Degree Year

1991

Document Type

Thesis

Degree Name

Bachelor of Arts

Department

English

Advisor(s)

John Olmsted

Committee Member(s)

David Young

Keywords

Mary Shelley, Frankenstein, Women, Reproduction

Abstract

When Mary Shelley referred to her first novel, Frankenstein, as "my hideous progeny," she could not have comprehended the full significance of her words. For while her phrase eloquently compares her creation of the text with Victor Frankenstein's creation of the monster, we, reading the novel today, are witness to the "hideous progeny" to which her own text has given rise. Version after version has sprung forth, focusing on different aspects of her story, leading to such productions as the famous 1931 Boris Karloff film, The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1973) and the recent Edward Scissorhands. In the past fifteen or twenty years, however, Frankenstein has been reborn not simply in new versions but to a new life altogether, in the illumination of feminist criticism. While the Frankenstein story has yielded a rich tradition in the world of science-fiction and fantasies of horror, the text takes on a new dimension when we consider the significance of the fact that it was written by a woman. For, fundamentally, Frankenstein is the story of a man who creates a world in which women are unnecessary. The very function of the body that gives women a place in this world, in Mary Shelley's world, is appropriated by a man. Shelley emphasizes the significance of this project as a step towards rendering women unnecessary III two distinct ways. First and foremost is her characterization of Victor Frankenstein--his unhealthy attitudes toward women, his resistance to understanding women's biology, his refusal to create a female monster. Yet she also frames his story in that of Robert Walton, whose only tie with a woman is with his sister, and who, with a group of men, strives to overpower nature and establish a new society at the North Pole. What Shelley creates, then, is a text that speaks to issues of men's control of women, the use of science to control nature, and the role of human biology in all of this.

Throughout history, the issue of reproduction has played an integral role in the ways in which men and women relate to one another. Procreation has always been the one absolutely essential function of our species; at the same time, it has brought with it varying degrees of enjoyment, and has become an issue of power balances. While reproduction depends upon the union of a man and a woman, it also accentuates the differences that separate male and female. The physical structure of our biology portrays different aspects of power; in the sexual act, man is the active penetrator of woman, the passive penetrated, yet it is the woman's body that builds, nurtures, and produces a human being. It is important to consider the constants of the process of reproduction--the sexual act itself, for example--in the context of our steadily changing knowledge and perception of the human body and how it works. I am examining here the idea of men's lack of understanding of the process of reproduction--both in a historical sense of a time when men simply did not understand the mechanics of conception, and in a social, more modern sense of refusing to understand it.

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