Writing from the Center and Margin: An Analysis of Mary Shelley’s Creation of Frankenstein

Women are sociological chameleons; they take on the class, lifestyle, and culture of their male counterparts. However, it can also be argued that women themselves have formed a subculture within the framework of a nascent society unified by the values, conventions, experiences and behaviors impinging on each individual. Such a subculture is custodial although a thriving and positive entity (Robbins 13). It is custodial as it enables the perpetuation of a group’s subordination [it contains a set of opinions, prejudices, tastes, and values prescribed to a subordinate group that enables the perpetuation of its subordination]. A thriving and positive entity, on the other hand, as it enables the formation of self-awareness [such a subculture is seen as fostering the creation of a collective identity outside the conceptual framework of the male culture]. Women, in this sense, may be seen as possessing what Chela Sandoval refers to as an “oppositional consciousness”: the ability to read and write culture on multiple levels (qtd in Kaplan 187). Within this situation, the woman is placed on the edge. The edge, in this sense, may be seen as a region where there is a potential for isolation and despair but most importantly growth and liberty. Such a situation is captured succinctly by Bell Hooks as she states

Living as we did-on the edge-we developed a particular way of seeing reality. We looked both from outside in and from inside out. We focused our attention on the center as well as on the margin [and hence] we understood both (23).

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The political situation of margin and center relies on the existence of a conceptual framework where marginal perspectives are perceived not as “passive recipients of ready made images and structures (but as) complex, sophisticated views” which filter and mediate other perspectives (Kaplan, 358). In the process of recreation, local meanings are created which in turn lead the way for the formation of hybrid cultural relics and subjects. Such an occurrence leads to the displacement of identities, persons and meanings. Deleuze and Guattari refer this as the process of “deterritorialization” (62).

Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari use the term to locate the moment of alienation and exile in language and literature. In the process of deterritorialization, one is able to achieve the effects of the radical distanciation of the signifier and the signified resulting to the estrangement of meanings and utterances. “This defamiliarization enables imagination, even if it produces alienation ‘to express another community, to force the means for another consciousness and another sensibility’” (Kaplan, 358). In the process, we no longer delineate ourselves to specific literatures, which we consider as the works of “masters”, but what we designate is the “revolutionary condition” for the formation of a new form of literature which “travels and moves between centers and margins” (Kaplan, 358).

Within this context the development of personal and political identity are established or pushed through by citing the differences of margin and center. Hence, one can develop one’s identity by rewriting and hence redefining the signifiers attached to the self within a particular domineering culture. Displaced individuals [which include subjects of gender and sexual discrimination] recognize the effects of this situation.

Mary Shelley, a multi-faceted female writer during the period of Romanticism [Romantic Era in English Literature] recognized the possibility of forming a strategic response against the language, which delineates the women’s existence through her creation of Frankenstein. Frankenstein [The Modern Prometheus] has been seen as a critique of the industrial revolution, of value-free experimental science, and of romantic Prometheanism, the philosophy to which Percy Shelley [her husband] and his friends [specifically Lord Byron] subscribed. Such a philosophy assumed that there ought to be no limits to human experience and experimentation (Bloom 214-15).

It is important to note that the creation of Frankenstein was highly influenced by the two aforementioned figures [Percy Shelley and Lord Byron]. The novel was written during 1816 when Mary Shelley and her husband visited Switzerland in order to meet Lord Byron [George Gordon]. During this period, Byron proposed that each member of the group should write a ghost story. However, amongst the three, it was only Mary Shelley who was able to finish the construction of the story. The result of her efforts is a tale that exerts a hypnotic force on the reader. Apart from the gripping character of her work, Shelley enabled the creation of a genuine literary myth. However, due to the conditions of her time [English culture perceived women’s thoughts as irrational and insignificant], the novel was initially published anonymously. It was only during 1831 that she revised the initial edition and published it in her own name. The differences amongst the two editions mirror the influence of the two aforementioned figures [Percy Shelley and Lord Byron] in the construction of Frankenstein. Furthermore, both editions mirror Shelley’s development as a writer. Joseph states, although the initial edition was characterized with a spite of errors [those of a novice]…the central idea is carried through with considerable skill and force” thereby mirroring the promise of Mary Shelley as a writer (v). I would like to note, however, that Shelley’s revised edition of the novel also mirror her separation from the Romanticism that characterized and defined her husband’s [as well as Lord Byron’s views]. Such a separation is evident in the fatalism evident in the second version of Frankenstein.

As opposed to the initial version, the second version of the aforementioned novel may be seen as characterizing Shelley’s fatalistic conception of human existence. Human life is thereby portrayed as ruled by an indifferent power capable of betraying human desires for the good. During 1818, Frankenstein was depicted as in possession of both free will and autonomy. He was depicted as an individual capable of abandoning his quest for the “principle of life”. Along with this, he was depicted as an individual who could have cared for his creation. Dr. Frankenstein’s initial depiction was thereby that of an individual immune to differing potentialities. Such a perspective is highly characteristic of Shelley and Byron’s Romanticism. The revision of the novel, however, depicted an individual prone to chance. Thus, Victor Frankenstein notes in the second version that “our souls constructed…by such slight ligaments (that) we are bound to propensity or ruin (Shelley 239). He further mentions in the later part of the passage that salvation could have been possible for the characters, however such a salvation was denied due to the potency of destiny. He states, destiny’s “immutable laws decreed my (Dr. Frankenstein’s) utter and terrible destruction” (Shelley 239).

As opposed to such a view, one may state that the fatalism within the novel was not really a departure from her husband’s and her neighbor’s (Lord Byron) Romanticism. Rather, such a use of fatalism was meant to place emphasis on the use of rationality in the assessment of devastating moral occurrences. The aforementioned instance, in this sense, may be seen as Dr. Frankenstein’s attempts at rationalization and self-deception. However, as opposed to this view, the Romantics themselves recognized the futility of acts of self-deception as well as the paradoxical character of such acts. Note, for instance the manner in which Percy Shelley states “the secret Strength of things/Which govern thought, and to the infinite dome/ Of Heaven is as a law”. Such a passage may be perceived, as Shelley’s [his philosophical view’s] inclination towards the rules of rationality taking control over silence and fatality. Within a rational world, self-deception stands as a paradoxical concept due to the necessity of knowing and hence believing a thing, concept, or idea, which one chooses to contradict and negate. Such an act thereby amounts to a form of succumbing to the silence of fatality. Furthermore, in relation to this, thoughts of fatalism were also apparent in the female character of the novel.

If it is the case that the second version of Frankenstein mirrors an adherence to fatalism on Mary Shelley’s part, one wonders how it is possible for her to portray Sandoval’s conception of oppositional consciousness. Note that oppositional consciousness stands as a manner of creating a new conception of reality as opposed to the predominant conception of reality evident within one’s conceptual framework. Percy Shelley stands as a direct influence on the shaping of Mary Shelley’s thoughts. Although May Shelley belonged to a highly radical family [being the daughter of Wollstonecraft and Goodwin], the early death of her mother [Wollstonecraft] and thereby her initial experience of family life as highly patriarchal in character [in the sense that the man is the only member of the family retained amongst her parents] enabled her to be highly situated within the auspices of male rationality. The later part of her novel, in this sense may be depicted as depicting the manner in which both men and women are recognized as affected by the custodial character of a patriarchal culture. However, due to the dominance of male creation [in terms of meaning] within this aforementioned culture, the male stands as the one directly affected by the irrationality of his presumed rationality [which is evident in the fate of Dr. Frankenstein and his creature]. Frankenstein, in this sense, may be seen as Mary Shelley’s depiction of the mistaken assumptions of her time, which mirrors the mistakes of patriarchy and its effects upon itself. Her novel thereby opts for the recreation of the margins so as to affect the foundational propositions and hence foundational truths depicted within the center of the patriarchal ideology.