Frankenstein and Reproductive Rights 200 Years On

“If we could perceive death as a part of pregnancy, we might just take women more seriously.”

These words are taken from a recent article on ‘Mothers as Makers of Death,’ published by Claudia Dey in the Paris Review, in which she affirms a darker alternative to the Hallmark version of motherhood. Mary Shelley also understood that birth, reproduction, and death are not separate, but bound up intimately and inextricably. Inspired by my twin interests in sexuality studies, and (as a creative writer) the origins of writers’ ideas, I want to revisit Frankenstein through the lens of reproduction, birth, and the maternal body. This seems a useful exercise, because at the heart of the book is Dr. Frankenstein’s fatal dalliance with reproductive power, an example that might serve as a warning relevant to modern debates about reproductive rights, and taboos concerning maternal bodies.

51hLOizkA7L._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_Fiona Sampson’s 2018 biography, In Search of Mary Shelley, takes great pains to portray experiences of birth and death, beginning with a graphic description of Mary Wollstonecraft giving birth to Shelley. The inept surgeon pulls away “the afterbirth in pieces” with “unsterile hands” without anesthetic, an excruciating process that condemned Wollstonecraft to die from septicemia, suckling puppies instead of baby Mary who taken away to protect her from the infection. It is still shocking to describe this out loud, because there are still powerful taboos about maternal bodies, blood, afterbirth, placenta, the severed umbilical – not images for a Hallmark card. Wollstonecraft’s story was so unspeakable that William Godwin, Shelley’s father, marked the day of her horrible death in his diary by crossing out the space.

After eloping with Percy Bysshe Shelley to Europe, Mary Shelley’s first child, Clara, died born premature. She gave birth two more times before Frankenstein was published. Two more children died: William, and the second Clara died in Italy, though Shelley was soon pregnant again with Percy, the only one to survive to adulthood, and her final pregnancy ended in miscarriage. Shelley understood that though pregnant bodies can contain life, they also contain death. “I was a mother,’ she wrote, “and am no longer.” Dr. Frankenstein’s monster resembles at times an animated version of that dynamic: death in life, or life in death.

The monster’s birth is certainly far less traumatic than Shelley’s own, though it occurs late at night like the result of a prolonged labor. The process beforehand is an ordeal for Frankenstein, who, like a woman about to give birth, secludes himself in his “workshop of filthy creation.” In agony, the doctor sees “the dull yellow eye of the creature open,” and the monster springs to life painfully with a “convulsive movement” recalling the fits of pain experienced by Wollstonecraft before her death. Of course, never an effusive parent, the doctor immediately establishes the unspeakable ugliness of the newborn monster, and very often that horror is expressed by silence. The body horror, however, recalls a well-known story from the Shelleys’ stay at Villa Diodati. After Byron read a passage describing the putrescent, hideous breast of Duessa in Spenser’s ‘Christabel,’ Percy Bysshe Shelley reportedly had a fit of anxiety, claiming that his wife reminded him of a woman who had eyes instead of nipples. Shelley had only just left off breastfeeding William, and the connection of the monstrous with his post-partum wife is extremely suggestive. Though Frankenstein wants to control parthenogenesis, “so astonishing a power placed within my hands,” birth cannot be separated from the physical body as when Athena leaps fully formed from Zeus’s head (a story Shelley probably read as a child according to Sampson).

The monster is unspeakable, hideous, a product of the “dissecting room” and “slaughterhouse,” yet with a plan for a future in the supposedly uncivilized New World, and desirous of a mate so that it too can reproduce. Denied of that right, the monster annihilates the supportive cast of family, including a child, and the women with whom Frankenstein might have created a family of his own. “How dare you sport thus with life?’ the monster cries.

But to return to the night of the monster’s birth, it is no coincidence that Frankenstein dreams of his dead mother, here a corpse, and shadow side of Hallmark maternity. The doctor is horrified to see her maggot-infested body: a body that gave life once, gives it again in a horrific yet telling vision. Ultimately, the monster and the infested mother both represent the fears about mortality and control that drive Frankenstein to produce life in the first place, the same fear in fact that drives modern day draconian rules around abortion and reproductive rights, but the monster’s eloquence might allow the shadow side of maternity to speak once and for all.

[This very short presentation was given on Friday 2nd November 2018, at the beginning of a roundtable on Frankenstein‘s legacy at the Ohio State University Thompson Library as part of the celebrations of Mary Shelley’s novel, Frankenreads.]