The Absent Mother in Shelley’s Frankenstein

Motherlessness is at the heart of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. It drives the character’s motivations and shapes the entire plot, as well as throwing into consideration the position of women in an alternate universe where they are no longer needed.

The removal of the woman’s role when creating life is a controversial subject even to a modern reader. The comparison of the Creature’s awakening to childbirth are frequent and occur throughout. Victor’s creation of the Creature itself is described as “days and nights of incredible labour and fatigue”, and again referred to as “painful labour”; far too obvious to be coincidental. In fact, in Chapter 4 alone, the word “labour” appears six times, as a precursor to the Creature’s birth in the following chapter. Considering that Victor is the sole parent of the Creature and the one to undergo “labour” dismantles the idea of the nuclear family and subverts any traditional familial expectations, particularly in the 19th Century, of what a family should consist of.

The significance of this is that through creating life without the inclusion of a woman, the primary function and biological need for a female is dismissed. The non-sexual method of reproduction that is described in Frankenstein illustrates the problematic nature of removing females from the equation. It demonstrates a dark dystopian universe in which mothers are no longer relevant, and females no longer possess their source of natural and cultural power. Women are therefore reduced to subordinate members of society in comparison to the males in the world of Frankenstein. Unlike the professional, well-travelled men in the story, women rarely exist outside of their domestic spheres and are barely relevant in the over-arching plot. They are dismissed in a society where men have full power and control, and can even reproduce on their own.

The context of this novel, too, makes these points all the more poignant. Mary Shelley’s own mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, died shortly after giving birth to her. This offers an explanation for the many allusions to absent mothers in Frankenstein, and a reason as to why the novel is so heavily focussed on the female’s role in birth and in their child’s life thereafter. Additionally, Mary Shelley herself experienced a great deal of loss in the lead-up to her creation of Frankenstein. Before the end of 1816, she had already given birth to, and lost, three children. One of these children was, rather hauntingly, called William: the name of the Creature’s first victim.

This supports the common idea that the lack of a female mother figure in Frankenstein is essentially the cause of all of the tragedy in the novel. Victor’s rejection of maternity is what creates this monstrous Creature and catalyses the death and destruction that follows. Frankenstein can be considered an exploration of birth and death, as well as highlighting the importance of the female role in society, and the impact that the lack of females, mothers in particular, would have.

 

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The Revival of Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” in Trump’s America

Due to the upcoming release of The Handmaid’s Tale television show in the UK, I figured a good first post would be an analysis of the recent revival of The Handmaid’s Tale in the wake of recent political events.

Originally published in 1985, The Handmaid’s Tale depicts a dystopian society in which women’s rights have been stripped from them and they have been reduced to their primary reproductive functions. Now, over 30 years on, Margaret Atwood’s novel is experiencing a revival, soaring to the top of Amazon’s Bestsellers list. The most likely reason for this? Trump’s presidency.

The rise of Donald Trump to be111111come the 45th President of the United States has sparked worldwide controversy. His strictly conservative views and frequently sexist opinions have inspired a backlash from all genders that culminated in the Women’s March in January. Furthermore, consisting almost entirely of white males, the lack of diversity in Trump’s cabinet mirrors the cabinet of Ronald Reagan, who, coincidentally, was president at the time Atwood first wrote The Handmaid’s Tale.

One of Trump’s first acts of presidency was to restrict women’s reproductive rights with his anti-abortion bill. Frighteningly, this seems to mirror the issues raised in The Handmaid’s Tale, a novel concerned with reproductive rights and women’s autonomy over her own body. The dystopian future depicted in the novel may seem a far cry from Trump’s controversial anti-abortion policies, but Atwood herself claims that this is only the beginning; a “bubbling up” of ideologies that exist to oppress women. This is seen in The Handmaid’s Tale, where gender-based monetary restrictions evolve into nightmarish rituals that exist in Republic of Gilead; thus, Atwood’s own prediction of a “bubbling up” is haunting.

It seems like history is doomed to repeat itself, and, as Atwood herself states, she “did not put anything into the novel that human beings hadn’t actually done.” Her novel is based on historical violations of human rights. One example of this is the Ceausescu regime’s extreme pro-natalism and “birth promotion”. Ceausescu made pregnancy a strict policy for Romanian women. He outlawed abortion and contraception, and would have women questioned by state officials if they were unable to conceive. Sounds familiar, no?

In addition to this, Trump’s refusal to acknowledge climate change has also raised concerns. This, too, increases the topicality of The Handmaid’s Tale, as the environmental pollution is significant in the rise of the Republic of Gilead. The diseased and radioactive land due to “chemical and biological warfare stockpiles… toxic-waste disposal sites… and the uncontrolled use of chemical… sprays” (p.317) is at the root of the reproductive issues in women. The environment has had a detrimental effect on fertility, causing panic, which was then utilised by a totalitarian government to gain control; eventually leading to the classification and exploitation of women based on their fertility.

With the rise of the pro-life movement, climate change cynics, and anti-feminists that have been enabled and encouraged by Trump’s policies, it is no wonder that women are feeling anxious about their rights. The Handmaid’s Tale’s surge in readership is due to its enduring relevance. It can be viewed as a cautionary tale, prophesising a future that is possible if people like Trump prevail.

Thank you for reading an let me know what you think in the comments!

 

And for those that are interested… Further Reading:

Lozada, Carlos, “Donald Trump on Women, Sex, Marriage and Feminism”, Washington Post, at https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/book-party/wp/2015/08/05/donald-trump-on-women-sex-marriage-and-feminism/?utm_term=.cb4801faebc9

Sharman, Jon, “Margaret Atwood says rise of Trump has made The Handmaid’s Tale popular again”, Independent, at http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/margaret-atwood-handmaids-tale-puritan-values-donald-trump-republican-party-abortion-a7575796.html

Atwood, Margaret, “For God and Gilead”, The Guardian, at https://www.theguardian.com/music/2003/mar/22/classicalmusicandopera.fiction

McGrath, Matt, “Trump’s ‘control-alt-delete’ on Climate Change Policy”, BBC, at http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-38746608