not find peace: “You must create a female for me, with whom I can live in the interchange of those sympathies necessary for my being” (Shelley, 2004: 195).
With his final hope for happiness thwarted in Frankenstein’s refusal to create a companion for him, the monster then dedicates himself completely to the destruction of the man he wished most to love. In the end, the creature tells Walton, “I had cast off all feeling, subdued all anguish, to riot in the excess of my despair. Evil thenceforth became my good. Urged thus far, I had no choice but to adapt my nature to an element which I had willingly chosen” (Shelley, 2004: 239). This refers to one of the most often cited excuses why a man might consider sodomy which rested on the absence of the availability of women.
As previously mentioned, the monster itself emerges as a symbol of the sexual act consumed among men. His body comprises the collected parts from bodies of other men and comes to life in an arousal spasm that Frankenstein fails to consummate or put to rest. This concept is based upon Peter Brook’s (1984) outline of the traditionally male-centered approach to literature and sex in which there is an arousal period, a climax and an end in quiescence. In his own words, the male act starts with an “awakening, an arousal, the birth of an appetency, ambition, desire or intention” (Brook, 1984). From this point, the aroused male takes action through a “significant discharge” before shrinking back into satisfaction and sleep (Brook, 1984).
“The Masterplot of the novel would, according to the pleasure principle, be the chain of events that restores the creature to death while accounting for all the significances of its having come to life” (Winnett, 1990, p. 506). In other words, for the novel to follow the path of male consummation, the monster must find some meaningful expression for his life, such as having made a connection of some positive sort with another member of the human race, and then returned to death where he belongs. Shelley’s novel thus introduces a failure of consummation among men because neither of these important events occurs, suggesting an impotence of some kind among the characters.
The creature of Frankenstein thus emerges not only as a symbol in his actions, but also as a symbol in his mere existence. As a technologically produced, free-thinking and self-aware being, he represents the concept of man’s science taking over the reproductive powers of women, supplanting the natural role and removing the feminine from the equation all together. This produces horrific results both physically and psychologically that quickly escalate much further out of control than could have been originally imagined.
The monster’s role in the death of Justine as well as the murder of Elizabeth further emphasizes this concept of technology attempting to replace the functions of women, thus negating their importance to society. At the same time, Victor’s refusal to create a female for the monster reflects the general fear of men that women could not be adequately contained through any other means than destruction.
Victor Frankenstein emerges as a very narcissistic male, concerned with fulfilling his own desires regardless of their effect upon the rest of society. This reflects the attitude held by many Victorians regarding the unnatural issue of homosexuality. “Narcissistic males, Victor and Robert (like Percy), displace their homosexual goals and in so doing suppress any goal outside the self. Victor begins with a willful act of creation and ends with a weak act of inaction at the site of Elizabeth’s death. Mr. Veeder … in his elaboration of an analogy with Percy Shelley, makes some interesting observations about Percy’s own latent homosexuality.
Shelley’s bifurcation, the doomed alternative to Mary’s androgynous model, is understood to result from an original desire for a male object: a ‘negative’ Oedipus complex. This is reproduced in Victor’s character, who desires Elizabeth’s death but finds in the monster/’father’ not a beloved after all but a ravisher” (Janowitz, 1989). Parallels are thus drawn between the author’s personal life and the novel that further serve to illustrate its homosexual overtones.
While numerous readings are possible of Shelley’s novel, it is undeniable that one of the many issues she concerned herself with was the issue of homosexuality and its effects on society. In doing so, Shelley reflected much of the sentiment of the time. Investigations into her personal life suggest Shelley perhaps also found herself trying to cope with homosexual tendencies in her lover and future husband while contemplating the incredible dynamics of life and death having just lost one child and in the process of producing another. It is thus not surprising that she should envision the product of a homosexual relationship, its nature and its effect upon the world, particularly given world events occurring at that time.
Through the character of Victor Frankenstein, Shelley investigates the destructive forces of homosexuality as the product of his passion wanders the earth in search of a ‘normal’ life it can never have. Although hidden within a discussion of the technological advances of science, Shelley includes small details to help illustrate the homosexual bent of the novel, such as in the case of Cherval and Frankenstein’s deep attachment to this male character and in the killing of the female characters as a means of keeping the story couched within the male sphere. The process of creation itself is even distanced from the natural collaboration of male and female. Through the progress of the novel, Shelley demonstrates the destructive and, at best, isolating effects of homosexuality.
Brooks, Peter. Reading for the Plot: Design and Intention in Narrative. New York: Knopf, 1984.
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