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.